Interview & Review by Robert Urban for GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE
Pete Sturman is the quirky and talented singer-songwriter who previously was half of the unambiguously gay music duo Pistol Pete & Popgun Paul - "tongue-in-cheek outlaws with an aim to entertain". The two met in New Orleans in 1993 – Pete, originally from New Jersey, was a punky-folkie with a Master’s Degree in English. Paul Cowgill, from West Virginia, could be found busking on the streets of the French Quarter and telling stories of his days as a teenage drag queen and Pentecostal church pianist.
Spending almost as much time on their costumes as on their music, they developed a loyal following in New Orleans. They recorded two CDs and took their show on the road, performing in folk coffeehouses, jazz clubs, fringe theaters, cabaret lounges, Irish pubs, dyke bars, weddings, Mardi Gras balls, drag shows and hipster hangouts in 24 different states. With the simple ingredients of two voices, guitar and piano, the duo combined old-time country, blues and gospel traditions, presented with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude and an ironic light-heartedness.
Hurricane Katrina changed things for the duo: while Paul eventually returned to living in New Orleans, Pete decided he needed a fresh start somewhere else and moved to New York City. Whenever possible, they still perform together, but this is all too rare.
In the meantime, each is pursuing his own artistic bliss. While Paul plays in a local church, club appearances and theatre productions in New Orleans, Pete is still writing songs and performing wherever he can in New York. His latest is a 4-song EP True Stories featuring the a Katrina evacuation tale “Wasn’t Plannin’ on Leavin’”. Initially beset with the challenges of getting both healthy and sober in his new adopted home, Pete is just beginning to find his performing niche in New York. He sees music as something he does for the sheer joy of it and he looks forward to finding new ways of sharing that with others as time goes by.
Review & Interview
My first introduction to the music, singing, geetar pickin' and wit of Pete Sturman came as I listened to his previous cd release - The duo Pistol Pete & Popgun Paul's Son of a Gun. This album's open-hearted and very openly-gay "slice-of-gay-life" lyrics convey a rainbow of emotions (sometimes all at once!) portrayed via a variety of edgy, poignant and comic life situations. The lyrics range from campy humor to jaundiced-eyed, world-weary bitterness to innocent quests for romantic love - all within the context of a solidly gay outlook on life. In fact, for fans of "out" music by openly gay artists - this songster-bud's for you.
The songs on Son of a Gun are coddled by a down-homey, confident, perky sounding group of musicians, including Pete on guitar. As with many country and spiritual music recordings, as well as some releases by classic rock acts such as The Black Crowes, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie and even The Rolling Stones - this album has the sound and feel of being sung and played by all involved in one big session with everyone playing and singing at once. In other words - the guys on Son of a Gun perform like road-tested pros who really "play their stuff".
Son of a Gun kicks off with the uptempo holy-rollin', tamborine-wavin', revival-meetin' spoof "Sign Me Up" that uses the lingo of born-again stereotypes to mock celebrity wannabees (and in the process manages to lambaste both types) . The album's vintage, Sun City/rhythm & blues/southern/spiritual/pop feel continues with Track 3 - "Whatsyername" that offers a comic take on "NSA" anonymous sex hookups while channeling the aura of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright". Other Son of a Gun standouts include track 4 "M'sieur" - a somewhat swoozy, honky-tonk torch song this listener imagined Pete delivering in Marlene Dietrich saloon drag ala Destry Rides Again; the more bitter, unrequited love ballad for the crystal meth generation "San Francisco's not to Blame" on par with even the most sardonic of the great Morrissey's moody offerings; and track 8 - the somber, serious "If You Asked" a touching confession of love by gay geek ("I'd even give you all my X-Men comic books... if you asked").
