The Cactus Blossoms Talk New Album, Brotherly Harmonies, And JD McPherson
Despite a mysterious difference of surnames, Page Burkum and Jack Torrey are indeed brothers. Together they are the Cactus Blossoms, an impressive duo partaking in the time honored tradition of the blood harmony made famous by groups like the Everly Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, and in a more contemporary yet less familial sense, the duo of Simon and Garfunkel. Hailing from northeast Minneapolis, the Cactus Blossoms are tapping into a dreamy, innocent sound that is long lost from the pop music of today, and is also a treasure for fans of retro country. It is music that harkens back to a time when people swooned over the idea of holding hands and kisses. Society has certainly progressed since those conservative times, but there is something to say about the simplicity and romance of an era that would later produce rock and roll bands.
Make no mistake about it - the Cactus Blossoms are not just another group banking on a retro sound. If they were, they probably wouldn’t have caught the attention of JD McPherson, an artist who has managed to bring a modern, youthful voice to rockabilly, swinging soul, and boogie woogie music and connect those musical styles with a contemporary audience. McPherson produced the duo’s new album, You’re Dreaming, and the result is a charming collection of songs that will keep the listener enraptured throughout, leaving them both yearning for simpler times and maybe even feeling a little softer about their own emotions in the present. Most striking is just how smoothly Page Burkum and Jack Torrey are able to harmonize with one another, a talent that seems to come naturally for these brothers. Recently, I caught up with Page and Jack while on tour for the second year in a row opening up for the venerable British songwriter Nick Lowe on his annual Quality Holiday Revue Tour with surf rock heroes Los Straitjackets.
You guys are on tour with Nick Lowe and the Los Straitjackets. What’s that been like?
Page Burkum: It's been going really good, it's been a lot of fun.
Jack Torrey: It was a really wild turn of events that got us involved with him. Last December when he was doing the Christmas Revue tour, Ian McLagan was supposed to be on the tour and he tragically passed away the day of the first show. Their first show was in Minneapolis at 1st Avenue and somehow we got the call to see if we could fill in for the night, and then Nick asked us to do the rest of the tour. It was really tragic, but we also had a really great time with Nick, so that's how it started. I think as self taught musicians who learned how to play by ear, it's just a really big deal to get the opportunity to watch people like Nick every night. I've learned more about music from people like Nick than I have five years prior.
Were you fans of his before?
Page: I had gotten into some of his stuff but I've definitely gotten more into his music being on the road with him. But yeah, we were familiar with him. We were actually thinking of going to that Minneapolis show because we wanted to go see him, which was the weird thing about it. For us in a way it was special to fill in for Ian McLagan, and now this time around it's been really fun to rejoin and do all these dates.
Jack: JD McPherson, our buddy who produced our new album, he had just gushed and gushed about Nick like that whole year, and just saying how cool it would be if we could meet him and do something, and then it happened.
I saw JD McPherson recently and he was talking about how great the Nick Lowe Holiday Revue was and he covered a song or two from Nick. JD McPherson produced the album. How did you end up working with him?
Jack: We opened a show for him in Minneapolis two and a half years ago or something, met him really briefly, and then a couple months later he asked us to play some shows with him. Then he just approached us about wanting to produce our album, and it was a very organic and slow getting to know each other and process.
Page: We really got to know each other the most while making the album. We had played a few shows together but weren't close friends at first.
Jack: We had to figure each other out a little bit at first to make sure it was going to be ok, and then it went really well!
Page: We were fans of his music so we trusted him on that level, and he ended up being a good guy too.
Before JD came into the picture, did you already have a vision for the album laid out?
Jack: No, JD really helped us figure that out. We had some songs, but we weren't sure how we were going to make it happen. We weren't sure who was going to play on it. He really help us get involved with [engineer/drummer] Alex Hall and guitarist Joel Paterson in Chicago, which was the biggest piece of the puzzle. We basically just had songs and we knew we wanted to get more of a full band sound and sort of a honky tonk sound, and JD really helped us bring it there.
Obviously your sound and influences come from older country and pop music. Were you guys always interested in this kind of music and playing it?
Jack: We don't really know how it happened to be honest. We just started playing songs we liked and I think we had a little bit older of a sound than we even thought. I'm not really sure. Part of it is, we started playing acoustic guitars and singing, just the two of us. It was a pretty stripped down bold sound, and it just snowballed from there.
Was there a specific moment you remember where you heard a specific act growing up and something just clicked?
Jack: I wondered why nobody sounded like the Beatles or the Beach Boys, or Howlin' Wolf. I think a lot of those people back then were really rippin' it, really putting it out there. I think we're more into that than we are into the time period.
It's interesting you say those acts were really rippin’ it because your sound is pretty laid back and mellow.
Page: Yeah, but we sing pretty loud! We have written some songs that I guess you could say are reflective and dreamy. I think we're making the kind of songs we know how to make right now. I guess if I knew how to sing like James Brown or play guitar like Bo Diddley, maybe I'd be doing that. We're just playing the kind of music that we've fallen into and the kind of songs we come up with naturally. We call it 'intense easy listening' [laughs].
I like the idea of the 'blood harmony'. Since you're brothers, was there a point in life where you realized you could harmonize like you do?
Jack: We sang around camp fires a little bit and then people started saying, you guys have to sing together.
Page: When we were little kids we had some musical people in our family. People would sing harmonies, so we didn't think that was very special. Then when we started learning to play music we heard some of those kind of harmony acts and we learned some duets and just kept doing it.
Did you have any formal training to learn how to harmonize so smoothly?
Page; No, maybe we'll get around to that some day, but for now we're learning on the job. We're watching Nick Lowe and JD McPherson.
Page, you have one writing credit for “Powder Blue” and lyrically it’s one of the more simple songs on the album. How did you decide to include that one?
Page: We didn't like make an agreement to divide up our songwriting responsibilities, I just haven't written as many songs. Jack has just written a lot more, so maybe sometime I'll get around to writing more. "Powder Blue" was a song where I had the chorus in my head for about a year. Jack actually helped finish it.