Interview: Elvis Perkins on recording old songs and being called Elvis

Regular readers of Americana UK will know a key part of the site’s ethos is to bring new artists to the attention of our readers. This interview with Elvis Perkins continues that tradition, even though he is an established artist with a 13 year recording career, as this is the first time he has been featured on the site. Elvis Perkins has developed a reputation for intelligent lyrics set to tunes that reflect his contemporary folk and americana leanings.  Elvis Perkins is the son of actor Antony Perkins and photographer Berry Berenson, and his mother’s death in 9/11 was a major influence on his 2007 debut album, ‘Ash Wednesday’.  Americana UK’s Martin Johnson catches up with Elvis Perkins to discuss his new album, ‘Creation Myths’, which contains songs that were originally written before the release of his debut album.  They are given a full band treatment with producer Sam Cohen, indie artist, Bob Weir collaborator and Musical Director of ‘The Complete Last Waltz’ show, on pedal steel guitar and bass.  He highlights the fact that his primary musical influences all have names ending in “n”, asks his fans to consider veganism and explains what it is like to be called Elvis.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
Hello, I am well and grateful to report no COVID run-ins for me and mine. I hope the same is true on your end. 

We are having our own COVID challenges in the UK, but in America, it seems to have taken on a political dimension that is only loosely related to the actual threat. How do Americans see things?
We so-called Americans evidently see things extremely inconsistently and even diametrically. To this day it is hard to imagine that there are any among us, and on this Earth at large, who could look upon Donald Trump with anything resembling fondness, let alone tolerance or adoration. Or that anyone might approve of his unconscionable handling of the crisis. It is, and he is, a total disaster.     

These songs pre-date those of your debut album.  Why record and release them now?
Some are contemporaneous with the songs on Ash Wednesday, but yes there was definitely an extreme doubling back to gather and revive them. I’d always planned on doing so and a window not so long ago opened to the possibility. And as to why, well I think of songs sort of as children, so it’s forever been my instinct to one day afford them their moment in the sun. While I can’t say this present-day world is the one I would have wished for them, it’s the one we’ve got and with luck, they can do some good in it. 

Assuming there were more than 9 songs available, how did you decide which ones to record?
Sam Cohen and I did track a few more and really just went with the ones that felt the best and felt the best together. 

What was it like revisiting songs that were so old? Did any take on a new meaning and significance?
It was sometimes a challenge for me to stay engaged and excited while feeling that temporal divide between past and present selves. But there was also something sort of self-unifying in going back for the past ones embodied in these songs, and adorning them in clean new robes.  It was also gratifying to have the disbelief of the players when Sam or I would eventually let them know how long the song they were playing on had travelled to be there that day. 

Did they feel like they were written by somebody else, and if so, what do you think of that songwriter?
Yes, they did and at the same time no they didn’t feel like someone else’s songs. I think for me it’s an extremely idiosyncratic process, writing songs. I recall reading somewhere that Townes Van Zandt thought of songs as sort of absolute entities able to come through whatever songwriter might be in the right place and time. To me, no one else could have written these songs, however much I am able to see the evolution in my thinking and musical decision making.

The sound of each of your albums has been distinct, ranging from lo-fi home recording to full productions with a backing band. How did you approach these new recordings?
My last, I Aubade, fell into the lo-fi and self-produced home recording category, so I wanted to do something different with this one. I find there are gifts in taking either path, but especially with this material, I thought an outside ear, to whom the songs were completely novel, would be extremely beneficial to the breathing of new life.

What did producer Sam Cohen bring to the new album?
So much. Sam engineered and mixed the whole thing single-handedly, played bass and pedal steel, and did some great singing. He was also a wonderfully neutral and song-forward sounding board for making some structural and lyrical changes here and there.

Who plays on the album?
Sam and I were joined for most of the basic tracking by the great Otto Hauser on drums and percussion. Then we had all sorts of friends come and play and sing, from Vera Sola who sang on ‘The Half Life’, to Dap-king Cochemea Gastelum who played terrific sax on ‘See Monkey’ and ‘Promo’, to keyboard wizard Tyler Wood who worked his magic on a few songs (to name only a few).

Why call the album ‘Creation Myths’?
I wanted something to however obliquely refer to the provenance of the songs and arrived liking the idea that each song is a creation myth telling the story of its own arrival. In some cases, I have very little recollection of writing the songs so it felt right enough to in this way sort of assign them to the mythic realms. 

With your family background, how much does the theatre figure in the artistic life of Elvis Perkins?
Well, my primary performance gig of the past 3 years has been touring with a theatre piece for which I wrote songs. My friend from high school, Geoff Sobelle, is a theatrical miracle worker and I signed on to his then aborning work, HOME, having no real idea what long legs it would have (we were at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018). We had just wrapped a hometown run in Los Angeles when COVID came along and cancelled all foreseeable future dates. But before this project, and aside from some early memories of skulking around backstage while a play was going on, the theatre didn’t figure much in my life. 

