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Adam Peters In Interview
Adam Peters’ eclectically varied musical activities since graduating from London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama have been far from conventional, although we concede that he does play the cello. His is not a traditional music trajectory, covering performance and production with Echo & the Bunnymen, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Lloyd Cole and Transvision Vamp. Elsewhere, you can read about his extraordinary recording with the Flowerpot Men, Walk On Gilded Splinters.
Adam Peters was interviewed by Mike Thorne on Wednesday, June 6, 2001 at the Stereo Society,
New York City.
The cello seems a most unlikely instrument to work in a rock + roll context. Do you think there are limits to the instruments?
I don’t think there’s a limit to any instrument that can play rock + roll. I use the cello because I’ve been playing it since I was about five, and it’s the most natural instrument for me to use. My fingers can go anywhere on the instrument. I can do anything on it without thinking. Technically, I’m the least challenged when I am playing the cello. I don’t really think it matters what you play when you’re playing in a band or when you’re playing with other people. You’re making music. I think that having the fewest blockages between you and the sound that comes out of the speaker is the most important thing.
A few years ago, I did a recording where there was someone sitting in a room, and he just started smashing some pipe that was on the wall. It was all out of time, and it was terrible, but it was so confident the way he did it, and we were all playing. You could hear that when you listened back to the recording–this strange noise, hammering away in the background–it had a character to it that was stronger than most of the music that was being played at the time by very proficient musicians. In general, it doesn’t make any difference which instrument you play. I think it’s how you play it.
Do you think the cello’s closer to the spirit because you’re more physically involved in its sound than playing, for example, an electric keyboard?
Playing the cello is very physical for me. In fact, when I play my electric cello, I play it standing up. It has the shape of a body. With a cello, you’re basically holding a body right next to you. The louder I play, the more harmonics and feedback come through the whole system. I play through a lot of effects and big amps, and all that stuff, and part of the sound is the way the instrument resonates against all that. It’s a physical experience and you’re really moving all over the place. The effect the bow has on the string is gigantic: I can play upside down; I can whack it; I can make it quiet and smooth.
Playing my cello live, on stage, is a lot more fulfilling. I always found playing keyboard gigs a slightly, empty experience. I’ve done gigs where we’d get to the end of a two-hour set, and everyone would be exhausted apart from me. I’d been standing there sort of plunking around and totally getting into it and going mad, but it’s such an unphysical thing to do. You’re always stuck off the side or the back of the stage. I never enjoyed playing keyboards live that much. Obviously, I’ve done it a lot. The cello for me is the main way I can really express myself the most freely. I’m absolutely positive, because I was trained to play scales for years, and I just learned how the whole thing works. Then, when I got older, I learned how to deconstruct it and started getting into the music we’re all in now. I started using the cello because I knew the way it worked. It wasn’t a mystery for me.
I think that what happens with a lot of musicians in bands is that they can’t get to a certain place with their music. It’s not idiot savant, that’s too demeaning, but they have an idea, an esthetic, and they have a talent, but they can only take it so far. It might work for an album, or a couple of albums. When they want to explore themselves and change musically, they find it difficult because they’ve never really learned what it is that they’re playing.
Might it be that the electric guitar’s stuck in such a stylistic rut? Might the cello, because it doesn’t belong in the fretted instrument family, have a bit more freedom?
The cello has a lot more freedom because it doesn’t have frets, but I’ve had quite a lot of people suggest that I get frets on them. Every couple of years I come to this conclusion: the guitar is a dead instrument. The guitar in rock and pop music is a totally redundant animal, (but then I’ll hear something that makes me think about it in a fresh way, and it’s the spirit behind the players, not what they’re playing). Everything’s been played; it’s not like you’re hearing new notes or new sequences of notes. You just hear a character come along and do something. It might be very simple or it might be very complex. The cello is very similar to the human voice. It can go very low; it can go very high; it can accompany; it can lead; it can be ambient; it can create atmospheres; it can screech and sound quite unpleasant. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Lebanese and Indian music, and I love it when I can just move the finger a tiny little bit. You’re playing the same note, but it’s starting to tell you you’re going up, but you’re not going up.
Fifteen years ago, now, the Flowerpot Men came together with just one voice, electronics and a cello. What was the background, and what do you think were the major successes of that combination?
I think the major success of what we did with the Flowerpot Men was the primitive combination of simple analog sequences playing sort of angular, repetitive riffs. On top of that, I wanted to explore how far the cello could go by creating noise, atmosphere, melody and darkness. It wasn’t a chordal form of music. It was a very linear, structured piece of work. The cello doesn’t really play chords, so everything we were doing was linear (which felt very modern then). I had all this in my head, plus the limitations of the actual sequences that we used. We weren’t playing chords, but would just program a [Roland] 202 drum machine to do something quite annoying. Then we’d just go.
