New Logo riveting riffs magazine Peter Himmelman Releases No Calamity
Peter Himmelman Photo One A

 

Peter Himmelman is a lot of things and he does them all very well, he is a guitarist, film and television scorer, a composer, a lyricist, an author and he is also a motivational speaker to corporate America. Peter Himmelman is also a husband and a father and we do not want to lose sight of that, because early in his career Himmelman had a very realistic opportunity to explode globally and become part of the very upper stratosphere of Rock artists, but he chose to redefine his career and placed his family as the first priority in his life.

Fast forward and Peter Himmelman is the go to guy for Fortune 500 companies who are looking for a way to refresh and to renew their corporate vision and to expand the vision of their employees. He also has a brand new album with a collection of songs that are thought provoking and that possess contagious grooves and rhythms. We should also point out that these songs were written prior to the fall of 2016.

That is borne out when Peter Himmelman talks about why he chose the title No Calamity for the album, “I just liked the sound of it. It is a lyric from one of the songs on the record. I chose that title well before any elections were in full swing, just to let you know that it is not a comment on any particular thing. It is more of a personal thing.”

Himmelman talks about his unusually named song “245 th Peace Song,” “I think I picked that title, because it is subtle irony, as there are so many songs that are extolling peace as a way of life. The song is personal and introspective in a way. It could allude to the interrelation piece between two people. It could be societal in some ways. It asks questions (about) the holes in people’s lives (that have) to be filled. It is a statement, but “you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with.” “The anger in people’s hearts needs to be cooled,” and then it says, “but you have to be careful what you cool it with.” There is a push and pull there. In other words I am empathetic for where you are right now and what is happening. The response to it also has to be measured in some way to be effective. The chorus is overt and it says stop the hate and you can take that wherever you want.”

Peter Himmelman Photo Three ARather than being plaintive as in in sad or mournful, Himmelman is the plaintiff and prosecutor condemning hate in all its forms making the case that it serves absolutely no purpose that in any sense can be considered constructive. While Peter Himmelman’s vocals have a gravelly quality to them they retain a melodic quality to them. Make no mistake however, that what drives this album are superb instrumentals by Himmelman on guitar, joined by guitarist Scott Tipping, drummer Chuck Lacy, bassist Matt Thompson and a trio of superb background vocalists, Kristin Mooney, Claire Holley and Willie Aron. Jeff Victor, Himmelman’s cousin serves up a fabulous Hammond organ solo for “245 th Peace Song.” Other musicians who make an appearance on the album include, percussionist Jimi Englund, Paul Chandler (trumpet), trombonist Anthony Meade, Jean Mastaler on viola, cellist Skip Von Kuske and Mitchell Froom (Hammond organ, mellotron).

The guitar intro with supporting booming drums, for “Memories In This Heart of Mine,” immediately draw the listener into the song and you find yourself tapping your feet, or nodding your head or moving your hips or whatever you outwardly express that are into the music that is being played. This writer was hooked on the first two or three bars of music. Himmelman sets the scene with an easy to imagine word picture, “the dog’s asleep at my feet again / the clock reads twenty to nine / I’m feeling incomplete again / like there’s a hole in the span of my mind / the fog is slowly thickening / there’s a chill running down my spine.” The upbeat recurring guitar riff sets a nice counter balance to the more somber lyrics.

Himmelman talks about “Memories in This Heart of Mine,” “It sounds like a band from the eighties called Modern English. I wrote it on the piano, but I understood that it was going to be a guitar playing that melodic line. It is actually a couple of guitars on the record and along with that is a baritone guitar, which usually goes an octave or a fifth down from the regular guitar. It is sometimes used in Country music. They have very heavy strings. The guitar is usually a six strings instrument with a super low twangy sound (and used) sometimes on an old Country song.

Peter Himmelman hooked up with Steve Berlin to produce the album and he talks about that, “I tasked him with almost a test. I (thought) I have all of these songs let’s see what he comes up with in terms of a list. Several months later he got back to me with this pretty interesting list of songs. I had a collection of about fifty songs that I let him (go) through.”

As for the songs that Berlin suggested, “I didn’t necessarily find them surprising. All of the songs that I wrote or had demos of I sort of had some investment in. They weren’t the songs I would necessarily have chosen myself, which is good, because I didn’t want him to echo everything that I was going to choose otherwise what is the point of objective feedback?  In a sense I looked at that list and I found it more pleasing than surprising.

