JD McPherson Digs Into Vintage Holiday Sounds to Become Rock’s New King of Christmas

The rocker talks about how a conversation with Nick Lowe led to his own modern Christmas classic, and why the Ronettes, the Drifters and Buck Owens still rule when it comes to vintage carols.

JD McPherson
New West

What’s the greatest Christmas record of the 21st century so far? The one you’d most swear was recorded midway through the 20th. JD McPherson went back to the spirit and sound of the late ‘50s to record “Socks,” an all-originals album that was released in 2018 and which he’s been taking out on tour again in the last days of 2019. With this superior revitalization of the holiday-album form, McPherson is the ghost of mid-century past, but there’s no reason to be afraid when he’s leading a spirited round of tinsel tones.

“Socks” is the perfect seasonal record, anyway, if you wish Elvis had laid off the more solemn holiday stuff and done an entire album’s worth of “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me”-type material. McPherson’s material has more of an R&B juke-joint edge to it, but for all that cult-satisfying faithfulness to a vintage sound, his highly suitable for all tree-trimming, eggnogging and mistletoe/snogging occasions. Variety caught up with him as he passed through L.A. on a holiday-themed tour (which wraps up Dec. 22 at Nashville’s Basement East) to talk about some of his favorite seasonal records and how he came up with a modern turntable classic.

VARIETY: You must get a lot of people who are pretty happy that you’ve done this album — like, “At last, something that doesn’t assault my ears in December.“

McPHERSON: That’s what 90% of people say: “This is the only thing in a long time that I can listen to that’s new that doesn’t drive me crazy.” Which is a good compliment. And a bigger compliment in some ways is: Little kids seem to really like it. People will send me videos on Twitter of their kids decorating the house with their parents for the first time, and they’re like 3, 4 years old, and they’re listening to that record. And that’s a huge deal to me, that it’s in somebody’s home on Christmas.

I noticed when we were in Portland that some people just don’t want to go. This one guy came who’s a super-fan, and he brought his girlfriend, and when I met them after the show, he said that when she walked in and she saw decorations, she’s like, “Take me home now!” Then she ended up liking it, because it’s a little more tongue-in-cheek of a Christmas show than normal. It’s funny — some people just don’t want to deal with it. But we wanted to make it so that rabid Christmas enthusiasts like myself and sort of cynical, Scroogy types would also get down with it.

Did you always want to do a Christmas album, or did you have any compunctions about whether it would be a cool thing to do?

Well, I love Christmas music. I was never cynical about that. But like probably almost everybody else, my favorite stuff is pretty old at this point — the stuff that seems right. And I haven’t really dug into too many new Christmas albums in the past couple of decades. I really didn’t plan on making one. I had some ideas for songs that I thought might be okay for somebody else. And then a few years back, Nick Lowe called me and he said he was making a Christmas record and asked if I knew any obscure folk covers or something that he’d never heard before, because I think he was kind of looking to put together that record that he made. And when that record finally came out [2013’s “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family”], I was just like, man, this is the most brilliant thing. You could expect Nick Lowe to go all the way with something and take, as I think his quote goes, “the dusty old genre and trying to do something new with it.” And that was really inspiring to me, because basically anything Nick does is like canon for me. And I was like, “Well, there’s something cool you can do with it.”

It’s too bad Nick Lowe didn’t keep the holiday tours up every year. He and you doing it together would make a great double bill.

If Nick wanted to do it, I would do that in a second. I’m only now only able to talk to Nick and not fall over myself. I’m actually cool around him now. I get tongue tied, talking to him. I’ve got the worst crush on Nick Lowe.

It’s nice that he came to you for some advice for songs for his own Christmas record.

I couldn’t believe that. I wanted to have an answer for him: “Oh yeah. Well, in 1934, there’s this track by Geeshie Wiley.” I didn’t know anything he didn’t already know. [Laughs.]

Once you decided you would make a Christmas record, did you know exactly what it would be?

Once we had the germ of the idea, there then became a list of parameters: How are we going to do this to where we’ll feel okay about it? So there was a big, long list of things that we weren’tgoing to do. First of all, no covers. And it had to be a rock ‘n’ roll record. We were going to go back into our wheelhouse of traditional R&B sounds, because the Drifters, that’s my favorite stuff. It just sounds like Christmas to me. So we dug back into those sounds again, because our previous record [2017’s “Undivided Heart & Soul”] had been loud fuzz guitar-oriented.

A big influence on the making of the record to me was: I’m a big fan of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s writing with the Coasters. And to my knowledge, they never did any Christmas material with them. They did (holiday) stuff with Elvis, but they didn’t ever work with the Coasters, who were their muse, for any Christmas material. So the idea of writing as Leiber and Stoller for the Coasters was a thing in my mind. And believe it or not, that actually helped some songs come really quickly. “Holly, Carol, Candy and Joy” was one where lyrically I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to try to make this as close to something they would write as possible.”

Having an album made up completely of holiday originals is rare in an era where some people who put out Christmas records are too lazy to write even one song.

Yeah. Well, there are ways to go about making a holiday themed album. And one of them is that somebody tells you that you need to do one. It’s the wrong way to start making a Christmas album. [Chuckles.] But when you go at it with real enthusiasm, I think that shows.

Do you have any favorite Christmas records — besides the imaginary Coasters-sing-Leiber-and-Stoller record that exists only in your mind — that were inspirational for you?

My favorite Christmas recording isn’t really even a Christmas recording. It’s “Bells of St. Mary’s” by the Drifters. We play it as our walkout song the whole tour, at twice the volume of everything else that’s on the house playlist. That was a big inspiration for this record because of the almost like church organ that’s on there, and the Celeste bell sound. Those two things were the two signature sounds on the record to make it Christmas-y without having sleigh bells. Ray is a brilliant Hammond player, so we put as much organ as possible all over everything. And then whenever we needed something kind of saccharin, we would defer to the kind of glockenspiel celeste sounds. And that was enough to kind of get it there without resorting to the sleigh bells.

