November 01, 2015

R.R. Perkins

I spent the afternoon catching up with Perkins in West Philadelphia, talking about the new EP, his inspiration, and why he made the decision to go instrumental.

R.R. Perkins is the latest musical project conjured up by Philly-based musician Robert Perkins. Perkins just released “Vol. II,” the second in a series of upcoming self-recorded and produced albums Perkins has planned for his solo project. I spent the afternoon catching up with Perkins in West Philadelphia, talking about the new EP, his inspiration, and why he made the decision to go instrumental.

As I approached the front porch of Robert Perkins’ West Philly apartment on a chill Sunday afternoon, I noticed a group of grungy-looking dudes wearing all black hanging out on the front porch. And, as I walked closer, I heard the distinct sound of metal music coming from that general area. For those of you who are familiar with R.R. Perkins’ music, this last statement may come as quite a surprise. With his easy, chill, melodic sound, his music is quite the contrary, but, sure enough, out stepped Rob, the mastermind behind R.R. Perkins. Wearing an all-white vintage jumpsuit, Rob didn’t exactly blend in next to his metalhead neighbors, but they greeted him cheerfully nonetheless, complimenting his get-up. You see, Rob is just one of those guys whose goofy, I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what-anyone-thinks attitude, seems to draw people to him. He can hang out with just about anyone and, I suppose, that’s how I found myself spending the afternoon with him.

The last time I saw Rob he was living in a small basement studio apartment near Rittenhouse Square and, when I asked what prompted his move west, all he said was, “You’ll see.” He led me through the 6 bedroom row house and down to the basement where, past the washer and dryer, was a large separate room. Illuminated by multi-colored string lights and decked out with a disco ball and various musical instruments, it became quite clear why he had made the move. The sprawling room is at least twice the size of his previous apartment and perfect for writing, rehearsing, recording and even shows. Perkins said his roommates put on house shows there and he plans to make an appearance in the near future. He also explained that every Sunday his neighbors’ metal band practices in their basement, gearing up for a gig at a big metal festival abroad. So, with the blaring music coming from the neighbors’ basement, we decided to conduct our interview outside in Perkins’ backyard, surrounded by foliage and empty beer cans that seem to perfectly characterize his new West Philly neighborhood.

How did you first get into playing music?
How did I start out? Oh yeah, Spice Girls, that and Alice Cooper. And then I started playing violin when I was about seven and, from then on, it was kind of linear, just different instruments.

So you used to play Spice Girls a lot when you were younger?
I think that’s really what turned the wheel, pop music like that, I’d just never seen anything like it.

So you wanted to be like them?
One way or another, yeah. I was definitely pretty feminine for a guy.

What else did you grow up listening to?
It goes all over the place. I think when I was younger I definitely liked a lot more pop music, but that’s what I was exposed to, that was my reference point. My older brother wasn’t like (in a creepy voice) ‘Here’s the good stuff, here’s Pink Floyd.’ I just had Kohl’s and Hot Topic to inform me as a kid in the fuckin’ suburbs. And then I started getting into the good stuff, well what I would consider stuff that has a lot more depth now with some hindsight, when I was about fifteen. But actually, that’s bullshit because at your age you just identify with something. There is no good stuff, it’s completely where you’re at.

What do you consider the ‘good stuff’ right now?
I love old, sad folk singers like Fred Neil. I love Leonard Cohen; I wouldn’t even say sad folk, it’s more hopeful, but I just like that style. Mickey Newbury, Bill Callahan’s a big thing for me as far as contemporary goes. Destroyer, Cass McCombs..but I’ve also been into a lot of minimalist film scores lately.

Who are your favorite film score composers?
I really like Piero Piccioni and Gianfranco Plenzio, he did this movie The Cat in Heat, which is really good. Angelo Badalamenti is timeless, David Lynch met him about halfway through his career, and Ennio Morricone is classic.

What was the thought process for you to decide to remove yourself vocally from your music?
I think what informed it was constant rejection, honestly. You put so much time and energy into something, you belabor over these lyrics and you put it out there and the first wave of people that listen to it, it’s usually your friends and family, and then, unless you have a contact right away you just sit in total obscurity. I’m comfortable with that now, but not when I’m putting that much of myself into it. It’s beyond being vulnerable, it’s a whole other thing. It feels like you’re pissing in the wind. With this, I don’t feel that because it has a lot of malleability and I don’t feel like my insecurities are tied to it at all. But my voice, there’s a lot of insecurities tied to that.

Would you be interested in someday collaborating with someone on vocals?
Someday? Oh my god, yeah, now! I like the idea because I’ve shown people the music and I didn’t tell them it’s me and I asked, ‘What do you think of this?’ And, that’s the first thing, you never show people your music, you just show them music.  That’s the only way you’re going to get an honest response and not having vocals makes it easy. Everyone has been like, ‘Yeah, I’m feelin’ this, this is groovy.’ And then they’re like ‘it needs a singer, man,’ and I love that because it’s going to get a singer, one way or another, it’s going to get a vocalist. Someone is going to interject themselves into it because there’s space to put yourself in.

