The neo-hippies and indie rockers gathered inside Denver's historic Ogden Theatre are too busy ordering $5 Guinness tall boys and waiting anxiously for My Morning Jacket to notice that Elvis Perkins in Dearland have already launched into the slow, beautiful build of "While You Were Sleeping." The song ends to mumbled thanks and polite, drowsy applause.
Then everything changes. Perkins is peeling off his sweater and tightly knotted scarf and bellowing with red cheeks and a mysterious sense of enthusiasm; drummer Nicholas Kinsey is on his feet, simultaneously shaking a tambourine and beating an over-the-shoulder drum with a giant furry mallet; and a room full of uninterested hipsters is suddenly paying attention. The audience remains enraptured as the Dearlanders introduce a gaggle of dynamic instruments—a dusty harmonium organ, xylophones, horns and wind instruments, a cumbus guitar—to the joyous gathering. And for 40 minutes, Denver's cold and tired are overcome with enthusiasm, gazing upon Perkins and his band as if upon a lover.
The man whose band pulled off this incredible conversion is Elvis Perkins, who crafts a magnetic blend of Buckley-meets-Cohen melancholy and Neutral-Milk melody. We caught up with Perkins as he rested at his girlfriend's place in Cambridge between tours.
City Pages: What were your musical influences growing up?
Elvis Perkins: I aligned myself with some funny things in my early, passionate days. I was taking what MTV had to give, so I was into a lot of grand hair rock that doesn't really read into what I do now. [Laughs.] But I also took a liking to Tracy Chapman, Living Colour, and Milli Vanilli. Before that I was into Simon and Garfunkel, who spoke to me pretty heavily. I learned what it was to deal with a song—to sing a song and play a song—by playing Leonard Cohen and Cat Stevens.
CP: How do you explain the drastic difference between the tempo and energy of your live show and the subdued nature of you album, Ash Wednesday?
Perkins: Well, the record was made before the band was formed, so the live show is a whole new environment that didn't exist when Ash Wednesday was recorded. And as an opening act, you're trying to reach an audience that is primarily there to see something other than what you're giving them. That makes for a slightly more energetic or kinetic show. I'm not sure how that's going to translate when we start playing for people who come wanting to hear our record. It may feel good to tone it down slightly and let the songs breathe, instead of shouting them out and trying to get the attention of a passive audience.
CP: Do you prefer touring as a solo artist or with support?
Perkins: Most of the touring I've done has been with a full band. But whenever I get the chance to play solo, I find I'm just as comfortable with that. I suspect in the future I'll come to balance the two. My band is great—they're great guys, and we have a lot of fun. And so far, while opening for My Morning Jacket and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, it's made much more sense to use a full band than it would to show up as a guy and a guitar. That would probably confuse and upset certain audiences who come to rock out.
CP: Tell me about the video for "All the Night Without Love," which you recorded with Molly and Mariah.
Perkins: It was relatively low-key and certainly fun. It was a very long day of singing that song over and over again. Towards the end of it I had to restrain myself during takes from bursting out into laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of singing the same song over and over. In spite of the ridiculousness, I was happy to be singing and not lip-synching. We much prefer the idea of actually performing the song and dressing it up a little bit and filming it in a way that would give some sort of artifice to it—some sense that you're seeing something other than a live performance, but also have it be a document of living creatures doing what they do instead of living creatures pretending to do what they do.
CP: You've been on the road for a long time. Do you ever miss the boring day-to-day life?
Perkins: I try to fight boredom tooth and nail, as it seems a terrible waste of one's precious life energy. But I'm definitely looking forward to some time off. I don't mind the concept of the wandering minstrel or the rolling stone or any of that, but it does take its toll after a while and it's nice to be in one place for more than a few days.
CP: Do you have non-musical aspirations?
Perkins: I don't know. It's been a long road getting here, and now that I'm here I'm not really thinking about where else to go—probably to a sunnier state of consciousness. I hope to be freed up in the mind, but I don't have any great plans for horseback riding or painting or anything. So far, this is pretty time consuming and energy consuming, and I'm satisfied with that for a while.