TIME PASSAGES: Parson Red Heads

With a stunningly great new album about to drop, the Oregon cosmic Americana/power pop auteurs embark upon their most ambitious musical journey to date. Frontman Evan Way details all the changes his group has been through.

BY FRED MILLS

In 2013, BLURT published a story about Portland, Oregon-based outfit the Parson Red Heads. The feature, “Stories They Can Tell,” was on the occasion of the expanded reissue of their 2011 classic, Yearling (via BLURT’s sister business, Second Motion Records, now called Schoolkids Records). As frontman Evan Way explained at the time, “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.”

Indeed, the band is hugely respected in the indie world, with plenty of fans on both sides of the Atlantic who eagerly snap up its music. As you’ll read below in our new interview with Evan, a lot has happened since then, including the release of an album of all new material, Orb Weaver (reviewed HERE) and the arrival of several young Parson yearlings.

Here in 2017, though, the band is prepping the release of the new album Blurred Harmony, out June 9 on Portland’s Fluff & Gravy label. It’s everything people love about the band—meaningful lyrics that you relate to instinctively, unblemished vocal harmonies to die for, and a musical mélange that’s equal parts cosmic Americana and timeless power pop. For this listener, standout cuts include the subtle intensity of “Time Is A Wheel,” which gradually builds until the listener finds him- or herself enveloped in a heavenly anthem; “Please Come Save Me,” which could pass for the musings of a long-lose Flying Nun band, if Flying Nun bands had pedal steels; jangle popper supreme “Out of Range”; and the brash, Big Star-meets-Beatles “Coming Down.”

Thematically, it’s a record about the passing of time, the memories—both joyous and regretful—we accumulate along the way, and trying to face the future with grace. (It was reportedly inspired, in part, by poet Donald Justice, whose poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” is singled out in the Parson bio.) The luminous opening cut “Please Save Me” nicely sums things up, with some of the most gorgeously wistful lyrics I’ve heard in ages:

“Days like this, I remember

Things that I tried to forget

Certain names, certain faces

Things that I’d only regret

They can tell me how I’m still lost

And still lonely

They can show me I cannot live all alone

All of my life I’ve been running

Turning my back to the past

Things still to come cannot hurt me

I cannot miss what I don’t have

The future cannot tell me I’m wrong

Or make me sigh

The future cannot tell me I’m wrong

Please come save me, I’m lost without you

I know alone I cannot change.

Please come save me, I’m lost without you

I know alone I cannot change.”

Recently, Evan and I had a lively email exchange about the band, and he was subsequently gracious enough to sit down one afternoon with a stack of my questions and put some serious thought into his answers—emblematic of the way he approaches his music, perhaps? Clearly, this is a band that cares deeply about its music and how it affects its fanbase. If the Parson Red Heads come anywhere your city, run, don’t walk, to the venue’s ticket office. You’ll be glad you did.

The band: Evan Way (guitar/vox), Brette Marie Way (drums / vox), Robbie Augsburger  (bass), Sam Fowler (electric gtr / vox), Raymond Richards  (pedal steel).

On June 7, 8, and 10 the Parson Red Heads will host a series of album release shows in Oregon and Washington. Dates at their official website. Incidentally, Blurred Harmony will be available digitally, on CD and vinyl, and a special limited edition (100 copies) translucent blue vinyl as well. You can preorder at their Bandcamp page. Lastly, go HERE to listen to a track that BLURT premiered a couple of months ago.

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BLURT: Orb Weaver came out in the fall of 2013 – tell the readers a little about what’s gone down since then, high points and/or low points? I recall that you had an addition to the family…

Since Orb Weaver came out at the end of 2013, we’ve certainly been busy! When we tracked that record, Brette (our drummer and my wife) was pregnant with our first son, George. He was born that September and went on his first tour with us when he was 8 weeks old. We did a lot of traveling and touring to support Orb Weaver and the “6” EP that followed, taking him with us all over the country (and to Spain, as well!). We had our 2nd son in February of 2015, and that slowed down touring quite a bit, though he did come on a few, and we brought him along on a 2 week tour of Spain about a year and a half ago. Our 3rd son was born this last January!

So yes, we are INDEED a family band in many ways. Bringing kids on tour is really challenging, changes the way you have to tour in a lot of ways. It’s also really fun, when it goes well—so fun to be able to show your kids the country and give them all these adventures, and really fun to be able to continue to do and pursue what we love, and sort of bring the kids into that experience.

Also in the past few years we’ve released a 7″ and a retrospective compilation record (consisting of at least one song from every record we’ve released) in Europe, through You Are The Cosmos Records. They’ll be releasing this new record in Europe, too. They’ve been wonderful, and the response and fan-base in Spain, where they are based, is SO encouraging to us. We can’t wait to get back out there and play for them again.

