Note: As I am about to demonstrate to the world, I have no idea how to do a real interview. But Eric Peters, in his mercy, agreed to do one with me. Now I’m thinking of a lot of questions I should have asked, but they aren’t really good ones either. So the dumb stuff is my fault. Yet I love that this interview does reveal Eric’s sense of humor and humility and made me even more of a fan than I was previously. EP is rare indeed, like a bloody, tasty steak. If you haven’t bought his new album, Chrome, yet (which I somehow failed to ask enough about) then you should remedy that soon. Some of the songs will appear on the soundtrack for the upcoming film Smith/Peters directed by Opie Taylor. The interview will be posted in two parts. The films will be an endless franchise making millions of buckskins. –sam
SDS: All right EP (this is SDS, by the way), some easier questions may follow, but first things first. What is your favorite color and what do you want to be when you grow up?
EP: Red in the fall. Black in winter. Green in spring. Purple in summer.
I’d like to be you when I grow up. You’re Sam Shepard, right? Do I have to grow up?
SDS: Sam, I am. Occupation: Shepherd. And, keep aiming high; follow your dreams and any unicorns which you may see. Speaking of unicorns, on a scale of one to two, how fun/effective was it to work with Ben Shive in making the new record, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is called “Life in Puebla Georgia As Seen From A Book-shaped Heap of Coal?”
EP: Few people know this about Ben (Shive), but he’s an avid unicorn hunter. It’s slightly different than snipe hunting in that the hunter must offer a reed of salt-cured bamboo to the male unicorn, otherwise, you’ll get no closer than 100 yards to either sex. Or, wait, maybe it’s a Twizzler.
Aside from hunting fantastical forest creatures, working with Ben in the (non-fictitious) making of Chrome (This is the correct album title; you might have had me confused with Erik Estrada) was definitely a 1.9 out of a possible 2. I laughed more making this record than I have in a long time. Since laughter is in short supply these days, I was glad for it, and welcomed it like I would a leprechaun riding a unicorn dragging behind it a pot of gold.
Ben is immensely talented, as creative as anyone I know, and, in the case of Chrome, was a giant for me in the way of encouragement and seeing through some of the dark lyrics to the soul of what I was trying to say, even finding and instilling hope in those places. Ben is absolutely an artist, and is one of the hardest working dudes I know. I am deeply grateful to him for taking on my project even on a shoestring budget, and for treating it as if it were making him wealthy and famous. Which it didn’t. Which it won’t.
SDS: OK, That was the best answer ever in the history of journalism. Probably because of my penetrating question and the presence of unicorns.
In the first question’s answer you joked about not growing up, but is that you? I don’t know how old you really are, but your music sounds like something a much older person would make. Not to say it isn’t fun –it’s almost incongruously fun music with all these layers of gravity beneath. There’s no pretension, a lot of memory, a sense of place, a battle against being cynical, a heaviness tempered with hope, etc. I think that’s something that makes me feel connected to it. Is that a fair assessment and if so, is that why people call you Pappy?
EP: I suspect I’m older than you think. By “growing up” I mean accepting life’s fullest responsibilities; things like setting aside my own dreams and rickity music career for the sake of adequately providing for my family. Yes, the weightier meaning of “growing up”, which involves doing quite little fun things such as waving goodbye to your old life in the rearview mirror. I’ve not adjusted well, just ask my wife. I have much growing up to do, but I just have to figure out what “growing up” means….
Problem is, I tend to take life too seriously almost to the point of depleting it of its joy. Cajuns (I’m a native south Louisianian, but a far cry from a true cajun) have an attitude of take-life-as-it-comes, a certain joie de vivre that somehow escapes me in my weird, fearful, anxious way of living. It’s hardly noble, nor is it God-honoring – I fully admit such things – but I can only hope that what God has started in me, he will ultimately see to completion. And perhaps with the assistance of good counseling.
Your assessment of my songwriting is one of the greatest compliments I can possibly imagine. As an artist, if I can’t, or don’t, connect with people on some level, then everything up until now has been mere entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. We all need hope, especially in these dark days. We all need to know we’re not alone in our delightful and despicable humanity. I’m willing to plumb the dark and light of my soul if it means there’s one other person on this planet who will find themselves in my own story, who will discover a grain of hope where before there was only wasteland. This, essentially, is the essence of Chrome the album.
Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive dubbed me “Pappy” in 2002 on AP’s Clear to Venus tour on which Ben, myself and Laura Story were the backing band. My inner old man came out many times during that tour: always tired in need of a nap, occasionally grumpy, hungry at odd hours, donning Mr. Rogers sweater jackets, and carrying a coin purse in my pocket. I was an easy target. Much like a unicorn is an easy target if you happen to have some salt-cured bamboo on hand.
SDS: You said “delightful and despicable humanity.” So apt. Isn’t it true that the Christian story is so comprehensive that it accounts for both the rebellion and depravity of man as well as the glory on the edges? The Truth is both narrow (in a sense –exclusivity of Christ) and wide (this is my Father’s world, all of it). You seem to draw from areas of experience and history that don’t get discussed much in “Christian” music. Do you intentionally look for different real estate, or is that just you being EP –whoever that is?
EP: I think I’m just being me. That is perhaps both a good and bad thing. Good for my art, I should hope. Bad for gaining a wider, more populated audience. Even though I’m far from an anarchist, a certain part of me loves to go against the grain, to look for strange angles, to say what nobody else seems willing to say, especially in the world of Christians who are making music or perhaps writing books. This is not to say that I’m breaking any new ground here, nor is it a rant against the industrial Christian complex. I doubt anyone would accuse me of being overly creative or inventive. All evidence, in fact, points to the contrary. But there are things that I have to say – MUST say – and I cannot snuff these things out or else my spine will turn to jello. Nobody wants to see that. These songs – and they have always been this way – are my hymns. My songs won’t hold up for hundreds of years, but for me not to voice the achings and groanings of my beating heart (thank God for his Spirit to translate them at the throne!) would be hypocritical of me. Music buyers will always have final say as to whether they support an artist or not, but I should hope there are a few folks out there who can and will relate to my little-big psalms (lower case “p”) and follow me on the journey.
I find a certain freedom and grace in discovering a part of myself in the stories of other people or inanimate objects who otherwise cannot, will not tell their story. Like bicycles, onions and rabbits, for example. We are fools to think our story is ours alone. To believe that no one, not even Christ, knows what it is like to ache, to sour, to long for reclamation is folly ad nauseam. I can only be myself, full of foibles, full and empty of hope at various times. I cannot pretend to be anyone else, and I’m old enough to know better by now.
SDS: Chrome is a wonderful record. Like all your music, it “just clicked” with me musically in an instant. I am still digesting all the food that was sweet to taste and is now settling in for nourishment. Not to rehash, but I have this over-all image of you on Chrome as a tired, but sometimes whimsical, cowboy not-quite satisfied to give up on the dream of lassoing hope –kind of temperate but with a geyser-like potential for naked revelation of soul. What, clinically, do you think is wrong with me and is there medicine for it?
EP: There is no remedial cure for awkwardly placing common phrases inside confining “quotation marks”. Also, I do not own a lasso. I have no idea what’s wrong with you, but whatever it is, I probably have it, too. We should play golf some day. After all, the only good medicine is a pipe smoke and 18 holes of fall golf. Other than that, I have no idea how to answer your “question.”
(Thank you for your kind comments.)
SDS: “Thank you.” Don’t you love the ill-usage of quotation “marks?”
EP: You wouldn’t know a quotation mark if it came up and bit “me.”
SDS: It seems like the people who are into your music are way in. I know that there may not be as many of them as, say, for that guy Jonas or his brothers. Most people say it’s your “honesty,” or “amazing, melodic songwriting” that draws them in, but I still think that it’s the subliminal messages that are working. What do you think about how people get way into your music?
EP: Oftentimes I think it’s just you and that bald-headed guy in Delaware who are one of the Way-Ins (now THAT’s a good name for a band side project). But I’m slowly gaining on those brothers whose name I shall not speak.
Unless I’m the only delusional, misguided and completely out of touch performing singer-songwriter on earth, I would suspect that each of us wishes for a growing, rabid and lifelong fanbase. For those who claim that they don’t care who or how many folks listen to their music, I might wish to politely lean into their ear and tell them to quit lying in public. I think that sort of stuff sounds cool and sounds nonchalant, but it simply cannot possibly be true all of the time. Every artist I know has an ego, and egos need to be assuaged. We all want to deeply communicate, it’s one of our basic human needs; to speak and to be heard. Of course, doing what we do as public efforts, even though it’s generally categorized as entertainment, deep down we all want to be liked – admired, even – and we aspire to public and critical acclaim. I don’t think I’m too far off my rocker in saying or admitting these things. I write these songs certainly having a thoughtful and reflective audience in mind, but also with the hope that somewhere at some point a lyric, or a word, or even just the way a word is sung will stick with them forever. If you’ve happened to pay attention to Chrome yet, then you also know that I reference more than once my disappointment over the way my career has gone these ten years as a full-time occupation, regretting that I’m not more successful, acclaimed, and, yes, even more famous. I used to think I could change the world. You see, I am an earthworks of hypocrisy.
Subliminal messages, huh? BUY. It is not my job to tell anyone what to think or do (except maybe my 2.5 year old). I can only hope to paint an adequate picture, let you decipher and find its meaning for you, personally. MY. It is the listener’s active participation with music that affords the greatest insight. ALBUMS. Hear me now, I’m not getting on the art-for-art’s-sake bandwagon; far be it for me to fling mud up on a canvas and call it “art”. There’s a mighty big difference between art and apathy. NOW. I cannot be lazy with words, but I also can’t afford to serve it to you on a silver platter. Art is a two-way street. When it is done well, or with an active heart, then its interpretation is as much yours as it is mine. I’ve had folks years after an album came out, write me to tell me that they “got” a line in such and such song. Those moments give me great joy, even as delayed edification. If you want a direct, tell-me-what-to-think “message” served up on a bed of roses, and a proverbial apple stuck in its mouth, then my songs will probably not be all that enjoyable for you. But if you’re willing to follow the narrative, digging away at the surface, rooting away at the sometimes arcane, cryptic root system, reading between the lines, then perhaps my songwriting will be fertile soil for you. There is always something there for the taking, whether it is noticeable at first listen or the last. At least, that’s the way I see these songs of mine. Hopefully that doesn’t come across as arrogant. OPRTRS R STNDNG BY. PRCHAS NOW!
Part II coming soon.