Graham Parker isn't an angry young man anymore. He's an angry 56-year-old. One of the most independent and prolific voices in rock & roll, Parker's released an album or two every other year since his classic 1976 debut, Howlin' Wind. Merging clear-eyed soul with bilious punk, he's tackled every subject from abortion to the Iraq war to the decline of his native England. He now makes his home just outside of Woodstock, New York, where he relishes the isolation of the mountain forests without losing sight of the bigger, brutal picture.
B-Sides: I never pictured you as the back-to-nature type.
Graham Parker: I grew up in the country. I would study animals and wildlife. That's probably my main interest in life, actually. I've been going down to the Rail Trail, a path for people to bike and jog, about 27 miles long. I've been studying the Northern Water Snakes, huge females letting out pheromones, all the males coming after them. I wish I had a wildlife crew with me. I've also been stalking this very large beaver, studying its habits, getting it to slap its tail at me, telling me to go away.
When did you first come to the U.S.?
My first album came out in early '76, and we'd done a few gigs in England, and my manager wanted to get us to America as quickly as possible. We were all bundled in a station wagon, and we just played anywhere we could. I think our manager was making it up as he went along. We opened for Albert King in the deep South, and then my very first gig in America was opening for Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
What struck you most in your discovery of America?
We were naive. We were punky before there was punk. Someone said, "Have a nice day," and we wanted to strangle them. Americans seemed overly pleasant. It was all annoying, frankly. It took years to realize that Americans are warm and generous people, and it's not so bad to be that way.
I thought you were going to say it took years to realize we really are bloody bastards after all.
No, not all. The opposite. I love this country and the people who live in it. At the time, we were playing to audiences who didn't understand what we were doing. The first reaction was "Why isn't there a drum solo? Why is the guitar player playing a solo that only lasts three seconds?" We were opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd and people would shout, "Fuck off, English faggots!" But then today I'll meet someone at a show who says, "I was there, you guys were great!" I wish I'd known them then!
There's a quote, probably misattributed to Winston Churchill, that if you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative when you're 35, you have no brain. You're living proof the opposite is true.
It's hard to define, isn't it? It's almost like genetics, in a way. To try to argue with conservatives, they're intractable. Liberals are as well. It's like it's in the blood. To me it's just common sense. I don't have to define myself as liberal — but to conservatives it's insanity, and vice versa.
How would you say your songwriting has changed over time?
The mysterious part of songwriting just happens on its own. No computer's going to do it for me. It's inspiration and perspiration. Now I try to direct and control it after the fact.
One of the most emotional songs on your new album [Don't Tell Columbus] is "Somebody Saved Me." Is that pure inspiration or based on a personal story?
Not really. I work by word-theme association. During each day I go through a lot of ups and downs. That song started off with the first lines, "I hear the wild dogs scream in the midnight." That's the truth. Up here you can hear the coyotes in the distance, a most eerie sound. That just set me off into this whole train of thought. I think I'm saved every day by people who love me.
— Roy Kasten 11 p.m. Friday, June 8. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Boulevard. $20. 314-727-4444.
Shades of Greyhound
When the New York power-trio Earl Greyhound played the Billiken Club this past February, its vintage threads made it look as if the band members had stepped out of Lynyrd Skynyrd's dressing room. Singer and guitarist Matt Whyte's tall, lanky body was framed by his flowing blond hair, bassist Kamara Thomas strategically placed a hawk feather in her springy afro, and drummer Ricc Sheridan held court from behind a truly enormous green bass drum, his thick arms propelling the songs with authority.
While its outward appearance suggests a retro retread, Earl Greyhound's stunning debut, Soft Targets, refuses to settle into one mode. Opening track "S.O.S." stomps and struts with the bravado of an arena-rock anthem, while "Back and Forth" finds Whyte and Thomas trading soulful verses over Southern rock strains. Whyte took time away from working on the band's second album to talk about the band's history, finding the right drummer and its upcoming release.
B-Sides: Can you give us a hint of what the new record will sound like?
Matt Whyte: We're leaning towards the sound of the gallant tracks on Soft Targets, as far as the rock & roll stuff goes, but we've started to incorporate some piano into what we do — both Kamara and I play — so we kind of switch around. Maybe a little more Motown, a little more soul in the new songs. We're gonna do one of [Kamara's] compositions on this next record; she tends to write more in the country tradition, actually. But I'm sure we'll find a way to make it all work.
The band has been together since 2002, but you just launched your first tour last fall. What were you doing before that?
We hadn't really done shit. We were staying in New York, getting the record together and sorting it all out. That's the problem of being in New York — in order to live in New York you've got to afford to live in New York, so you've got to work to live in New York. It's not as if you can keep an apartment and a practice space and a van and go carefree, taking weekend drives to Pennsylvania to play a show. Although if you wanna make something happen, you can do it. That's the way we found Ricc. After our drummer that played on Soft Targets had quit, we were like, "Let's play as much as we can." We managed to book shows for every single week for six months. Ricc started coming to our shows and saw that we were playing with different drummers all the time, and he said, "Oh, do you guys need a drummer?" So we started playing together, and it was such a relief to find the right guy.
At your shows, are you playing to die-hard fans, or do you find yourself converting new fans at every show?
I'd say it's about a 30/70 mix, weighted more heavily on the people we have to win over, only because it's not like we have any major airplay behind us. We have to count on the strength of our performance to earn fans. For the people that have discovered us through what airplay we have gotten or by word of mouth, those fans really make a difference and it's really quite gratifying. Going to Knoxville, we played to ten people, but there were three guys who had driven five hours, so that's pretty good.
— Christian Schaeffer 9 p.m. Saturday, June 9. Lemmons, 5800 Gravois Avenue. $8. 314-481-4812.