A superb singer/songwriter challenges himself and his audience by taking an unlikely route to Minnesota.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
By his own admission, Peter Himmelman is a restless sort of guy. He’s seen success in the past — early in his career, USA Today called him “One of Rock’s most wildly imaginative performers.” while Time said of his seminal 1991 masterpiece, Strength to Strength, there were “songs written with the same emphatic edge and aesthetic urgency that impelled the Lost Generation to write songs.”
Those are pretty heady accolades, and added to the Grammy he was once nominated for career and the Emmy nod he was accorded for his musical score to the television show “Judging Amy,” Himmelman could be forgiven if he chose to merely rest on his laurels. And yet, the last time we spoke, coinciding with the release of his last album, 2010’s The Mystery and The Hum, he seemed anything but satisfied. Despite assurances to the contrary, he lamented the fact that not enough people seemed to appreciate what he was doing, and it frustrated him that he couldn’t break through to find greater awareness.
Fortunately, Himmelman’s never been content to bank all his energies on one tack. Aside from a superb cache of albums in the singer/songwriter vein that’s grown exponentially over the course of the past two and a half decades, he’s also produced his own cable program, “Peter Himmelman’s Furious World,” scored several television series, and garnered an impressive reputation as creator of children’s music.
And did we also mention, he happens to be Bob Dylan’s son-in-law? (Although he declines to say too much on that score… )
Nevertheless, Himmelman’s new project, an unusual collaboration with friend and filmmaker David Hollander pushes him into new terrain altogether. Adopting the moniker Minnesota, the two turned the album, cryptically titled Are You Out There, into a dense psychological journey of sorts, one that’s filled with an atmospheric ambiance and some unlikely sonic suggestion. It’s one of Himmelman’s most challenging works to date, but it’s as deeply satisfying and ultimately as engaging as anything he’s produced in his 25 year career.
Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak with Himmelman from his home studio in Santa Monica, and happily we found him as earnest and engaging as ever.
BLURT: So tell us – how did this collaboration with David Hollander actually come about?
HIMMELMAN: I’ve known David for several years and we’ve actually worked on some projects together in the past. So when I mentioned that I had some new songs, being a real music fan, he asked me to play them for him. He had a lot of thoughts about the material that he heard, and so eventually I invited him to come in and produce this album with me. He said, “I’d love to, but can you deal with an opinionated guy breathing down your neck?” To which I said, “I’m not sure, but I’d really love to try it,” and I kind of made a little pact with myself to take everything he says, and reject none of it out of hand. I’d go through every idea, as strange or as off-putting as it might sound. He’s a very bright guy. I’ve grown very isolated and lonesome, and as a result, I was very anxious to work in some form of collaboration.
Were his ideas, in fact, strange or off-putting?
Some of them were, yeah. Some of them were pretty hard to contend with at first. He had some ideas for lyrics. He’d ask questions like, “What if you did it from this point of view?” I think there were some challenging issues at first. For example, on the song “Death By Snakebite” he said it shouldn’t repeat that line. I had set it up as a standard Blues thing where I’d repeat every stanza “death by snakebite,” and he said, maybe just leave it out. Leave a big hole there, which struck me as absolutely absurd. But he said I should fill it with music, and now it seems fairly normal and it feels like the right decision.
Obviously, he’s a celebrated filmmaker, but what kind of qualifications does he have when it comes to making music?
That didn’t make me feel any less confident about his abilities at all. In many ways it created a greater sense of trust. It’s coming from a related discipline. It’s about putting things together. He has a great sense of aesthetics and he knows music past and present. He has all the new records and all the old records and he definitely knows his stuff. That never was a problem for me. I just wanted somebody that was literate and knew where I was coming from and was able to articulate the places he wanted to take the music.
You credit him as the project’s producer. That’s quite a responsibility, no? Was he intrinsically involved in crafting the arrangements as well?
A lot of that stuff we did together, so he’s not making edits on the digital performances or actually write the parts. If I was playing some part, he might say, “You know, that sounds a little dense. Try it without that.” “Death By Snakebite” started out very “Robert Johnson-ish” and we both endeavored to take it in a different direction so that it wasn’t just a normal Blues song. We were struggling one day and he said, “Why don’t you try a piano figure?” So I played a bluesy figure and we both didn’t like it. So he said, “How about something that’s not bluesy?” And I was thinking, that’s just the dumbest thing ever. How will that work? And I started messing around in a place I never would have messed around and he said, “Play that again.” And I said “That?” And he said “Yeah.” I thought yeah, that was kind of cool and I thought we could integrate that somehow.
So you really placed a lot of trust in him.
It seems like a great gig for someone who’s not necessarily a musician per se to come in and get to actually help shape the evolution of an album.
In the same sense, I might be able to shape a film project, having seen so many films. He was a player in junior and senior high, having played keyboards. Having a sense of aesthetics and familiarity with the universe and having a strong opinion really helped. You know, there are plenty of musicians who would make God-awful producers. The two disciplines are not necessarily related.
