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“What’s wrong with a catchy hook?” : The Line of Best Fit speaks to Peter Broderick

“What’s wrong with a catchy hook?” : The Line of Best Fit speaks to Peter Broderick

06 March 2012, 10:00

Peter Broderick’s new album http://www.itstartshear.com is not just a marvellous piece of music but acts as a hub for a whole web-based concept record: it’s an album title that acts as the record itself, and the site contains information far beyond regular liner notes.

We find audio and video clips, and a story from Broderick about how each song came into being. It’s a unique insight into the construction of the album, a concession to music downloading, and above all it’s another example of Broderick’s approach to music. He’s a composer that makes experimental music that’s welcoming, instant and beautiful, and we were delighted to be able to speak to him recently about how he ended up creating a website as well as an album.

I began, perhaps annoyingly for an artist who wants to promote their new record, by talking about Peter living in Europe for a few years. I ask how this came about, and how it is as an American living in Europe. “Yeah I moved to Denmark at the end of 2007 – September 2007 – and I lived there a couple of years and kind of made my way to Berlin at some point,” he explains. “It’s crazy; I mean I didn’t even have a passport before I moved to Denmark. I moved there because I was invited by a Danish band – Efterklang – and I started touring with them. It was kind of a freak dream come true for me… and yeah, I really hadn’t travelled much at all and I went from that lifestyle to travel being the only thing I’ve known for the past four years or so.” And so it was a success? “It’s worked out really well for me – when I was in the States I was in school part time, I was making pizzas part time, and since I’ve been here I’ve gotten pretty lucky with music opportunities and somehow being able to make a living out of playing music.” All this is a roundabout way for me to ask how Peter’s German language skills are currently, as one of the tracks on http://www.itstartshear.com includes a bit of Broderick singing in German. “Oh, it’s terrible! You can really take it for granted here in Berlin as there are so many foreigners and they don’t really speak any German. Most everybody speaks English so it makes me really lazy.” But you sing in German on the record? “Yes! I do sing a little bit.”

Turning to the album, I ask about the general concept, about Peter’s admittance that artists have to deal with the fact that people download music every day – was that one of the central ideas? “It mainly came from recording the songs,” he reveals, “and I kind of thought, I have a lot of stories behind these songs and I’d love to finish the record and put it together with a nice big book or something. But then I though, wait a minute, only 20% of the people – if that – are ever going to see that book, all the other words and images and whatever that are meant to go with the songs because most people will download it – they have it in their iTunes or iPod with just a line of text like every other album or artist they have on there. It’s not distinguished by any sort of colour or… these things that come with the physical package. That was the main idea, that nobody would see that if I took the time to put something together.”

Peter goes on to explain that he wanted to reveal more about the songs in some way for the listener: “I wanted to share some more thoughts and stories about the songs, so then I came up with the website idea.” And was this fully formed straight away? “No, it had many different incarnations during the making of the album and at some point I even decided not to call the album that, and was working with that for a while – so it was really up and down for a long time. But I’m really happy with the final thing; it’s really turned out to be quite simple.” I agree that the concept is strikingly simple, yet original too, but I point out that there’s so much information and background on http://www.istartshear.com as well: photos, videos, the traditional liner notes of who plays what, and the story behind each song “For me when I pick up a record – I still like to walk around with my Discman and like to physically put the album I’m listening to into the player, and to have the artwork and notes that go along with it, and to see the credits of who played what. Those things have always been important for me and I would imagine there are at least some other people out there who would like to know that stuff as well.” And with this record they can do that then, as each track comes with a story, and details of who played what. “Yeah as much as people want to know, they can know, and it’s even open to them to ask questions about specific tracks if they want to.”

I ask if there was anything Peter had seen that had inspired the concept; had he seen anything like it before, because to me it does seem entirely new. “When I came up with the idea I was really excited at first and was just thinking ‘wow!’ that I had just stumbled upon a lucky idea… but then as time goes by it just becomes the project you’re working on and you can’t see it objectively at all anymore, so I lost that perspective a long time ago. But I know that when I came up with the idea it felt really good, and something fresh and new – at least from my head.”

