A Conversation With Peter Cincotti
Mike Ragogna: Peter!
Peter Cincotti: How you doing, Mike?
MR: I am mucho glad this interview is finally happening, Big Guy.
PC: Me too, it's good to talk to you again.
MR: Yeah man, it was fun last time. We went over your album East Of Angel Town, one of my favorite albums by any artist, and you went and made Metropolis, an even stronger one this time out. My God, man, what is this sorcery?
PC: Thank you! (laughs)
MR: Metropolis covers familiar territory, though it almost seems like a conceptual album, like a romance in the "modern" age, and I know that sounds so old school.
PC: No, not at all, that's an interesting way to put it. I guess that's true.
MR: There are a lot of topics that I can relate to and every single one of them has a contemporary or modern slant. Yeah, that's the best way to put it because you also retain that Rat Pack cool. Peter, in addition to the music, the lyrics are going that way, too, take for example, "My Religion." Or not, your choice.
PC: (laughs) There isn't much of a story there. One of the themes this record deals with is commitment, in a way. And I feel like "My Religion" represents the dark side of committing to someone in a relationship, and then the light side of the record would be the track "Forever And Always," which is the lead single in the UK. Every territory has been picking a different lead single, and it's interesting to see who gravitates towards what. "My Religion" is a song about committing, but I don't really know if it is. Sometimes, I hear it and I think that it is something sarcastic in it. I don't know what the hell I write, by the way.
MR: Stop that, don't ever say things like that again! Besides, by the end of this interview, maybe you will have a better fix on how you write. Yup, I'm sure of it.
PC: Maybe, I don't know, I am too close to everything.
MR: Peter, I accuse you of being in the lineage of Billy Joel, but maybe even on the next level up... you know, if he were still making records, which he isn't, which sucks, but whatever.
PC: I can't take offense to that. You're delusional, but thank you.
MR: No, thank YOU! Yes sir, I think that you're the heir apparent to that dynasty. I also want to point out your amped-up production. You recorded Metropolis with John Fields, right?
PC: I did. He was great.
MR: What was it like in the studio with him?
PC: One of the reasons why I loved working with him is because he is spontaneous to a degree, and it was the right amount of spontaneity. I've never made a record like that. We were making mixing decisions before we even recorded certain instruments. Somehow on every track, we always maintained that bird's eye view and it formed in an interesting way. It wasn't like, "We're gonna do this, and we have guitars next Wednesday, and we lay vocals down Thursday, then we add this, then we mix, and we master, etc." It was as if we were throwing it against a wall and there was no formula. That's the way he works and I loved recording that way.
MR: Okay, "Graffiti Wall," speaking of throwing things against a wall. What is that song about?
PC: I have no answers because part of the time, it is the questions that are paramount to anything else and sometimes when I get excited about a song, a line, or a chorus, it's because I'm personally not sure how to look at it. Sometimes, there's that certain... I don't know what that is; there's that certain question mark that you know has to be in a song. At other times, there are songs that are more linear, more obvious and direct. But "Graffiti Wall is not one of them, and that is why I enjoyed playing around with it and recording it as well.
MR: Peter, right about now, I have to remind everyone you were in a Spider-Man movie. You're a god.
PC: Everyone cites that because it's a seemingly impressive tagline and it got thrown into my bio somewhere along the way. The truth of the matter is, if you blink your eyes while watching that movie, you will miss me. It's like two seconds. I'm playing the piano in that movie; it was a fun thing to do, but by no means do I deserve credit for that.
MR: Oh, but Peter Cincotti, You deserve much credit for your very on camera role in the Bobby Darin biopic, Beyond The Sea.
PC: That was cool. I played a musical director sitting at the piano so I didn't really have to do much prep for that one.
MR: Yeah, whatever. What was it like working with Kevin Spacey?
PC: It was great, I really liked working with him. We stayed in touch through the years and he's been a great friend and supporter. It was a totally new environment for me and I think I was in the middle of writing my second record at the time. My memory of Beyond The Sea is directly connected to where I was in my writing process and development at that time early on.
