From DRUM! Magazine’s January 2018 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photo by Kathy Louise
Dave Perrin must be the proudest dad in the world. A longtime bass player, he is first and foremost a fan of NRBQ. He’d been following the band avidly since their first album back in 1969. Their live shows and boundless versatility inspired him as he gigged around his hometown of Elgin, Illinois.
So imagine how he must feel now that his son John is their drummer.
It’s nearly as big a deal for Perrin the Younger. After all, he started getting into music before he was even two months old, thanks to a thoughtful gift from his father. “It was a mixtape,” John says, obviously touched by the gesture even now. “I still have it. It had plenty of Beatles on it. It had Ramones and Social Distortion. But it also had The Young Fresh Fellows from out of Seattle. As a two-month-old, I didn’t know that The Beatles were the biggest band in the world. From what I heard on that tape, I just knew they were as good as The Elvis Brothers. So thanks to my dad, I came to music from the beginning of my life from an unbiased perspective.”
He grins and adds, “Dad still gives me records to this day.”
Of course NRBQ was part of his playlist. “Their CDs were lying around all over the house when I was a kid,” Perrin says. “By the time I’d gotten to high school I’d understood that if you wanted to play ska , you had to have a ska band. Then you had to have a separate band if you wanted to do power pop or punk or whatever. But I always knew that NRBQ wasn’t like that. They played every form of music. With them, it was all on the table.”
At age two John received his first drum set, again courtesy of Dave. They played along to records together, exploring the bass-and-drum dynamic and the art of tailoring your parts to the song. “My mom has a video of me playing [The Beatles’] ‘Baby’s In Black’ when I was two,” Perrin says, not without pride.
By the time he was ten years old, John was doing three-hour club dates in a band that included his brother Jeremy on guitar and Dave on bass. Those shows pretty much sealed the deal. “At my first show, we played for an hour and I made a hundred bucks for doing the most fun thing in the world,” John remembers. “If you do that to a ten-year-old, he’s never gonna have a normal life.”
“At my first show, we played for an hour and I made a hundred bucks for doing the most fun thing in the world.”
Thus, the next dozen years or so were all about playing throughout the Chicago area. One performance was for a rockabilly show at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, featuring members of the cast of The Million Dollar Quartet, a musical about the fabled Elvis Presley/Jerry Lee Lewis/Roy Orbison/Johnny Cash super-group. The promoter swore that the other musicians he’d recruited would be terrific — a promise Perrin had heard more than a few times before. When he got to the venue, though, he knew this gig would be unlike anything he’d yet experienced.
“In walked Scott Ligon,” he says, referring to the longtime guitarist, singer, and keyboard player with NRBQ. “As it happened, we hit it off immediately. We talked for an hour and a half after the show in the parking lot — and this was in the middle of a Chicago winter. A few weeks later Scott called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this private party gig and the drummer we usually play with can’t be there. Can you come out and do it?’ That was the beginning of my connection to NRBQ.”
To prepare, Ligon emailed six songs, beginning with The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Blue Rondo A La Turk.” Perrin learned them all and went to rehearsal, where the band devoted three hours to working on just two of those titles. After that performance, Perrin continued to work in various pickup units around Chicago with Ligon and NRBQ bassist Casey McDonough.
Then, in 2015, came the formal invitation to join the band full-time. “I was utterly terrified,” Perrin admits. “They flew me to Northampton, Massachusetts, to play together for a day. Scott, Casey, and I got there early. We were playing when [NRBQ founder] Terry Adams walks in. He pats me on the back, doesn’t say anything, walks to the piano, sits down — and we played for four hours.”
Perrin’s studio debut with NRBQ is Happy Talk, their new EP. He plays on just two of its tracks, with Conrad Choucroun drumming on the other three. Yet those two cuts, a straight-country rearrangement of Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely” and a Stax-like shuffle titled “Blues, Blues, Blues” reflect how fully he has absorbed the band’s creative method.
“When I started doing sessions at around age 12, I would work on the demos and make charts maybe a month in advance,” Perrin says. “NRBQ works much more organically. We don’t always know what we’re going to do when we go into the studio. There’s never any talk like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make a six-song EP. Let’s do four days of tracking, two days of mixing.’ It hasn’t been like that since I joined the band and I doubt it ever was. So I don’t want to be prepared for an NRBQ session. I want to talk about the music as little as possible and just play intuitively. The magic comes from trying to capture whatever spark there might be at the moment. It’s like a hive mind.”
The same applies to their approach to playing live. “I can’t count how many times we’re in the middle of a song and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, it’d be great to play “Paris” next’ — this song by a guy called Moondog,” Perrin says. “We’ll end the song and then Terry goes right into it. It’s kind of eerie. It’s ruined me, actually. I’ll probably never play in a normal band again.”
As if he and Dave would have ever wanted him to.
Transcription by Andy Ziker
“Head On A Post”
NRBQ is known for its humorous, multi-style approach, and John Perrin pulls this off with the perfect amount of quirkiness and skill level. On “Head On A Post,” a 12-bar rock-blues, Perrin plays a shuffle filled with bass drum variation and infused with an off-the-wall straight-eighth fill at the beginning of measure seven. The rhythm section plays with appropriate looseness induced by rhythm guitar (hard swing), piano (straight eighths), and Perrin’s ride cymbal (between swung and straight, though notated as swung).
ALBUM Happy Talk
BIRTHPLACE Elgin, Illinois
INFLUENCES Alex Hall, Jimmy Lester, Tom Ardolino, Rob Kellenberger
CYMBALS Zildjian (“Usually”)
STICKS Vic Firth
HARDWARE “Whatever’s Not Broken”