STORIES THEY CAN TELL: Parson Red Heads

STORIES THEY CAN TELL - Parson Red Heads

In 2011 the Americana-infused Portland band painted their unqualified masterpiece, Yearling. So why did they decide to revisit it? Because they could make it even better!

 BY FRED MILLS & BARRY ST. VITUS

 Somewhere in the rocky, desert scrub just outside Joshua Tree, the dry, powdery, bone dust of Ingram Connor whips up in a passing dust-devil. Could this be a portent of an imminent invocation of the spirit of Gram once more? Lovers of all things Gram-related — The Flying Burrito Brothers, The International Submarine Band and The Byrds — will feel compelled to slip into their favorite Nudie suit and settle back for a listen to Yearling, their 3rd full album, masterfully produced by Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter. This album, originally issued on the Arena Rock label in 2011 and now getting an expanded treatment via Second Motion Records, is the anticipated ripe fruit that has been quietly blooming and blossoming as the band developed. Lead singer Evan Way’s voice has really matured into a very agreeable one, for both giving trusted counsel, as well as resonating heartfelt, tender vibes on the love songs. 

 The patronymic band is primarily alt-country-pop with a little jangling flavor of The Three O’Clock and Rain Parade, and boasting memorable songwriting, sweet harmonies and worthy lyrics. Opening track “Burning Up the Sky,” with its driving, anthemic melody, colored by the lovely harmonies of Evan and fellow ginger-haired wife, Brette Marie, features Dylan-esque harmonica riffs and organ. “When You Love Somebody” offers heady, leathery whiffs of Poco and the Buffalo Springfield. “Time Is Running Out” and “Seven Years Ago” are built around the framework of voluptuous pedal steel playing, the latter a mournful woulda-coulda-shoulda tale of hard lessons learned. Way’s songwriting shines on “Hard To See the Light”, another heart-rending ballad one could hear being sung by Gram or Gene Clark.

 With eleven superb tunes, the album may be a “classic” like Sweetheart of the Rodeo; six equally worthy bonus track round out this expanded reissue. Founder Evan Way talked to BLURT about the reissue, the genesis of the original release, and what’s in store for the beloved group. [Full disclosure: Second Motion Records, which has reissued Yearling, is our sister business and we share office space with the label. Below, watch the band in session at the Bob White Theatre in Portland for “The Portland Sessions.”]

  

BLURT: Yearling originally came out on Arena Rock to what I recall were glowing reviews. How and why was the decision made to move to Second Motion and reissue the album?

EVAN WAY: We decided to do it is because we really believe in this album we created, and believe that these songs are powerful enough that they could reach and touch a lot more people than they did the first time around, if given the proper attention. Hopefully re-releasing the record in this way, with the help of Second Motion, will help the album reach what we really think its true potential is. Plus, this reissued version of the record contains all the tracks that we recorded in the Yearling sessions. The 6 new tracks (which were cut from the first release of Yearling due to length restrictions) were released early 2012 as an EP called Murmurations, but we really liked the idea of reissuing the album as a “deluxe” version, putting all the songs together. Taken all together, they really represent a special time for us, and I think that’ll translate to the listener (at least we hope so!).

 

Yearling came out only about a year ago, which in a sense makes a “deluxe edition” – in the traditional sense, not the “also-available-with-a-live-DVD” sense – seem a bit premature. Usually we see these things 5-10-20 years after the original release. Can you outline some of the thinking that went into the decision to expand the record, and what is the source(s) of some of the key bonus material?
These songs were all created and realized at the same time – a very special time for us, song-writing wise and recording wise. We care greatly about these songs! But we are also a band that likes to keep moving, and we write songs at an extremely fast pace! Most of our albums are not very similar, and we like it that way – we keep things mixed up as much as we can. So in a way, I don’t really like the idea of waiting 5 / 10 / 20 years after the album originally came out to release this “deluxe” version. Because in 5 / 10 / 20 years – who knows where we’ll be, what we’ll be doing, or what songs we’ll want to be playing? The most important thing to us is what we care about at the moment, and what songs we feel are important to us at the moment. And currently, we really do feel like this album and these songs have more life in them. We finished recording a brand new full length record this summer, but before putting that out, we wanted to make sure we gave these songs our final amount of attention, because we feel that they deserve it. Why wait, when we think that there are a lot of folks out there who could really get something out of this album now, who haven’t had a chance to hear it yet? 

        The bonus material is all from the same recording sessions that started Yearling – the sessions in LA that we did at Red Rockets Glare studio with Raymond Richards. These were very formative songs for the rest of the record, especially songs like “Another Chance” and “Long Way Back”. These songs helped shape our idea of what we wanted to do with the album. We had to cut them initially, to keep the album at a certain length – but we always felt that they deserved to be heard, we felt very close to them. So this is a way to show people these other songs, to give the public the full spectrum of what we were doing at that time.


Looking back, what are some of the more prominent memories you have of recording the album, in particular working with Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey? In revisiting the album for this reissue, what stood out as making you the proudest, or conversely, made you wish you could do over?
It’s hard to pick out specific memories from that trip to North Carolina to record with Mitch and Chris. It was a whirlwind, felt like a dream to work with guys that we respect so much! I think one of the most special moments from that time was recording “Seven Years Ago”. It wasn’t a song we had planned on recording, really. I was playing it on acoustic guitar, and singing it, just to test a mic setup for another song. But Chris heard it and really really liked it. So that evening, we arranged it there in the main tracking room of the studio, and recorded it completely live together, all in one room – even the lead vocal! All in all it took maybe 3 hours? The only overdubs are the harmonies and the pedal steel. It was just this really wonderful creative moment, very collaborate, where everyone clicked – the whole band, Chris as producer, Mitch helping engineer the sounds there on the spot… it was really fun. Something I’ll never forget.

