Swing With A Twist

Friday, February 3, 2012 13:13

An Interview with Steve Perry of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies

by: Casey Pukl


It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t enjoy, “Zoot Suit Riot”. Seriously. Have you ever met a person that doesn’t hear that song and either sing along, dance, or both? The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are now in their 23rd year as a group, and frontman, Steve Perry, is still as original and innovative as ever. From his dark and stirring lyrics to his unique blend of swing, ska, and rockabilly, there’s no telling what genre he’ll be venturing into next! I had the chance to chat with Steve about his upcoming show at Anthology on Sunday, as well as what inspires him, and what’s next for the Daddies!

CP: I saw on your blog that you’re currently working on a new album! Let’s dive right into that!

SP: Yeah! We really haven’t done a swing record since “Zoot Suit Riot”, because we’re a band that’s really diverse, and we’re interested in a ton of different genres. We always include a couple songs in the swing genre on each record, but often the records still turn out as a pretty diverse mix of stuff. But this record will be focused like “Zoot Suit Riot” was, completely focused on swing. So we’re really excited to do that again. We’re also trying to make it so that every song isn’t just a jump blues or that they all sound the same. We’re still keeping it really diverse, and making sure it’s all within the genre.

CP: Sounds like it’ll be pretty different from the last release, “Skaboy JFK”, right?

SP: Yeah, that was a compilation of all of our ska songs plus a few new ones. We’re a schizophrenic kind of band. The people who had seen us touring with Reel Big Fish and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones during those years got the impression that we were a ska band. We’ve always played swing music, but we throw in a certain amount of ska tunes. Obviously when we were touring with ska bands, we played more of that material, but we’ve always been a swing band.

Over the years, people would mention that since “Zoot Suit Riot” was a compilation of our swing tunes that we should do something like that for our ska songs and put them all together on one record. So finally, we just had the time and did it. We remixed some because they were old, but we put them all together on “Skaboy”.

CP: And that record celebrated your 20th anniversary as a band, right?

SP: That’s right. And as of now, we’re in our 23rd year.

CP: What’s that been like? Is that a little surreal? Not many bands make it to that point. 

SP: You know, it’s been a little surreal. I guess when you get past 20 years as a band, it’s pretty amazing. That’s sort of Rolling Stones territory that you’re getting into (laughs). It’s a testament to the people in this band, and to the fact that we’re really in it for the music and have been since the beginning. In 1989, you don’t start a swing band thinking that you’re going to get anyone to care about you (laughs), you know? It just doesn’t make any sense. But the type of people who have been in the band have always been interested in the music and the different styles, and they’re eclectic people. We’ve all gotten along for the most part and been able to solve our problems and all that.

CP: Who influences you musically?

SP: I guess how I write is that I’m interested in a lot of different genres. I like to see if I add a little bit of x and a little bit of y where that will go and how it will sound. Take Quentin Tarantino for example. He’s a filmmaker who is influenced by exploitation films and action movies and Scorsese, and he rolls all of it into his type of film. That’s sort of what I do. I’ll hear about a style of music, like a few years ago electro-swing happened. It’s a combination of swing music and electronic samples, you know, like dance music. But I heard of it, and thought of a picture of what it would sound like. Then I heard the music, and I thought, ‘Wow, that wasn’t at all what I expected!’ The same thing happened when I heard acid jazz back in the day.

So I try to make what I heard in my head. When I heard about psychobilly, I thought about what it was, heard what the other bands were doing, and then thought that I could really bring my own sound and take to it. 

Often I’m influenced by genres as opposed to someone in particular. I think about mixing this and that, and then I think about whether it will work or be funny or cool. Like, what if I wrote a swing song about child abuse? What would that be like? So that’s kind of how I work. It’s more experimental with various genres.

CP: I think that really perfectly explains why your music sounds the way it does.

SP: I hope so. You know, my goal is to always have my music retain what’s cool about the genres that I like. I want it to feel good to your body, not sound like an exercise. I don’t want my music to sound like some sort of study. I want it to be something that you can just get into emotionally. The song” Drunk Daddy” on “Zoot Suit Riot” is a swing song about a domestic abuse situation. When you listen to the song, you’re drawn into the story and the music. You’re not thinking, ‘Wow, this is a cool idea,’ (laughs). You’re not thinking of the cool dichotomy that’s being set up. Then when people are done, they can go back and see what’s cool about it.

CP: Going into that a little bit more while also taking a complete left turn (laughs), you also have a degree in molecular biology, true?

SP: Yes. I studied molecular biology.

CP: It sounds like you almost take a scientific approach to your music; would you agree?

SP: I think that it depends on how you look at it. If you take science as observing and writing down what you observe, then no. But do I look at things analytically? Sure. I ask, ‘What is it about big band music that I like?’ or ‘What is it about the term acid jazz that interests me?’ Why do I like this? What is the potential? What do I mean? Let’s go deeper into what turns me on about this. What is it about David Bowie’s stuff that intrigues me?

So, in a scientific sense, I think about it, but it’s still an artistic process. I think a lot of artists write like the song is their diary all cut up with words that rhyme. They’re singing and it’s them. I don’t work like that. I write a song about a character who is not me. It’s a story. I want people to go into his or her story in the song. It’s not me.

CP: I think that really explains so much about your music. It’s really neat to hear your thought process. I’ve always wondered really where you’re coming from because your music is so diverse.

SP: I try not to repeat what I’m doing. It’s like why do that again? You constantly want to make progress and tell things a different way or from the other side. You want to criticize what you did in the beginning. “Drunk Daddy” again, I love the song, but if I could re-do it, I’d change it a little. I feel like I made the kid in the song too much of a victim, and it’s a little too black and white. I think it’s less interesting to make it seem like the kid is just the victim and that the dad is just a big bully. I think I would’ve rewritten a couple lines to make the father seem more human, and the kid a little more complicit in it. Not that he deserves to be abused, but just make it a little more real. Things that are black and white just aren’t interesting to me. I want to be able to tell the same story in a different way that makes you feel icky. It makes you feel the abuse, and uncomfortable. I like to do that.

There’s a beautiful 50’s style tenor ballad on our record, “Soul Caddy” that’s played by Dewey Redmond, who’s a very famous jazz guy who played with Ornette Coleman.

[It was at this point that the fire alarm testing kicked in, and the alarm started going off. Fortunately for us, Steve picked up right where he left off]

The song is called “Saddest Thing I Know”, and the first line is, “I hate myself, we’ll have that in common.” The first line makes you go, ‘What?’ That wasn’t what you were expecting. I like to do stuff like that to challenge the expectations.

CP: What are you looking forward to about coming out to San Diego?

SP: Well, it’s Superbowl Sunday, so that’s a good start! But we have some friends down there. Back in the day, our bass player was from San Diego. It’s a beautiful place. There was a record label there back in the day called Tang, and we used to hang out with those guys. I’m looking forward to friends and the sun (laughs).

CP: Well, you’ll see plenty of the sun, that’s for sure! Thank you so much for your time, and sorry again about the fire alarm!

SP: It’s totally fine. I’ve got a two year old. There’s always a fire alarm going off over here.

Special thanks to Steve for taking time out to chat! Be sure to come on out to their show on Sunday night to swing off all of your Superbowl snacks, since the show starts after the big game! There will be a dance floor, and good times for all!

Cherry Poppin’ Daddies on Spotify

WHAT: The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
WHEN: Sunday, February 5, 2012, 8:00pm (After the Superbowl!)
TICKETS: $10-$39 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile