As one of the Twin Cities’ premier guitar players, Chris Perricelli has earned a reputation for channeling the feedback-drenched squalor of rock ‘n’ roll days gone by. So it’s no surprise that his latest album, Original Face, is bursting with heady riffs and powerhouse choruses that hearken back to the glory days of ’70s rock.
But while it’s easy to throw out comparisons to artists like Led Zeppelin and T. Rex when listening to Original Face, Little Man has been making such fierce guitar rock for so long now that it no longer sounds like a callback to another era; frontman Chris Perricelli’s affinity for righteous riffs and retro fashions have become so interwoven with his own personality that his music simply sounds like him.
Recorded at Flowers Studio by Kris Johnson, Original Face is Perricelli’s most personal album to date, and it’s also one of his strongest (I’d file it next to Soulful Automatic as some of the best stuff he’s released in his decade-plus career). I spoke with Perricelli on the phone this week about his new album and the release show he has coming up this Friday at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul.
Tell me about the title of the new album, Original Face. Where did that idea come from?
As you know, I’m into a lot of Eastern spiritual stuff and I read a lot of books and I practice and meditate, and that’s just a major part of my life. So that sort of thing is going to seep into my music, you know? Original Face is basically talking about, “What is your true self?” A Zen master would say, “What is your original face?,” and the student would think about that and would come to realizations by meditating on that. It’s what’s known as a koan; a phrase that you would meditate on. What is your true self beyond judgments and likes and dislikes, and the persona that you have? Beyond all of that stuff, there’s one true self. When you discover that, you are one with everything. Who are you, really?
Do you feel like this album captures you at your true self?
In a perspective, yes, because it’s what I really love to do, and it comes out naturally. It is a little bit more personal, perhaps; I talk about more emotional things on this record. I think that the Zen aspect of things, and self-realization probably comes through more on this record. That was intended. Because we had a bunch of songs that we had been playing for quite a long time but had never put on a record before. So I pulled together those tunes along with newer songs that I’d been writing, and pulled them together to all fit somewhat of a theme.
I love the cover of the record, too. Did you design it with vinyl in mind?
[laughs] I don’t know if we actually thought about it like that. We just needed a cool cover. And then towards our second photo shoot we were like, now we could try to do this on vinyl, so let’s try to make this something that’s eye-grabbing. And I suppose my face is something that could be eye-grabbing, with the title Original Face. We did a Bowie shot, too, with me with my eyes closed, and looking down a little bit. And then I was like, “No, we can’t do that.” But it does have that aspect to it, so I think when people see that, they may think of that cover and get the connection as well.
Let’s talk about GUITARS. These days, I feel like it’s almost become a novelty to be in a rock band that doesn’t have a computer in it. Do you have any thoughts on how the rock landscape has changed, and do you think about how your music fits into other things that are going on?
I don’t know. I just write what I write, and whatever happens, happens. It just so happens that this is the sort of genre that I fit in with. It’s the modern sound to have keyboard and different effects and stuff like that, through synthesizer and computer—and I’m not opposed to it in any way, and I want things to sound modern in some sort of fashion. But this is a rock band. If a song calls for something like that, then I’m for it, but the stuff I’m writing doesn’t really have that in there, and plus I can do all sorts of things with my guitars that sound just as good. I’m not too worried about trying to follow suit about what’s hip today.
Rock n’ roll is not going to die—yet. And there’s plenty of bands locally that stick with this sort of thing. It’s funny that you say that. I’ve heard it from a few people in the last couple of weeks, the same sort of thing. “Where are the guitar bands?” Or “I just want to see a rock band.”
I thought about it, too, when I was listening to Mary Lucia’s new Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio show on Friday night. You don’t actually hear that music as much anymore.
It’s weird that we’re getting a little bit older, and that sort of thing, it’s kind of slipping into the past a little bit. You take human beings with actual instruments and put them together and have an audience—that’s real. That’s great connectivity and art. I think it hits on a deeper level. Especially seeing live music—you want to see people actually playing things, and not standing there hitting a button. That doesn’t seem too interesting to me. If it produces a great sound and I’m digging it, then I like it, but I think it connects people more when people are actually playing music. That’s the thing with pop music today; there’s not a lot of guitar. I really admire the stuff that’s on the Top 40 that has the guitar prominent in it.
Taylor Swift still plays guitar.
