Better Than Your Friend’s Basement
The Parson Red Heads on showmanship and style
At performances by The Parson Red Heads, audiences can expect upbeat, folksy, multi-harmony rock and roll with psychedelic traces, and, most likely, special treatment. It is a major concern of the band’s to make sure you get your money’s worth and possibly participate in the show.
Speaking by phone, singer Evan Way says it’s important to look, if not sharp, at least like you’re trying. So, to add visual interest to the live show, The Parson Red Heads dress in all-white costumes. Way says this makes it more special than just watching some guys play songs. “I mean, you can see that in a basement—like, in your friend’s basement.” Sometimes more than 10 people take to the stage, and Way says the unified color detracts from the chaos. If you don’t wear your whites, you can probably still jam. “Most of the time there ends up being more than just the normal band on stage. We have a lot of tambourines and we’re happy to hand them out.”
The band contains nine official members and 40 “Honorary Parsons,” with names like Frothy, Stubble and Left Eye. While the core touring lineup is only four members (though, on this tour, one friend will be flying in from Norway to play a few shows), there is a sense that anything can happen. Way recalls one gig with particular fondness: The band, opening for Robyn Hitchcock, happened to meet R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. When Way invited him to attend a Parson Red Heads performance, Buck asked if he could sit in and play. “It’s not every day you get to play music with a guy like that,” Way says. “It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Besides playing well with others, Parson Red Heads are fond of one another, and their joy onstage together is visible. Way has been called the band’s “father figure,” making close-knit friendships seem to border on cultish. This isn't an image the band cultivates. “We just happen to be best friends,” Way laughs. “It’s the kind of thing where we’ll probably get back from this tour—after, like, five weeks in the van together—and that night one of us will call the other, and we’ll all end up going out and getting drinks. We just like hanging out with each other.” One of Way’s dreams is to have a place in the country—with a studio and a barn—where the band would live while not touring.
When this tour is complete, The Parson Red Heads will move back to Portland after a stint in Los Angeles. Way says the band’s time in L.A. was well spent, spurring band members to work harder. They rehearsed more rigorously and played more extensively than they might have had they stayed in the laid-back Northwest. With priorities now in order, the band seeks a cheaper cost of living. Way looks forward to using the slower pace to his advantage—he’ll “have time to write songs, other than, like, in my car on the way to work.” The Parson Red Heads did manage to pen a few tracks right before embarking on this trip across the country: “Early Birds,” a four-song EP, will be available only during this tour. Get your copy, and your money’s worth in live music, on Thursday at Low Spirits.