What influenced your current sound?
Just a bunch of creative obsessions. I had a project called Decadent Pleasures and I used to mix doo-wop songs I used to write because I thought it would be funny. All their songs are always like, ‘I will always love you, I’ll never leave you,’ and then their personal lives, they’re the biggest documented mess. It’s almost comical, it’s become a paradigm in itself. And then I used to mix self-help tapes and put them together. It didn’t last too long, about six months in 2011, but it was fun. And before that I had a project that was trying to be Crazy Horse, basically. I think you emulate people you really admire and then, after you emulate them enough, you kind of have your own framework to work with. I think that’s why most songwriters do that… I had that project Wedding Favor, which was basically me trying to be Bill Callahan. That was 2013 and I left it behind [to form R.R. Perkins] just because it felt like a caricature of me. That was the epitome of me trying to be a sad, miserable, misunderstood bastard—which I’m not. I think it was my heightening anxiety, but I haven’t felt that way in a while.

Do you think you’re emulating anyone in your work now?
No, it’s a lot more freeform because there’s no narrative. Every project has a sonic sound to it and this does too, to an extent, but this really is by far and wide the best music I’ve ever made and I’m just getting started. This is really a big change for me, it feels really different. It’s hard to articulate, but I know it’s not going away for a while because I’ve been doing it for a while.

How long have you been working as R.R. Perkins?
Since June, but I started writing music for it, I had over 30 songs, all with lyrics to them and everything, and I just threw them all away. I just used the three [songs] for Vol. I and then I’ll just pick them apart, take little fragments because I like a riff or a hook. R.R. Perkins is basically just me, there’s no caricature, and this is my brand…I’ve been recording since I was fifteen, it’s been over a decade now and I have not stopped. I’ve made a record every single fucking year.

And you record and produce everything yourself?
Yeah, I always have. You just get better and better at it and more particular. I used to think that I needed all this equipment, like I need this, but when you work with less, that’s when you actually  thrive. I use two mics for everything. Nothing’s really that compressed, you just get more of a feel for, not what you like to like, but what you actually really like and what’s really intrinsic. Just like relationships, you know who the fuck you like after dating enough shitheads. It shares the same principles as most things.

How would you describe your sound? 
Someone else is always going to have a more accurate reality of it than I do. I’m too involved, I can’t detach myself from it. I would say I put a lot of thought into it, I think it’s thoughtful. In all of the songs I did for Vol. II, I never did a second or third take. It’s all really spontaneous; I didn’t have anything written... I’ve always had a thing for wobbled, falling apart things. I love charmingly shitty diners, I love cars that are fuckin’ on their way out, like the gasket fuckin’ blown...The only thing I’ve been hearing a lot is, ‘Sounds like Mac DeMarco’ and it’s like, yes, I’ve sounded like Mac DeMarco for the last eight years, just listen to my music.

What about your live shows?
The live show is really where’s it’s going to live. These songs are like a minute and a half and it’s really like birthing them, trying to deliver them. I think the stigma attached to [instrumental music] is like a jazz trio sitting there and they’re all just riding a wave between each other. Most jazz artists are generating energy, but it’s for people who voluntarily want to be there, they don’t care who’s hanging around, it’s just jazz. Our live set I just want to really represent a wild, unpredictable fucking time. I just want it to be really a combined experience for everybody. Just seeing other people play off my parts, my parts are very simple, but when I have people better than me playing them, it feels cool to see that happen and I think everyone really enjoys that. The live show, we’re gonna have a lot of visuals tied to it. My one friend is an excellent visual artist, Tom Mancusi, and he’s going to do visuals and then this other guy, Wes, who also happens to be a pimp, he’s really cool.

An actual pimp?
No, not like an actual pimp. Just a badass or…what else can I call him? A cool uncle…he’s a cool guy. He’s going to do visuals also, I believe, and we’re going to make the show…just go to a fucking show and you’ll know what I mean.

So you recruited some other people to play with you live?
Yeah, right now it’s a four piece. It’s really fun because we can all switch parts. The songs are a minute and a half, but [live] they end up being five or six minutes. They’re all written in harmonic keys that kind of lead into one another so there’s not really this pause [between songs]. Matt is playing guitar, my friend Rob is playing theremin and synth, I’m playing bass and then we have this other guy Dave playing drums… We’re going to play our first show in November, but the live set sounds really good. Even the neighbors are like, ‘Shit, that sounds really tight.’

What’s next for R.R. Perkins?
A lot more music and a lot more shows.

R.R. Perkins is slated to play at the Sound Hole in Philadelphia on November 7 with Other Colors, Repelican and Alex Walcroft.

Vol. 2 is now available for streaming on

Photos: Lauren Thomas

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