Prester John
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Prester John

New Haven, Connecticut, United States | INDIE

New Haven, Connecticut, United States | INDIE
Band Alternative Acoustic

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"Prester John Takes It All In, From The Refined To Lowbrow"

It's not every day you hear a guitarist open up about the relative merits and flaws of modern vs. postmodern painting. But that's Shawn Persinger for you. One half of the acoustic duo Prester John, Persinger is a dazzling guitarist who has made a career out of balancing technical prowess with pop accessibility. He's also what you might call culturally well-read: the self-described "subcultural omnivore" follows everything from fine art to graffiti. The New Haven musician took some time away from his summer job (teaching music to high-school kids at Wesleyan's Center for Creative Youth) to talk to me about art, composing and some recent milestones in his career.

Persinger calls his guitar style "modern primitive," and it's one of those rare cases where a musician is describing himself accurately. He's rooted in the sounds developed by what you might call guitar players' guitar players — figures like Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges who are mentioned with breathy respect among musicians, but are lesser-known outside the musical community. But while those musicians are noted for their refinement, Persinger adds in a dash of punk-rock rawness, drawing upon the urgency and simplicity of guitarists like Ani DiFranco and Gordan Gano (frontman of the Violent Femmes). It's a pretty cool mix, interesting and difficult, but it never talks down to the listener.

Which is probably why Persinger uses the word "modern" to describe his style as opposed to "postmodern." When I asked him why he's drawn to the former rather than the latter, he said, "The easy answer is that I like it more as an audience member. I understand the work of Cy Twombly." (Twombly, who passed away last week, left a messy legacy. His works are a challenging mix of graffiti and abstract expressionism.) "There's a lot of postmodern work where I look at it and say, 'OK, I get it,' but it's almost conceptual. It's just like theory in practice, or maybe anti-theory in practice. When I teach music theory, I say, 'Look, here are some of these man-made constructs' — like the idea of the root and the tonic having a function. But in practice, it's not true, because you can do a lot of things where you don't play the root and tonic but still have tension and resolution. So when you start playing, you disprove a lot of theory."

Persinger and his partner in crime, mandolinist David Miller, have been churning out the achievements lately. Their last full-length, Desire for a Straight Line, was nominated for a Grammy. "From there," says Persinger, "members of the Academy pare down the nomination list to three nominees for a Grammy. The finalists list included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea — it was really an honor to even be included on the nomination list." Persinger was also recently added to the CT Commission for Culture and Tourism's performing artist roster. He's particularly excited to bring some of his workshops (such as "The Young Person's Guide to Free Improvisation and Experimental Music") into schools. And Persinger recently published a music book, Bebop Jazz Guitar, with Hal Leonard Books.

Most notably for listeners, Prester John have been putting out a series of vocal EPs (in contrast to Desire for a Straight Line, which was all instrumental). The fourth and final installment, Rise O' Fainthearted Girls, will be a full-length that collects the previous three EPs and includes several new tracks. "Dave and I flippantly say that we play complicated songs with a lot of notes, and easy songs that anybody could play. [On the EPs], we're aiming for the perfect combination of both of those things. Vocal songs with complicated sections but that are still very pop oriented."

I asked Persinger what acts out there are working in a similar vein. "The one that comes to mind is Rush," he answered. "And this comes back to me not knowing a lot of contemporary bands. King Crimson has always done that sort of thing. And Beatles tunes where they brought in outside musicians to play more complicated parts — 'Eleanor Rigby' or the trumpet solo on 'Penny Lane.'"

He chuckles self-consciously at how old his points of reference are. "There are a lot of students at Center for Creative Youth who are into Beyoncé and Kanye West, and I certainly know a lot of those names but I don't know their music. I'm turning 40 this year. I think my ingestion of subcultures has subsided a bit. I think the last one I saw where I was like, 'That's cool' was [the Banksy documentary] Exit Through the Gift Shop."

