‘Smartphones freak me out,” said J.D. McPherson, not advancing the case against critics who over-rely on the word “vintage” to describe him and his music.
“If by ‘vintage’ you mean ‘rock and roll,’ then yes, we are vintage,” he said, laughing at the elusive simplicity of his music. “We just want to rock hard.”
When McPherson rocks out at the climax of “Wolf Teeth,” which usually closes his concerts, amp gain cranked skyward and cymbals crashing behind him, a few stray tendrils of hair slip free from his slicked-back ’do and dangle in front of his right eye, thrashing like a follicular pendulum.
Jangly, rhythmic chords teeming with youthful ardor spill from the speakers while a sax slinks in tandem with the walking bass. McPherson’s howl is rusty-nail ragged but paradoxically smooth; the music is fun and friendly, good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll — “emphasis on ‘roll,’ ” said Jimmy Sutton, bassist and producer of McPherson’s first album.
“We think of roll as an adjective,” Sutton said. “A lot of people rock, but they don’t roll. We roll. We love to roll.”
When you try to envision McPherson and his cohort, think of Wolf Man Jack’s sanguine “coo” seeping through crackling radios; think of “American Graffiti” and shiny chrome-encompassed diners; think of rurality. McPherson writes jukebox-ready tunes to get the kids twisting and shouting, songs that shake with McCarthyism-era hop but rooted in punk.
“Punk is a gateway,” McPherson said. “I think it develops a person’s aptitude for music, and it sort of granted economic freedom with its DIY mentality.”
McPherson finds the manic, tribal energy of punk bristling with life, candid, genuine. Punk is unfiltered emotions made musical, and nearly everything about him — his music, his style, his work ethic — is steeped in veracity.
“We don’t really geek out over gear or equipment,” said Sutton. “We once listened to (David) Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ 10 times in a row one night in a hotel; we geeked over that. But I’ve been using the same setup since 1990, and J.D. customizes his own stuff, nothing fancy.”
Though everyone is always throwing “vintage” McPherson’s way — his music, his fashion, his approach — McPherson and crew don’t linger in the past. There’s a certain practicality to their retrofitted aesthetic.
“When I finally make the rock-star bucks,” Sutton said, “I want a pick-up truck, I think, from the ’60s. They’re well made and will last if you take care of ’em.”
The most recent style guide issued by clothing cardinal GQ affirms a certain affinity for denim jackets, rebutting the faux pas of wearing denim tops with denim bottoms (a “Canadian Tuxedo”). McPherson started donning such attire some 20 years ahead of the curve.
“That’s just what you wear when you’re outside working in Oklahoma,” McPherson said. “It’s not a GQ thing.” McPherson grew up in Broken Arrow, Okla.
“The Levi’s jacket Martin Sheen wears is still my favorite,” McPherson went on, referring to Sheen’s turn as a perversely stylish killer in Terrence Malick’s 1973 road film “Badlands.” “Desi Arnaz had his thing, and I have my thing. Work clothes, clothes that will take a beating and last, that’s something I’ll spend some money on.”
McPherson needs his clothes to last; he isn’t home very often to mend or wash them.
“We were away from home for over 200 nights in 2012,” Sutton said. “We like to eat food when we have time, and we watch a lot of comedy on YouTube, but mostly we swap music and talk about music,” adding, perhaps frivolously, “We really like music a lot.”
Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.