Pete Sturman's charming "San Francisco-meets-Nashville-via-the-Radical Faeries" style & sound continues with his new 4 song solo release True Stories. With a tear (or is that wink?) in his eye, and a country-yodel (or is that falsetto?) crack in his voice - the acoustic songs on this solo effort have an even more up-close, intimate feel than those on previous releases. Singing about hard-times - in a kind of bohemian, hobo, common-man way - is a Sturman specialty. The smooth & solid acoustic guitar and mandolin playing on True Stories make for a most pleasant and soothing accompaniment to the wistful, laid back, matter-of-fact vocals.
I listened to Pete Sturman while the news was on the T.V. - I can picture him as a new gay Will Rogers come to both spoof and mourn the loss or lack of human innocence & goodness in the current world, as he kicks back and serenades the decline of the U.S. in our times. - Robert Urban, URBAN PRODUCTIONS NYC
- Who are your main influences as an instrumentalist, singer and songwriter? Which bands?(in no particular order):
LEONARD COHEN - lyrical complexity, dark sense of humor, use of innuendo
MORRISSEY/THE SMITHS - over-dramatized dark emotions for ultimately comic effect
JOHNNY CASH - this one’s pretty obvious
NEIL YOUNG - a sense of perversity, a deliberate lack of polish which set him apart from the overly fussy and sometimes flaccid approaches of Crosby Stills & Nash (who I also like a lot)
ROXY MUSIC - ironic sort of aesthetic distance of early work
LOU REED – esp. smart-aleckiness of “Transformer”
DAVID BOWIE –theatricality
GEORGE JONES - a basic building block of my music, both musically and in his impassioned vulnerability and self-deprecation
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER, also a folk singer named KATE WOLF - ability to ponder spiritually transcendent meanings of life stuff
EMMYLOU HARRIS - besides being very classy, also combines every different kind of music and makes it her own
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - sense of absurdity in life, dark humor, painful truths, doesn’t sing “pretty”, very theatrical in its way
MIKE WEST & MYSHKIN - though no longer together, the Godparents of our music
PETER PAUL & MARY - this one’s pretty obvious
GRATEFUL DEAD - less obvious musically perhaps, but they also combine many different kinds of music into their own sort of brew, and were I think a big influence in their live spontaneity and desire to have sort of an interactive experience
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN - story songs! Also he sings passionately though not always “pretty” – emotion & passion valued over technical perfection and polish
BYRDS/GRAM PARSONS - a basic foundation I think, my original immersion in country was through this route
NEW YORK DOLLS - over the top, kind of ridiculous, definitely not “pretty” music
POPGUN PAUL - I was doing country music and was interested in spiritual matters, but then Paul came along and brought in a more explicitly gospel sound. In fact, to whatever extent there is a remotely “black” aspect to our sound it was due to Paul’s sense of rhythm. I also learned how to sing from singing with Paul and that changed the direction of songwriting, and I would write sometimes with duets in mind or specifically for Paul to sing lead
FRANK SINATRA - not obvious but I am a huge Sinatra fan and have been heavily influenced by the importance of phrasing he brings to singing; also I think my songwriting is hugely influenced by the character of the lover that Sinatra “plays” in his 40s and 50s stuff
PET SHOP BOYS – not musically but thematically though we did sing “Rent” a few times
“QUEERCORE” – a friend of mine made me a series of mix tapes in the early ‘90s that heavily affected my early direction. It included such artists as Andy Martin’s Apostles, Mykel Board, Fifth Column and The Parasites.
NEW ORLEANS (not a band but…) – I started out wanting to be very much an alternative to what is normally thought of as “New Orleans music” but eventually became very much influenced by the acoustic music scene in New Orleans (Mike West, Myshkin, Gina Forsyth etc.). However I do think New Orleans is a huge part of the music. The stories often take place in New Orleans and take their life from its unique sensuality. I certainly think the city itself is a great influence but not necessarily the music that is normally associated with New Orleans.
- Among the artists you have seen live, what are your all-time favorite concert going experiences?