I thought I get why he is picking these songs, because of the choruses and there are very clear modulations, bridges and they have a good harmonic variance and melodic quality to them. Some of the ones that I liked were more modal and Bluesy in nature,” explains Himmelman.

Working with Steve Berlin started when Scott Tipping phoned Peter Himmelman to say that Berlin was interested in working with him on a record. It was after that lengthy conversation that the song selection process began.

The pace changes with the fourth song on the album, “Fear Is Our Undoing.” The mood is more relaxed and the vocals sell this song. There is something about the tonal quality of Himmelman’s vocals that keep you coming back for more and throughout this album we simply cannot say enough about the fabulous background vocals. You can be sure that Riveting Riffs Magazine is going to dig more into other albums that these singers appear on.

Talking about “Fear Is Our Undoing,” Himmelman says, “Sometimes I just write titles down. I was looking at all of the titles I had one day and I probably put this down a couple of years ago. I will be riding on a train or a plane and I will look back to my notes to see that I have there.  I wrote down all of these different potential titles. Some of them felt weird or crazy. When I was trying to write a song I went back and I looked at those titles. I thought that is an interesting one and I can work with that.

Here are some of the song titles I had way back in June 2014 “Fear Is Our Undoing,” “Bleary Eyed Travelers,” and there were a bunch of titles and when I was trying to write a song I looked at them. I thought “Fear Is Our Undoing,” seems like a truism or an axiom.”

One might easily draw the conclusion from the song title “Fear Is Our Undoing,” that this is a song that is going to paint a somewhat dubious picture of humanity, but it is quite the opposite and this is a very uplifting song of hope, underscored by the words, “Together we are so strong / We can catch each other if one of us should fall…”

There may be a lot of music fans out there, when they listen to the songs on No Calamity demanding to know why they have not heard Peter Himmelman prior to now. He has not been in hiding, but has not exactly been in the spotlight for much of his career either and that was a choice that me made early in his career.

“I wrestle with this a lot. Where do I stand in the music part of my career? How do I reconcile the things that I didn’t achieve? It is not an entirely comfortable position. It is not depressing, but sometimes it’s just interesting. I made a lot of choices, none of which I regret at all. At some point there were millions of dollars being poured into the promotion of my work? In the nineties I had two or three different major labels deals. What was difficult for me was not having freedom and (I was) being commoditized. Part of how I was hamstrung was, not only that they were holding money over my head, money that I needed for my burgeoning family, holding it over my head and pressuring that I needed to be places that I didn’t want to be. You can say that about any job, but this has an extreme quality to it. Peter Himmelman Photo Two A

When my first child was born and he is now twenty-seven I was on the road for 250 days the first year after he was born. It was easy for me at twenty-three or twenty-four to imagine myself on the road that often or even more. It was desirable, but you can’t know what you don’t know and I didn’t know what I would feel about the world once I had a child and once I was married. I started feeling much differently about it. As enticing and alluring as “fame” was and having my music widely distributed or admired, which still appeals to me today, I am not telling you that I am over the appeal of it, it wasn’t able to compete or succeed in usurping my desire to be a good father and husband.  It sounds to me to be weirdly self-righteous or something, but it is the truth that I can come up with. I did make a decision to leave Sony Records on a legal, financial technicality to go to a much, much smaller label and to do things that were on a much smaller scale,” he says.

When asked about his song “Rich Men Rule the World,” and we asked him for his opinion as to whether or not that dynamic can be changed for the average man, woman and child, this is what Himmelman had to say, “Well now we are taking a left turn in this interview and I like it. Just the way things are set up; gravity takes balls and makes them fall to the ground. Again it’s axiomatic just the way things are. Hot air rises. Power is persuasive. Power usually dominates, so as things are without an incredible, unimaginable, unforeseeable paradigm shift and some rejiggering of the whole system and that is with a capital W, no I don’t ever see that changing. It could be rich women. It stands for mankind, but so few women come to mind when I sing that song, it doesn’t make sense. The song is a strange one too. I wrote it Hong Kong and I had terrible jet lag when I wrote the lyrics. It is one of my favorite songs on the record. I enjoy playing it. Quite frankly I am not sure how to inhabit the song. It means a lot of things.

It is not a protest, but this is my opinion of the song. I hate to delve in and the artist speaks, which is always really boring. I don’t necessarily see it as some kind of indictment, but I see it more as a personal song, which rails against my own sense of ambition.”