Right! And I think that’s a really good thing, too, because then kids get to see her play, especially girls, and think “I can play guitar!” I think that’s a good thing. And then—I can’t believe I’m talking about this—but Justin Bieber, last year he did an acoustic song with somebody, he had an acoustic guitar player with him, and I was like, “Now that’s cool. Some people are going to want to pick up guitar because of that, and so that’s great.” It’s nice that people in the top of the pops are doing that sort of thing. And they can actually sing, and they can actually play, instead of doing karaoke to some backing track that someone created in a small little room.
I remember seeing Justin Timberlake for the first time and being so excited when he sat down and played guitar—you can forget he’s an actual musician amid all that spectacle.
And especially with American Idol, there’s this big karaoke thing. People think that’s talent. And while it is talent, there are so many more people in this world that are creating their own music and are actually playing their own instruments and writing their own lyrics. There’s that whole originality thing that can go much deeper, and it’s too bad that’s not “exploited.” I travel with a woman who sings with the Mixed Blood Theater, and the most common question she gets is, “You should audition on American Idol.” As if that is the be-all, end-all top thing to strive for. And I don’t quite think that’s right. But kids watch that, and that’s what they think you’re supposed to do.
And sometimes people ask me, “Do you want to be on a major record label?” Or, “Do you want to be a rock star?” And I’m like, I’m doing all of this stuff now. I’m playing, I’m playing out, I’m writing songs, this is what I do. You can create a career for yourself by doing the things you like to do. You don’t have to be touring the world on the biggest stages and being on TV. That’s part of it, and that’s a level of it, and it’s great if that sort of things happen, but especially with kids, you’ve just got to let them know that you’ve just gotta do what you do, and see where that takes you.
Who are some of your favorite modern guitar players?
As far as modern goes, I’d say Jack White for sure. Back in the ‘90s, when I was doing my thing and I wasn’t getting too much excitement out of other people about it yet, Jack White came along and was doing stuff that was fairly similar, and he blew up. I was totally behind him being like, “Yes, he’s paving the way for this sort of music to get out into the public a little bit more.” And he’s continued on, and his stuff is amazing to me. I actually try not to listen to it too much, because I don’t want to be influenced by it any more than I have in the past.
Other than that, Queens of the Stone Age have some good stuff. Sheryl Crow; her vocal style is amazing to me. Liz Phair; her guitar playing is awesome, I’ve gotten some influence from her stuff. And Black Crowes.
One thing I’ve always loved about your playing is that you clearly have an incredible technical ability, but you keep it pretty restrained, not ripping huge solos every two minutes. How do you structure your songs and arrange your guitar parts?
The process starts with me in my room with guitars and effects pedals, trying to come up with an interesting part, and then singing along and coming up with a melody with the guitar part—and just singing nonsense until something comes out that sounds neat. And then I’ll start making demos of it, and start adding other guitar parts to it. That’s pretty much how I’ve been doing things. And with this record we did a whole bunch of guitar overdubs.
Things need to be just right for songs. They can’t be overdone, as far as a guitar solo goes. Like you said, I’m not a guitar ripper, per se, but I just like things to fit real nicely. I’m not that kind of guitar player that plays super fast lead.
At what point does the band come in, when you’re writing a song. Is that later?
Yeah. I’ll pretty much send them the demo, and they’ll listen to it, and then we’ll get together at rehearsal and see what happens. I kind of direct them from there, and they add their bits and I say yes or no. It’s nice to be able to work with these guys, Brain Herb and Sean Gilchrist, too, because I’ve been playing with them for more than a few years now. It’s nice to have the friends in the band there to help with certain parts or arrangements. They’re good with arrangements, as far as where a bridge should be, or a chorus.
And at the release show it sounds like you’re going to have a huge band.
Yeah! It’s great, because I’ve never had all those parts behind me as I sing and play the songs, so it was really emotional for me to actually hear all this happening in time with me playing. And just looking around and seeing everyone’s smiling faces was really fun. So yeah, we’ll have back-up singers and three other guitar players, and saxophone. It’ll make the live experience similar to the album.
Three other guitar players? So four guitars total??
Yeah, and sometimes all at once! We’ve got Kent Militzer, who plays in the Blackberry Brandy Boys; Dave Boquist from Son Volt; Eric Kassel, who was in Whirligigs and is still in Crossing Guards. And then Marvel Devitt from Southside Desire and Nikki Schultz will sing, and Martin Devaney is going to play saxophone on a couple of songs. I’m super excited for it, and the opening bands are awesome too.
Little Man releases Original Face this Friday night, April 18, at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall with support from Pink Mink and Fury Things. 9 p.m., $10 (advance tickets here), 21+.