So a labour of love that’s taken almost 4 years to come to fruition (it is, in theory, the follow-up to 2008’s Home) Broderick might feel protective of his baby, but on the site there is, crucially, a space for visitors to upload their comments, photos, video clips, audio, whatever. Does the site and the album then become not just a work of art in itself, but a place where something new and separate from the record is born? I point to the track, ‘Asleep’, the centrepiece of the album that’s constructed from fans reciting (and even singing) lyrics that Peter posted online a few years ago. “I really like to think of it that way”, agrees Peter. “Those pages are the songs, and they are the life of the songs – and people are contributing to that if they want to. A big part of having a song is having an outsider listener who listens to it and has, maybe, a great experience with it and then it becomes something really powerful to them.” Peter continues: “For people to be able to share that – even if just a couple of people just want to write a small line on there, I love that kind of stuff. I really like to make everyone feel like they’re a part of it, because the song is nothing until it goes beyond me, y’know, until it reaches somebody else. It gives me great satisfaction to get the audience connected with the music – it’s for them, it’s for whoever wants to listen and I want to include them as much as I can.”

And Broderick does this in spades with ‘Asleep’; while he includes the samples of the lyrics being recited, he also takes a snippet of them being sung by a gentleman by the name of Mark Shearer. I wonder if either those people, or even Peter, ever expected what they did to become a part of this record. “He sent in that recording two years ago,” he explains, “and I haven’t been in touch with him at all since. I’m hoping that he’s… maybe I should send him an email and say that it’s up online or something. I’m hoping that one day he just stumbles across it and hears that whole section with his voice – he has no idea!”

This inclusive nature of Broderick’s music seems to stretch across the record as a whole – all the tracks refer to specific people or incidents connected to Peter’s life. Was this part of the concept, to write about people who have influenced him? “It really wasn’t a conscious decision to make that a conceptual red thread; it really just kind of turned out that way. Most of the songs just had a real focal point or inspiration for where they came from.” There’s also a lot of humour present, something I try and politely suggest people might not associate with Broderick’s music. I give the examples of Peter saying “hello” in various different ways on the site, the spelling out of the album title on ‘It Starts Hear’ or the proto-rap on ‘With The Notes On Fire’. “We had a lot of fun making that video for sure,” laughs Peter. “I wanted something to be the introduction on the website, and I told the guys designing it for me ‘I’m just gonna write a big piece of text that’ll show up on the website and you can read all about it’, and they were like ‘oh man you should really think about doing something more immediate, like some kind of video – with just your face’. So then we starting shooting the thing and I felt totally ridiculous!” So it wasn’t what he wanted it to be? “But then we were editing it and all of a sudden it became the most hilarious thing in the world to work on. I can imagine it would be, if you’re not in the right mood to see that, just really annoying. I had so much fun making it though, it had to be there.”

I move on to talk about Peter’s work with friend and producer Nils Frahm, whose own solo work includes the beautiful Felt, released last year. He has spoken about how this is the first record that he’s entirely happy with, from the song writing to the production, so was being able to work with Frahm a big factor in this? “I almost always work completely by myself and barely get other people in, but I became such a fan of the sounds gets from his little studio in Berlin, and I felt like he could steer the sound of the album in a very wonderful direction.” And was it what Broderick hoped it would be? “Yeah, it’s steered in a way that I’m going to love… he could make me love the way that it sounds. Even when I’ve been happy with the music on records in the past, sometimes just the way that an instrument sounded didn’t quite feel right…so it was really nice to work with Nils and to be able to fine tune all that stuff – maybe even a little too much fine tuning!” So he got a bit obsessive with the sound then? “At one point, you go kinda crazy if you work on a song for too long so that’s why on the other hand I like the approach of just recording it live and let it be more about the songs. I just hope that however it sounds the gold part of the song is shining through. This was a different, detailed sonic experience and something new for me for sure.”