I know it’s everybody’s favorite, but my favorite is the Ronettes stuff. The Ronettes’ stuff is my favorite from the Phil Spector Christmas record. It’s perfect in every way. For what I want out of a Christmas tune to get me in a certain mood, that’s the one. “Frosty the Snowman” makes me insane. Every time I hear it, I just want to swing around on chandeliers and jump out windows. It’s like the best, most rabid happiness overcomes me.

There is a Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns album I hadn’t heard about until just recently. he had made this brilliant New Orleans R&B Christmas record that never got put out until way, way later. Somebody told me that the label didn’t like it because it was a little too secular sounding or something; I don’t know what it was. I found out about that well after “Socks” was recorded. or that probably would have rubbed off a lot more.

There’s a couple of Buck Owens records, but the one that starts with “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” [“Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos”], I liked that one a lot. I like the slow, steel-driven ones. It’s a go-to every year.

When he draws out “bluuuue Christmas lights”…

Dude, that’s the best. “Pardon me, do you have any blueuuue-oo-OO-oo-OO Christmas lights?” So good!

Did you write the album in one quick batch or over a period of years?

I think it was pretty much all written within like a month or so. It definitely is the quickest batch of songs I’ve ever gotten. It seems like keeping to a theme would be a deterrent, but it somehow made it much more streamlined. You just sit there and you’re making a list of: What are some things that haven’t been talked about yet, at least that I know of? And that really helped spring things to life. Also, writing what in some ways are comedy lyrics is something I can do. I come up with dirty lyrics like that. [Snaps fingers.] So if I can write something that makes me laugh, it’s fun. As long as I’m not exposing anything to the world personally. That’s when the stuff is hard to write, and it’s like pushing a refrigerator up a hill.

Is there any secret to how you got the sound of the album? A lot of times when people do Christmas records, they go back to something traditional, but the super-crisp, clean, modern production just drains some of the spirit out of what we love about the records that we associate with a nostalgic time.

Yeah. To me, sonic quality in production is as much a part of a song’s ability to communicate as lyrics or musicianship. I think about production while I’m writing. And when I do hear modern “classics” that are trying to (recreate the sounds of days of yore), it’s sometimes funny to me how they can’t hear what those earmarks are. First of all, those damn jingle bells, the sleigh bells, are on everything. And it’s just so perfect and crisp and clear, and it just seems like the antithesis — like they’re missing the whole point. So getting those sounds is what we, my band and I, do really well, and we know the engineers to talk to, and we know the places to record, and we know what kind of gear works for that kind of thing. That idea of sonics as sort of a signifier of a type of music is important to me.

Do you have to use vintage gear to get a vintage sound?

No. The Dap-Tone guys will tell you that too, that they’re using some Radio Shack mics and things. It’s as much about mic placement and performance as it is about gear. I’m sure there’s things that happen with tape compression that don’t happen in the ProTools box, but there has not been one record that I’ve made that didn’t have a computer somewhere in there. No, I’m much more of a pragmatist. Even going back, Vermeer used optics to get some stuff happening. It doesn’t matter — whatever gets on the canvas is the thing. So I’m not against computers in any way, and it’s a huge boon to music. As long as you don’t let the computer play you, you know what I mean?

You described the sound you modeled this after as R&B. Is that the closest you’d come to a description?

Rock ‘n’ roll would be sort of the measurement I would use. But there’s a lot of flavors of rock ‘n’ roll music. We get branded rockabilly all the time, and I love rockabilly music, but we’ve never played rockabilly, really, by my definition of what it is. So I always just say we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band, but there’s a lot of little tweaks you can make to that and it’ll still be that. I mean, I consider T. Rex to be one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands. They don’t sound anything like Larry Williams. So there’s a kind of a weird little Tetris game you can play and have it all still fit. But the “Socks” record had to be a certain type (of record) — had to have that kind of high-end, roll-off, swinging thing. We actually did try, in a couple of rehearsals, to see if we could do some kind of psych-rock thing, but it was just obviously begging to be what it became.

If this goes on for a while, are you okay with being the King of Christmas every December?

Well, I’m sure when it’s time to put the kids through college, I’ll be happy with being the King of Christmas. But honestly, it’s fun and light and a really nice breather, apart from regular touring, to suddenly be doing a completely different show.

Doing a Christmas tour is a challenging thing, because the window to do it in is only about a month. So many artists end up doing it only on the east coast or in the South, because if you try to make it west, where it takes longer to get between cities, you’ve kind of run out the clock on the holiday season.

We had to split the country in half, sort of, and so the east coast won the first round (in 2018), and then we’re out here this time, and then next year, hopefully we’ll go to Europe with it. Maybe we can make it happen every year. I know that we wanted to try to go everywhere once. But Minneapolis, First Avenue, the Current, they want us to do it every single year. They’re like, “I don’t care if you never tour with it again, we just want you to do this every year.” After Europe, I might consider doing a combo tour. The Mavericks, we’ve played with them a lot and they had a great Christmas record. We talked the first year about teaming up with them and going where they go.

The title track of the album is about not wanting socks for Christmas, but your branded socks are probably your big merch item now.

Last year, not a show went by that at least one fan didn’t pass a paper bag with socks in it up to the stage. By the end of the tour, the whole band had clean socks. We never ran out. That’s a viable commodity for bands, clean socks! But so far on the west coast tour nobody’s brought any socks to give to the band. I don’t know what the cultural divide is there. We’ll see when we get to Kansas, if it changes — if it’s just an east coast, west coast thing.