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.
Peters was interviewed by Mike Thorne on Wednesday, June 6, 2001 at
the Stereo Society,
Streaming audio of Adam's answers can be heard by clicking on the player after each question.
The cello seems a most unlikely instrument to work in a rock & roll context. Do you think there are limits to the instruments?
I dont think theres a limit to any instrument that can play rock & roll. I use the cello because Ive been playing it since I was about five, and its 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, Im the least challenged when I am playing the cello. I dont really think it matters what you play when youre playing in a band or when youre playing with other people. Youre 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.
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 doesnt make any difference which instrument you play. I think its
how you play it.
Do you think the cellos closer to the spirit because youre 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, youre 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. Its a physical experience and youre 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. Ive done gigs where wed get to the end of a two-hour set, and everyone would be exhausted apart from me. Id been standing there sort of plunking around and totally getting into it and going mad, but its such an unphysical thing to do. Youre always stuck off the side or the back of the stage. I never enjoyed playing keyboards live that much. Obviously, Ive done it a lot. The cello for me is the main way I can really express myself the most freely. Im 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 were all in now. I started using the cello because I knew the way it worked. It wasnt a mystery for me.
I think that what happens with a lot of musicians in bands is that they cant get to a certain place with their music. Its not idiot savant, thats 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 theyve never really learned what it is that theyre playing.
Might it be that the electric guitars stuck in such a stylistic rut? Might the cello, because it doesnt belong in the fretted instrument family, have a bit more freedom?
The cello has a lot more freedom because it doesnt have frets, but Ive 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 Ill hear something that makes me think about it in a fresh way, and its the spirit behind the players, not what theyre playing). Everythings been played; its not like youre 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, Ive 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. Youre playing the same note, but its starting to tell you youre going up, but youre 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 wasnt a chordal form of music. It was a very linear, structured piece of work. The cello doesnt 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 werent playing chords, but would just program a [Roland] 202 drum machine to do something quite annoying. Then wed 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.
Youre 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?
Theres 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 theyre 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 elses bunch of songs. Theyre all saying, "I dont know how to play music, but Ive got these songs, and somebody has just given me half a million dollars." Basically, youre just trying to find an area where everyone agrees. Some of the artists will be, "Oh, I like that!" And as a producer, youre 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 dont
think it was just with the musician. I just think we
all lost our innocence.
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 its just being lost in the wash?
First, an original idea comes from an original person. Personally, Ive heard some great stuff happening with sampling and I still hear amazing syncopations in some of the hip-hop music thats around. I dont hear any originality in it, but I hear things that, technically, werent 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. Thereve 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 its 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 babys 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 doesnt sound very interesting and flick through five hundred MIDI sounds and put it through some kind of glass flute. Thats 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 hasnt 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 werent 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 theyve got tons of layers of different sounds. Its corny and hack now because its done a million times, but back then wed 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. Theyve got all their parts down and I go, "Well, this two-bar thing here, can you play it differently?" Ill look around, and theyre all looking at the music, and Ill say, "Can you not look at the music; can you just look at me and watch my hand, and Im 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 dont want to unlearn the technical ability that youve gained, and you dont want to throw away everything everyone has told you and taught you, but you want to be aware of what it is. Its just a bunch of peoples opinions that youre crammed with at these music schools. They dont teach you how to think for yourself. They teach you how to think in reference to four hundred years of Western music thinking. Youve got to deconstruct all that stuff, otherwise, youre going to be stuck in that cycle. Its a rather dull place to be stuck.
Does your moving to New York reflect the citys 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 Id never spent more than a few days on tour or recording here. I really hadnt 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 Id 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 dont think I was open to anything esoteric in any way. I wasnt open to living back in England, but, what I learned here was how a beat can land when a drummers drumming. I learned where not to put things here and how to place them accordingly. Theres something about the beat of New York. People dont overdo it.
Thats not the image the rest of the world has of New York.
I dont 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 Yorks pretty much like anywhere else in the world now, I believe. Theres some interesting stuff happening here, but, on the whole its so expensive to live here, so I think its a really terrible place for music. If I were eighteen, I dont know how I would make it living, having to pay thousands of dollars in rent. Its a struggle in this town just to hold your head above water. Its tough work here. Its all about economics, this town, but as is music these days. Music seems to be about economics. It doesnt 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?
Youre 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. Thats what makes great stuff happen. Its the push; its the search for something--its the Holy Grail, isnt it? Youre trying to find something thats never been found before. Of course, its always there, and its been found by loads of people, but its the energy of the push to get there that matters. There are too many distractions in the City now. New Yorks become a very homogenized place. I think the suburbs are here, and the suburbs were always the most horrific place.
Paradoxically, it sounds like youre circling back to an old hippie.
Yeah, an old punk. Im lucky that I have a great situation here. I have a great recording studio. I have a great apartment, and I dont have to pay fortunes for it. So, Im one of the few people who can be here and carry on experimenting and doing what they do, but I do believe therell be a move out of the City by artists. Hopefully, it wont become some kind of horrible hippie thing. I think youve got to keep your wits about you to make sure it doesnt descend into that.
Lets leave the hippie ideal for a bit more intensity. Youve always worked with really intense outfits. Is this a conscious gravitation, a conscious ideal?
Okay, the people Im known for working for are quite intense individuals. I think theres a mutual attraction that Ive had when weve met each other because Im 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 thats never been written or something like that. Im 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. Its pretty simple and thats why Ive always been around those people. Ive also been around other people who arent particularly exciting, and Ive tried doing that, as well. It doesnt really work.
Who have been the most rewarding people to work with for you?
The most rewarding stuff Ive done have been the most intense, and I think its 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 didnt record with them; I just played live with them. Theyre 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. Its not really about the other peoples music; its about them as people. I think when somebodys really fucking cool, you respond to it.
Does it ever tip over into really being scary?
No, Ive never been scared of any of them. The older I get, the more I see through it, as well. Ive 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. Thats 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 dont 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.
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