The Question of Odds: Anders Parker’s Road to The Firebird November 20th, 2009

parkerthumb.jpgMake an evening of it — go to the Firebird and witness a master craftsman at work.

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Have you ever seen that PBS Nova special, "The Question of God," where it’s as if C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud are having an extensive conversation about theology?  It didn’t happen, but the way they frame their arguments and ideas, it really feels like they were addressing each other in some fashion through the ether.  When I think about Anders Parker’s music career, the consistent quality of the output and reviews he’s received and compare that to his profile, I’m frustrated.  I can’t reconcile his positive attitude with a world that’s lukewarm to being a patron of music.  I have to assume Anders Parker’s attitude, as demonstrated through action, is best summarized by one word: unstoppable.  Not having a breakout hit or a mob of hovering fans, Parker keeps writing great songs and putting them out, regardless if it’s popular.  That just doesn’t compute in this town. 
 
His career is like St. Louis incarnate: full of promise, talent and minor masterpieces that are on par with the best of its time, but missing the acclaim and broad appeal.  But you don’t get the sense of a chip on Parker’s shoulder at all, and in that, he is C. S. Lewis to the typical disenchanted and embittered St. Louisan’s Freud — the one whose friends swear that last EP was the best thing they’ve heard since they bought Heartbreaker, the only good Ryan Adams album ever produced.  I never cared for Freud, and as far as Ryan Adams goes, Love is Hell (the Lp Version), Cold Roses, and 29 are top notch.  Nevertheless, Freudian cynicism has left its mark on me; you can’t deny its power around these parts.
 
Some consider Missouri as a "flyover" state, but people from St. Louis have longed to elevate our city’s prestige.  On April 21, 2008, Anders Parker cemented his reputation as the antithesis of the "under the radar" St. Louis musician.  He showed up at the The Bluebird EARLY, sound checked and jammed a bit well before the show — and this was after driving from New York to St. Louis. 
 
That Parker came to St. Louis after having just left New York is something many from our city are leery to do if they’ve managed to escape the pull of this place; folks don’t like coming back once they’ve tasted a "scene."  The thing is, we St. Louisans gripe when we’re passed over by the very acts those scenes produce.  And yet Anders Parker drove all the way here to play a show.
 
Parker was booked for a Monday night gig at what was known then as The Bluebird — not the most ideal day for a show in our city.  Some folks I know from around these parts would just pretend something came up and call the show.  There was a light turnout, and at least 20 percent of the crowd wrote for some sort of publication.  Maybe that’s how we knew to show up. 
 
This was an intimate gig with meager numbers. Jesse Irvin and Jon Hardy and the Public opened.  They’re two solid local acts — wit meets bravado, skill plus aesthetics — but their staging just couldn’t offer any sort of referential experience for Anders Parker’s set that night.  He’s a different kind of performer, a combination of raw nerve, blatant talent and a workmanlike dedication to craft.  You hear a guy like this play live and wonder "Where do they make these kind of players nowadays?"
 
I wasn’t born into some mystical clan of ex-DJs and record store clerks who hipped me to Space Needle and Varnaline, the bands Anders Parker was in.  I found out about Anders Parker because in my spare-spare time, I read the Columbia House music catalogs, looking for artists and bands I might like. In one fateful monthly mailer, my 12 cds for a penny investment paid off when I read a blurb about Varnaline sounding like Neil Young, and featuring members of Space Needle.  It was buy 1 get 2 free month. From the music club, I ended up getting everything that was put out by Zero Hour, the label they were on at the time, and discovered a counter history that ran parallel to the 90’s I’d known.
 
When I left St. Louis in August of 1994 for college in the quaint college town of Kirksville, Mo., Kurt Cobain’s death was still fresh, and "Nirvana Unplugged" was inescapable.  I’d argue that by way of a few Meat Puppets covers and that one Leadbelly tune, the door that was opening for what would be known as alt-country.
 
That year also saw the break-up of Uncle Tupelo, which lead to the formation of Sonvolt and Wilco. Moreover, Whiskeytown formed, Steve Earle got out of jail, Johnny Cash released American Recordings, and Tom Petty released Wildflowers.  When you look at how stacked the deck was, the rise of alt-country or some punk-infused Americana-meets-folk-rock offshoot was going to make its mark.
 
As evidence, Neil Young was popular again, and as an artist, Young could be considered a pioneer of folk rock, country rock, grunge and noise.  If Young was crossing big across generational lines, that was a sign.  In St. Louis and at many universities in the region, this gave locals hope that the region would finally get its due respect.  People went from saying "I like all kinds of music except country (or rap, in some cases)" to being open to this new concoction that had much more twang than distortion.  But alt-country wasn’t a new subgenre — it was just an old one revisited.  We were ready for it to happen, and it did — just not when or how we expected*.
 
