Multi-instrumentalist, Peter Ulrich is probably best known for his time spent on influential record label 4AD, with Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil. He’s also received glowing accolades for his solo projects, most noticeably his debut,1999’s, ‘Pathways and Dawns’, which has been described as ‘…the album The Beatles might have made had they signed to 4AD instead of Capitol.’ More recently he’s been releasing music under the guise of the Peter Ulrich Collaboration (PUC). Debut album ‘Painted Caravan’, released last year was well received and follow up ‘Tempus Fugitive’ is eagerly anticipated. Before then he’s due to release single ‘Dark Daddy’ . The track is taken from the upcoming album and features original collaborators Peter Ulrich, Trebor Lloyd, David Steele, Anne Husick and Sara Wendt (formerly of cult band, Homer Erotic), alongside latest addition, American singer and harpist Erin Hill. We caught up with Peter and asked him to delve into his past, talk about his interests and influences and about the new album…
BM: You’ve contributed to and worked with a considerable number of bands and artists, most notably Dead Can Dance. Who have been your favourites to work with?
PETER: I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to make small guest contributions over the years to a range of recordings, and sit in on some live and studio sessions, but the life-changer was meeting Brendan and Lisa (Perry and Gerrard of Dead Can Dance) in 1982. They had just arrived in London from Australia in search of a record deal, but original DCD drummer Simon Munroe had not made the trip. By chance they moved into the neighbouring block and I was introduced as the local drummer. They were playing extraordinary music like nothing I’d heard or been involved in before and I was blown away. My standard pub/club drumming was initially way out of its depth, but luckily we quickly became close friends and they persevered with me while I worked on my techniques to get up to standard. I gave up touring after the 1990 tour when my second daughter was born, but have remained in touch and am now the leading ‘groupie’ when they tour! Being part of DCD was an incredible experience, and then in the late ’90s I recorded my first solo album, ‘Pathways and Dawns’, which would not have happened without a huge contribution from Brendan – firstly by encouraging me to do it, secondly by putting his studio at my disposal, and thirdly by engineering, arranging, producing and contributing to most of it. Brendan and Lisa gave me my opportunity, and gave me immeasurable inspiration and encouragement without which I would undoubtedly not have made this journey.
In my current Collaboration project, I work closely with producer Trebor ‘Big T’ Lloyd in a creative partnership which is now six or seven years old and which has spawned ‘The Painted Caravan’ album, the current single – ‘Dark Daddy’ with a massive contribution from Erin Hill – and the new album ‘Tempus Fugitives’ waiting in the wings for release next year. This has taken both of us in a lot of new directions and has given me the opportunity to work with a lot of great musicians, most of whom T has brought in. So this has also been very fruitful and we have a number of exciting prospects for the Collaboration in the pipeline.
BM: What or who would you say have been the biggest influences on your career?
PETER: This once again comes back to my chance meeting with Brendan and Lisa, and getting the opportunity to join DCD. I really cannot over-emphasise how much that changed my life. They are individually two extraordinarily brilliant musicians in extremely different ways, and to have worked with both of them within the same band was nothing short of amazing. They hugely extended my understanding of music and how many different approaches can be taken to the creative process.
Aside of DCD, I would say there are two big influences on the music I create. The first is the exposure we now have to such an incredible range of music from different cultures, different geographic locations, different historic eras, etc, which I gorge on as much as possible. The second is the technology which enables me to create multitrack recordings on a small laptop using any combination of acoustic instruments combined with samples of just about any sound imaginable which makes the possibilities virtually limitless.
BM: What’s your favourite tour/recording studio story?
PETER: There are many, but a funny one which people always seem to like was during a DCD European tour in the mid ’80s when we had a Maori didgeridoo player called Tony Waerea with us who was a great character. On one of our nights off in Holland, me, Tony and a couple of others returned to our hotel quite late after a fair few beers. Tony pulled the didge out, took it into the bathroom, placed the far end in the plughole, and commenced his circular breathing. After a minute or so of getting the didge ‘going’, it’s rich sound started to roll – straight down the plughole and into the hotel’s pipework system. Within another minute or so the sound had found its way round the pipe network and it felt as if the entire building was vibrating – the sound was incredible. We could hear the beginnings of a commotion out in the corridor and then all the fire alarms went off. I was rolling around the floor in abandoned hysteria, and we heard the following day that the hotel switchboard had been jammed with people asking if there was an earthquake. Apart from the fact that a few people got woken up, it was a pretty harmless prank and vastly superior to doing something cliched like chucking the telly out the window.
BM: Did you grow up in a musical household?
