BOCEPHUS KING <heart> U
By Val Cormier
Bocephus King, a.k.a. Jamie Perry, fronts one of Vancouver’s finest roots bands and has been throwing his blend of blues, New Orleans jazz, folk, country, funk, and more to audiences at home and abroad since the mid ’90s. Despite the ongoing buzz surrounding their live shows, they’ve managed to slip between the cracks: not ‘alt’ enough for college radio, too ‘alt’ for the mainstream.
Despite, or perhaps because of, a lack of consistency, Bocephus King remains one of this city’s best live acts, and their Railway Club gigs are the kind which should be entered into hipper tour guides as “the quintessential Vancouver experience.”
DiSCORDER engaged Bocephus King in a rambling conversation recently on the Drive and edited out most of the gratuitous prescription drug references for your reading pleasure.
DiSCORDER: Let’s start with a quick background for those who don’t know you yet.
Bocephus King: Okay, I’ll give you the quick version. I was always into music, although I was more into movies my entire childhood. I picked up guitar, learned a bunch of songs, and when I was 16 these guys I know got a gig in a lounge in Tsawwassen. They didn’t know enough songs and asked me to play with them because I knew more songs. I came in and played, liked it, and fired the other two guys. Got my brother and another friend to come and play with me. So we played there for awhile, and that’s where it started. We were playing just because it was a job, and we were making more money than most people I knew with their pizza jobs. It was a backward career choice, so to speak. I was able to pursue and learn more because people were paying me to play music. Otherwise I probably would have done whatever it is small town people do.
What kind of stuff did you cover?
Cover stuff, originals. We used to essentially take LSD and play for drunken 40 to 70 year olds, my parents sometimes included. Neil Young, we covered lots of Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Nat King Cole. After doing that and playing in different bands I went to Nashville when I was 19. That’s where I got my moniker “Bocephus King.” The guys I worked with were making fun of what I wrote and that it was like “Bocephus” music. So when I would go out to little cafés around Nashville I would call myself Bocephus King, and it stuck. Eleven years later, it’s still stuck, and I’ve stuck around. Puttering around, doing little recordings, until 1986 when a bunch of people got hold of a record I made in a cabin in Point Roberts, called Joco Music. They went big for it, people started liking it. Second record [Small Good Thing] did good; bad relationship with the record company [New West]. Just before everything started falling apart, it started selling well in Italy and in other places, so they didn’t dump me at the 11th hour. They still have a lot of integrity for what they want to do, which is to push established writers like Billy Joe Shaver, Delbert McClinton, people who never really made it into the spotlight. So what New West is doing, I think, is very honourable, but for launching a new star, they don’t have the ability.
Our latest album Blue Sickness was made as a demo for New West, and eventually traded to them for distribution in Europe. Once again, it started doing well, so I got Tonic Records involved locally. So that brings us up to present, where I’m making the new record, and I’m completely nervous and less confident than I would be normally, because none of the other three records carried any expectations whatsoever. Their success was all pleasantly surprising.
I hear the guy who runs New West is actually from Vancouver. How did you hook up?
West Vancouver, actually. The label’s currently based in LA. One of the guys who played drums on our first record sent Cam, the label guy, a tape [of Joco Music]. Cam liked it and phoned me up. Unfortunately this same drummer also took it upon himself to be my manager, without my consent, and he made these big plans to go to Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans, fire my band, and so on. We ended up going to Minnesota instead to record.
How is the new album coming along?
Well, we remixed our song “8 1/2” for European radio and made a video of it, as well. It’s just been sent to Much Music, so everybody e-mail them and request it! Wanna hear the story behind it?
Kate, my manager, had her buddy Doug lined up to direct. It was getting down to the wire, because we had to film before we left for Italy last fall on our acoustic tour. He managed to assemble a crew, everything, in about three days, gave us several choices of scenario. He wanted to play up the reference to the Fellini movie 8 1/2, with tango dancers and so on. Very, well, Fellini-esque. Everything was fine until I started drinking some Wild Turkey with these anti-anxiety pills, which didn’t mix so well. I was still out of it when I showed up for the shoot. Kate’s mom got Paul [lead guitar] drunk. He’s wearing this purple polyester suit, and splits the zipper. At one point, we go shopping when the director’s looking for us. Then it was makeup time—we were still wired, of course. I didn’t like the way they were doing Paul’s hair so they let me comb it like Little Nicky, you know, that Adam Sandler movie? I thought it was hilarious, and Paul is checking himself out in the mirror and saying “yeah, that’s pretty nice!” But seriously! This of course made me convulse with laughter so I fell over and split my eye on this lady’s makeup case. I don’t feel anything, because I’m whacked out, of course. So I had to wear sunglasses for the video. The video turned out okay in the end. My involvement in it was practically zero.
How does making a video translate into sales, audience, and so on. Or does it?
Oh yes. We’d made a video previously for “Mess of Love,” which got a lot of airplay on Much Music. We went on tour across Canada just after it came out and wherever we played, everybody knew the song.
Let’s chat a bit about how you came to be so popular in Europe, Italy specifically.
Joco Music did fairly well in Europe. Then we were at SXSW in Austin and a couple of Italian guys saw our show. One of them was with a big Italian magazine, Buscadero, and gave us a big push. Eventually, when Blue Sickness came out, he gave us the cover. On our last tour we had a lot of media attention in Italy. Even though during some interviews I was pretty blunt that I wasn’t the biggest across-the-board roots fan, and not everybody was happy with my opinions. I put Destiny’s Child above Ryan Adams on my ‘evolving’ list, and stuff like that.
So you can actually say that, unlike a lot of other Canadian bands who hump themselves down to Austin for SXSW, it was a success story for you.