MR: Let's take a look at that period versus where you went with East Of Angel Town. It was your third album and on that record -- which I have zero objectivity about -- you went front and center as far as strutting your "artist" out. On the other two albums, you were trying to conform or fit into this sort of Michael Bublé thing. It was almost like you needed to burst out of that previous identity. Sorry, I'm being blunt and totally opinionated here.
PC: I can only try to look back and have some perspective on it. I look at my first record and remember even then I was doing a lot of jazz and covering standards. I was trying to find every way to personalize some of those songs. I remember not picking so many Sinatra songs because somebody like him would put a stamp on it to a degree that I had too much respect for so much that he did and I wouldn't want to do it. And if there was an overlap, then there damn well better be a totally different spin on the song. Even early on, that was a priority for me in that genre. I would agree with you more on my second record. I look back on that record... I felt like that was a very scattered record. I had one foot in the jazz door, but I was searching for something else. I didn't know quite yet what that was. A few years went by after that and I made East Of Angel Town, and that one felt like a debut for me even though I had two records out.
MR: That album was a real introduction to you, to Peter Cincotti.
PC: I feel that way, too. A lot of people know me, particularly in the States, from the early stuff, and it is real interesting to see the two camps of supporters or the non-supporters since the third album was so different than the first. I get all different types of people at my shows.
MR: When the third album came out, dude, I insist, that was a major leap.
PC: Even people are saying that about this record from my third record, that this is a major leap and... I don't know, every time I make a record, I never think it is a leap. Even from my second to my third. But you know, to me, every record is an obvious next step. There's never a question in my mind about what kind of record I need to make. Like I said, I am not the person to ask. I have no perspective on myself.
MR: But wait, you do have a perspective on the world's take on Peter Cincotti versus the United States. As you mentioned about the singles or lead tracks, every territory is a little different. So how do they look at you in other parts of the world? What is your career like there?
PC: I take my cues from how people see me from other people, but I don't know how to really describe what I do, in a way, because I don't know how to categorize it, though everyone else is great at categorizing it. For the last record, I was in Europe mainly for the last few years and then in the fall, I will hopefully be back for this record. Currently, they're picking singles. So like I said, the UK is going with one song, Italy is another and France is another, so we never did it like this before.
MR: It's an excellent sign. It's like in the old days, we would have regional hits.
PC: Interesting, I didn't know that.
MR: You can look at each of the countries in Europe in some respect, they're territories, and having a hit song in each of these "territories, you are having regional hits, really.
PC: Yeah, it's interesting to see what people gravitate towards and how it
correlates to that particular culture, you know?
MR: You have a musical that you are working on with Pia Cincotti. Is that a very distant relative of yours as if I didn't know?
PC: No that's my sister. The rehearsal schedule, getting this play up and developing it and rewriting it, the last few months of my life, I have been totally consumed with the musical that I am really excited about. It's been an unforgettable experience and I hope that this is the first step for us in this arena and we just got extended for two more shows here in New York. The name of the play is How Deep Is The Ocean. It has been great to watch and be a part of the process.
MR: What's the nutshell synopsis?
PC: It's a comedy on the surface, but I personally don't think it's a comedy at all. It's about a man who gets the opportunity to chlorinate the ocean. He's a pool man, he's obsessed with chlorine. The sea is polluted and the play opens up with this big crisis of fish washing up, and it's a beach town, everyone's freaking out, and he falls into this situation where he is the guy that saves the sea and saves the town.
MR: Okay, so that means, of course, that chlorine is a metaphor for love and peace and understanding.
PC: (laughs) I guess so. Chlorine is a metaphor in the play and on the surface, it is a crazy topic. But underneath, it is a story about love, like you said, and following your dreams, and seeing how far you go for passion.
MR: How long have you gone for the passion of playing music?
PC: I'm still going and I never thought about it twice. For my whole life, I have been playing music. I started playing piano when I was three, and I was writing music a few years after that. I never stopped. I have been fortunate to be able to make a living doing it and I thank my lucky stars everyday. There are ups and downs and there are no routines whatsoever. It's an unpredictable life, but I do feel lucky enough to get up in the morning and do what I love.