Typically, I’ll see a review of the band that never fails to mention Byrds, Gram Parsons, CSNY and other folk-rock/vocal harmony icons—even the Blurt review of Orb Weaver focused on that. Yet I’ve always heard as much a Big Star and latterday power pop sound in there too. And “Sunday Song” on the new album even has, dare I say it, a kind of drifting/dreamy psych Pink Floyd vibe. So what is YOUR verdict—who would you say are the group’s key influences and heroes, and what do YOU hear when you listen to a playback of a new song?

Yeah, we get the big Byrds and CSNY comparisons so often. It’s funny, because though I DO love the Byrds and all of those classic, iconic folk-rock groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I really don’t hear a lot of that in much of our music. Certainly in a few songs here and there, but in general I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable classifying us as a Byrds-like band, or really anything of the sort. Especially as years have gone on and we’ve grown and come into our own, I feel like there is a lot more power-pop influence, stuff like Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, The dB’s, but also the Paisley Underground and college rock bands of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Rain Parade, The Feelies, stuff like that. Our heroes and influences are really wide-ranging, but that is more the stuff that I personally feel comes out in our sound.

In the end it’s a hard question to answer, a hard thing to define. Because some people really do hear The Byrds, Neil Young, Tom Petty in our sound, and that’s great—those are bands that I absolutely love, I won’t complain if those are things people are picking up from hearing our songs!

The previous record was cut in a “proper” studio with Scott McCaughey and Adam Selzer, but for the new one you decided to take a different approach and do it yourselves at Sam’s place— in your bio your comment is “If we were going to make it happen and do it well, we were going to have to track it ourselves.” Could you elaborate a bit on that, what the experience was like this time, and perhaps even offer advice to young bands on the relative pros and cons of both approaches as you have experienced them?

Yes – basically, we realized that with the kid situation as it was, it seemed really unrealistic to get the most out of studio time at a proper studio. Expecting Brette and I to be able to put in a few weeks of 10 hour days at a studio just wouldn’t have been realistic, with two kids under the age of 4. We came to the conclusion that if we tried to track the album at a proper studio, we’d be way too rushed and wouldn’t be allowing ourselves the time we needed to work through the songs—they wouldn’t get the attention they deserved, and we’d leave the studio with a record we weren’t totally satisfied with.

It so happened that at the same time, Sam was really coming into his own with his home recording, tracking a few friends’ albums, and also tracking and producing two of his own solo records. The stuff he was putting out just out of his basement studio was sounding fantastic. And we’d also always just thought it’d be a fun thing to try—to record everything ourselves, to allow ourselves the freedom to take our time with an album, as much as every song needed, to experiment without the pressure of studio time budgets and all that external stuff. So it just seemed the timing was right to try making a record ourselves.

We tracked a majority of it at my house, in our den (which is also our rehearsal space), and then a good batch of it in Sam’s basement, as well. Once it was all tracked we gave the tracks over to our good friend Danny O’Hanlon, who is a producer / engineer / mixer here in town, and he mixed all the songs. He did SUCH a good job, really injected new life and focus into the tracks we gave him.

It was really fun to do, quite a learning experience. As far as advice goes, the best thing I can say is, just take your time—don’t let yourself feel rushed. If something isn’t sounding quite right, keep tweaking, keep experimenting. It inevitably takes longer to dial in sounds, tones, takes, when you’re tracking in a space that isn’t designed to be a studio. When you’re using less gear, home gear, in a space like a living room or a basement—it’s just going to take creativity and time to get things to sound right, whereas in a professional recording studio, those sounds can get dialed in so quickly.

That is a big trade-off. But I think it’s a worthwhile trade-off—it’s so great to not have to worry about how many hours you’ve been spending on a part or on a song, worry about how much you’re paying per hour, things like that. To be able to just get lost in the song and spend however much time you need to capture the right sound and part—that is a luxury, and it can be really, really rewarding.

How long did it take to complete? What were some of the breakthroughs and high points while making it? Any failed experiments that either got left on the cutting room floor or will have to be shelved for revisiting in the future?

From the beginning of tracking through mixing and mastering, the album took just about a year to make. There were times that were very productive, and there were lulls—that is another thing you have to deal with when making a record at your homes, is that life stuff more easily gets in the way and pushes your recording schedule around.

One experiment we tried was simultaneously tracking drums digitally and onto 4-track cassette, with the intention of then blending the two in the mix, so that we could have crispness and more editable digital tracks, with the warmer, punchy and dirty cassette tracks to give character and tone. It just ended up being way too complicated once we got into it, especially with punching in and editing tracks… it just didn’t work like we wanted it to. But it’s not an experiment I want to give up on! I love the idea, and love how it could sound, if done right. I’m a huge fan of cassette recording, and really do have goals to incorporate that more into what we do as a band in the future.

