One band that never fit into any of the categories that critics tried to stuff them into, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are still in full swing even after two decades. Releasing two critically acclaimed albums in 2008, Susquehanna and Skaboy JFK respectively, the band is back touring and recording in full force. Founding member, Steve Perry, made it clear that the party may have slowed down…but it never stopped.
Sonic Eclectic: What’s new with you and the band?
Steve Perry: In the past few years we’ve been ramping up, playing more than we used to. In the 2000’s we…well it isn’t like we ever stopped playing but it would be like if someone called up and was like “You wanna play this festival?” I would go and call everyone up and they would be like “You know it’s my girlfriend’s birthday.” And I would end up like “You know what, the hell with it.” But from 2007, we’ve been ramping things up with a new record…so the decision was to go back to playing more.
SE: What was the spark that got you guys playing together again and writing?
SP: I don’t know. It was kind of a slow thing. I think maybe it was me writing a lot. I had a lot of stuff backed up and I just decided “I’m going to finish this”.
SE: How have your shows been going? Do you have as much stage energy as you did a decade ago?
SP: Oh yeah, you know we were always like that. It’s sort of a spaz thing. [Laughs] It’s like the other day we played with Fishbone and we haven’t played with them in a really long time. It’s the same way with them. Those guys are so energetic. They are physical specimens really. They just can’t do it any other way than balls out. That’s the way it is for us too. When we played with Fishbone, we did a completely ska set. Which weirdly we have never done before.
SE: What genre or style of music inspires you that you’ve yet to explore on a record?
SP: Oh wow, well there’s many of them. Basically the idea of genre in general is interesting to me. The idea of “there are things you can do that work for you within a genre and against you within the genre.” You know like if I was a filmmaker—I would want to make a heist film, then a western, then maybe a documentary then when I’ve made those I would ask what I can do that’s not expected in this genre. I guess I would be one of those directors that people would get frustrated with. You know…“Why doesn’t he just make Reservoir Dogs again?” [Laughs] I’m sorry, I love Reservoir Dogs but I don’t want to make it again. I want to see what I can do different. So to me, almost anything is up for grabs. There are genres that I’m interested in but just don’t know how I could pull it off. For instance I’ve always wanted to do a symphonic hard rock with ridiculously loud guitars.
SE: Are you still producing your records yourself?
SP: Yeah, we’ve always done that. The only real input we’ve ever had turned out super negative. Suggestions were made that were so musically clueless that it should have been on one of those Mixer Man records.
SE: [Laughs] How do you even respond to input like that?
SP: He was like “Can you turn this into a hip-hop song?” We’re like, “No, not really. It’s not a hip-hop song at all. If you want a hip-hop song I’ll do a hip-hop song”. Ridiculous. I think many people don’t know enough about music, at least back in the day they didn’t know enough to say, “Here’s what you should do”. They would just throw up their arms and say “Bring us what you’re going to bring us and we’ll see what we can do with it. And then we will make our absurd suggestions.”
SE: Are you currently recording new material?
SP: Yeah, we are working on little bits and pieces here and there when I can fit it in. Normally I’ll work on little bits and pieces or we do a session where everybody gets together and we bang out a lot of stuff at once.
SE: Is that how most of your albums have gone?
SP: Not really. The early records were like, we had no money. Like for Zoot Suit Riot, we recorded four songs and then we put this thing together because a lot of people want to hear our swing stuff. When they would come to the merch booth they would ask “which of your records has the most swing?” And we would go “well they all have the same amount.” So our manager was like “we have enough money to record four songs. Why don’t we record those songs then just put the swing songs from the other records on it? People will buy that. Believe me.” So we got signed and they put it out. It was a hit. There you go.
SE: Was it frustrating being lumped in with all the other swing bands? Seeing as you guys are by no means just a swing band?
SP: Well…it’s a blessing, too. It’s complicated. I love the idea of a modernized swing movement, something that’s modern but has retro elements to it. I thought to myself, “What if swing was a vein inside of punk rock?” Change the meaning of a certain kind of punk rock. That’s what I was hoping for but when we got lumped in with the rest of these bands they were more like “Hey, look at how retro we can be.” They weren’t trying to make it new.
SE: What was it like for The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in the days before the Zoot Suit Riot compilation was put out?
SP: Well it was a totally different time in the universe, for one thing. Because a lot of our shows were local we could haul a bunch of stage props with us around and the idea was to combine this musical experimentation with genres with the idea of being a crazy inventor. We had inventions on stage, too. The “Dildorado” or penis car, whatever, the idea was we build this car and we drive it around. We also have a blueprint where you can make your own penis car and sell it for 50 cents at the merch table.
SE: [Hysterical laughter]
SP: There was a mad scientist vibe with the music. Once we started touring that idea got thrown out the window because the penis car, it’s a large…[laughter]
SP: You need a crew and we already have eight guys. They aren’t a crew. I can’t expect them to get a grease gun out. It was basically my idea but it just wasn’t possible to go to Denver with the penis car.mas are going to like it so let’s hire these guys for our festival.” We had to comprom
SE: What is your key to still being a successful band after two decades?
SP: Compromise. We are successful because we are playing Zoot Suit Riot and swing songs because a retro vibe is accepted more by people who are buying a show. They are going to go “These are really good musicians, this is really good music, this is going to appeal to people of all ages and the grandise and that’s why we are around. I think if we would have stood our ground and said “We are going to be a crazy Zappa band,” nobody would hire us. We would have died a natural death and the end of our little turn. That’s a sad statement but it’s the truth.
SE: Has there ever been a point during all the controversies and the problems where you’ve been like…
SP: I don’t need this crap?
SE: I don’t need this crap, yeah!
SP: Of course you think that all the time. I’ll tell ya, I’ve got a molecular biology degree and I’ve worked in labs. That is bone grinding hard eighty hours a week work. Looking at a fish through a microscope putting down the characteristics and grabbing a new one. Doing that for twelve hours a day. That’s hard work–and it’s boring. There’s politics in the academic world. Those guys aren’t happy either. [Laughs] They have to deal with all sorts of crap, too. On the other hand though, I’m not bitching. I’ve got a pretty great job. The only thing is I wish we played more and we are trying to do that. Because we are an eight-piece band we can’t just play for nothing. It doesn’t work. We can’t play for no money. We can’t just go out to the bar and play because it’s fun to play. We need to eat.
SE: Any shows coming up that you are especially looking forward to?
SP: We are looking at a few of the shows that are coming up, the festival shows, and saying, “You know we are local and maybe they wouldn’t mind a more diverse set.” Like up in Salem we may do an only ska set but throw in Zoot Suit Riot and a couple of things. We are trying to find what venues we can get away with playing a diverse weirdo set…and which ones where we would be stupid if we did that. If we are at a festival and it seems that people don’t really care, then we will be able to play a more diverse set which really means more ska. We are not to the point where we can bust out heavy rock things in the middle of our set like we used to. I would love to get to that point where we can, but I think if we played thirty more gigs a year then we would be able to do something like that. We are trying to proceed cautiously.
Two decades of rock/ska/swing/retro/use-your-imagination, and The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies are still here. Susquehana and Skaboy JFK are both available on iTunes, Amazon, and wherever great music is sold.