Famous artists: I have been to over 60 Grateful Dead shows, many of which were life-changing. I saw Iggy Pop in ’93, I was at the front of the stage and about six of us all put our arms around him as he sang one of his mellower songs and I looked right into his eyes. I’ve seen both George Jones and Johnny Cash (and wrote a song about the latter show). Seeing Bowie do all my favorite songs in 2004 was so amazing. I’ve seen Springsteen 6 times; he’s always great but the most recent time (this past November) I got to stand touching the stage front and center while he performed the entire “River” album. I saw Prince at Essence Fest in New Orleans in 2004, had no idea what an amazing lead guitarist he is – it was one continuous show with jams connecting the songs. Leonard Cohen this past year was truly transcendent. I saw Van Morrison twice in 2009 (I’m a latecomer to his cult) and both times completely blew me away and he seems to be influencing the future of my music in ways I’m not sure what they are yet.
Less famous: Living in New Orleans I would often go to see my friends play. Most frequently I’d go see the Mike West Band (featuring then-wife Myshkin) and would always feel at home while he sang his story songs, came up with very clever patter between songs and played every stringed instrument like a virtuoso. Later his band evolved into what is now Truckstop Honeymoon with his current wife Katie Euliss.
GLBT: Myshkin and Mike broke up in ’02 and Myshkin sort of “changed teams” – I think she is an amazing singer, so intense and both brainy and emotional and a great live performer. In ’90 or ’91 I got to see Charlie Murphy play at UNC where I was at school. Perhaps you’re familiar with him: “Burning Times” and “Gay Spirit” – my buddy and I got to go out for drinks with him afterward, it was a great experience.
- Tell fans about your brand of country music – This listener hears, within the larger genre of “country” – all kind of sub-genre influences: backwoods, cowboy, southern, gospel, honky-tonk, etc. How were you first exposed to country music? Did you perform as a child?.
I am from New Jersey. While I do have a very early memory of loving “I Walk the Line” I have no other history with country music until my teenage years. (I did sing in glee club and boys choir and was made fun of for my ability to sing the high “five golden rings” part of “The 12 Days of Christmas.”)
My interest in country music resulted from being into R.E.M. in ’84-’85. I followed them backwards to The Byrds, who led me to Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Bros. and Emmylou Harris (and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead). Following the roots I discovered other country artists but the one I most loved was George Jones. His voice is so expressive, the emotions he sings about are so deep, often devastating, yet there’s a witty or corny side to his songs. I loved this dichotomy/balance. It felt real to me. Many of the soft rock singer-songwriters from the 70s onward had gotten a little too slick and self-serious for my tastes. That early honky tonk Jones stuff became the starting point for most of my songwriting. Cash was a big influence too – “Superfag” was heavily derived from “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Honestly I am still occasionally surprised when people refer to my music as country. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that; I guess I’m just inside it and I see it as Pete music. It is a guy with a guitar singing story songs. I am a troubadour with a sense of humor. It is just as grounded in folk music as country music. I happen to play acoustic guitar; if I suddenly took up synthesizer who knows what kind of music I’d make? I sing about my life in a way that makes sense to me and that I hope will be entertaining and meaningful to others.
I have spiritual concerns so of course there will be songs that reflect that, and Paul’s experience playing in church contributed to the gospel feel of some of our stuff, but I think mostly it’s sort of an organic process. I have something I want to say in a song and I try to find the words and music that will help me say that. I guess most of the time it comes out sounding country! Which is okay with me but yeah, there are a lot of people who will say, “I like every kind of music except country.”
Any special thoughts on your guitar, and what it's meant to you in your life? - What other instruments do you play?I knew from a young age I wanted to do something creative. I tried writing poetry and short stories but never found my niche there. I started learning guitar at age 22, which to me seemed very late at the time. But it gave me the vehicle to set my creativity free. As soon as I knew three chords I was writing songs. Musically my stuff is pretty simple. I’m a dilettante really as a musician. I’ve learned a few finger-picking patterns, but I’m a woefully underdeveloped guitar player. Still, I’ve been doing it almost 20 years now so it sometimes sounds convincing to others! I’ve always been more interested in songs – the guitar has been the vehicle for that. I am a very rudimentary player and owner of a 5-string banjo and I also love to play percussion instruments of all kinds. I like to play in drum circles and I’m not bad though I’ve never had any training.
