June 19th, 2009 | Interviews

carolyn pennypacker riggs

John Parish and PJ Harvey first met at her 18th birthday party—there was no cake—and would go on to tangle together their two musical careers. A Woman A Man Walked By is their first album in the thirteen years since Dance Hall at Louse Point. John Parish—who was almost the singer for Wall of Voodoo—speaks now to Chris Ziegler.

What was the one item you were most excited to see when you visited the Smithsonian?
John Parish (guitar): I actually went yesterday—I saw quite a number of things. We went to the Air and Space Museum as well as the American Native Indian Museum, and I thought they were both fantastic. You could spend days there, really. The thing I most enjoyed was some of the funky engineering they used on building the space modules—it’s so homespun. To imagine those things going through space is kind of incredible to me.
Were you more into astronauts or cowboys as a child?
They’re both pretty impossible myths—or not myths but legends to ignore. I was fascinated by both. I still am to a certain extent. I read a very interesting book called Moon Dust—interviews with all the surviving people who’ve actually walked on the moon. It was really fascinating.
What historical figure would you be most bashful to meet?
I’d be shy to meet any historical figure! It would seem so incredibly inappropriate that I should meet them. There’s lots of people I would have been very interested to hear talk. Though I have to say I was really extremely happy to read the text of Obama’s speech in Egypt—as far as historical figures go, he’s shaping up pretty damn well. I keep pinching myself and thinking that you can’t possibly have a world leader that’s actually this straightforward, but so far you gotta go with it.
What was most unbelievable about our last world leader?
Where do you start? I remember vividly the debacle of the election—basically when he was not elected and became president. It was sort of tragicomic to me that he was ever president in the first place. And obviously his entire administration is responsible for setting back a lot of international relations years and years. And it’s gonna take an incredible amount of time to regain that ground. It has really gone from one extreme to another—it’s been amazing, the difference.
Did you meet Condoleeza Rice when you were both on the Tonight Show?
We were on the show, but I wouldn’t say we met.
She didn’t try and pilfer one of PJ’s beers?
She didn’t, funnily enough.
Who was the most enagaging state figure you ever met?
I did shake Condoleeza Rice’s hand—I felt it would be rude to not do so. I absolutely disagree fundamentally with the administration she was part of and everything they did.
Did you communicate that through the handshake?
I don’t think I’m that skilled at shaking hands.
How would your life have been different if you’d accepted that offer to sing for Wall of Voodoo?
I often think about that. We have lots of crossroads moments in my life and that was a massive one for me. At that time I was 21 years old and living in a small town in western England and I’d never been to America. I didn’t know anything about American culture apart from what I’d seen on Starsky and Hutch, pretty much, and it would have been a massive life change for me. I often think what would have happened? You couldn’t possibly predict. The only thing—in hindsight, I probably wasn’t ready. It wasn’t right. Wall of Voodoo to me was Stan Ridgway, Marc Moreland, Chas Grey and Joe Nanini and the other people involved afterward were really great, but I think I would have forever been in the shadow of somebody else. I thought Wall of Voodoo were an absolutely astonishing band. I still think Call of the West is a very very great record. I think at the time they were the best band in America.
Who is your favorite California musician?
I would have to say Beefheart because of the longevity of what he did. Wall of Voodoo made a couple really fantastic records and I really loved them and they were very unique and they’d be up there in my top ten for sure. But Beefheart—I don’t think I could put anybody above Beefheart.
Have you heard Frank Zappa’s quote about Beefheart being so natural in his art that he was operating almost on animal instinct?
That doesn’t surprise me. That would be exactly how I imagine he would work, and from what I know about him from being friends with Eric and Moris, who have worked with him.
How animalistic are you?
As a person, I’m fairly level-headed and I don’t immediately respond on an animalistic level. But when I’m working, I write very much on an instinctive level. On that front, you could say I’m more in touch with my animal side. I don’t go into writing knowing what’s going to happen or having a fixed idea. I very much respond emotionally and instinctively to what the kind of sounds are, and one sound will lead to another, and I’ll just follow that part.
