Peter Parcek: Earthy to Ethereal
Mustering an army of guitars, amps, and stompboxes, this dirt-pedal fiend explores the frontiers of blues on his new album, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.
Like all great blues records, Peter Parcek’s powerful new album Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven cuts close to the bone. Yet, from the opening track—a gut-punch rendition of Peter Green’s “World Keep on Turning”—Parcek takes us on a two-way journey. One direction is back to the deep emotion that defines the truest blues of every era; the other is forward into a modern sonic approach with which he breaks blues conventions without dishonoring them.
“I wanted to try something that seems impossible when you say it out loud,” Parcek admitted when PG spoke to him on the phone. “I wanted the rawness of the blues—the rootedness, if you will—but I also wanted it to be contemporary.”
In this case, “contemporary” didn’t just mean using modern effects or production and arranging techniques. It also means “of the moment” emotionally. Parcek wrote and recorded Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven in the aftermath of his mother’s death, simultaneously mourning his loss and celebrating her life. These feelings were close to the surface throughout the making of the record, which was recorded in Nashville and near Parcek’s Boston-area home, and remained raw when we spoke months later.
The connection between Parcek, the blues, and his mother goes back to his musical awakening as a kid growing up in the 1960s. He first heard Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins, and other heroes through the crackle of AM radio—listening at night when Southern stations could reach his New England bedroom.
Eventually, it inspired him to express himself through music. “When I was in high school, my mom saved up Green Stamps to get me a nylon-string guitar,” he recalls. “I also began playing harmonica, and early on made more progress on the harp.”
In his late teens, Parcek moved to London in the mid ’60s and discovered a whole community of musicians who shared his obsession with the blues. “I’d go see players like Clapton and Peter Green all the time,” he says. That’s when he began to get serious about performing. “Back then, there were so many great British blues guitarists that I focused on vocals and harp,” he says. “I didn’t really get serious about the guitar until I came back to the States.”
He found work as a sideman (most notably with blues piano legend Pinetop Perkins), bandleader, and, eventually, as a solo artist who always seemed willing to infuse his blues with a little something off the menu. Fast forward more than four decades, and Parcek has tapped into something that Peter Green did so eloquently in his days as Fleetwood Mac’s talisman: bringing forward the blues without being imprisoned by purism. On the sequel to his national debut album, 2010’s Blues Music Award-nominated The Mathematics of Love, Parcek is aided by producer/percussionist Marco Giovino—of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy—as he paints his blues with tonal colors ranging from earthy to ethereal, and puts his signature on the style using dazzling chromatic runs, elegant bent notes, grizzled and soaring tones, and a variety of influences from Wes Montgomery to Django Reinhardt. But even when he’s constructing distant ambient soundscapes on songs like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and his own “Every Drop of Rain,” the emotional truth remains close. And, of course, the pounding pulse of “Ashes to Ashes,” the raw drive of “Things Fall Apart,” and the playful instrumental romps “Mississippi Suitcase” and “Shiver” show plenty blues bona fides. As a contemporary once said of Green, it’s the “blues feeling” that’s important. And on Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, that feeling is abundant, deep, and visceral.
If I had to pick two words to describe Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven, they’d be “lush” and “raw.” That’s a pretty unusual combination. Was that your intention?
Some of this is very personal. I hadn’t made a record for a while. I didn’t have the budget. And in the midst of that, my mom passed away. One way that artists react to deep loss is to create from it, in honor of it. Songs like “Every Drop of Rain” and “Ashes to Ashes” started to come through, and they were really in honor of her. So thematically, we’re talking about mortality, aging, impermanence, and loss.
TIDBIT: Guitarist Luther Dickinson and bassist Dennis Crouch were drafted to play on the album's Nashville sessions.
That comes across in a lot of places, but you break away from those themes, too.
Well, early versions of the record were just unrelievedly about loss. It struck me that I needed to give listeners a breath—something fun, but still, hopefully, deep and rooted. So that’s where some of the instrumentals came from. If you only do the themes we were just discussing, you’ve only got one palette. But if you include playful moments in the correct way, then it works.
And it’s more true to the person when you include the fuller spectrum, emotionally. Particularly because, all along, my mother was incredibly supportive of my music—from buying me my first guitar to helping me get to London to everything after that. The album feels truer as a tribute because it has emotional range. I’m really proud of that.
The instrumentals give you a chance to stretch out on the guitar a bit.
I also used them to pay tribute to some great guitar players I adore. “Shiver” is basically an homage to Albert Collins. “Pat Hare”—even though it’s not a mimic of one of his records—is a tribute to him.
