“OK, family,” Kimberly Perry says to her brothers with a winking smile. “Let’s have some sake and talk about how pissed we are.”
It’s been a long time since the Band Perry have been able to joke about their career, but sitting in a dark booth in an underground Manhattan sake bar earlier this fall, Kimberly, Neil and Reid Perry are relaxed and eager to discuss the past several years of conflict and creation that led to Coordinates, the trio’s Rick Rubin-produced, fully electronic pop EP that represents the 180 degree shift the rootsy country trio has taken since formally leaving the genre roughly four years ago.
“From [2013 single] ‘Done’ until about two weeks ago, we were having to make some compromises,” Kimberly says of their multi-year saga. “Now, we’re not chasing money. We’re chasing ourselves.”
If the Band Perry has any reason to feel pissed, or at the very least frustrated, with their career arc, it can often be chalked up to a case of bad timing. The group’s intentional career decision to slowly embrace a pop sensibility, met with a slew of critical headlines, precipitated the recent wave of country music’s most promising young female singers — including Kacey Musgraves, Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris — being lauded for similar turns toward pop music.
“We’ve been a little bit ahead of our time” says Kimberly. “There’s definitely more of a freedom now, and [the country community] doesn’t view it as a disrespect.”
After leaving their longtime label home Big Machine and heading out on their own, the group faced a long series of roadblocks. It was difficult at first, they say, to find producers and collaborators who understood just how far they wanted their music to stray from the sound for which they became known. The Perrys, who, like most teenagers of their generation, grew up on a diet of pop, hip-hop, country and rock, wanted to gravitate toward harsher, electronic sounds that they had become exposed to while touring the world.
The group’s musical pitch was simple: they loved Kanye West’s Yeezus. They were also getting into the industrial sounds of Trent Reznor and Death Grips, and they wanted to explore the pop version of that. “We just wanted to sound like we’re in an underground dirty German club scene,” explains Kimberly.
But most producers and execs in Los Angeles, where the Band Perry decamped after leaving Tennessee, continued to hear something different from what the group was telling them. “We were getting a lot of people who interpreted what was said as ‘pop-rock,’ and that wasn’t it at all,” says Reid.
“There is no such thing as electric guitars or live drums anymore — this is the new way.” – Kimberly Perry
As a result, the trio released go-nowhere songs like “Live Forever” and “Comeback Kid,” milquetoast pop singles that failed to satisfy the Band Perry and confused their country-leaning fanbase. Last year, the group shelved an entire pop album they had recorded called Bad Imagination.
Still, the band continued to look ahead, meeting with a slew of creative minds in L.A., including hip-hop producers NO I.D. and Mike Dean. But it wasn’t until they reconnected with Rick Rubin, who had already produced a never-before-heard album for the Perrys during their country years, that they regained their bearings.
“Rick said, ‘First off, get everybody out. Y’all need to go figure out your sound on your own. Just finish it yourself,’” says Reid. “He was the one who really encouraged us to be the producers of the music.”
Though Rubin ended up receiving a producer credit on Coordinates, his role was more as a hands-off spiritual guru than anything else, ensuring that the group was still holding true to the fundamental basics of songwriting and not falling victim to the temptation of writing genre exercises. When the Band Perry brought Rubin one song that sounded more like the latter, he rebuked them: “The track feels like it leads the song. The song has got to lead the track.”
Eventually, the band arrived at the electronic sounds of new Coordinates songs like “Seven Seconds” and “Marfa Prada” after learning how to apply their instrumental musicianship to a digital studio setting. “We realized that if your hands weren’t all over the music, I would feel silly calling ourselves the Band Perry. We had to make that name mean something to us again,” says Kimberly. “There is no such thing as electric guitars or live drums anymore — this is the new way. They’ve been replaced with hip-hop beats and aggressive synthesizer.”
“We almost had to get into a more spiritual mode,” she says, “where music nirvana is being free to put out music at the speed of creation. Free to not have to live inside of the thought of, ‘Oh, if I don’t put a banjo on this, am I going to be crucified?’ No, if the banjo brings you further into the desert and the feeling that we’re trying to curate, then cool. If it doesn’t, you don’t have to.
Along the way, the Band Perry also chose to downsize: they’re now working with a much smaller, independent team, having left Big Machine and started anew with a management company that also works with pop acts like Demi Lovato, Iggy Azalea and Nick Jonas. With the release of Coordinates, they’ve reached a certain zen-like attitude toward their own transitional space in their career, though not without a strong dose of self-reflection and analysis of their unlikely path.
“I feel like we talk a lot,” Kimberly says to her two brothers after the siblings have just spent 10 minutes answering a simple question about the timeline of their career. “We sort of talk about this stuff all the time.”
But giving voice to what they’ve gone through is how the Band Perry have finally been able to process their successful rise and sharp drop in Nashville. After years of keeping quiet (“People were telling certain parts of our story that were untrue, and we were just trying to bite our tongue because we didn’t want to drag things through the mud,” Kimberly say), it’s clear the Band Perry is invested in telling their own story as a narrative of art triumphing over commerce, of self-preservation over compromise. “We’re not just on this money train. We’re not on the hit train,” says Kimberly. “We’re on the ‘connecting with people and giving them a feeling that matters’ train.”
Despite the transition away from country music, the Band Perry are grateful, astonished, even, at what they were able to accomplish in the genre. It’s only been in the past few years, after some of the wounds have healed, that the group has been able to realize and appreciate their success — and how much they were able to nudge country music in their own direction for a short while.
“I can’t believe they let us get away with that,” says Kimberly, of the envelope-pushing artistic choices they made. Like releasing the funereal ballad “If I Die Young” to radio or expanding on that Southern-gothic aesthetic with songs like “Better Dig Two” and “Done” during a time when country music was transitioning between its post-Taylor Swift, pre-bro country hitmaking phase. Forever resistant to chasing trends, the Perrys kept a list of cliche words, like “train” and “whiskey,” that were forbidden from the writing room.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of “If I Die Young” to the Band Perry’s story. A seven-times platinum country Number One and a crossover Top 20 pop hit, the 2010 single gave the group the type of creative clout that is so rare for relative newcomers in Nashville. When the band delivered their second album, Pioneer, the band claims that their label was less than thrilled with the group’s choice for a lead single, “Better Dig Two,” a darkly morose song about devotion and death that somehow dethroned Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” at Number One in early 2013.
“It was like, we are quitting music unless we go with this song,” says Kimberly. “And it was the second-most successful song of our career.”
But shortly after releasing “Better Dig Two,” things began turning south between the band and Big Machine, which had discovered its biggest financial success since Swift with Florida Georgia Line. “It was in the middle of creative choices around Pioneer that things began to change,” says Kimberly. “Everything through our [‘Better Dig Two’ follow-up] single ‘Done’ was excellent. Then it got weird.”
The Band Perry recorded a full third country album with Rubin, a prospect that initially excited their label. But when they delivered the record, it was immediately clear that there were problems. The swell of bro-country arrived, and the band’s period of getting away with edgy creative choices had ended. “It was just one of those things where we were in a genre that was changing its own identity,” says Reid. “And we were in a place where people on our team and in our career were feeling like we needed to align ourselves with the genre changing itself.”
Kimberly has more thoughts on her band’s falling-out with their label, though she’s not willing to share them all. “I’m a little more of a conspiracy theorist,” she says. “I remember one conversation with a member of our team and them being like, ‘So, have you found enough songs to record yet?’ I bit my tongue, because I wanted to be like, ‘You know I wrote all those other songs, right?’ Why are we even having this discussion?”
While the group is quick to say they never personally experienced any direct bias as a woman-fronted group in country music, the Band Perry is now proud to have laid out a path for younger artists, in particular, women, who have abandoned the strict confines of genre for more accepting pastures. “A lot of artists have come to our band and thanked us for pushing them in the industry,” says Neil.
“As humans, you go where you’re respected,” says Kimberly. “It’s the same thing in the music industry. If you’re not respected where you are, then you’re going to go where your art is appreciated.”
But Kimberly Perry is adamant that changing lanes is not equivalent to “selling out.”
“We bought out. We paid a hefty price, financially,” she says. “Actually buying our way out of fame and the comfort of the trajectory to be able to protect integrity, art and what I think brought us to the dance in the first place — which is being ourselves.”