Continuing the theme of working with others, I ask about collaborating with other artists given that he appears on Efterklang’s records and contributed violin to the wonderfully moving self-titled 2011 release from A Winged Victory For The Sullen. “Oh I love that one too… I so often work with other people on their music but when I’m making my own music it’s rarer that I invite other people or ask someone to play something.” But Peter then explains a new approach to collaborating: “I’ve been kind of more into the idea of doing little collaborations online where I share little texts and ask for some feedback and turn that into a song somehow. Also, working on this record I still feel like I can go both ways: sometimes it’s really nice to work with other people and get outside opinion and a fresh ear on the music, but it’s a different scenario than when I make a record by myself. If I’m working by myself then I have the tendency to be a bit more…. well, none of that humorous stuff would have come out because you can’t make jokes with yourself – that’s the kind of thing that comes out when you’re working with a really good friend and you have a great sense of humour bouncing back and forth.”

Would that apply, then, to working with Heather Woods Broderick, Peter’s violinist sister whose voice and playing appears on many of his records? “Yeah, she’s a very special one to me. We’ve been travelling a lot together with Efterklang this last year, and even before that we played in bands together back in Portland, and of course we grew up together. But now she’s living in New York. It’s funny, actually even when she’s away we talk even more than if she’s here in Berlin. Now that she’s in New York we write all the time and send each other music… but we’re both doing different projects now Sharon Van Etten record] so I’ve not seen her quite as much lately.”

Keeping with the theme of family I ask about growing up in a musical family, given that as well as sister Heather, Peter also includes a song written by his father Steven, ‘Blue’, on the album. Was music important to the Broderick family? “It was never really forced… it was definitely encouraged though and it was the natural thing to do”, reveals Peter. “I was the youngest of three kids so my older brother was playing the guitar and saxophone, and my sister played the flute and piano and it just seemed like the natural thing for me to do to pick an instrument and start taking lessons. One day at school I saw a little demonstration of the violin lessons and I really had to play the violin!” I ask if that’s still the instrument he feels most comfortable with, although I suspect it might be the piano if we look at the Broderick oeuvre as a whole. “I used to always say that the piano was my favourite instrument, because I think you can get such a big sound from being just one person. There’s such a dynamic range: really rich full tone, really low notes and high notes, and it’s so loud for an acoustic instrument. You don’t have to plug it in and it’s very… fulfilling. It kind of fills you up when you strike a big chord, or even if you hit one note sometimes.” But Peter then reveals what’s really moving him at the moment: “Over the last year I’ve started to like voices so much, really getting into choir music and also just enjoying singing myself, so my favourite instrument at the moment is the voice, because it’s the closest possible instrument you can get to yourself, or coming out of you. But as an outside instrument, it’s probably the piano, yeah.”

After reading that Peter was influenced by Arthur Russell recordings when making the album, I ask what kind of artists he’s drawn to, given that some of the songs are dedicated to lesser-known artists or musicians (‘Colin’, for example, is about an artist by the name of Colin Kenniff). Does outsider art appeal to him? “Arthur Russell was kind of a late discovery. I discovered his music once all the songs had been recorded, so he was more of an influence in the mixing process. I don’t feel like he directly influenced the music so much because I was so far into it… but just having his music while we finished the album just kind of helped finish it in a way.” I wonder if it’s the wide range of styles that Russell covered that’s the attraction. Peter agrees: “A lot of it is that he makes so many different kinds of music, seemed to experiment with everything, and that’s kind of what I’ve always liked to do as well and it encouraged me to keep on doing these things that feel different. The new album, to me feels like a lot of the songs are very different to each other and this encouraged me to listen to somebody that’s all over the place with their music.” So can we expect something completely different and unexpected from the next Peter Broderick record? “I’m mixing some older things now… I probably shouldn’t talk about the next record when the new one’s just out… they’re actually some experiments I recorded over the last few years, but a lot of it is much more beat-driven vocal music. A lot of it is experiments with making beats with the mouth, beatboxing and cutting things up with the computer, pitching them up and down and making weird, more computer-based music I guess – but with live natural vocals over the top. It seems like it could go in any direction!”

