Steve Perry talks the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a new album and a cider-fueled Whiteside throw-down
Moments before taking my call, Steve Perry finished his mastering instructions for “White, Teeth, Black Thoughts,” the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies slab slated for early ’13.
Like most everything that involves the CPD, it’s an ambitious affair, a creative bounty so runneth-over it spills like knuckle-duked crimson into two configurations: a swing-heavy 12-song CD in the spirit of “Zoot Suit Riot,” the Daddies’ 1997 breakthrough compilation, and a stylistic leviathan too massive for the shops — a two-disc website exclusive — fattening an already incendiary platter with adventures in zydeco, rockabilly and psychobilly.
The mondo set also boasts shots from guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo, longtime friend and onetime Captain Beefheart accomplice, and Buckwheat Zydeco himself (“If you’re going to write a zydeco song,” Perry noted, “that’s your guy”). Such is the Daddies way, my brothers: challenge, explore and execute to perfection.
“This record started off being ‘Let’s make our follow-up to “Zoot Suit Riot,”’ because we felt it was time to do that again,” Perry elaborated. “Then it grew into more of a monster. We’d had an idea about this psychobilly/rockabilly stuff that would be danceable in the same way as swing, but it would be heavily guitar-based. How would I make a psychobilly song that was danceable but really rocking? That was the experiment. But I’d written so many damn songs for both genres that it became ‘We’ll make the swing record by itself, and then on the extras we’ll put the extra stuff and the rockabilly.’ I can’t decide between the CDs. I think they’re both really good.”
Sadly, us schnooks gotta wait for the full swig, but the band, joined by Target for Tomorrow, offers a live flood of flavors for the culturally parched at 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21, at the Whiteside Theatre in Corvallis. 2 Towns Ciderhouse will also be on hand to debut its Cherry Poppin’ Cider.
Admission is $25 at the door (cash only); don’t forget your thirst. (Incidentally, two of Target for Tomorrow’s members cap their own ale — just sayin’.)
“I’m really looking forward to getting together with those guys and lending our name to their cause,” Perry said of the music/beverage summit. “Our bass player (Dan Schmid) is Mr. Hard Cider, too; he’s allergic to wheat and beer, so this is right up his alley.”
“We’ve always enjoyed the music of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies as well as new and interesting fruit combinations to make cider,” said 2 Towns cofounder Aaron Sarnoff-Wood. “A cherry cider was something we were already looking into, and this seemed like a natural combination: good music, good cider. It seemed like the right time to give it a shot.”
Fellow founder and cider-maker Lee Larsen fashioned the elixir using Michigan-grown Montmorency cherries, which gave it the kick it needed. “Rather than a typical eating cherry, they’re very tart and sour, awesome for pies and cider,” he explained. “There’s a lot more complexity.”
Such a description almost matches the Daddies’ own trajectory, albeit in nonliquid (but no less intoxicating) form. Steve Perry first built the Eugene-born institution around 1989; anyone then sentient could have told you that bands with horn sections weren’t easy sells, even to the so-called “enlightened” fringes of fandom, which far preferred guitar-chopped buzz to anything that could truly be defined as alternative.
Perry and Schmid were punk-scene vets, and punk, despite its volume and defiance, was confining, in a way, adherent to guidelines and dress codes. Abetted by trumpet king Dana Heitman, the Daddies harnessed that drive and attitude into something more punk than punk. They sought a dash of inspiration not from the ’60s and ’70s, like everyone else packing snarls and guitars, but from the stiletto-shadowed ’30s and ’40s, an otherwise moribund period no poseur/rebel would dare celebrate, much less acknowledge, in public. Then they pounded that noise into brainpans with professional zeal and verve. Guitars are fine — and the Daddies did rock and funk and skank with abandon — but there’s something more ballsy about a shotgun blast of brass.
“At the time we got into it, all of our friends were into Dinosaur Jr. and those kinds of bands,” Perry said. “We were going to have horns and play this swing music. I got interested in jazz around that time and I didn’t know anything about it other than I could sing the lines I wanted to hear.
