Perpetual Groove’s Shadows and Light
LiveLoveDie, the new CD by Perpetual Groove, is the first recording ever produced with zero net carbon emissions. Skeptics will point out that any manufacturing process consumes energy, and that even the 100% recycled packaging required some trees to be killed somewhere. For that matter, as a newspaper in the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia recently pointed out, Greenpeace produced a benefit album over ten years ago using nothing but solar power, so what exactly is the big deal?
“What he left out is that you had carbon neutral credits at that time, which is different from a renewable energy credit like we’re using today, and that is the big difference,” P Groove keyboardist Matt McDonald explains patiently, without a trace of bitterness. “Because at the end of the day, that’s very noble that they were taking steps to do that back then, but those CDs are still petroleum plattersAs far as being able to offset the costs (to the environment), this is really the first time that has been available.”
The band is quick to point out that Paul Diaz, owner of Tree Sound Studios and Executive Producer of LiveLoveDie, did a lot of the hard work involved in making the project work. (Check out Treeleafmusic.com for more details about their mission to create an environmentally-friendly record label)
Even so, the fact that P Groove at least tried to do something about a subject that makes many people throw up their hands in despair says a lot about what they are all about as a band. In a scene where words like “community” often sound like empty clich P Groove really believes in that whole thing about music bringing people closer together, maybe even making a better world.
“We’re all about helping out whenever we’re able to,” says guitarist Brock Butler with disarming sincerity.
This almost na idealism is one of the things that endears P Groove to their fans, even though it may alienate them from all the cynical, hipper-than-thou jaded types who find such sentiments to be unbelievably corny. However, they are in pretty good company. From the Grateful Dead on down, the best jambands have always been those that weren’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve. Perpetual Groove follows proudly in a tradition of bands that think music means something, and their loyal fanbase seems to agree.
The emotional content of P Groove’s music is especially noteworthy when you consider that like many bands in the jam scene, they incorporate elements of electronic music. However, unlike most other bands that fit that description, they retain a warm, human element to their music, while other bands in the genre can come off sounding cold and mechanical.
“A lot of our songs, especially the ones with lyrics, start off as more of a singer-songwriter approach,” says Butler. “Even the stuff that doesn’t have lyrics, we may use electronic effects, but there is still that human element.”
“It’s not manufactured,” says McDonald about the difference between P Groove and more synthetic music. “Well, there may be one or two thingsliterally one or twothat are samples, but the rest of it is being done in real time.”
“The hardest thing for us, and I think it is one of the things that sets us apart a little bit, and it’s something you learn the hard way every day,” says drummer Albert Suttle, “Is how do you use drum loops or percussion loops and be tasteful. How do you do it without that becoming the song? How do you do it in a way that helps the song be what it is?”
“You can see it in movies too,” says Butler, in what will become a recurring theme throughout our interview. “Look at George Lucas. Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean you should use it. I often use movies as comparisons to music. There are a lot of similarities in the creative process, and how they’re changing as well.”
The rest of the band jumps on the cinematic analogy like a wolf pack on red meat, and they all seem to agree that the first three Star Wars films have more heart and soul than the widely-panned recent trilogy. And don’t even get them started on Lucas’ misbegotten idea to re-edit the original movies using modern effects.
“Yeah, you don’t have to make Jabba walk,” McDonald says with disdain about one of the more egregious changes.
“Then you see Spielberg do something like Munich,” says Suttle by way of comparison. “That has virtually no CGI in it at all, except for one shot at the end of the movie, where you see the New York skyline and the Twin Towers are there, because it’s supposed to be 1974. But it’s a great movie.”
During our conversation, I bring up the fact that the band has recently started playing tracks from Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine in their live shows. When I ask why they didn’t incorporate that into the new CD, they all agree that it’s just something to mix it up in a live setting.
“That is something for the kids,” says Butler with a smile about the group’s dabbling in hip-hop, not realizing that to an old man like me, he’s not much more than a kid himself. “It’s a way to let people know everything isn’t SO serious.”
“I don’t think anyone was having an emotionally profound moment when Fishman was playing his vacuum,” says bassist Adam Perry with a laugh.
Like any good band, Perpetual Groove is more than the sum of its parts, but there are four very strong individuals in the band, each contributing to the overall sound. Let’s take a look at each of them.