Favorite songs? Which ones are you most excited about to do in concert?

Hard to pick a favorite song. Once you spend this much time on an album, you end up having more favorite moments and parts than favorite songs, I think. For example, I love when the pedal steel makes its entrance at the beginning of “Please Come Save Me”. I love the thick, plunky, pick-bass tone on “What Have I Become,” and 12-string electric guitar line on “Today is the Day.” Maybe my favorite moment is when Sam’s harmony vocal on “Time After Time” becomes the lead vocal on the second verse—such an engaging moment to me.

 Definitely looking forward to playing the closing 4-song medley live [“Today Is the Day,” “Waiting For the Call,” “Out of Range,” “In A Dream”].We’re going to be playing those 4 short songs strung together just like they are on the album (it’s sort of like our little amateur attempt at an homage to side B of Abbey Road), and I’m just really excited for how that is going to come off live. I think it’s going to be really fun and challenging to get it just right.

I’m not familiar with Donald Justice—what’s his story, and what’s his significance to you and/or the band as a whole?

Donald Justice is a poet—I discovered his poetry when I read the book “Hotel New Hampshire” by John Irving. He is definitely my favorite poet; I love everything he has written. As I was writing the album, seeing the threads and themes that tied the songs together, his poem “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” came to mind. It’s a beautiful poem about memory and childhood, sort of about regret but mostly just about looking back. And that is a lot of what the album is about, too. I read the poem and so much of it seemed so relevant to what the songs on this album were communicating. That is sort of where the album title comes from, and I also included a segment of the poem in the artwork.

How did you get hooked up with Fluff & Gravy? I think I have liked anything I’ve heard on the label.

John and Chad, who run the label, are total mainstays in the music scene here in Portland. They’re everywhere, and they are amazing dudes, so we’ve just known them for awhile. My dear friend Kevin Lee Florence released his album through them a couple years back, and so that got me more interested in what they were doing as a label. As time went on it just seemed like the right fit—they have much the same taste in music as we do, and I really felt it was important to release this album on a label local to Portland, on a label that was smaller and more community / family oriented in a way. It just felt like the right move, working with guys we know, guys who really just love good music and good songs, and who work in a really organic, almost grass-roots, way.

Backtracking a bit, you revisited Yearling a few years ago, essentially delivering your personal “director’s cut.” How was that received? Did you ever perform the entire album live, something that bands increasingly seem to enjoy these days when it comes to a classic or beloved album?

Yeah, when Second Motion Records picked up Yearling, we decided to release it as a “Deluxe Edition”—taking the chance to include all the songs that didn’t make the first version of the record due to time-constraints. We just wanted to release it in a form that fully represented that time of our creative output as a band, in a form that showed the full vision of the record. It was really fun to be able to do that! And it was received well. It was really long, but the feedback we got about it was wonderful, I think listeners got what we were trying to do, and the collection of songs was strong enough to withstand maybe being a bit over-long, haha.

I believe we did perform the whole thing live once, here in Portland—one summer we booked three shows, each show we performed one of our albums front to back. I think Yearling was performed in its entirety at The White Eagle at the end of that summer, right before Orb Weaver came out.

We play a few songs from that album quite regularly – “Hazy Dream,” “Seven Years Ago,” “Kids Hanging Out.” We’re playing “When You Love Somebody” these upcoming shows, and that’ll be fun to dust off. It’s hard, we’ve got a lot of songs now, we can never cover everything we’d like to, so we just have to put extra effort into keeping the set lists as varied as we can.

You formed in 2004: What advice, tips, warnings, etc. would you give your younger self and your fellow players if you could pop back to that year?

Oh man, that’s a good question. Hard to say. When we formed, and those first few years in LA, we were having so much fun, but we were also working so hard, playing so much. We played so many shows, rehearsed so much, met so many amazing people and amazing musicians—I don’t know if I’d change a thing.

Honestly, I feel like more often than anything, I hear advice from 2004 Evan, telling me to remember to have fun. To not get too stressed and worked up about things—to remember to enjoy the fact that you get to play music with your friends and loved ones.

That is good advice, and I think that’s advice that 2004 Parsons followed oftentimes better than 2017 Parsons!

 Time is a river

I heard someone say

Time is a river

It’s rushing away

And you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time left me waiting

For more time to come

Time left me wanting

Because I got none

And you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away

Time left me reeling

At all I had done

Time got me feeling

I hadn’t begun

Yeah, you don’t have a say

And it don’t care what you have in mind

Time’s got me thinking I left you behind

Time’s got me sighing, because I can’t find

All the words to explain what I’m feeling

Feeling inside

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

Time is a wheel

Left to turn away (rolling on)

—“Time Is a Wheel,” by the Parson Red Heads

 

 

 

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