Franky Perez is looking tanned, relaxed and happy. And so he should be, a new album launched and recently over in the U.K. from his home in America to play the Black Deer Festival, he exudes an easy-going charm that’s instantly likeable. On top of that, there’s a rare and real honesty and openness for someone who’s been in the music business for so many years, the passion for his craft practically sparkling in his eyes when he talks.
Having spent the past decade with a number of topflight bands as an in-demand featured vocalist, the time was right for the singer songwriter to get back to his roots. Stints on the road with Apocalyptica and Deadland Ritual amongst others had brought him into contact with vast audiences, something the amiable Perez was used to, but this veteran of the scene was forced to rethink and take a break from constant touring cycles when the global pandemic shut everything down. Having touched on the darker side of life in the past, it was time for a fresh chapter and one that changed not just his world but for everyone involved. We caught up with him recently at his London hotel just before Black Deer to discuss the journey.
Your new, fifth, solo album ‘Crossing the Great Divide’ is due imminently but it’s a bit of a departure for you as you haven’t done anything solo for a while?
Yeh…it’s been a minute. I signed my first solo deal with Atlantic Records in 2001 as a singer songwriter so it was a very roots-based record. I toured with that for quite a while and put out another record called ‘My 4th of July’ and after that there was the upheaval in the music industry where Napster came in and the music business took a bit of a dive. If you weren’t moving units, you got let go and I was one of those artists. It was a good run while it lasted but I found myself looking for work.
I was in New Jersey playing in a cover band, I’m originally from Las Vegas, when I got a call from an old friend of mine David Benveniste, who manages System of a Down, Alice in Chains and the Deftones. He said “Darren from System is putting together a new band and needs a second, someone to play guitar and do vocals. I know this isn’t your world but if you want to give it a shot…”. I was like “Absolutely. I have mouths to feed”. So, I joined that band and through it came to the attention of a lot of people in that genre and ended up becoming a singer for hire for years.
I made records in between, there has five studio albums, but the meat and potatoes of my career has been singing for other people. But with the pandemic, like for so many of us, I do to go within and isolate as I couldn’t get together with other musicians, I couldn’t write with anyone, I couldn’t gig so it took me back to what I just used to do, just me and a guitar in a room and I wrote this body of music I’m really proud of. One thing led to another and here I am now with a record coming out on June 24th.
With the album you also have the documentary. At what stage was that done? Was it threading through the writing?
It was all pretty much the same time and I completed it when the trip was done. It actually goes back a little further. When I said I had to go into a little room to start writing I actually put out a little EP called ‘Suddenly 44’, an acoustic record. I did that out of pure necessity and never intended releasing it, sending it to friends, in their own part of the world and isolated. I thought I’d send them some music to maybe cheer them up a bit as I made it a very positive record with a lot of hope because there was nowhere but up around that time.
One of the people I sent it to was my friend Jason who is the President of Ducati, North America, the motorcycle company, saying “hey, check out this music”. He and I are always putting our heads together, coming up with crazy ideas and he just said, “people have to hear this, it’s absolutely the perfect time”. So, we had this idea, this very honest, organic idea, to get on a motorcycle, and no-one can complain about that as it’s just me so I’m socially distanced, and go to visit some shuttered venues to play a little show outside of them.
We started in Las Vegas, went over to Los Angeles and then up the coast to San Francisco. I then went all the way across country to Washington DC and caught the eyes of some fans who had also invested in film before and thought this was a great story. So now, this little record I made turned into this trip and this trip turned into this possible documentary. So, we said “let’s do it” and within weeks we put together this film crew and never in a million years did I think we’d do anything like this.
This time we started in Miami and went back across the country as I felt that so many things were happening in such a positive way that I wanted to be of service, not just continuing to take from the universe. So, I said “hey, let’s visit healthcare facilities. We may not get in but we can perform outside”. This is at the height of the pandemic and I went to as many cities as I could, bobbing and weaving into the country to see my friends and see how they were faring. I saw people like Randy Travis, Billy Gibbons, Bill Burr, L.P. and the Soul Rebels but this was also a road trip on a motorcycle so there was hundreds of miles and hours to kill but I was just so inspired by the things I was seeing that I was writing this album. Sometimes, dangerously, I’d be riding along and think of a melody so had to record it on my phone as I was going. By the time I got back home I pretty much had the sketches of the entire album from things I’d seen and introspective moments I’d had.
Given the intense pressures they were under, you must have gotten a great response from all the healthcare workers when you turned up to do a show.
I really did and they needed it. We’re at a point now where we put it behind us, even though it’s still here, and no one wants to think about it because it’s like a bad memory we had and we’re trying to move past it. It’s easier to say that if you didn’t lose anyone or have to watch someone die so these people, for the lack of a better word, went to war. Some of the things they saw were mind-blowing so it’s just me showing some recognition of that, saying “I see you. I’m proud of you. Thank you so much. I’m just saying this on behalf of so many people because what you do, we couldn’t”. That message was well received and made for some really moving songs and some really moving footage for the documentary.
There’s a lot of warmth on ‘Crossing the Great Divide’ and a lot of that must be from those experiences but I know that some of the album is very autobiographical.