You supposedly brought in 30 songs altogether, but these 13 songs definitely have a strong sense of drama. This is ominous stuff. That first song, “Deep Freeze,” where it talks about getting rid of all the Blacks, the Gays and the Jews – it’s pretty dark in terms of the lyrical content. Did that help steer him and steer you in terms of how the record eventually evolved?
I don’t know if all the songs I had written actually came from that place, but I think he saw songs that had a natural relationship with one another. He saw things that were cinematic. He put things in a kind of order and he saw things that had some sort of narrative thread, which I had never intended, but that he saw, and whether it was sort of spiritually integrated as opposed to deeply stated, that was kind of guiding him. It didn’t necessarily guide me. In other words, we worked with two ideas that weren’t necessarily the same and that was helpful for him, and if he was helped, that helped me. I had my own sort of guiding principles, and I could see the relationship he had created. Certainly it gave the sense of some odyssey being created.
Lyrics aside, it appears that the ambiance of this album is the unifying thread throughout. It has a real atmospheric feel to it.
Yeah, we talked about some of his ideas, like the sound of a Tom Waits record that has a saw, just kind of strange noises. He wanted me to play my guitar out of tune and I kinda knew what he meant. So I talked to the bass player, Jimmy Anton, and asked him if he knew who could play guitar so it doesn’t sound like it’s a guitar, someone who’s just like a really good player. I didn’t want someone who would just give me all these synthesized effects, but rather somebody who could create all these really unusual sounds. He knew this guy right away, and he said, “I don’t know if you’ll like what he’s doing, but check him out.” He’s a young guy named Jake Hanson and I loved it. I saw the application right away. At David’s insistence we did everything in the order it appears on the album, and we got everything down in three days. We got the bedrock of it all. Jake was playing guitar with spoons and forks. I’m looking over and he has all sorts of vintage gear and I see him playing guitar with a knife and fork. That’s exactly what I want to hear. And the bass player created this distorted little sound at the beginning of the album. He just did it, and that sounds cool. So David shared his ideas with the musicians what this narrative was all about, almost to the point where he assigned them parts and gave them roles to play. On the other hand, we gave these guys total freedom to do exactly what they wanted.
How did you recruit the other players on this album?
I knew of these guys. Noah Levy is probably one of the best drummers in the country. And Jimmy’s fantastic, and Jake. I asked around for some guy that could play banjo and slide guitar. Everybody told me, “You gotta see Joe Savage.” And Jeff Victor, the keyboard player, is my cousin. And we thought a lot about how to use the girls, Claire Holley and Kristen Mooney. David had this idea not to have them so much as background people, but singing leads, singing the beginning of the verses, and that gave it the sense of being a band.
You went to Minneapolis to record in the dead of winter as well…
Yeah, that’s when we recorded it.
That bleak ambiance kind of comes across on the record.
Yeah, I think it probably does. If we had recorded it in the spring and birds had been chirping, it would have come out different.
You did the same thing when you recorded your last album, The Mystery and The Hum, right?
Yeah, it was the same studio essentially. I have my own studio, but it’s really good for me to get away. Just to get a few days that are uninterrupted by having to take the dog for a shampoo or whatever else happens around here.
I recall you telling me that same thing when we talked around the release of that last album. When you’re home, you’re a very domestic kind of guy, aren’t you?
Uh huh… to a fault sometimes.
Are you still doing your cable program, “Peter Himmelman’s Furious World?”
I put it on hiatus for awhile. It was at a place where it was incurring a lot of costs so I couldn’t really sustain in. It will come back, but hopefully it will come back with somebody else underwriting it. You don’t unlearn all those things after doing 110 shows.
Are you still doing the children’s music?
Yeah. There are a lot of projects going on. David and I just completed a pilot, which is how we became friends several years ago. It’s a pilot for kid’s television called “Peter’s Television.” It explores emotional states of human beings through music. It will go through how songs are created. It has a lot of interesting things. We just decided to do our own pilot and it came out really well. I’m also doing this other thing called “Big Muse.” I’m pouring a lot of my time and energy into it. I go around to different organizations – I’m working with the Gap, hospitals, Wounded Warriors. I worked at UCLA. I may be doing something at Northwestern and with Kellogg’s. What I do is kind of help people with their creativity. Help spark innovation. Help them get over their fears, sort of as “creative types.” We explore the challenges of creating something new and putting it out there, even though it may be frightening to us. We’ve developed these strategies to allow us to keep doing it and reinventing ourselves. So over the course of a couple of years, I’ve learned a new language and a way to relay these ideas and I’ve started to build something out of it.
The last time we talked, you seemed a little frustrated with your own lack of progress and your seeming lack of ability to reach a larger audience. Has that changed at all?
I suppose I was a bit more frustrated at the time, I have a certain restlessness. Once I get locked into something, and if that something works, there’s an expectation that you’ll repeat it and turn it into a widget of some sort. And there’s an expectation and pressure I put on myself for my work… that we better crank that out again according to the pattern we’ve developed. And if I ever get into that, I just go soft, I go to sleep. It’s almost like the fear has to stay there to keep me energized.
And yet, whenever you put out a new record, it’s terrific.