“Mississippi Suitcase” was inspired by a cab ride in Memphis. The cabbie talked the whole ride. He started telling me about his son and his ex-wife. And when he got onto his ex-wife, he said, “We broke up. She got everything, and I threw all my clothes in a Mississippi suitcase and got out of there.” I said, “What's a Mississippi suitcase?” and he just laughed: “Oh, you’re from the north! A Mississippi suitcase is a green Hefty bag!” [Laughs.] So I tried to put some John Lee Hooker in there, and there’s almost a “Tom Waits falling down the stairs” sort of vibe. But with the instrumentals, I started to feel like we had a complete album, with the depth of the blues, but with the playful thing, too.
How did the band come together?
I was very lucky to have Marco as the producer and percussionist on the record. All the basics were done at Marco’s house, which, at the time, was in Nashville. He assembled the band, mainly Dennis Crouch and Dominic John Davis [both on bass] and Luther Dickinson [guitar], who were brilliant. Luther throws it down as great as anybody, but he’ll mix it up with you and have fun. He’s on “Shiver,” “Ashes to Ashes,” the title track, and “Pat Hare,” as is Mickey Raphael [harmonica]. On “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” and “Mississippi Suitcase” we did the overdubs up here in Massachusetts, with a local lap steel player named Andy Santospago.
Parcek, playing his 2004 Fender 50th Anniversary Strat, leans into his amps for feedback at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth, Massachusetts, while supported by Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven producer Marco Giovino behind the drums. Photo by Denise Maccaferri
Earlier, I used “lush” to describe the album’s sound, but that’s only one way the tones stray from blues norms. What pushed you in different directions?
I didn’t want to just mimic a record from the 1950s. To me, those records are already there and are as good as it’s ever gonna get. I wanted that depth, but hopefully from my own perspective and with elements more of this era. So we used a number of drum loops and modern tones.
Some of the song ideas also came from mental challenges. For example, I was reading about Michelangelo, so I started thinking, “What would Michelangelo sing if he had the blues?” I was reading quotes of his, and I have to admit that I stole a couple of them. It struck me that you can stretch your abilities and your consciousness in a very natural way just by imagining something you haven’t tried before.
How did that thinking influence your approach to tones and textures?
Two examples occur to me right away: “Every Drop of Rain” and “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” On “Every Drop of Rain,” the foundation guitar, which was played live, was pretty heavily effected—almost ambient. That sound was achieved by using a little Swart Atomic Space Tone amp and a Strymon Flint pedal. I had the reverb and decay up pretty high on the Flint, along with some tremolo. I dubbed a second guitar on top of it, but having the ambient guitar as the basic track created this gauzy, filmic thing. That song is dedicated to my mother—which informed the guitar approach and the vocal.
On “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven,” Luther was playing slide, and my foundational guitar had this pretty extreme tremolo. Both Marco and I believe that if you’re going to have an effect, then really push it—take chances with it. So there’s a lot of intensity in terms of the tremolo setting. That was a brownface Fender Deluxe. It makes you play differently. You don’t need as many notes, but the notes do more because of the effect.
Conversely, your guitar on “World Keep on Turning” is raw and guttural. How did you get that sound?
Well, I have a problem. I have an addiction to pedals, especially filth or dirt pedals. I just can’t get enough of them [laughs]. It’s kinda sad! That tone is a pedal by BMF called The Great Wide Open—because it is great when you just turn it up wide open. It’s dimed through either a Headstrong Lil’ King or the Atomic Space Tone amp. We laid down a second guitar related to it, but hopefully with a different signature sound.
I was lucky in that I had some great amps in Nashville. Buddy Miller lent us the Atomic Space Tone and Lil’ King. He’s an amazing guy. Up here [in Massachusetts], I used a Carr Skylark and way too many pedals—from the Strymon and the BMF to various Lovepedal and J. Rockett pedals. I have not met many drive pedals I don’t like, but there are a lot of ambient pedals I’m very fond of, too. Mr. Black makes some cool stuff, too. I like that guy.
The backing track from “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” feels very non-traditional. How was that recorded?
We actually used two of Marco’s percussion loops and one guitar. I played an Ibanez George Benson through the brownface Deluxe with tremolo, which, by itself, creates the atmosphere. We built everything around that. Brownface Fenders are somewhat overlooked amps. People usually talk about tweeds and blackfaces, but the browns … oh my god—they’re incredible! This Deluxe sounds really good at lower volume, but if you push it, it almost starts to sound like it’s going to early Marshall-ville.
