Andy Burke is a writer, blues guitarist, and keyboardist. We played together in the Jacksonville blues band Willie Mae and worked together in multiple local venues providing live music. I interviewed him previously along with Tamara Colonna of Willie Mae for my series of interviews with local and national songwriters. Andy is always fun to work with, a creative musician, and a good person to talk music with.
He contacted me about turning the tables and interviewing me this time around. So without any further ado here's Andy Burke:
I met Roy Peak for the first time about eight years ago. I was in his Southside studio to record a National guitar part and was immediately impressed by Roy’s calm demeanor and excellent technical skills. Plus, he had a great ear. Fate more or less tumbled us together like two lapidaried stones and Roy was adding his rock solid bass and PA expertise to the band Willie Mae. For me, the security of having Roy holding down the bottom end with his “Frankenstein” bass as a fellow band member was immeasurable. From small venues to large festivals we had a wonderful time as part of a rhythm section propelling the music along. In 2009, Mike Shackelford, Roy and I met with the founding fathers of the Riverside Arts Market in Jacksonville, Florida and designed a format for producing and overseeing multiple live acts on the River Stage each Saturday. RAM was an immediate success due, in large part, to the excellent and diverse music RAM visitors could expect every week. We were producing three or more acts a day in all kinds of weather. This could not have been done without Roy’s expertise. We also produced numerous concerts around Northeast Florida and believe me, much can go wrong with live music. Roy was always level headed and I do not recall a stressful technical or sound problem he could not correct. And did I say he is drama free? So by now you may get that I am a fan of Roy Peak. You would be correct. I was happy he agreed to an in-depth interview. So ease back in a comfy chair and learn something about Roy and his unlimited artistic vision. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did talking with Roy about his life.
Taos, New Mexico
AB: Hi Roy. It is always good to catch up with you. I want to start this interview asking, as one of Northeast Florida's busiest bass players, about your approach to a live gig. Do you prefer having a series of rehearsals prior or do you base a need for practice on the music and musicians with whom you are performing these days?
Roy: Good rehearsals are always a necessity, unfortunately they don't always happen. The better you know a song the less likely you are to screw it up, and repeated passings of a song can reveal a deeper understanding of the song details. You might find an easier way to transition to to a chorus or a better, more musical way to come out of a tricky bridge for example. And playing with more than one band it can be hectic trying to schedule rehearsals with everyone else's schedules.
That being said, sometimes it is fun to play songs you don't know very well as you can surprise yourself with what you come up with on the fly. Some of my favorite gigs were ones where I didn't know any of the songs prior to the show and just winging it all night. It's fun when it works, when you're in that zone and everything works. Unfortunately, it doesn't work all of the time, and some songs can be complete train wrecks. And the best way to remember a song is to play it out live and screw it up in front of everybody. The next time you play that song live, you're almost guaranteed to get it right.
AB: Ha! We have all been in an on-stage train wreck or two. How would you advise young and upcoming bands to avoid loosing their way on stage without compromising the ability to push the music out a little?
Roy: Well, you want to play it safe so you don't screw it up, but at the same time, if it's rock 'n' roll you don't WANT to play it safe. Rock 'n' roll is about pushing boundaries, going over that edge, letting loose. So there's that fine line to walk. Stay focused, knowing the songs helps, playing with musicians you trust is always a bonus. Never expect a song to sound the same way twice--it's live: let the songs, the venue, the circumstances dictate how it goes. Just a little, anyway. Also, if you screw up or are involved in one of those musical train wrecks, laugh it off and move on. Dwelling on it just means you'll screw up even worse next time.
AB: “Playing with musicians you trust...” That is a big one brother! Please tell us about your musical awakenings. Were your parents or siblings musical? Who were your earliest musical influences?
Roy: My grandfather wrote lyrics for songs when he was younger and had a few published but no one else in my family was all that musically inclined. My mother didn't play any instruments but loved music. She had a great record collection which I would listen to quite often: Elvis Presley, Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Monarchs, and others. I still have some of the vinyl albums she owned, only now they're too badly scratched to play. She had a great ear for music and would point out things she noticed to me. She got me my first guitar and my first bass--which was the start of my downfall into music.
AB: Why the bass?
Roy: Well, it kinda chose me. It was by default since most of my friends wanted to play guitar or drums, so I ended up getting a bass so as not to have five guitar players in the band. And by band I mean us teenagers hanging out in a friend's basement making noise, trying to figure out how to play Neil Young songs and Pink Floyd.
AB: I know you tune your bass down one whole step. Has that caused a ruckus on stage with guitarists or other musicians following your left hand?
Roy: Standard tuning for a four string bass is, low to high, EADG. I started tuning down a whole step, DGCF, in 1985 after reading that Lou Reed's bassist at the time, the phenomenal Fernando Saunders, tuned his bass to DGDG. So at one time I had three basses in three different tunings--standard: EADG, Saunders tuning: DGDG, and down a whole step: DGCF. My philosophy at the time was that I should be able to play any of the band's songs with either bass with no problem. (This was either stupid or brave, depending on the outcome at the moment.) Playing punk rock can be dangerous and detrimental to your instruments. The bass that was in DGCF survived so that's what I went with and never looked back.
I've had a few fellow bassists in the crowd come up to me after a gig and tell me they couldn't figure out what I was playing, or why I was playing a G when the guitarist was playing an F chord. That's always fun. You know, some people never notice, no matter how long I've been playing with them, others it throws right away. There's been more than once that I've been on stage and the guitarist will tell me the key, look at my hands, see that I'm somewhere else on the neck and get frustrated with me, thinking I'm playing it wrong. Once, I thought a guy was gonna hit me--he turned red in the face and had to turn his back to me to make it through the song! Afterwards he figured it out and everything was okay. Pretty funny at the time, though.
