Peter Himmelman is more than a singer/songwrtier. He’s a man whose deep commitment to his faith has posed some interesting career challenges. At the 2006 DIY Convention, he discussed all sides of his career with Ethlie Ann Vare….
BH: Bruce Haring
PH: Peter Himmelman
EV: Ethlie Ann Vare
BH: Just some background facts. Not only is this a singer/songwriter, but this is a man whose deep commitment to his faith has posed some interesting career challenges. I thought nothing is more suited to a D.I.Y Convention than someone who has seen all sides of the coin, persevered, and done it the right way.
Please welcome Peter Himmelman.
EV: Thank you Bruce because that was very kind. I am probably just going to vamp here for a couple of minutes so we can give everyone in the lobby a chance to give their reels to the club bookers. Everybody is here to try and advance their career, and I think that this has been an enormously informative conference to that end. I have certainly enjoyed a lot of the panels and I hope you have too. I think that Bruce Haring deserves a great vote of thanks for everything that he has done to put this on.
I am particularly honored that I am the person that gets to present Peter Himmelman to you because he happens to be a singer/songwriter/composer/filmmaker, and just generally an artist that I have long admired. For those of you who aren’t already familiar with his career, he started off in the early 80’s, back in Minneapolis, he was the frontman of the Sussman Laurence band, a powerpop combo with two albums to their credit. By 1985 he had released his first independent single called Fathers Day as a solo singer/songwriter, the album was then picked up by Island records and then that led to albums on Epic Records and then that led to a lot of touring work. He is known as a great live performer. He is known to take the entire audience out for dinner after the performance.
I remember one time I was at a solo performance at McCabe’s, and when I complained that he hadn’t played Running Away, which is one of my favorite songs, he took a guitar off the wall of a front room in the store and played the song for me.
So generosity of performance is one thing that everyone who has been giving you advice this weekend has stressed, a generosity of your spirit, your art, and of your time. I think that Peter Himmelman is a terrific example of that.
Now you may know that he has gone on to scoring television, including an Emmy nomination for scoring the series Judging Amy, not Chasing Amy, and currently he is working on a series that I admire a lot called Bones. This is all against an interesting backdrop because it is due to a devout Orthodoxy, a serious personal commitment to his faith, he has never agreed to perform on a Friday night, he will not travel on a Saturday, and he will not be gone from his family for more than 21 days in a row.
In a way Peter has set for himself the kind of obstacles that people here have found themselves facing, which is how do I make a career given these limitations? Even though some of them are self-imposed limitations, which I thought would be fun stuff for you to share with the audience.
PH: Okay, that would be good. A lot of people are thinking if he is such a hot panelist how come no one is here? The truth is that I am tremendously hot, but what I have done is paid everybody to stay away so that we all could have an intimate experience here. If you want to come up closer, it’s fine, and if not then that’s fine too.
EV: I thought it would be fun to recount how some of these people reacted to these self-imposed limitations. You got a deal on Island records, they said they had a six month tour set up for you, and you said no.
PH: You mean with this Jewish thing?
PH: One thing is this thing lacks stability. One, in the music business, should be able to be comfortable on an unstable chair, it’s part of the whole metaphor of the entire process. Let’s start in other places maybe because that is just jumping into weirdness. Any other place you would like to start is fine and then I will come in.
EV: I was personally curious how you made a transition into writing for television? That’s an entire reinvention for one’s career. Everyone is looking for ancillary ways to make a living from their music. How did that happen for you?
PH: I could give you the most true answers, which are always the most interesting, or I could give you answers that would make me seem more special.
EV: Do the dull one first and then the special one.
PH: The true thing is that I have had some brief fling with being involved with the machinery of starmaking back about a hundred years ago or so. I really wanted to be famous when I was a kid. I am third in a family of four.
I know Bruce wrote on my little sheet not to get all philosophical and that I should be more pragmatic, but I was desperately seeking the approval of others. Now my approval seeking is not desperate it’s just extreme. As I have matured I have progressed to that level.
I was in Minnesota, we had a band called Sussman Laurence, and my dad was dying of cancer. He was a big Jewish marine, of which there aren’t many. He was so tough too, he could literally kick a man’s ass, and I had seen him do it. I have always dreamed of being that type of man. I remember once we played in Amery, Wisconsin at The Country Dam, and my dad was dying, it was one day before Fathers’ Day, and people were just dancing to the music that we were playing. I was watching them dance, thinking they were so bazaar, and I thought to myself what is my life amounting to? I’ll make this quick.