But Persinger isn't as disconnected as he might make himself out to be. "It seems to me that a lot of the bands who are the darlings of the indie-rock scene, who people are saying are doing new things — Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear — when I hear them, I think vocally they're doing a lot of great things, stuff that's really hard to pull off. Musically, in terms of playing their instruments, I don't really hear it. They're not doing anything crazy on their instruments. Not that you need to be wildly technically proficient to play, but that's something that I enjoy." - Chicago Tribune


"Desire for a Straight Line: Review in Guitar Player Magazine"

Acoustic guitarist Shawn Persinger and mandolinist David Miller mash up styles and genres with glee and abandon on the 16 technically challenging and intricately arranged instrumentals. The playing and musical interaction are virtuosic throughout, and the performances fun, exciting and surprisingly accessible.” - Guitar Player Magazine


"CD Reviews for radio WRUV: Prester John"

Shawn Persinger (gtr) is Prester John in a duet collaboration w/David Miller (mandolin). Hints of jazz, 21st century classical, rock, world & bluegrass pervade this recording. You may be left w/a felling that begs you to guess what might come up next. All original compositions by Persinger.” - WRUV


"Choice Concerts: Prester John Live"

New Haven acoustic duo Prester John (Shawn Persinger, guitar; David Miller, mandolin) doesn't just take assorted styles and blend them, it takes them as singular entities as well, treated with a flurried attack and passion. When it plays bluegrass, you feel down home; when it swings, it'll make your jitter bug. The group flirts at multiple genres in between these posts and revels in the delight of those who just dig music in general without necessarily figuring it out. There's plenty of dexterity to wow the pros and plenty of simplicity to thrill the citizens. - Rochester City Newspaper


"Voice Choice: Prester John LIVE"

The priestly moniker for whatever the talented guitarist Shawn Persinger happens to be doing, Prester John currently consists of Persinger and David Miller, a fine mandolin player. The acoustic duo's new album, Desire for a Straight Line, is an eclectic assortment of slipstream compositions touching on prog-tinged jazz, classical, manouche, and newgrass idioms. It's a lot of fun, and expect them to rip it at this intimate boite. - The Village Voice


"CD Reviews: Prester John's Desire for a Straight Line"

Prester John have an eclectic sound, playing music filled with eloquence, invention and a touch of mischief. Like a bottle of wine with a vibrant bouquet, their album Desire For A Straight Line contains an intriguing blend of elements from folk, rock, classical and jazz.

'Throughout guitar and mandolin are in perfect balance, with both players displaying impressive chops in either leading or supporting roles, whatever the genre. The dramatic “The Library Thief” pulsates with tension as Persinger and Miller’s voices blend, separate, whisper and shout. The duo races through the excellent Middle Eastern-themed “Plain of Jars”, Persinger playing with splendid depth of tone, Miller’s mandolin matching his bold colors and textures. The wondrously creative “Song for Henry Threadgill to Sing” displays their humorous bent within a free jazz context. Their interplay crackles with tonality on “Making Circles”; Persinger and Miller have more wonderful dialogue as they trade off of each other in the best jazz tradition. “Wender’s”, like “Plain of Jars”, has a Middle Eastern pedigree, Miller’s intense plucking giving this song a dimension of urgency. “Piano and Violin Duet No. 1” and “Marionette Waltz in Four” are delightful tongue-in-cheek takes on classical themes. While all of the tunes are involving, the album’s signature song might be “The Favored Colour of Light”, a stirring, rock-inflected epic in the making.

Prester John’s distinct yet similar voices create a stimulating intertextuality. There isn’t an uninteresting moment on Desire for a Straight Line; even the handful of snapshot interludes is compelling. Persinger and Miller have created music that’s entertaining, unique and always involving and it’s a pleasure listening to these fabulously inventive musicians travel to so many wonderful places.'