Yeah, and what we didn’t know before we got there was that we already had an insane amount of hype. New West was based in Austin at that time and had a lot of Austin old-timers on the label, some cred and they got the word out about us to the local critics. So by the time we got to Austin, we were driving in and they’re talking about us on the radio! Everywhere we went, it was hyped out and packed. It was a lot of fun.
So what’s with the being popular in Italy? Any theories on that?
I don’t know. They like the entertainment aspect of our live shows, I think. They listen more than North Americans. We’re still like a one-horse country in some respects. It’s tough, but you can’t really blame the audiences, because no one’s ever really learned how to watch music. So you just try to put on your best show, and people are pretty good to us, for the most part. We stick to the Railway Club because I don’t really like playing anywhere else. I don’t see a point in this town, at all. Not to insult any other club, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. I used to think it did, but now that I’ve toured a lot, it really doesn’t matter.
So what is your take on what’s going on, or not, in the local music scene?
I don’t have a complaint so much as there just isn’t a scene. The way I see it, there’s many bands, not many live clubs. There’s a big art scene here, a big movie scene. I find there’s small groups within the music community which are community-like, but for the most part it’s the “mine, mine, mine” attitude. I don’t think it’s just a Vancouver thing. We could be sitting in a similar-size city in, say, Texas, and having the same conversation. But I think we’re also a bunch of spoiled little shits sitting in la-la land. It’s true! Go to any other part of the world. We live in, like, a resort. We give welfare to snowboarders—it’s crazy. I feel that a lot of people are kind of spoiled.
I think the thing that everyone skips is that people just do what they like to do. We have no problem with movies; our film festivals are good. Music shows are pretty good. We just don’t have a large enough audience for our kind of roots music. There’s just not enough support for the scene apart from radio DJs and people like Shelley Campbell of the R.A.N.C.H. Society. There’s just not enough people buying our kind of music.
What do you think of the current Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon?
I think things like [soundtracks for] Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, American Beauty, when they get through, they’re great. It tells us that everything that’s popular isn’t crap. As much as anyone wants to think we’ve been completely taken over by mindless commercialism, the Oh Brother thing proves otherwise, I think. And look at the popularity now of Townes Van Zandt. Not that long ago you couldn’t even find his stuff here. Now there’s a big tribute album out and all. Townes Van Zandt—he’s our new Vincent Van Gogh.
So what would you think if someone decided to make you The Next Big Thing?
I don’t know if I could play the game so well, but I’d fully take advantage of it. I don’t know…”thanks for all the money. I’m gonna go watch movies now. This was only a job!” [laughs] I’d still make records, but yeah, if that happened I’d spend ridiculous sums of money on stupid things. I’d break lots of things, do more speed than I do now, laugh more when people told me to do things. I’d ask lots of people in restaurants if they know who I am, if I couldn’t get a seat. But I certainly wouldn’t get a newspaper article and trash everyone in Canada—why bother?
So, getting back to Italy… How was your last tour there?
We sure saw a lot of car accidents. First one we saw was less than 7 minutes out of the airport, and we were nearly in that one ourselves. They’re all insane drivers over there. Not as many fender-benders as here, but when there’s a crash, there’s usually a fatality.
Lots of coffee, lots of orange juice, lots of Italian food. Our last tour of Italy was acoustic, just me and Paul Rigby, who played lap steel, mandolin and guitar. He just blew my mind a couple of nights, just completely blew my mind. Pretty good considering we didn’t really rehearse before going on tour.
The shows evolved, lots of people went from show to show. “Juanita” and “Haunting of a New York Moon” were really big over there. We did a bluegrass version of “Smoke On the Water,” an acoustic version of Van Halen’s “Jump.” They dug it all.
How was the language barrier when you performed?
Well, for one thing they speak a lot more English there than we do Italian, and for another thing, there’s always somebody to translate the jokes in the audience. But one habit I picked up from the tours there, and continue to do even when I play the Railway, is run one song into another song more. When I first started out, I used to ramble on and on while the guys in the band drank, but that’s been cut down a lot, in big part thanks to Italy.
You’ve had quite the upheaval in band membership over the past year or so. How’s that working out?
It took really about a year to find new guys, and they’re working out great. It’s gelled in the sense that they’re similar musically to Paul, they all get along well and hang out together. Those are Paul’s requirements. My requirements are that they sound good after one rehearsal, so I like it as well. Win-win—I don’t have to do anything!
What’s your future tour schedule looking like?
We’re going to do some big Canadian festivals again this summer, and we’re supposed to go to Europe, including Amsterdam. Amsterdam is disappointing if you’re Canadian, because you can just as easily smoke pot here and cruise hookers. Americans like it, though.
What’s the theme for the next album?
“Big ideas, tiny results.” [laughs]
Any advice for aspiring musicians?
You know, before I would’ve said “do whatever you want to do.” But now, I’d say being successful is harder than not being successful. And holding onto success is much harder than getting success. If you want to be a rock and roll star, hey, that’s just entering the lottery—just do it. But if you want to get yourself into a position where you have to work to continue, I don’t know. I mean, if you’re some chump working in a record store right now who thinks “I’d really like to be in a band,” or “I want my band to go tour all the time,” no I don’t know if you should do it. Is it worth it for that? No, because your life is going to be as good working in the record store as playing music. And you really can’t tell playing two times a week and making demos in your basement what it’s like to go tour for three years. It’s just too hard to explain. In theory, that person probably thinks it’s a great idea, but can you do it for that long? Maybe. Everyone thinks they can. I used to think I can, and I don’t know if I can anymore. And that’s with a small portion of success…
Bocephus King’s next live gig is in Whitehorse at the Frostbite Festival, Feb. 15-16. •