As their new album starts to make the rounds, the Cactus Blossoms — aka Page Burkum and Jack Torrey — have been garnering more than a few comparisons to the Everly Brothers. The duo’s honey-sweet harmonies and yonder-days vibe certainly warrant the invocation, but this is just as much a band for — and of — today. And the 11 instant-classic songs on You’re Dreaming, produced by JD McPherson, evidence as much.
Quite a few bands have lately moved toward multi-lead unison vocals. Another bunch of artists are reaching back to the 1970s. You guys go against both of those grains, so what is it about this sound that inspires you?
Jack Torrey: I can speak for both of us and say that, if we could sing anyway we wanted, it would sound more like James Brown than the Cactus Blossoms. That’s right: two James Browns singing at once. At the end of the day, I think we’re just trying to make something that sounds beautiful with the tools we have. A lot of the songs I’ve written just show up at the doorstep of my mind fully formed, with a groove and melody that I can hear, and then we work out the arrangement and start playing it. Usually, the songs take us toward a sound, rather than being inspired by a style and trying to write within some construct. Maybe it goes both ways, sometimes. It can be hard to keep straight.
JD McPherson similarly bucks those trends. Was that a love-at-first-listen artistic romance?
The first time someone told me about JD, I remember how passionate the person was about telling me again and again that “he’s really, really good.” When I heard him sing, I was blown away! It was exciting to hear somebody like JD who is writing their own hard-hitting songs, and can sing whisper soft or blast it through the roof. Who knew that we’d be playing shows with him and working on our album a little while later?! We love JD!
What kind of gear was employed during the making of the record in order to get just the right tones?
When it comes to recording gear, I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, but I can tell you that there were a bunch of nice old microphones, compressors, and some other stuff all piped into a computer. We just stood on the other side of the microphones and did our best to remember the lyrics, so that one forgotten word wouldn’t mess up a take with the band.
It was recorded 95 percent live, so our voices are in the kick drum microphone and the bass is bleeding into our guitar mics, which I think gives it a very natural, warm sound that you might not find in a recording with perfect separation on every instrument. Joel Paterson played guitar on the record and had a variety of ’50s Gibson guitars. Our brother Tyler played some baritone guitar. Beau Sample is playing an amazingly loud upright bass that has to be 60 years old or something. Alex Hall engineered, mixed, and played drums on the record, so his musical sensibilities left a wonderful thumbprint on the album.
How do you know when you have a Cactus Blossoms song — whether you write it or find it? Are there any special thematic parameters that work (or don’t) in this style?
We know a song is gonna work for the Cactus Blossoms if we feel good singing it together. That seems to be the only requirement a song has to meet to make it into our repertoire.
Clearly, acid wash and neon fashions wouldn’t send quite the right message, so you guys have a classic, though not thoroughly retro, visual aesthetic. What’s the key to balancing then and now to make the whole package work?
Staying classy can be like walking a tightrope, and that’s hard to do when you’re wearing tight acid wash jeans. I salute those brave men.