Listen Up, They've Got Something to Say
Cherry Poppin' Daddies
by Jason Feifer
This whole time, it's quite possible that nobody really knew what the Cherry Poppin' Daddies were talking about. For while they've been playing since 1989, it was only recently that the band became small-time national celebrities by catching the attention of an unexpectedly eager crowd of swing dancers with their fourth album, Zoot Suit Riot. The record is a collection of jump blues songs from their previous material, and as it climbed its way up the charts, the title track immediately became a dance floor favorite. All the while, though, the band wondered if their newfound fans cared to hear what else they had to offer -- be it funk or ska, the Daddies are a surprisingly eclectic bunch.
"I just want to be understood," could easily be lead singer/songwriter Steve Perry's mantra. For on top of having to dodge an appellation resemblance to Journey's frontman, Perry toured for Zoot Suit Riot and watched crowds of deaf ears and quick feet trample the reason he's up there on stage in the first place -- his lyrics. With Soul Caddy, the band's newest release, Perry takes another shot at voicing his opinion about a society that he considers is in need of serious guidance. Through lyrically portraying the desolation he sees our "Information Age" wading in, he intends it to encourage people not only to listen, but also to think about what they hear. Instead of swing, though, this time he's doing it with the backing of a veritable bazaar of genres more reminiscent to the older, lesser-known Cherry Poppin' Daddies. With rock and soul behind them, this octet from Oregon has a lot more to say in their music than they've been given credit for. At this point, Perry's just hoping that someone will listen.
Do you consider Soul Caddy a bold move, considering the expectations of swing that people probably have for this album?
Well, the weird thing is [that] this is actually like our fifth record, but nobody knows about our independent records on our own label that we released. So this is similar to what we do as a band. I mean, Zoot Suit Riot was just a collection of our swing tunes that started to sell at our merch table. Everybody would ask "which record has the most swing tunes on it?" And on all three of our records are a few swing tunes, kind of like how Soul Caddy has three or something swing tunes and has various other things. I guess it's more of the same for us, but I knew that it was going to be seen and people were going to freak. They really never heard the band how we are. We usually make records that are not genre-specific. We have a tendency to use genre to change things up. The lyrics are kind of the point of the record, as they are of all of our records generally, except for Zoot Suit Riot, which was a collection. So, this was constructed to tell a story on a whole, to get at some themes, some ideas.
Your bio calls the album an "Aldous Huxley-like commentary about a technically sophisticated, yet soulless society." Is that accurate for what you're trying to portray?
Yeah, that's weird, because I didn't really know what Huxley book he was referring to here. I'm not exactly as familiar with Aldous Huxley as I ought to be. I mean, the few people I talked to, I've been happy that they understood that it's referring to the conceptual side of it, that it really is kind of a concept record. People are picking up that there are ideas involved, which is good. I didn't know if that was going to happen or not. I made it that way, but I didn't know. You figure, we live in Oregon. We, like everyone else, have seen how the music scene has developed over the last couple of years, and it just seems like, god, how moronic could it be? So you just kind of think, well, we'll make our record and damn the torpedoes and let's just see what happens. And you just kind of figure, well, no one's gonna fucking get this. But, you put it out and that's what you are.
Is the concept of this album, then, more reactionary toward society or the music industry?
It's much more personal than that. The record's about isolation and transcendence and transformation, and it's about certain nostalgia and what it does. It's about loneliness and things like that. It's a very personal record, it's not a political record per se. I think it was inspired by the times. Y'know, the times basically are the World Wrestling Federation, Spring Break at Daytona Beach, really soulless commodity pop. Y'know, white male testosterone sexuality fears. All that stuff is what's happening right now, and I think in some way, that got reflected into the record in an oblique way. But I don't talk about that. If I made a record referring to that stuff, it would be bad. I mean, it's not art then. Then it's like, propaganda or something. I just wanted to make a record that people could relate to in a human being kind of way.
In "Bleeding Ceremony," there's a mention of "Orson's Sled." Is that a reference to Citizen Kane?
Yeah, that's a reference to Citizen Kane. There's a real loss of innocence thing. The guy in the song is trying to understand himself.
It's interesting that you put that in there, since central themes of both Citizen Kane and your album are loneliness and a search for love.
Yeah, definitely. And identity. There's also Cindy Sherman, I don't know if you're familiar with her. She's a photographer. And I draw references to them because they're references that add more grist. I really wanted to be understood. And so those references came in handy.
You have a history of fronting very upbeat songs with depressing or heavy lyrics. Is there an inherent contradiction you're trying to convey?