“We weren’t trying to be part of anything. Sonically and musically, I thought a lot of the bands around me sucked, honestly. The rhythm section just seemed so white, and then with dissonant guitars screeching over the top — yeah, everyone’s doing that. I want to have stuff that’s universal, stuff you feel in your guts. I didn’t want it to be pink and beige; I wanted it to be rough and raw.”
And a name like “Cherry Poppin’ Daddies” brought guaranteed grief. It’s amusing to recall the outrage that chased the group like a heel-nipping huff, forcing them into a brief exile from their WOW Hall home base and intimidating promoters and newspapers into shaving that offensive handle down to a harmless “Daddies.” But the band outlived the sputter, eventually overcoming that moniker’s slang-banged weight.
“It’s like the Butthole Surfers,” Perry observed. “When they came out, it was ‘Butthole Surfers?! What?!’ Now no one thinks anything of it. Dan and I came out of hardcore and, like I said, didn’t want to be part of the mainstream at all. Part of the way to distinguish yourself from the other lame-o bands was to have a name that said to everybody, ‘Stay away. This is not your scene, dude.’ It also worked with what we were listening to at the time: old hot jazz and race records, which are very coded lyrically.
“So that made us different for the time. But then the world took this freaking U-turn. Who would have started a swing band in the ’80s and thought, ‘I’m going to get signed!’? Nobody. But that’s not why we got into it. That’s not why we did any of this. What happened was not what we anticipated. We didn’t expect to be liked at our first show. We were prepared to accept that people were going to hate us from the very beginning.”
But they didn’t. Minus the occasional uptight squawk, Eugene embraced the Daddies, and the rest of the region followed. Their first album, 1990’s “Ferociously Stoned,” was a hit before it even reached shelves (“Flovilla Thatch vs. the Virile Garbageman”!), lingering for a year on The Rocket’s (R.I.P.) Northwest Top 20 list. “Rapid City Muscle Car” expanded that pull four years later on a breathless mastery of styles, gleefully bounding from swing (“The Ding-Dong Daddy of the D-Car Line”) to ska (“Sockable Face Club”) to punk (“Bobby Kennedy”) to big-blown, high-rollin’ main-room showstoppers (“Come Back to Me”), with a stop to admire French-cinema character studies (“Lovers Understand”).
In 1996, “Kids on the Street” made good on its title track’s declaration that it was “time for a new understanding,” leading an album of firebrand variety (“Say It to My Face”; “Flower Fight with Morrissey”; “Here Comes the Snake”; “Luther Lane,” the first time I ever heard “gendarme” in a song; the supreme “Irish Whiskey”; and yes, even the delirious “Trapped Inside the Planet of the Roller-Skating Bees”). “Kids” surpassed Northwest adoration and landed on Rolling Stone’s alternative chart, where it discovered new virgin orbs to flummox (“Cherry Poppin’ Daddies?! What?!”).
The band had found momentum; soon it’d be moving at impossible speeds.
“Zoot Suit Riot” was supposed to be a stopgap between records, a little something for swing-digging kids. The Daddies culled such cuts from their three existing albums and waxed a clutch of new joints — “When I Change Your Mind,” “Brown Derby Jump,” “No Mercy for Swine” and the title cut — into a one-stop package, something they’d do a decade later with the ska-themed “Skaboy JFK.”
The collection’s release coincided with a swing revival bursting from such nerve centers as San Francisco and Los Angeles to consume the entire nation, cramming hipster carriages into retro apparel and packing Parks & Rec classes with twentysomethings dying to learn the Carolina Shag.
Once enough ears caught wind, “Riot” was no longer just a breather — it became The Record. In Albany we’d gather at Phonomania and wait for owner Jeff Simpson to bring in the latest Billboard so we could monitor its drive up the Heatseeker chart. Then the sucker invaded the Top 20 (it eventually went double-platinum). That’s when we knew the phenomenon was real.
