Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Talk about boss: Bruce Springsteen has always been one of Graham Parker’s biggest fans, and contributed vocals to Parker’s 1980 album The Up Escalator. The two artists’ symmetry crossed oceans, as Parker and his backing band The Rumour lit up England like a boozier E Street Band with a string of mid-70s album classics like Heat Treatment and Squeezing out Sparks. With fellow Brit peers Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, Parker ignited an enduring musical movement that forged raucous roots music with incisive and intense songwriting.
Parker’s never achieved his American compatriot Springsteen’s commercial success — but similarly remains a vital artist who relentlessly pursues his craft. Lafayette gets a rare opportunity to witness Parker in action this Sunday, May 20, as he reunites with Rumour bandmate and pianist Bob Andrews for an intimate show at Vermilionville.
Parker graciously fielded The Ind’s e-mailed interview questions — “always the way to get things across more effectively that blathering on the phone,” he writes — and offered insights into his creative process, lengthy career and his recent unlikely collaboration with the mastermind of iconic slacker movie Knocked Up.
Can you tell me a bit about the Rumour reunion? It sounds like there’s a lot happening: a film part, new record … maybe even a tour? Was this an instance of serendipity? How does it feel to be reunited with the whole band after all these years?
For reasons still not entirely clear to me, I found myself contacting the Rumour members around April or May last year and asked them if they’d like to do an album. They all agreed to it. Then, about a week later, Judd Apatow got hold of me and the next thing I know, I’ve got a GP/Rumour album in the bag and we’re all being flown to Hollywood to do a two-day shoot in a theater full of extras, and I’m also flying back and forth to do a few acting parts. Very strange, but very nice to give the band members such an exciting reunion after a gap of over 30 years.
There’s also a documentary in the can, ready to come out some time this year.
Your Lafayette gig features Rumour bandmate Bob Andrews on piano. How do you approach these duo shows? And your touring configurations range from solo shows to full-band affairs — what’s your general philosophy and approach to your live shows?
I recently did four shows in three days with Bob in the Midwest then dashed off to Boston right after that to rehearse a completely different set with my sometime backing band the Figgs. Very hectic but rewarding musically. Later in the year I will no doubt be mulling over ideas for a Rumour set and then rehearsing with those guys. I don’t over-think it. If I did, I wouldn’t pile on such challenges!
Bob’s been settled in New Orleans for a long time and the city’s been a perfect musical match for him. I’m curious about your Louisiana experiences, impressions, and whether Louisiana music provided any inspiration in your formative years.
I’ve played in New Orleans only about three or four times in my career, and visited once to just go eat. In the ’90s I was booked at Tipitina’s where they billed me as Gram Parker. I think they had me confused with the late country singer Gram Parsons, which is not uncommon. Bob Andrews actually joined me for a bunch of songs on that show. Other than that, New Orleans and its music is not a place I can claim to know that much about.
Has your writing process changed over the years, or are there certain techniques, prompts or routines that you still find fruitful? I know it’s hard to put a number on it, but if push came to shove, what would you say is the percentage in your songwriting of nitty-gritty craftsmanship and lightning-strike inspiration? And did your writing-for-TV-episodes project make you rethink the process in any way?
My writing process hasn’t changed much since I first began. I collect notes for about a year: a few lines here and there, song title ideas, a few chord structures. Then eventually when I realize it’s been a year since my last album came out, I get busy, which means I thump around on an acoustic guitar and make moaning sounds, which in time, with luck, morph into lyrics. Then I look at all the notes I’ve been making over the course of a year and finally understand that they are all rubbish but, hey, at least they got me to pick the guitar up and start working. It’s just a hard grind, really, but during the hard grind that creates the basis of most of the songs, a few gems jump out in minutes, fully formed. It’s about accessing higher levels of brain activity that I’m normally not accessing. The approach I used on Imaginary Television worked once but had nothing to do with the next batch of songs, which have become the new GP/Rumour album, which will be released later this year, by the way.
Do your feelings about the songs in your catalog keep evolving? Does a classic like “Mercury Poisoning,” for example, feel enshrined a bit in time, or does its message and lessons still speak to you in today’s Internet-fueled music world? And are there certain albums or periods (I’m a big fan of the Mona Lisa’s Sister album) that you feel have held up especially well?
I play plenty of songs from my early period, and, to me, they hold up very well. My solo act has made them keep growing. The recordings, however, are definitely of their time, so to speak. I hate the way I sang on the early stuff — more yelling with the throat than singing — and some of the approaches we took to arrangements and production seem a bit creaky now, but this is to be expected. I think I hit my stride again from Mona Lisa’s Sister on, having gone through the usual trough that was the ’80s, and Deepcut To Nowhere, Struck By Lightning and Don’t Tell Columbus are up there in song quality with any of my early albums.
This may be a personal question more than a musical one, but do you feel your early press descriptions as the “angry young man” were accurate? Maybe it’s just me, but I always thought songs from White Honey to your Arthur Alexander cover of “Everyday I Have to Cry” showed a much more introspective and groove-oriented artist than your reputation. Along the same lines, if you do feel that you started off with a lot of in-your-face energy, do you find that you’ve mellowed a bit over the years?
It’s true that in 1976 there wasn’t any competition in the “angry young man” department — not till ’77 when the punk thing kicked in — so I fit the bill, but they ignored the breadth of the song writing. Tunes like “Between You And Me” and “Gypsy Blood” on my first album showed that it wasn’t all ranting, but they’ve got to stick you with an image. I was definitely “in your face” in the early days, but now, without such overt aggression, finally the words and melodies have a chance to get across.
Finally, and this is a question you’ve been asked a million times, but I’ll try and phrase it a bit differently: Who are the musical artists you still return to for inspiration? Not necessarily the ones who influenced you, but the ones you still listen to today and consider as necessary a part of living as oxygen and water? And why do you think they still resonate with you?
Although my knowledge is not encyclopedic, the range of music that’s been important to me over the years is fairly wide. Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs might well be the people who moved me the most and who I still owe a lot to in the vocal delivery department, but just recently I got back into two of my favorite Captain Beefheart albums and finally bought In The Court Of The Crimson King on CD after not hearing it since about 1972 when there was always a copy on the turntable in someone’s “pad.”
Good records are good records, and even though some of them creak a bit, the effect they had at the time on a much younger man is still there somewhere in the musical memory. And let’s not forget the Beatles and the Stones. They got all of us to pick up guitars and have a go!