Oh yes. On March 13th this year I celebrated nine years of sobriety and like many others, that was part of my journey. I’m not telling anyone “You need to sober”, it was just something I had to do for me and my family. I’ve experienced a lot of darkness in my life and even put that out there, recording that type of record and I didn’t want it to be like that as there’s enough of that in the world right now. I don’t want to sound grandiose but just wanted to do my part of putting something positive into the ether. Even the songs like ‘What Gives You the Right’ that were heavy, I wanted to have a thread of hope, leaving the light on at the end of a dark tunnel and I think we accomplished that.
I was able to do that because when I made this record there was no label and nobody breathing down my neck so I did this album at my pace, making the record I wanted to make. What I would do if I wasn’t feeling it or going off on a tangent I’d stand up and leave, only working when inspired, so I think that comes across on this album.
And you played ninety per cent of the instrumentation on the album…
Yeah, and some people say “that’s incredible” but other people say “why?” (laughing). It’s that idea of being able to work at my own pace and not having to rely on someone else’s time. Also, I learnt a long time ago, if you want to get something done, you’ve got to do it yourself (more laughter).
I had some guests play on the album for that other ten per cent and it speaks volumes to the project. If there was something that I couldn’t get or wasn’t feeling right I would go after the player that I knew would fit that and inspire the part. For example, the hottest seat in the band is the drummer’s…I’m a drummer and I love drummers to the point where it’s really annoying when I’m working as I’m referencing every drummer on the planet. For example, the song single from the album was ‘Maggie’s Love Song’ and I immediately thought of Ash Soan (Del Amitri / Faithless / Squeeze). I could hear him playing it so reached out to him and he heard the track and jumped all over it. No one could have done it better and it was made for him.
Another drummer was Matt Chamberlain, who was making a Bob Dylan record at the time, and he was perfect for a couple of songs so took a break from Dylan to do it and was a real conduit of the exact sound I was after. Eicca (Toppinen) from Apocalyptica played cello on the first single, ‘Crossing the Great Divide’, so there are other players on the album but it was designed that way.
Listening to the album, you get the sense of a singer flicking through his collection of old vinyl, the influences there, whilst not overt, certainly running through its DNA.
You nailed it. My biggest influence in life is my family’s vinyl collection when I was a kid. Our neighbours son was going to college and told his parents to sell his massive vinyl collection because he couldn’t take them with him, so my dad goes across the street to the garage sale and buys the entire lot for next to nothing. It was everything from the Doobie Brothers to Elvis to The Beatles to James Brown to Yes to Dylan and some really cool and obscure jazz like Chick Corea. That, on top of my father’s already vast record collection of Latin Jazz, Salsa and Flamenco music, was how I cut my teeth. It’s been a hindrance to my career because I’ve had record executives say, “You’re all over the place” and I get that, but I’m in a time in my life where I don’t care about that (laughs). I’m going to be all over the place and deal with it or don’t (more laughter).
It must have been great, having that creative autonomy and making exactly the album you wanted to. You mentioned The Beatles and there’s a bit of a flavour of them in the opening track ‘When I Think of You’, along with a 70’s feel, matched with a modern production.
Oh yes, especially that bridge, it’s a nod and a wink right at it. Song writing for me begins and ends with The Beatles. That was the band that blew my mind and showed me the possibilities of music. It’s funny, you can listen to records that recent young artists have done and I can see the influence there, even referencing certain tracks. They are the iron thread that weaves through music and definitely that for me and are all over this new album.
Whilst they only had a relatively short career, they had a big range of material, from the early rock ‘n’ roll to the later psychedelia…
Oh yes. I had this conversation this other day. I’ve been in VERY heavy bands and put out the records I have, currently the touring singer with Apocalyptica and I had no idea as a kid I had no idea I’d be in a band with three cellos and a drummer (laughs). I’ve been out with pop and rock acts, and I believe if you perform genuinely then the audience or listener will take that trip with you, no matter the genre. They may not always stick around but if you believe what you do, so will they.
I’ve never put walls up for myself regarding song writing or bands. I was on tour and there was this guy in a heavier band, and he made this comment about me putting out these other types of record. I said to him “but you pretend to be mean…and you’re not. I saw you talk to your daughter on Facetime” and I thought that guy isn’t the guy with that stage persona (laughs). This guy (pointing to himself) is the same guy you see on every stage.
That’s one of the most noticeable things on the new album. It’s incredibly open and honest and sometimes very raw.
I know some artists who, in some cases, unconsciously separate themselves from the audience but I’ve never wanted to do that. We’re all the same, we all put our pants on the same way, and I believe that if I’m honest then the chances are that other people have experienced exactly what I was going through when I was writing that song. I never separate myself and I’m just one amongst ‘us’ just talking, it’s just my conversation happens to be through song.
The album is incredibly positive. One of my favourite tracks is ‘What Gives You the Right’ which I thought was timeless and fragile. It reminded me of Jeff Buckley meets the Walker Brothers playing ‘No Regrets’. It has that classic feel but the rawness as well.
