Heartland singer Drew Peterson comes East
August 12, 2018
(extended version of an article originally published in Star News, with additional Q&A)
By Brian Tucker
Drew Peterson will bring some of the heartland to Wilmington when the Americana singer-songwriter performs at Mac’s Speed Shop on Oleander Drive. Peterson, who has family ties in the Carolinas, primarily performed in the Midwest for nearly two decades as a solo artist or in bands Box Store Bird, The Dead Pigeons, and Forty Watt Bulb.
“In Minnesota you throw a rock and hit one of two things, water or a musician,” Peterson said driving to his son’s birthday party. “When I first started there was a much clearer path to take, especially with the genre. Minnesota was really ahead of the curve with bluegrass, Americana and folky stuff. We have a long history here with “Spider” John Koerner, stuff like that.”
His songs are colorful, story-driven material with memorable titles – “The Butcher’s Union,” “Bastard Son of Lee Marvin,” and “Jesus Loves My Shotgun.” But Peterson didn’t start playing music until college and never looked back. His first show was just three months after touching a guitar.
“It didn’t come too quick, I was horrible for a lot of years. I just had such a drive for it, a passion for it that I never stopped.”
There were as many as 250 shows a year during the busiest of his fifteen years as a professional musician. First band Forty Watt Bulb formed after college, cutting its teeth during years where many young players experienced the trappings of finding success. Petersen nearly quit altogether before forming another band, The Dead Pigeons. What remained, in addition to a gritty, earnest voice, are songs reflecting the Midwest, what is often referred to by snobbish elites as flyover country.
“I love the statement of flyover country. All I can think is keep flying buddy,” he says. “I can’t speak for the whole Midwest, but there’s something distinct to Minnesota and I think parts of Wisconsin – we’re real tough. Having to deal with winter, we deal with extremes. In general most Minnesotans are shy, stoic, and I do believe that comes through in music a lot. It’s almost hard to show our underbelly. We’re built to be farmers but are able to put the same skills for that towards music.
It’s a different kind of music, a down to earth honesty to it, (like) putting your hand to something. I just feel the music is more about the outward than the inward. Most people I run with in the Midwest, there’s definitely a heart to it, not so much a show, if that makes sense. It’s almost like having a good mechanic. No, they don’t own a big shop and have all the big tools but damn if they can’t fix a car. It’s just the work ethic, along with that nobody’s looking to get rich and famous. We do it because we love it.”
Petersen’s Ideas emanate from what he simply sees as a whimsy of imagination, something he places little judgment or structure to. Peterson said he just lets songs be what they are.
“With writing, it’s very hippie-sounding and I’m definitely not a hippie – I’m a farm kid from Minnesota, but there’s definitely a muse. It feels like you’re almost a medium; you’re taking it in and writing it down. A lot of it is, don’t let your own ego get in the way of a song.”
It’s evident on songs like “Three Monkey Rush,” a nod to backyard football, or “The Butcher’s Union,” a deep-groove number (that could be a Stephen King story) about a butcher so good at his work that when Death retires he calls him and says, ‘I got a job for you.’
“That’s where there’s definitely a muse because I’m not that dark of a person. A great example of where I let the song be what its going to be…basically a dark horror story. And I don’t even like horror films, period. It just came out of me.”
Additional Q&A with Drew Peterson
You’re in Minnesota. How does a musician there come to play here?
Peterson: I live in northern Minnesota. We have some friends and family in the area. I’m visiting some family out there. My wife’s father is from the Carolinas. I tour everyone else. It’s silly that I haven’t done any gigs there. I pretty much go anywhere (for shows) but I mainly stay around the Midwest. Midwest is pretty healthy right now for the music scene. Where I’m based out of, I basically take week runs. But I’ve gone everywhere from Oklahoma to southern California to Washington.
Your bread and butter is the heartland.
Minneapolis, in particular, is unbelievably rich with music and venues to play but there’s so many of them it’s become really over-saturated. It’s a good thing for the fans. You can go out any night of the week and see great bands play, national touring acts coming through too. As a band, its rough, there are so many bands. I think it’s picked up (in the last ten years). It’s awesome as a fan. As a musician it’s daunting.
Your voice is rough and tumble, but inviting. Do you remember when found it, said this is good, I can work with this.
I was definitely a lot shyer, definitely more when I hear the first recordings we did. I was definitely more timid, not much of a showman. I definitely feel like I came into my own. It’s more of an acceptance of your range, knowing what your voice can do. I feel pretty lucky with it, I have a decent range and there’s enough character to it.
