Every year around this time we’re suddenly bombarded with the same old Christmas music everywhere we go. It almost seems like artists are scared to step out and try to make something entirely new, something that deviates from the same tired standards. Sure, nostalgia has its place (especially at Christmas), but why not give the people something fresh? That was part of the motivation for rock and roller JD McPherson when he decided to go all in on a Christmas album of entirely original tunes. It was also something of a challenge for him and his band to see if they could actually do it.
The result is SOCKS, a collection of all-original Christmas songs released to unanimous critical acclaim in 2018 on New West Records. Right out of the gate, the album’s eleven songs felt timeless as they married McPherson’s signature throwback rock and roll with influences of 50s R&B, soul, funk, and pop. Somehow, the songs on SOCKS sound like they could have been recorded decades ago while also hitting like a breath of frosty fresh air. On songs like “All the Gifts I Need,” “Ugly Sweater Blues,” and “Santa’s Got A Mean Machine,” McPherson and his band boogie and swing with dollops of Christmas cheer, beckoning you to raise that spiked egg nog in celebration and get your groove on under the mistletoe. This week, McPherson kicks off his second annual “SOCKS: A Rock n’ Roll Christmas Tour” for a string of dates across the country in what is sure to be one hell of a festive dance party. Recently, he took the time to chat about the meaning of Christmas, his own favorite holiday music, the tradition of holidays tours, and more.
Was Christmas always something you savored as a kid?
Yes. Like most kids who celebrate Christmas, I bought into the whole thing one hundred percent. “So you’re telling me that we’re gonna have a tree standing up in our living room, and someone is going to enter our home, but not through the door or windows, while we’re sleeping, and leave me a Game Boy? I’m in.” I have a big family, it was always a good time. I’ve never really been cynical, it’s something that’s stayed with me as I’ve grown older.
It seems like many artists revert to the standards when doing Christmas albums. Was that ever in the equation or were you set on keeping it original from the beginning?
That was rule number one: “no covers.” There were several parameters in the planning stage of writing and pre-production: there could be no covers, it had to be rock and roll, and absolutely no recorded jingle bells! I really wanted it to stand out from within the genre, even if only by eschewing certain common cliches and themes.
The songs on this album touch on universal themes and sound pretty timeless, but did you draw from personal experiences to write them?
I suppose in a small way, every kid who celebrates Christmas knows the feeling of BEGGING to open a present early, or being handed the first box on Christmas morning, and it’s ALWAYS going to be clothing. The happy stuff on the record couldn’t have been written if I really hated Christmas, so all that’s in there too.
Why did you feel the time was right to cut a Christmas album?
I had some ideas for songs I thought were funny, but I was saving them for a rainy day, maybe if someone needed some new material for a holiday record. But the real thing started to materialize when I heard Nick Lowe’s Christmas record, Quality Street. It was incredibly smart and cool, and it made me excited about making one of our own.
In today’s polarized society it seems like a bold statement to come along and make something that is truly aimed at everyone (or at least those who celebrate Christmas). Were you conscious of this going into the album?
Not really. I knew that I was happy with the lyrics, and I knew that the band was having a lot of fun in the studio. Once it was finished, though, I did think that this record might win over a couple of “Scrooges”, in addition to the true-believers.
You have always been known for your deep love of music and obscure references that seem to come from being super knowledgeable about old rock and roll, soul, and R&B. Did you dive deep to get inspired for a Christmas album, and if so, are there any standout Christmas recordings that really blow your mind but have not been heard by many?
This record was heavily influenced by the writing of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Wordy, funny, “uptown”…those guys were incredible writers. Their stuff written for The Coasters are among my favorite songs. They wrote Christmas-themed material for other artists, but never for the Coasters, who were like, their MUSES. So, for a few of the songs, I tried to imagine what they might have written for them. That really helped shaped the record, honestly.
Can fans expect any kind of festive stage setup or costumes for this upcoming tour?
A vintage, green sparkle Ludwig drum kit with a drawing of Santa puking up candy on the drum head. Big, fat, jolly C9 lights everywhere you look. Doug, our multi-instrumentalist is really working overtime on this one…on his side of the stage, he’s got a saxophone, three guitars, a lap steel, and a glockenspiel. It’s a rock and roll show! Not really costumes, but the guys are dressing sharp for the occasion.
Many artists, including one of your favorites Nick Lowe, like to turn holiday tours into an annual tradition. In the second year of the SOCKS: A Rock N’ Roll Christmas Tour, do you see it becoming an annual shindig?
I hope so. It’s not only a very good time to be had by all, it’s actually refreshing to change our regular tour set once a year. Sometimes you’ll tour on an album cycle for a couple of years, and I’m not saying that gets stale, but it’s definitely fun to completely shift gears.
It’s been almost 3 years since your last non-holiday album. Is there any new material in the works?
Yes, working diligently as we speak! Hopefully recording in February.
Check out tour dates below and visit www.JDMcPherson.com for tickets.
“SOCKS: A ROCK N’ ROLL CHRISTMAS TOUR”
*with special guest Joel Paterson
December 3 /// Seattle, WA /// The Crocodile*
December 4 /// Portland, OR /// Polaris Hall*
December 6 /// Salt Lake City, UT /// The State Room*
December 7 /// Fort Collins, CO /// Armory Event Center*
December 8 /// Boulder, CO /// Fox Theatre*
December 10 /// Phoenix, AZ /// Crescent Ballroom*
December 11 /// Solana Beach, CA /// Belly Up Tavern*
December 12 /// Los Angeles, CA /// Teragram Ballroom*
December 13 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Independent*
December 14 /// Lake Tahoe, NV /// Crystal Bay Club Casino*
December 17 /// Lawrence, KS /// The Bottleneck*
December 18 /// Des Moines, IA /// Wooly’s*
December 19 /// Chicago, IL /// Thalia Hall*
December 20 /// Minneapolis, MN /// First Avenue*
December 22 /// Nashville, TN /// The Basement East*
Photo credit: Jim Herrington