PAINT A PICTURE INSTEAD OF
TELLING A STORY
For somebody who has chops as good as any guitarist in the jam scene, Brock Butler is sort of a guitar anti-hero. There is only one proper guitar solo on LiveLoveDie, and while you can expect to see more in a live show, he’s still not a shredder by any means. Over and over again, he returns to the fact that to him, the song reigns supreme.
“I think as a whole, we’ve decided to do what’s right for the song,” Butler says about the band’s emphasis on group playing. “There is some lead work in the album, but there aren’t really any places where it’s like here is the solo.’ That just bores me when we go to some festivals and there are bands that play the head, wind it up, and then pass the solo around to everyone.”
Butler’s singer-songwriter tendencies are one of the defining characteristics of Perpetual Groove, and he spends more time listening to bands like Cold War Kids and Band of Horses than he does to other jambands. When he talks about an album that changed his life, it isn’t by Phish or the Grateful Dead, it’s Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Butler’s lyrics tend to paint a picture instead of telling a story. When he sings “There’s few things as nice as an early morning drive/there’s no construction and no lights/save for one, the natural light of the day” it’s like you’re in the car with him. This combination of concrete imagery and vague, indirect storytelling is similar to haiku, the enigmatic 17-syllable Japanese poems.“I think that’s an appropriate way to describe it,” says Butler. “I wish I could say it’s more calculated, but it’s just sort of the way it comes out. The guys from Steely Dan were both English Literature majors, so their songs are very linear stories, but that’s not how it comes out of me. Lyrically, it’s pretty universal and open to interpretation. I try not to make it too specific. Sometimes it is, but I like it to be open for somebody to apply it to their own situation.”
Butler seems keenly aware of how much his songs mean to P Groove’s fans, and part of that awareness comes from the fact that he has had moments in his own life when music helped him out of dark spaces.
“Something is going on in my life and I listen to that song, and it seems like it was written just for me, or just about me. When I hear a song like that, whether I’m in a good situation or maybe I’m having a bad day, I could have heard the song 20 or 30 times, but it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time,” says Butler.
On the new CD, lines like “Some things in life will never go your way” from “It Starts Where It Ends” seem custom-made to provide that experience for the listener. Who hasn’t felt that way before?
LOW END THEORY
Perry is probably the most improved player in the band over the past few years, and he credits it to what he calls “a return to my rock and roll roots.” Perry named his dog Jaco after revolutionary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, but nowadays he isn’t very interested in complex, technical playing.
“For a while I got into Jaco and all those guys, but I got back to listening to Paul McCartney, and he’s the one who got me into playing the bass,” says Perry. “I just simplified my playing and stopped worrying about playing stuff that was hard, and just started focusing on playing what was right.”
Perry also changed his gear about a year ago, getting a new bass and going back to an 8 × 10 bass cabinet with an Ampeg head, which he says gives him a more “rock” tone and helps him create a solid foundation for the band.
“That’s where I have the most fun anyway,” Perry says about holding down the bottom end. “They will tell you I hate taking bass solos. I have more fun laying down a groove for everyone to work with, and being steady and trying to put that platform there for everyone else. I think I picked the right instrument!”
Like the other members of the band, Perry talks a lot about “instinct” when talking about the band’s ability to improvise together onstage.
“There are some nights where there is some weird mind-reading shit going on,” says Perry about the musical bond P Groove has developed over the years. “Where all of a sudden we’ll all break into half-time, and we all knew it was going to happen, but we’ve never done that before.”
This kind of musical magic is what most jam fans look for at a live show, and the fact that P Groove delivers it on a regular basis is why they have developed one of the most rabid fanbases in the scene today. Another factor is that the band is so totally accessible to their fans, often mixing and mingling with them after shows.
“People are always saying it’s important to them, it’s more than just music,” Perry says about the P Groove fans. “That creates a better vibe.”
GIVE THE DRUMMER SOME
Drummer Albert Suttle is probably the band member who is most specifically influenced by electronic music, especially DJ Shadow, who he cites as a major musical hero. The vocal samples that adorn songs like “To Shed Light or Cast Shadows” on the new CD are his creation.
“I had to take one word out of that whole phrase, but the cool thing about it is if you do it right, you make it sound like that’s what he was going to say anyway,” says Suttle. “When we got the rough mixes I just put it on there to see what it would sound like, and everybody liked it, so I gave it to Robert (Hannon, producer extraordinaire) and he made it sound cool.”
