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The Band Perry on Being Stuck in Label Limbo and Why They Left Country and Went Indie

In a revealing Q&A after a long silence, Kimberly Perry says it "was worth putting the skids on" their Nashvillian career trajectory to maintain their integrity.

The Band Perry have gone from dying young to feeling young again. For the sibling trio, it’s not so much about “going pop” as going independent — something they felt they needed to do after buying their way out of their country contract, but also after a brief spell of working with pop labels and big-name producers felt like a creative dead end, too. The five-song EP they released Friday, “Coordinates,” their first collected work to be released in five and a half years, does find them in a very different spot on the map — it’s both electronically focused and intimate, and it feels a hundred miles away from the cash-grab crossover a lot of skeptics were convinced was their end game.

But what will the audiences that so recently filled arenas think of the switch? In the first hours that “Coordinates” was up for streaming Friday, the reaction was fascinatingly split almost right down the middle. Sample tweets: “A good song is a good song — less fuss over classification, just turn the volume up!” “Everybody knows the Band Perry, right? Y’all, they snapped.” “The Band Perry’s new electronic EP is very confusing to me but I think I like it?” “How can you go from ‘If I Die Young’ to this dreadful EP? They don’t seem to know their own identity anymore.” “Can we talk about the Band Perry’s complete genre switch that they are ROCKING?” “The Band Perry going full-on electronic is the strangest yet best thing to happen this year.” And, in a nod to the chorus of their biggest hit, “The Band Perry just buried their country music career in satin with a bed of roses and then sunk it in the river at dawn.”

Variety caught up with Kimberly, Reid and Neil to talk about their belief that a core of fans will come along for the ride. They also explained how they reconnected with executive producer Rick Rubin, six years after their ex-label Big Machine rejected a would-be sophomore album he’d produced for them.

For the last couple of years, trying to figure out what is going on with the Band Perry has been one of the great mysteries of our time…

KIMBERLY: Yes. It’s like The Band Perry and Bigfoot — do they exist?

You announced a while back that you were going pop, but this EP feels like it’s moving on even from what you were doing with those pop singles, to something different.

KIMBERLY: We love the idea of genre fluidity. if I could take back one thing, it was during the transition when “Stay in the Dark” came out, when I said, “This is our first pop song, and our first pop album, with ‘Bad Imagination.’” In that moment, I felt a need to define things, because I had always been standing inside of one country music construct. And so I think I felt a need to over-define that and almost plant the flag in the sand. But in retrospect, getting on the other side of it, I realized, man, it’s really hard to quantify sounds and music, especially when you pull from a lot of different influences and experiences. It’s really just about making music that you love. To be honest with you, in these songs, I’d say there are country elements as well as pop elements… but also Kanye elements and “Yeezus” elements. There are machine sounds in there. It really feels like it transcends [genre]. … At this more learned place, I would say that music is for everybody. We have so much that divides us every day as humans, and music should be this fluid thing that brings us all together.

There was a period when you guys had signed with Interscope on the pop side, and Universal’s Nashville division believed they could still work the Band Perry on the country side. Now you’re out of that deal and independent, and you have different management as well – Philymack in place of Red Light. What was involved with these transitions?

REID: Labels move too slow. One thing that we were realizing, again, is that for us it’s all about being able to let people know right where we are in this moment. And the way it’s all put together, record companies just take too long to release music.

KIMBERLY: We definitely needed folks to believe us when we said, “Hey, this is about the future. It’s not just about the past.” You can be proud of your past but also be obsessed with where you’re headed. And not everybody really agreed with us, if I’m being honest, or bought in in the same way, because I think there was this great temptation to work with the band because of what we had done already.

A label is generally reticent to do anything that can be construed as alienating the audience that came with the act to the dance, and may only relate to them as something that is fixed in time and space and genre, yet there are also fans who are invested in an artist and open to going along for the ride…

KIMBERLY: Totally. And I’ve been a fan of other artists in both those categories so I understand that sentiment. One thing we can all agree on is that the Band Perry has never been your down-the-middle, poster-child, predictable country artist. Fans who’ve dipped into what we do and loved it and followed it know that. Honestly, that perspective is what made us special in country. … And so the fans — either fans of ours or fans of our songs on the radio or just fans of the genre — I think that they know very clearly what we bring. And I hope that even if some of them don’t love the sounds of this new era, they’ll at least appreciate the perspective that we’ve maintained, which is the thing that we’ve loved the most about that genre — its honesty and transparency. And we have worked really hard and fought really hard to maintain not only what we brought there, but also to keep that with us as we move forward. And that was worth putting the skids on. Because we did not want to undo what we had gotten to bring to that genre.