Pianist Bill Evans said one of the most exciting things about jazz was the opportunities it offered to justify mistakes—to make something unplanned fit perfectly. Does that connect to what you’re saying?
I think it does. That’s quite a lucid way of putting it.
PJ once said she could never make the music you make—so what is the essential Parish-ness of your music?
That’s impossible for me to answer. Like I say, I approach it instinctively and I just follow where it goes. A lot of writers find it very difficult to describe why they make particular choices. That’s one of the fascinating things about being a writer. You can’t make it happen and you can’t decide how you’re gonna do it. You’re following something and you don’t know what it is—you’re generating and following at the same time. I wish I could answer what it is that’s me—all I can do is identify it when it happens. I can’t describe how it happens and I’m not very good at describing what is the sound of John Parish music.
What was the last time you got lost in real life?
A couple days ago but it wasn’t so much I was lost. We were in Covington, Kentucky—a state I’ve never been in—a couple days ago and we got off the bus at quarter-to-eight in the morning, feeling sort of bus-dazed as you usually do when you get off the bus. It was kind of gloomy and wet and there was nothing around. And there was this incredibly unprepossessing place called Covington Chili that looked as if it had last had a lick of paint in about 1957 or something. Eric and myself walked in because it happened to be there and it was open, and it was really—it was quite David Lynch-ian. Everybody was kind of odd-looking and everybody looked up—but everybody was very friendly and immediately sort of welcomed us into this peculiar community. We ended up having a really great breakfast and it set the day off to a good start. It made me appreciate going into a place with people where there’s nobody I could remotely share my values probably at all, but it was still very open and totally nonjudgmental about me—it’s nice to have those little wake-ups.
What was it like touring behind the Iron Curtain with your old band?
It was pretty fascinating actually—I guess we were lucky because it wasn’t around much longer, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to see it when we did. One thing that struck me was how… how sort of unthreatening it was. ‘Behind the Iron Curtain’ always sounded like it would be some terribly spooky unfriendly cold hostile environment, and apart from getting over the border, once we were there, it was incredibly friendly. The system was incredibly broken by that time, and I’m not saying there wasn’t anything right with the system because obviously there were some things that had probably worked fine. They didn’t have that extreme division of wealth in some western places—they didn’t have any homeless people. There was a lot of kind of depressed people because there wasn’t much opportunity, but there wasn’t that underclass you see in American and British cities. It was fascinating to see. I really appreciate we had that opportunity. The audiences were pretty great considering we were a pretty unknown band—the fact we were a western band made a lot of people turn out, and we made some good friends there.
How did you start talking about music with them?
They’d heard everything we’d heard. As much as the authorities tried to keep the west out, you can’t stop radio getting over, and they still had records and things. Nothing like the amount we had, but they had heard of most things, and most people who were into bands, they knew the same sort of things we knew. We had a surprising amount in common. At that time they were very into punk rock, and quite hardcore stuff. Particularly when we went to Poland—they thought we were a bit lightweight, really. They were hoping we were gonna be a bit more hardcore.
Like Discharge or something?
That kind of thing—anything you could really ruckus to!
You were at John Peel’s 60th birthday and PJ’s 18th birthday—who had the nicer cake?
There weren’t cakes at either. Both were cake-free birthday. But we did play John Peel’s and didn’t manage to play Polly’s, though we were supposed to. They were kind of different, but I’m glad I was at both. I’m sure I gave Polly a gift but John Peel—possibly not. It seems it would have been maybe less appropriate.
You seem like you were brought up with a lot of respect for good manners.
I was. I think it’s important, actually. I’m hoping I manage to instill the same in my kids.
Do you tip your hat when you meet a stranger?
If I’m wearing one, yes! I’m no apologist for the old days per se—there was plenty that was wrong, but I think decent manners never caused anyone any harm.
Do you ever think about calling up Billy Childish and just going around together being polite to strangers all day?
I haven’t thought of that, particularly.