That leads us back us to talking about choosing family as his first priority over career, “I have to say, if you really want to get into, now that you have opened me up with that question about “Rich Men Run The World,” that it was the first time I started waking up and asking what is the nature here with this push and pull and with this tension about wanting to make it and for what reason, the quiet, more weighty joys of starting this young family. The family just won out. Now my kids are grown and moved out of the house and the clamor of their footsteps and all of the things that would happen in the house when they came home from school and just the whole tumult has quieted down.

Then to think about I have to put 150 people into a club in New York it’s painful to me in a certain way. It’s not something that (keeps me) up at night and it’s not real grief. I know God forbid what real grief is, but it’s not that. It doesn’t go in the happy column; it goes in the challenging column. Yet in terms of decisions having been made I never regret the decision. When people say they made a tough decision and they are perfectly fine with it, I never believe them.  I believe that they made the decision and it was the right one perhaps, but it always had a cost. If it didn’t have a cost you couldn’t really call it a decision. It would just be obvious.

The unheralded decisions, the small, sexy, private not made for movie decisions that so many people make, they make the world go around.  I wouldn’t say in my case that it was a sacrifice. Some people make some great sacrifices. I don’t include myself in this word I am going to use now, but there is great nobility in people’s choice. There is great beauty in that. I think that to the extent we are talking about social activism, more politics, those are the great antidotes, although not necessarily carried with pickets and signs and placards. Those are the things that I think on some unseen level keep the world turning; the heroic unheralded acts that people make in terms of their sacrifice and for their own integrity and the integrity of the people around them.  (He laughs lightly) that’s my statement for the day.”

The rapid fire lyrics on “Ribbon of Highway,” match the quick paced rolling rhythm, a relationship song that once again showcases some incredible background vocalists. The fact that Peter Himmelman allows his other musicians and vocalists to have their moments in the spotlight on the album No Calamity says a lot about both the artist and the generosity of the man.

“That is another song I must have written on a plane. It is a little bit older than some of the songs. That is something that I wrote in a batch for another record probably in 2015 and for some reason it didn’t make the cut. “Ribbon of Highway,” was one that Steve (Berlin) picked. It was an acoustic guitar demo. It was actually surprising that he picked that one. It is somewhat of a stream of consciousness. It just says at the end of the day in the chorus, look if you want to continue let’s just do it. Sometimes when you are in a relationship, for a lot of people it is like you are on a bus and the door opens periodically and you just walk out. That’s what people do, but we always choose to say, we’ll keep on going. We’re not ready to walk out,” he says.

Some might hear the songs on No Calamity as being activist in nature, while others might view that as being more reflective so we put the question to Peter Himmelman to get his perspective on this find collection of songs.

“My knee jerk reaction is absolutely more self-reflective and if someone gleans some social activism message that makes sense to me I say great. Songs are just there to me and they are neutral. Hopefully, they are oblique enough that people can take away their own meaning from them if they so choose and if they are inspired to do so. None of the things that a person takes away from a piece of art are wrong. My whole life is self-reflection, what is happening in my head and my relationship with other people, with God, my future plans and it is just a lot of living in one’s head. There is a whole universe there that is of great interest to me and how I comport myself in the world. It is like a quantum world. Rather than going deeply outward, it goes deeply inward,” he says.  

Life began for Peter Himmelman in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. Peter Himmelman Photo Four A

He says, “(Our family) was exactly like my family now; there were two boys and two girls. My parents were married. It was abnormal in a way. It was abnormal, at least from my perspective and I am sure my brother would agree. It (the family) was very supportive. We had our challenges, but at the core everybody loved each other and supported each other. (He laughs lightly) somehow I thought it was an impediment to becoming famous in Rock and Roll. I was not a rebel, (although) I did a lot of things that rebels did. I might have just been a plain old hedonist. I never rebelled one second against my parents. There was nothing to rebel against really. First of all I had so much freedom, too much freedom probably and part of it was just generational. Even now I feel a sense of responsibility having had that gift. What’s it like to not have faced derision from one’s parents or to have seen terrible corrosive rancor between them? That’s why I say it is abnormal. My experience just having been in the world for a while is that’s not the norm. What does it mean? What I meant about it becoming difficult in Rock and Roll part of what could fuel it is a sense of futility when you just say fuck everything, I am just going for it. I am just going to bleed for this. I don’t have a name that I care about. I am just leaving things behind and I am reinventing myself. I had too much connection to my parents in some way, so it was like I can’t do that, because it would be displeasing to them. That’s not what you want when you are going to try and become a Rock star. You just have to say fuck everything and everyone. That’s the quality that is most attractive to people.