PETER: My parents were not musicians, but they loved music so there was always music on the radio or the record player. My father’s parents were apparently both decent singers and met through an amateur operatic society, and his sister (my aunt) became a professional singer who I loved being taken to see appearing in some of the big London west end musicals in the ’60s when I was a child. We had an upright piano in the house and my mum and dad both came from families where piano lessons for the children were mandatory, so I was duly packed off to the local teacher when I was about seven, but I didn’t take to formal music tuition and gave up after a couple of years. On my mother’s side of the family there is a distant cousin who won a TV talent show in the ’60s (or maybe early ’70s, I can’t remember) called Opportunity Knocks. His name is Bobby Crush (genuinely his birth name rather than a stage name) and I believe he’s a professional singer and pianist to this day, but I never met him.
The most significant family influence happened when I was around nine. My maternal grandparents, following retirement after a lifetime running their own chain of grocery stores and never being able to take a proper holiday, took to periodically going off on world cruises for two or three months at a time. On one occasion they returned from Acapulco in Mexico with a pair of bongo drums each for me and my two male cousins. These were the type made of rustic clay pots with animal skin (probably calf or goat) stretched over. This was one of the most magical gifts I ever received and sparked my love of drums and percussion. I still have them to this day, and still use them occasionally in recordings.
BM: What was the music of your youth?
PETER: I was too young to see them, but first became aware of music in the period when the Beatles, Rolling Stones et al emerged. The first single I bought was ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’ by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and the first album a compilation by The Move because I adored the track ‘Fox on the Run’. I’m still pretty happy with those choices all these years on! In my mid teens I got heavily into prog rock and was a massive fan initially of Gabriel-era Genesis and then of a host of more underground bands such as Nektar, Man and Caravan. My initial exposure to more exotic sounds and rhythms at that time came from the likes of Santana and Osibisa, and I loved Mahavishnu Orchestra, though when I saw Billy Cobham play a seamless snare drum roll with one hand while simultaneously playing a complex pattern around the kit with the other, I almost threw my sticks away and gave up trying to play drums! When I went to college as an 18 year old, I was still into a wide range of prog and rock, but also got into the highly politicised English reggae scene with bands/artists like Steel Pulse, Aswad (before they went ‘pop’), Misty in Roots and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
BM: Much of your work draws on ‘ancient’ music – which is your favourite period and why?
PETER: I’m not a student of ‘ancient’ music in the literal sense – i.e. music from prehistoric times which is recreated in a scholarly, historical manner using replicas of primitive horns, flutes and such like which have been unearthed by archaeologists – though I have heard a few interesting things from this highly specialised area. Supposedly the most ancient music form still practised today is that of the Musicians of Jajouka in the mountains of Morocco who have intrigued and inspired many ‘western’ musicians, famously including Rolling Stone Brian Jones, and these great primordial sounds are certainly fascinating.
However, I suspect I’m in danger of splitting hairs here and you mean ‘early’ music which clearly does have a lot of references in my music. This is the era that covers medieval, renaissance and baroque musics. Some time in the mid ’80s I saw an advertisement for an album called ‘Pilgrimage to Santiago’ by an early music group called Phillip Pickett and the New London Consort. The album was essentially portrayed as a kind of musical equivalent to Chaucer’s great literary work ‘The Canterbury Tales’ in that it was an attempt to recreate the songs that the pilgrims would have sung and music they would have encountered when undertaking the great historic European pilgrimage to the Shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostella in north west Spain. It aroused my interest so I bought the album and was truly astonished when I heard it. It just has everything from sublime polyphonic devotional singing to rip-roaring, bawdy drinking songs with thundering percussion and instruments such as serpents and sackbutts! I subsequently collected a fair number of early music albums and often return to them for inspiration when I am writing. When I started collaborating with Big T, we quickly discovered a shared passion for ‘folk’ music in the very widest sense of the word, so contributions from both of us have drawn on such sources.
BM: You are also a purveyor of ‘world’ music – has this involved you travelling the world to discover music? Where is the most interesting and/or weird place this experience has taken you?
PETER: I’m going to take issue with your statement that I’m a ‘purveyor of world music’. I don’t set out to create ‘world’ music or to directly reproduce any particular world music forms that I like – there would be little point as the genuine article would always be better. However, I do love collecting recordings and instruments from as far and wide as possible, absorbing all those influences, and then letting them surface in my writing. Usually I try to let this take a subliminal course, but sometimes I will use a specific instrument, or set of instruments, in a premeditated way to give a song the particular flavour of a region or style of world music, but that’s as far as it goes.
Although I do love travelling, my journey through world music has largely been done through gathering recordings and researching at home. In the late ’70s I discovered west African music through albums becoming available in England by artists such as King Sunny Ade and Orchestra Makassy, and then in the early ’80s I started to become aware of the Qawaali devotional music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as well as a wider range of Arabic music from across the middle East and north Africa. I was instantly drawn to the very different scales, rhythms, instrumentation and vocal techniques.