It was just as shocking in the Daddies’ realm. “We licensed the album to Mojo (a ska-dominated division of Universal Music Group), and then of course as soon as Mojo saw that people were going to buy it, they said, ‘Actually, we don’t want to license it; we want to sign you,’” Perry recalled, laughing. “Everybody at the label was surprised. ‘Who’s getting the most phone calls?’ It’s the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. ‘OK, we’re going to put our nut behind the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.’
“It’s as simple as that: good timing and luck. People had had it with whatever had been playing for the past few years and they were ready to listen to something else — for a year. Then they were ready to let it sleep forever.”
As a longtime fan, to tumble with the Daddies down that golden chasm was an exercise in frustration mixed with local pride. Although, yeah, it was cool that the universe hipped, it was top-loaded with gruel-brained twerps and soup-drooling imbeciles who couldn’t grasp that a.) the group was more than a vehicle for swing; and b.) as their repertoire had always included the form, they couldn’t be accused of trend-flogging. But the mainstream reacted true to nature, stuffing pseudo-matching baubles into tight-fitting spaces then chucking the whole shebang when another shiny object rolled past. “Swing is dead,” spaketh the tastemakers, and the mindless weasels chased the next corpse.
Even today, “Zoot Suit Riot,” the song, is a vibrant call to arms. Never mind the smart vines and swiped vernacular. Strip free the accumulated sheen. Forget the swill the merchants have sold you: the toothpaste nostalgia, the wolf-whistle jive. Behold the era’s forgotten reality, its foreboding alleys and dagger-sharp ugliness. (The real Zoot Suit Riots erupted in 1943 Los Angeles, the violent culmination of tension between white servicemen and sharp-dressed Latinos.)
Its accompanying video owed more than a little to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), with its subliminal stabs of skeletons, Satan, snakes and barbed-wire-entwined hearts. Winking between the surreal are scenes in a jumping joint, where menace and danger dance in Perry’s expressive mug.
“What I was hoping was that the subculture, the swing and rockabilly subculture, would have that rough edge,” he said. “A lot of the other swing bands and the culture at large made it seem more like ‘Father Knows Best.’ I’m more interested in film noir and postwar ’40s, which was a harder, weirder, darker period. People go, ‘God, that “Zoot Suit Riot” video used to scare me.’ There was some really scary stuff that was cut from that video. ‘We’re not going to have eyeball-cutting in a swing video that’s going to be on MTV.’ We wanted to be darker, weirder and stranger, and unfortunately, with other bands it was ‘Back then everyone dressed nice and was nice.’ That’s not true. You don’t know anything about that era at all.”
To their credit, after that madness subsided, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies continued making records on their own terms. The New Millennium brought “Soul Caddy,” and the unfortunate boob seeking “Zoot Suit Rioter” got coldcocked by a butter-whipped smorgasbord. A long period of studio inactivity followed as Perry returned to the University of Oregon to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology and sate his glitter-rock jones with White Hot Odyssey.
The Daddies convened for the occasional show, but Perry’s pen remained silent (“I lived in New York during 9/11 and wanted to be off the road. I was just not as inspired to write Daddies stuff.”) until 2008’s jaw-dropping “Susquehanna,” a dizzying tour of an unraveling relationship through myriad musical styles. The concept was partly inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), which explored a single narrative through different cinematic prisms.
“It starts out as a road movie, then it becomes a musical — it changes throughout the film,” Perry said. “It’s also about the coming apart of Godard’s relationship with his wife. I was going through something like that myself. ‘Susquehanna’ was my attempt to write a bunch of songs that were different and put them together to have this overarching, dark, moody relationship story. And that kind of got me excited again.”
From the frontman’s description of the coming disc, his excitement continues unabated. Despite its nod toward an earlier work, “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” is very much within the Daddies’ tradition of following a muse wherever it leads, even if it takes them back.
“It could be seen as a compromise, but it’s just a different phase of what we’re doing,” Perry said. “This record will show everybody what we can do, who we are and how good of a band we are. I know people will think ahead of time, ‘Oh, God, they’re rehashing “Zoot Suit Riot.” That’s what the world really needs.’ Then they’ll hear it, and it’ll rip their f**kin’ heads off.”