"I'm definitely a Fender-style player," says Peter Parcek. "I love Strats and Teles." He also employed a dual-pickup Harmony Stratotone, several Gibsons, a Dean resonator, and other axes on his new album.
Photo by Margaret Lampert

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.”

"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."

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.

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The Sword axeman talks about the daunting—but, ultimately, incredibly successful—process of reimagining Pink Floyd's definitive album on Doom Side of the Moon.

When it comes to covering classic material, few albums would seem as daunting as Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. Since Dark Side dropped in 1973, its songs, lyrics, arrangements, and production have stood among rock's signature achievements. All music can be reinterpreted, but when the recording is as familiar as the songs themselves, you've got two choices: redo the original—ah, really?—or create a new interpretation in your own style.

That was the challenge facing Kyle Shutt, longtime guitarist and co-songwriter in the Austin-based metal band the Sword, when he decided to tackle Pink Floyd's most iconic album. The result, Doom Side of the Moon, manages to find a balance between Dark Side's familiar mileposts and Shutt's well-honed, toothy style.

After enlisting bandmates Bryan Richie (bass) and Santiago “Jimmy" Vela III (drums), he filled out the lineup with saxophonist Jason Frey, keyboardist Joe Cornetti, and singer Alex Marrero and set to work. “I knew I wasn't gonna make this album better than the original—it's one of the best albums ever recorded," Shutt explained when we caught up with him this summer. “I wanted to approach it with reverence, but also make it fun."

Fun, but not irreverent. From the opening of “Speak to Me" to the coda of “Eclipse," Shutt and company power Floyd's magnum opus with the high-torque engine that's carried the Sword for a decade and a half, taking Dark Side into new territory without losing the album's essence.

What made you decide to do a metal version of The Dark Side of the Moon?
I had a bunch of songs written that obviously weren't Sword songs. It's like a totally different style. Although for us, [the Sword's 2015 album] High Country was continuing in the direction we've always been in, but some people thought it was a sharp left turn. After that, me coming out with my country-punk Replacements-sounding solo album might not be received that well. I was joking with a friend: “A solo album—no one's gonna want to hear that. We should just do Pink Floyd!" The title came from everything being called “doom" these days. And if you wanna get real nerdy about it, doom is a very specific sub-genre of an already underground kind of music, so it was just like a joke: “We should make a Pink Floyd cover band called Doom Side of the Moon! Everyone will fuckin' love it! And right when I said that, I flashed, and I thought, “That's a good idea!"

“Gilmour's a tough one. His playing sounds effortless. It doesn't necessarily look that impressive, but when you really break it down, that guy can emote more on a single note than most people can in a whole song."

I started hunting around on the internet and the only versions of The Dark Side of the Moon are serious departures from the original. I love the Dub Side of the Moon by Easy Star All-Stars. There are others—I won't name names, but they're pretty terrible. But I was like, “Why don't I do a fuckin' nasty version of this album—treat it super abrasive and get real heavy metal with it?" As deep as the subject matter is lyrically, a lot of [Floyd's] music is powerful but not necessarily evil—to my ears anyway. I wanted to make a more sinister version.

The Dark Side of the Moon's production is as famous as the songs themselves. How did you capture that vibe without copying it?
When you make an album, you have a whole list of categories—guitar, vocal, drums—and you check each one off as you go along. I wanted to make sure there was a noise category. I took the noisemaking as seriously as the guitars and vocals. I didn't wanna be just like, “Oh, I'll do that, too." [Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.] There was a metal shop next to the studio and this dude was in there all day long just banging away with different machines. There was all this crazy noise coming from there. So I was like, “Hey man, can we record all that?" A lot of the sounds on the album are his machines that I just looped over and over.

Doom Side of the Moon covers The Dark Side of the Moon cut-by-cut, in order, but spikes it up with gnarly guitar tones and metal-inspired arrangements.

How did you pick the players?
Brian and Jimmy were a shoo-in: We jam together anyway. That's how we work on Sword songs. Joe Cornetti is a local [Austin, Texas] keyboard player. He's kind of unknown but he's one of the best in town. I needed a sax player, but didn't know if anyone could bring the kind of attitude I wanted. Our engineer, Stuart Sikes, suggested Jason Frey. He was a complete stranger but we really struck up an awesome friendship. That was one of many signs that told me I was on the right path. I'm a firm believer in that kind of thing.

I was expecting more aggressive vocals, but the singing is as melodic here as on the original.
That's Alex Marrero, the singer from Brown Sabbath. I knew he would have some trepidation about being in a different cover project, but I was like, “Dude, trust me, this is gonna be awesome! I'm gonna throw a laser show!"

Did you learn all the songs before you got with the rest of the band?
I was going to take a week to learn the whole album note for note before I started messing with it. I did it all in a day-and-a-half. I was shocked by how simple it is.

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Working fast and playing all the instruments except drums, the alt-rock icon followed her muse to create her provocative new album, Pussycat.

