Everybody better get ready for some serious rocking in their stocking as Oklahoman rock ‘n’ roller JD McPherson has recorded his first Christmas album SOCKS (out 11/2 on New West) and it’s a keeper. We interviewed McPherson to find out how he channeled the holiday spirit of older Christmas classics into his 11 original cuts, which artists and albums influenced the sound of SOCKS, his upcoming Christmas tour, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Your brand new holiday album SOCKS is a pitch-perfect Spector-esque mix of everything that’s charming and warm about older Christmas classics without ever verging into bland copycat territory. How did you pull off evoking that vintage aesthetic within a fresh context during the writing and recording sessions? Did you draw inspiration from any specific holiday songs or albums to use as reference points?
JD McPherson: First off, thank you. I’ve always loved Christmas music, especially popular Christmas music from the ’30s through the ’50s. Part of the language of those types of songs (like any other music) is the sonic profile. To me, sonics are as much a part of recorded music as lyric and melody. Can you imagine if Nat King Cole had recorded his hits in the late-’80s? It wouldn’t be the same. To me, this is the only type of Christmas music I could make. We stepped back into that world and it felt great.
There were two big influences on this record, one of which never existed! I love the songwriting of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Particularly their material with The Coasters, who were their muses. That stuff is so cool, and smart, and brave, production-wise. But, to my knowledge, they never wrote any Christmas material for those guys, the way they did for some others. So, I tried to capture some of the sardonic humor that might have happened in that writing session. That really helped me get things moving along.
Secondly, Nick Lowe’s recent Christmas album Quality Street was, to me, a benchmark album for modern Christmas music. It’s such a brilliant record. There are virtually none of the cliches of holiday music present – no jingle bells whatsoever! That was a rule we made while making the record: how can we evoke a holiday atmosphere without recording ANY jingle bells? The only ones that pop up on our record were the ones we recorded five years ago on “Twinkle” but Nick’s record didn’t exist yet! Church organ, vocals harmony, and melodic bell instruments like celeste, vibraphone, and glockenspiel ended up being the color.
NT: You’ve released the tracks “Hey Skinny Santa” and “Socks” as singles. What can you tell us about the writing inspiration and recording of both songs?
McPherson: “Socks” is the first new song I wrote for the record. I wanted some of the tracks to have a bit of snarkiness to them to appeal to folks who may have had their names on the “naughty list” at one time or another. Everyone knows the disappointment of opening what you think is going to be a Game Boy and it turns out to be clothes. It’s one of the few Christmas songs in existence with a “stripper beat,” which I’m very proud of.
“Hey Skinny Santa” was a song idea brought forth by Doug Corcoran, our utility man. We had never written together before, and he showed up with like nine or ten verses. He’s such an overachiever! He had Santa eating all over the planet. We whittled it down to three verses, each about “music towns”: Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis. That was a blast to record! You can hear Jimmy hollering on the clap track! I kept listening on playback, thinking that we were speeding up but it’s just the rambunctiousness of the song.
NT: You released a Christmas single a few years back but this is your first full holiday album AND it’s impressively comprised of originals. What sparked the idea to do an entire album this time around and was the “no covers” decision intentional or just a natural by-product of the inspired, productive songwriting?
McPherson: It was very important that this be an album, rather than something which could be perceived as some sort of end-of-the-year-captial-stop-gap. People can smell that a mile away. It had to be all original songs. So, that was decided before we began recording. It seemed like a huge challenge at first, but it was actually some of the most fun and productive writing I’ve ever been a part of.
NT: As far as special guests, you’ve got Lucie Silvas absolutely slaying the duet on “Claus vs. Claus” and The Giardinaires spicing up a trio of tracks as well. With your band already nailing their performances and tones so well, what was it like to also have these additional guests sprinkled on top for good measure?
McPherson: Early on, I knew I wanted to write a “Mrs. Claus puts that cad Mr. Claus in his place” type of duet and I started writing with Lucie in mind. Not only is she one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but she’s one of the best singers anywhere. It absolutely had to be her on the track. I went to her, ready to beg, but luckily she was receptive to the idea! I went over to her place one evening and we finished writing the song together, then she popped into the studio and just nailed her part in a couple of takes. She’s the best.
The Giardinaires (a play on “The Jordanaires” and Giardiniera, an Italian relish) are really good friends of ours from Chicago. It’s two guys from NRBQ, Scott and Casey, along with Alex Hall, who is like family to this band. Alex also mixed the record. We knew they were doing BGVs here and there for fun and I knew they would get what we were doing. Ray, our keyboardist, and Doug, our utility player, arranged most of the background vocal parts for the record. Brilliant guys.
NT: You’ll be embarking on a three-week SOCKS: A Rock ‘n Roll Christmas Tour that starts at the end of November and runs through mid-December. What tracks are you looking most forward to playing live and will you be throwing any other seasonal songs into the setlist that don’t appear on the new album?
McPherson: We’re going to do as much of the SOCKS album as is possible, plus some songs from the other albums. Right now, the plan is to stay away from too many standards, but who knows? Maybe we’ll have some guests pop up here and there. If Darlene Love decides to show up, she can sing whatever she wants.
NT: Finally, looking back over the entire holiday music canon, what is one holiday song you wish you could’ve written yourself, one holiday album that you wish you could’ve played on, and/or one holiday television special you would’ve loved to participate in somehow?
McPherson: My favorite Christmas song wasn’t even a Christmas song originally, and that’s “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” especially the version by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. Sometimes I’ll listen to that song in July. My second favorite is also by the Drifters, their version of “White Christmas,” which has the best song ending of all time: “JINGLEBELLSJINGLEBELLSJINGLE AALLLLLL THEEEEEEE WAYYYYYYYYYY ooooooooooooohhhhhhhh BrrrrBADUMP!”
I wish I could have been at the Bing Crosby/David Bowie taping of The Little Drummer Boy, not necessarily to participate, just to stare and be a creep.
SOCKS: A ROCK ’N ROLL CHRISTMAS TOUR
November 28 /// Milwaukee, WI /// Turner Hall
November 29 /// Minneapolis, MN /// First Avenue
November 30 /// Chicago, IL /// Thalia Hall
December 1 /// Detroit, MI /// El Club
December 2 /// Toronto, ON /// Lee’s Palace
December 4 /// Brooklyn, NY /// Brooklyn Bowl
December 5 /// Philadelphia, PA /// Underground Arts
December 6 /// Washington, DC /// Black Cat
December 8 /// Asheville, NC /// Grey Eagle
December 9 /// Atlanta, GA /// Terminal West
December 11 /// Houston, TX /// Continental
December 12 /// Austin, TX /// Scoot Inn
December 13 /// Dallas, TX /// The Statler Ballroom
December 14 /// Oklahoma City, OK /// Tower Theatre
December 15 /// Memphis, TN /// 1884 Lounge
December 16 /// Nashville, TN /// 3rd & Lindsley