Q&A: Peter Broderick

Wyndham Wallace chats to Berlin-based musical minimalist Peter Broderick…

Peter Broderick has swiftly made a reputation for himself as one of the most adventurous musicians around. Born in Portland, Oregon, he now lives in Berlin, though only when he’s not touring or collaborating with artists like Efterklang.

He’s just released two albums: How They Are is a ‘stop-gap’ release, according to the label behind it, Bella Union, and its stark but beautiful arrangements have won him further plaudits, not only thanks to the inclusion of a song written from the perspective of a battery hen, ‘Human Eyeballs On Toast’.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a ‘gap’ to ‘stop’, however: Broderick has also just released Music For Contemporary Dance – featuring compositions for two performances, ‘Music For Falling From Trees’ and ‘Music For Congregation’ – on the Erased Tapes label.

Given the minimalist splendour of much of his work, and the fact that he’s now set up home in the city, Slow Travel Berlin’s Wyndham Wallace decided it was time to ask him a few questions…

You grew up in a small town in Oregon. Do you ever miss that life?

Sure thing.  I could see myself living in a very quiet, remote place one day.

Your sister, Heather Woods Broderick, is also a recording artist and musician. Did you grow up surrounded by music, and what inspired you both to become musicians?

Our home was always filled with music.  Both of my parents are musicians and they were always listening to records or playing music at home.  All of us kids (me, Heather, and one older brother) started taking music lessons at an early age.  I don’t think we even thought much about it, it just seemed like the natural thing to do… start playing music!

How much time do you spend in Berlin these days? Do you see the city as a long term home?

I seem to be spending more and more time there.  But I also still spend most of my time on the road, touring.  At this point I really have no idea where I’ll end up settling down in the years to come, but I do plan to spend more time in Berlin.

What brought you to the city first?

At first I was just in and out while on tour, playing concerts there every once in a while.  Then in late 2008 I became very good friends with a musician/producer from Berlin named Nils Frahm, and I started making trips to Berlin pretty regularly to hang out and make music with him.

What do you like about Berlin? And what are your favourite places?

Even though I’ve been there quite a bit in the last year, I still don’t feel like I have a good overlook of the city as a whole.  Most of the time I’ve been there I’ve been busy working on music either by myself or with friends, so I haven’t gotten to see too much of the city yet. But I love that it’s a very central place to stay when touring around Europe for concerts, and the cost of living is quite low. I think I can answer this question much better in one year…

Your music is often very sparse—in fact the press release for your new Music For Contemporary Dance album says ‘with an arsenal of talents at your disposal, he prefers to reveal only one or two at a time’. Why do you choose to operate so often within the minimalist form?

Usually when I’m starting a new musical project, I’ll set some guidelines or rules for myself.  I get a specific idea of how I’d like it to sound or which instruments I’d like to use, and this helps me focus. I think I also just tend to prefer more simplistic, spacious music, so those are often the type of sounds I aim to create.

Music For Contemporary Dance is a collaboration with the choreographer Adrienne Hart: how did this come about, and how difficult did you find it to work within such a medium?

Music for Contemporary Dance is comprised of two dance scores. Music for Falling From Trees was commissioned in 2009 by Adrienne Hart. The other score, Music for Congregation, was commissioned this year by KMA. In both cases the choreographers simply contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in creating the music for their works. And in both cases the collaboration turned out to be delightful! I was lucky in that the choreographers were very open to my ideas, and we worked together to create a cohesive piece. Working with contemporary dance has just been great so far for me.

You seem equally at home working with other musicians as you do working alone, having collaborated with (amongst others) M. Ward, Laura Gibson, Zooey Deschanel and of course Efterklang, with whom you worked as a member of their touring band. Do you approach solo work in a different way to working with others? Which do you find more artistically satisfying?

I really love to try out as many different things I have the time and energy for. And I love to have a variety of projects at once. Each one teaches me something new about music and sounds, and each one helps me appreciate the others more. Of course I have a more intimate relationship with my solo music, but I still really appreciate playing with other musicians as well.

