Talks With Jeff Pearce
Jeff Pearce released his first ambient CD in 1993. His unique style has earned him a devoted fan base and much critical acclaim. ("Echoes" listeners chose "To the Shores of Heaven" as CD of the year in 2000.) Beyond all that, Jeff's humility and quick wit and his devotion to his family and to his spiritual principles have earned him a reputation as a gentleman of honor!
I was talking with my friend, Mike George, this morning. He told me that he always turned to Jeff Pearce when he did not know what he wanted to hear and that he uses Jeff's music as a sorbet, to cleanse the palate. Anything and everything goes with Jeff's unique style.
Jeff is also my friend. We met several years ago on-line. I e-mailed him my reviews of his work. He patiently - and humbly - corrected some of my errors (like my reference to a synthesizer) and sent me promos of his first two CD's. I met him in person at his Gathering concert in Philadelphia in June of 2000 with Kevin Keller. (I still consider it to be one of the best shows that I have heard.)
I have come to learn - through communications and through his music - that Jeff truly respects humanity and loves life. Sometimes I chuckle when I get e-mail from him. Sometimes I laugh. I always smile because he always has something positive to say.
When he read my review of "The Light Beyond," Jeff told me that it made him feel "warm and humble." I like that. My friendship with this remarkable gentleman makes me feel "warm and humble."
I am honored to write this introduction to the Ambient Visions interview. I like Jeff Pearce's music a lot! I love Jeff Pearce!
Introduction by Jim Brenholts
AV: When was it that you first realized that music was going to be an important component of your life?
JP: Music always moved me as a listener, so, in that respect, I knew that music would always be an important part of my life. But my OWN music? That happened when I strummed my first guitar chord at the age of 13. To just feel those strings vibrate under my fingers, to hear the sounds change as I moved my hand around- I knew right then that I wanted this instrument to be the main outlet for my musical expressions.
AV: Were guitars always your instrument of choice when it came time to write music?
JP: No. I started out my musical life as a drummer. Before that, I was the victim of a few piano lessons! (laughs) Unfortunately, I didn't quite "take" to that instrument when I was seven years old. To this day, I have a lot of instruments around the house that I'm constantly playing- a piano, a synth, a zither- and they all inspire the creative process, but I really don't see myself ever recording my music with them. I respect my audience- and my own music- too much to subject either one to the noodlings I make on these other instruments! (laughs) There's a "freshness" that DOES come from experimenting with other instruments, but that freshness can be taken back to your "main" instrument, with a little bit of creativity.
AV: Who were some of your early influences in the ambient music field that helped to shape the sound of your music?
JP: It was all basically Brian Eno and Harold Budd. I came across a cassette copy of "Music for Airports" at my college bookstore in late 1985, and it was an incredibly "mind-altering" experience. I heard elements of chance and randomness introduced into music, yet without all the chaos and atonalism that I head in modern classical music. Then, about a week later, I picked up a copy of "The Pearl" by Budd and Eno. This time, I heard a more structured approach, but it STILL was in that wonderfully reflective place that I heard in "Airports". A week after THAT, I picked up Eno's "Music for Films". To this day, I still think that this ambient genre of ours can be best represented by these three recordings. There was no "ego" in any of these, Eno and Budd weren't out to loudly proclaim their greatness to all who would hear. They were simply making the music for themselves, on their own terms, and were patiently awaiting to see what shape the music would take. That patience, sadly, is absent from so much of today's ambient music, at least to my ears.
AV: Did you ever have any formal training as far as your music goes or was it mostly pick it up as you go along? Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to having or not having formal musical training as opposed to teaching yourself?
JP: I took roughly three years of classical and jazz guitar lessons in high school, and played in jazz bands and studied percussion in college. I can only speak for me, but I'm glad that I know how to read music and know music theory. Being able to do this not only gives me the potential to connect with musicians from all over the world, but it also gives me a chance to connect with music that was written hundreds of years before I was born. I don't see an advantage or a disadvantage to reading music/knowing theory in the world of music composing; Brian Eno picked up things as he went along, but Harold Budd was a very schooled musician. It's often a romanticized notion, especially in this genre of music, of the musician who proudly proclaims "I don't know anything about music theory- I play from the soul!".
