Three years since their multi-platinum eponymous album, The Band Perry is back with follow-up Pioneer. You wouldn’t think it’s been three years, though – their crossover country-pop anthem ‘If I Die Young’ receives as much airplay now as it did back in October 2010. To put that into perspective, as of late 2013 the single is nearing six million sales (digital and physical combined) and has become the staple of The Band Perry.
Words: Guy Little Photography: Richard Ecclestone
Those three in-between years weren’t spent dining out on one song, though – Kimberly, Reid, and Neil headed off to write with Rick Rubin for their sophomore release, Pioneer, producing a string of other hit singles along the way. In some ways, though, ‘If I Die Young’ could be the best and worst thing to happen to The Band Perry. The ballad will undoubtedly remain their biggest crossover hit but, at the same time, it doesn’t paint the whole picture to casual listeners just dipping into their back catalogue. That’s where Pioneer comes in. The Band Perry isn’t a one hit wonder, and they certainly aren’t all about soppy ballads. High-energy tunes dominate Pioneer – a nod to the fact that the band’s repertoire isn’t saturated with the melodic calmness of ‘If I Die Young’. It’s Kimberly Perry’s voice that ascends them above the plethora of other country acts. While others rely on finely nuanced intricacy and lyricism, The Band Perry do it the old-fashioned way – they write songs about real life, and they rock out playing them. The three siblings: Kimberly (vocals and guitar), Neil (vocals, mandolin, banjo, bouzouki), and Reid (vocals and bass), are held together with blood and bluster and are at their best when rustling up an emotional storm of hook-laden tunes with banjo and mandolin-driven melodies at the heart.
With a feistier edge, and the intensity of a packed-out arena, Pioneer sees Kim and co. venture into rockier territory. Laced with conviction, ‘Better Dig Two’ and ‘Done’ take us to a darker place (surprisingly, ‘If I Die Young’ isn’t all about an ill-fated death), but there are still the country ballads (‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’) and the soaring choruses (‘Mother Like Mine’, ‘I Saw A Light’) we’d naturally expect. Pioneer builds on the sounds garnered from The Band Perry and develops into something that’s ready to blow the roof off any stadium they play. While still retaining the country edge, Kim’s voice finds grittier reasoning, twisting that unique Perry sound and going from a gentle whisper to a ballsy shout with not one hint of a “let’s write this song to sell millions like that other one” kind of feel. Thankfully, their career didn’t, er, die young.
As the country sibling trio roll into the UK as part of their We Are Pioneers world tour, they extend an invitation for Acoustic to join them on their tour bus – and who are we to argue? With a resounding yes, we headed to Birmingham to chat to one of country music’s hottest exports as they take the world by storm with an album of charging melodies, foot-stomping country rhythms, intense fraternal harmonies, and some of the catchiest songwriting around. Not only that, they’re passionate instrumentalists – and they certainly know what they’re talking about!
With the humdrum of a touring production all around and roadies wheeling flight cases etched with ‘TBP’ on the side into Birmingham’s Institute, we make our way up the steps of the tour bus, not knowing quite what to expect – empty beers cans, food wrappers, unwashed clothes strewn across the floor and some rock and roll paraphernalia, perhaps? Quite the contrary, actually. An immaculate and somewhat futuristic bus beckons, with people peering out of bunks left, right and center. If it weren’t for the three Perrys sat at a table on the next level up, we’d be a little underwhelmed. No evidence of rock and roll excess here; just a pair of Christian Louboutin knee-high boots to the side of a couch, a few bottles of still water and a couple of books.
Keeping well out of the way from the madness and rain just outside of the bus, the Perrys are preparing for one of their first UK shows on the We Are Pioneers European leg after a few long days of travelling. They’re feeling a little tired, under-groomed (Reid’s desperate to find a barber’s shop) but Kimberly, who quickly tells us to call her KP, says how she has been binging on box sets of Nashville. So with the excitement of playing the first gig after a couple of days off, and the added bonus of being riled up by her favourite TV show, KP is on fire for tonight’s show.
Neil and Reid sit opposite us, Kimberly beside us, and with the crackle of the roadies’ walkie-talkies coming in through a bus window left ajar, it brings back memories for the two brothers who used to roadie for Kimberly when she gigged as a solo act in her teenage years. Kimberley (who’s now 30 years old) and her two brothers (both in their 20s) signed to Republic Nashville in 2009, quickly followed by a blistering country initiation of seven American Music Awards and a couple of Grammy nominations for good measure. Not bad, huh? Things aren’t quite that rosy in Birmingham, though – they’ve not seen the sun for days…
‘I do miss the sunshine. I thought it was going to be pretty here in England,’ KP jokes. Well, it hasn’t stopped the gaggle fans congregating at the front of the venue six hours before show time.