You’re currently working with two labels, Bella Union and Erased Tapes. How did this happen, and how does this work? It’s rare for someone to be able to have that freedom.

Well, I think nowadays it is much more common to see artists working on multiple labels. These days there are so many tiny labels sprouting up everywhere, and the whole record industry has really been transforming in these last years. I’ve actually worked with many more labels than just Bella Union and Erased Tapes. Others include Hush, Type, Digitalis, Fang Bomb, Cote Labo, Secret Furry Hole, Kning Disk, Tenderversion, Western Vinyl, Slaapwel, Schedios, and many more.

Are you familiar with the ‘slow’ ethic? Your music seems very aware of the benefits of slowing down and enjoying the detail of life.

I’m not exactly sure what the ‘slow’ ethic means specifically, but I am very much a fan of trying to slow down in the midst of the hyper-fast pace of the modern world. That said, I have also had criticism for working too quickly. Although a lot of my music seems to be slow, I create things pretty quickly and have released so many recordings over the last three years. But it does seem that I’m usually aiming for a way to slow down…

Nils Frahm

Do you find the life of a touring musician frustrating, in that you are constantly on the move and unable to enjoy a new place, or do you find it inspiring to constantly see new environments?

Of course there are both sides of the coin. It can absolutely be frustrating sometimes to be moving all the time, spending only a few hours in all these cities that I know would be amazing if I could just have the time to get out and see them. But I really try to make the best of my time on the road, and I’ve had so much inspiration from my travels these last few years.

Do you think that people spend too much time with too much music as opposed to immersing themselves in less music more fully? In other words, is our relationship with music becoming more superficial?

This is something I think about quite a lot actually. It’s undeniable that these days, compared to ten or twenty years ago, there are so many more listening options. There is just soooo much music out there, it’s impossible to keep up with everything. I wouldn’t go as far as to say our relationship with music is becoming more superficial (not quite yet anyway), because the deep affect of a wonderful piece of music is still just as powerful, and I hope always will be. I think the vast selection of music is separating people in a strange way though.

You’d have a very hard time nowadays to find another single person who enjoys all of the music that you enjoy. Everyone has their own ‘personal’ music taste, and in a large group of people it’s probably very hard to play a song that everyone will appreciate.  Whereas in the olden days there were less options and I think music was more of a communal thing, and I think now it becomes more and more an individual thing…

Your recent album for Bella Union, How They Are, materialised after you had surgery on your knee and were unable to complete work on your next ‘proper’ full length. Is it hard for you to live without creating music on a regular basis?

Well, I pretty much always find a way to create music on a regular basis, whether it’s in a studio, on a stage, or from my bed.

The forthcoming album, recorded with Nils Frahm, is apparently very different: you’ve described it as a ‘monster album’. What can we expect from it and when can we hear it?

This is the first album where I didn’t really set any restrictions or rules. I just set out to record a set of songs and to complete them with whatever instrumentation seemed appropriate.  So it’s basically my first record to feature all (or most) of the instruments I play. It’s also the longest time I’ve spent making an album. I don’t feel that it’s crazily different or huge sounding, but on my scale it feels like a monster. Nils has a great knowledge and ear for sound, so I feel like we paid very special attention to all of the sounds on the album, and I’m very pleased with it. There are nine songs, all with vocals (but many instrumental passages as well), and I think all the songs are quite different from each other…

How much of your music is the result of improvisation and how much of it comes from hard graft and focus?

It depends on the project…  I’ve been exploring improvisation more and more these last years.  I like to just play and to let things fall into place, rather than sitting down intently and picking apart every note.  But most of my recordings are a mix of both improvisation and composition.

You’re not afraid of working on a small scale, releasing as little as 200 copies of some of your records (like Three Film Score Intakes). Why is this? Does the idea that your music sometimes only reaches a small number of committed fans appeal to you?

I do like that idea.  And I think it’s important when I have so many projects and releases to put more emphasis on some records and to let others quietly float out into the world. With smaller works and projects that come together really quickly, it usually seems more appropriate to give them a smaller release.

What music would you recommend to readers of Slow Travel Berlin?

Arthur Russell, John Cage, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Félicia Atkinson.