- What brand/model/year guitar do you record and play out with?
I have an Epiphone EJ-200 jumbo body with a Gibson neck. I bought in 1996 after my first guitar (a $129 Sigma beginner’s guitar) was stolen out of our car after a gig. It has a wonderful sound, it stays in tune very nicely, has very comfortable action and people often tell me it’s pretty.
-- As far as I can tell – you’ve lived in both the NYC area and New Orleans area – and if “bicoastal” may be applied to describe – you still commute between the two. Tell us about your likes, dislikes and tell us about the differences, regarding living and working in NYC and New Orleans. Feel free to tell us about other places you’ve lived and worked.
I assume you mean from a musician’s perspective. There is no comparison at all. New Orleans is a friendly, good-time place to do gigs and make music. New York is hostile, intimidating and extremely money-oriented. Don’t get me wrong, I adore living here – it was the right move at the right time for me – but it’s definitely taken me a while to get motivated to face the adverse conditions for gigging here.
New Orleans has countless little nooks and crannies where you can do your thing for little or no money but for the pleasure of it or for free drinks. Often artists find they have to leave New Orleans in order to succeed financially at music, but it’s such a great place to play. Of course, I know tons of people there, I show up in town and before I know it there’s this, that and the other spontaneous little happening I can be part of. There’s not the up-front fees to perform and the guarantees that you’ll bring in “x” number of people. Not that we never made money there or never got fired from a gig because we didn’t bring in enough people, it’s just a totally different vibe.
Here there are so many different events calling on people’s attention spans and there’s much less of an emphasis on live music as being a part of everyday life, and there’s a lot more pressure to bring in the money. I haven’t explored the scene in Williamsburg yet, I’m guessing that’s a little more laid back and closer in spirit to what New Orleans is like.
-You were half of the music duo PISTOL PETE & POPGUN PAUL – but now you are solo. Was this both a professional music relationship and a romantic partnership? Wanna talk about your reasons for going solo? And how it’s going for you now – the solo Pistol Pete? Were you always the main songwriter & lyricist?
I have always been the songwriter and lyricist. I have often encouraged Paul to contribute to the writing and composing process and sought his input where I could get it, but songwriting is not so much his thing. However he played a huge role in how songs were arranged and in choosing which songs would make it into the show and which would not. Collaborating with him over the years has been a great help to my singing knowledge and control. We have never been romantic. Though we are both part of the Radical Faeries, a group that does not necessarily draw such a distinction between friend and lover, our relationship as musical partners evolved to a point that we felt it was best to not go there. Playing music with someone for many years, doing the business of booking and promoting and rehearsing and setting up and breaking down and partying together afterwards – this is a very intimate relationship. It has been more than enough for us. We’re very much like an old married couple though we’ve never French-kissed.
I have no reason for going solo except that I felt in 2006 that it was best for my health and spiritual well-being that I start a new life in New York. During our time in New Orleans, I always had the freedom to go and do a solo show here or there and thereby pursue a different aesthetic agenda. I have material that is best done by me alone. But I could always do a little solo spot in a Pete & Paul show. There is no dissatisfaction with the Pete & Paul thing; in fact, I deeply miss having his musical input on a regular basis. There is no substitute for someone with whom you’ve been playing for so many years. It’s going well! I’ve had to gain more confidence in my ability to sound good by myself – it’s both liberating and terrifying to be out there alone.
Can you relate any special feelings or experiences on being an LGBT musician in the mostly straight, mainstream music world...especially regarding your formative/learning years at your craft?
Absolutely. I came into songwriting and performing with a specific desire to tell stories that I thought weren’t being told. I didn’t hear songs about being gay when I was growing up and I wanted young queers to have that, not just gay power anthems but also love songs where a man was singing about another man with the right pronouns. As I continued to write songs that came out of my life, it became clearer to me that in many cases we queers have a different set of concerns in how we go about our daily lives and I wanted to sing about those too. So some of my songwriting addresses the more obvious gay stuff and some the more subtle range of issues.
