Elvis Perkins
Elvis Perkins

Elvis Perkins: Checking out of Heartbreak Hotel?

Once a solo troubadour, this month Elvis Perkins emerges with a full band and a sequel to his compelling 2007 debut. Paul Mitchell finds out how becoming a frontman has afforded him a greater freedom, In Dearland.
Feature by Paul Mitchell.
Published 31 March 2009

One must keep oneself entertained while attempting to entertain others.” Thus Elvis Perkins glibly accepts that audiences turning up to hear him play his last album, 2007’s ode to grief, Ash Wednesday, were treated to an altogether more raucous experience than the tone of that record would suggest. “I’m not into playing the same songs, night after night, the same way," shrugs Perkins. "That would give me a bit of a downer. My band and I are performers. I sometimes think that the people who appreciated Ash Wednesday wanted to hear the sound of the record itself, which is probably a little more delicate and nuanced than what we gave them live. When you’ve got a record with strings and horns, which bring a certain energy, but you don’t bring that to the stage, then you’ve got to supply that energy yourself in another way.”

Famously, Ash Wednesday was titled to mark the day after 9/11. Perkin’s mother, photographer Berry Berenson, died in one of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. It also marked the anniversary of the death of his actor father Anthony Perkins (who played Norman Bates in Psycho) from Aids nine years previously. The almost inevitable consequence was a work drenched in melancholia and heartache, but which is not, according to Perkins, the epitome of abject despair it is made out to be.

On the eve of releasing an eponymously titled LP with his band In Dearland, he reflects on his debut and how it has helped define his career as a musician. “It’s been made out to be bleaker than it really is. This new album may sound a little more optimistic (he’s referred to it as ‘faster and younger’) but there were moments of hopefulness on Ash Wednesday too. What might be coming through in the sound is the fact that now my path is clear; I make records. I think it comes from playing in a band, certainly you get to play rock ’n’ roll singer when you’re messing around with a group of friends, more than you do when you’re just trying to work out some songs by yourself which was mostly the case on the first record.”

But are the events of 9/11 still playing a significant role in his songwriting? The song Doomsday, for example, includes the lyric “Not in all my wildest dreams it never once was seen / that doomsday might fall anywhere near a Tuesday”. As oblique in conversation as he is in song, Perkins admits that “I’m not even sure myself anymore. I know that people writing songs often use material based on their own experiences. That song comes out of a very mundane moment with a stranger, at a bar – not very likely to remember their name, but knowing that they voted for George Bush. They said ‘Doomsday, born on a Tuesday? That must have been a reference to the day George Bush was elected’. So in the face of someone else’s perception of the song, it sort of becomes my perception too and it becomes unclear to me what it may mean, or if it means one thing only. That Tuesday [9/11] was a personal Doomsday for me more than George Bush’s election Tuesday was, but they both fit the description.”

Perkins however, has made a habit of drawing comfort from even the most tragic circumstances, and moves quickly to counterpoint that particular election with the result of the most recent US Presidential race. “Obama’s victory, on the other hand, is amazing. I can’t believe what I’m seeing when I watch a press conference or something; it seems almost too good to be true.”