AB: I loved the feel of your previous studio. How is the new studio set up? What program(s) are you using?
Roy: Thank you. I've been in too many studios myself where the engineers are antagonistic or have a set idea in their head of what they want you to sound like before you even walk in the door. I always hated recording in these environments and felt like I was wasting my money and time. It always felt like us vs. them. I don't want people to feel that way in my place. My approach is make everyone comfortable and at ease so they can relax and just play their music to the best of their abilities. Simpler is better, playing as much of the track live gets you a much looser, real feel, and let's not rush things. That's how I like to work.
The new studio is bigger, with an isolation room for vocals or guitar, but--hopefully--that same comfortable feel of the old one. It's more like playing in your living room than in a converted warehouse.
As for as software, I mostly use Cakewalk Sonar. I used to use ProTools but didn't like the way it sounded. Sonar has more warmth and is far more intuitive than ProTools, at least for me. And I am proud to say that an industry icon who works in New York said that my mixes on one project had "digital clarity with analog punch."
AB: Well, I can certainly vouch for you creating a comfortable space for musicians in your previous studio. Do you feel a relaxed musician or singer with confidence in the engineer might produce better music? Have you seen a case where all in the studio was nearly out of control but the results were excellent?
Roy: You want to be comfortable. That's important. You need to be able to create. But it's work and you need to stay focused. A band came in once and were arguing with each other the whole time, drinking, treating the session as a party. They wasted my time and had nothing to show for it. Yeah, I got paid but was it worth it? Not to me.
AB: When recording a band or singer, how do you help them perform at their best? This question especially applies to young musicians recording for the first time.
Roy: First timers are the hardest. If they're not used to playing with headphones on or to a click track (which I hate, by the way, and try not to use it unless it's absolutely necessary for the project) they can get easily frustrated. Sometimes it's advantageous to have them record without headphones as if they were at home sitting on their couch in their living room. Place the mics back far enough where they're not being crowded, turn the lights down low and hope for the best. After a few sessions they fall into the groove of it and gets much easier.
AB: Recording with studio pros might have its own challenges. Is your approach different than mentioned earlier?
Roy: A little, but not too much. If someone has been in a studio a lot they know what to expect--a lot of sitting around while the engineer sets up mics and you do the song over and over and over...
But seriously, work fast, keep a cool head, and help your clients make good music. That's what to aspire to as a recording engineer.
AB: Your recently released CD, All is Well, has garnered some very positive (and well-deserved in this listener’s opinion) reviews. Do you enjoy the process of songwriting as much as breathing life into the songs in the studio?
Roy: Writing the songs is the best part. I throw away a lot of songs and I write a lot more songs than I record or even play in front of people. I try to pick the best or most interesting--to me, at least--out of these to record. Sometimes the goal for recording is a demo, sometimes simply to post to SoundCloud. And of course, it's always a blast to record a song and bring my friends in to really bring them to life. It's always a thrill to hear their take on my songs, I'm constantly pleasantly surprised and humbled with what they add that I would never have thought of. An example of that is the two songs that Mike Pearson played on. He added swampy textures and an awesome subtle solo on "Somewhere In the Distance" and the totally unexpected percussive guitar on "Mean Girl Blues." Pearson is always great at coming up with the unexpected and never plays anything the same way twice.
AB: I loved Mike’s guitar on “Somewhere in the Distance.” How fun is it to sing your song, "Ohio", with all of those vowels in the title? In the recording your voice envelopes the word "Ohio" and stretches it out in an interesting way. Was it challenging with other vocalists recording "Ohio?"
Roy: Writing that song started with just that one word. I was driving down San Jose Blvd. and for some reason the word Ohio and that melody came to me seemingly out of nowhere. I jotted down a few lines at a stop light, kept driving and singing--I knew what the chords were, I could hear the intervals clearly in my head--and by the time I got to Julington Creek I had the whole song finished. Twenty minutes top. That's the best ones right there, where they come to you nearly fully formed.
And yes, it was tricky having other singers--much better singers than myself--have to follow my warbling and mangling of the pronunciation of the Buckeye State. On my song "Okolona" my instruction for Terry Whitehead--one of Jacksonville's premier vocalists--was for him to "sing like a zombie" and he did it without hesitation and brilliantly. That's one of my favorite parts of the album.
AB: You are so right about Terry. What a voice! I would consider a Faustian deal if I could sing like Mr. Whitehead. What other all-stars appear on All is Well?
Roy: Well our former cohorts in Willie Mae helped out, Tamara Colonna and "That Damn Beau" Halton. My band mates in Spiral Bound, Mark Williams and Robin Soergel. The always captivating Lauren Fincham and her guitarist Mike Pearson. Also helping out were my good friends Craig Spirko, Thommy Berlin and Sean Jones. Some of Jacksonville's most accomplished musicians from all areas of music.
AB: You have some of the best musicians and singers in NE Florida on the album for sure. It certainly shows. In addition to being a most talented musician and songwriter, you also write prose, create short films and draw. How do you decide which artistic discipline to dedicate precious time?
Roy: Well, thank you. High praise coming from a great musician and writer such as yourself. Usually it's music because that's just natural and requires hardly any thought on my part, it's just there. I write when I feel it, when a story or idea won't let me go. The same with drawing or collages. I never push it or worry about writers block, they simply happen when they happen.
AB: Hey Roy, thank you so much for allowing us to take a Peak at the man who has made such a positive impact on the NE Florida music scene. It was always a pleasure to play music and work with you. Continued success!
Roy: Thank you, this was fun!
You can buy Roy's album All Is Well here at Bandcamp.
copyright 2015 D.R.Peak