It's clear from the first few lines of Juliana Hatfield's bold new album Pussycat that this is a record with a mission statement. In today's political climate, it's easy to guess the intended target of songs like “When You're a Star," “Kellyanne," and “Short-Fingered Man." But what makes this rich 14-song collection more than just a momentary reflection of the times is that Hatfield rarely succumbs to sloganeering or naked attacks (the song “Rhinoceros" being one notable exception). Instead, her words vividly illustrate the personal impact of attitudes and behaviors in stark, often jarring terms. The issues she tackles existed before 2016 and will continue long after Twitter ceases to be the bully pulpit.

Lyrical messages, no matter how cleverly drafted, don't resonate for long without a musical framework. And Pussycat delivers there, too. Hatfield built her alt-rock bona fides long ago by being simultaneously tuneful and surprising. Both qualities are in full supply here. Starting with “I Wanna Be Your Disease," the songs grab your ear before moving in unexpected ways, making you want to go back and listen again.

Written and recorded quickly, with Hatfield performing everything but drums, Pussycat is also a showcase for her deft rhythm, lead, and bass guitar playing. Using a surprisingly small arsenal of gear (sometimes aided by a Korg keyboard synth), she creates a range of textures—jangling chords, slamming riffs, and syrupy melodic solos—that sit perfectly with her voice and sometimes serve as a counterpoint to the sweetness of her vocal harmonies.

“If it's not my own gear, I don't pay attention to equipment. Instead, I'm more focused on whether I like what I hear."

As a classically trained keyboardist and Berklee College of Music grad who emerged as a bass/guitar/vocal pioneer in the indie scene in the days when they called it “college rock," Hatfield has always been an artist of many layers and contrasts. And despite the intensity of her subject matter, she was soft-spoken and introspective when we caught up on the phone earlier this summer. Then again, she's never had to shout to get her message across. And as always, her guitar speaks loudly when she needs to wield the axe.

You wrote and recorded the songs on Pussycat in just a few weeks. Is all the material new or were you drawing on the archives?
Musically, there was stuff I was taking from who-knows-when. I have these cassettes just filled with ideas. I'll sit down and turn the cassette recorder on and start playing guitar—just endless little bits of things developing in real time. So I was going back to things from a couple of years ago or even more. But at the same time, I was coming up with new things on the spot. It was a bit of everything, just trying to note anything that caught my ear. A lot of things I'd discarded in the past, I listened to with fresh ears. Anything that stood out, that was catchy or gave me pleasure in any way, I was like “I'm gonna use that!"

How did the relatively short production cycle influence your approach?
I did a lot less second-guessing than I normally do—a lot less thinking and self-editing. I just grabbed anything I thought was cool and worked with it. I was a lot more open to using things that in the past I might have thought weren't interesting enough. I learned that I haven't always been the best judge of what's good or bad because I'm happy with all the music I chose from the archives.

To track Pussycat, Hatfield booked time in a pro studio. “I wanted to do it away from home where I couldn't afford to waste time," she says. “I have a tendency to over-think things and over-rehearse, and that can kill the spark."

When I'm recording my guitar into my Walkman, you never know how things will turn out once you add drums and bass. I was really working on faith. I think that was a good lesson to myself—if you have the right attitude and believe in it, you can make anything work.

The songs are catchy, but they often go in surprising directions. How do you unlock those ideas?
I have two acoustic guitars I use for writing. One is in normal tuning, the other is in “weird" tuning. I'm too lazy to retune when I'm writing, so I just keep one of the guitars in “weird" tuning. A lot of the songs were written in that tuning, which is C–G–D–G–B–E.

How did you come up with that one?
I stole it after I tried out for a band called Verbena when they were looking for a bass player a long time ago. They'd made a record called Souls for Sale, and I was madly in love with it. I learned all the songs, and [Verbena guitarist] Scott Bondy showed me all the songs with this tuning. I borrowed it from him and I love it. Having a different tuning helps kick-start the writing.

The first three songs [“I Wanna Be Your Disease," “Impossible Song," and “You're Breaking My Heart"] are all in that C–G–D–G–B–E tuning. I have to use my left hand in a different way to make all the notes work, and that limits my fretting. There's not a lot I can do with my finger shapes, so I'm just moving up and down the neck and trying to find somewhere else to go—sliding around on the neck trying to make the song move. The limitations of the tuning really opened up the songwriting in a way, which proves my theory that limitations can be really freeing.

Do you use an extra heavy string for that low C?
I don't do anything special, and I never deliberately tried to make it less floppy. But I did switch to .011 gauge sets in the past couple of years on the electric. I used to use .010s.

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The hard-working guitarist talks about reaching for new sounds and colors on Gov’t Mule’s 10th studio album, Revolution Come … Revolution Go.

Warren Haynes’ résumé would make even the most elite guitarist flush with envy: A 25-year tenure with the Allman Brothers, a successful solo career, stints working with the Grateful Dead, John Scofield, and Don Was, and a wide portfolio as a producer would all place him among his generation’s most productive players—even if he’d never teamed with fellow Allman bassist, the late Allen Woody, to form Gov’t Mule.

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