Peter Lacey Revisited
By Stratton Bearhart

My initial interest in this album was in light of the fact that it appeared as something of a curio. BEAM! Is certainly an anomaly, first in terms of sound, as a homemade recording it escapes the regularization of standard record production, and secondly, in terms of its unusual harmonic structures and lyric content. As someone more accustomed to writing about orchestral music with a marginal interest in pop, I was nevertheless taken by the refreshing angle taken by Peter Lacey in this, his debut solo outing. Following on from the insightful review by Ronnie Dannelley, I pursued a further in depth interview with Peter Lacey. Here's what we said...

Right: Peter's one-man band

E.C.: Can I first ask you about the production of this album. It has obviously been created 'on a shoe-string', 'one-man and his portastudio' production is in evidence, yet the sound is often complex, perhaps made denser by the process, and as I found, more intriguing as a result. Was the process of recording BEAM easy, and was the over all sound intentional?

Peter: The original situation was to make a collection of demos of songs at home, without the pressure or distractions of my usual musical life. In many ways I saw it as a self-contained project, as an end in itself, so it was a home spun 'shoe-string' affair originally intended for my ears and those of a few friends. What transpired was that Kathleen suggested I send the songs to a local record company just to get some feedback, the result being that the company liked it so much as to put it out as a bona-fide album! I'm really happy that the songs have 'gone public' because of the positive feedback the album has gained. That said, I'd do it all again at Abbey Road in my dreams!

But, to answer your main point Stratton, as anyone familiar with the limitations imposed by analogue portastudio recording will tell you, the process is not easy, and, the more overdubbing involved, the more the fidelity of sound is compromised. Therefore, often the sound you intend is difficult to capture, or is lost to some extent in the over-dubbing process. I think the sound becomes a 'semblance', a hint of all the elements that go into it at the expense of clarity. It's a compromise.

E.C.: Sure, I can see that this could lead to a disastrous effect, what is special about BEAM! Is that, given the parameters of 4 track recording, here are choirs, strings, brass, piano, harpsichords, -everything but the kitchen sink, but it works so well! The best analogy I can think of is an impressionist painting, where semblance is deliberate.

Peter: Well, I'm sure paintings are sometimes the result of 'happy accidents' but an artist by and large has control over the medium, the materials. As you say, in the case of impressionist paintings and indistinct image is the result of distinct technique. In this case there is no compromise. A smudge is completely intended.

E.C.: Quite. Nevertheless, the sound canvas that is BEAM! draws the listener in, the melting of the voices and instruments is part of its charm and unique attraction.

Peter: Thanks anyway.

E.C.: But it is well deserved! The main focus of my listening is orchestral music, far removed as that may be from the realms of pop, yet, critical listening entrails attention to the 'vertical sound' of a work, in other words, the building blocks or harmony 'behind' the 'parallel' line of the melody. In some orchestral music the harmonic complexity of the harmonic structure makes it quite impossible to identify the individual components that make up the gestalt. Likewise with BEAM! this leads me to my next question. Can you tell me about the building blocks of sound that constitute BEAMS! Harmonic structure?

Peter: I'm a self-taught musician, and therefore there are restrictions on my ability to express the answer in formal musical terms, so my answer must be quite general I'm afraid.

Just like any other pop writer I construct a song in terms of a melody with chord accompaniment. I've built up a vocabulary of chords from my work as a giggling musician, particularly in playing lounge jazz and Latin American guitar music. So, I tend to draw on that, and, in the case of the arrangements for BEAM! it was a transformation of that knowledge into vocal harmony. I tend to work at the piano, looking for harmonic possibilities opened up by the successive movement of the songs chord structure. It becomes an intuitive process by and large, once I start singing in four-parts. I see it as trying to create a seamless whole from the fragmentary chords that make up the song. By that again is a fair description of the process for most writer/performers.

E.C.: Sure. But the chord progressions of the songs are most unusual, how do you decide on such sequences?

Peter: Again, it's working at an intuitive level, if it sounds good - keep it! That's all I can say. In writing a song you have a wealth of options open to you at every given stage. I suppose I throw out the obvious choices and keep the esoteric, oblique sounds I come up with. Apart from that it is difficult to explain the process, although I don't think that's such a bad thing. My dear friend Jon Fielder has often pointed out that as a formally trained musician he has internalized the 'rule-book' or harmony, and so often finds it difficult to move away from the prescription imposed by the canon. He likens it to the construction of a brick wall, where in order to construct something novel you have to 'dismantle' the wall in some way. In his case he has always said he thinks he removes the odd brick here and there, cautious not to undermine the structure. Conversely, he has pointed out that because I'm not bound by the dictates of this rulebook I sometimes demolish the wall altogether! He of course means this positively, as in all other artistic endeavor, it's the breaking or bending of the rules that keeps it fresh and alive.

E.C.: Moving on then, in reading the various reviews and comments made about BEAM! since its release, there is a constant theme that crops up time and time again concerning what others have called the 'dreamscape' quality that BEAM invokes, and moreover, the notion of the 'Oceanic' is used as a description of the music by different commentators. Again, is this something you purposively set out to capture, or is it a quality placed upon the album by others?

Peter: Well, I'm not too sure what the term means, I can see that batch of songs primarily influenced by the Beach Boys might be called oceanic, particularly as there are many allusions to the sea in the lyrics.

E.C.: The Oceanic has a more profound meaning than that. The marked effect on my listening to the album is one of oceanic envelopment. It's actually a psychoanalytical term, often used concerning religious experiences, whereby the person experiences a sense of loss of individuality, replaced by a sense of undifferentiated oneness. It's also a description of a 'womb' experience often in context to drug induced states.