Do you still see yourself as primarily a singer-songwriter or have you evolved to something different?
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen myself as primarily that or anything else. I experience myself to be a million things, sometimes and sometimes not adding up to a whole and describable picture.

Do you have any new songs ready to record and how different are they from the songs on ‘Creation Myths’.
I do have new songs ready to record and for the most part, they are probably more straightforward structurally and harmonically. With some of the Creation Myths songs, I can hear that I tried just about every chord under just about every word. It might be worthwhile getting back into that mindset but these days I’m more inclined toward directness and simplicity. 

Who are the artists who have most inspired you in your career?
Probably the musicians and songwriters who first opened the path to me, whose last names just so happen to largely end in “n”. L. Cohen, J. Lennon, T. Chapman, P. Simon, B. Dylan/Zimmerman, B. Wilson. And then there are variations on that theme, with Nina Simone, Sly Stone, Cat Stevens and John Coltrane. 

This is a challenging time for all the arts. Why is now the time to release a new album?
I don’t know that now necessarily is the time to release a new album, or that’s it’s really the time to do much, aside from collectively going plant-based/vegan to avoid future such disasters. But not releasing a new album, when there was one fit to be released, was easily the less appealing choice. And all the traveling with HOME had made it tricky to find times suitable for record releasing and touring, so the notion of also waiting for a global pandemic of unknown duration to pass didn’t seem like much of a viable one. 

There will be challenges getting your new music to your fans and I assume you will use the internet to help mitigate. The internet also has a growing impact on politics. How do you view the internet?
I view it as something of an inevitability, its existence that is, and it’s a relatively nice concept in theory, but of course, at the top, it’s all tangled up in the controls of the less-than-purely-intentioned power drunk. 

What was it like working with your brother Osgood on ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’?
I was in New York’s Hudson River Valley making it and he was in Los Angeles, so it was a pretty remote and solitary experience. Basically, I would send in first drafts of all the cues and it was more or less just “this will do fine, now keep moving” from him and the production. It was probably the single most challenging creative endeavour I’ve ever undertaken. I’d never done anything of the sort,  had been on tour with ‘I Aubade’ that year and when I got home I had very little time to put it together. The film is a slow-burning horror film so it was a weeks-long exercise in creating tension and dissonance. Very psychologically trying but I’m glad after the fact that the music exists.

What is the story behind the MIR label?
MIR was what I called my early home studios with the intention of someday putting records out under the name. I called it that half after the black mirror of an LP and half after the Soviet space station, so-called, which translates from the Russian as ‘world’ and/or ‘peace’. (My affections lie infinitely more with the likes of Rachmaninoff and Dostoevsky than with the autocrat who seemingly puppet-masters the current, and may he be fleeting, US president). My first couple records were put out by XL and then I Aubade was the first MIR release. Following a 10th anniversary Ash Wednesday vinyl reprint, Creation Myths will be the latest offering via MIR, in partnership with a new Northern Californian record label, Petaluma. I’d like to someday release music from other artists through MIR as well.  

How do you class yourself as an artist? Are you Americana or simply a singer-songwriter?
I try not to class myself and for the most part succeed. If I had to approximate I’d say I’m some expression of a terrestrial mammal with a functional understanding of geometry and time, who for reasons and causes unknown was given access to melody and rhyme.

You appear to have taken a very measured approach to your music career, releasing albums only when you are ready rather than follow a record label schedule. What are your plans for the future?
Well that there is the blessing and sometimes curse of being one’s own label, but yes I like to give material every chance to be worth the air it will take up before I send it out into the homes and cars of unknowns. I’m soon to be working on another record and, with luck, will be able to bring Creation Myths to some live audiences next year. 

A completely frivolous question, what has been called Elvis meant to how people respond to you?
They will say “I thought you were dead” at an introduction with far more frequency than in response to just about any other name I can imagine. ‘Jesus’ doesn’t even work for that. 

Post-COVID, what do you think the arts will look like?
Your guess is really as good as mine, but I can only hope that this ordeal will have inspired artists to more than ever aim to activate the beholder to preserve and protect this delicate balance of life on Earth.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently top 3 on your playlist?
‘Vera Sola’, ‘Skyway Man’, ‘Karen Trading Corp’. 

Finally, is there anything you want to say to your fans in the UK?
Hope to see you again, or for the first time, before long. And for planetary and personal health, to help avoid more troubles like we’ve known this year, for the love of consciousness and in observance of the Golden Rule, I’d be remiss not to ask readers and non-readers of all nations to please consider moving toward a diet devoid of the other animals. I myself cut out all animal products only a year and a half ago and it was easily one of the best, and easiest, decisions I’ve ever made. 

Elvis Perkins’ album  ‘Creation Myths’ is out now on MIR/Petaluma

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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