Listeners don’t usually associate drum loops with tremolo-driven blues guitar.
These were all signature Marco Giovino loops. Our engineer, Ducky Carlisle, who’s done a lot of the latter-day Buddy Guy records, is also a drummer. He heard two of Marco’s loops and suggested we put them together. It creates this huge and, I think, interesting sound. That was a different way of working, but it was fun to play along to the loops. The lead guitar is through a tweed Princeton. So we had an embarrassment of riches in the amp department.
What are your main guitars?
I’m definitely a Fender-style player. I love Strats and Teles. I have a Harmony Stratotone solidbody that I play slide on, which I love. The slide guitar on “Ashes to Ashes” is an Epiphone 335; it sounds great. I have a Tom Anderson Hollow-T, which I love. I have an Xotic California XSC-2, which is a great guitar. As you can tell, I have a problem not only with pedals, but with guitars and amps, too! [Laughs.] But it lets you do some sonic exploration, which I think is all to the good.
Speaking of exploring, your soloing style doesn’t always stay with the usual blues scales and licks. Is that something you try to avoid?
Yes, it is. For a while, I would put structures on myself, like: Do not use this phrase. Or if you do, do it backwards or sideways. It’s really out of respect. It’s been done by the greats at the highest level. So even if you do it well, and it feels good, there would be very little original in it.
You don’t worry about breaking blues conventions?
To me, the emotion is there, for better or for worse—you like it or you don’t. I think that even with the highest-level players, everybody falls back on stuff that you love. I went “bad” a long time ago, listening to George Benson and Pat Martino [laughs]. And lately, I’ve gone further off by listening to a lot of Gypsy music, which is incredibly demanding and virtuosic.
So Gypsy guitar influences your approach to the blues?
That’s in there, for sure. I’ve taken a couple of lessons from Sammy Daussat, and he’s like, “the secret to gypsy rhythm is … beer!” I like to practice to Gypsy backing tracks. I play the melody and improvise solos against them. If I practice something really difficult but I make it through, it really helps me when I go to play other things.
Do you record your solos live?
Usually, yes. “World Keep on Turning” was live. “Things Fall Apart” was mostly live except a bit at the end. “Pat Hare” was, too, though there were multiple guitar dubs as well. “Shiver” is another one. But I’m really self-critical. I always think I can do it better or make it more emotive. So even if I’ve laid down something good, you’ve got to convince me of it. Sometimes I convince myself by trying to beat the live solo and discovering that I can’t [laughs]. One of the many funny things about working with Marco Giovino is that he had a bullhorn. If I was doing an overdub, he’d get on the bullhorn and yell, “Try not to suck this time!” It’s kind of a combination of love and abuse.
Did you improvise your solos?
Oh yeah, everything. Sometimes during a gig, I might play the solo that’s on the album, but that’s after the fact. That’s one of the joys to me—just winging it. On this album, the only exception was “Every Drop of Rain.” Marco said, “Look, I know you don’t like to repeat things, but please do me a favor and repeat some phrases in those sections.” He wanted the repetition to drive home the emotion.
What’s your mindset when you improvise in the studio?
I feel like the best I play is when I’m relaxed, not trying too hard, and barely thinking at all but reacting to, and emotionally in tune with, the track. When I overthink it, or when I go, “I’ve to get these intervals in here, gotta try this scale there,” it usually feels artificial to me. The solo that resonates emotionally is the one to keep.
Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven seems like the culmination of so many things … from your early blues influences to your London period to everything that came afterwards. As a songwriter, singer, and guitarist, where do you go from here?
I’m still learning. If you listen to blues greats like Albert Collins, Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert King, Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Son House, and mash them up with people like Django Reinhardt, Biréli Lagrène, and Stochelo Rosenberg, and practice any or all of that when you go to improvise, it’s going to inform what you’re doing—if you can relax enough to let it come through.
So listening to the greats opens creative doors?
Listening is just as important when you’re playing with your band. On this album, Marco and the band that he assembled were all such great musicians. When you play with great musicians, if you just listen to what they’re doing, then it can’t help but inspire you to play something fresh.
This nuanced performance of the title track from Peter Parcek's new album was captured live at Boston's Red Star Union in 2013. With his 2004 Fender 50th Anniversary Stratocaster running in stereo through a pair of vintage Fender Princetons—a brownface and a tweed—Parcek fully explores the song's emotional landscape, playing lush single-note melodies, graceful bends, octave chords, dirty blues licks, and ending in a cloudburst of feedback.