Ascribing this quality to BEAM! is both musical and of course psychological. The former in that the 'impressionism' I broached earlier forces critical listening (differentiated focused listening) into suspension, the fabric of the voices and instruments heard as a totality. The latter in that the thematic nature of the lyric content and the soundscape blend into a mesmerizing whole, in which, in the listening experience individuality gets lost like a drop in the ocean.

Peter: I can recognize the effect you are describing Stratton in relation to some music but not BEAM! I think I'm too close to it for that experience. I'm very critical of the music.

E.C.: Why?

Peter: Either because it doesn't match my initial inspiration or that I hear it in terms of its parts. Both.

E.C.: So, what was the initial inspiration?

Peter: Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, something like you have just been describing, although the oceanic description is far too grandiose for me! The irony might be that if you are the creator of a vision, you might also be excluded from seeing it. As a listener I think you are freer to participate in a song or piece of music considered as a whole. But as I said to Ronnie in the first interview with EAR CANDY, writing for me is about the construction of magical imaginative worlds. I think the initial inspiration is the concept unbridled in your imagination where it appears wonderful! The task of realizing the idea is the hard bit, it's hardly ever easy and is always changed in the process and often appears to your ears as tinsel and not silver as intended. But I think the whole process is highly subjective, and so it is a real delight to gain others listening experiences which in some way align with the original spark of an idea.

E.C.: Let me ask you about specific songs with reference to their lyric content. Your approach to lyric writing blurs the boundaries between lyric and poem, the words and their meanings often esoteric, yet compelling. Again, is this intentional, or, based on your earlier remarks, the result of a struggle for clarity?

Peter: Strangely enough the 'impressionist smudge' we talked of earlier is utterly deliberate in my use of words, boring as it is, I can account for every line reduced to its literal meaning. But, I do think half the fun lies in leaving this unaccounted for in order to create space for the individual listener's interpretation.

E.C.: Could you explain some of those ideas?

Peter: Should a magician explain how he does his tricks?

E.C.: OK, but without treading on your toes, could I ask you a little about a couple of the tunes I find the most intriguing? There is a line in the song, "The Family Tree" I'm sure I've come across somewhere before, about the kingship being that of the child's? Can you elucidate on that for me, am I right?

Peter: Well, you are absolutely right. It's from a phrase by a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus, best know as "the philosopher of flux". In its full context, it's about a child playing a game. Heraclitus wishes to kick against the need to formalize the world in order to make it safe and clearly knowable. The image of the child playing a game is that the child does now know the rules and so makes the game up and it goes along rather than by prescribed rules and regulations, a better way to live and thrive in Heraclitus' view through spontaneity and fun. And it's this idea of the importance of play that counts, something children and musicians do all the time. There's a moral in there somewhere.

E.C.: The lyric to "The Green Man" is arcane and mysterious. What's that about?

Peter: The Green Man is a somewhat nebulous pagan religious character and symbol, who takes various guises in folklore, but who is essentially a personification of nature, portraying the cycle of death and rebirth. Interestingly, these days he is most apparent in church architecture as a gargoyle-like figure, because the church adopted the symbol despite its quest to supersede and destroy the pagan beliefs and practices from whence it emerged. That said, the Xmas tree has the same origins, the evergreen is a symbol of continuing life in the face of the 'little-death' of winter. Another pagan symbol appropriated by the church. In my song, The Green Man stands as our ecological conscience, or at least the contemporary figure often sadly overlooked.

E.C.: There is a strong sense of what might loosely be termed aspects of the spiritual in the music of BEAM! Am I right in thinking it is imbued with a sense of the sacred on purpose?

Peter: I feel the music is a result of many influences, some homegrown, some imported. I was brought up from an early age with church music and loved the sound of hymns and prayers sung in the acoustic of the church, a sound technology simulates in reverb and echo. When I was a teenager my friends and I used to spend time singing in a tunnel under the railway track to attain that 'God-like' magnitude to our vocalizing! I actually began my songwriting in writing a song a week to be sung in church, and I think the vestiges of that are somewhere in my writing today.

Combined with that is the influence of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys who for me epitomize what might be called 'American white spiritual music'. It stands in many ways in stark contrast to the abundance of wonderful exuberant American black music. In the music of the Beach Boys I can hear the mannered, contained expressiveness typical of puritanical high church music. Other than that, these days, not being religious myself in any shape or form my quest is an aesthetic one. As I said to Ronnie, I see my role as a songwriter as a means to make connections - it's a dialogue with the world based on wonder and appreciation.

E.C.: Finally then Peter, what is the significance of "Wilson Avenue"?

Peter: The guiding light behind the album must be the bright light of Brian Wilson's musical genius. It was only right to have one song on the album that took a hat off to the man. I wanted to put together a song that spoke of the early times and the Beach Boys more reflective stage, using imagery from both eras. At the same time, there is a long road that runs down to the sea in Brighton called Wilson Avenue. It's just an ordinary road, but I liked the idea of thinking of it being somehow magical. It's not a new idea by any means, I'm thinking of the Beatles "Penny Lane" as a perfect template. I'm very taken with the notion of being able to see the ordinary as extraordinary.

E.C.: Right! Artistic endeavor does not have to be understood as some kind of trick, but a way of looking at the same thing in a fresh and novel way. I have to say your album has certainly opened up a lot of new areas for me as a slice of thinking man's pop. Thanks Peter.

Peter: My pleasure.

Special thanks to Peter Lacey for supplying us with photos and artwork!

Click here to visit the official Peter Lacey website