When I met Brendan and Lisa, although DCD was principally a relatively conventional guitar/bass/drums line-up at that point, they were already experimenting with other instruments. Lisa had a yang ch’in – the Chinese member of the hammered dulcimer family – and also used to startle our early audiences by suddenly transforming from her serene, other-worldly singing to pounding wildly on an African barrel drum.
Whenever I’m travelling, I’m always on the lookout for new instruments and to find local music being played in bars, cafes, public squares, etc, which is always fascinating, but I can’t think of a particularly standout experience, so I’ll go back to another story from DCD tour days. We were headlining a sold out show at a venue in Paris in, I think, 1987 and after the soundcheck were taken for a meal in a local Armenian restaurant. Sat in the corner was a hammered dulcimer player whose playing was wonderful, so we introduced ourselves and invited him to our show. When he came backstage afterwards, even though we had received a rapturous response from the audience, he was clearly underwhelmed. He was perfectly polite and not in any way derogatory, but set about demonstrating his classical Arabic musicianship. For want of a better option, he picked up a hardback book and started showing me a range of Arabic rhythms. I was completely lost when I tried to follow what he was doing, but was utterly fascinated. He recommended a Persian family to me for further listening and wrote down on a scrap of paper the name ‘Chemirani’. I kept that scrap of paper for years afterwards and one day, purely by chance, I saw an advertisement for the Chemirani family performing in a church in the City of London music festival – a free concert on a weekday lunchtime. I went along and there must have been only about 30 people in the audience and it was absolutely beautiful – the father and two sons playing dumbek (or zaab) drums and the daughter singing and playing bells and frame drum. I have since managed to collect a few of their recordings, but nothing comes close to that live experience.
BM: What would you say is most important – keeping ancient and traditional music alive or creating new and original music?
PETER: When my daughters were younger, they had a habit of asking me questions which were impossible to give a straight ‘A’ or ‘B’ answer to and demanding that I choose. I never wanted to relent, and their youthful immediacy meant they were never interested in hearing my reasoning. Your question reminds me of this dilemma.
I think probably the most important thing is that musicians play the music that most inspires them and which they play with the greatest passion and enthusiasm. If there are always musicians around who have the desire to play the ancient and traditional forms as handed down, that’s great, but nobody should feel obligated or bogged down in this. It is fortunate now that so much traditional music has been preserved on recordings so we should always have those reference points available, and future generations can reproduce them or be inspired by them as they prefer.
BM: What do you make of the current music scene?
PETER: For me, music is always in good health. There are always great musicians around making great music, there are always new discoveries to be made, and there is the ever-expanding wealth of back-catalogue to refer to and continue making discoveries within. If you are asking me what I think of the music currently in the mainstream charts, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea who or what is ‘number one’ at the moment. I’m aware there are shows like X-Factor which get huge audience ratings and spawn a lot of chart ‘hits’. I have no problem with this – I’m sure they give a platform to some terrific singers/performers and they’re clearly very popular, so who am I to argue with the vox pop? But it’s not my scene so I don’t follow these things. I’m currently absorbed with the the UK folk scene which has experienced a veritable explosion over the past few years and is churning out a conveyor belt of great artists. Some of these, such as Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons have impacted on the mainstream charts, but there is really a huge mass of other great stuff going on. So I’m loving it.
BM: Do you have any advice for young musicians just starting out?
PETER: I have two pearls of wisdom to offer, neither of which is particularly revolutionary, but if it helps…
1) while it is, of course, important to be as competent as you can at playing your chosen instrument, don’t become obsessive about standards, grades and competitive ability. There are many more elements that make someone a good performer and/or a successful member of a band/ensemble/orchestra. There are millions of people who can play an instrument very well, but relatively much fewer who carve a career (or even a fulfilling past-time) in recording and/or performing – think about why that is;
2) alongside your chosen principal instrument, have a go at playing something else – preferably a quite different instrument. When you come to play with other musicians, it will help you enormously if you have some empathy with what they are playing.
BM: You have a new album coming out in early 2015. Can you tell us a bit about it? What should we expect?
PETER: The current project is The Peter Ulrich Collaboration (TPUC) which, to borrow from the ubiquitous advertising slogan, “does exactly what it says on the tin” – i.e. it’s me collaborating with various people. I’ve discovered that the most interesting feature of a collaboration is that you never quite know what direction a song is going to take once the others get involved. You get this to some extent within bands, but in TPUC I work with Big T, a group of half a dozen or so principal collaborators, and then a huge pool of other great musicians, so the potential for any given song to get stretched in all number of directions is vast. The unifying factors are that every song contains some greater or lesser contribution from me and is largely arranged and produced by T. So there are common denominators, but also a very wide range of styles and instrumentations between the different tracks.