Even if the band is determined to keep the human element, Suttle is the one in P Groove who seems to have the most faith in the potential of mixing techno with jam music. He has a solid, grounded personality, and sometimes when you talk to him you can sense the military background that he shares with McDonald. (They started playing together years ago in a Navy band)
“Sometimes it is a whole lot easier just to drop out a little bit, because the beauty with everybody pushing forward at the same time is that somebody can drop out, and the impetus will still be there,” says Suttle about P Groove’s approach to jamming. “As a matter of fact, if you drop out for long enough, and then come back in, it can really help the song. And it doesn’t matter who drops out, necessarily. I remember one night Adam dropped out, and I think it was actually a technical thing, like a cable popped out or something like that. He waited until the next phrase to come back in, and Jason (Huffer) our light guy, who is very unforgiving about giving out compliments, was like Man, that was really cool!’”
Suttle is also the band member who is least interested in musical conventions, a characteristic that apparently caused him some trouble when he was in school studying music theory.
“I had a cool professor in college who was my theory instructor,” Suttle reminisces. “One of the coolest things he ever said was Well, it really helps to know all the rules so you know how to break them later.’”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Matt McDonald carries a lot of weight in the band, using different keyboard sounds to create different sonic textures. He’s the least showy member of the band, and rarely calls attention to himself, but that is a testament to how well he fits in with the song at any given moment.
“We’re getting to the point now where we’ve been together long enough that there is a lot less talking, and we’re getting to know each other’s looks,” says McDonald.
“Bruce Hampton really hit the nail on the head with explaining the unlearning thing, which is something that I’ve heard several musicians say,” McDonald says, his voice conveying a hard-earned lesson. “So many musicians start out doing scales, doing sight-reading, doing everything training-wise you’re supposed to do. And then at the end of the day, by the time I got to here and started doing this for a couple of years, you’re not thinking at all, hopefully. It’s all emotion, feeling, instinct and natural responses.”
“The majority of the new stuff has a lot of relatively standard organ/key type sounds going on, there is not as much digital stuff as there was a couple of years ago,” says McDonald about the evolution of his keyboard style. “When I bought the Moog, that changed a lot of things, because it’s an analog synth.”
“My first keyboard was when I joined the band, everything up until then was stuff that was provided for me, like when I was in the military,” explains McDonald. “And before that, I always played piano and church organ, not even a B-3. We’re not trying to emulate electronic music. I like Mozart as much as I like some drum and bass.”
McDonald comes across like a teddy bear in person, and is the family man in the band with a wife and young child. He is also arguably the most articulate member of the band when it comes to describing that elusive moment that the band is searching for.
“The big thing about the festivals or the shows is that there are those moments at a show with a band that has that emotional connection,” McDonald says passionately. “Which goes back to that universal thing, because it’s an emotion that humans experience. Nothing else matters at that moment, because you’re sharing that together.”
TO SHED LIGHT OR CAST SHADOWS
There are plenty of textures and sounds on LiveLoveDie, which sounds like the next natural step in evolution for the band. The CD shows a heavier side than their previous releases, which may surprise some listeners, but that trademark P Groove sound is still there, it has just evolved.
The title of the CD comes from “It Starts Where It Ends,” which says at one point “You live, you love, you die.” While that may seem like a dark way to look at things to some people, the band seems to highlight the second item. Since we are only here for a little while, we might as well love as much as possible.
The highlight may be “Crapshoot,” with its sinister bassline and lyrics about a high-roller who has pushed his (or her) luck too far. The band has started referring to their sound as “trance arena rock,” and this is one of several songs on the new album that seem custom-made for filling your local sports complex with big riffs and cheering fans.
The sweeping soundscapes of “Legends of Preston” are another sign that the band has reached a new level. There is a sense of sonic architecture here, as well as the visual sense of painting a picture with sound.
The title “To Shed Light or Cast Shadows” reminded me of this classic line from the Dead’s Terrapin Station: “His job is to shed light, and not to master.” However, the band was unaware of the similarity, and the line came from a book Brock Butler read.
“It was just about what kind of impact are you having on the world?,” Butler explains. “Are you shedding light, are you making people more enlightened, or are you casting shadows and keeping them in the dark?”
There is no question which describes what Perpetual Groove is trying to do with their music.
It’s fitting that the last song on the album is fan favorite “Only Always.” The final line of lyrics on the album could be about a relationship, or it could be about the love affair between the band and their fans, but it leaves the last word to love.
“The answer to your question Will I love you?’ quite simply is only always.”