I appreciate that. Last time I gave you a little tutorial about the decline of the record business. I’m not going to say things got worse – I won’t use the word “worse” – but they have gotten farther from the original model we all knew. They’ve gotten exponentially farther from that model even in the last two years. So in some ways, where I was maybe frustrated by it before – and I can’t say I’m not frustrated by it now – there’s sort of a compensation that’s come from another place. It comes from working with other people, enjoying the process of making music, playing it for other people. That’s kind of where the benefits are – the undeniable benefits – and after that, it’s kind of up in the air. If you have these very fixed expectations about what it used to do or what it should do, you’re just going to be disappointed. The way I’m looking at things now is that everything I do will be supportive of this Big Muse project. Everything somebody writes about this record gives me that much more credibility to stand up in front of people and talk to them about reinvention, about trying to find a deeper well of intense creativity…
It sounds like you’re incredibly fulfilled now on a number of different levels.
There are a lot of parts of my life that are amalgamated, fulfilling things. I always guessed as a kid that I’d find fulfillment in one thing, that I’d go on the road with my guitar and that’s going to be it. But that was the dream of a 12 year old, and while I don’t want to abandon that dream, I knew as soon as I got a record deal, that no longer held true. I was a man by then and I had kids…
You’re a restless soul in a way…
Yeah, I think so. I would imagine that if you’re going to make interesting things, then restlessness ought to be part of your procedure and motivation.
The title of the album — Are You There — seems to relate back to that conversation we had. It’s as if you’re wondering if in fact anyone’s listening.
The title is something I thought about a bit. It’s multi-dimensional. It could be about a relationship, just two people… Are you there? Are you there for me? Are you there at all? Are you hearing me? It could be an artist asking this question into this void about his fans… Are you there? Are we still connected? It could be a question to myself… Are you there or are you just going through the motions?
So if you were to ask that question of yourself, what would the answer be?
I would say that… I don’t know. I think that my batting average of being there is pretty good, but it’s not perfect. It’s absolutely not perfect. It needs work. I was speaking to someone today, someone who writes for Rihanna… I like a lot of her stuff. I love it. But it’s interesting to see how different the approach is. My approach is… I’m not really thinking that much of the consumer end. Maybe I should be. I can think about it only as much as I can, as long as I’m interested in it. I read this interesting thing yesterday, by this guy who’s an innovator and an inventor of sorts. He said, “You can take an idea and you can create it for the broadest public awareness, so it might end up as a series on HBO and if not quite as concerned about the masses, maybe that thing will end up as a museum. But if you really don’t care at all, you’ll enjoy that piece you make in your own basement. I’m not a basement person. I don’t know where it is… it’s somewhere in-between. I’m definitely concerned about the end user, but maybe it’s a specific end user.
And yet, the lyrics are there, the melodies are there… most of the things you do are worthy of a highly enthusiastic end result. If you didn’t care about the end user, you might just churn out Metal Machine Music time after time.
I’m an end user too. My tastes aren’t exactly avant-garde…
This album isn’t exactly avant-garde, but it still represents a step beyond your usual MO.
Oh yeah. David has pushed me to another place.
Speaking of which, in your recent contribution to Blurt’s “The Most Fucked Up Thing I’ve Ever Seen,” you describe an encounter on a riverboat with an unusual young lady who cooks you a meal that includes ground beef. And the next morning she’s arrested for murder after a body’s discovered on the boat and it’s missing a leg. So really, was that a true story? It’s kind of creepy.
It might have been. I can’t remember the whole thing. I was young. It might have been that my state of mind was altered slightly. That’s how I remember it…
But how about the basic premise? Was that true?
Oh yeah. There’s a woman, and there’s a paddleboat called the Josiah Snell…
And she cooked you that meal?
Well, she cooked a meal. She was as crazy as a friggin’ loon.
And the next morning the police found a body?
Yeah, I remember that’s what I wrote. Did you read it?
Yes, it was weird as crap.
All the pieces are there.
And the body was sans a leg?
It sure looked like it to me.
That story seems a bit impressionistic.
Well, everything’s impressionistic.
So I know we’re not supposed to ask you about your father-in-law, Mr. Dylan…
No, you can ask me.
Okay, so how’s he doing?
He’s doing well, very well. I think it’s a great life. He’s so creative still. He comes up with these new records and they’re awesome. He’s just pushing it. I think he’s fantastic.
Does he ever come over to the house and give you a sneak preview?
I never ask. I don’t need a sneak preview. I’d rather hear it when it’s there and ready.
We just wonder if he comes over to the house and says, (affecting a Dylanesque drawl) “Hey everybody, want to hear my new one?
Then again, we don’t really know him, so maybe he doesn’t do that.
That’s ok. You’re allowed to fantasize. However, go check out Bigmuse.com. I have people write songs. That’s kind of the metaphor I’m going for these days. It’s not about writing songs per se, but the incredibly dogmatic structure of a song. The rigid, unyielding structure that becomes the box,the forcing frame into which people put all sorts of subconscious ideas. It’s the marriage of the two that creates what we call usable creativity. To me, that’s really what it’s all about.