Can you give an example of a moment when this crystallized for you? 

KIMBERLY: A big turning point for us was a song off of “Pioneer” called “Chainsaw.” I’m intensely respectful of the writers of that song, but that was not a song that needed to come from The Band Perry’s voice. That was one of those compromises we made. There was this backroom discussion where some people on our team said, “Hey, bro country is big; we need you to compete with bro country.” And I just remember the three of us going, “Whoa. But the Band Perry, that’s not what we do, even inside the construct of this wonderful genre. What we bring is like a feeling – it’s like ‘If I Die Young,’ and with ‘Better Dig Two,’ we have a tinge of darkness. We bring something very specific — why are we softening our voice, even at country, to compete with something that we don’t do?” And we ended up making that compromise because we were sort of given a non-decision there, if you will. And so that was really the moment when we said, ”All right. We’ve got to keep our voice, because everything that we’ve built is being broken down again.”

You had three sort of crossover singles prior to this EP, one with Big Machine, and two with Interscope, which, honestly, don’t sound nearly as interesting as the music you’re making now. It sounded like you were going for the big hit single, just in a different format.

KIMBERLY: The “Live Forevers” of the world, even “Stay in the Dark,” while we liked those songs, there were a host of other influences around them, whether it was producers, co-songwriters or, quite honestly, labels. Everybody sort of had a voice as to what those needed to sound like and where they needed to live in the world. And that was the other thing that kind of led us to going, “We’ve got to make sure that what we’re putting out is Kimberly, Reid and Neil.”

We had some very cool conversations last fall with producers that we respected. One of them was No ID. We went over to his studio in L.A. and he had these rooms with stacks of guitar amps and all these keyboards, some of which we had since our earliest days as a band. We talked to him a lot about gear and why he chose to do things in that way, which is interesting. Then the next night we headed over to Mike Dean’s, who we have mad respect for. His studio had a full wall of modular synthesizers, and there were a billion cables, and it just felt like we were in this weird spaceship sound-making machine. Those guys were so gracious to let us come in and educate ourselves and listen and ask the questions.

You made an unreleased album with Rick Rubin for Big Machine, in between your freshman and sophomore releases and he executive-produced your new music. How did you reconnect?

KIMBERLY: To get perspective on the volumes of songs, Reid and Neil and I will get in the car and just drive. It just so happened that one Saturday last fall, we were on Pacific Coast Highway doing that, asking ourselves, “Do we love these [songs]? Are these ours? How can they be better?” And Shangri-La — Rick’s studio, which originally belonged to the Band and is a very spiritual place — it’s right off the highway there. This light bulb went off. Like, “We’ve got to talk to Rick.” Because he’s always been a compass for us. He lives his life as a minimalist, and he also produces and curates music with artists with that sense of minimalism, and making the most impact. So we called him up and were back at Shangri-La the next week and played him about 10 songs. We said, “Hey, Rick, you know who we are. Listen to these songs and help us figure out where to focus. Because different sides of them represent who we are.” And so he pointed to one song of the batch, out of 20, and was like, “I think you can beat this song, but this is the sound.” And he said, “You guys need to get everybody out of your ethos other than the three of you, and you need to go focus on this sound that you’ve stumbled on, and you need to just go drag it out of the ground and write this body of work with this as your guide.” It’s been such a wonderful coming back to Rick, because all we care about is being truthful and being perceived in the way that we actually are, accurately. And he’s been a really good challenger of that.

The Band Perry

What happened back in 2012?

KIMBERLY: It was time to make a sophomore project. And to be honest, you’re scared. You hear all these stories about the sophomore slump. We called Rick and he had us out to Shangri-La where we played him everything we were working on for the second project. He said, “First of all, I would love to make this project with you. Second of all, you don’t have to be afraid. Don’t think about the radio. Don’t think about what you’ve done already. It’s your responsibility as artists to be yourself.”

So we spent two or three months at Shangri-La, and we’d go home to Nashville and check in with everybody. We’d go, “Hey guys. This is what we’re making. Is everybody comfortable with this? Are you hearing singles?” So we finished five songs with Rick and brought them to a meeting with our label at the time, and everybody was just in love — I mean, obsessively in love. There was a party on the bus because we had been told we had our first and second singles in that batch, and they really empowered us to go back and finish. They were like, “Go have fun with the back half of this. Enjoy it! We’ve got what we need.” We were ecstatic. And then a month after, we came back to Nashville for an 11 p.m. listening session in the label conference room. We noticed that every time a song would end, nobody would say anything. It was a very awkward silence. We got through 10 tracks, and the meeting was very abruptly ended. They asked us “what the hell” they were listening to. [We said], “It’s the Rick Rubin project that you loved a month ago!” And I will say that if I can look back in our history at the moment when everything changed, it was that night and that moment.

REID: The things that we had learned from Rick were like oil and water when we brought it back home.

KIMBERLY: So it got shelved immediately, and then we just went into survival mode. It was time to turn in the album and they were like, “We need a single immediately.” So we [decided] to bring the songs we wrote at Shangri-LA and find another producer for them.

REID: We actually have those Rick Rubin songs with us. When we bought our way out of the label, we put in the contract that we get to take those with us. Right now we’re very much wanting to release music that is very present to where we are. But we do have those and would love to release them at some point.

Was this EP as severely DIY as has been suggested?

REID: The four of us — Kimberly, Neil, [co-writer/co-producer] Owen (Thomas) and myself were the [only] ones in the studio. We got a bunch of analog gear, some old synths and drum machines, and just holed up over the past several months.

NEIL: One of the things we wanted from the very beginning was to use analog gear, which gave the electronic instruments the feeling of realness that we that we still wanted to maintain.

KIMBERLY: One thread that we’ve really seen persist is our penchant for language. We love poetry. We grew up on Southern Gothic literature [so] we love those little ingredients of darkness. And so the mood of our songwriting really hasn’t changed much. One thing that I’m proud of is that, even with all of the crazy sounds — like bringing in a Moog, some 808s and drum programming — is that the song remains. That’s been some continuous advice from Rick as we challenge different parts of the song to make them better: does this one hold up on guitar and piano? Us being an indie rock band as kids and then serving our time in country, the songs have always been the most important thing. … Our biggest priority as artists has always been to make music that we love. If that means there’s a banjo on it, let’s put a banjo on it. If we don’t want to put a banjo on it, can we be in a situation where we don’t have to do that?

 

John Taylor, co-president of Philymack management, says, “If they wanted to stay in the country music scene and continue to make records to sell tickets in that market, they could have easily continued to do that. But it creatively left a void in them. And that’s inspiring to me — like wow, these guys are willing to leave money on the table and are willing to pay money to kind of leave it all behind to go do what they really want to do artistically.” (He says the group paid to get out of its Big Machine contract and get their original Rubin masters back. Big Machine declined comment.) “We don’t hear about that all the time in this world of building brands and partnerships, that they were like, ‘The art really, really, really, r matters to us. So that that lit us up… It’s easy to look at it from the surface and be like, well, here’s these guys walking away from their country fan base. We’re pretty confident a good chunk of this country fan base who aren’t passive country music listeners are along for the ride.”

As for expectations, Taylor says, “We are not strangers to the reinvention thing over here at Philymack. It takes some time,” he adds, and they are looking at gradually reintroducing the band before going for the big radio adds. “There is no exact parallel here, but if you look at some of the teen-pop to now legitimate radio pop acts that we’ve had at Philymack, the first thing I’d point to is probably Nick (Jonas). It was a similar situation, and through a year of telling the story the right way and sticking to his guns and making the music he wanted to make with the collaborators he wanted to collaborate with, he went from ‘Oh, that’s the guy from the Jonas Borthers to being Nick Jonas with a number one radio hit. We have a little bit of a story to tell and we have to shift perceptions, and that’s where you can see the parallels: the world views you as this, and you would like to be viewed as this because this is who you really are. In no way was it ‘Hey guys, go ahead rip the Band-Aid off. Kiss everything you once knew goodbye to reinvent and start over.’ It’s more that they’ve slowly been coming out of their shells.”

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