Unfortunately, this has lead to something of a form of "reverse discrimination" in certain circles- musicians quietly viewed as being "soul-less" just because they know how to read music, or know music theory.
AV: I think I've asked this question of other musicians that I've talked to but I'm always curious as to how your environment affects the kind of music that you create. How did your environment (geographic/emotional) affect your writing and the style of music that you chose to pursue?
AV: About when was it that you started to think of music in terms of a career and something that you could actually do for a living?
JP: I haven't done this yet, but I probably will soon! (laughs) Really, I DON'T view this whole process as a "career", because I know that, at least for the moment, this genre is way too small to sustain my approach to what I do.
There are a handful of guys out there "making a living" with this music and nothing else. God bless them, I say. But they are often working at a pace that I personally would feel uncomfortable working at. If I were cranking out a lot of cd projects a year, the quality of my music would suffer. I know this. Maybe these other people's music doesn't suffer from this pace, but mine would. My views of my music are such that I see what I do musically to be a piece- a very important piece- of the overall puzzle known as my life. Right now, I feel like there's a balance in the puzzle- at least at the moment! The other pieces of the puzzle are my family, my friends, my health, spirituality- the whole big picture. And yes- once all the pieces fit, life often scrambles up the pieces again, and you start all over. That's how it should be. But I know that if I were to make my music the biggest piece of the puzzle, my "life" would be poorer for it. Then, ironically, that neglected life would start to feed bad energy back into the music, diminishing THAT as well.
AV: Is there a conflict between you as an artist who creates the music for the joy of expressing himself and you as a businessman who must view the created music as a product that you have to bring to market? How is it that you balance these seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum to > achieve something that is satisfying to you as artist but allows you to make money from your creations?
JP: That part of the question is easy- I DON'T make money from my music! (laughs) Well, not very much at least.
I'm blessed that I work with a guy like Mike Griffin and the Hypnos label. Mike has a very business-like approach to Hypnos, don't get me wrong. But it's BECAUSE he has such a good business head that he can put out cd's that personally move and inspire him. I'm honored to be among that group of musicians. Mike doesn't get caught up in the "unimportant things" surrounding this music; if there was ever a "zen record label head", that would be Mike Griffin! (laughs)
Regarding the release of my own music, I'm afraid that I don't have any pained or tortured insights on the process; I simply release the absolute best music that I can with every cd I put out. Not a very exciting answer, right? "Trust" is the most important thing between an artist and an audience, in my opinion. And I want those who have blessed me by listening to my music to know that whenever they listen to a Jeff Pearce cd, they are hearing the absolute best that Jeff Pearce could do- it wasn't rushed, it wasn't an after-thought, it wasn't an attempt to further my catalog or my "presence" in the "music scene". It was simply my music, and the best of my music that I could create at that time.
AV: Looking back on some of your sophomore recordings are there any that stand out as favorites even now? What was it that makes them shine even after their time has passed?
JP: I still like my first cd "Tenderness and Fatality" from 1993. I took some heat from some ambient folks on that one, because that release was mostly recognizeable guitar sounds, and those sounds appeared in structured SONGS! (laughs) There were three cuts on there that forshadowed my more "processed" leanings- cuts that I did with a trusty Electro-Harmonix delay box, creating long infinite repeat delay lines and such.
A lot of these "spacy textures" I was experimenting with ended up appearing on my cd "Daylight Slowly" in 1998, which is another release of mine that is a nice nostalgiac listen for me. And I truly enjoy "To the Shores of Heaven", because, with that release, I was experiementing with textures and sounds that were different than what I had previously done, and different than what is the norm for "ambient guitar". But I also took the time to make sure that these sounds were worked into some good songs. Sounds are great, songs are better! (laughs)
AV: Do you have a certain way that you approach composing music when inspiration strikes you? Or is there some way that you start the process simply by sitting down with your guitar and beginning to play?
JP: Again, this is another not-so-exciting answer, but I really just let the "muse" or inspiration or whatever it is dictate the composing. I really DON'T try to force things out. I've always felt that if I wanted my music to feel smooth and effortless and flowing, then I'm not going to achieve that feel if I try to "force" the creation of the music. Sometimes inspiration strikes me while I have a guitar in my lap. But very rarely. Most of the time, inspiration strikes me while I'm just living my life-talking with friends, spending time with my daughter, cooking, doing yardwork. Oh, and sleeping- and I'm not crazy about inspiration striking at 2:00 am! (laughs)
AV: What kind of equipment do you have around the house to set down your inspirations in a permanent form for later manipulation?
JP: I'm fortunate that I have a very small yet intuitive set up in my basement studio. I have a Roland VM3100pro digital mixer hooked into my computer, and all my effects units and guitars hooked into the mixer. When inspiration strikes, I can quickly call up my Sound Forge program on my computer and record my "musical thoughts". Sometimes the whole thing comes out. Other times, it just a piece to a puzzle that will present itself at a later date. Regardless, I am always thankful for whatever arrives because of inspiration.
AV: How has technology changed the way that you as a musician take your creative idea from inspiration to final mix, ready for duplication and distribution?
JP: I've only recently gotten into the more technical/computer end of music making, and it's been a pretty steep learning curve! I've been very happy to embrace this technology, though, because it means total freedom for the musician. Or total chaos if you have a computer crash! (laughs) It's been useful to have all the songs on my hard drive, and be able to tweak them to my heart's content before burning a cd-r of them and sending it to the pressing plant.
AV: What was the first CD that you created and saw pressed and distributed by a record label? How does that feel as an artist to see your work moving beyond just you and out into the world?
JP: My first cd, "Tenderness and Fatality" was a self release project in 1993. It was a really odd feeling when it was sitting in front of me in physical form; I felt a little like I was at the end, and also the beginning, of a journey.
AV: I don't always think of a guitar as being a real subtle instrument but you seem to bring forth some wonderful sounds from your guitar...how is it that you process these signals to achieve such a flowing sound?
JP: I tend to approach my guitar in the same way as I cook- I throw everything at it, and examine the final results. If it tastes bad, well, I've eliminated one "recipe" from my library!
In recent years, I've found it far more liberating to focus on a few pieces of gear that really speak to me, as opposed to trying out a lot of different things. For example, the "mainstay" of my guitar set-up is the Roland GP-100 pre-amp. It's just a very deep and powerful processor, and I'm always discovering new things on it. I might not be discovering those new things if I were to buy a new piece of gear as soon as it came out and spend time with that- until a new piece of gear comes out!
What I REALLY like doing is taking effects that other musicians ignore for whatever reasons, and combine them with OTHER effects that musicians tend to overlook or underuse. Sometimes the result is disappointing. Ok, a LOT of times the results are disappointing! (laughs) But the times that it DOES work- it's great. Again, though- I've had more fun hooking my good old gear up in the "wrong" order than I've had with pieces of "ambient musician approved" gear.
AV: Tell me about how you hooked up with Mike Griffin and Hypnos records and what kind of relationship as an artist that you have with him. What kind of input does Mike have in regards to your music before you reach a final mix?
JP: Mike Griffin e-mailed me out of the blue in mid-1997 saying that he bought a cd of mine and really liked it. He mentioned that he had a web site, and gave me the address for it. I was completely blown away by his artwork. As we started corresponding, we developed a friendship- one which I cherish to this day. If anything, that's the most important aspect of our relationship- we both know that we can phone/e-mail each other if we want to rant and rave about AC/DC or Rush or Cheap Trick, or have deep philosophical discussions about the importance of videogames in our lives!
Mike and I sort of have an unspoken agreement regarding my music- he doesn't tell me what to play, and I don't deliver him a hip-hop cd! Seriously, he has such trust in me for what I do musically, that I don't want to deliver him anything short of my best. I value that trust he has placed in me.
AV: Is performing live as an ambient artist any different than putting on a concert within any other genre? Are there the same expectations or is there another mindset present within the ambient listener?
