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An Interview with Pete Molinari @ The Cluny, Newcastle 11/09/14 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sam Lightle   
13 09 2014
ImagePete Molinari is currently enjoying life back in the UK supporting the release of his fourth LP ‘Theosophy', with a string of gigs across the country this month before he heads back across to America to play a host of shows there. But while time is precious Floatation Suite thought we might as well make the most of one of most special and rarest musicians around while he is here.
When we arrived at his gig in The Cluny Newcastle it wasn't long before we saw Pete sitting in the corner looking extremely dapper with his unique style. And after a handshake and a light hearted joke we were good to go for a chat about just who exactly Pete Molinari is, with of course the man himself...

FS: From what I've seen you seem to spend most of your time in the US. How did the opportunity to go to America first come about?

PM: "It was before even I had any kind of record out, some chap at a gig was asking me this the other day and he say ‘what way do you go?' and I said ‘you've got to go your own way man'. Thing with me was I came from a really big family, when I was a child I had my mum and dad from the Mediterranean, my dad's born in Egypt and my mum's Maltese and my grandparents are Italian so it's quite a mix and that's where Molinari comes from Italian. I had some cousins who were from the Mediterranean who were in San Francisco, when I was a kid I had five brothers and three sisters which meant my mum and dad couldn't afford to take us anywhere but my family from San Francisco used to come over a lot; my first influences or taste of America is through them. They brought over me books and music, so I had books by Woody Guthrie and others. I remember having a John Steinbeck book when I was a kid, it was brilliant. A good thing to know about music and literature I think, is it's always really good to find links in the chain, if you know about Steinbeck then your find the film and you might watch the film ‘The Grapes of Wrath', and you might find out who was in it and you'll also find that Woody Guthrie wrote Tom Joad. It's the same with music, I first heard Hank Williams songs not so much by Hank Williams but they were written by Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. And then that made me want to find out who Hank Williams is. I had this collection of Roy Orbison best of or something like that. It's funny because as a lot of music that was brought into my house was from American people, first time I heard about The Beatles or whatever was through this Roy Orbison record that I loved and he talked about playing in Germany and England with The Beatles. Then I'd find out about all of that stuff. You find out things through other things you've just got to kind of observe a little bit and dig a little deeper. I find a lot of people that listen to music just listen to music; they don't want to search a bit more about the reasons behind it." 

FS: It's interesting you mention the literature there and with that in mind can you tell me about the ‘Theosophical Society', which started in 1875 and how that come to being the title for your latest LP ‘Theosophy'.

PM: "I wouldn't say the whole content of the album is but the word is and there's a vibration behind every word so I guess you could dig deeper into that. ‘Theosophy' goes back thousands of years really, there was a Theosophical Society formed by Russian women called Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which they called Madam Blavatsky at the time..."

FS: Can you spell that for me?

PM: (Laughs) yeah I'll write it down, I'll spell Molinari as well (Laughs) and Theosophy...

FS: (Laughs)

PM: "She was a Russian woman that had really strong convictions about all this spiritual stuff and spiritual thought and progress and selfism; that there's a potential for everyone to go further than just this human existence. You know no original thinking, I mean Buddhist thought goes back two or three thousand years and Christian thought goes back two or three thousand years and Hindu even longer and to the Greeks. But she created this thing called the Theosophical society with a few others, she travelled to Tibet and these places and I think she formed it in New York City at first but mainly she formed the society based around each religion should really be separate or reach philosophy of the religion. Instead of staying that saying I'm a Buddhist, I'm a Christian or I'm a  Hindu or I'm a Muslim  or whatever you call it, like there's as much significance and substance within each of these if you actually dig deeper into these you'll find the truth exists in all of them. Also science to is a big, big missing link to all of this stuff - there shouldn't be any kind of separation between science. Religion is a really weird word to mention because once you mention it people monopolise it straight away, they get all a bit you know that you're some kind of church going bible basher really but it's not the case. To be walking a spiritual path or at least be studying spiritual thought you don't necessarily have to stand in front of a statue or pray or any of these things and no disrespect to anyone to does that, that's all very well and good and I'm sure it does a lot of good for whatever but there's a lot more to it than that I'd say. 

"We went off on a bit of a tangent there, you probably want to ask me about my guitar strings or something (laughs)."

FS: (Laughs) No, no I just wanted to know through your experiences in travelling in around America where you played in various blues bars and cafes in New York and Memphis. How did that experience shape you as a musician?

PM: "I think my question from earlier which I went off in another direction, my answer from earlier was I was trying to say when this chap asked me about a direction the other night;  what direction he should go in with music, you know I said you have to go in the direction you follow because if you go down the one I did, it might be really crazy to other people, it was crazy enough for me but I was really influenced by a lot this stuff I was listening to, a lot of the books and novels I was reading that were coming over from America and that kind of lit a fire in a way as a kid wanting to go to America. My earliest thoughts of America like I can be free somewhere I don't know why, it might just be because the grass is greener. But mainly I just thought from reading these novels and books of freedom that you would were kind of like this is the place for me which is not true you can feel free anywhere you want; you don't have to be somewhere. But I really did want to go to America, I think again my idea as a musician was never like I want to make a demo, make a recording and send it to a record label and get signed, be a star and become hugely famous and play at fucking stadiums. For me it was more like, my dad was from the Mediterranean, so he used to play a lot of French, Italian, Spanish stuff and everything in my house as well as listening to Little Richard and the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison and whatever else I discovered all of this French songs, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Jazz and also Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour are all people my dad used to listen to, (Frank) Sinatra and everything, there was always a big thing going on in my household at the time. As a kid you kind of rebel against it and you are kind of like I don't want to listen to what my dad is listening to, I wanted to listen to whatever but then I realised that this is really good stuff and it's kind of like another area, its real proper romantic artistic song writing. A real big idea for me was the cafe, I realised that I don't just want to play some Indie club, I wanted to at every cafe I could, there's life in a cafe. I like the whole idea that when you are in Paris or New York they do this sort of thing. I read about it all the time and they didn't really do it in London. In London you get a gig in a club and you'll be lucky to get a few folks, put a band together and you might get written about. But for me it's like god you can go to Paris and you can play all the cafes' where people were eating and writing and there's a vibrant atmosphere and that really appealed to me. Maybe in an overly romantic way, I really wanted explore this whole area I was reading about which was mainly more of the jazz kind of cafes society than where rock n roll would be played. Although I love rock n roll as well. I just wanted to kind of like play in these places where they were and people hung out and that's what I did really. I just went off with a guitar, tried my luck in a few places for the experience while I was art school for a couple of years you know painting....and fucking partying (laughs) while I was there but mainly I started to go off to Paris. The idea of the cafes, although I have records out and play in pubs with bands and theatres and larger places and get on festivals and all this kind of stuff, I still love the idea of a cafe. When I go to New Orleans or I go to New York or even London, although London hasn't quite got that whole cafe society where you play music in. Whereas in Paris recently a few times - it's got just the environment I like most. If I was a painter I would want to hang my paintings in a cafe rather than a gallery, because I think that's where people see things, they observe and they're always in there to do something; people mix together. In a gallery if you were a painter you'd just see a fucking painting on a white wall, people browse past it and itch their chin. It's the same with gigs mostly - you go and play a festival a day, there's like however many thousand people who have come to get off their head, they don't even know who they're there to see. I'd rather play a cafe with an acoustic guitar or a nice theatre where the audience is observing and coming to see you. But anyway, I do appreciate to be playing anywhere to be honest but I do have preferences..."

FS: Cool that's really interesting. What was it like working on ‘Theosophy' with Tchad Blake and Andrew Weatherall? 

PM: "I like collaborating with people as long as it's interesting for me I like the collaboration when you work with a producer or a mixer or whatever they call it - some people call them mixers, producers, whatever. I like the idea of collaboration with anything. When I'm playing a show in somewhere I know like London or New York or Nashville, which I'm going to play soon or like LA I try and get as many friends involved as I can because when you're doing a gig, I like the idea of someone getting up and playing the harmonica. Someone played harmonica for me in Manchester, I like the idea of someone guest on vocals if they're around - collaboration to me is important. When you get people involved on a record, you invite someone to play the guitar or play an instrument or play the clarinet or whatever it is you want on your track. Tchad, people would say well he is a producer really so it's not so much of collaboration but it is because these producers are artists as well - that's what people fail to understand. Someone like Tchad is a really good artist, he's a great musician, he can play more instruments than most people I know and he's got brilliant taste and an amazing era. His known more for his technical skills but it's still collaboration. You're in a studio wherever you put your minds together with someone you're collaborating. It's just that in a producer way they kind of see it in a way that, that guys behind the desk and you're in the other room and they press play. I worked with Billy Childish, but before commercially releasing stuff I was working in New York. But as far as commercially releasing stuff goes its always been with someone whether it be Billy or Liam Watson & Toe Rag, Adam Landrey, The Jordanaires or The McCrary Sisters, or such and such on this occasion I guess its Tchad Blake and Andrew Weatherall. And Weatherall was real fun to work with, I knew he'd be really interesting and that's what got me really. He tried on track and I really liked it. He's an interesting chap. I like the character. For other people it might be technicality, but for me it's got to be character. If a person's got character, I think it'll be interesting. I don't care if it's a photographer or a painter or a sculpture or an artist or a person who writes literature. I think if it's an interesting collaboration it'll catch my attention and I'll want to do it." 

FS: So having said that, are there areas in ‘Theosophy' where you've tried something and it perhaps hasn't worked out and you won't try again? 

ImagePM: "I'm always keen to try something else you know my first record in a way, you know commercial record - I did a bunch of little EPs that I would sell on the streets at gigs in New York or in cafes. But my first record on a record label was an experiment in itself anyway because I came back from New York and I knew this really great artist who is a real influence of mine, Billy Childish. He's a great painter and a writer and a musician and an all round genius man. And even that was an experiment because I had been signed to the same label as him, Damaged Goods Records. I wanted to make a record that would be like; I was playing in a cafe so I said I wanted to make a record that's kind of similar to the Alan Lomax records, field's recordings that they would've done in like the 40s or the 30s. If you've ever listened to Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie or Robert Johnson or any of those people, Blind Willie Mctell all those people who recorded, I wanted to make a record like those. So I knew that Billie is possibly the best person around to do that kind of stuff. It's got nothing to do with that low fire crap that people mention because people go on about technicalities all the time low fire, high fire, big fire, it's all nonsense. It's all smoke and mirrors really the best you're ever going to get to hearing someone is me sitting here with a guitar and you being in front of me or sitting at a piano or whatever. It's the best you're ever going to get and the closest you're ever going to get to the intensity. But if you can get that kind of energy down on record then brilliant and I knew that Billy did that with his recordings - no matter what he likes to get down the same energy he puts into everything, into his writing and into his paintings. I just went and I knew he had this little tape machine and made these recordings in his kitchen. He'd just made this record called ‘Heavens Journey', which were different from his punk rock records, garage rock or whatever. He made this record that was called The Chatham singers and he'd always use different names and do different things like blues, folky, country, well more bluesy record really. He's a big fan of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson and all those sort of people. But it had a really great sound the way it was recorded, you know that's the way to go, I mean my songs will be different but that's the sound I wanted so I did that with ‘Walking Off The Map'. And then the next record I recorded with Liam & Toe Ragg and you could call that a collaboration experiment because we were in a studio with musicians for the first time, collaborating with musicians and other guys - it's all analogue. It's all an experiment of some sorts, I mean yeah I want to try something else, who knows, I think everything should be a progression. It's the theosophical view point if you want to look at it like that. You want to progress in whatever you are doing, you're also progressing and evolving spiritually, so it's a big deal to me, it's like whatever field you are living in or whatever purpose you have if you are a nurse of a bloody doctor, you make progress in what you do, so for me I'd like to do something else. Whether that's a heavier sounding record, who knows, I might get in with Jazz musicians..."

FS: Yeah that would be good...

PM: "You never know. I'd love one day to have to have the kind of budget and sometimes money is a big issue in these kinds of things because I believe if you're going to do something - do it right. Don't do it half way and don't try and sample something, don't try and get a replacement for a clarinet. If you are going to have a clarinet, then have a clarinet player who can play it really well and if you're going to have a set of horns or a set of strings or an orchestra or something then pay for it and get it done properly. If you can't afford it then don't do it, till you can. And if I find myself in that position, where'd I'd be able to work with really good arrangers and do stuff really top level that those people did like Chet Baker and all those kind of people then I'd love to get into that kind of area." 

FS: What's your favourite song on ‘Theosophy' is? Personally mine is ‘Dear Marie'...

PM: "Oh is it? Well that's good to know...(Laughs)"

FS: (Laughs)   

PM: "The gardens yours to pick from. I don't know it's like you go out into a field and you chose whatever flower you want."

FS: But what song would you say you are most please with on the record? 

PM: "I don't know really I always view things as a whole really. I always think that, that's a piece of work. Songs individually, I think ‘What I Am I Am' - if there's a track on the album that sums up the title in a way then ‘What I Am I Am', has that sort of substance in a way and the ‘Mighty Son of Abraham'. I was kind of pleased with ‘Love For Sale', because I thought that was quite a step forward in creativity musically. I think that having Weatherall mix something like that and have a mellotron and there were instruments used that I haven't used yet. Collaborating and having my friend Barrie Cadogan from Primal Scream and..." 

FS: Dan Auerbach as well...

PM: "Yeah and I haven't really done that before because I've had guest musicians. Not really for any purpose just because it came up in a conversation and I thought It would be fun. If it was anything that I'd really have to try at then I wouldn't bother because it would take away all the fun and the joy out of it for me. Part of what I do has to happen naturally - come out the moment. If something comes out of the moment I'm always more for it. If I feel like I'm trying something for something then I get disheartened. So if it comes up in a conversation and it's a good idea, then I want to get it done as quickly as possible because its alive and its good energy. I like them all really; I like all the songs from the past too. I view them as a body of work. I'm doing a lyric book at the moment with a publisher - lyrics and they asked me to add 20 odd poems to it as well to thicken it out. And there's an introduction to each record, like a three or four page introduction where I've had to write about the insight which I just told you with the Billy Childish recording we did on ‘Walking Off The Map', and then into Toe Ragg and then working in America. And when you view things in a book form, you have to think; well that's a body of work. You don't view it like separately in albums any more. These songs come from this album and these songs come from this album. This was a single and this was an EP. You instil it into well that's my work. At the end of your life and you've departed and onto yonder and you think what the hell was that all about." 

FS: I first discovered Leadbelly a couple of months ago...

PM: "What you have?" 

FS: Yeah...

PM: "That's quite a discovering isn't it (laughs)"

FS: Yeah (laugh), that song called ‘In The Pines' its like an old American folk song about 200 years ago.

PM: "The great thing about Leadbelly is there are all different titles. There's like a few different titles for the same song. There's ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?', there's another version called ‘In The Pines' and then there's another version called ‘Black Girl', which is (Pete sings) ‘Black Girl, Black Girl, don't lie to me'. Which may seem to be a bit racist and prejudice today but he's a big black guy so it doesn't really matter coming from him. But what a great voice though. Incredible. Billy Childish called his son after him. He's really one of the forerunners to folk music - he's a blues artists yet he invented something that hadn't been done. His songs were great songs, great folk songs. People put him into a category and it's a crime really you can't. He's not just a blues artist, his singing about all of his experiences in prison doing all of his stuff about the hardships they lived in and yet his archive is one of the major bodies of work in the body of American folk archive - him and Guthrie, and Blind Willie Mctell and Robert Johnson and all these people. If you want to read into Leadbelly you should get a book on Alan Lomax and read about the field recordings this guy that went around the country and recorded these people. He recorded Leadbelly in prison and there's a brilliant story that Leadbelly sung for his freedom so Lomax put a plead forward to get him out of prison. I'm not on authority, Billy knows a lot more about it then I do but I know a bit more about Billie Holiday I guess. He's a really interesting figure... brilliant brilliant. Brilliant at what he does the best in his field I think."  
FS: Cheers Pete that's great! 

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