I really think it just kind of to lend more punch to it. You know the scene in A Clockwork Orange when the fighting happens to Beethoven? Or in Full Metal Jacket, another Kubrick thing, where they're singing "The Mickey Mouse Club" walking through Vietnam with their M16s or whatnot. It adds more whoomp that way. It's not a contradiction. To me, if you're gonna be an art rocker right now, everyone knows what that means. Everybody knows what art rock is. And just to evoke the art rock straight down the line, for whatever it is, there are various versions of it. One is "person with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of tattoos and a pin through their tongue." Or else there's the "I am Pink Floyd" kind of thing, with heavy metal overtones. There are these kinds of clichŽs that people think of, but they're ineffective because they've been done to death. You know what they're doing and it's not unique and it's not interesting because it's just yet another version of X or Y film. Y'know, it's Thelma and Louise 8, or whatever. Oh yeah, okay, it's arty to have suicidal lesbians, but there have been 400,000 films on the fucking Sundance Channel like that. So, find another way to say something. That's why I figure people wouldn't get it, too. Because they're only used to absorbing something that's based on ideas from a kind of external signifier of, y'know, this is "I think very deeply." So, dance music can't be seen as something that might have some kind of depth or layers or any sort of value. People see it as being worthless. And that's why I find dance music interesting. I like to imbed lyrics like that in that kind of music. It's more interesting to me.
Does that, in a way, make your music more user-friendly?
Well, it depends on what you mean by user-friendly. It's not user-friendly if you want to be understood. Because you'll get this thing: "swing band," or like "band with horns," "frat band," which couldn't be further from what we actually are. So, it's not actually user-friendly to us because people are pretty thick. They say things like, "Oh, the Daddies are on the swing bandwagon," as if there was a bandwagon. That's how dumb they are. They don't think, "Giorgio Armani is on the mod bandwagon this season with his clothes." People are not generally very culturally adroit, as when you watch the MTV Music Awards or whatever.
Do have a solution for this?
My solution is to not make records for them. To not cater to that kind of thing. I just want to do my thing and be as unique and interesting as I can be, and try and do it as well as I can. I want to have my own perspective and damn the torpedoes. And hopefully people will get the record and understand it. I'm reaching out to people like you. Smart people and that kind of thing. I just envision a better set of circumstances. And I got lucky that we had a hit on a major label so I could put something like this out on a major label forum so it could reach more people.
Will you be disappointed if people just take Soul Caddy as yet another fun album?
Yes, I will be disappointed. But, y'know, because you work hard at something and this whole thing is predicated on a hope [^] probably a vain hope [^] that there are people out there that like to think about things and appreciate craftsmanship and will understand. They'll do a little bit of creative work on it. But, of course, I'll be disappointed. I want to have peers and friends and be understood. I don't want to just feel like I'm some fucking jerk-off. Nobody does.
Have you ever considered going the blunt way of Propaghandi, who include political and opinionated writings in their CD booklets?
I worked hard to make the record explain itself, and, besides, people don't like to be told anything. I don't want to tell people about what necessarily the record is about and how to decode it. I mean, I was very careful to have it one part poetic and another part understandable. That was really what I was trying to get at with a lot of the songs. See, what bugs me about other artists who are very good but use irony and poetic license a little bit too far is that they're not really taking a stand. There's no theme. They're not saying anything. It's like, whatever you want it to mean is what it should mean, and to me that's chicken shit. I don't want to do that. I want it to be about something. I want to say something. So, I tried really hard to have the record speak on its own so it wouldn't have to come with a booklet. I don't know, I always enjoyed, like, the Meat Puppets II. That record came out and I liked their first one, but I didn't have a lyric sheet to it and the Meat Puppets II came out and it was just so great that I could go through and dig their aesthetic. There was no explanation on it, they didn't have to explain it and it was totally punk rock to me.
So where does a lighter song like "Swingin' with Tiger Woods" fit into all of this?
Well, that's an interesting thing. It's about swing as a metaphor, swing as a way of life. I play golf, right? And when you play golf, the mistake everybody makes is trying to kill the ball. Everyone swings so fucking hard, y'know? And, of course, when you do that, you hit the ball about 15 feet. You top it. Basically, how they teach you to play golf is to take it easy, to swing easy and do that kind of thing. So I use that idea of swinging. And like Dean Martin, I evoke him because there's an attitude of just letting everything fall off his back and just letting it be. That's what I like about swing as an idea, a word in the dictionary and as a thing in space. So the song's kind of a manifesto. It's almost an explanation of what it is about swing music that I think is important to me, why I like it. It's that sense of it's relaxed and, y'know, sort of accepting. And if you try too hard at anything, don't get tight. Loosen up. Think. Deep breathing. That kind of thing.
I expected that the song was just in there to lighten things up on the album.