In 1994’s in Portland, Ore., Anders Parker, performing under the name Varnaline, recorded Man Of Sin.  It wasn’t necessarily an alt-country, grunge, low-fi or indie record exclusively, but more of a blend of these things. Had it come out that year, who knows how big a splash it would have made.  Two years had to pass before it was released on Zero Hour records.  It’s the perfect example of how an artist can slip through the cracks in one city while others scratch their heads and wonder why they’re the only ones in the know.  What if Anders Parker had been here in St. Louis and not at the other end of the Oregon Trail?
 
In 1997, Varnaline became a full-fledged band featuring Jud Ehbar (from Space Needle and Reservoir) on drums and Parker’s brother John on bass.  By that time, alt-country was a total subgenre.  Meanwhile, Varnaline’s self-titled record took a step further from conformity and closer towards the core values of the wide-open low-fi rock scene that evolved into indie rock a few years later.  The band was in synch, serving each song, allowing them to be exactly what they were and not trying to wedge them into one particular convention.  The results weren’t a varied and scattered assemblage of songs, because if there’s one thing Anders Parker has going for him, it’s his ability to create the impression of sincere emotion and catharsis in his songs, making them ring truer than most.  They don’t seem coy; it’s as if he has a healthy respect for all kinds of music and, should an influence surface, it will be given its due.  At a time when Gravity Kills and The Urge ruled the airwaves in St. Louis, a lot of bands-in-the-making lost all sense of who they were.  It would have been nice to have a Parker-type around trailblazing. 
 
Later in 1997, the next big transition began as Varnaline released A Shot and a Beer, a raw acoustic-based EP that had undeniable country roots, street smarts and the swagger to fit the title.  This shift to a more organic, laid-back feel carried over to Sweet Life.  The songs got brighter — not poppiee — but it was like things had shifted from overcast to a wide-open winter horizon.  But Varnaline hadn’t lost their teeth; that rawness still sprung up on Now You’re Dirt. Over the course of three records and an EP, the thing that once propelled the music was bridled, the power harnessed. 
 
Hearing Varnaline then, it makes more sense how bands like My Morning Jacket eventually caught on today. Music like that works, and Anders Parker was writing it 11 years ago.  So when Zero Hour Records closed its doors and Anders Parker recorded Songs in A Northern Key, the early attitude to let each song be its own entity paid off. The tracks that make up Songs in a Northern Key are some of Varnaline’s most vibrant, and the album effectively closed the door on the band, high note achieved.  Released in late July 2001, this may have been the last great album in pre-September 11th music of the new millennium.  It’s music that is everything American, sans the BS and posturing.  It is pure.
 
What followed three years later was the outset of Anders Parker’s solo career, which has mirrored Varnaline’s.  His first solo release as Anders Parker, 2004’s Tell it to the Dust, had the feel of a more straightforward record, with balanced songcraft that saved the dissonance and grind for climatic moments like Doornail (Hat’s Off to Buster Keaton).  The bluesiest thing I’d heard Parker ever do, Hat’s Off… IS the crossroads, and from its more traditional leanings beget the incredible collaboration Gob Iron – Death Songs for the Living (2006), with Jay Farrar, where they took the traditional foundations of American folk and blues music and gave them a raw and pure treatment that did them justice.  But before that could even be released, Parker unleashed the amps, the cosmic crunch of The Wounded Astronaut EP, which sounded like it was his way of giving fans the rawer powerhouse moments of Varnaline: "I’m still that baddest dude going right now as far as spacey raw American Rock music, and I still know a thing or two about serene atmosphere and disparate raw emotion."  Mission accomplished; 2005 didn’t know what hit it.  Little did 2006 know that Anders Parker would prove that Parker’s principle gift was a keen sense of melody ignorant to the bounds of genre.  But who could have anticipated Anders Parker coming out of the gates with Circle Same, which a friend of mine introduced to a high school sweetheart as "your new favorite song"? 
 