‘We were in the UK last year for several media tours and then we played the big BBC Radio Two event at Hyde Park. We also done a few of our own headline shows, but it’s definitely exciting to be back here to do six dates in the UK. We’ve been to Scandinavia, Zurich, Paris, Germany – all on this We Are Pioneers tour,’ KP says.
We Are Pioneers has been all over the place already (that’s before hitting the States and Canada) and it’s definitely stepped up in terms of production and the venues – I guess this is the most ambitious run of live shows you’ve done?
RP: It will be, absolutely. Especially when we get back to the States. We’re actually finalising some of the production aspects of it this week. It’s our very first full headlining tour and we thought what better way than start it over in Europe! We’ve still got the States and Canada to go.
KP: The spirit of Pioneer is one of adventure and in Europe we’ve only ever done two weeks at a time before, so for us this has definitely been a brand new experience and we love every minute. It’s all about the growth from each show, and from each tour…
It’s no secret that country music in the UK suffers a rougher ride than it does back in the States…
NP: Well, the three of us grew up on both country music and rock n’ roll. In the morning when our mum was making breakfast she’d be playing Patsy Kline and Hank Williams, but our dad was the huge rock n’ roll lover who’d play Queen. Our favourite concert was the Rolling Stones on their Bigger Bang tour. We love writing country songs, but playing a rock and roll show. Coming over to the UK we’ve noticed that audiences here are some of the most energetic that we’ve ever played to – not only do they sing the songs, they yell and pump their fists in the air. It’s always an amazing crowd in England!
Being brought up on a mix of country and rock n’ roll really does become evident – particularly your vocals which are reminiscent of some Queen harmonies.
KP: Yeah! Those crazy Freddie Mercury and Brian May stack vocals. We love that and in the States, at some of the awards shows, they label us as a vocal group. We’ve always classed ourselves as a band, but we’ll take vocal group when you compare us to Queen! [Laughs]
Pioneer packs a lot of punch and has such a huge sound that seems really suited to the types of shows you’re about to play in the States – blowing the roof off the big arenas…
KP: That was a really conscious decision that we made early on. The first record came out which was a point of introduction for us – you don’t tell them all your life history in one go, do you? We knew that we had more cards to play and certainly wanted to turn over, but also that we’d upgraded the venues we were playing. So we went from playing theatres and club venues to amphitheaters and arenas back in the States. We chose Pioneer to keep our acoustic roots; keep the mandolin, the fiddle, the acoustics, but also amp it up a little with some big drum sounds.
You still do a lot of unplugged sessions, especially on country radio, and then the next day you’re off playing to 80,000 at the Country Music Association Festival with a full band.
RP: Whenever we write it is just the three of us, but nothing beats rocking out, right? In our full set we do just the three of us for some songs and then bring everyone else in.
KP: The week that our album was released in the States we went out and did a lot of shows acoustically – songs are their own stories and when you bring it all back down to the original instrumentation they can show you that even more.
Three years separate The Band Perry from Pioneer. You’ve said before that it was much more difficult writing a sophomore record.
RP: A lot of it was just being on the road. For The Band Perry we were able to be at home in Nashville to write it, but for Pioneer we figured up around 630 days over two years. For us we had to figure out how to live life on the road, how to be inspired by that, and then how we were going to write on the road. It took at little bit of getting used to but I think we were able to crack a formula.
KP: We felt a responsibility to not be a one hit wonder. The beauty of ‘If I Die Young’ is that it brought us fans, but the potential scary side of that (and anything to do with a first album) is finding life after that. Will folks start to just call you a one hit wonder?
So you didn’t feel any pressure writing Pioneer, knowing how incredibly successful ‘If I Die Young’ was, and still is…
KP: We just knew that we had to find whatever was next for the three of us.
NP: We want to write music that people can relate to and help them through parts of their lives – that was the big deal to the three of us.
You co-wrote songs for Pioneer with fellow country trio the Henningsens; if you could each choose one dream collaborator, who’d it be?
NP: We were actually talking about this earlier today. I’d say Bobbie Gentry. She wrote some great songs like ‘Ode To Billy Joe’ – really great southern swampy songs.
KP: I’d say someone like Jay Z. I feel the hip hop and country communities have a lot in common, in the sense that we’re all talking about where we’ve come from and there’s a little bit of a blue collar sensibility about that.
RP: Bruno Mars is a guy we really like. We’ve never had a chance to see him live, but I’ve been told that it’s one of the best live shows around.
Some of the songs from both albums are clearly cut from where you’ve come from and your personal lives. ‘Done’, ‘Better Dig Two’, and ‘Mother Like Mine’ are just a few of those from Pioneer…
KP: ‘If I Die Young’ wasn’t from a specific circumstance. It was kind of a world view about life – so that’s not too difficult to share with people [we mention that when we last checked it had 77 million YouTube hits]. There were some songs on Pioneer that became a lifeline based on experience. The thing is that sharing it among the three of us is easy because if one of us goes through something, then we all do. It’s always an understanding between us that if this particular song is the soundtrack to my life, then it will be for these guys, too.
RP: We wear our hearts on our sleeves in The Band Perry. There’s no holding back what you think or what we want to talk about.
NP: I think one of the most honest songs from Pioneer is ‘Back To Me Without You’. That song was an interesting experience because we wrote it in real time about a friendship that KP had that was falling apart. I think because of that it has a deeper sensibility for the three of us.
KP: There’s a little dark tinge that we like to break into. I think when we came out with ‘Better Dig Two’ that little darkness reminded them of ‘If I Die Young’, but Pioneer felt like the boldest step that we could’ve possibly taken. What I love about ‘Better Dig Two’ is the great bridge between the acoustic instrumentation that we love so much with the banjos, but it has this really aggressive drum beat underneath.
You had written around 50 songs to pick from when putting Pioneer together – how did you choose which made the final cut?
KP: Firstly, we recorded some songs a few times until everyone felt that it was the right take. There’s that phrase, isn’t there – “kill your darlings.” The three of us will always agree on a song. The 12 songs on there are a mixture of prior negotiations with the label, and ourselves, but we still have some favourites from that 50 which may make their way onto another album in the future.
NP: There are definitely some songs that raise their hands saying that they’re special. Usually some of the easiest songs we’ve written get the biggest response. ‘If I Die Young’ was written in one afternoon with KP and her guitar, ‘Mother Like Mine’ was another that means so much but one of the easiest to write.
Dann Huff [Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Rogers] produced Pioneer, but you wrote some of it with Rick Rubin in his Malibu studio.
KP: We call Rick our song guru. He was the one that we wrote most of the songs with in his studio – he really helped us to define that track list, too. We would take him some of our favourites and he’d either be like: “Yes, I love this” or “No, I really hate this!” I think that a lot of the songs on Pioneer got refined underneath his counsel. For us, Rick is kind of like a micro-producer at this point and it’s what we love about him. Dann is known for his big-sounding production, and he fit right in with what we wanted to achieve with Pioneer.
NP: For 15 years, this is all we’ve done. Even when we’re not doing music, we’re doing… music. People say that if you love doing what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s what we’ve been doing for all these years.
KP: There are definitely fireworks from time-to-time between the three of us to do with serious business stuff, but then there are times we’ll argue over who took the last bowl of cereal! The three of us are a tough posse to oppose because we stand united – and that’s important to have in this crazy business.
Some of your acoustic instruments are pretty special – custom made McPherson acoustics, National resonator mandolins, and the first ever National bouzouki are all in your collection. Between the three of you, you’ve got most bases covered!
KP: You know, we do! I didn’t actually start playing guitar until I was 18, but the first guitar I had was a graduation present. I mainly played piano before that [Kimberly is classically trained], and I had been daydreaming over a Taylor guitar at our local music store. Finally, my parents brought home this guitar case with the Taylor in it. I learned on that Taylor. Now I play a McPherson acoustic guitar and they’re beautiful. I’m sure you know, they’re a very boutique line and the soundhole is offset. It resonates beautifully – it has pearl inlays with our band logo on the headstock and the name on the fretboard.
NP: One of my favourite instruments to play right now is my resonator National mandolin. The resonator gives the mandolin a whole new look – a little tougher, I guess! You get some really cool sounds from it. National has also made me their first ever bouzouki and it’s the loudest thing I’ve got! I pretty much don’t have to plug it in at our live shows and you can still hear me on it. I started out as the drummer in the group, so my playing style is much more rhythmic – that’s what I love.
RP: I play everything from Fender basses to Gretsch basses. I actually did just get a National bass. It’s full metal, but it also has a resonator in it. An upright would be nice, eventually…
KP: We all started out on piano and are all classically trained from our instructor – scales, theory, chord structures, you know? But on our instruments now, we’re all pretty much self-taught.
NP: We played along to our favourite records – that’s how we learned. We’d analyse songs and play them from ear. Paul McCartney taught Reid how to play bass!
KP: For me, I understand the reasons why certain chords fit together but I think part of it is just diving into an instrument and going for it.
Having enjoyed a lot of success in a short space of time, what does long-term success mean to you?
KP: For us, it means more and more faces out in the crowd singing along each night. We love to play live – it’s our favourite thing to do. It’s not about record sales, just playing our music to our fans.
The Band Perry’s Pioneer is out now.