I didn’t even pick up a guitar until college. It’s like that Tom Petty song, a girl taught me a couple of chords. I just had such a drive for it, a passion for it that I just never stopped. The big thing for me was the writing. I learned two chords and wrote four songs. I was a songwriter first, totally one of those things I stumbled into. I never would have imagined…I went to school for art. I wanted to be a sculptor. I just have this really strong drive to create.
It’s come full circle. I used to hate doing shows. It’s a necessity. I’m the shy type, I used to throw up before every show. My top years I’ve done 250 shows. It’s a marathon, there a discipline to it. Professionally it’s been about fifteen years, doing it more like seventeen, eighteen years.
My first band was Forty Watt Bulb, after college, and it lasted about three years. I was living in a farm town in the middle of nowhere, and a cover band heard my original stuff and we started a band. It blew up huge for us but all the trappings kind of took us out with it. People had to go through treatment….we were really young and stupid. After that I was solo for years and then there was Dead Pigeons. which started organically.
I actually almost quit music but I went to this dive bar and ended up doing a weekly there. When I was there a bunch of musicians kept coming out and sitting in with me and we decided to another band, Dead Pigeons. That went strong for a long time too but we’ve been tailing off of it mainly because of how much I’ve been touring. It’s really burnt out a lot of people. I love it, but it can be pretty tough on the road constantly. And the money too. It’s really difficult to get enough for six players.
Writing, are you an observer or is it about telling stories?
The big thing I do, especially early on with writing, is not judging. It sounds really weird but I don’t like making decisions about it. I like to let songs just be what they are. The third project Box Store Bird, that’s what that’s about. They’re kind of the more farther-out songs that I still want to put out, garage recording type things.
I’ll write a line and if I think too much about it its, well, that’s stupid. That’s easy to do, what I’ve found is if I don’t judge it and let it run, it finds its path. Suddenly, a line you think is stupid and the next thing its people’s favorite line in a song. A lot of it is don’t get in the way of a song, don’t let your own ego get in the way of a song.
“The Butcher’s Union” (Forty Watt Bulb) has a deep groove.
The inspiration really came from the open tuning. It’s a strange open tuning. Lyrically, it’s about a butcher who is so good at doing his job when Death retired he calls him up and says I got a job for you. That’s the gist of the song, that he was so good at being a butcher, he’s going to take over his job. That’s where there’s definitely a muse, because I’m not that dark of a person. That’s a great example of where I try not to judge myself. I let the song be what it going to be, that song is basically a dark horror story and I don’t even like horror films, period. It just came out of me, I have no idea.
And “Three Monkey Rush”?
Oh man, can’t believe you’re asking about that one. God, I haven’t played that one in years. The first time I played that it was a standing O. Backyard ball, that’s all that song’s about. Where we’re from, because we’d never have enough kids to have a defensive line, we would count monkeys. You’d stand at the line, you’d yell the count, and you count rush the quarterback until you till you hit your count.
The funny thing is, different regions use different things, some use elephants, some use monkey, they’re almost distinct to the town. But everyone in the Midwest they knows that saying, it’s a monkey rush (kids playing football), nothing but backyard football.
The “Dead Birds” video (from Dirt Makes Pretty) video is beautiful, stark. How did you collaborate with Emily Fritze?
I’ve always been fascinated with animation, just having an art background. She’s done some stuff local with other bands so I called her up and asked her if she wanted to collaborate. That one took over two years, she hand drew all of that.
You went to school for sculpting, does it relate to you making music?
The correlation, its sounds cheesy, but you’re sculpting sounds. My favorite thing is a recording studio. To me, its a place with a big chunk of granite and you start chipping away. All the rules of great art apply to music – you look for balance, you look for contrast, defining lines, the way it draws your eye across it you look for the way I draws your ear across it. It’s just using another sense.
For shows do you play across your catalog?
Some of them come back around. I try to keep moving forward. I used to write a song a day but now that i have two young kids I’ve really backed off on that. There are a lot of songs that don’t see the light of day. For the older ones, I just started doing some of them again. But in general I try to keep moving forward.
I kind of hope better for them. Being a musician it’s a tough life, it’s a lot of rejection. There’s a weird tenaciousness with it. You got to be really thick skinned. I don’t want my boys to have that, if they choose it, great.