Scratch a hemp-store employee and you'll find a Deadhead. That's certainly true for Elvis Perkins, who once worked at a shop specializing in products made from natural fibres.
"I was in a hippie scene, but that was during my college days," allows Perkins, reached on his cellphone on his way to a show in Los Angeles. "I've gone to my fair share of Grateful Dead shows. And I think I got caught up in the occasional drum circle. Sure, why not?"
He's all better now, though, thanks. After spending his 20s working odd jobs in Santa Fe (including the hemp store) and Los Angeles, all the while accumulating songs, Perkins has assembled his first CD, and it owes very little to the Dead or the neo-hippie movement personified by the Dave Matthews Band. A trend-defying disc of country, folk, and plaintive balladry, Perkins's Ash Wednesday is a left-field, downbeat gem. The disc does have its up moments, including "May Day!", an ambling sing-along, and "Sleep Sandwich", which builds from a soft glow to a Rufus Wainwright–worthy climax of strings and horns. Mostly, though, on tracks like "The Night & the Liquor", "Good Friday", and "It's a Sad World After All", Ash Wednesday mines a vein of deep, sympathetic melancholy.
Reviewers have done their best to link the album to tragedies in Perkins's life: his father, Anthony, most famous for playing Norman Bates in Psycho, died of AIDS–related complications in 1992, while his mother, Berry Berenson, was on United Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes flown into the World Trade Center. Perkins leaves things up to interpretation, with lines like "No one will survive /Ash Wednesday alive/No soldier no lover/no father no brother."
However down he might sound on Ash Wednesday, Perkins himself seems to be in pretty good spirits as he heads back from a show at Austin's South by Southwest to L.A. for the start of a West Coast tour. He's travelling under the name Elvis Perkins in Dearland, referring to his three-piece backing band. The strange moniker suggests a story.
"It's being written as we speak," says Perkins. "But the band is full of good friends of mine, and we travel this country like madmen.”¦We have a good time. And there are lots of different things it hints at, including a better place, including a love letter to the listener. And whatever else anybody wants to make of it, or anybody who wants to inhabit it, they're welcome."
Elvis Perkins plays the Media Club on Saturday (March 31).