So I am playing in Amery, Wisconsin, I’m 22 or 23, and I remember coming back for the encore because people did like us. So I decided to make a statement in front of my friends, these are guys that I have been playing with since I was 12 and I still play with them now at 46, and I decided to get totally nude at this club. It wasn’t in a sexual way at all, because I wasn’t so sexy with my black socks. I came out nude and the guys in my band thought that was the way I was dealing with my dad’s death. I looked at the crowd and I asked them what they hoped to accomplish by being there that night, what was their purpose? The band understood so they started playing some weird avant-garde background music, and then the owner was alerted to my nudity, and he came running out looking like he was going to kill me. They took me to the car after that. The point of it is that when I came home, I was still living in my parents basement, I wrote a song for my dad since I hadn’t bought him anything for Fathers Day, and I ended up writing a beautiful song for my dad. I’m not a guy who cries that much, I am invested in my manliness even as fake as it is, but I started to cry at the end of the song.
I had done it on a four track cassette player, a Porta studio, which changed my life, and I left the tears on the tape. I gave it to my dad and needless to say it was the pinnacle moment of my entire music career. Everything has been downhill since then.
The reason that I am mentioning this, in a practical sense, is that song, along with a couple of other things that I put around it, got me a record deal with Island Records. I made a video for it with this guy Jim Herschlender, and it was the only independent video on MTV to get regular rotation. Martha Quinn interviewed me, I went to meet her at her apartment one time, she was a no show, but still she invited me. That song got me a record deal, which was huge and unthinkable.
The last thing that anyone would think of that would make them successful is doing what they really believed in. I am not really sure what the lesson is in there.
EV: I think the lesson is to be true to your genuine creative spirit, and if you can touch something in the soul of the people who are listening then that is the point of art.
PH: I wasn’t going to say that.
EV: This is why I love his concerts, by the way, because they are like this but only with music.
PH: I was going to say that you must look good at all costs. Your clothing must be neat, new, and groomed.
EV: Where the Red Hot Chili Peppers at that show by the way? They picked it up as their marketing strategy.
PH: No, I said new not nude. Everything I do is a tangent.
Okay, then I had a wife and four kids. As it was they wanted me to now go into the machine of rock, which I desperately wanted to be involved in. That machine, if you are in it, you will never die, people will love you, and you will have anything that you want. It’s the greatest thing in the world until you are actually in it. I realized very soon on that it was not exactly for me, and I started making a compilation of all these things that I wouldn’t do.
I had a record called Flown this Acid World, simple title that was really good for sales, and I remember everyone coming into Epic with their managers to ask for more money so that they could stay on the road more. I had my manager go in and ask what was the least that U could be on the road, because my wife was anemic and pregnant with my third kid. We wanted to know what was the least amount that I could be on the road so that they won’t pull the pin. Apparently that was not a good way to be.
EV: By the way this was the album with the big hit song about the paraplegic woman who could communicate by only moving one eyebrow. That was a real upbeat, dance oriented, song.
PH: It was on the record prior to that called From Strength to Strength. Huge hit in Paraguay for a minute. What was I saying?
EV: You were asking about the amount of time for touring.
PH: You are not supposed to be that way, because on a label you are working for somebody. I always thought they were working for me but I guess I had it wrong. You need to be a toaster, so when they say get hot you just shut up and get hot. If they tell you that you need to cool down, then you cool down, and you don’t say anything.
EV: Now you get the idea that this is not an artist that would do anything for his career. How does one establish a career, keep a career, make a living, and support four children? I have to do this digression because I was under the impression that you coincidentally married a woman who was Bob Dylan’s daughter, which maybe in some way enhanced your career. You had already been a signed artist when you met and it did nothing but harm your career.
For those of you thinking that he has family connections let me tell you that it was not through family connections. It was, as we say in the writing biz, what was on the page that made your career.
PH: That’s actually the most interesting thing that I could talk about.
EV: Yet you have still maintained a career for twenty and some odd years.
PH: I am not very organized in what I do. I have always been pretty good at weaseling in there.
When I had my hit song, the 11th Confession, we made a great video where I look so young and sleek, it was on MTV, this was before the Internet, so what I did is I took all these different people, young and old, and I had them write letters about how much they enjoyed this video that they saw by this unknown artist. I must have done about 140 of them and I mailed them from all over the country, people were sending me stuff from Atlanta, New York, and they got that stuff and they were really moved by it.
To cheat, scheme, and lie is also acceptable. I always felt that I deserved those kinds of letters, even though they might not have been generated in an organic sense, but you have to understand that you are really trying to push these things along to get the TV show gig. I’ve always felt that it was such a wonderful gig. I sit in my house and they pay me tremendously to do something that is so much fun I would gladly pay to do it. I sit in my green chair and I make music, but I had to cajole these people, and I had to come to these meetings with special shoes and really tell them that I knew what I was doing even though I had no clue. There is a lot of lying, sin, and debauchery.
EV: In the end it has to be on the page.
PH: Yeah of course but that is fairly simple. It has to be excellent, but anybody could do that. In this town hundreds of people are so talented that it’s unbelievable. The thing is that everybody here thinks that they are the greatest thing in the world and everybody has a CD. There used to be a time when nobody had a record and it was a real threshold if you had a record. It either meant that you had a rich dad or something was really special about you. Now, I have done a scientific survey with my money, I paid some college to do this study, and there is not one musician working anywhere in the world from Sierra Leone to Juno, Alaska that doesn’t have their own CD and many have more than one. It’s a whole new world, and so then you are competing with everybody that has a CD and everybody is excellent, and when everybody is great how do you break through?
EV: That is the point though, because those of us who make television were saying they would kill for a decent soundtrack writer because our composer sucks. There are thousand of potentially talented songwriters or composers, so how do you make the two ends meet? It’s all about getting through the gatekeepers.
PH: You’re always meeting people and I think that is a good practical thing. You meet people and find people that will help you and be your champion. Remember that song Funky Town? I used to be friendly with the guy who did it when I was a kid in Minneapolis, his name is Steve Greenberg, and he was the guy that would play at bar mitzvahs, and he wrote this hit and became massively wealthy. We became friends and he wanted to produce our band. I would go to his house, bring him new songs, just to show you the indignities that I suffered, and I would always make a new song on cassette. He put the song in this stereo, this is so cruel even if he meant it to be funny, think about it, it’s your song that you feel is the greatest thing you have done, and he starts kind of getting into it. I’m thinking damn Steve Greenberg is getting into my song, he could make the call to Polygram right now, then he goes to his stereo, he bends down with his skinny ass and pops the cassette out, hikes it through his legs like a football, all these things are running through my head, and bang it hits the fireplace. He screams “Its shit!” and goes into the kitchen. The thing was though he did like me, he loved me, and he loved my stuff, because he had me in his house and we were hanging out. You have to develop an incredibly thick skin and I never have really. Even to tell the story I could vomit.
To put yourself out there is the thing. What’s the name of your last song? The latest? Is that what it’s called? Fuck everything. Okay so fuck everything. I understand and I appreciate the sentiment from a neolistic point of view. That’s your song, but you can have your joy in two ways. I think this is the most practical thing I can tell you, again it’s philosophical, but that’s how I speak. You can have you joy in two ways, one fuck everything is quietly bringing you confidence and joy right now, it’s work that you have made and it’s massively fulfilling, number two is taking fuck everything, moving it out of the comfort zone to a Steve Greenberg with the potential for horrible, personal, degrading humiliation, but the reward is if the song connects and you hear it on the radio. That’s the beautiful thing, the amazing sense, and you feel at that moment that you will never die and you have a certain gratitude to God. Making the transition from the comfort of Fuck Everything to the bringing into the world, a lot of people are not willing to make it and I don’t blame them for a second if they are not willing, but by being at this thing, whether you are learning anything or not, it’s still a step. You start looking for ways to take Fuck Everything into the world and you will suffer. Who has ever cried at humiliation they have received? I never have. I have never cried in a business sphere. How many people have cried at the joy of making a song? How many people have been moved to tears by bringing that song out? I don’t know if I have, maybe I have. Just the idea that you have the ability to do that, and once you make that decision that you are going to do it, at whatever level, maybe you just want to get it on TV, but it’s the ability of having the idea.
EV: I want to open up the arena to questions. I love that we have been talking about what motivates, on a personal level, and what motivates people to do all of this enormous hard work. They say people are afraid of success, really I think people are just afraid of working hard, they are afraid of rejection, failure, and humiliation. The motivation that gets someone to cross that great divide is what’s great.
PH: The question was with all the materials out there do you spend your time buying books and mailing you stuff to those addresses or do you spend time trying to get your foot in the back door, meeting people, and trying to get them to listen to your music? I know Bruce told me to be practical, I am being the most practical I can when I say this, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really think you have to focus on it, of course you can take this book open it up and submit to here and there, but in my opinion it’s practical to say to yourself that you feel that this is how you want to live your life. Tell yourself about how you want to bring joy to somebody, or let me put it another way, the more specific your motivation is the more likely you’ll be able to achieve success. For example when I brought up that song about my dad, which sort of exemplifies something for me, that was a very successful song, it moved my father and I together, I was filled with confidence, and the more people that listened to it the more they were drawn. This fueled me to make a record based on those kinds of songs, then I decided to make a video, and it was more about me than anybody else. If your song accomplished something in the world then the fuel from that is enormous. That will cause everyday to feel just as invigorated as the first day you wrote something.
I’m not a real expert on how you get stuff on MySpace, but the important thing is what do you do to sustain your own faith in your own work.
PH: The first time I thought I would be a musician and what education did I take to sustain it? I brought my guitar over to my friend’s house in 1972, I think it was before my bar mitzvah, and I was really young. I still play with him now. I played the E string, he could play drums, and when I touched the guitar it was very powerful and it fueled me to want more and more. I felt an invincibility. I had certain training with a guitar player named Lester Williams from Texas, he was a friend of my grandma, and he would come over to teach me some chords. He taught me so many and it really opened up my eyes to so many things. That was the extent of my education. Next?
PH: How do I not compromise? Well I must tell you because I am the schmuck up here with the microphone it doesn’t mean that I have it all licked. I don’t really. For me that is an idealized place, a place where I have a lot of things figured out. I am a complete idiot and none of it makes any sense.
EV: Yet you have paid your bills by making music your entire adult life. I think that’s something that everyone in this room aspires to.
PH: I just want to stay that I don’t have it all figured out. If you have felt the awesome power of being on stage in front of thousands of people, it’s really a remarkable experience, and I have also witnessed the birth of my own four children which was even more powerful. These pinnacles moments are very rare I must say. It’s never been a struggle for me to work, but for example I will ask people what could they pay you to smash your mom in the mouth? Even if she were in on it, what would it be? 20,000? Assuming that you love your mother, assuming that you have something that you feel really deeply about, is there a price that someone could pay you to destroy your connection with those principles? Most people have certain principles, and most people have one thing in their life that they will not violate. It doesn’t take any effort to not violate those things. Is this making sense?
It hasn’t been a struggle in the way. People ask me about not playing on Friday night because of Jewish law and they ask if it has hurt my career. Maybe it has, but I am trying to live my life into which my career fits, not into my career which my life fits. Many people end up making that mistake.
EV: Speaking of stories that you were going to tell us before you went off on a tangent, how has you father in law hurt your career more than help you? You were going to tell war stories.
PH: He hasn’t hurt it god forbid. Somebody said I should meet Maria and that sounded like something I definitely didn’t want to deal with. Then I met my wife twenty years ago and you know when something is working. It worked good.
In Judaism it’s called a Shidach, have you ever heard that word? It’s like a matchmaker, but it’s not so crazy. It’s two people who know you, they see that you have qualities that will match someone else, and they hook you up for marriage and not for dating. When you are looking to date you are looking at a whole different set of criteria. So it worked out plenty well. Was that story? Any more questions?
PH: What steps did I take in my career to meet people? That’s a great question and this answer will be a little bit more pragmatic. For about two years we moved from Minnesota to New York, I had this band, we would hop on the train to Manhattan, we would buy fresh flowers and fruit, we went to different record companies, Warner Brothers, Epic, and we brought the secretary the fruit and flowers. Of course back then I was a little bit more cute and charming. I would tell the secretary of these record companies that I was trying to meet her, I would ask her to listen to the record and let me know what she thought about it, and they would. First of all everyone wants to be acknowledged, two every secretary is going to be the president of every company after two years, and we got in to see everybody.
Once I was going to buy a pound of beef and just put a cassette in it’s mouth, and wheel it up to Epic. I never did it though.
Somebody else said that there was this vocal group that could really sing their butts off, when they sing they sing in harmony, and I told them why don’t they go down to KCRW and start singing their asses off there. Well they didn’t want to because nobody knew them, but that was my whole point. I thought that they would be doing KCRW a favor by enriching their lives with some singing excellence. They never did it though. That would have been an obvious one.
If you are good, charming, lovely, and self effacing, then you go sing at KCRW in the hall, and the worse thing that could happen is they’ll that they will throw you out. But at least you’ll know that you already sang that song for your grandma, it healed you, and it healed her. It gives you strength to endure anything that might occur.
PH: Well the Jewish music community is a very specific genre. I am sure there are agents and record companies devoted just to that. It would be the same as getting to the Greek market or even the Persian market. There are people that deal specifically in those types of music, I don’t know them off hand, but I know that they exist. They would be the people to talk to because you are not going to go to Warner Brothers with this stuff.
I have not taken any specific avenues to reach the Jewish community. Somebody asked me if, I also make music for kids, which is a big part of what I do, I would make a Jewish record that is as Jewish as my kids and I said no. I can’t do it because it’s not my thing.
EV: Although I would like to point out that there is an enormous amount of press on you, there is an active Jewish press, and you have always been an easy interview for them. That has helped.
PH: I also noticed that I was on a Klu Klux Klan website, which is a pretty nice thing. Almost every black and Jewish artist is already on that, but I was happy to be among them.
EV: That would be the exception to the all ink is good ink rule. I think it’s about time to wrap up and I want to give you the opportunity to end with any last thoughts or comments. I want to thank Peter so much for coming out. He’s one of my favorite people to listen to. Shouldn’t we all have had a teacher like that in the sixth grade?
Do you have any final thoughts?
PH: I never have any final thoughts. I have never had them in any interview and I don’t have them now. I would like to say that when I first talked to you I didn’t know who you were, so I am normally guarded and defensive, and as I got to know you I really started to like you a whole lot. That’s it.