Premier Guitar – Interview with Pete AndersonMarch 2008
In an industry where the internet and fickle audience interests can make or break you in a matter of days, it seems there are a lot of almost-musicians trying to cash in. Pete Anderson, who has been at it for over three decades in both playing and producing roles, can only laugh about it and muse on what it takes to stick around. A top-notch guitarist with more musical sensibilities than most of us could ever claim, he has made a comfortable life for himself in one of the most demanding and least forgiving industries around. And even with giant production credits under his belt with names like Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams, Pete has learned the one lesson that many internet phenoms would be wise to absorb: it’s about the music, stupid.
Premier Guitar: Thirty years in the business – you’ve been around forever, man!
Pete: Yeah, I’m not sure if I should tell people that or not – there are pluses and minuses! [laughs]
PG: You’ve really become one of the premier producers in the industry – your albums have sold over 30 million units. What have you learned from the business?
Pete: That it’s a business. I started as a guitar player and my main impetus was to play guitar – everything else I did was sort of an excuse to be a guitar player. Things changed when Dwight Yoakam and I made his first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., and sold it to Warner Brothers. That album – the first legitimate production I did – sold two million copies and Warner Brothers wanted me to produce another album for them, but I wanted people to know me as a guitar player.
Well, they offered me $20,000 to produce an album for my friend Rosie Flores. My rent was $135 per month and I had $1000 in my checkbook, so $20,000 might as well have been a million.
Through touring and rubbing shoulders, I ended up making a lot of records. I worked with Jackson Browne and Buck Owens – people I had dreamt about! I got to make a duet with K.D. Lang and Roy Orbison that won a Grammy. The reality is, what I’ve learned is the business. It is important to survive and keep working in the business, whether that means having your own record company or being a producer.
PG: Is it important for guitar players to expand their skills beyond just the instrument itself?
Pete: When you’re starting off and playing in clubs from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., it’s a learning period. I spent a lot of time playing in bars with my head down, looking at the fretboard and learning. I looked up one day and realized, I’ve got this under my fingers now, and it’s time to change my environment. For young players, it’s important to pay attention to who you invest your time in. When you’re starting out, any playing is practice, but you have to have the business acumen to decide which situations will benefit you. The biggest attraction for Dwight and I was that we had nothing to gain from each other except for what the two of us could make musically. He had 20 great songs, and they were going to knock down doors.
PG: Has there been any point for you that the music got lost?
Pete: No, never. You can’t lose it.
PG: How do you keep it fresh?
Pete: Well, I love to play. I was an art brain rather than a math brain as a kid, writing poetry and drawing. When I learned to play guitar it wasn’t to copy Beatles songs – which isn’t a bad thing – it was an outlet for me to create. It was expression, and that’s what keeps me doing this – the opportunity to create a melodic concept that I hear in my head. And I’ve been fortunate that people like that and I’ve been able to make a living doing it.
PG: Your music mixes a lot of different styles – Americana, pop, rock – and although this may be an easy question, do you consider this your art?
Pete: Absolutely. Making an album is a piece of art. It’s not three singles and taking care of your buddies at publishing companies. Even though the album may be going away because of digital downloading, I still think that if we’re going to sit down and do ten songs, this is going to be a piece of work that looks like a tapestry. Everything has its purpose on the record.
PG: Drawing from so many different places, it must be nice that you’ve never gotten stuck in a category.
Pete: I definitely want to cross boundaries. I’ve listened to a lot of music. When I was younger you could check out albums at a nearby library, so I would take records out from people that I had never heard of and store these things in the card catalog in my brain. Now I might be working on a contemporary record and be inspired to listen to a Hank Williams, Sr. record, and end up pulling out a little clicky thing on the high-hat.
I look at it as a palette, like when an artist paints, except with all the music I’ve ever heard. I might eliminate some colors depending on the artist I am working with, but I can look at the music and say, “This needs more red.” But things have changed recently; with programs like ProTools, the way I make records has evolved.
PG: What are you playing on today?
Pete: I’ve partnered up with Reverend Guitars. They’re making a Pete Anderson model called the Cool Deal, based on an old Epiphone Joe Pass – a Korean laminated guitar – that I modified. I just got the prototype two weeks ago.
PG: What else are you working on?
Pete: Jean Larrivee and I are looking into creating a mini-line of Pete Anderson guitars, kind of like a Stella with an almost retro cosmetic to them. We’ve got some different tuning ideas – a couple things that have never been done for at least one of them. Plus I’m still running my label, Little Dog, and coming out with a new blues album soon.