A Conversation with Balthazar Getty
Mike Ragogna: Hey, Balt, how are you?
Balthazar Getty: I'm good man, thank you. How are you?
MR: Pretty good. So this song, "Be All Right," this video, this is your first release on the newly-launched Purplehaus records.
BG: Yeah! So you know, basically, I've been writing and producing and making records since I was a teenager. I started DJ-ing when I was a teenager and I got my first keyboard and early four-track when the technology was barely even there yet. I was making recording systems with an answering machine and a tape deck in the eighties. Then fast forward years later and some records later, and with the success of Ringside about two years ago, I ended up making this album called Solardrive, which I ended up recording in this three-week whirlwind period and then kind of sat on it for a year. I then just sort of realized, "I want to start my own label and start putting my own content out there and start being the master of my own destiny and not just waiting around for opportunities necessarily to come to me but rather to manifest them and create those opportunities and Solardrive felt like the perfect album to release on my own independent label. It's been really exciting, the record's been really well-received and it's getting a lot of great write-ups. Radio's picking it up and we put out the first single, which was this song called "No Drama" and then this song "Be All Right" is sort of a trippy B-side that we didn't even put on the record. We wanted to do something special with it and we were looking for the right venue and then you guys came along and it felt like a good opportunity to just get out more content. This is sort of the first video I've put out with me kind of front and center on vocals. A lot of the Solardrive stuff has guest vocalists, some of it is me on the vocals. Most of the videos I've put out in the past from "Ringside" to my hip hop stuff called "The Wow" to the first Solardrive. Normally, I'm like the guy behind the guy. "Be All Right" is kind of the first one with me front and center, so it's exciting.
MR: Your song "No Drama" has been compared to The Roots, James Brown and Massive Attack by Vibe Magazine.
BG: If somebody were to say "What would your three dream bands be that you could ever dream to aspire to be even half as good as," those would be three of them. But I thought it was accurate in the sense that it's tough to talk about the genre of the record, and I thought that was a great leg, particularly that song because it's kind of soulful, it has this rap on it, it has this soulful hook being sung over it and it's got this sort of hip-hop, Massive Attack production, so whoever that journalist was, obviously, I was very flattered to have any comparison like that. But I thought it was accurate in terms of the mixing of all those genres.
MR: Balhazar, this Solardrive project came together based on you being "gifted," as it's put, a ProTools rig by your wife and Joaquin Phoenix.
BG: Yeah, that's right. I'd always been recording and kind of had a little home studio but normally when I really needed to get vocals done and do real tracking, I always had to rely on an engineer or I had to get into a studio. There was always that step that needed to be done. But a couple years back, Joaquin and my wife surprised me with the top of the line ProTools rig. I basically locked myself in the pool house and taught myself. Again, I've been recording and producing for years, and a lot of it I was already familiar with. But it's like learning a new language, essentially. It's a whole vernacular, it's a whole vocabulary, it's everything. I sat there for days and taught myself and not long after that this Solardrive album just kind of made itself in a way right after I mastered the rig and taught myself how to record. Most of the keyboards and all the stuff on the album that sound trippy and analogue-y and sounds like some old vintage key or something like that, we achieved with a Roland 505, a very minimal kind of keyboard but there's so much you can do with post effects and plugins, where you can take a very generic sound and do something very interesting with it.
MR: Right, and all the sidechains, etc., that you can throw in.
BG: Yeah, yeah.
MR: You had a lot of guests on this album, you have Mother Tongue, Rain Phoenix...
BG: It was cool, it was one of those things where whoever was at the house at the time, I was like, "Come on in, man!" Adri Sierra from Ozomati... they're a great band, they've been around forever. We had met, our kids go to school together and I called them one night at ten and was like, "Come on over, dude." It took him forever to get to my house, he shows up at like midnight, he comes back into my pool house... We barely knew each other but we just turned on the rig and ended up making this great song on the album called "Go Away." And David Gould from Mother Tongue... Again, he hadn't really been singing or performing in a while, he's actually a writer now. We didn't even really have a song, I just pulled up this instrumental and gave him--and I do this a lot of with people I write with, I'll give them a theme or a direction--and then I had him just start free-styling. After the fact, I edited the bits that I liked and created a chorus within what I had. Everything happened organically. The guy that sings on it a lot is a really talented artist, a guy named T.C., who's got that falsetto voice. Then the Rain Phoenix song--she's obviously Joaquin's sister--the song "Monster," which KHOW picked up and are spinning. We're actually getting ready to do another video for "Monster" so they're all amazing and talented people but nothing was forced. There was no objective, no agenda, no trying to make an album, per se. I wasn't trying to make hit records by any stretch of the imagination. It just sort of happened organically, making an album that I wanted to listen to.
MR: "The Wow" and "Ringside" on your label too, right?
BG: Yeah. So The Wow is me and this rapper named KO The Legend who is a very talented rapper. We put out a mixtape in December and we have a couple of videos out, over a million views on one of them, half a million views on another one. We've got a nice little underground buzz going and then this summer we're going to put out a Ringside EP, which is me and a guy named Scott Thomas. We had a deal on Interscope, and we did the whole major label thing. I think we live in a time where if you have the means and the ambition, the relationships, etc., and you want to do this, you can. You can put together a team, you can create your own content, you can produce and write, and now it's just been about connecting with the fans, connecting with the people.
MR: What do you do? Like what kind of social media do you work on?
BG: I mean, early on, we hired a company called J-3 Music, which is really funny. It's three guys named Jonathan and they started a company called J-3. Great guys--Jonathan Platt, Jonathan McHugh and Jonathan Anderson--and they kind of do the admin day-to-day for the label, and we brought in an independent marketing and promotion company, sat down and made a plan, basically. Then I reached out to some of my high-profile friends; "Hey can you shoot a Tweet for me?" I had Jared Leto send out a big blast for me the day the album came out. Lots of good friends. I always tell them, "Hey, check out the material. I'm not peddling some BS here, this is legit." A lot of people have kind of rallied around it. We did a big label album release party at Bootsy Bellows, which is this kind of trendy nightclub in Hollywood, and my buddy David Arquette is one of the owners. It's been a mixture of being very lucky and knowing people that have a certain level of influence, and then just kind of old-fashioned independent promotion--buying ad space, tweeting people, Facebooking people, getting it out there, creating the videos, hiring an independent video promoter. These are all things major labels do, but on a smaller, more independent level.
MR: Since we're practically on the subject anyway, what advice do you have for new artists?
BG: I get this a lot. I get a lot of young actors that still come up to me and are still fans of me as an actor and say, "What should I do?" And musicians... I basically tell everybody the same thing, which is if you have an iPhone, you have an album, you have a film. There's nothing stopping you from being creative. One thing that is really frustrating as a musician or an actor or just in many senses is you're constantly auditioning for whomever and waiting for somebody to say, "Yes," and then you're just reacting. So I suggest that they write things and they produce things themselves and that they put them up. Give it to the people, let the people decide whether it's good or not. Don't wait around for the opportunity to come because years will go by and they won't come. You really have to best it and you have to almost will these things to happen. You have to have the unwavering determination to make it happen. You're always auditioning, whether you're a band auditioning for a manager or an actor auditioning for a job. It's always going to be part of the game, but I think we live in a time now where the playing field has kind of leveled out. If you have a good idea and a smart phone, you can go shoot and cut a thing and then when you're going to present whatever that thing is, it's not just a kid with an idea but, "I have an idea, I have a short film along with the idea, I've collected the music, there's so much more we could do now."
MR: Good advice. Hey, I saw what I think is your first film, in which you played the Tom Chapin role in the Lord Of The Flies remake.
BG: Yeah, actually, I played Ralph! I was the lead in that thing when I was thirteen. That was my introduction to Hollywood, basically.
MR: What a good launch.
BG: Yeah, one of those freak things, right place at the right time. I have a movie coming out called Big Sur, which is a Jack Kerouac novel and that turned out really great. I just saw it a couple months ago at Sundance. I love to act, I love to make records, I love to write and produce and I'll try to do it as long as they'll have me.
MR: What role did you play in Big Sur?
BG: I played Michael McClure. He's actually still alive. He was one of the great poets back then. He was a bit younger than Kerouac, but Kerouac took him under his wing and he, like everybody, kind of idolized Kerouac. Big Sur is kind of the end of the end for Kerouac and he gets all of his delinquent friends together and they sort of drink themselves into oblivion in a cabin on the Big Sur.
MR: You were also in White Squall that really affected me. It was a very optimistic movie that turned a corner and became one of the saddest movies I had seen.
BG: You know, that was a true story and kids actually died. I actually hung out with the guy who was the role that I played. It was pretty intense. But I've been lucky, I've been able to do a lot of great movies over the last twenty or twenty-five years now.
MR: I can't believe how long the list is.
BG: I know.
MR: Forgive me, but you're part of the Getty dynasty, and I'm not looking for any kind of "gotcha" here. But what are your thoughts as far as your lineage?
BG: It's a fair question, it's something I talk about quite a bit. When I was young, I was always trying to do everything to rebel against it. I didn't want to be identified with it, I almost went to the extreme many times to try to have my own identity and the older I got, the more pride I've had in my family and where I come from and what my grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were actually able to do. If you actually know the stories, they're remarkable. These are self-made guys that crossed countries on stagecoaches chasing a dream, you know? And then, of course, my great-grandfather left two museums here and in Los Angeles. I have kids, I have four of my own kids, and it can be a double-edged sword. You never want to feel entitled, you never want your children to feel entitled or "Better than," so I raise them with an awareness and having pride but also having humility. I have many other businesses, I'm doing an olive oil thing right now called "Getty Oil," an olive oil homage to my forefathers and doing Californian organic olive oil. That's another little side business I've got going. I'm trying to create a little legacy for my kids as well.
MR: Very nice.
BG: So you know, I can say now that I'm very proud of it, whereas as a youngster, I kind of separated myself from it a bit more. Nowadays it is who I am and no family is perfect.
MR: Right on. What does the future bring for Balt, his music and everything else?
BG: For me, the future's never been brighter. I'm a young man, I'm thirty-eight years old and focused. The next couple of years are really about manifesting my own destiny, creating and writing material for me to act and direct and really seeing this label out. We're going to do a Solardrive 2 next year, the Ringside album, The Wow album... I just want to keep pushing myself creatively and keep being a great husband, a great father, and keep pushing myself artistically. I'm doing another movie this summer in Boston and I'm traveling back and forth between Boston and Europe all summer and then Purplehaus and my production company called Bangers And Mash. So I kind of have a few hands in the fire right now, with a production company, a music company, and a little food thing I'm trying to launch, too. So it's just about being proactive and not being reactive and waiting for opportunities. I'm trying to create them.
MR: You're really taking everything into your own hands. Good for you.
BG: Well thanks, man.
MR: All the best with that, Balt. You got anything else we need to know?
BG: I'm just trying to collect fans right now that see the vision and what I'm trying to do and want to help me put all the pieces together. I'm just looking for friends and fans.
MR: Well, you've got a new friend.
BG: Good deal.
MR: Thanks, boss.
BG: All right, man, take care.
MR: All the best. Bye-bye.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Peter Himmelman
Mike Ragogna: Hey Peter, how are you?
Peter Himmelman: Hi Mike, how are you doing?
MR: I'm doing okay, thanks. So what is all this about you working with corporations these days?
PH: Well, it's something that has been long in the hatching. I've been thinking about this idea for years and I've finally found some traction with it. The concept in general is to take my life experience and those of my team members as "creatives" (that is, people for whom making things like art, music or poetry is a way of life) and to share those experiences with organizations and corporations like McDonald's, Banana Republic, GAP--we've been doing work with them, also for the Wounded Warrior organization, which we just did a few weeks ago in Breckenridge, Colorado--to get people to open up to new ways of looking at communication and problem solving. It's a methodology based on the rigid structures of songwriting. The paradox is that the structures are so dogmatic, so narrow and so rigid, yet through them, one gets to a new level of creative freedom, freedom to communicate, a freedom to think about life and relationships in new ways.
MR: Peter, how do you get people who are not particularly musical or even used to being articulate or writing down phrases on board for this?
PH: First of all, it's not music per se because I'm not using chords or harmony unless somebody's into that--that's a whole other skillset--The challenge is really in the lyrics. How do you make something that's structured? How do you make something that's really succinct and still very unique? There's a great thing I read in the L.A. Times not long ago about Woody Guthrie, it was a piece celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Woody's birthday. Apparently, John Steinbeck had just finished writing The Grapes Of Wrath. At the same time he had a chance to hear a recording of Woody Guthrie's song "Tom Joad. The Times article quoted a letter from Steinbeck to Woody in which he wrote: "You son of a bitch, you said in four stanzas what it's taken me three years to write in this book!" There's something about song structure, the narrowness of the form that makes it both doable and damnable. You can finish it in a short time and that's the blessing that curses; it's hard to fit in those lines, to get them just right and that to me is metaphoric of everything we have to deal with in our lives, all the structures in our business life, our creative lives, and our relational lives. How I get people to accomplish fitting all this creativity into such a rigid structure is that I help them shut off the selectivity of their brains. It's a weird part of neuroscience. The misconception that people have of the brain is that it's the organ that takes in all sorts of information for us when, in fact, much of the brain's function is to select out only the information that we want at a particular time. Otherwise we'd be overwhelmed with input.
MR: Yeah, it's multi-functioned, it's not just a depository.
PH: Right. Certainly, our right brain, which is looked at as the creative mind, is tempered by our left brain. Otherwise, we couldn't buy a can of peas at the store. We would be engrossed in the greenness of them for hours and never get anything done.
MR: You just defined how I lived my life.
PH: (Laughs) Most of us, are very strongly rooted in the left brain and obviously, you need a blend, you can't just have one or the other. But part of the process I take people through is to temporarily quiet the left brain a bit so that ideas that are latent or unexpressed can then emerge in this short and safe period. Those are the things that one doesn't need to be particularly articulate about, they're just ideas that you might not find on the screen of your consciousness very often. It's almost like taking a dream-state and making it known, giving it expression. And then we also have the idea of fear, our fear of being embarrassed or rejected keeps those ideas from being expressed, to ourselves as well as others. It's not like we have these ideas and we're not sharing them. We've become so oppressed through our fear of being rejected for new ideas that we won't even play them out in our conscious minds.
MR: Do you think it's fear that stops a lot of people from being able to access their full potential?
PH: There's no question about it. Obviously fear is a great thing, too. If you're in a seriously dangerous situation, if you're jumping out of a plane and you just stuffed your own parachute and don't know the first thing about how that stuff works, fear would be great. But the great majority of the time, fear is overused. I give the fear in my Big Muse method a name; I just picked a name out of a hat one day, I call it Marv.
MR: Love it. Marv. [laughs]
PH: I'll show you a picture of it. He's this guy I drew and he's not this fearsome devil or anything, he's just like a little nebbish-y guy who's afraid and he's trying to protect us. We all have Marv inside us, and Marv really means no harm at all. I think that his function was best served when we were infants and we were truly vulnerable. We were absolutely dependent on our parents for our literal survival and he gave us this idea that were we separated from the herd somehow, separated from our families through our actions or otherwise, we would literally die. Marv, in that sense, provided us with this life-saving mortal fear. The problem is that our lives are very infrequently in that kind of jeopardy. We can survive at least for a while on our own and most of our work is not to banish Marv or kill him, because he is in a very real sense our will to live, but just to say, "Hey, look Marv, I'm going to undertake this idea, a business proposal, a love letter to my wife, a new song, maybe I need to write a joke to tell at my comedy show," whatever it is you want to do you sometimes have to tell Marv, "Just give me an hour and a half and then come back. Just give me a little break."
MR: Yeah. Once they let go of Marv, what is the response? What are you watching as far as people actually able to turn the corner and start tamping down that left brain a little bit?
PH: Well the things that I've found, - and again this is testing a theory because I've only taken this to market about a year and a half ago so it's all new and I got to work with some very big brands early on. Frankly my own Marv was really, really at a high peak telling me, "You're not going to be able to do this, this is so bizarre, what are you trying to do? You don't have a background in psychology or neuroscience." But as it turned out, the results were astonishing. I can show you some of the testimonials and things that people have said, but what I found most striking is that it's really emotional. I've never done one of these without a certain amount of tears and breakthrough emotions, emotions that in a certain way are really guiding people and pushing them to a new place. I don't know if you've heard my song, "This Father's Day?"
MR: Of course, it's one of your classics.
PH: That song, especially when we're talking about breakthroughs or creativity and teambuilding, is something I use as a touchstone for the work. The essence of the song is that my dad was ill with cancer and on the last Father's Day of his life, I hadn't purchased any cologne or tie for his party that they were throwing, this big lunch to cheer him up when in fact, we all knew that this was it for him, this was terminal. Instead of writing some kind of funny little ditty, it was four in the morning and I wrote a song that expressed pretty much everything I ever wanted to say to him. At the end of this song, I broke down and cried on the tape itself, on this little four-track recorder, and as I was about to erase it and record it "right," I said, "I'm just going to leave this." The most embarrassing, Marv-inciting thing you could ever imagine is hearing yourself blubbering on tape on a love song for your dad. It's not something I would normally ever do but I overcame my Marv moment and gave it to my dad at the party. Listening to that tape together became a profound moment for the both of us. He died shortly thereafter and that song being so absolutely alien to anything I ever would have thought to do to advance my music career--using that metaphor about doing something entirely different to effect change--that turned out to be the thing that, with a grouping of other songs, got me my first major recording contract. And the idea that you're expressing your love for somebody in your life, somebody that's given to you and provided for you and enriched your life, being vocal about that in some way, especially in a letter or a song is a powerful experience. It's also indirect and safe in a way, like expressing yourself behind a duck blind, but still being completely in touch with somebody that you love. Sharing your love with the people you love is an incredible way to silence Marv. It's also in my mind, the conduit to the wellsprings of our own creativity. It's hard to explain exactly why it works, but in major corporations, I'll have people take out their iPhones and one of the first things I do, after playing that song for them, is have them write a letter to their mom or their sister or an old lover or an uncle, and it's a really great, liberating way to start off this experience. How does this connect directly to creativity? It's hard to point to just why it works. I can only tell you that the response is tremendous, it just opens up all these gates.
MR: Yeah. It's breaking down filters. Being able to express oneself without all the filters and without Marv interfering totally makes sense.
PH: For me, as a songwriter, I guess there are a lot of different strains of songwriting. Some of the pop-craft of it is something other than what I do these days. Some like writing a catchy thing or a funny thing, which I've done a lot of in my life, but then there's another thing, which is the act of mining in some areas where ideas surface without much conscious thinking.
MR: Yeah, without the filters.
PH: Right, and you know there is a certain amount of skill to be good at it, but right now, we're not even talking about being good or judging quality. Just to have things that fall down into your lap, ideas, thoughts, phrases that you wouldn't have otherwise been conscious of, it's such a refreshing experience and I know most people go years without that having happened to them.
MR: So this kind of puts you in the role of mentor. Do you like being a mentor?
PH: You know, when I was twenty years old, I took some aptitude test for some reason and the result of it was really depressing to me. It said, "One of your good skills is that you're a facilitator and a teacher," and I'm like, "Who wants to do that? I want to be THE GUY!" I had no interest in it, and I remember Bill Cosby had a similar profile. As I matured and had kids and stayed married for twenty-five years, that role of mentor or facilitator or teacher is something that I do every day and it becomes more and more interesting to me and more and more important.
MR: Peter, what advice would you have for new artists?
PH: You know, there's something that John Mayer wrote that I really responded to. I guess we respond to things we already believe, but I'll put it in my own words. Don't spend so much time trying to market yourself. It's good advice I'll give to myself as well, and ironically, here I am doing an interview with you. But nonetheless, it's true, developing your ideas and filling your minds with the thoughts and ideas of other people, and then creating something that's perfectly unique. For example I just heard on the radio some interview with this young English artist, this young girl. She seemed smart and she had a song called, "Set My Pussy Free." I think that was the title of it. "Set My Pussy Free." I mean, you know, the metaphor, not everyone's going to want to choose. It was a smart song and had the ostensible concept of being about a cat. I'm not saying it's an ideal metaphor, and she must have been a very beautiful woman because if she weren't, I'm sure it wouldn't work well--but that phrase "Set My Pussy Free, certainly stuck with me and I could imagine it being a memorable piece in her stage performances. I always think about Prince's "Purple Rain" or "When Doves Cry," just as a title, "When Doves Cry," if he would've said "When Love Lies," or something, that works in a way but is so unbelievably pallid compared to "When doves cry," which just opens you up to all kinds of feelings and possibilities. "When Doves Cry" doesn't mean anything per se, which is another thing I'm constantly stressing: Forget for a minute about meaning and a linear train of thought, go for something that creates feeling and momentum and energy. "Strawberry Fields Forever." I don't really know what that means and neither do you, but we all really like it. It means little but conjures up everything.
MR: Yeah, good point. That's right on. I guess we could wrap it up here, but is there anything that we should be knowing about Peter Himmelman in the near future in addition to what we just talked about?
PH: Well I'm in a process of writing a lot so I would imagine that that's going to culminate in something. A book of poetry, a new album, I am working on a book called Marv Or The Milky Way, which is talking about a lot of these concepts and hopefully that will be finished by, I would say, early Winter, because it takes a while.
MR: So I'll be interviewing you again next March or so?
PH: I'd love it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne