PM – I’m very lucky to have been able to carve out this life that is wholly music-centric. I really haven’t had to do much of anything else for work or money that wasn’t connected to music in a good number of years. But, that means that I balance my life between a bunch of different pursuits. I run the music program at SPACE Gallery, where you played.
EF – It’s a great place.
It is. Beyond that, I do some minimal show promotion around town, outside of SPACE. I also run a small record label, and I do some recording/mixing/mastering projects here. And then, I play a lot. The playing is definitely, it feels to me like the most important, central part of what I do, even if it’s not the biggest piece of the pie in terms of time spent, or certainly money earned. But I’m lucky to be able to have my “day job” be very flexible, so I can really work around my other pursuits, and have it be just enough hours that it provides a base that I can barely, maybe, live on sometimes, with the other stuff included. But it isn’t so time consuming that I can’t do those things.
So, how many bands are you in?
Well, it depends on the momentary definition of a band. I would say, I have like three currently active creative bands that are working in some way. Family Planning, Yairms, and this band called Woodpainting, with an old member of Milkman’s Union, my old band, who I went to college with. He’s from the Bronx and lives in the Bronx once again, and it’s me, him, and this videographer. There have been other people who have gone in and out, we’ve actually never had a steady lineup for more than one gig. But we just played a show up here and it seems like maybe a real lineup that we’ll do some stuff with. We have a record that’s done, but it’s not out yet. That’s a new-ish thing, we’ve done like six or seven shows since June 2015. I do other things, too. I’ll freelance, I’ll do one-off gigs with people, I have bands that aren’t particularly active. I play with this guy Jacob Augustine, and I love playing his music, and any time he does a band thing, I’m in the band. It’s a set group, but we haven’t been doing much of anything the past year. We toured in 2015 and then sort of slowed down for lots of life reasons. And then, I play in a klezmer band, we’re Maine’s long-running Jewish music institution. The band has been around longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m the youngest one by about 30 years. I love doing it. That band, I maybe do like 15 shows with them a year or something like that.
How did you get that gig?
I had worked and played some jazz with their bass player, and their longrunning drummer, who had been their drummer for like 15 years, he couldn’t do it anymore. They were looking for someone to pick up some gigs, and I basically tried out. I had never played any klezmer music, but I was familiar with the sounds. I wasn’t very good at it for a while, but I’ve gotten it now, and I’ve been doing it for about three years. I love the music, honestly, and it’s so fun, it’s a totally different thing than any other musical experience I’ve had. We play music for dancing, you know? Like, people are doing Israeli line dances and folk dances, and the hora; if we play a wedding you get the chair dance going on. It’s a totally different thing. We play concert music too, there’s a lot of very slow and pretty tunes, and some more complex stuff…
I’ve been in a temple more times in the last three years than I had been in the first 25 years of my life. That band, they’re such a Maine institution, there’s a whole generation of Jews that have grown up in the state, the band’s name is the Casco Bay Tummlers – Tummlers is Yiddish for rabble rousers, like an MC – there’s a whole generation of Jewish people that consider the band part of the Jewish experience in Maine. We’ve played a couple mitzvahs, and to me it’s like, what 13 year old kid wants a klezmer band playing at their mitzvah in 2016, really? But actually, they love it, because it’s like, this band has been at every high holiday event their entire growing up, so it’s part of being Jewish. There’s been other klezmer bands, but this is like the one serious klezmer band that’s existed in northern New England for 30+ years, it’s a crazy thing to be a part of, I love it.
Anyway, so this is your studio. Do you practice in here, or just record?
Both. All my bands practice here. My whole life post-college I’ve always lived in houses, specifically houses that had an extra room of decent size.
That could fit a whole band?
Yeah. That has been the number one thing for me in finding housing. It’s important for me to live somewhere that I can like on a whim at 3am walk into the other room and play piano, or fire up some mixes in the middle of the night that I’m working on and play them loudly on my monitors.
And your neighbors don’t care?
Actually, in this house, I’ve had no problems in two years living here. The people on the close side of the house are actually big music fans, and the father of that family blasts classic rock all the time. Sometimes, I’ll wake up on the weekend and it’s like Neil Young & Crazy Horse at insane volumes – I feel like it’s inside my room. But if he’s going to do that and not complain about what I do, I don’t mind at all. It’s a quiet neighborhood, but nobody seems to give a fuck. I don’t have any bands that are like brutally loud either, so it’s not like having a metal band practice in here.
I have recorded some loud bands in here, though, and I always worry with that because it’s like, maybe a 9 hour recording session, we’re here all day. But I try to do things exclusively on weekdays.
So nobody actually knows that they’re happening?
Yeah, it’s also good for the roommates as well, to try to do stuff when people aren’t around. But anyway, it’s a nice space, and it’s big enough. I recorded this great band from Boston called Listening Woman. The current incarnation I think is a seven piece, but the incarnation I recorded in here was an eight piece, and it was tight, but it was doable, and the record turned out great. OSR Tapes put it out and they did this really great, fucked up video for it too.
Do you want to talk about some of the stuff that’s in here? I would assume you have special feelings about instruments you play regularly, or the ones that you play more than others.
I mean, every piece of gear has a story of some sort. The stuff in here – the vast majority of it is mine, which is crazy and ridiculous. I have like five guitar amps and I don’t really play guitar. But, like I said, I’ve always liked having a space, it’s been important to me. Musicians are always living in cheap, tiny apartments, and if you have a space, people leave stuff there. So I have all this gear, and I’ve really never been a person who has spent much money on gear. I’ve just inherited so much stuff over the years. I think I’ve only maybe twice in my life ever spent more than a couple hundred dollars on something.
The drumset that you’re standing next to has been my main kit for a long time, and I paid like $600 for that. And when my recording interface finally went down, I bought a $900 recording interface. Other than that, though most of this stuff I got on loan that turned into permanent loan, or some of the stuff I got for near nothing, stuff that old bandmates abandoned and stopped asking about so they’re never getting it back, a lot of that.
Yeah, I have two amps, and they’re both like, my bandmate Eric just had them and was like, “if you need to borrow an amp for a little while, you can borrow this” and then suddenly that turns into, “can I borrow your amp?” And I’m like, “well, sure, I mean I thought it was your amp, but I guess it’s mine now?”
Yeah, a lot of gear, you pretty much never get back if you lend it out. I forget who has my things. I have a bunch of keyboards I know I’ve lent out to people, and I’m not even sure who has them at this point.
So, sometimes when I talk to people, they have one specific thing – maybe it’s your drums or your recording interface or something – that they feel like it’s their baby, or like, if they didn’t have it, they would be working in a totally different way. I don’t know if you have anything like that, that you have feelings about that you want to share?
Sure. Well, that drum set I’ve had forever, on basically every tour I’ve ever gone on. When it’s tuned right, in a nice sounding room, it sounds as good as anything. It’s been so beat up over the years, and has traveled coast to coast with me, and that just adds to its funkiness.
How long have you been touring?
The first tour I ever went on was with the Milkman’s Union, when we were still in college. That was January 2010, it was on our winter break our senior year of college. We went out and did this two week tour and had absolutely no idea what we were doing, and somehow broke even, maybe a little better than broke even. We had almost entirely good shows, and didn’t get our van broken into. We had such naievete about the world. I had no concept of how to book shows. We just thought like, we book this show, and people show up, right?
No publicity or anything like that.
Yeah, it’s like, we’re going to play a show in New York, and we have six friends who live in New York who will probably come, do other people come? We didn’t even get that far in thinking. It was just like, okay, you have to get the show, then you have to play the show. I remember I was like, emailing the Bowery Ballroom, and trying to make them think we were a serious band so they would book us. But then what, what if they did? Not that they ever would have.
Yeah and if you got there and were like “there’s five people?”
Yeah, I had no concept of anything.
Other than my drum set, maybe my most prized posession is this cymbal, this really fucked up cymbal that has gotten more and more fucked up as I’ve played it. This guy got it in Brazil, in the 1970s, and it sat in his mother’s garage for literally 35 years unplayed. I’ve fucked it up so much more since getting it. It’s got such a weird, amazing sound, I have a hard time not having it with me; it’s become a piece of my instrument, of my sound, of how I hear music. When I play with Yairms, I play with just a hi-hat and this cymbal, and it feels like everything I could ever need in terms of a sound palette. With that band especially, I think about sound as much as I do grooves and rhythms and what have you.
Do you ever worry that it’s going to – I don’t know, has the sound evolved since you got it, as you’ve beat it up more?
The sound has definitely changed, and I’m definitely worried about how much more it can get fucked up before it really starts falling apart.
It seems like the kind of feeling that you have about a shirt that’s exactly worn in, like, it’s really soft and really comfortable, like I have a shirt that I’ve literally had since I was 10 or 11, it was huge on me then and now it fits. But every time i wear it, I’m like “this might be the last time…”
Eventually it’s just going to disintegrate.
Yeah, this shirt is just like a tie dye t shirt that I got at some store called Flower Power. There’s no armpits, and the neck is coming off and the hem is coming off. It’s not the worst, but, like, I think about this a lot, with other stuff, that you get nervous about using something because you have to save it for a special occasion.
I think about that with equipment all the time. This is a stupid example, but I recently bought a new drum throne. I never buy any new equpiment but we lost one on tour, so I got a halfway decent one that was actually comfortable to sit on, and then I was like, not taking it to gigs. But like, what the hell is the point of having it if it doesn’t get used?
That drum set, too, it’s probably worth a good amount of money. It’s from 1967, and it has a particular novelty amongst collectors because it’s the “Ringo kit.” It’s the same finish, the same sizes. I didn’t even know that when I got it, I got it because I tried out like 20 vintage drum sets at this warehouse space and that is the one that spoke to me. But I’ve had people be like, “I can’t believe you bring that out.” I bring it out, and I don’t even put it in cases. That kit has toured, I’ve played easily 500 shows with that drum set at this point, I’ve dropped it, I’ve been carrying it and hit doorframes…
I’m amazed that it looks that nice.
I am too, it’s shocking to me. I’ve hardly ever had it in cases. I got some cheap cases, I’ve only owned one set of cases, ever. It wasn’t even a compete set, and they were cheap, and ripped apart really quickly.
But this is the kit that you play at all of your shows, basically.
I wouldn’t have known this was the Ringo kit.
I didn’t either when I got it, but I discovered very quickly. It’s something people recognize, because he used the same kit thorughout the Beatles’ career.
I know this is the one you picked out of however many you tried out, but do you feel like it’s like, I don’t know anything about drums but I’m sure there are crappy ones and good ones – do you feel like it was his preference that he was using this one? Or is it just better than other ones?
Well, in the 1960s, Ludwig was the big deal drum company, they were making really high quality stuff. There were some smaller companies that made good stuff that people like, like Rogers, Slingerland, Gretsch, but Ludwig was like top brand. So the serious drummers for the most part all played Ludwigs, and they got them customized exactly the way they wanted, and modded exactly the way they wanted. They were an enduring company that made really high quality stuff for a long time.
I like the old drums too, there are people who would probably say that the stuff they’re making now is objectively better. They’re probably right. But the old stuff has a funkiness to it, a certain weirdness, a certain look and sound, it’s no different than what they talk about with violins. Like, sure, the highest quality violins they’re making today are objectively better built than stuff from hundreds of years ago, but ain’t nobody fucking with a Stradivarius. There’s a certain sound to that. And it’s the same with drums – aged wood, and warped in certain ways over times. There’s a nostalgia element to the whole thing, and people determine the sound of the instrument by what it was. But yeah, I like the old stuff.
I particularly like non-fetishized vintage gear. I’m sure you know about that with cameras, too, like non-fetishized brands and makes, you can find amazing stuff that is really incredible and weird but because it was never really a highly touted brand or what have you, you can get them for cheap. A lot of my stuff is like that, like my amp that Billy plays in Family Planning. In pretty much every band I’ve had, the guitarists love to use it. It’s an old Silvertone that I got for like $150, a Sears & Roebuck amp from the 1960s, and it’s amazing. It sounds great, but it’s not fetishized in the way that old Fenders are, or an old Vox amp or something. It’s just an incredibly well built department store amp.
I got those gold sparkle drums from the same guy I got that cymbal from, it was an amazing thing. He was a friend of a friend who had been a very serious drummer in the 1970s, and had given it up to become an opera singer. He kept saying he was going to go back to drums, and he said after not playing them for literally 35 years – they’d been in bags for 35 years – he said, “it’s time to get rid of these.” They were at his mother’s house, in Scarborough, Maine. I got a phone call like, “hey, can you go check out these drums, maybe you’re interested? My friend is trying to get rid of them.” I had the feeling it was a nice vintage kit by the description, and I thought it might be a steal, like I could go over there and give this guy maybe $200 for an amazing kit. Then I got over there and he was like, “Here it is, I have these cymbals too, what do you think?”
I said, “Amazing, I love it, what are you looking for?” And he said “if you take it right now, it’s yours.” So I didn’t pay a cent for it. I play that sometimes, but I don’t take that one out that much.
I always wish that my balance was more purely creative and less time spent in front of a computer on email, less admin hours, and more hours in the field and in the trenches, but I’m definitely very lucky to be able to carve this existence out, in Portland, Maine, too, of all places, which I love dearly. There are so many creature comforts i get from living here. It’s an amazing city and an amazing creative place.
Have you always lived up here? As long as I’ve known you, I think you’ve been here.
I went to college 30 minutes north of Portland. I moved to Portland proper in 2010, after graduating college. I had no intent to stay more than a year, but I moved with my bandmate, and it was like, “what city is going to be right for us to carve out our thing in?” It was between Northampton, Boston, Portland, and I guess New York to a certain extent, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to do that, I sort of hated New York at that point…but I fell in love with Maine, and with Portland, and I stuck around.
Peter McLaughlin is a musician, playing in Family Planning, Yairms, Woodpainting, and various other projects. He also runs Pretty Purgatory, a small label out of Portland, ME. He was photographed in his home studio on July 17, 2016.