But a lot of my songwriting, and this goes all the way back to the beginning, just deals with human stuff that’s not specifically gay. I think I’ve always straddled that line. When I started out, it wasn’t like I faced a choice as to whether to be out or not in my songs and stage act. I knew I wanted to be out, I saw it as a bit of a holy mission. On one hand it threatened to marginalize my music, but on the other hand it was also a selling point – it was something interesting that not a lot of other people were doing.
There is no question that the music world is very straight on almost every level. Band culture is very much a boys’ club. I knew that was the route I would have to go in order to get gigs – I immediately made friends and sought alliances with mostly straight hipster-culture musician types. The thing is they instantly took a shine to me. They liked my wise-ass sensibilities, both in Chapel Hill where I did my first gigs and then New Orleans where I started playing open mikes. In urban settings, I (and later Paul and I) initially got a lot more support from the straight hipster world. They regularly attended live music events; it was an integral part of their culture.
But queers (outside of Radical Faerie settings) were a much harder sell and took a lot longer to win over. We noticed out lesbian musicians having a much easier time of it. Bitch & Animal, for example, reached a level of success that we never did, and relatively quickly. Lesbians were much more receptive than gay men to going to hear live musicians who worked with real instruments. Gay men in New Orleans still thought lip-synching drag queens were all the rage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, but we sought to make inroads into gay bars by occasionally sharing the stage with such drag queens. Sometimes it worked but a lot of the time it didn’t. It was very difficult just to get gay men to come to live music venues. Once they came, they often liked it, but it was in many cases outside their comfort zone.
So from the beginning my/our audience has always been a mix of straight and gay. We’ve found that we’ve been able to reach across the aisle through humor, fun costumes and ultimately just sounding good and having a good show.
- Does New Orleans differ from the rest of the South - tolerance-wise – as to how your openly gay performance career? Is post Katrina New Orleans any different than pre-Katrina in this regard?
New Orleans is totally unique in the world and certainly in the U.S. Its wild, anything-goes image is mostly justified. However, it is also deeply rooted in tradition. I have known native New Orleanians who waited surprisingly long to come out to their parents, and I was shocked and angered when a group of us gay guys were chastised for being openly affectionate at an Uptown spot during a Mardi Gras parade. But certainly New Orleans was very permissive of us being openly gay; if anything the vibe there encouraged us to be more outrageous and flamboyant. I moved away from New Orleans in February 2006 and have only been back once since, so I really don’t know. My impression is that my artsy and musically-inclined friends find it to be just as hospitable to whatever weirdness they want to cook up.
- Country musicians are world-renowned for their solid musicianship and their natural expertise at really playing and singing their stuff live. As an artist who’s been all over the U.S. has it been difficult for you to find other LGBT musicians to play with, or to find other LGBT musicians and fans who are into country music?
Hm. Well we’ve certainly shared bills with other LGBT artists, such as Bitch & Animal, Garrin Benfield, Yolanda and others. Bookers have sometimes seen fit to book that way to sort of make an event out of it and get the queers to come out. Or it’s been a way to get a gig, to book the unknown with the known act (we’ve played both roles) to get people to come out. So I would not say it’s been difficult.
Again, even though country is a big part of what we do, I would not say that we’ve been pigeonholed as country artists, so I don’t necessarily think the country aspect per se has been a stumbling block to finding collaborators or fans. I think there is a bit of a divide between (a) LGBT artists who are working in rock, folk, country, jazz, blues etc. and (b) those who are working in the electronic/dance music genres. The latter category has, I think, had an easier time finding an audience among gay men. But the lesbian community is much more open to non-electronic music.
And on the other hand, has it been difficult to find straight players who don’t mind working an openly gay act?