Well, no, I think it's trying to make a whole picture. For my thing, it's not all overcast and fucking lightning flashes. That's just not honest. I just want to give a whole picture, like "Stay, Don't Just Stay." It's also about loneliness. It's about a guy who gets invited to a party and they try to get him involved. Y'know, "Hey, come on. Stay. Don't just stay. Don't just sit there. Just come on, interact with us." And upon thinking about it, he's very moved by that. He's a very lonely person and he realized the sweetness of it. It's almost maudlin. But it's an important thing to him. It has to do with trying to create a whole picture, not just something that's one-sided. I don't have just one thing to say, you know what I mean? I have a group of things that I'm interested in exploring, so I change genres to try and get at that a little bit.
How much of this kind of methodical thought and integrated message had you put into Zoot Suit Riot?
Zoot Suit Riot was a collection, so there was no way I could think it through. It's kind of like if I was a cartoonist, I usually write a cartoon book that goes from page one to page fifteen and it [^] like Daniel Clowes or something [^] sort of follows a weird mental thing that you can kind of follow. That's usually how I make records. But Zoot Suit Riot, since I took it off different records, it sort of had a stuck-together feeling. And the only way it hung together was because of the surfaces, which were all swing. So, there are songs that were heavier or lighter on that record, but I didn't put it together like I did this or how I put the first three records of ours together, which were more like this.
Did you feel silenced by Zoot Suit Riot?
No, just frustrated by dumb expectations. It really wasn't me. Nothing affected me. I didn't feel like it was me. It's like people's perceptions. It's all their problem, not me. So, I don't think so. It wasn't any different from how I normally make a record. I'm glad Zoot Suit Riot happened. It was really interesting. It was a very interesting time and I'm proud of being involved in all that stuff. I have a little problem with the swing movement and how it played out. I have many things that I would have definitely changed had it been me, but a lot people made it seem lightweight and reactionary. It came across to people as reactionary, which is very bad. I wanted to see it be kind of a hybrid of styles and more rocking as a scene. But by a lot of people going way back to the roots and playing covers, that kind of screwed it up. It made it seem as if people were trying to capitalize on it. I didn't see it like that. I see swing as a living, breathing influence, something I can use today. But, unfortunately, that's the way it went down.
Much like a lot of original new swing material, your songs mention dancing a number of times. In fact, it appeared four times in Soul Caddy.
It always is like that. This is going to sound really pretentious, but I'm just going to say it anyway: It's kind of like how F. Scott Fitzgerald would write about parties all the time. It was just a way he could use the party as a metaphor to get at some of the ideas he had to write about. In the same way, I think dancing [^] and parties, also [^] reoccur in my stuff. I'm not saying, of course, that I'm thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald or anything. This kind of thought process can lead me to saying certain things that I want to say. Stuff like "Tiger Woods" or "Diamond Light Boogie," there's an innocence that I like, that I think that's important and that I miss from the 20th century. I try and say that that's a bad thing and that we lost that.
Do you think that kind of innocence ever gets regained?
In little increments. Not in the press, certainly, and not at large. I would say if I bought the record and I listened to it, I'd say, "Wow, that's what they're trying to do, that's pretty cool," as a person. But usually, groups of people, for instance, especially young people, are not going to sit around and go, "Yeah, we really ought to regain innocence." Already, they feel insecure, especially right now. The media makes them feel insecure about themselves, so if anything, they want to feel like they have tons and tons of power and are very mature. And so that's what leads to this whole testosterone-rock thing. It's the additive inverse of being confident. You watch the Rock wrestle because you don't feel like the Rock, really, deep down inside. Nobody wants to embrace that. Young boys certainly don't want to because they want to be a gangster or something, but they feel like they're a fucking schmuck-o.
That's the second time you've mentioned wrestling. Do you have a direct opposition to it?
No, it's just a phenomenon right now, and it's just grown to this point where it's kind of ubiquitous. There's a reason for it happening, and that's what I'm talking about. I think it really has to do with male insecurity and stuff like that. I'm just saying in that kind of environment, you're not going to have very many young people embracing. In an identity business [^] this is all about identity: rock 'n' roll and the media [^] they're trying to sell Tommy Hilfiger and, y'know, whatever, everything on the basis of identity. And they prey on the insecurities of people, mostly. And because everybody's bombarded with this stuff, they've created a real insecurity glut, y'know? And in that kind of environment, you're not going to get a lot of props for playing swing music. It's too difficult and it seems too faggy or whatever. But I'm glad that people became at least aware that there was a thing called jazz and a thing called swing music and it sounds something sort of like this. It isn't as horrible as you think it is. But I also say that there's an inherent group of meanings that I see inherent in swing that are a correction to a lot of stuff that's happening in culture today. And that's why I use swing as one of the things to get certain points across.
Is it possible that, with the nostalgia and endless covers of "Jump, Jive & Wail," swing has essentially lost its ability to be taken seriously as a speaker of serious issues, at least with this generation?