As I say in my book, my dad was an entrepreneur and while he wasn’t making pottery or dancing or something, he was very creative. I always try to stress to entrepreneurs that they are essentially artists who are taking a nascent idea and manifesting it, which is exactly what Michelangelo did. The outcomes are different and the motives might be different.

My mom would occasionally play the piano and she was really good, but she hardly ever played. There was a lot of humor in the house. It was a really funny family, as is my family now. It is one of the means of communication. It is the juxtaposition of paradox. It is attention to unlikely scenarios and smashing them to great effect. Some people don’t have it and some people do. It is a way that you find commonality. The things that you find funny, can really bond you with somebody if they find them funny as well. What’s paradox? What’s normal? In that sense there was a lot of creativity and nobody else was going out and writing songs like me. I felt as the third child of four I needed to (do that) in order to get attention and I still feel that way. I feel I need to do something great, to make some mark or to achieve something. It has been an albatross in a way. It is tiresome, but I don’t think I will ever outrun the impulse. It is kind of the way that you look at it as your survival mechanism with people fighting to get attention and resources.” 

Peter Himmelman’s father’s Tape O Rama business became one of the early musical influences in his life.

“One of the things he had going was an eight track tape shop, probably the first one in Minnesota. We laugh at the technology now, but it was pretty cutting edge. He brought home all of this music, Credence Clearwater and Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones when I was in fifth grade. Through my sister’s bedroom door I could hear The Animals and The Beatles and I thought wow, this is speaking to me,” he says.

Musical education in school was another early influence for Himmelman, “I played the saxophone in fifth grade and I played it all through high school, (including) in a high school band.  I started playing guitar in the sixth grade. I had a band since sixth grade and some of the guys that I made records with on my major label were those guys that I played with in junior high and senior high. I don’t play with them quite as much now. They are great musicians. I always had a band. I did not do well in school. I did abysmally in school.”

Continuing he says, “I was making money in a band when I was twelve and we played at bar mitzvahs. When I was in sixth grade we would change the name of the band every week. There was a band called The Reflections and there was another band we called Pyramid. There was band called Birch and my mom said that sounds like the John Birch Society, I think it is a bad idea and I had no idea what the John Birch Society was and I didn’t really care. Then I was in a band called Alexander O’Neal and the Black Market Band when I was fifteen. Alexander O’Neal became a big Soul star. Then I joined a Caribbean band called Shangoya and we played Reggae. To me it was just all one piece (the different styles of music) and it still is. I was really into Reggae and they also threw Calypso in there. Calypso was not something that I even knew what it was. I found it less interesting than Reggae, but it is really interesting to me now. I was steeped for a year or two in those rhythms. Then one year out of high school we started Sussman Lawrence. That band got a lot of notoriety in the mid-west and we moved to New York. I got my solo record deal and the guys from Sussman Lawrence became my side band for about three or four albums.”

Peter Himmelman’s book Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Live opened doors for him.

“There is truth in the one thing that I could say and I will give you a couple of strands. The music business started to disrupt and you could no longer make any money from making records and touring. The record business used to flood the radio business, which is really the promotional business with money and it was easy to get people out to your shows. I am not talking about the level of a U2, I am talking about the level where I was. The whole thing dried up and so I did a lot of things like film and TV scoring and you can tell when I get to a middle of an interview I get languorous and I like to talk, but there is no talking there. I was holed up for 12 years in my studio making music for television. I got lonesome in a certain way and it was a super high pressured job. It was lucrative, but it was driving me crazy. My kids were going to private schools, one after the other. I needed a new way to make a living and I was trying to look at my skill sets and to see what is at the essence of what I do?

One of the things that I have the ability to do is to bring type A people, normal people, crazy people, wild artists and it doesn’t really matter I can make them feel like they’re third graders. I can get them out of their normal routines and rituals. Now I get paid a pretty handsome fee for coming into companies and basically getting their employees to think like third graders for a moment. What they do with that creative energy is up to them.

When I was starting down that path I understood that people who are successful in this business they always have a book. I started working on the book and the more I got into it the more interested I was in the whole subject of human creativity. What does it mean? Miraculously I finished the book and even more miraculously there were several publishers that were interested in it, which was way beyond my vision for it. It was just like a remote idea. It came out on a Random House imprint called Penguin almost a year ago (October 2016). I get a lot of comments about the book from (people that) it has helped. They call it a prescriptive nonfiction book, which is probably another way of losing the hated term self-help book.”

Himmelman came up with a couple of terms in writing his book to act as metaphors to communicate his message. One of those phrases is Milky Way Moment.  