I’d have never thought Anders Parker would put out a song that could remind us music fanatics that we will never have the charm, the confidence to live out the impression of this song.  It’s the friend you won’t introduce to that person you have a crush on because you want them to yourself; you know if you leave them alone with Circle Same, they’ll realize your songs have zero charisma, no sex appeal and no sophistication whatsoever.  It’s like Bobby Womack in the mid 70’s — approachable rawness.  And each song, though complete departures in style from Circle Same, is treated to full development and plays as a mature piece, embodying some place, some period, some personification of a songwriter’s muse. 
All of this leads to Skyscraper Crow, released this September and reviewed on this very site.  It’s the ultimate contrast– the electric solo, computer-generated Skyscraper coupled with the acoustic, solo, Crow. Both feature that otherworldly, hard-to-place voice and those melodies that give the tunes a sense of purpose, no matter how they are staged.  For this volume of output, this deft of craft and minimal celebrity, you have to wonder from where and from whome this music comes.  It’s time to learn a little more about Anders Parker.
 
PBSTL: What started you on your path to be a professional musician and songwriter?
 
AP: Dunno.  Music was around the house when I was growing up.  My father played guitar and piano and had a pretty decent record collection (Beatles, Stones, Elton John, etc… along with a lot of folk stuff — Dylan, Baez, etc…)  I got "the bug" early on.  Started playing alto sax in grade school then moved to tenor sax.  Soon after I switched to drums and finally guitar at the end of high school.
 
I was always interested in making original music.  Even when I played drums in school I wanted to be in bands that were writing their own songs.  I did play in cover bands in the early years, as both a drummer and guitarist, but I wanted to write.  So finally I switched to guitar…  I used some student loan money to buy my first real guitar (a Yamaha acoustic).
 
PBSTL: When did you start touring seriously with the intentions of making a career of music?
 
AP: I think my first real tours were in 1994 or 95. It was a few years before that when I got "serious" as far as trying to make a go at it.
 
PBSTL: What were those first experiences like?
 
AP: Chaotic, crazy, funny.
 
PBSTL: What were some early highlights?
 
AP: Ray Davies giving a complimentary review to The Hammer Goes Down in Time Out NY.  Meeting Steve Earle and eventually working with him.  Playing Lollapalooza.  Touring with Bob Mould, Son Volt, etc…
 
PBSTL: If you had to make a playlist using all your releases as Varnaline, Gob Iron and Solo, alternating from one of your records to someone else’s, and back and forth like so, who’s records would you use to fill in the gaps:
 
AP: More than I can tackle right now….  BUT, Here’s a list of some of the songs that I’ve actually covered over the years in those various bands and solo:
 
Jesus and Tequila — Minutemen
Badge — Cream
Cortez the Killer — Neil Young
Animal Farm —  The Kinks
Heaven — Talking Heads
Swinging party — The Replacements
Summertime — Gershwin
Pink Moon — Nick Drake
One More Cup Of Coffee — Dylan
Fly By Night — Rush
Dear Prudence — The Beatles
Seven Curses — Traditional
 
There are many more, but those are some of the ones that come to mind right away….
 
PBSTL: When do you feel you found your footing or voice as an artist?
 
AP: Maybe with Songs in a Northern Key…  But I feel like it’s always evolving…
 
PBSTL: How did Songs in a Northern Key come together?
 
AP: I recorded Song in a Northern Key in various places up north.  I gave Steve Earle the finished album.  (we had met a few years earlier at a Lollapalooza date.  He expressed interest in doing something sometime…  Zero Hour imploded…  I made SIANK on my own.  Steve offered to put it out on E-Squared.  I went to Nashville and mixed it with his partner Ray Kennedy.)
 
PBSTL: Did you feel there was an audience for your work, or that you had to create one?
 
AP: Both
 
PBSTL: Does there seem to be a region, social class or cultural demographic that gravitates to particular pieces of your work over others?
 
AP: It seems like a lot of people who know my music are pretty hard-core music fans….
 
PBSTL: If you had a choice as to where you music could be heard ( car, bar, coffee shop, ER, etc) which records would you like to hear in which places?
 
AP: Well, ideally, a studio is the best place to listen to recordings… there’s nothing like hearing a mixed track right after it’s finished in the place where you mixed it…  After that I think a car might be the best place to listen to music.  It’s probably my favorite.  Car stereo systems have gotten pretty good and other than the driving there are no other distractions.
 
PBSTL: As someone who started off recording on an independent label in the mid-1990s, how does it feel to see more artists ( music legends, and contemporary success stories) going the route of releasing their own music?
 
AP: There’s such a sea-change going on now in the music industry…  Lots of doom-saying and confusion.  But, I think in general the changes have been positive. I think it’s great that more artists are controlling and owning their music.  However, everything seems much more diffuse… There are so many outlets for music and bands and it all seems very saturated…  But what do I know?
PBSTL: As songwriter, do you feel the more traditional forms of rock music are falling more on solo artists and not bands? Where they act as band leaders, hiring top notch side men for the gigs, but not recording with them; like what sometimes happens in Jazz, Blues, and Country?
 
