John-Michael Parker is one of the most personable band frontmen I’ve had the privilege of talking to. Rarely seen without a big smile on his face, he obviously loves playing music with his band Great Caesar and is eager to tell anyone and everyone about the great work they’re doing. I had the opportunity to catch up with him in Brooklyn the other week before the band’s show at Rough Trade, and he told me a little about their background and what’s to come.
What has the tour been like? You’ve been kind of all over the place lately.
So this has been a bit of a smaller tour compared to what we’ve been doing in the last year. We went northeast and then our first trip down south. We played at SXSW last year, but we hadn’t really gotten to play along the way. We went to Tennessee this time, and North Carolina. We also played a great show in New Haven. Great Caesar started when we were in high school in Madison, CT, and every time we play in Connecticut, it’s like a great homecoming show. All our friends from high school are there. We actually had to play a double set because the venue needed music until 1AM or something. So we just kinda walked back on stage and played the old old songs and everyone there was so excited. A very pre-rockstar rockstar moment for us. We played some great shows in Pennsylvania and Lancaster and now we’re back. We haven’t played in New York in a long time, so we’ve been kind of gearing up for this to be a big one.
Did you move to New York as a band?
A lot of us graduated in 2010, and we wanted to go be in a band, so we just moved here. We lived together for a while, and we’ve been working different jobs for the past couple years. Now we are putting the focus back on this, saying ‘let’s do this, let’s make a record’.
So the “Don’t Ask Me Why” music video has been incredibly successful. That seems to be the first thing that pops up when you google Great Caesar. It’s putting the focus on LGBT rights. How did you feel when the Marriage Equality Bill passed?
Oh we were ecstatic! It’s interesting, when we made “Don’t Ask Me Why”, it was something we cared about and were excited about. None of it was done through the lens of trying to break an indie rock band. We raised $50,000 to cover the cost of the video, which was just incredible. We had written the song before the video had come about. We recorded it for the purpose of the video and released it ourselves. I guess all to say, “Don’t Ask Me Why” was a result of something that was important to us. To see Marriage Equality pass a year later was so great because it matters to us. When we play “Don’t Ask Me Why”, because it caught on, it’s like a thing that most people know about our band. So when we go to shows and we play it, it’s becoming the song that we play a lot. But every time it goes over so well.
It seems like the video is a big deal to the group as well. Do you want to make music videos for every song and have campaigns leading up to your videos? That seems to be a thing that’s popping up nowadays.
“Don’t Ask Me Why” was awesome because the director is one of our best friends. His name is Alex Colby and he’s brilliant. And the production team and the actors. It was a huge crew of people. I guess the collaboration of it was super cool. For the “Holiday” video, we had met this girl who was maybe 15 at the time and lived in Alabama making films, and we asked her to make a music video for us. It wasn’t necessarily an active collaboration, but a collaboration nonetheless. Going forward, I’m really excited for Great Caesar to have the ability to work with some awesome directors and artists more broadly. This sounds cheesy, but what a cool way to do collaboration. The musical collaboration is really important to us, but then to be able to make videos about that. We’ve talked about things on the short-film side, like “Don’t Ask Me Why” or like a spread of 3 songs together that make a 15-minute video.
I think that’s really cool. The band has such a multimedia element.
Yeah! I think in our music, storytelling is very important to us. And so video just adds to it. I think doing storytelling through videos is something we want to do a lot of.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
So personally, I kind of started writing songs when I was listening a lot to The Beatles. My parents had it, and I just thought, ‘gah these songs are so good.’ I remember sitting down at the piano and playing through “Let It Be” for the first time. It was just so good. So I think from a songwriting perspective, it all comes from The Beatles. From a sound perspective as a band, I think we are really influenced by things like Arcade Fire that have brass and strings which we want to do more of. Songs that are really intense sonically, but also have a rock band element. Also from that horn sound, bands like Beirut, and definitely a flare of the eclectic Dirty Projectors sound. And anyone else in the band could speak a lot to what we listen to. We want to be true to what speaks to people. Also listening to what’s on the radio, you know. I went to my first Mumford & Sons concert recently and I was just blown away. Seeing them play was incredibly inspiring. So we try to listen to Mumford and Taylor Swift because that’s the world we’re in. That’s what a lot of people are listening to and we want to be relevant in relation to that. But also to not lose what’s important to us as individuals. For example the Colin Stetson saxophone music that Stephen listens to.
So you’re an Ivy League guy. What’s that been like while being in a band? Do you feel like that’s helped you or given you a less traditional experience in any way?
That’s an interesting question. So I met Stephen at Yale. He was a year older than me. I played with him in concert band back when I played the saxophone. For that, I think where I went to school was super important. I mean I met my best friend there. There’s definitely a certain privilege that comes along with going to college in general. The network that’s there has been a big part. I think as far as inspiration and the content of our music…going to college introduced me to new people and new ideas. Then coming to New York after that really took it to the next level. I think we like to write music that’s personal, that’s about storytelling, and that’s about things that matter at a human level. Thinking about different stories, social justice, equality. I don’t mean that in an activist way, I just mean we want to write music that people can listen to and feel moved by. I think that’s what we are going for. So for everyone in this band, going to college was definitely a time for opening up our eyes a little more. And then moving to New York and touring have continued that process. I think that as we get older and write more music and have more experiences with whatever’s next, that will continue to add to it.
So the band has a new LP that you’re working on?
Hopefully? Or yes. That’s what we are calling it! So we went away in January and February and did a band retreat. It was such an awesome thing for us. We moved to a house in Southampton that we rented together. In the winter, the Hamptons are pretty quiet and it was an enormous house way cheaper than our New York rent. So we wrote a whole bunch of music and thought of it as going on an album. All the songs were from the same sort of emotional space. Since then, we’ve continued to work on new stuff. We went into the studio recently with this awesome producer named Ryan Hadlock who worked with The Lumineers and Vance Joy. He really does great stuff. We made three tracks with him and we’re going to be looking to turn those into a full record. We’ve put out a bunch of EPs, but I think we’re really excited to make an album that’s a statement of music in its entirety; that’s meant to be listened to as a whole thing and that is intentional in whatever those 12 songs mean together. As artists, that’s something we’ve been wanting to do for our first time. And then, you know, who knows. Maybe we’ll make a lot more!