The BBS Interview: Peter Parcek

By Mike Mellor
June 2010

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What's that saying about nice guys?

Even though Peter Parcek can play circles around many an accomplished guitarist, he still conducts himself with monastic humility. In conversation his words are softly spoken and his eyes are warm and consistently fixed upon his company. He has a habit of bowing in deference. If you didn't know any better, you might think he was a theologian or a yoga instructor.

In addition to our email interview I had a chance to speak with him on the night of his CD release party at the House of Blues, where a throng of ardent supporters kept feeding me drinks and insisting to me something I already knew; that Parcek is a hell of a musician and a hell of a guy who deserves another shot at serious recognition. Consider us in on that effort.

Mike Mellor: On your new album (The Mathematics of Love) you survey a number of genres, but there is something solid and consistent across the presentations of them. What kind of game plan did you and Ted (Drozdowski, the producer) have when you started recording?

Peter Parcek: Ted and I did considerable pre-production work. I played him everything I thought might be worthy of going on the record. He suggested additional approaches, helped parse through the songs, and gave me a copy of Jessie Mae Hemphill's “Lord Help the Poor and Needy.”

Her version was brilliant and very stripped down. I kept playing it on my own until I connected with it and came up with something I hoped would complement it and make it more mine.

We wanted every song to stand on its own, make a coherent statement with the others and pass the test of time. We wanted to make a record that would last. One of my goals was to have a more live, raw, and even wild record that would make available the feeling inside when you are actually “in tune” with the music & muses. Ted helped me realize that goal.

We wanted to combine traditional and non-traditional approaches, respect tradition and also lean towards the future. We spent a good amount of time experimenting with the sequence of songs. We also selected the musicians, studios and engineers very carefully, almost like casting a movie. Each person contributed tremendously to the final shape and integrity of the record.

MM: Taking a performance like Hemphill's out of the song to insert yourself and make it your own seems really difficult. I think that's the struggle of any contemporary blues musician. The musical foundation is so simple that any teenager with a couple years practice can be fully proficient at it, but that's not the point. The point is that the simple music provides a launching pad for the individual performer's style and soul to shine. And to be a good blues musician, you have to have that deep soul and idiosyncratic style. Assuming you feel that way, too, is it something you feel more in the blues than in other styles of music?

PP: I agree. I feel that each form of music presents the challenge and opportunity to make a unique statement. The feeling is all important—whether in blues, gypsy jazz,folk or other roots forms.

Blues is the genre I feel most drawn to and compelled by and the one in which I hope I come closest to offering a unique perspective—I am attempting to in any event.

It is not easy to explicate how someone connects with their soul, but you can usually feel it if they have.

MM: Since we're on the subject of soul(s), one of the currents of the album is spirituality. You cover Hemphill's “Lord” and Lucinda Williams's “Get Right With God.” And, to my ear, anyway, the cover of Ray Charles's “Busted” is a little reminiscent of Mike Bloomfield's gospel recordings.

Is this an example of a traditional approach you referred to earlier? Or tuning in with the muses? Both? Neither? Was the inclusion of this current deliberate? Accidental?

PP: I played for a short time in a gospel group. The spiritual themes you allude to are an acknowledgement and “tuning in to the muses”.

MM: The album is balanced between originals and covers. Your covers are fairly true to the originals, but in some you play with percussion and ambient sound. Your vocals, while certainly your own, are often traditionally phrased, but you take some real departures into rock and honky tonk sounds with your guitar.

What was the thinking on what songs you covered? On which ones the lyrics were sung and which were instrumentalized? Was there a method of where to conform to tradition and where to take leaps?

PP: Lyric content along with musical shape and context were important in the selection of covers. I need to feel the lyric and connect with it in order to deliver the song convincingly.

With “Get Right With God” I hadn't heard very many instrumental versions of Lucinda's songs. She does such a killer vocal version with her band that I didn't know how much more I could add to it. So I let the guitar do the talking.

Similarly with “Busted,” I wouldn't have dreamed of trying to sing it after hearing Mr. Charles do it. Approaching it instrumentally allowed me to hear it as a new song. We decided to push it and let it explode. Take it guitar!

On “Kokomo Me Baby” and “Lord Help” I tried to emphasize the guitar hook and weave the vocal around and with that. Also, we wanted to add elements that might be a little different or unexpected—like violin and ebow on “Lord Help,” and mandolin on “Kokomo.”

If there was a method it was informed by deep feeling & emotional connection to the song.

MM: How has your relationship with the muses, the deep feeling and the emotional connection changed over the course of your career? From this conversation it seems you feel like you're in a pretty good place with all of that right now.

PP: I am self-taught. On-going goals include:

MM: Does that humility make it hard to do press?

PP: Yes, but email (the way this interview is being conducted) is gentler somehow...

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