Returning to http://www.itstartshear.com I ask about the track ‘Colin’ and whether or not the approach Colin Kenniff takes to his art – he appears to be happy making it for himself and not worrying about any kind of audience – is the way that Broderick approaches making music, or does he have greater ambitions? “Before I released a record or did anything professionally I think my main dream was to release a record that had an affinity to me, that a label had invested in, that touched somebody somewhere”, reveals Peter. “That somebody was holding in their hands, saying ‘for me, this is what I love’ and in some ways I feel like that’s happened now and I know that because I’ve received a lot of really nice messages from people who have listened to my music, played a lot of great concerts and talked a lot after shows and felt like something special had happened. I don’t have too many ambitions beyond that really; I’m not yearning for anything more. It’s a strange place to be in when you’ve reached your dreams in a way… I don’t mean to sound like I’m bragging or something. It was a simple dream that I had, and one that manifested itself, so I really admire Colin’s approach. To create something and then simply throw it away, it’s about the process of creating and not being so worried about the end result.”

I move on to ask about another track, ‘A Tribute To Our Letter Writing Days’, in which Peter tells the tale of a writing letters to an ex-lover and good friend. The detail on this particular page (http://www.itstartshear.com/a-tribute-to-our-letter-writing-days/) of the site documents the relationship, and shows one of the letters that Peter wrote to “T”. Was he ever worried that he was revealing too much of his personal life on this one, and was “T” happy with it? “I don’t know if she’s actually seen the website, “he admits. “I can imagine she might be… I don’t know, I didn’t mention her full name, but even on the site it says ‘Photograph by Terese Wallbäck’ but people might not necessarily put that together. But she was always really supportive, we kept in touch even after we weren’t together anymore and we still talk sometimes and she likes to hear what I’m doing and what she’s doing. I hope there won’t be any problem there! I’m really fine with sharing that kind of information; it doesn’t feel like a big secret.”

Returning to the song ‘Blue’, written by Peter’s father, I ask if he tries to encourage him to play more music, and let the public hear his work. “I do, I’ve tried on many occasions! I once played a concert back in Portland, and I got my mother and my sister playing in the band… it was going to be a sort of ‘Peter Broderick Family Band’ and I really wanted my dad to come up on stage for one song. He thought about it for a week and finally called me and said ‘sorry Peter, I just can’t do it’, he’s just worried that he’ll turn into a stone and not be able to do anything once he’s on a stage and people are looking at him.” So does he still make music by himself? “He still does play and write songs, and I hope that one day I might be able to sneak a microphone in there and make some recording, even just for myself to listen to.”

Wrapping up the conversation I ask about any plans to tour the album, but Peter doubts this will happen. “I’m actually taking a break this year from travelling, it’s weird timing with the record coming out right now but I just felt I’d been travelling a bit too much for the last few years. At some point I freaked out and decided that I needed to stay at home for a while – which is a really hard thing to do, as it’s also how I make a living…but all the things associated with it are so hard on your body.”

As I’m about to say goodbye, I mention to Peter that out of all the songs on the record I had found myself constantly singing the chorus to ‘It Starts Hear’ over the few days before I spoke him, and it seemed the most unlikely one to get stuck in my head…or was it? “Oh man, I saw a really bad review of the album the other day, it really tore it apart and said ‘oh the chorus sounds like bad advertising’, and I just went ‘Yes!’ because that’s kind of exactly what I was trying to do! I remember as a child seeing commercials on TV and some of those themes are still with me now, I smile when I sing them now.” Peter then proceeds to sing an old US TV commercial jingle down the phone: “They’re really catchy, and what’s wrong with a catchy hook?”

http://www.itstartshear.com is available now via Bella Union.

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