AP: I’m not really sure about that…  I guess I don’t have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on with "traditional" forms of rock music these days.
 
PBSTL: What I’m referring to is how folk rock, blues rock, and roots rock aren’t the typical thing you hear from a band anymore.  Not a dig at the talent, the scope of the bands seems to have become wide open, blending things from here and there, or being outrageously one-dimensional like crunkcore.
 
Then again, what do I know?  There’s always the Black Keys for blues, and Fleet Foxes for folk, and I don’t know really for roots rock.  It just seems like there’s more Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, Iron and Wine, Devandra Barnhart, Bon Iver, doing that kind of thing than there are bands.
 
AP: OK, i get what you’re saying…
Seems like the most interesting stuff happening these days is not "top 10", unlike the founding days of the music that has inspired many of the bands below…  all the so-called "classic rock" bands that remain important and inspiring and were part of the mainstream.
I’ve heard OF all the bands [above], but i’m not that familiar with all of them… so, what do I know?
PBSTL: Should an artist begrudge fans if they don’t follow them as they change over time?
 
AP: Well, I always think that if the music is good people will find it.
 
PBSTL: Are fans selling themselves short for not giving artists the benefit of the doubt?
 
AP: If you’re truly a fan, I think it’s interesting to explore an artists whole catalogue and see how they evolved or changed over their career. (This holds true for all artists, I think.)  There are always spotty points, but often times there are hidden gems that were obscured by the time, production, promotion, etc…
 
PBSTL: When you come to a town with a unharvested music scene, what type of atmosphere to you expect to encounter, and what kind would you hope to create in your wake?
 
AP: Do you mean in regards to my moving around a lot?
 
I don’t think of it in those terms…  Geography is incidental… Although I think that the culture of a place can be a great inspiration I think that great things can be created anywhere….  That’s up to the artist and whatever they find inspiring…
 
Towns that became "scenes" were just towns before (Minneapolis, Athens, Seattle, etc…) My goal is to write great music.  Where I do that doesn’t matter. Finding the space to do it is.
 
PBSTL: Last time you were here was about a year and a half ago. What brought you back to St. Louis?
 
AP: That gig was part of a seven-week, lower-48-state tour that I did solo… 13,000 miles by myself in a 1991 volvo 240.  (Changed the thermostat in the parking lot of a hotel in South Dakota…  other than that the car ran like a champ.)  I don’t remember where St Lou fell on the tour… perhaps at the beginning…
 
FWIW [ For what it’s worth ], I’ve always considered St Lou "on the map".  It’s a logical place to tour through.
PBSTL: What are your impressions of St. Louis from the times you’ve come through town? Is St. Louis a Skyscraper kind or town or a Crow kind of town, or some blend of the two, and why?
 
AP: It’s a Crow town, for the most part. I have stayed down at the Millennium hotel by the river…  that’s Skyscraper!  But those parts of town in most cities are my least favorite…  all the concrete and barren expanses that close down at 5pm…
 
I’ve come to like St Louis over the years.  I’ve spent some extended time there and have grown to appreciate it.
*Five years after alt-country faded from the trends, Country Grammar put St. Louis on the top of the charts.  How’s that for irony?  On another ironic note, when I asked a friend who was the music director for any Varnaline promos she had back in 1999, she got the name confused and sent me a cd by Verbena.  The irony was Scott Bondy, who fronted Verbena, is now releasing some raw acoustic folk and blues albums as A. A. Bondy.  Back then, Verbena was a step ahead of the White Stripes and The Black Keys in that they made raw, blues-based, punk-infused rock that sounded like the Rolling Stones and Nirvana crossbred for the best parts. 
 
Well, A. A. Bondy’s playing the Gargoyle at Washington University — and he’s not playing Verbena songs — the same night as Anders Parker plays the Firebird.  If you have to make a choice Friday, Nov. 20, Anders Parker is probably playing Varnaline and Anders Parker songs.  Advantage goes to Anders Parker.  Dig into his catalog and you’ll find there’s enough material for him to cover A. A. Bondy’s gig if Mr. Bondy no-shows, along with his set at the Firebird. Then he’ll hop up to Chicago and open for the Pixies Nov. 21 without repeating a tune and treating those in attendance to an excellent evening of music. 
 
On Nov. 20, make an evening of it — go to the Firebird and witness a master craftsman at work. In doing so you’re paying due respect to a man who has taken a music revival we championed here so many years ago, and treated it with the respect and care so few levied it, all the while following his own muse as well. | Willie E. Smith
If you need more convincing go here, here, and here:
 

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