“Prester John have an eclectic sound, playing music filled with eloquence, invention and a touch of mischief. There isn’t an uninteresting moment on Desire for a Straight Line; Persinger and Miller have created music that’s entertaining, unique and always involving and it’s a pleasure listening to these fabulously inventive musicians travel to so many wonderful places.”
- All About Jazz: NYC


"Prester John: Voted BEST INSTRUMENTALIST!"

Originally the stage name of guitarist Shawn Persinger, the moniker of Prester John has more recently incorporated David Miller on mandolin and vocals. The two are musical Siamese twins, telepaths, something — they’ve got to be cheating, the way they stay linked together through dizzying, demanding passages. Persinger dubs his style “modern/primitive guitar,” and his tunes seek to update classical guitar techniques with a more contemporary approach. The duo has just released a new LP, called Desire for a Straight Line on Innova Records. - The New Haven Advocate (Aug. 2010)


"Desire for a Straight Line REVIEW"

“Persinger turns fast guitar playing into something you would actually want to sit down and listen to...infuses a brilliant array of styles as well as a fantastic use of space...check it out if you want to break away from the mundane. 5 out of 5.”
- Hartford Local Music Examiner (Aug. 2010)


"Music: Modern Primitive in Space"

By Alexis Fitts

It’s tough, kicking off an indie music series on Super Bowl Sunday, but then Shawn Persinger, a.k.a. Prester John, hasn’t watched football for a long time. Persinger’s been a regular at Hamden’s all-purpose all-ages venue The Space for years, headlining at a Tuesday open mic night or drawing crowds for Friday night shows. But this is his first concert of The Space’s new residency series.

There’s a sort of salon vibe—until Prester John steps up and starts playing. He shifts from a complex, almost medieval sounding instrumental number into a catchy pop tune whose killer riffs are provided by David Miller, a mandolinist who is joining Shawn for the first and last performances of his residency.

Yes, mandolin riffs, you heard that right.

More than a guitarist, Persinger/Prester John is a chameleon. His style morphs based on the paradigm of the beholder. Folkies are confused by the challenging harmonic progressions coming out of his acoustic guitar, while progressive rockers are baffled by Persinger’s acoustic side. Classical musicians assume he must have a traditional conservatory background (he doesn’t, though he did attend the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles) or that he must be a Schoenbergian devotee of 12-tone (he isn’t). Various fans are quick to label him: freak-folk, folk-funk, and Latin fusion (huh?). As the Space’s February artist-in-residence, you can catch Persinger for two more Sundays (plus an added 1 p.m. show Feb. 17, to be broadcast live on WPKN 89.5FM), but don’t expect to pin down his set list.

Even his stage name, Shawn Persinger is Preston John, is disorienting. Is this a case of identity crisis? Can he not pick a name? Who the hell is this guy?

But “Who” isn’t the operative question. A familiar face at Rudy’s, Cafe Nine and other local band hang-outs, Persinger is not a new presence in the New Haven music scene. Everyone knows him. No one knows what to make of him.

But fresh off a 14 country round-the-world trek, which he paid for in part through guitar company sponsorships and an article he penned for Guitar Player magazine, Persinger has jumped to a new level of local buzz and the beginnings of national acclaim.

The Space began its residency series in September with a purpose, hoping to build local audiences for bands visiting from out of state. For Space owner Steve Rodgers, it’s an investment that he’s already seen pay off. He gives the example of The Low Anthem, a Providence band previously unknown in New Haven, which “played five Sundays in a row. First week there were five people in the audience, second week there were 10, third 25. Now they can actually come back to the area on a Friday night and sell out.”

Raised in a small town 40 minutes outside D.C, caught between a diehard dichotomized scene, he bounced from D.C to Warrington, Va., in search of a more varied concert existence. “I always gotta do the metal tune after the poppy tune,” is Persinger’s performance aesthetic. The hard-lined ’80s punks and the traditional revivalist folk enthusiasts of the D.C area just couldn’t get that.

