Written by: Dave Cantrell
In 2012, on the heels of the album Songbox seeming at the time like it might be the final hurrah from Loft Weather Prophet ace Pete Astor, I had the privilege to conduct a fairly extensive interview with the man via email. Lengthy, warm, honest and intelligent, it counts among our favorite interviews here at SEM while Songbox itself sits on a very special shelf in the magazine’s vault where are reserved that rarefied selection of titles we keep in a fireproof titanium box in case of calamity, ready for that emergency escape to the proverbial desert island. Once that whole process was over, the review and interview published, a collective sigh passed through the editorial room before we all turned to our next assignments, each of us feeling an unshakable twinge of melancholy at the prospect of no more Pete Astor songs, muttering ‘No, it mustn’t be, it mustn’t be’ as we shuffled distractedly through upcoming releases, every cover of which now suddenly appeared sepia-toned and blurry. So imagine our joy when news of a bright new Pete Astor release leaked last fall. Turns out that Astor himself pretty much felt the same way and couldn’t bear it, so, armed with some new motivational tools, a smart young band and a brilliant gifted musician as foil and producer (James Hoare from Proper Ornaments), he knocked together Spilt Milk, an effortless-seeming effort that, miraculously, counts among the finest work of his illustrious career, which we realize everyone always says in introductions like this but in this case it’s simply, irrevocably true (we’ve re-posted the review here). Naturally, then, it was time for another interview. Shorter this time – even as it was conducted over many months – but then again of course it is, since this time we’re not worried about there not being another opportunity. As Astor himself assures us, they’ll have to drag him away to stop him ever playing music. He is, in every way you can interpret this, here for good.
[references are made to a contribution Pete made to the Saatchi Gallery Magazine’s ‘What’s true?’ column, which you can access here, and to the work concerning flow and happiness – and the emotional impetus of an artist – that’s been pioneered by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, whose TED talk you can access here, while the (very illuminating) Jeffrey Mishlove interview I mention can be found here] [feature photo courtesy the artist]
STEREO EMBERS MAGAZINE: Hi Pete. Thanks for agreeing to an interview again. Much appreciated. So, to get right to it, what happened? Last album Songbox from 2011 felt so elegiac, a poignant valedictory farewell of sorts, ending on the winsome-slash-scathing note of “Mistress of Song.” And yet, here’s Pete Astor, back in the pop trenches. Explanation?
PETE ASTOR: Yes, good points and good observations. The title of Songbox was actually going to be Gold Watch, but I got convinced not to call it that – I kind of wish I had now – it’s a much funnier title! And, yes, I very much felt like I was done. Around the time of Songbox, I remember meeting up with a very old friend who I’d largely lost contact with; in the meantime, he’d had real difficulties in his life: basically, everything had changed in his world because he’d no longer been able to cope with things. He was now living a very quiet, shadowy life, making sure that he never got over stimulated and kept his life very simple. I remember very clearly him saying that the one thing in his life that he felt comfortable with was music. He described it as this warm, safe place that he could go. And I remember thinking: NO! I can’t imagine that at all! For me at that time, music just felt like the thing that had endlessly got me into trouble, it was like a dreadfully dysfunctional relationship or something, I just wanted to be free of this compulsion to keep on making music and just grow up and get on with my life. Well, a lot changed in my life and I found myself reflecting on the bigger picture; thinking about mortality, basically and just realized that music was the main thing in my life, for better or worse. Also, I got really involved in Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow and I found out that the way that I achieved flow was always through music. So, that’s what I had to do.
SEM: So, I was about to ask whether, as it seems at first blush, you’re past, for now at least, the more nakedly autobiographical content of Songbox and back into more straightforward songwriting a la the Weather Prophets and the Loft but then checked myself as, really, Spilt Milk, just like that previous work, is actually just as emotionally autobiographical as that last album. Even those tracks that might not appear to have a strong personal bent – “Sleeping Tiger,” say – feel pretty close-in. Does that ring true?
PA: Well, yes, indeed, it does. The relationship between songs and ‘truth’ is something that I’ve thought about a lot of late. I wrote a piece in Art and Music about it, which sums it up pretty well, I think. The answer to this question is definitely in there!
SEM: If I may ask, what was the interim like? Did you seriously consider yourself retired from the ‘music business’ and if so how did that sit with you? I’d kind of assume some sort of nagging restlessness might have set in.
PA: I think I’ve addressed this in the previous answers but what I do know is nothing makes me happier than writing songs, singing songs, making tracks, playing and singing live. The more I can do this, the happier I am – it’s what keeps all the other, complicated stuff at bay. For me, making things is a way to make sense of the world and my place in it.
SEM: I’d like to explore both the themes you raise in the Saatchi article first and then move on to Czikszentmihalyi’s ideas regarding flow. The “What’s true?” article I found very intriguing and subsequently raises some intriguing thoughts/questions. You mention the not uncommon understanding that we experience songs – or anyway songs based in emotional expression; the line of thought you pursue in that essay probably wouldn’t apply so well to, say, “Running Bear,” for instance – in a way that suggests we’re using them as personal ciphers, interpreting emotional codes in them that conform to our own situation or experience. Might a similar content-manipulative process be at work in the songwriter, that they construct these songs as a way to convince themselves of a reality that more suits their view of themselves, bending honesty to fit their own preferred inner narrative? Certainly seems it could be the case for Dylan, to use your example.
PA: Blimey, yes! You’ve got me bang to rights, as they say. I think that may well be what I do when I write songs. When I was a kid I took great pleasure in building military models – tanks, figures, etc. I loved the process of spending hours beavering away at them. I think songwriting is pretty much the same – I love worrying at the problem of a song; by that I mean, the creative process of trying to solve the puzzle of getting to write something that I think works. So, hours and hours of playing in both senses: playing my instrument and playing like a child plays; and then, maybe, arriving at an object that tells a satisfying truth. And, yes, a truth that serves the song and me first. But not a truth that would stand up under cross-examination in a court of law! So, it’s a process where I make song worlds that belong to me, are controlled by me, and speak for me. Unlike the messy, badly behaved stuff that is real life.
