He's been meaning to record a new album for a while, but it took the realization that this summer marks his 20th anniversary of forming the Cattle to provide a little incentive. He's also been meaning to get his friends from Calexico into the studio for a while, and his latest album provided the perfect opportunity. Backed by Joey Burns on bass and John Convertino on drums, Perry, along with producer Craig Schumacher and a who's-who of guests, recorded and mixed Always a Pleasure at Wavelab Studio in just three days.
The album was performed live in the studio by the trio, with vocals and minimal overdubs added later. A far more stripped-down affair than Losin' Hand, each song on Always a Pleasure, according to Al, "just has your basic production of guitar, bass, drums, and then one element added (per song)--lead guitar, harmonica, pedal steel or whatever."
The folks providing those "whatevers" are Schumacher himself, on harmonica and backing vocals; Calexico and Mariachi Luz de Luna trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela; Neil Harry on pedal-steel guitar; and Gila Bend's Loren Dircks playing lead guitar.
Throughout the album, Al sings in a much more subdued fashion than we've come to expect, nearly whispering at times, or "moving less air," in Perry's parlance. In short, it's yet another well-deserved notch on Mr. Perry's proverbial musical bedpost, another instant classic.
"I'm really proud of it," says Al.
Here, then, is a guided tour of Always a Pleasure, little by little, track by track, courtesy of our brave captain himself.
"I Think So Too"
I had the Beatles in mind when I wrote this, but then lyrically, a lot of times when I'm writing songs, I'll think, "Could George Jones sing this song?" If I think that he could sing it, then it passes; that's my test, because George Jones is my favorite singer. So this one is similar to "She Thinks I Still Care."
I had all these songs, "Losin' Hand" and "Loserville," loser this and loser that, and that's why this one originally got discarded.
A few months ago I was going through some old four-track stuff and I found this thing in there, and I thought I'd give it a listen, and I thought, "Y'know, this is actually an OK song." It was just, at the time I had too many "loser" songs.
This is just your basic Buck Owens thing, of going to the 1-to-the-4-to-the-5--same deal with the chorus, the 1-to-the-4-to-the-5, just super-simple. I really like this song. Now, when I look back, I go, "Oh, this is really catchy, I don't know why I discarded that at the time." I think it's one of the stronger songs on the record. That's Loren on the guitar; he did this tremendous lead. It's just a goofy old song about being a loser."
"I Already Love You"
It's just written about this chick, I guess. Sometimes it's fun if you go out with a girl, or you have a little fling or a relationship or whatever--I end up getting a lot of things for songs out of that. It's kind of fun, because when you look back, you've documented all these things. It's the same thing as having a scrapbook of photos, only you have all these songs.
I always believe it's best to write from real-life experiences. Your stuff always comes out with more veracity if you write from something you actually experienced. This is just one of those. I think of this as having a Velvet Underground influence and an R&B influence, if you listen to the bass line. Craig came up with this harp at the last minute, and it was genius, man--it was just what it wanted, just this real primitive kind of "Love Me Do"-type thing. It made the whole song, just added so much. It just adds a sort of random element--you don't expect it and it doesn't really belong, but it works perfect.
"Always a Pleasure"
I think this is the best chick song I've ever written, just the best positive love song I've ever done. Those are the hardest ones to write. It's really easy to write a breakup song, and it's really easy to write a storytelling song, but to write a positive love song without sounding maudlin or cornball--I mean, it is pretty cornball if you think about it--but without sounding over-the-top cornball, where you're gonna flinch every time you listen to it, and squirm, is really tough to do. I feel I accomplished that in this song. But it's also a really catchy song that ends up getting stuck in people's heads."
This is an instrumental, so I don't need to say much. I guess my inspirations here are Freddy King, definitely, 'cause it reminds me of a lot of his songs, and Chick Cashman--you know, Clif Taylor. He's a definite inspiration on this song; I could see Clif doing this song. Remember when he had his band (the Countrypolitans) and they did those Wednesday night things?
Part of this is stolen from T-Bone Walker, too, but the solos are improvised. They're not perfect solos--probably if I would have wanted to, I could have gotten them better, but I just like improvising stuff, 'cause then you have this raw expression of what you felt like that day.