JP: I'm not the person to ask about live performances! (laughs) I've only done three of them. However, I do my best to present a "live" performance, as opposed to using cd-r backing tracks or pre-recorded sequences. I really don't know why so many live performers in this genre are using these things to "fill in" their performances. It's almost to the point where, sadly, the audience is ok with this. Maybe I just want to see musicians "suffer" when they play live! (laughs)
My attitude is that a live musical experience is supposed to be just that- a LIVE musical experience. If a musician is going to use extensive backing tracks, I'd prefer just to stay at home and listen to a cd of theirs. It's funny how some musicians enjoy talking about how their live performances are "on the edge", and yet they use such "safety nets" as cd-r's and the like.
Of course, I'm sure that using cd-r's has it's advantages in that you don't have to worry about creating as many things "on the fly". But I've liked that feeling at the end of my few live gigs- the feeling that I went out there, created something from nothing, and did my best at it. It might not have been as polished as using backing tracks, but the music created was created in that very moment, and was "real".
AV: How do your live performances influence the creative process once you get back home and start creating again?
JP: Actually, I've found that there's a bit of a "recovery" period from when I've played live. This is because I generally feel "musically spent" after performing live. Of course, it COULD also be that I'm a big wimp, too! (laughs)
My experience has been that playing live can bring some focus to what I'm doing musically. There's not a lot of difference in my "live" sound and my "studio" sound, since all my records since Vestiges have been recorded "live" to DAT or computer. It's musically satisfying for my to deal with all those layers of sound "live"- not because of any attitude of "look what I can do!" but because I enjoy the immediacy of what constructing everything live can do. There have been times where, through a "wrong" note or a "wrong" equipment setting, I end up in a great new place musically that I never would have thought of had I been overdubbing layers of sound.
However, sometimes that "wrong" note really IS a "wrong note", and then it's a matter of deleting that sound file and starting over.
AV: As a listener of ambient music it always seems to me to have a component of spirituality to it...do you find that your own spirituality influences your music during its creation?
JP: I believe that one's "spirituality", however THAT is defined, influences everything a person does- including writing music. To apply this to myself, my "spirituality" is often one of questions, not answers, and this, I feel, reflects itself in my music; what I do musically isn't exactly filled with that "I've got a lot of testosterone, I'm going to lead you by the nose to the exact place I want you to go!" type of thing! My spirituality tends to lean towards fragility and comfort, as opposed to strength and domination, and I believe that my music reflects this.
AV: As you look back on your releases for Hypnos, do you see your music growing and maturing as you go along?
JP: It seems so to me. Even if I weren't on Hypnos, I think my music would still be progressing, but I am so grateful to have a great and honest label like Hypnos "behind" my music, because just knowing that there is a place that will take great care of my music means that there's one less thing I have to worry about.
AV: Lets talk about The Light Beyond. Tell me about what the Gathering is and how you originally made contact with Chuck van Zyl.
JP: The Gatherings are a series of concerts in Philidelphia that are organized by Chuck van Zyl and Jeff Towne. These guys do an INCREDIBLE job of putting on shows featuring music in the electronic/space/ambient genre- I've been blessed to have played two Gatherings so far. Chuck has played my music on his radio show Star's End ever since the first cd came out, so I was more than glad to hear from him when he approached me about doing a Gathering. I had heard from other musicians that the Gatherings were incredible things, and they are. The audiences at the shows I played at have really blessed my heart- it was SO nice to be able to meet and talk with people who have sort of followed what I've done musically. At both Gatherings I've played, I've come away with some great experiences, and some new friends. I couldn't really ask for more than that.
AV: You had gone there with the idea of presenting a "sneak preview" of your upcoming musical project to the audience of Stars End. Tell me about the concert itself and what you found when you reviewed the live tapes that you made during the event.
JP: The Star's End "concert" was basically a "live on the air" concert at the radio station that airs Star's End. It was late at night/early in the morning (around 2 am!!), and I set my gear up and thought I'd give the Star's End audience a "sneak preview" of what direction my next project would take. I started to play, then Jeff Towne and Chuck van Zyl politely asked if they could just sit in the same room with me and watch and listen to what I was doing. I said "of course!" It was nice of them to ask, because I know that a lot of musicians like to be very alone and focused in that moment of creation, and I respect that. But I wanted the good energy of those two guys to be around me as I created the music, so it was good to have them there as I was creating. They talked, and laughed, and offered support.