For anyone who has heard our first album – ‘The Painted Caravan’ – the new album – ‘Tempus Fugitives’ – continues the same journey, same approach, so I think and hope that if you liked TPC, you will also like TF. The new single – ‘Dark Daddy’ – is a taster for the forthcoming album which we hope will both raise expectations for the new release, but also get those who haven’t yet heard the first album to check it out.
BM: The latest single ‘Dark Daddy’ features Erin Hill – how did you two get together?
PETER: As with many of the collaborators in this project, Erin and I have never met in the flesh. Music files fly back and forth through that interweb thing, and magically everything fits together, largely down to the efforts of T at the controls and the guys at the superb Engine Room Studios in New York. Although I have introduced a few friends to the project, most of the other musicians are brought in by T, and he brought in Erin.
Erin had already made contributions on vocals and harp to several of the tracks we’ve been writing for the new album, but she really takes the lead in Dark Daddy. We write the songs for the project in different ways – sometimes I start them, sometimes T starts them, sometimes another collaborator, and we receive the songs from one another at differing points in their development. In the case of Dark Daddy, I first heard it with just about everything done except the percussion, and I immediately loved it. I tried a range of percussion ideas but ended up with something very plain and simple – essentially just a bass drum and tambourine playing the same rhythm all the way through so as not to upset the delicate balance of the song. I think Erin’s harp and vocals are beautiful, and it’s a very moving song. I urged T to consider releasing it as a single and… here we are. It is only really since we started making plans for the single release and the possibility of an accompanying video (which is now in the pipeline) that I had any direct contact with Erin – albeit through a 3-way email correspondence with her and T.
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BM: How do you go about creating your music? Is there a formula/procedure that you follow?
PETER: No! That was one of the first and most important lessons Brendan taught me – don’t fall into habits.
If you are a pop hit machine, and you find a winning formula, then by all means stick to it and make yourself a sackfull of cash while that particular fad lasts.
But if you want to keep your writing fresh and original, both for the sake of your audience’s enjoyment and your own sanity, mix it up.
My songs can come from any starting point – a rhythm, a chord sequence on guitar, a piano line, a lyric, whatever.
The last song I wrote took as its starting point the early morning call of a local dove when I visited the island of Zanzibar last year – I recreated it using a bass ocarina and built the song around it.
BM: When you’re at home kicking back with a beer, what are we likely to find you listening to?
PETER: Ah, you know me too well. What I’m listening to is an ever-changing feast, so I can only really answer by giving you my current playlist. Top of the CD stack over the past few days, in no particular order, are:
King Creosote – From Scotland with Love
Tunng – And Then We Saw Land
Childhood – Lacuna
Rachel Sermanni – Under Mountains
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Maz O’Connor – This Willowed Light
Thievery Corporation – Saudade
Imogen Heap – Sparks
Imed Alibi – Safar
Various Artists – Discover Poland 2014
Top of my shopping list when I can next make it to HMV or Rough Trade East or somewhere I can still buy physical CDs from a real shop (‘cos that’s just how I am) are the new albums by Robert Plant and Leonard Cohen – looking forward to hearing them.
BM: Are there any plans to play live? If so, where and when?
PETER: Yes! We are gearing up for the release of the new album ‘Tempus Fugitives’ with a launch show at the Steam Punk World Fair in New Jersey, USA, in May 2015.
We’re hoping to extend that into a group of dates around that time including one or two shows in New York. If the show works well, we’ll be looking to tour further afield, both in the States and bringing it to Europe. Watch this space…
BM: Any artists you think we should be aware of?
PETER: The highlight of my summer was the wonderful ‘Underneath the Stars’ festival in rural Yorkshire, England, staged by the family of English folk star Kate Rusby. Amongst a host of great performances, I saw Maz O’Connor for the first time and discovered Rachel Sermanni who I’d never previously heard of. If you don’t know either of these artists, do check out the albums included in my current playlist mentioned earlier.
A couple of years ago I met Spyros and Evi of Greek band Daemonia Nymphe in London, where they have now settled. They have kindly invited me to join them on stage for a couple of their live shows, and they have joined the Collaboration with contributions to one of the songs on our forthcoming Tempus Fugitives album. I sneak into the background of the title track on their latest album ‘Psychostasia’ with a bit of darabuka – it’s a beautiful album which I thoroughly recommend.
‘Dark Daddy’ by Peter Ulrich Collaboration is released on 3rd November 2014 via AIS Records and City Canyons Productions.
Their album ‘Tempus Fugitive’ is due for release in Spring 2015.