It became this repetitive thing that I could listen to for hours. I suppose, in a psychedelic way, I could create a backdrop over all of this. The time and place that we were in was London in the early eighties, and it had a natural sort of darkness and an interest in that kind of area. We were that kind of age. I think the Flowerpot Men was probably most successful as a live unit, because in that mode we could really let things run, and I could play loud. I really liked that primitive energy of it all.
You’re now involved in programming, producing and arranging, and the level of involvement of computers is so much greater than it was, do you think there is a certain amount of innocence lost?
There’s not much innocence left in the music because “the business” has taken over nearly everything and “the business” has taken over most artistic and esthetic decisions that people now make. I think they make their decisions without even realizing they’re making a business decision most of the time. I see people come into the studio. I might be working with them. You try and find a common ground when you record with somebody else’s bunch of songs. They’re all saying, “I don’t know how to play music, but I’ve got these songs, and somebody has just given me half a million dollars.” Basically, you’re just trying to find an area where everyone agrees. Some of the artists will be, “Oh, I like that!” And as a producer, you’re sure to like it too! The record company is saying to itself, “I can sell that!” So the innocence was lost some time ago with society. I don’t think it was just with the musician. I just think we all lost our innocence.
Recording can still be an amazing process, but it can also be just putting together the same jigsaw that’s already been made. I think the further you get away from what an original idea is, the duller the music gets. Often, on the other hand, the more successful the music then gets. Now we’re just referencing results of someone else’s experiments. You might be working with a folk singer who comes in and goes, all right, I want to deconstruct these folk songs and make it like that. Then the producer might say to me, basically, there it is: it’s Joni Mitchell on crack, that’s what we want. And then it’s all done. There is no innocence, but it wasn’t us that did it in. It’s laziness. There’s a lot of laziness around. People want to make the same music that’s been made before because it sells.
You mentioned an original idea. Do you think that with, the increased use of sampling, the original idea is being transformed or do you think it’s just being lost in the wash?
First, an original idea comes from an original person. Personally, I’ve heard some great stuff happening with sampling and I still hear amazing syncopations in some of the hip-hop music that’s around. I don’t hear any originality in it, but I hear things that, technically, weren’t possible for a band to play thirty years ago. In fact, there are certain records that change the way we perceive things. A good example is the song Blue Monday by New Order. When that bass drum had no velocity on it [dynamics in the recording], and it just went like that-it spoke to so many people. There’ve been landmarks. I think that track that John Lennon put on the Beatles’ White Album, Revolution Number Nine, was the first time that [a loop] had been heard in pop music, and it’s interesting. I was thinking about that this morning. It goes back to Steve Reich and the idea of the loop. He really got into the loop: Number Nine; Number Nine; Number Nine, and it was an incredibly brave thing to do.
What was happening is that people were taking the emotion of an idea. For instance, they might want a baby’s heartbeat in it, or the sound of a car, and they might want this or that–sounds that had some kind of meaning and relevance to what the idea was. Samples today are used for their good rhythmic quality. Someone will play a rather dull keyboard part, and go, well, that doesn’t sound very interesting and flick through five hundred MIDI sounds and put it through some kind of glass flute. That’s not interesting, and I can hear that process used in 99% of the music today. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has probably not been bettered for the sampling process of having some kind of depth and meaning to it. The Public Enemy stuff probably hasn’t been, either.
Is there any particular track on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts [album by Brian Eno and David Byrne] that you could talk about as an example?
The whole album is an excellent example. The repetitiveness of it, the way he was using those loops. They weren’t just triggered loops but it sounds like they were looped into the electronic harmonics because they build up this random cycle that goes round and round. So a sound might be heard every twenty-three seconds, not to mention they’ve got tons of layers of different sounds. It’s corny and hack now because it’s done a million times, but back then we’d never heard it. They defined a lot of thought for the following twenty years on that album.
This often comes from naiveté. Having gone through the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, [one of the top three London music colleges], do you ever find that knowing too much is a problem?
When I was about nineteen, I went through a big stage where I was suddenly very self-conscious, over-trained, and knew too much. I actually tried to unlearn all of it. I did unlearn most of it, and that was a smart thing to do. I still get shocked when I do a string session where I might have had the orchestra playing something for an hour. They’ve got all their parts down and I go, “Well, this two-bar thing here, can you play it differently?” I’ll look around, and they’re all looking at the music, and I’ll say, “Can you not look at the music; can you just look at me and watch my hand, and I’m gonna show you the up and down of how I want the sound to go.” They all kind of nod, and they look straight back down and play it the way they had been.
I find it is important to unlearn the ideas that people put into your head. You don’t want to unlearn the technical ability that you’ve gained, and you don’t want to throw away everything everyone has told you and taught you, but you want to be aware of what it is. It’s just a bunch of peoples’ opinions that you’re crammed with at these music schools. They don’t teach you how to think for yourself. They teach you how to think in reference to four hundred years of Western music thinking. You’ve got to deconstruct all that stuff, otherwise, you’re going to be stuck in that cycle. It’s a rather dull place to be stuck.