Oh, that’s great. I got the chills. I didn’t know where you were going but I got the chills from that. It’s an incredible comparison and very insightful. I started writing that song a long time ago and finished it after the road trip. I held onto it and had the meat of the song, the verse and the big chorus, but the bridge is what I wrote after the trip. If I had left it in that place, “I don’t care if you’d have drove all night”, that ends in such a tragic way that I felt I needed one of those ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ moments for this.
The despair I felt when I wrote that initially didn’t have a place on this record, so I found a way to take it to that place. Even musically and production wise, the way it goes to that ‘B’ section, was all calculated. It’s one of my favourites too and I’m so proud of that song. I love playing it live and can do it on an acoustic or with a full production and it still hits home.
You also pepper the album with bits of humour, for instance with songs like ‘Samurai’ with almost throw-away, tongue in cheek lines. There are other tracks like ‘Twenty-Twenty Vision’ that has so many positives with lines like “Got a running start” and “Take a leap of faith” alongside the imagery of jumping from jagged rocks into a crystal lake so you have that contrast of those two.
Oh yes. You’re giving me the chills again as someone who really dove in like that. It means the world to me. I just really love words and even the ones that feel like throwaways mean something and I’ll tell you a quick story about why the lyrics on this record are so poignant.
One of the things that happened during that road trip is that I happened to stop by a songwriter at his place and we were planning on working on music together for another project. I worked with him briefly in the past but this was more a convenience thing as I was running through his city on a motorcycle so I thought I’d stop by
and we can write a song. We go into his studio and start writing and instantly I could tell the energy was wrong. Nice guy, he’s had success in his genre, and we start writing and he’s throwing out these words and I’m fighting for some kind of substance for this song. He says to me “Hey man, words don’t matter” and, you know, that works for him and he’s had some success. I was thinking ‘the hell they don’t’. Knowing my boundaries, I said to him “This isn’t working and I don’t want to waste anymore of your time. I’m out of here”. I literally left there and it was a positive thing as every word has to matter on this record. I have to believe every word on this record.
The fact that you picked that thing out and that particular lyric was from the heaviest moment on that trip when I went into the Navajo Nation and they had to shut down their facility. They had a big breakout of Covid and were losing people left and right and you’re in this hallowed ground to begin with. They’d been through so much and now on top of that they were being hit by a pandemic and no-one’s helping them. That’s when I wrote that song and all those lyrics are about being in that sacred place. It’s really interesting that you pulled those out.
Have you played any live shows using material from the album?
As soon as they opened up the stages and it was safe to go out I was performing shows in Vegas. I’ve had residencies there for about fifteen years in different casinos and I’m very fortunate that they allow me not just to do the covers but, because I’ve been around so long, my original material too. My shows, part of the time, are sixty-per-cent originals and forty-per-cent covers so as soon as I got the opportunity I was playing these songs and the reception has been incredible. For instance, ‘Twenty Twenty’ brings down the house.
With the songs you’ve written, those themes are really universal but also reach into the individual soul so that’s got to hit people hard.
It does and I think we all realised how similar we are. Even though the media has been polarising, we’re becoming more divided than ever, what I realised on that road trip was, that as humanity, we want to be heard. We all want to be understood and loved. Once you take away all that other noise, that’s at the core of it. When I’m playing I find we’re looking at each other and saying, “we went through this together”. It was a common thread.
A lot of this music is about hope, and what else do we have at this point? We need it.
You’re just about to play the Black Deer Festival and you’ve got involved with the SupaJam School (an extraordinary school set up to run courses in music for those who’ve fallen out of education or have special educational needs).
My manager had heard great things about them and put us in touch. Through our team I was able to connect with them and last time I was in the U.K. I visited the school and spent the day there. I played music with them and spoke to them, and they showed me their programmes. I was so moved by them and blown away by the promise because a lot of the time these kids had been counted out and I felt that way a lot of my life, so we had an instant connection between myself and the students there. The facility there is incredible, the sacrifices and what they’d doing with these kids is amazing. Instantly, I said “I’ll be a mouthpiece and whatever you need from me, I want to be a part of it. If I can be an ambassador or talk to one of these kids, I will. Any way I can be involved”.
One of the ideas they had was that at Black Deer they get their own stage. They said, “We want you to headline that stage and bring some of the students up with you to perform”. I was in. That took no convincing. So, visiting that school and spending time with those young men and women was one of the, and I have to be honest with you, coolest things I’ve ever done in my career. I’m playing all three days but the second day I’m playing with them on the stage they’re running. I can’t wait to work with them again.
Finally, with the new album now out there in the world, what do you hope happens with it?
My idea of success is very different at forty-six than it was when I was twenty and signing a record contract with Atlantic. I just want to leave a body of music that I can be proud of and if it moves one person…and I really mean this…if it helps one person get through the day or it’s one melody sung on a train, that, to me, would be incredible. I just want to do my small part.
With his truth, authenticity and grasp of the human heart there’s no doubt that Franky Perez will be touching lives and making music for many years to come. That, in itself, is cause for celebration and the world is a brighter place with him in it.
Crossing The Great Divide is now available on all digital platforms here.
Photo credit: Fab Fernandez