PJ says she’d trust you with her life. Is the reciprocal true for you? Has it ever been put to the test?
There hasn’t been any actual experience where that’s been necessary. But of course I would trust Polly. She’s one of my oldest and closest friends, and I do absolutely trust her completely.
What song on this record surprised her the most?
I’m not sure, really. I know she had to be surprised and excited by something or she wouldn’t want to work on it. I know there were some things I sent where she thought, ‘Oh, I like it, but I’ve heard John do that before so I don’t wanna work on that.’ Pretty much everything we ended up working on, she found something new in.
At what points did you surprise yourself?
Everywhere, really—in writing, I never know where it’s gonna end up. Most things have some sort element of surprise in them or I probably would not have continued to work on them. It isn’t like re-inventing the wheel or anything, because definitely I’m not. But definitely looking—in order to keep me excited, I have to be doing something I feel I haven’t covered before.
This is a question someone asked Duke Ellington—whom is the artist most accountable to?
Firstly themselves, for sure.
Duke’s answer, too.
Good—glad to be on the same page. Beyond that I’m not sure. Obviously, yourself. Beyond that, it depends if you’re collaborating with other artists and to what degree the collaboration is. Something like this—we’re obviously accountable to each other as well. A 50-50 record and project. We treat PJ and JP records—if you will—as very different thigns to our solo records, even though I might be producing on one of hers. The decisions—everything—is absolutely 50-50 on this projects.
It’s been thirteen years since your last album with PJ—what are you happiest to have left behind?
There’s nothing obvious—it’s more what I’ve found than left behind. But in finding it, something was left behind. I’ve left behind the need to control the musical situation. I had much more—when making Dance Hall at Louse Point, I really wanted to be in control of everything. Not what Polly was doing, but control of the sound and the playing and everything—I thought that was the way you make great music. And since that time, I’ve found that working with different artists—particularly Howe Gelb from Giant Sand, who is very much the opposite extreme—I’ve realized that chaos and uncontrollability are really your friends when you’re creating. And it’s possible to make greater things. It’s also possible to fail more easily, but it’s a risk worth taking. Leaving behind that need for control has been most beneficial to me as a writer, I think.
Burroughs says control only begets a desire for more control.
Probably yes—I haven’t specifically thought about it, but that seems very likely. But you could say that about so many things. Power, control, wealth—it’s all something you can’t have enough of.
And they all seem to go together, too.
They do, don’t they?
What’s been your most exciting musical failure?
Probably the band Automatic Diamini because it was never successful on the level—well, it was never successful on any level, really, apart from a lot of good musicians came out of it who went on to do other things. A lot of people will say, ‘Why don’t you re-release those old records because they were so good?’ And to me they had moments but they weren’t—it was never what I was hoping it would be. But I still got an awful lot from it. And it’s obviously shaped the lives and careers of a lot of other people. So it ended up being successful but not in the way I was imagining it would be.
What was the first time you got the music on the record to match the music in your head?
I’ll tell you if I ever get to that place.
Your wife says that you and PJ are going to end up playing as an organ-and-drums duo in pubs when you’re seventy.
She’s probably right.
For tips or for drinks?
Whatever we can get!
You’ve said there’s no reason to mellow out—why?
Why would you? It seems to me completely crazy to think any other way. I love seeing things like Neil Young doing that Living With War record—and that Déjà Vu tour, playing in the Midwest with all those people telling him to fuck himself. That’s exactly what you should be doing—there’s no reason to mellow out and accept things you wouldn’t have accepted when you were younger. I don’t really know why people do it.
Do you one day hope to have thousands of Midwesterners cursing you as you play?
I don’t know—if you keep electing presidents like Obama, maybe we won’t need to be singing those things, right?
What do you think is the most important invention of the last 100 years?
These are hard questions! The thing that obviously I love that wasn’t around a hundred years ago was the electric guitar. You couldn’t possibly say that’s the most important invention. But it’s the thing that I love most that wasn’t around 100 years ago.
So you’d be OK without a refrigerator?
Yes, I would—as long as I live quite close to the store.