Does your moving to New York reflect the city’s being more aware of other musical influences?
No, I moved to New York because of girl problems. It had nothing to do with music. I did move over here, for a while, to produce an album. I was producing a Lloyd Cole album, and I’d never spent more than a few days on tour or recording here. I really hadn’t seen much of New York apart from the inside of a bunch of nightclubs or recording studios. I realized it was actually a pretty reasonable place, so I just thought I’d stay, and I learnt stuff that meant something to me. I learned more about rhythm than anything else when I moved to New York. I don’t think I was open to anything esoteric in any way. I wasn’t open to living back in England, but, what I learned here was how a beat can land when a drummer’s drumming. I learned where not to put things here and how to place them accordingly. There’s something about the beat of New York. People don’t overdo it.
That’s not the image the rest of the world has of New York.
I don’t know what image people have of New York anymore. New York goes through a lot of changes, and New York has nothing to do with the sort of CBGBs of the seventies punk scene. It has nothing to do with the Sinatra thing of the fifties or the sort of junkie jazz scene. New York’s pretty much like anywhere else in the world now, I believe. There’s some interesting stuff happening here, but, on the whole it’s so expensive to live here, so I think it’s a really terrible place for music. If I were eighteen, I don’t know how I would make it living, having to pay thousands of dollars in rent. It’s a struggle in this town just to hold your head above water. It’s tough work here. It’s all about economics, this town, but as is music these days. Music seems to be about economics. It doesn’t seem to be about originality, anymore.
When New York was possible to inhabit for young, broke musicians, it was a very musically social place. Music has always come out of a very social milieu. It all seems to function best when there are a lot of people talking to each other and playing with each other. Given that cities, in general, are getting more expensive, is that in danger of being lost?
You’re going to find that people are going to get fed up with all the crap that they are having to put up with just about anything just to live here. As people move out, it might be quite interesting that someone is living in the middle of nowhere, but in a particularly pleasant spot. Four or five of them they might get an idea together. Once you get that energy a few people start screwing around on an idea. That’s what makes great stuff happen. It’s the push; it’s the search for something-it’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it? You’re trying to find something that’s never been found before. Of course, it’s always there, and it’s been found by loads of people, but it’s the energy of the push to get there that matters. There are too many distractions in the City now. New York’s become a very homogenized place. I think the suburbs are here, and the suburbs were always the most horrific place.
Paradoxically, it sounds like you’re circling back to an old hippie.
Yeah, an old punk. I’m lucky that I have a great situation here. I have a great recording studio. I have a great apartment, and I don’t have to pay fortunes for it. So, I’m one of the few people who can be here and carry on experimenting and doing what they do, but I do believe there’ll be a move out of the City by artists. Hopefully, it won’t become some kind of horrible hippie thing. I think you’ve got to keep your wits about you to make sure it doesn’t descend into that.
Let’s leave the hippie ideal for a bit more intensity. You’ve always worked with really intense outfits. Is this a conscious gravitation, a conscious ideal?
Okay, the people I’m known for working for are quite intense individuals. I think there’s a mutual attraction that I’ve had when we’ve met each other because I’m always trying to find some mad sound or noise or something like that, or trying to write some string arrangement. I try to write a chord that’s never been written or something like that. I’m attracted to people who are trying to push the envelope. So, whenever I come in contact with them, I get excited. When I get excited, they get excited, and something happens. It’s pretty simple and that’s why I’ve always been around those people. I’ve also been around other people who aren’t particularly exciting, and I’ve tried doing that, as well. It doesn’t really work.
Who have been the most rewarding people to work with for you?
The most rewarding stuff I’ve done have been the most intense, and I think it’s the bands. The first time around when we played with Siouxsie and The Banshees. That was a lot of fun because they had a great attitude. I didn’t record with them; I just played live with them. They’re proud, tough people, and I love that, and I respond to that. Also, when I worked with the Triffids, an Australian band. They were great to work with. When I worked with my partner, Chris, and The Family of God, I really enjoyed that too. Working with people is the stuff that provokes me. It’s not really about the other peoples’ music; it’s about them as people. I think when somebody’s really fucking cool, you respond to it.
Does it ever tip over into really being scary?
No, I’ve never been scared of any of them. The older I get, the more I see through it, as well. I’ve got more respect for some people the older I get. I realize how individual and talented they are. I think the guitarist in Echo and the Bunnymen is amazing. I always found that, when I first met them, he had this kind of scarce attitude and humor to him that was impenetrable, and I loved that. That’s the kind of thing that I get off on people.
Do you think that sort of passion is going to continue as technology develops, or are we going to look back on the Golden Age?
No, the musical fervor is going to continue. There are going to be great people coming out, and I don’t think the technology is going to make any difference to the personalities. Great personalities will use and abuse the technology that surrounds them, as they should.