MR: What's nice about a lifestyle of making music all the time is it allows you the freedom to be at your most creative whenever it hits you. When you look at your life now and where you started out, did you think that you would get to this level of success?
PC: I didn't know what to expect early on. I didn't have a blueprint for what I wanted. I will say that it was more focused on singular record making and touring. I never expected to be writing this musical. I never expected to be in a movie with Kevin Spacey and those weird things that just kind of happened. They really changed things, particularly, the creative process to get this musical up on its feet has affected Metropolis in ways I never would have thought. I was writing for the record and writing for the play simultaneously for the last four years. They are two totally different projects. The musical is very traditional theater with a variety of styles -- a lot of jazz, a lot of where I come from, musically. My new record is totally different. It is much more modern. It's been interesting straddling that fence with projects that are polar opposites of each other, but I didn't expect any of that kind of thing. By the way, your sum up of my career sounds great. There is tons of dead time where you're sitting on your ass and the business stinks and you're pissed. The record business is uncertain. Everyone's getting fired, you don't know when your next tour is going to be, you're between labels and a year goes by, there's all that. I'm not complaining because I've been lucky, but it's not the sound bite that it sounds like when you sum it up. There's a lot of uncertainty, though I think that fuels the creative process.
MR: My God, you are the heir of Billy Joel.
PC: Why? Did he say something like that?
MR: No, but he is very upfront and blunt when it comes to telling it like it is, you know.
PC: It sounds great, and it is great. You work for those moments on stage, that one hour on stage where you play what you want, and you play what's from the heart, but you people don't know about the 20 meetings you had to have with executives explaining that you are not going to sing that song, and they go, "Oh, you're not going to sing that song?" and then you're dropped from the label. Stupid stuff like that. Politics. The record business. You've got to fight through it. Luckily, every record that I have made is what I've wanted to make. Thankfully, I am surrounded by a team who understands and believes in me. For that I feel very fortunate.
MR: Peter, we've come to that part of the interview when I ask you what advice do you have for new artists?
PC: I guess it would be something along those lines. I mean, it's tough. You've got to do it if you need to do it. If there's no other option in life, you've got to follow it and you've got to play what's from the heart. A lot of people disagree with me, too. Hell, I'd be making a lot more money if I would have stuck with jazz. Everybody wanted me to make jazz record after jazz record because it worked for me that first time, but I wanted to explore different things. It costs solely business-minded people a lot of things. Therefore, things change, teams change, the whole rest of your career changes by a single decision like that. But I have always embraced those kinds of changes because I have learned a lot, certainly musically.
MR: I have my own biased perspective, but how do you feel Metropolis fits into today's musical landscape right now?
PC: Sonically and production-wise, it is on par with what you hear on the radio, but I was interested in working with John Fields because I wanted to somehow take the style of songwriting in which I write and put it through that filter. I wanted to create a hybrid of something. I know I am being a bit vague, but it is hard to describe. If the production was going to be modern, I wanted the writing to be something else. We found those moments of combinations that were really exciting, like on songs like "Nothing's Enough" and "Metropolis" in particular. To me, they sum up the record. I very rarely hear that kind of writing put through that kind of filter, so it was really gratifying to collaborate with Fields on that level. He's also so capable of all kinds of stuff. Every time we would start to sit in one box, we would jump into another box. He is such a great, versatile musician. It allowed us to record a lot of different songs, but through one color of production, which is what the record has. I think it has that unification... the record describes it the best.
MR: No, no, don't stop there. Wouldn't you say this is part of your process? It's almost like you do the album, you do the work, and then you look at it a little later and then you realize what you did?
PC: Exactly. Totally. I will know more about what I did as time goes by. I'm far clearer about my first record than I ever was when I was making it.
MR: Near future for Peter Cincotti... what are you up to other than the new album and the musical?
PC: Well, they are both the first steps of what will take me to the next year or so. I want to tour. I haven't really been on the road for a while, I've been in my cave, so to speak, writing both of these projects. Now that I'm kind of done, I'm just really excited to get back out there and play. The record will be the template for that over the next few months at least. Then the play, I want to keep developing it. This was our very first production of seeing it and hearing it and putting an audience in front of it. You learn a hell of a lot. I've had a lot of fun finding out what works and what doesn't and the reason why for each of them and then go back and rewrite something. It's been really fulfilling. I've never had that instant creative gratification before in anything.
MR: Will the touring bring you to the Midwest?
PC: I hope so. A U.S. tour is one of my big priorities. It's been so long since I've done a full tour, so I hope to be in the Midwest soon.
MR: You know, the Midwest isn't really the Midwest. We've got to rename it.
PC: (laughs) I've got some low-key gigs here while the musical is up. I've got a performance at a place here called The Living Room this week and Wednesday and on July 30 just to play some new material. Probably in the Fall, again, we'll start up a new tour.
MR: I hope to catch you for one of those performances because you have weaseled your way into becoming one of my favorite artists and I really appreciate that.
PC: Thank you so much, Mike.
2. My Religion
3. Do Or Die
4. Take A Good Look
5. Nothing's Enough
7. Graffiti Wall
8. Fit You Better
10. World Gone Crazy
11. Forever And Always
12. Before I Go
Transcribed by Joe Stahl
A Conversation With Minnesota's Peter Himmelman & David Hollander
Mike Ragogna: Peter Himmelman and David Hollander of the group Minnesota, how are you guys?
Peter Himmelman: Doing well, Mike. Thanks.
David Hollander: Well, thanks.
MR: Now as I understand it, David, you are not currently in Minnesota but Appalachia?
DH: That's right and Peter is in Santa Monica.
MR: Great. Now one of the songs on this new album Are You There? Tells the story of the devil coming out of a, well, "Deep Freeze." Can you tell us about the song?
DH: Well, when I first heard that song, we were both sitting on two rolling chairs and Peter had just written the verse. It was sort of in its early phase, and it kind of had the feel of a revival -- clapping, screaming, and un-tuning the guitar. What I heard was something that felt right. It wasn't just a song about foreboding or an NPR fear-based idea; I love NPR, but I didn't want a "the sky is falling" idea to it. What I really heard underneath all of the other things was the story of a singular man's menace waking up -- the devil inside the man. I didn't want a feeling of "who is coming to get you," because sometimes, you wake up and it's you getting yourself. That's what I heard, and that's what turned me on so much about this song. In its earliest stage, it was a Jekyll and Hyde sort of thing. But it still has that drive and revival feeling to it; you could do it in a Baptist church or any number of venues and it would have that same feeling. It's very personal, cultural, and social. I don't know what made Peter write it, but in our relationship, part of what happens is if I listen and am inspired, something is ignited in Peter as well. Neither one of us talks about it too much, he just goes off and finishes his ideas. Those ideas always become richer and more complicated. Then we stop talking about them abstractly and start talking about those ideas sonically. Is it simple or more complex? We start talking about whether or not there's hand clapping, or men screaming. We wanted something you could sit in a church stamping your feet to, but it would still feel like something that was more sonically elevated than just an old school John Hammond recording, which we also love. But we wanted it to be more than that.
MR: Right. Would you say that that scenario is, basically, how the collaboration between you two worked for this album?
DH: Well, yeah. I've loved Peter's music for a long time, and sometimes when someone has a great love for your music and a great empathy for you, the kind of collaboration that you can become involved in is a lot more intimate, detailed, and even risky, primarily because there is this bedrock of "No harm meant." I think that's the way our relationship has progressed. I have no desire to be a writer in the Minnesota framework. I mean, I am a writer, but I have no desire to steer this ship in that way. I do, however, have all the desire in the world to be a collaborator and spark plug and an argumentative soul.
MR: Love it. So Peter, you already had this body of work that you had created, and David came in and added a cinematic scope to it sonically, is that right?
PH: He really did. As all things do, this kind of happened at an auspicious time. I used to be in a band called Sussman Lawrence, and we were together for a while -- I still play with those guys a lot. But there was something kind of difficult about that experience because even though I was sort of the leader and writer, everything was always subjected to a long drawn out democratic process. I felt that was kind of slowing me down and guiding me into directions that I didn't want to go, and so I kind of went my own way and threw off those "shackles." After many years of being totally autonomous, I became aware that I was not only lonely in a very real sense, but I also felt very isolated in my work. David came to my place for some other purpose and I shared those things with him, kind of fearful of what he might say. Later, I sent him all of the material and he wrote back to me with not only a gentle hand, but with very firm ideas. The ideas that he sent me were all rooted in something that I thought was very wise. He had ideas that I never would have even thought of, and they came from such a different place. It was so exciting to me that I asked him if he'd want to be involved in the project and he said yes. He also asked if I would mind a very opinionated person breathing down his back at every turn. I told him that I honestly wasn't sure, but that I'd do it anyway. I then made a little pact with myself--and I don't think David knows this -- that no matter what he said or how it struck me, I would never object or dismiss anything. Some of the ideas that he brought me originally which seemed absurd, meaningless, or impossible, now seemed self-evident.
MR: I can see that. For instance, "Arabesque" seems very much like a song that could have been on any one of your other albums, but the way that it was treated sonically, and even in your read, it seemed like someone was in the mix guiding you towards a more clarified version of the piece. Would you agree?
DH: Well, I can tell you my side of that, and I'd love to hear Peter's, but when I first heard that song, I liked it a lot. I thought of the record as a story and had explained to Peter the narrative from song to song and what I thought every song meant in the narrative, which he succumbed to. He did succumb, though I don't know if he agreed. I think it shocked him that the songs had come from 30 or 40 odd demos that I had decided were a story. We also attacked these songs lyrically to support the story. We then sat down with the band at the beginning of the recordings sessions and I assigned everyone roles, which the band was into, though I think they thought it was a little weird. To me, part of the story in that song was that after the devil is awakened in him and he's traveling down the Mississippi, he's sort of sickened and in a feverish place; he dreams that he is dancing with a corpse. When that image came out, the song changed. First, the time signature changed, which was very tricky; it went from 4/4 to 3/4. When we changed the time signature, it changed everything about the song, it gave the song a bit of a swing. Peter grandly came up with that opening phrase on guitar, and I asked him to play that same phrase on the piano. From the moment he played the phrase on the piano, it became one of the most magical hours that we had in the studio. After that, the framework of that song came together really quickly. Noah was so precise about how he wanted to drum it. He did take after take in the studio. Usually, he can do one take and he's done, but he wanted to make sure, so badly, that it sounded loose and free. Then the singing had to be added to all of that. At first, there was a little bit of uncertainty, then after a bit, there was certainty, at least, that's how I remember it.
PH: Yeah, I actually wrote that song before the other batch of songs that I wrote for this album. I thought that there was something there in the lyrics and the way that the chorus resolved, but it sounded very normal. When we began to play with the time signature, I had to change the timing of all of the lyrics. I didn't have to change the words, just rethink the way they fit. I got to the studio really early in the morning and my voice wasn't really working at all that day, but I tried it anyway because I think we were leaving town that night. When we recorded that, my voice opened to a place that it hasn't opened in a very long time. There was something free, light, and effortless about it. The real clincher was that David had this idea in his head of a background of women who I always thought of as the "noises behind the door." We had Kristin Mooney who basically arranged all of those vocals, which is just a masterful piece of music making. Those ideas lifted the song three times taller than it would have been. It's a giant compared to where it was.
MR: Right. Claire Holley was featured as well.
DH: That's right. Claire and Kristin were sort of the next addition to the song. Peter knew that was coming because we had talked about it. When we were making the record, to me, it was always a three-voice record and not a one-voice record because the story was about three people. The rules of the story then dictated that there needed to be Peter, a very strong and Christian type of voice; then we needed the more beautiful, higher, and waifish voice.
MR: What's the story behind "Death By Snakebite"?
PH: Well, it's funny that the songs that I like the best, maybe even the songs that I like most in general, have an obliqueness that eludes me somehow. So, as you're wondering about what some of these songs mean, so am I. In other words, the best of my songs have a sense of mystery even to me in the sense that they just kind of fell into my lap. The interpretations that I attach to them may not be any more valid than yours. That certainly seems like a song where there is some trouble brewing. It's not a Turtles song like "Happy Together." One thing that we struggled with was trying to change it from a very basic blues song, which was interesting in and of itself, to something a little different. David also suggested that I add a chorus because it originally had none, so I wrote a chorus, which kind of changed the strictness of the blues form. Then he suggested something, which was kind of absurd. He didn't want me to say "Death By Snakebite" on the rhyme at the end of each phrase. I thought that was just insane, because what would Howlin' Wolf have done? David told me that he thought as soon as I said the title of the song in the lyric, everyone gets it and the song is over. So we waited quite a while and the women took the first of it in the second verses, then I never actually said it until the very last verse. Now it actually makes perfect sense to me; the song is just kind of waiting for that line. If you read the title, you'll fill it in yourself. It's more powerful when you can get a listener to insert their own impressions.
MR: Can you go into "Midnight In The Morning"?
PH: Well, I think what made both of those songs special is probably just the lyric. In the song "Death By Snakebite," I really like the images that it stirs up, kind of like Christian snakehandlers in the Deep South. In "Midnight In The Morning," it sets you up with this awful image, waiting for the sun to burn through the fog and it just doesn't come. It's just black. That could be expressed as a state of mind, probably the one that I've been in for the last two weeks.
MR: Now, this isn't the first time you both worked together, you two teamed up for "The Heartland Project."
DH: Yes. That was the first time we got paid to collaborate. (laughs) I'll put it this way, we've been conspirators and friends for some time, but that project was probably the first time where money exchanged hands. But we've been friends for eight years, which is really a fundamental part of what we're doing. We have a friendship that comes first. I mean, you can say that when you're 25 and be completely full of s**t, but I really think we believe that. We know that what we're trying to do together is a fundamental exercise in the art of self and not in the ego. As much as we love to talk about it -- which is about as narcissistic as it gets -- we do have a real core belief that this is art built out of a collaborative friendship. The things that we're doing, be it this or other projects, are two people on equal footing trusting the other to work in different forms, whether its music, television, or film. Whatever it is, we choose to attack together.
MR: Beautiful. Do you have any advice for new artists?
PH: I guess it's the same advice that I would give myself -- and I won't talk about delivery systems like Twitter or Facebook to advertise your music. But I suggest getting involved with a lot of activities that move you. Meet people and have conversations that you might not otherwise dare to have. Meet people that need help, help people, become inspired. Get your mind and heart into a condition in which you're able to write something that no one's ever written before. Then all of those delivery systems will avail themselves to you.
DH: I'd like to add to that if I may. Gain all of that inspiration, then don't circle around that stuff. Get out there and make your art. That's something that we talk about a lot as friends and creators. There's no joy in talking about it, and there's no joy in listening to criticism. There is only joy in engaging in the craft, and the craft is the answer to all questions. It's the only answer, in my opinion, having written as much as I've written and followed the arts for as long as I have now. My only enemies are self-doubt, laziness, and procrastination. Likewise, the only joy I've ever known is in the doing, not in getting paid or the repetition.
MR: Well, you've inspired me.
PH: Me too. (laughs)
DH: And now, I'll sit on this dock in Appalachia and mope. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Would either of you say that there's a song on this album that sums up both the album and your journey together creating it?
DH: Well, "Send It Up" is the summation of the album. It's a very moody, dark, challenging, obstacle driven experience, but it represents completion.
MR: That's great. Before we go, Peter, you provided a very important song in the soundtrack of my life, "Impermanent Things." I often find myself humming that song and wonder what brain chemistry is triggering such a song choice. (laughs) You know, I just wanted to thank you for that song.
PH: It's my pleasure. I'm glad to hear that.
MR: Peter and David, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedules to talk to us. And I hope that you'll come back and chat with us again about any other new projects you pursue together or separately.
PH: Thanks so much for having us, Mike.
DH: Thanks, Mike.
1. Deep Freeze
5. Death by Snakebite
6. Midnight In The Morning
7. Call From Th4 Road
8. Behind Me
9. Can't Overthrow The things You Need
10. Ash & Chickenwire
11. Help Me Build A Ladder
12. 1000 Blackbirds Fall
13. Send It Up
Transcribed by Evan Martin