First Published 9 August 2014. Pearl Handled Revolver are one of those bands that move you. They do this with their music, with their stage presence and by injecting a little bit of magic into proceedings.
Words: Liz Medhurst – Photos by Dutch Michaels
Today at Cambridge Rock Festival the four piece entranced us with their own unique brand of heavy blues psychedelia putting in a powerful set that included tracks from second album ‘This Mountain Waits’ and some new tracks from the forthcoming, as yet unnamed album.
This was an hour of blissful sexy grooves, of gloriously dirty riffs and immaculate heavy rhythms. There was a real maturity and coherence to the performance yet it still felt loose, wild and abandoned.
The new songs ‘Into The Blue’, ‘Help Me Down From The Trees’ and ‘Loverman’ are lush, potent tracks blending perfectly into an intense and assured set that captivated the tent.
The band have gone through a line up change with bass player Oli Carter moving on, but instead of replacing him the arrangements have evolved and the low end is now covered by organ and guitar. This works so well that I genuinely didn’t notice that there was no bass player until about the third track in the set.
There are of course similarities to The Doors in their sounds and set up, but make no mistake, Pearl Handled Revolver have developed their own niche and are nobody’s clones.
I spoke to the band – vocalist Lee Vernon, organ and keyboard player Simon Ronaldo, guitarist Andy Paris and drummer Chris Thatcher – after the gig to get the inside story on the evolution of the Pearl Handled Revolver sound.
We had a very enjoyable chat about all sorts – including some topics not covered here for decency’s sake (!) – and the guys are a great and personable team who are passionate about what they do and genuinely chuffed at the reaction to the set.
The decision to proceed without a bass player is notable and I was interested in how this came about.
Simon: “It took us a while to adapt, although I play bass – I learned as an organist, not a piano player so there was always a lot of bass pedals, and left hand work. Oli decided to move on and do other things, we thought about other bass players, but nobody floated our boat so I said I’d do it temporarily so at least we could write the new material, and we liked it – it’s given Andy more space, he’s become more free to do what he feels, and I’m quite enjoying the challenge, so it’s a new sound and everybody notices, something different that nobody else seems to be doing at the moment.”
It is different, a very organic sound, this blend of heavy, blues etc, was that a definite thing that you wanted to do, or did you discover that by accident?
Andy: “We never really set out to do anything, the sound that you hear on stage is what the four of us come up with in a room, we all write the songs, it’s what comes out of our studio.”
Lee: “Four souls bouncing off each other…”
Simon: “…that sounds really dirty…”
Lee: “…I did say souls… It’s very true, sometimes one of us will come with a definite idea for a song, but none of us expect it to stay that way, that’s the beauty of what we do, that’s why it sounds like it’s so tightly knit, because we respond to each other and that seems to create the best from all of us.”
Simon: “It’s an evolution. When we started off, we were basically a blues band, we all come from the blues originally. I remember Lee and I having a conversation, about the sound of the band, we did actually talk about how it’s got to match the voice, his voice is an aggressive, over-driven, dirty vocal, so there’d be no point in me playing a piano, it’s got to be the Hammond, it’s got to be cranked up, same for the guitars. It all just seemed to mould together, it’s been a long journey and an interesting one.”
Lee: “In terms of other bands I’ve never been in one that’s so intuitive before, I don’t even have to open my eyes, I can just know where they are and what they’re doing and I think everybody feels the same. We have our moments as every band does but the fact that you can trust everybody, that we’ll all come back to that same place, that’s invaluable.”
And your voice is very distinctive, but it suits the music perfectly, where did you get your inspiration from to develop that?
Simon: “20 a day wasn’t it?”
Lee: “Yeah I suppose it was really. Initially, I used to sing like a choirboy and I never liked it, a lot of stuff I used to do was very clean, then just the hazards of growing up I suppose. I really started to enjoy it and if you can learn to control elements of it so it doesn’t wear you out, it’s a very useful tool. I love people like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Captain Beefheart, they were a big influence because they show you that you can go a bit crazy on a night.”
Simon: “I remember being a nine-year-old listening to The Doors, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, that’s really where I came from.”
Lee: “Chris comes from a completely different background though…”
Chris: “Yeah I was very into Heavy Metal and industrial and a lot of dance music, the last couple of years I’ve listened to jazz – I’m always looking for something new, or something that excites me, different voices. I always like that feeling when you listen to something for the first time and go ‘aaagggghh what’s that’ and then you listen to it a few more times and you’re going ‘I’m not sure’, then a few weeks later you’re driving in the car and you find yourself singing along to something like Electric Wizard – that happens!
“And that’s why I go down these weird extremes and now for me listening to Elton John is an extreme cos you know every so often I have to listen to ‘Honky Cháteau’ to remind me that the songs exist, but I listen to a lot more jazz now and electronic stuff – krautrock, German experimental – and it all feeds in to the way we play.
“Andy’s got that really Black Crowes-y sound, then he throws in effects pedals so there’s always something different coming in and we react to it. I’ve learnt to not try and develop an idea beyond certain points, I just come in with the drums and think does this need to sound a bit industrial or something but we start playing it and that’s what ‘Loverman’ turned into which is a kind of, I don’t know what it sounds like really, Steppenwolf or something. That’s what I like, not refining ideas, and fill out the gaps, take it somewhere else, then play them live for a while where we add bits in, and change them when we record.”
Do the songs evolve a lot from the stage to the studio?
Andy: “This time yes, the first two albums were written in a flurry one or two songs a week, write them and then record them, plus we had restrictions from the record company, saying don’t play them live. Whereas with this one we decided to write a song, play it live, see if it works for us, and then tweak it and tinker with it, jam it in the studio.
“We’re ready to do something else now, letting the weird guitar sounds bounce off the walls and messing around with the bass, the bass has become more of a focus, it would be easy to try and bury it as we lost the bassist, but it’s almost like it’s become the spine of the song, it’s given us some freedom to listen to each other more.”
Simon: “It’s a different sound as well, on the keys I can go lower than a bass guitar, you do articulate a little bit differently, and it’s made a unique sound so we’re kind of using that, you develop it as you go.”
Andy: “I’ve used a bit more delay, and vibrato and stuff like that, to fill out the sound a bit more, to make up for the lost instrument.”
What about the format and recording of the new album, will you use tape?
Simon: “For the next album we’ll be emulating tape – we do use a lot of old gear and anyone who uses tape ends up putting it on Protools anyway, that’s the way we’re going to do it, the benefits of modern technology although we talked about buying an 8 track and recording only on that. I won’t go above 32 tracks, as that’s just being greedy, so we do have restrictions, and we have some nice vintage gear that keeps the sound.”
Lee: “That’s the most important thing about this new album, it’s not so much about doing it on tape, or that way, it’s more important that we are actually going to record it live because all the time we play together we get this response from the audience that tells us there’s something electric going on and we need to capture that, doesn’t matter how we do it, we’re gonna have to do it, and each time I think we get so close.
“This is what’s important about this particular recording because it will be done in that way, if it’s not right, or someone makes a mistake, we will do it again but it’s going to be as it was, raw, as delivered on the stage.”
Chris: “We want to get it out on vinyl ultimately, and that’s going to feed into how many songs we write and record for it. The idea is to keep it to about 40 minutes, so there are two sides of vinyl, a proper gatefold. Digital music is fantastic, downloading is great to get your music out there but for people that do buy physical formats still I think it’s really important to give them something that’s worth their money, and you can’t get much better than a big gatefold vinyl, and we’ll always do the CDs too.”
Simon: “Albums work best when they’re about 40 minutes long anyway, keep the album relatively short, don’t over egg it, that’s what we are working towards with these songs, thinking about the whole package. If we think about our favourite albums it’s mainly old stuff, they’re short albums, they just work.
What about a tour for the new album?
Lee: “We’re not going to release any dates until we’re certain the album’s ready, but we’ve got a lot of plans for next year. We’re very happy to play a short number of gigs through the year, 15-20, but every one of them gets better and better and we keep ploughing on, the point is as it gets bigger and better we get more enthused, and our albums and the music become sharper and tighter.
“We’ll be revealing things as we go, but come and see us at Legends Of Rock in Yarmouth, it’s going to be fantastic to share a stage with The Quireboys and Arthur Brown, and we’ll be doing a bit with Stray, we play with them and we’ve done a few gigs with Del Bromham’s Blues Devils, and we throw a bit of Stray in there, they are an amazing band.”
I’m not going to disagree with you there, we love Stray here at MetalTalk…
Lee: “Everyone does – we did this thing with Del when he supported Mott the Hoople, and Joe Elliott wanders in and insists on coming backstage and seeing Del and he’s brought two photographers with him, and he goes ‘Del mate, I’ve been following your music since I was little, you are my hero can I have a photo’, brilliant!
Simon: “One thing about Del – he’s such a lovely bloke, just a normal guy, and he said to me I’ve never had the keyboards live – he played all the keyboards on the albums, especially ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ and all that, all the early stuff – can you do it for me? So I did it the best I could and I added a little bit and he let me have a free hand, he didn’t say copy it, he said do what you feel and he loved it, it’s what he’d wanted to hear live, back in the 70s.”
Are you road dogs at heart or is the studio your natural home?
Simon: “Both. We started off as a studio project, Lee and I were in other bands, and said let’s do what we want to do, the music we want, not what anyone else is telling us. Record companies say you’ve got to be this, be that, let’s do what we want, maybe it will work, maybe we’ll get something back. And we’ve brought in the musicians to make it what it is and now we are one unit, including (live sound engineer) Emily, that’s important.”
Lee: “Emily will sit in when we do the album so she will hear it and get to know it, what works and what doesn’t work. We need that third party as we’re all so involved in what we’re doing, someone to come in and say if anything needs changing after we’ve been in this dark room for 6 months, and come out pointing at the sun going ‘what the hell is that?’ so we do lose touch with reality at some points.
“We will keep going on the road – I want to be proud each time I go and play, to know we’ve done it even better than last time, that’s really all you can say I think. We ain’t going away!”
You Got It Wrong
Help Me Down From The Trees
Rattle Your Bones
Into The Blue
Peace By Piece
Pearl Handled Revolver live:
August 21 – Attica Live, Peterborough
September 26 – Blues In The City Festival, Chelmsford
October 19 – Legends Of Rock: The Originals – Great Yarmouth
January 16 – The Borderline, London (with Stray)