Drinks With: Elvis Perkins

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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photo by Rachel Briggs

Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — caught up with Elvis Perkins this fall, when the singer recorded several songs with his band (Elvis Perkins in Dearland) at Lake Fever Productions here in Nashville. Check out video and photos from the session below.

[wpaudio url=”https://americansongwriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/drinks-with-interview-edit-1.mp3″ text=”Elvis Perkins Interview Part 1″ dl=”0″]

[wpaudio url=”https://americansongwriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/drinks-with-interview-edit-2.mp3″ text=”Elvis Perkins Interview Part 2″ dl=”0″]

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What is your favorite drink?

My favorite drink? Hmm. Right now I am drinking some black coffee, which was served up right over there (points to the studio counter) in this amazing camping mug. I am a recent addition to the world of coffee drinkers. I have always said, “No I don’t drink coffee.”

Wow. How recent?

A few months.

There’s this Web site called site espressomap…

See I haven’t crossed over into Espresso yet. Is it that once coffee stops working on your system you need to cross over?

Oh no, no. It is just all part of the family of fun drinks. I just found that site from another tour manager for when you are traveling.

When you are writing songs, do you craft songs for an album or do you just write whatever comes out?

I don’t really know how to write songs. There was a time when I knew even less than I know now. I guess that’s how it goes. You start to learn more as you do something. But I have only really had to think about how to do it recently when we made this record together, and we needed some songs to fill it out that would be appropriate with the other ones. So I had to finish some things that were lying around, and force a few into existence from nothing, which was, a new task. I guess it’s the same for everybody who writes their songs before they make their first record and they are just sort of writing in this blissful, peaceful vacuum where there is nothing expected of you and nobody knows what you sound like.

All you can do is surprise somebody?

Yeah. Or not even think about it. I don’t even recall being all that focused or conscious of the fact that anybody might want to hear these songs or that they would be something that would exist in the exterior world, you know? Or be something beyond my own interior.

When you were trying to finish these songs for this record did you find yourself using jumping-off points like a photograph, or a scene from a film? Or did you think that much about it?

Yeah, like I said, I don’t know how to do it. And I think there is a lot of waiting involved. It always occurs to me that, I should be reading more and maybe watch more inspiring movies and that would make everything a lot easier because there is a lot of borrowing involved in any making of art. So if you are just sitting with no input then your chances of having output become smaller and smaller. I have had people ask and I have heard other people ask other people, “What are you listening to when you made this record?” And I am like, “It never occurred to me that you might listen to other music while you are making a record or other music as you are making music.” But it has started to make sense to me that you might, in fact, listen to one thing as you are writing an album or writing a song. Like Ragas or Celtic tunes. I don’t know, what do you do?

What do I do? I sort of sit around and wait for lightening to strike for the most part.

[Skip’s phone dings]

I think it’s striking right now. [Laughter] A song just came in.

It’s a title.

What’s it say? How’s it sound?

Oh—we’ll have to wait.

It’s not ready yet?

[Laughs] Right.

It needs to be mastered doesn’t it?

Yeah. But it was a good title so I’ll share it afterwards and in our secret (non-interview) time we can work on it.

When you were trying to write for this record, or when you imagine yourself writing in the future, is that usually sitting at a piano? Guitar? Accordion?

I wish I could play the accordion. All those rows of slanted buttons really mystify me. I’ve begun to crack the code a little bit by seeing other how people do it. I would love to be able to do that. That sounds like it might be helpful. Because you’ve got every chord from every flavor or every flavor of every key—or you can play a diminished chord if you know how those mysterious lines work. But I think catching a song off guard or catching your self off guard can be helpful, I think. Sitting down with a guitar and thinking “OK, I gotta produce something,” I don’t think that is really going to produce anything. I think strange or unfamiliar guitars are helpful. Because if you are always playing the same guitar, for me at least, it’s like, “Oh, this sound again or this song again. I’ve heard this before and I don’t want to make these sounds anymore.”

It is a lesson in subtlety, I think, to pick up somebody else’s guitar. I’ve heard people say, “Whoa, this guitar has so many songs in it!” My first thought is, “Really? Pass it this over this way…”

Yeah, I’d like to spend a few months with it…

And maybe that’s true, but even if you are sitting playing a newer guitar (the different tones are) so subtle, and still so transformative for your brain at that point.

It’s true. Are you familiar with the singing Nun from the 1960s?

Yeah.

She sings that song about her guitar and she wrote all those songs, on her (guitar) Adele? I just discovered that recently, and I find her relationship to her guitar to be really touching and beautiful. And it seems like she never needed another lover when it came to her instrument. Just Adele.

That was delicately said. [Laughs] Do you have any favorite authors or books — that do or don’t have anything to do with your writing?

I think everything has to do with everything really. When you least expect it something surfaces from the subconscious that either that you had tried to repress or didn’t think you had to repress. I think if you like something it is bound to be transformed in your own psyche or whatever and come out in what you do. Maybe it goes into a song or maybe it goes into the way you…

Make a sandwich?

Yeah, or make your coffee. I am re-reading Confederacy of Dunces right now, which is a happy accident.

That’s a great book.

I have a friend, Belinda, who lives in Birmingham [Alabama], and we were just going through there recently and a few months ago she had written me asking, “What should I read?” and I recommended it. And she picked it up and read it. And when we went through Birmingham, she gave it back to me. And I thought this was perfect because I forgot to bring anything on the road. I am about half way through it right now. It is sparkling as ever.

I haven’t read that in two or three years but I should probably go back and pick it up again. My valve is acting up right now so…

Mine is pretty open, I feel pretty good right now…

I know your dad was a famous fan of Elvis—this is a strictly songwriting question—did you as a result of that get into Leiber and Stoller or any of those crafty Tin Pan alley songwriters?

I probably couldn’t name a single Leiber and Stoller tune. Could you? You probably could. You said that like you could.

They are interesting guys…

What are some of their (songs)…

Jailhouse Rock, other famous stuff, big hits.

Right, right, right. I should know this probably.

No that’s fine. It’s wonderful. I’m just always interested to hear if somebody comes from a background of, “What I did before I started to write a song is learn 50,000 songs and now I’m going to try and make this particular statement coming from this background.”

Right, and they can do it because they’ve done it before. I would probably write better kinds of songs if I had that kind of exercise. There is still time for it

Was there some time when you were a kid and you heard a lyric or a song and the format of a three-minute song clicked into place and you thought to yourself, “I might have an inclination to do this myself one day?”

I think I am only having those realizations recently. I think a song or two off the most recent record were more informed by that sort of thought than on the first record I made. But I don’t remember a time when I was a child when I was aware of the potency of the form or a pop song? Is that what we are talking about?

Yeah, you are right on it.

Phew. I probably have those but I am not a good categorizer of my own thoughts.

Lastly I am going to name a couple of songwriters and if you can –

Say yea or nay? [Laughs] “Hmm no thank you.”

Yeah – yea or nay – or whatever the first song or thing that comes to mind is.

So you are going to tell me a name and you are going to free associate?

Absolutely

Joni Mitchell?

Blue

Cole Porter?

Red

Ray Davies?

Black

Burt Bacharach?

Piano Teeth [Laughter]

Thanks very much Elvis.

Good to meet you. We will write a song someday.

Oh yeah — with ponytails.

With Ponytails. Maybe that’s the title.

Elvis Perkins “Stay Zombie Stay” from Lake Fever Sessions on Vimeo.

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