I had started my music following a sort of "road map" as to what I would play. It's hard to describe, but I just kind of make "notes" to myself regarding where I would like the music to head. This way, I'm not locked into any certain pre-set musical expressions, but I have enough of a "plan" that I can keep in mind where the music was going. The idea was that, after this "sneak preview" on Star's End, I'd head home and sort of "re-create" what I had done. However, Chuck sent me a cd-r of the music, and I knew, the first time I listened to it, that I wouldn't be able to create anything that "spoke" what I wanted to say any clearer than the live on air performance. So I loaded that cd-r into my computer, put a fade at the beginning and end of the piece, and it was done.
AV: Do you ever do any collaborative work with other artists? If so what do you take away from such experiences and how does it add to your own style of performing and composing?
JP: I tend to "contribute" to other musician's music rather than collaborate. I've only done one "proper" collaboration, in the sense of the word, and that was with Vidna Obmana on True Stories. I've contributed parts to a lot of musician's existing songs, including Alpha Wave Movement, Jon Jenkins, Kevin Keller, Ruben Garcia, and some recent contributions to some songs by Paul Avgerinos for some tracks for his upcoming cd.
Whenever I am faced with contributing something of mine to someone else's music, I always try to find a good "space" for it. I never want anything I do to overwhelm what the other person contributed.
I think that any good collaboration should be like any good relationship; each persons brings what is unique about themselves into it in hopes of creating something beautiful. The worst thing that can happen is if one collaborator "dominates" or the other acquiesces. I don't necessarily think that the definition of a good collaboration is that "both parties agree on everything". If both parties of a collaboration agree on everything, then one of those parties is unnecessary. There should be an atmosphere of openess and honesty, where either party can express what they like or dislike about a certain piece of music/etc... without fear of angering the other person. The end result should be music that is something completely new and different from both collaborators- the old cliche about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
AV: What are your views on where the genre of ambient music is headed in the years ahead? Will it ever grow beyond its current niche or is it better off being a small and intimate form of music? (big business tends to rip the soul out of many artists and the music that they compose and I was just curious as to your ideas on why ambient music has stayed pretty much the same size)
JP: In my opinion, any time you're dealing with instrumental music, you will generally have a pretty small scene. We are so used to having lyrics with our songs, that we really don't know what to do with instrumental music of ANY kind, since it starts by asking us to fill in the blanks- to bring our OWN stories to the music.
You're right- "big business" CAN rip the soul out of many artists. I know of more than a few people who, sadly, have had some pretty bad experiences with the "business end" of this genre. That's why I believe that it is SO important as musicians to gaurd and nurture our love for simply creating the music. I have told people before that when I stop releasing music on cd's, it will be completely because of the business/political end of this industry. I will always love to create music, it's just pure joy for me.
But whether or not anyone ever hears that music- well, that's another story altogether.
If this "scene" becomes a very popular thing overnight- well, that would be great. But it wouldn't "add" one thing to that wonderfully fulfilling sense I have today when I create a piece of music- that experience is already "full" for me.
AV: What kinds of projects do you have in the works that we might be looking for from you in the next few months or even next year?
JP: I'm working on my next solo cd, which (hopefully!) will be finished by the time the new baby arrives. Yes- my wife and I are expecting again! After that, there's a collaboration in the works, but it's a bit of a secret at the moment.
AV: In closing, what is it that you would want listeners to take away from your music be it a live concert or playing your CDs in their players at home?
JP: First of all, I'm grateful to anyone who takes the time to listen to my music. If anything, I hope that someone would get that from my music: that I am grateful to them, I am grateful to the Universe, to be able to be playing this music and having someone take time out of their life to listen to it. Time is our most precious treasure as people, so anytime someone spends it with my music, it's an honor.
I hope that the listeners would be able to sense that they are getting the best of what I have to offer musically. I would hope that the listeners would hear that I am simply a "searcher", just like they are. I have my own questions and puzzles to work through, just as they do. Music helps me do this- whether it be music I write or music that others write. And any time someone "invites" my music into their own personal space where their own questions and puzzles live- I am humbled and grateful.
AV: Many thanks to you Jeff for taking the time to talk to us here at Ambient Visions and of course the best of luck with any and all of your future projects.