        I think “I Was Only” is maybe the song I’m most proud of on the album, for a lot of reasons. It was a song we recorded early in the sessions, at Red Rockets Glare. Again, all live in one room. I just remember working so hard on getting the right mood, the right take. We recorded a take that everyone felt pretty good about – it was all there. But Sam Fowles (who wrote the song, and sings lead on it) looked around, and in a very polite way, asked if we could just take it ONE more time (this was probably after about 8 or so other takes previously). We obliged, and something really magical happened… we all knew it, the moment we finished. That was the one. Sometimes it is worth doing that ONE more take, just to see what happens. 

        When you make a record, there are ALWAYS things that you wish you could do over, or do better. But I don’t think those are worth dwelling on, because I really don’t think that an artist can ever make something that he or she thinks is perfect. That is what inspires you to keep going, to keep writing and working – it is the constant striving to always do better than you did before.


What are some of the milestones or notable events for the band during the time since Yearling originally came out.
Well, we have toured the country more times than we ever had before (including tours with Fruit Bats, Blitzen Trapper, Alela Diane, and Viva Voce). We’ve had such a great time seeing the country, playing for all sorts of new people all the time. It’s been a blast, and it has definitely made us a better band. 

        We recorded material for a new full length record (and then some) here in Portland with the amazing Scott McCaughey and Adam Selzer, at Type Foundry studios. We can’t wait for everyone to hear it – we are all super proud, really excited about the direction it took. We made a conscious effort to really take a new approach to how we made the record. It was the most collaborative record yet, and the quickest to make. Yearling took a year and a half to finish, and this one we recorded and mixed in 2 weeks. All very live. We made sure not to spend too much time thinking about minute details, but instead to go with our gut instinct on the songs. It was a really refreshing way to make an album!

        I think that THE major notable event for everyone in the band was this past years SXSW experience – we had the honor of being a part of the Big Star “Third / Sister Lovers” tribute concert (which happened following a screening of the new Big Star documentary). We performed the Chris Bell song “There Was A Light”, backed up by a band that included Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Peter Buck, and even Jody Stephens himself! It was a huge night for us, to share the stage with such amazing musicians, such huge influences on our own music. I think all of us would put that night up there with one of the major events in our band history. We were all pretty star-struck, I tell you what.


You left the Northwest for L.A. but ultimately made the decision to return about a year before releasing Yearling. What about the region drew you back?
There were a whole lot of reasons for our return back to the pacific NW. We spent 5, nearly 6, years in Los Angeles. Loved every moment of it, and wouldn’t trade it for the world! It was the formative years for the band, it is what taught us how to be a band! But living there, it got really hard to focus on music as much as we wanted to. We all had to work so much just to pay the bills, that we were forced into late night rehearsing and recording, after full days of work. But we wanted to be able to spend time improving as a band, improving as song-writers. We wanted to make the band the focus of our lives, not the thing we did after we got off work, y’know? We knew that moving to Portland would allow us to do that.

        On top of that, Charlie, our original bass player, was already living up here. He was always our touring bass player anyway, and has always been such a key part of the band, both sound-wise and personality-wise. So being able to get back up here and have him back as a full time member was hugely influential for us. Having him back in the core of the band has been such an amazing thing. It really revitalized us, I think.

 

The band is on that recent Nick Lowe tribute Lowe Country and in my opinion has the clear standout track (“Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love”). How’d you get involved and select your track, and what are some of your thoughts on Lowe himself?
Scott McCaughey asked us if we wanted we wanted to be a part of it, and offered to record it for us. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity! To be able to be on a compilation with a bunch of other really talented musicians, and to be able to work more with Scott – and to be able to pay tribute to such a legendary artist! How could we pass it up? We went through a ton of Nick Lowe material, but decided on “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love” because we felt like we could really do a lot with it. It is in our wheelhouse already, but the moment I listened to it, I could hear all these directions we could take it, all these details we could add to make it our own. It was really fun to play around with! Plus, it was good to get a Brinsley Schwartz song represented on the compilation – they deserve some recognition!

        Nick Lowe is a serious legend, just a monster songwriter. All I can say is that I will never forget seeing his performance of “So It Goes” on The Midnight Special [1978 appearance on the U.S. television show, featuring Lowe with Rockpile]. That is true rock n’ roll, but so well presented – just a perfect performance that made me want to practice a ton more than I do! 


Lastly, what else is new in the band’s world – rumor has it that a very young new “member” came into the fold just recently – and what’s on the horizon for the future? 

Yes! Brette (our drummer, and my wife) and I just had our first child! A son – George Harrison Stanley Way. What a life-changing thing, I can’t even put it into words. Our whole world is upside down right now, in the very best way. That is probably the newest and biggest change in the Parsons world. He is going to be joining us on the road, which should be really fun. No better way to bring new life to the touring experience than to bring an actual new life on tour! 

As far as what is on the horizon – [we had] our first post-baby tour booked, going out supporting Sera Cahoone in November…. And as I mentioned before, we have a bunch of new material recorded and mixed, so there should be some new PRH releases early 2013, after the re-release of “Yearling”. Couldn’t be more excited to get all this new material out, and to perform it for everyone. 

 

[Photo Credit: Liz Devine]