SEM: Additionally, when later, in Chronicles, Dylan decides that the suite of songs on Blood on the Tracks isn’t at all about the dissolution of his marriage to Sara but rather a cycle of tracks based on Chekhov’s short stories, the notion of ‘truth,’ already shaky as you say, gets sliced to ribbons, almost completely undermined. Are songs living evolving things, able to transmutate as per the whims of their creator (or even their audience as time passes and mores shift), or should we insist they have more solidity than that? All art is potentially subject to reinterpretation, of course, that’s what keeps it alive. I’m just not sure about the denial/wholesale reapportionment of the source material.
PA: I think meanings in songs are very slippery – a song belongs both to people hearing and to the writer. Where that gets a bit complicated is when listeners get the wrong end of the stick, not because of the song itself but because of other things surrounding the song. But generally, a close listen to the song will let the non-deaf listeners know what it’s about. I think!
SEM: For you, how do you decide where the line is between what in your songs is essentially an artful, usually metaphorical confessional of sorts, and the dreaded TMI? Are there times when you’re concerned, once a song gets out there, that you’ve given away too much, crossed that line to a point where the prospect of explaining yourself or a song’s origins might be an uncomfortable one? Whatever the answer, I find it brave – and therefore rather rare – that you go the places you go.
PA: Well, it’s tricky…one thing that seems to go with a song that works well is the feeling I get (and other people talk about this too) that I have revealed too much. It’s that idea of ‘truth’ again. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. You can write something revealing and that doesn’t necessarily make it a good song. I am aware that I think I need to write something that adds to things, that tries to tell sometimes uncomfortable, revealing truths, because the songs are out there to, I guess, help – to help and make sense of the world in the same way that some songs have done that for me.
SEM: Moving on to your interest in Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, can you talk a little about your interpretation of Czikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow’ and the ways in which it has manifested in you?
PA: For me flow is simply the way that you can ‘lose yourself’ in something. And the idea of being involved in something to the point where the ‘I’/ ‘me’ doesn’t exist is, of course, very liberating. So, that’s it for me.
SEM: One might suggest that the work of Pete Astor has already long been inhabited by a sense of flow. I realize that’s a rather simplistic application of the concept but regardless, in what way has it enhanced your work or your way of working, and how strong of an effect, if any, did it have on Spilt Milk?
PA: In terms of Spilt Milk, it’s very much this idea of, once it was clear to me that writing/ playing/ singing songs was the place where I could find flow, it simply re-instated my love of music. So, it was easy to work on the material – indeed, it wasn’t work, of course.
SEM: While researching Czikszentmihalyi’s work (I admit to having been previously unaware) I came across a 7-minute interview with Jeffrey Mishlove where they talk about the role of – and view of – the artist (or the ‘highly creative’) in our society. Toward the end of the interview, Czikszentmihalyi is asked about his finding that the highly creative seem to come from two different types of upbringing – one of rather disturbing circumstances (poverty, parental death, abuse) or one of privilege (where the developing artist has the benefit of opportunity, travel, and a more or less stress-free environment economically) – with the subtext being that those raised, say, lovingly, comfortably but not in great wealth (the great amorphous ‘middle class’) are at a disadvantage. I personally found resonance in this relative to my own fairly pacific upbringing. What I’ve found is that, even as I’m skeptical of the ‘tortured artist’ archetype, it has nonetheless seemed to frequently hold true. It’s odd because it can lead to this twisted longing to have been raised under more dire circumstance, to have had some great difficulty to overcome that could subsequently fire one’s work. I found it oddly gratifying to hear some of this borne out via the many interviews Czikszentmihalyi conducted. Not sure exactly where you were on the spectrum as you grew up but what are your thoughts about this?
PA: Yup, fascinating stuff. And Czikszentmihaly’s observation is so right. I think the thing about his work that I really like is that things like ‘flow’ aren’t just ideas/ riffs, they are backed up by real research. So that kind of proves they are true and things like the two main ways in which people are artists is something we might have seen/ thought informally, but it’s great to have that supported by MC’s actual evidence. As for me? Hmmm. You may have to try and figure that one out for yourself!
SEM: On a somewhat more quotidian level, are there plans to tour much for Spilt Milk? I recently floated the dream suggestion of a Phil Wilson/Pete Astor acoustic tour of the US just for fun – the response was, of course, overwhelmingly positive – but as Phil was quick to point out, the conditions in terms of visas and permits for musicians to tour this country are insanely prohibitive. Fantasies aside, how does the prospect of touring, even just around the UK, strike you these days? Lastly, generally, what does the near future hold for Pete Astor?
PA: I think I can best answer these two together because they are closely related. Basically, I now know that, as far as music goes, I’m a ‘lifer’ – I love teaching too, but I’m a musician and I’ll keep on playing until I’m dragged away. I’ve been playing loads of shows over the last year or so and I love it. I’m happy to bring people to what I do show-by-show, if necessary. I’m currently playing round England along with shows in Europe. I play a lot with James (Veronica Falls, Ultimate Painting) that I made the albums with. I currently have Susan Milanovic (Totally) on drums, Phil Serfaty (Omi Palone, Oslo House) on bass and Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Withered Hand) on vocals. Also I play shows solo but with local musicians when it’s not practical to bring everyone. This also works really well. I’m sure I’m going to get to the US one way or another. Either way, I won’t be stopping playing anytime soon (or ever!) I can assure you.