Soon he could hop from venue to venue, reinventing himself in between. “I’d never been to a city so excited by music,” he says. “[In Warrington] you have to drive an hour to a gig, here you can play in Milford one night and Hamden the next and have two different audiences. To come here and have three different bands every night at Cafe Nine, it was eye-opening.”

Avoiding labels, Persinger recognizes, is counterintuitive to attracting audiences, but avoiding limits is central to his musicianship. “I used to work at a record store and I’d ask people what kind of music they liked and people would say ‘I like everything,’” Persinger says. “But what they’d always mean is ‘I like everything except hip-hop’ or ‘except country.’ I say—‘you’re going to write off an entire genre?’”

But just when you think Persinger would advocate for a genre-defying existence, the guitarist instead went ahead and found a label which he thinks fits: Modern Primitive, the title of his 2004 album. Inspired by the paintings of Jean Dubuffet and Picasso, Persinger coined their terminology as a way for describing his own musical odyssey. His goal: using his technique for non-technical means. Combining his training with the “grotesque” and “off kilter.” Being controlled yet edgy: Modern and Primitive.

Persinger gives an example, based on the Warren Haynes’ slide-guitar practice book he’s been working with. “I’ve been working on this for a while now, so I can incorporate it,” says Persinger “but in the long run I’m going to write a song with a slide that’s not going to sound like Warren Haynes—it’s going to sound like a [Modern Primitive] painting.”

He unleashes a sound that draws from the Haynes book, a Guster anthology on his shelf, and the Ani Difranco tabs on his music stand—yet, thanks to his own singular technique and priorities, it sounds nothing like any of these artists.

Persinger’s style is modern, primitive and all-inclusive. The label fits.

As he warns from the stage of The Space, launching from a Garth Brooks-esc country tune to a Bach invention, while maintaining a straight face: “I’m gonna be a different guy now.”
- The New Haven Advocate


Discography

RISE O' FAINTHEARTED GIRLS
Prester John
Released February 14, 2012
Quixotic Music

DESIRE FOR A STRAIGHT LINE
All instrumental CD.
Prester John
Released July 27, 2010
Innova Recordings

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Bio

With a unique blend of acoustic folk, rock, jazz, pop, classical, bluegrass and the avant-garde, New Haven, CT duo Prester John has a sound that is entirely their own. Formed in 2008 by underground guitar-hero Shawn Persinger, Prester John also showcases the musical talents of David Miller on mandolin and harmony vocals.

Taylor Guitars’ Wood and Steel once wrote, “Persinger has defined his career by playing hard-to-define music.” One minute you’re hearing a pop/rock song in the tradition of Cat Stevens or Jack Johnson, the next you’re listening to music that could have been composed by Stravinsky or Frank Zappa. When it comes to traditional and mainstream styles Prester John’s authenticity is also difficult to match; their bluegrass repertoire sounds straight out of Appalachia (no doubt due to Persinger’s West Virginia roots) and their swing tunes recall the bygone days of The Hot Club of France. The ease and flexibility they display traversing and transcending genres is practically unheard of in this day and age (if ever).

Prester John’s latest CD, “Desire for a Straight Line” focuses on the instrumental side of their repertoire. 16 catchy and unique compositions, this music is both challenging and accessible, a rare combination in modern instrumental music. For fans of vocal tunes Prester John is already at work on the follow up to “Desire…” a 16 song, all vocal recording, which also showcases their instrumental virtuosity. Of course you can always hear Prester John vocal performances at every live concert.

“This duo started with a backlog of Shawn’s songs but the future of our sound is wide open,” says Miller. “We both have an interest in different types of music and we also have the ability to play many styles. Whether it’s the simplicity of a two and four backbeat or the complexity of an atonal melody. Nothing is dismissed.” It is that eclectic taste and skill that makes Prester John a force to be reckoned with.