An Audience With The Chairman
Influential Singer-Songwriter Graham Parker on His Past and Present
Squeezing Out Sparks firmly established Graham Parker as one of most insightful and accomplished singer-songwriters of the kinetic late '70s. As the outspoken Englishman celebrates forty years since the album's original release, he's preparing an extensive US tour to honor it. He's also supporting Cloud Symbols, an excellent new addition to a stellar catalog of literate, multi-influenced pop. INsite spoke with the endearingly irascible "Chairman" Parker by Skype from the UK as the Brexit debate loomed across the continent.
Does Brexit and general international unrest ever seep into your songwriting process?
Well, I'm primarily an album artist. The time arc for releasing a record is so long that if I did include commentary about current events, they wouldn't be current anymore. On Cloud Symbols, there's only one mention of Brexit and it's not overt. There are so many people writing about what's happening now that I don't want to be just another shrill voice screaming¬†away.
You have a new US tour coming up this month. Are you planning the set yet?
I am. I know people get upset if I don't always include their favorite song. But the fact is, I've never really had a hit single, except for minor ones on the UK charts. So I'm not a guy who has a big hit that I have to play. Even then, I wouldn't actually have to play it anyway. That would be my method. So I have the luxury of being able to pick an oddball track that the hardcore fans will absolutely¬†love.
You certainly have two great records to pick from. Cloud Symbols is as good as Squeezing Out Sparks.
I'll be doing a few Cloud Symbols numbers but you don't want to bash people over the head with new songs. I've also recorded the entire Squeezing Out Sparks in solo acoustic form. Martin Belmont, the guitarist of my band The Rumour, reminded me about the 40th anniversary. He has written an excellent book with all the chords and charts and every guitar note of that album.
Will it be available in time for the US¬†tour?
It will be out in the UK for Record Store Day on blue vinyl. I'm sure it'll soon be followed by items you can buy in the US. Regardless, I'll be playing a lot of songs from that album. Some tours I'll do three or four songs from it anyway because a lot of people liked it.
It doesn't seem it's four decades old because I remember buying it when it was new. But my first copy was on 8-track¬†tape.
Astonishing. I didn't even know that existed! I know there were a lot of people who heard it in college dorms who tell me it saved their life or something along those lines. It's just amazing to me that there's anything happening to me forty years after my fourth studio album. So for there to be any interest in it at this point is¬†unexpected.
How did you hook up with Jack Nitzsche to produce the album? It seems that you two come from distinctly different worlds.
At the time I wasn't fully aware of his history. Only bits and pieces of it. It's a funny thing, because I never liked anything else by Mink Deville, but they had that song called "Spanish Stroll" that he produced. It was regarded as an early "new wave" record in some ways, much like Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner."
You were right there at the birth of New Wave, but you weren't really a part of the movement even though you were lumped into it by default.
All these bands were doing these sharp little clean singles that were quite simple and harkened back to the '60s. But yeah, my band were nothing like new wave, we were very dense musically. New wave was four instruments; we had two keyboards on every track, three guitars and backing vocals. Stick To Me even had strings on it, right there in 1977. I always went against the grain. It was shocking at first to have a jazzy horn section, but soon I was seeming to be out of fashion. People were like, 'Is this R&B or¬†what?'
Were you looking to strip down your sound at that¬†point?
Well I thought it would be nice to clarify things a bit. The songs I was writing at the time seemed to suggest that might work. So I thought of Jack because of the Mink Deville record. But what I got was the guy who'd arranged Phil Spector, played the tambourine on "Satisfaction" and was on Neil Young's Harvest album! I'm not a great historian but I knew he'd been there on some of my favorite things. I thought it would be a great way to really tie it all together. I wanted to make a little different record than some of my earlier ones with horns and swing and all that. Then he heard us and thought, 'What a racket, what a noise. Why are they all overplaying?' He finally got a very linear sound from us, as opposed to our usual habit of flopping around all over the place.
That record arrived in 1979 during an incredible upheaval of music and culture. Punk changed so many mindsets.
Well you had to have it, really. It was needed. People were locked into the whole prog thing. They thought music couldn't get any further away. The audience had become complacent and so had the musicians. You felt compelled to do these plodding old blues-based, prog-rock things. That's what music was for a while. By 1972, my career was long away from starting but I'd started to write songs based on much more of a '60s sensibility that combined a variety of artists from the past - including soul and rockabilly. I was doing anything I could to get away from what I was into the year before, which was Pink Floyd and King Crimson and even Hendrix. The new crop of prog bands was coming along with their flatulence and it was out of date long before the punk explosion. Things have to come along to disrupt it all entirely. It was exciting to see and the competition was very keen and¬†strong.
Could there be a movement as influential as punk today?
I don't know. It's very hard for one singular fashion to come along and blow it all away anymore. Now you have a whole generation who grew up on You Tube with influences from all over the place. You have multi-influenced pop. But when you think about it, that's what I've been doing since the beginning of my career. Your past is locked into your bloodstream and that's basically what I've been regurgitating for the past 45 years or so. If you listen to Cloud Symbols from last year or Howlin' Wind from 1976, I'm still the same person. The only difference is I'm 68 not 26.
Graham Parker performs Thursday, April 25 at City Winery. Adam Ezra opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.