This is a good song. We did it that one time with Matt (Rendon of The Knockout Pills), with the super-big production and all the vocal harmonies, and I love that version, of course (released as a 7-inch single in 2000). ... But when I envisioned the song, it was kind of like this, kind of even-keeled, not really dreary, just kind of melancholy. My best stuff has a certain element of sadness, even if it's a happy song. I think the really good Brian Wilson stuff has that, too. It was done with Neil on pedal-steel, just mellow. That's always a good way to judge a song, too, is when you can take it and make it in every different style--you could make a disco version of it and it would still work.
I saw this girl that I know, and she was a waitress. And the manager of the place was just laying into her one day for no reason that I could see. I think that they had a personality conflict, but I was just thinking, "Wow, man, why are you jumping on this girl's case? She's one of the best people in this place." I won't mention any names or anything, but that was the basic inspiration for the lyrics.
"99 Pairs of Shoes"
This is a pretty old song, actually. This hearkens back to the Cattle Crossing days, when I would write songs about shopping malls--consumerism songs. I was having a discussion one time with some woman and I asked her, "How many pairs of shoes do you have?" and she had 30-something, so I started asking these different women. 'Cause you know how guys are; like, "I've got five," but some women, they have tons of shoes, man.
So, for years it was "39 Pairs of Shoes," but 39 is too close to being within the realm of possibilities, because that's not that many for a woman to have. So I changed it to 99, 'cause that's over-the-top more. And also there's an Elmore James song where he says, "I'm going back south, I'm'a wear out 99 pairs of shoes," so I thought 99 would be better.
This is one where I always get asked, "Did you write that song?" 'cause they think it's some old '50s cover or something. Which is always either a great compliment or a great insult, I can never decide. 'Cause it means that somebody thinks your song is so great that it sounds like an old '50s classic, or they're asking you and thinking, "You could never write anything this good; this has to be a cover." Usually they mean it the first way, and I always think that's the highest compliment.
"Just My Kind"
I find myself oftentimes getting involved with crazy chicks, in relationships with them, and I don't know if I'm drawn to that, but I find that it really is kind of fun to go out with crazy women, 'cause it's so much more exciting than just having a relationship where everything goes smoothly. There's a little bit of angst. You know, does she like me or not, or is it going to work or not? It's just more fun to go out with ones that are completely insane. They just keep you on your toes all the time, and there's always all these surprises and stuff going on. So, that's sort of what this one is about.
"Janusz Kocerba" (instrumental)
I don't know what the inspiration is on this, maybe Link Wray a little bit, and then Booker T. and the MG's, rhythm and blues. I think I just wrote it on the four-track; it's been around a little while.
It was originally called "Smut," just because I like that word, but then I thought, "Man, I don't really want that on here." So I named the song after this guy I've corresponded with. He's from Poland, and his name is Janusz Kocerba. He wrote me a letter shortly before I moved to San Francisco, and I was like, "Cool, somebody from Poland." When somebody from that far away writes, wanting to know the price of stuff, I just pack up a bunch of stuff and send it to 'em and say, "Here you go." It turned out to be this good fan who's one of the best regular correspondences I've ever had. He doesn't know I'm naming a song after him. He always wants to come to the States real bad.
I thought, "Well, this is kind of lame to redo this, 'cause it's on Losin' Hand," but Tom Walbank said, "No, man, I redo my songs all the time," and John Lee Hooker redid "Boogie Chillen" every third album. I just wanted to get that mariachi horn part documented.
The first time we did that was in San Francisco; Joey calls me up, and he's like, "Bring your Tele down and sit in with us tonight. Come to the sound check so we can rehearse." So I did, and the mariachis were all there, and he didn't tell me anything about this. The horns don't come in until the end.
So we're rehearsing this song, and then all of a sudden, those mariachi horns (evocative of those in "The Lonely Bull") came in, and I swear to God, man, I almost fell down. My knees got all weak 'cause it just sounded so good. The jury's out on whether it was dumb to redo it, but Losin' Hand is out of print anyway, so ...
"We Got Cactus"
This is the famous Bloodspasm song. I stole this arrangement off of that guy Slack Mac; he's the one who did the slowed-down country version of it, so I probably should have credited him on the album, as well.
I started doing it 'cause it's such a great song; it's so funny. When we play this now people always go nuts, and they're always requesting it and stuff.
Bob Bloodspasm always comes to all the gigs all the time, and he's like, "If you want to record it that's fine, no royalties or anything, just give me a copy." I was like, "Bob, man, that's really nice of you, but you realize that this song is kinda like a hit song, and having it on the record makes it more saleable?" and he's like, "It's fine; I don't care. I just want the song to be heard." Which is always the way I am with shit, too. This song really sums up Tucson better than almost any song.