Gun-held-to-head, this is possibly the best description that Hamden, CT-based guitarist/singer/songwriter Shawn Persinger has for the music of Prester John, the duo that is comprised of him and mandolinist David Miller. Having seen the pair perform at Funky Monkey Cafe in Cheshire, the guitar master and the Eastman School of Music-educated mandolin player put on a phenomenal show displaying incredible virtuosity and delivering a set of music that varied between power-pop, jazz, alt. country and indie rock–Never the same thing, but done on the same instruments.
“I wish I could say ‘We’re rock and roll, we play rock and roll'”, explains Persinger. “I wish we could say ‘We play bluegrass’–I have no interest in making a genre. I think that’s so empty and pointless. Unfortunately, David and I don’t play rock and roll, we don’t play bluegrass, we don’t play old time music, we don’t play jazz. We’ve struggled with it–we have this new record coming out, and we have these catch phrases; ‘The split personality band’, ‘The pop-art for your ears’, which means nothing; ‘The modern primitive acoustic scientist music’–That’s the closest I’ve come, which also means nothing, and that’s a take from The Minutemen where he says ‘Our band is scientist rock’. Well, I used to say ‘We’re scientist folk, that’s what we do’, but we’re not a folk group, we just happen to play acoustic guitars, so we’re acoustic scientists. That said, I don’t really think we experiment that much, we’re just playing sort of a mix of vocal tunes with more complicated parts.”
Falling Down (live St. Peter’s Church)
Before the duo was formed, Shawn Persinger was using the Prester John label for his former punk band (before he had formed the progressive-rock band Boud Deun) and as an extended name for his solo act. “My #1 advice to all new bands is name your band something simple and boring. If Boud Deun had been called Prester John, I guarantee it would have sold twice as many records, played twice as many shows. When I went solo, I had already been working with that name Prester John ’cause I liked it–I didn’t want to just be Shawn Persinger either because that’s just another Bob Dylan, Jack Johnson, or Jason Mraz. So when I tagged on the ‘Shawn Persinger is Prester John’ it was purely from a marketing standpoint, and literally, I would call venues and say ‘This is Shawn Persinger’, and they’d say ‘I’ve never heard of you’–I had one venue say (after I said ‘This is Shawn Persinger Is Prester John’) ‘Oh, yeah, I’m holding your CD’. So, like the ‘Shawn Persinger’ isn’t catchy! [both laughing], but the ‘Prester John’–People ask about it all the time.
When David and I put out Desire For a Straight Line, there was a little bit of consideration for that being ‘Shawn Persinger Is Prester John…with David Miller’–that just didn’t work, so it just made more sense to call us ‘Prester John: Shawn Persinger & David Miller’. So, for me ‘Prester John’ gets to be a catch-all of anything I do that’s pretty much my work.”
Their current all-instrumental recording, Desire For a Straight Line will soon be followed up with a companion CD titled Rise, O Fainthearted Girls, and besides the similar look the CD will have to the previous one, its title is an anagram of that CD, but unlike that collection, which is all instrumentals, this one will be chock full of lyrical songs.
“On the new record there’s sixteen songs, and there’s fourteen keys!, And I almost had fifteen keys, and David has never said no to anything except one thing–I wanted to change the key in one the songs, and he said ‘No’, because he had been playing solos and all those licks and his vocal harmonies on the key of ‘E’ and I wanted to move it to ‘F’. And since he never says ‘no’ to anything, I had to agree with him!”
Half-Speed Cakewalk (live at G Guitars)
Persinger, who by the way has also composed music for piano solo and 2 pieces for piano and violin (The first of those pieces was transcribed for guitar and mandolin and performed on Desire) is also a great artist of the looping pedal, and has his own take on its usage in performances.
“I kind of missed the boat on the looping thing because I have one tune that’s finally on this new record that I’ve been doing since the year 2000, and I pretty much do the exact same thing now that I did 11 years ago, and [then] it was pretty mind boggling, now it’s just ‘Oh, ok, he’s using the loop’–Dave and I use it on these 2 tunes live, where it’s very obvious. I made an effort to the audience, because I’ll use it as a second guitar, just a rhythm track, and I’ve asked audiences ‘Is this loop distracting?’ and they’re like ‘What’re you talking about? There’s a thing going on?’. That’s exactly what the loop should be.”
CM: It shouldn’t be so obvious and it shouldn’t be a distraction of any kind…
“It shouldn’t be a trick either, it should be purely musical. That said, when I play some cover tunes, I’ll use it as an effect to try to fill out things that people are familiar with from those tunes. For instance I do “Blue Monday” [New Order song] and I loop the drum part–That’s sort of inherent to that song. Something like that I do consider to be a novelty, but I do also think it has a valid musical purpose.”
The Fireman’s Drive Inn (live at the BMAD House Concert)