Everybody is culpable for ruining it. Musicians aren't trying right now. They're just trying to score. Everybody's just trying to make the lowest-common-denominator thing, you know? It's the "Thong Song" time. It's like, capitalize on something that's a given, that's a slam-dunk. A woman's ass is a slam-dunk, y'know? The same thing happened to swing. People liked the sound of it, it seemed fun and whatnot, and then people went, "Oh! They like swing! What's swing?" They went and got a bunch of records and then did them. They re-did them. As opposed to thinking, "How can we make this[sigma]" I would have loved Kurt Cobain to make a swing record. He could have done a great swing record. It could have been really funny, really sarcastic, really interesting and new. If he was around and maybe he had it with different things, maybe he would have made a record like this. Who the hell knows? He was a person who thought outside the box more than others. So, that's what I was hoping for. Somebody like that, or something more interesting so that we could change the way that the culture is going in some way. Because rock, at least at some point, had the capability of a revolution of the way people think. It's gonna be tough because the rhetoric of rock n' roll and the rhetoric of revolution is the rhetoric of Nike and advertising. So now everybody knows how to get at a fucking 15-year-old.
Along those lines, do you feel that something like Napster is a way to bypass the media clutch on music?
I think they're just the same as everybody else. I don't think one corporation can be any different from another corporation. Napster's just the wool pulled over people's eyes. It's just the same. It's the same as fucking Nike. Napster's not the grail. Change has to happen not within corporate culture, for Christ's sake. That thing that you're implying is just another way in which Napster is marketing itself. It's just another ploy. It's taking people like you and me who are tired of fucking corporate culture and going, "Hey, Napster! Buy the new Napster!" Just like Nike goes, "Be your own man" or whatever. "Do it yourself" or whatever. It's the same thing. I mean, trusting a corporation is just a bad move.
Do you think there's a way of catching people's attention on a smaller, non-corporate-based level? You certainly had a hard time reaching people before you were signed to Mojo, which is affiliated with Universal, a major label.
It's true. Yeah, I mean, we made a living since the '80s, I mean, not very good. We had to jerk off the dog to feed the cat, basically. But that's what we chose to do with our lives, and that was our decision. And we did that work. And then when we got signed to Mojo, at that point it was hard to keep an eight-piece band together with that little of money. Because people go, "You know what? I've got to fucking work, Steve. I cannot pay my fucking rent. I can't go on tour and make fucking ten bucks. I just can't do it, because I can play here at the fucking jazz club for $25 a night and I'll make more than I'm making playing in this band. I like the band, but I can't do it." So when we got signed, it put off the inevitable for another year. And then we got a hit.
So, although your band is under a large corporation, do you think that, in fact, you are capturing people's attention in a way you want?
I just don't want to be disingenuous about anything. I'm on a major label, but I don't see it as a humongous problem. The reason being is because Universal or Mojo, nobody came down on me to make the kind of record that they wanted. If somebody had said, "Steve, you've gotta make X, Y and Z," I would not have liked that very much, and I wouldn't have done it. But they didn't do that. They just said, "Make a record, whatever. We'll be over here when you're done. Give it to us." That was my experience. Maybe if I was in a different situation, it wouldn't have happened that way. But this was my situation, so I didn't really have a problem with them. And like I said, it gives me an opportunity, albeit a fucked-up situation, but everybody faces the same one because reaching people is hard. How the fuck are you gonna do it? And however it works out, you just try and do it. Before, we just tried to get people to distribute our record. That was the big goal. How many distributors can we get so that when we go to fucking Chattanooga, there will be a record in the store so that if anybody likes us, they can go buy us. And now there are five on the rack. So, in a sense it was a Faustian deal, really. But, looking back on it, anybody who thinks they're not a part of corporate culture aren't thinking it through. There's no way to completely circumvent it. And the Internet is just another corporate culture as well, just one based in Silicon Valley. Whether you think you're getting around it or not, you still have Microsoft in there, and they have you by the balls.
Have you succeeded, then, by getting your thoughts against the system through the system?
Yeah, I mean, like your question about Propaghandi, I'm not a politician and I hesitate to tout out my, "Oh yeah, I'm subversive within the system." I don't think that. I'm just trying to reach people as a person one-by-one with something that I made. And I hope that it gets to them somehow. It's gonna be hard enough getting people not to have a negative reaction when they see it in the store. I want to talk to people as individuals and not as a group. I don't really want to be part of any movement. I just want to be myself. But I do have frustrations vis-ˆ-vis big corporations, and I can envision a better world, sure. But I don't live in one. I wish I saw records that had the feeling of not being made for culture, to kind of fit nicely into the world as it is. I just hate seeing niche things, you know what I mean? Things seem so easy. I don't want to fit in like that.