Not necessarily. We’ve rarely employed other musicians in our stage act, not from lack of desire, but due to it being much easier to travel and rehearse with and financially support two people. In New Orleans, we worked as a four-piece often for live shows with a bass player and drummer and sometimes a lap steel player. These were straight guys and it made no difference to them. They liked our music. As I said earlier, we’ve always had a very mixed audience. On the road we’ve certainly shared bills with heteros whose music we dug and they dug ours. It hasn’t been a major issue.
- You’ve recently returned to NYC, tell us about the live music scene in the NYC area. Your circle of musical colleagues – and the music scene you inhabit.
I’ve lived in NYC continuously for four years. My first few years in NYC were spent taking care of a lot of personal business and not playing much music. I did a year of interferon therapy for Hepatitis C which was extremely difficult (and I have successfully cleared the virus) and I have also been clean and sober for almost four years. This took a lot more time and work than I ever would have guessed. I also was amazed at how long it took to get my creative energy back; I didn’t realize how entangled it was with alcohol and drugs. Not wishing to spend time in bars, I haven’t frequented open mic events. I’ve done very little live performing here, mostly just one song here or there as part of larger, cabaret-type events. I have quite a few friends who are musicians and we talk about getting together to jam but it’s much harder to schedule such things here than in New Orleans. People, myself included, keep a busier, more hectic schedule here. Over the last few months I’ve made a vow to myself that I will practice a little bit every day and it’s made a huge difference in my creative life. I’m anxious to share it with others and it’s a matter of prioritizing it so that it will happen. In the meantime, I’m in a musical vacuum.
- There’s a considerable amount of humor in your songs. Do you also perform the comedy circuit?
Um, no. I don’t perform on any circuit right now. I actually have material that’s much more comedy-oriented than anything you’ve heard but that I/we have refrained from recording because we think it works better live. We’ve doubted whether it will hold up as well on repeated listening as the material we’ve elected to record and release. I think a little humor (or a lot) keeps the show moving along, keeps it fun, and I think that’s important.
- Any advice for new, upcoming openly queer musical artists?
Do it because you love it! Enjoy the moment and don’t be living for some future success that may never come. Watch out for alcohol and drugs; they can be a lot of fun but most artists these days need to be their own business managers and party favors can really be an obstacle to your realistic chances of being financially viable. Focus on making the best music you can and people will like it whether they’re straight or gay.
- What are your current and future musical projects? Including any new cds, touring and other promotions. Please include your upcoming stint as a director for a new production in New Orleans.
Well, I’m in one of the most prolific songwriting periods I’ve had in many years. I definitely look forward to another recording, hopefully in 2010, hopefully with some other musicians supporting. I have a huge backlog of songs that haven’t gotten their fair share of the spotlight, so when it does come time to record I’ll really be able to pick the cream of the crop.
I am going to New Orleans soon and will be playing some gigs there with Popgun Paul. We always have a wonderful time playing together and there is some kind of magic that happens between us that the audience feels; that is how we managed to work together for so long. I have a solo gig at The Duplex (here in NYC) on February 21 that I am very excited about. Touring is not something that appeals to me now. I have a full-time job that pays my bills and I like going home to my bed at night. I have downsized my ambitions, at least for now, and am happy to perform when I can without my financial security being dependent on it.
Now, about the musical: My playwright friend Brian Sands suggested to me that my songs have a ready-made theatrical quality to them and wanted to create a new musical around a bunch of them. He took the idea to Southern Rep Theatre in New Orleans and one thing led to another. A workshop of The Thing About It – A New Musical is being staged there in the last weekend of January. My only role has been as lyricist and composer. They have recruited Popgun Paul to be musical director, so our collaboration continues to take new and surprising forms. I am going down to participate in the workshop and engage in some pre-Mardi Gras festivities. I am excited to see my material performed by others and in a theatrical setting, but have no idea what to expect. I am very surprised that Brian has brought it to this point! Who knows what will come of it? Brian hopes to bring the show to New York someday.
I find that I need to be writing songs and singing and performing in order to feel truly alive. So I keep doing it, one day at a time.
Visit Pete Sturman and check out his music at: www.peteandpaul.com
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