“It is a term I don’t quite use now when I speak. One of the promises of the book is if there is something that you want to do, like let’s say it is study Jazz piano and you have been a lawyer and now you are in your fifties. It’s just something you always wanted to do. Everybody has something like that. It could be just a conversation, such as I really want to call my sister from whom I have been estranged or whatever it is I want to start a business. It could be big or small. I know we all have those and we never get started on them. The promise of the book is, if you read it and you are interested in it, I pretty much guarantee you that you can start the process. I am not going to even promise that you are going to be famous or excellent. You will be joyously engaged. I always wanted to fly an airplane and I used my own process with that. One day I was flying a Cessna 176 Skyhawk over the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles and I realized I loved it, but I didn’t love it enough to actually endure the rigors of becoming a pilot, but I loved the experience.

The Milky Way Moment is stepping into that, which you previously only dreamed of. Let’s say you wanted to take Jazz piano lessons, it begins the minute you sit down and start doing something. You get the joy of actually being engaged in it, which I think is a complete shift from nothing to something. That sounds like a very trite and small thing, but really it is a great upheaval. You have left the world of promise, this ephemeral idea and you have made it manifest. You have crossed over a threshold in a way and you have begun taking action on that thing that you previously only mulled over. That is a Milky Way Moment when you are either reaching the stars or in my book I liken it to chewing on a Milky Way candy bar, the rich chocolate flavor is only a metaphor. What you get for not taking action is what I call the dry blade of grass, which stands in distinction to the Milky Way bar, because there is no lusciousness in a dry blade of grass. That is to say for mulling an idea over and over and over again in your head, if you want to use the metaphor of a Jazz pianist in the making, you get a certain pallid pleasure just thinking that I could be good if I only tried. The amount of pleasure that you get, which I am being a little sardonic about is equal to what you get chewing on a dried little piece of grass. It is basically nothing. Once you step into the Milk Way Moment you are getting so much more,” he explains.

The other term that Himmelman coined is Brain Bottle Opener and he takes time to enlighten this writer as to what that means.

“In this book there are simple exercises. As a reader, I am not really or prior to writing this book I was not necessarily a fan of writing in this prescription nonfiction genre, so I try to be disruptive of it a little bit. The word exercise bothers me, so I tried to come up with another term that I find interesting. I write it as I would like to read it, so it is a brain bottle opener, something that can open your mind and expand your mind that has been locked. It has an alliterative quality to it that I thought sounds cool. We called it a BBO. That’s how it was born,” he says.

Peter Himmelman says that in the beginning, “even companies that you would think ere “stodgy” completely understood (the value of what he was presenting). There wasn’t a lot of resistance. When I started this whole thing I didn’t understand that there was learning and development and there was this culture of innovation. I didn’t know any of that stuff, I was just a musician. There was a lot of receptivity, as there continues to be now.

It’s interesting to get interest and it is a little more challenging to have buy in. The companies not only pay the fee that I demand, but they take people out of their jobs for a few hours or a half of a day, so there are costs. Until they do it they wonder about the effectiveness of it. By nature I wouldn’t say it is obscure, but it is a little bit hard to define. As I playfully suggested, what is it worth to you to have your people, as though they were third graders, playing in a sandbox, free, uninhibited, happy, ready for change and ready for new experiences, trusting, open minded? Those people who are sophisticated and who work in learning and development parts of companies are fascinated by that and the promise to them means quite a bit.

The difference between creativity and innovation is that creativity is a state of mind. It is a mood. I just read a New York Times Magazine interview with Tom Waits and he said if you want to be a songwriter you have to put yourself in a place where songs fall on you like birds or insects. It is a state of mind. That’s a great quote and it is a state of mind. If you want to innovate, whether it is a conversation or creating a new way of doing business, a new product or service to bring it into that world, you have to be open and you have to create a second state of mind. You take that state of mind to come up with ideas and then you drive the ideas through a process and that is the beginning of innovation. The innovation process becomes a rote process by nature and you constantly have to put the paintbrush back into the paint again and that is the paint of creativity. It keeps that mood going.”

Peter Himmelman’s album No Calamity, engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman at B-Side Studio in Portland, Oregon and mastered by Adam Gonsalves (Telegraph Mastering) and with additional engineering by John Paterno is one of those albums that in an age where the majority of people acquire their music digitally, this is a CD that you want on your shelf in hard copy form. No Calamity is a timeless treasure and the songs will long outlive anyone reading this interview today.

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This interview by Joe Montague  published August 26th, 2017 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of Peter Himmelman, unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved