Riveting Riffs Logo One Press On with Peter Himmelman
Peter Himmelman 2020 Top Photo

Peter Himmelman is a lot of things, singer, songwriter, someone who has scored countless musical scores for films and well-known television programs. He is also part philosopher, a sometimes imagineer, a provactive author and he would probably disagree with being described as a motivational speaker, so instead let us instead say that he is someone who encourages people to think outside of the usual boundaries of time, space and social norms to discover and realize their potential. That theme is continued with his current album Press On, which was released during the summer.

The second song on the album, “This is How it Ends,” is cut in a typical Peter Himmelman style with lyrics that provoke much deep and introspective thought, but seldom comment of focus on a specific event or social issue, allowing the listener to personalize the music and to apply it to their own lives.

“I am not trying to put ideas into the listeners’ heads, because their ideas are probably going to be superior to my own. My songs come from a nonintellectual place. They just appear to me. There is some analysis that needs to take place in terms of the construction of the song ultimately.

With “This is How it Ends,” I sat at the piano one day and I popped out that little ostinato riff. I started playing and singing and words came to me. The thing that I probably had going through my mind and it was way before all of this COVID stuff was going on, it seemed to me to be more of a relationship song and not mirroring any particular one, but pieces of feelings that I have seen or experienced. When I think about it, it is not something as dire as apocalyptic, but it has more to do with personal relationships than it does politics.

If music has no lyrics and it is a time of war and a song sounds very aggressive maybe somebody would ascribe it to some current happening. I prefer songs that are a bit amorphous or nebulous rather than pointing to this or that or some screed that is very specific. Even a good protest song probably has a good oblique quality to it,” says Peter Himmelman.

Peter Himmelman 2020 Photo OneJust so readers do not think Peter Himmelman was being deliberately evasive in ascribing to his song “This is How it Ends,” a specific message we refer to you an article he published on LinkedIn a few months ago called Finding Common Ground in an Age of Polarization.

“The antithesis of how human beings should socialize is to be completely polarized. As a person who strives to be a songwriter and tries to improve in that area and I am just taking that one piece, because I am also a husband, friend and father and to open up my mind to a wider variety of opinions seems like a pathway to wisdom. It is not that I have achieved it, but it is a way forward.

I have a friend who seemed like he was stuck in a rut politically and so on and I said here is an article that I want you to read and it seems like it is polar opposite to what you talk about whenever we speak. This guy is back in Minnesota. I said this will present you with some new challenges and ideas. It is really well written and from a thought experiment I am curious what will happen if you read this piece. It was something that he was dead set against. I think the first thing is to get people to sit with an idea that they don’t yet believe and that they know nothing about except that they dislike it. I wasn’t convinced he would do it, but I thought if he read it, he would have a different frame of mind. What I was not convinced of was whether he would take the ten or fifteen minutes of concerted effort to read this long piece.

He called me and he said I have to tell you that I completely see what you are saying, and I have changed my mind. It is a radical thing when people can do that. There are certain things that we will never change our mind about and maybe rightfully so when just the base of it or the sense of it violates our values. Even so, it helps to understand where that opinion is coming from. I guess that is what I was trying to say.

Look it does not take someone who is brilliant to say we are living in increasingly polarized times. That is partly an effect of fear and partly an effect of technology that can speed up our process of communicating and that can provide this cloak of anonymity. Things can get vitriolic when we are not face to face,” he says.

So, maybe a little bit of ambiguity in music is a good thing, as long as we remain open to the interpretation of others and the significance it holds in their own lives.

Peter Himmelman reflects upon the decision to make a new album, “I watched a John Coltrane documentary and I was very moved by it. I just felt I was rushing into the studio for no reason. I also questioned why I was putting out another record and it is something I (think about) all of the time. There is no money to be made from it and ultimately it is just money that you will spend making the record. It comes down to the reason why and that is I just felt the need to do it. 

I didn’t have to serve anybody, there was no record company and there was nobody to tell me what to do, as if that ever happened. I just wanted to be able to justify to myself someone wanting to sit down and listen to a new Peter Himmelman record.”

The changing landscape of music with less record labels, less revenue from album sales and the delivery methods through which people access music being decidely different than twenty-five years ago, we posed the question to Peter Himmelman as to whether or not the length of songs matters much anymore.

“No, it doesn’t matter at all. How it came to be that three minutes was the standard for the length of a song (originally) was on vinyl you couldn’t go much longer than that without the sound deteriorating. The grooves on the record would become closer together and you would have less volume and you would have less fidelity. That is where you got your rules. A CD had its own rules. You could put quite a bit more than you could on vinyl. Nowadays there are no limits. They are just files and you can go on for days if you want. Also, the idea that you are going to have a radio hit is an absurdity.

I decided to stretch some of these songs out and they are not super long, but there are some that are heading into the five- and six-minutes zone. We were just grooving in the studio. We decided to roll the tape and said let’s do it. If someone wants me to release one as a single and to edit it, I don’t mind trying and I am happy to do that. There are single versions and full-length versions.”

He continues, “What is really difficult is not having structures. It is much more liberating to have a record company say I need a record by such and such time. It sounds paradoxical, because how can that be more liberating? What is difficult is when there are no expectations and so one needs to apply their own intentions and their own structures. (For instance) I am going to put this record out on such and such a date, so I have to get these songs ready. I need to make up those rules myself. Who cares? No record company and no radio station are chomping at the bit and that can create tension so great that it inhibits people. I don’t think it ever did that for me.

I think it is more of a struggle now and that it is less liberating to have to make up your own rules all of the time. It is the imposition of rules that allows us to do anything and whatever it is we do from eye surgery to playing the piano or having a solid marriage. The rules are what gives us the vehicle and the ability to manifest our ideas.”

We segue into talking about the song “Truth Proffered in a Hard Time,” a song that seems to resonate with much of the world as we move into the autumn of 2020 and yet it was not written with the intention of relating to any particular event or events.

“I don’t very often sit down with an idea that I am going to write a song about such and such. I feel some need for a song to appear and I will sit down and take whatever comes. Often there is something very surprising and I like it. There is a large part of the song that wells up from the subconscious. It obviously takes some technical and architectural (ability) to put the song together. When there is less of the latter in the initial phase the song is going to have more depth and be more interesting.

I have a studio back in Santa Monica and it was back of my house. It was twenty minutes before 6 pm and my wife and I were having dinner at 6 pm and when I sat down something started coming out. That riff you hear started coming through and it was bluesy and spritely. I have not done much of that rhythm pattern. I just started writing “When the hunger comes, everybody has got to eat.” As I was writing I realized I was writing about a riot or a pandemic or maybe an earthquake that had come. Peter Himmelman 2020 Photo Three

The character in the song is saying I told you this stuff was coming, but nobody really believed me. There was pandemonium in that moment, with everyone trying to get on the freeway. The lights were coming on and in the middle of it all, while everybody is worrying about dying the character in the song turns to the woman and says I have never loved you more than I love you today.

I wrote a song about a pandemic or a society that seemed like it was about to explode. When I look back at a lot of these songs on the album now, I go wow, what was I thinking? It strikes me as odd because there was no intention to do something like that,” he says.

So, as we press on with our conversation perhaps this is a good time to talk about the title track “Press On.”

Peter Himmelman says, “I love this song and I did a little demo of it when I wrote it. It sounds to me like a Gospel song and it has very few chord changes in it. It was interesting to me to see how long I could maintain interest with just a 1 / 4 chord progression. Sometimes when the chords are simple, they allow a different kind of a lyric. If the chord progression is complicated it also dictates the kinds of words that can happen. Chris Joyner is a phenomenal keyboard player, so he is featured.

I said to the guitarist Greg Herzenach for this album pretend that you are a guy who plays in a garage and you only play music at night. I want you to circumscribe your color palette and make it bluesy and old-fashioned sounding. He really dug into that and even in that zone he does things that are incredible. He is really astounding.

The bass player’s name is Mat Thompson and at one point I was going to do the whole album with just him and me. I flew to Chicago to work out all of the songs with him. He gives the album a really interesting sound with the tone of an upright bass. All of these songs could have been played on an electric bass and had the drums as standard rock things. It would have worked, but it wouldn’t have sounded as unique as this does.

The drummer whose name is Jimmy Englund called me and he said do you realize that every one of these songs swings? I said damn you are right. This thing swings like crazy. This song “Press On,” swings the most of all of them.

Accompanying himself on piano Peter Himmelman’s pretty “Big Red Moon,” remembers his sister who died in an automobile accident in 2002. The first was prompted as he was driving alone one night, the night of a blood moon, “Driving along at the start of twilight / I looked up at a dark velvet sky / Saw a moon so full and red / It just about made me break down and cry…” The second verse talks about thinking of reaching out and phoning his sister and then remembering he could not do that anymore. It is that awareness and sense of loss that revists many of us, when you realize those moments are gone, but we still have the memories. Then there is that point when we speak not to the wind, not to the stars and not to empty air, but to the loved one whom we have lost no matter if it was twelve years, as it was at the time this song was written and we hope or perhaps we somehow know they can hear us say, “I want you to know that you've never once left my mind.

“I went back home, and I wrote the whole song. It has a pretty melody and I wasn’t really thinking about recording it. It is one of the older songs,” he recalls.

Perhaps the most revealing part of our conversation with Peter Himmelman came out of broader context discussing creativity and a story he related, “I was once playing in Chicago and there was a full crowd. The band was playing hard and I stopped the performance right in the middle of the song. I gave the mic to a woman in the front row and I asked her, what is happening right now? She said you are giving us a chance to be free. I said damn that is what I aspire to. Your job on stage or when you are making a record is to kill off some of the temporal aspects of a person and to predominate over their physicality and their animalistic side. It is to make people transcend the moment. Whether you are a hard metal band, or you are playing Chopin, or you are in a Ska band or whatever it is always the same. People will love you if you can take them out of themselves and you can show them this more accurate reality.”

Peter Himmelman’s album Press On is available through your favorite online music stores.

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This interview by Joe Montague  published September 12th, 2020 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.