Plucking Melodies from the Ether: An Interview with J Peck

According to his bio, J Peck started writing songs at age ten when someone told him that he couldn’t. Though he describes his early efforts as “trash,” he’s progressed over the years, taking home a “One to Watch” award in the Lights and Lines Album Writing Contest for his EP Come What May, a collection of songs that deals, among other things, with the universal phenomenon of growing older.

You mention in your bio that you started writing music when someone told you that you couldn’t. Can you say more about that?

My  best friend wanted to be in a band probably because his uncle was in one and it was the 80’s. He was telling me all about it when the girl next to us in class said “You can’t JUST write music. You have to have talent.” Well, that offhand comment derailed my life. I can’t abide someone telling me what I can or can’t do. Though too be honest, the music I “wrote” at that point was just melodies that were partially ripped off of other songs I’d heard.

Do you find that being told “no” is a good motivator for you?

This has been an ongoing joke between Paul Bosco and I over the years. It’s not like spite is my only motivation, but it’s a strong one. Luckily, I suffer frequent bouts of crippling self-doubt so that keeps me from getting to uppity.

Would you describe yourself as a contrarian?

Yep, that’s probably accurate.

How has your songwriting progressed over the years?

I think my view of songwriting has changed. I used to feel like I was waiting on a bolt of lightning moment where the perfect melody and lyrics would come to me. Now, it is more a question of chipping away at a song.

Warning! Weird symbolism ahead: I used to visualize writing a song as catching a piece at a time from an ether of melodies, rhythms, and lyrics that were always floating through my mind. This led to songs that would have strange changes in feel from the beginning to end. It also led to songs that were unfinished for years since I need another bolt of lightning moment. I still pluck a melody from that ether, but now I stop at that point. I then treat it more as a sculptor would. The melody, like a stone, has a shape already. I simply need to chip away at it to reveal the true song hidden within.

Interesting! I know that the Lights and Lines Album Writing Contest took place in May, so I’m wondering if the title of your EP – Come What May – is a play on words.

Haha, yeah. I guess that was a little on the nose. I knew from the start that I wanted to incorporate May in the album in some way. It all came together in the last three days of the month when I started writing the last track “Waiting on the Rain.” While I was writing lyrics, I wrote the line “I know that come what may.” So, technically the title comes from the very end of the last song on the album. The album starts with the lyrics “It’s Starting” and ends with the title of the album. I like the symmetry.

I like that! How would you describe the experience of recording an EP in a month? What kinds of challenges did you face? Were there any setbacks? How did you overcome them?

Writing and recording an EP in 30 days was not easy. At the start, I had grand ideas for an 8 song album that went through the lifecycle of a revolution. But halfway through May, I only had 1 song written. I woke up on the 14th ready to give up since it was impossible. I talked myself out of it but I was very close. I even posted about it on the Album Writing Club’s forum:

May 14 2022

I’ll be honest. I want to give up.😔 

I was laying in bed this morning defeated, a little hungover, and thinking “there is no way I will finish this album.” I laid in bed for another 30 minutes thinking these thoughts (very productive). Then something I’ve told my children time and time again came to mind.

“Most people never even show up.”

Challenges I faced? Let’s just say Murphy’s Law was in effect.

  1. Since I don’t have a studio and just record in my living room, I had to record around my family’s schedule. Everyone had to be silent for hours while I recorded.
  2. In the last couple days of the month, I was forced to set up my car as a mobile recording studio. I parked in a Target parking lot, set up my mic and laptop in the car and recorded vocals from until 1 am on 2 different nights.
  3. I also ran into issues with my guitar not staying tuned, so I was forced to tune my guitar between every take.
  4. On the last day while finishing mixes, I could not find the vocal takes for “Waiting on the Rain”. I thought that I’d forgot to save the track while recording in my car, but found the mix a couple days later saved in a file name “car 5-31.”

You won the “One to Watch” award in July. I imagine the temptation to release the EP immediately must have been great. Why did you wait?

Two reasons:

1. I was hoping to win the record contract. If I had, I wouldn’t have needed to mix and master the album myself. I hate mixing and mastering. But when I didn’t win, I was stuck with a lot of work that I put off. So, the album was delayed.

2. I wanted to make sure that the release date was at least a month in the future so that I’d have time to properly promote the album before its release.

What have you been doing in the meantime?

Mixing and mastering the album. Creating album art and an album booklet with lyrics, photos, stories, etc. for anyone that buys the album on Bandcamp. I’ve tried not to work on too much new music though, I’ve written a song or two.

Do you ever get a chance to play live?

I miss playing live. Due to Covid, I haven’t played a show in years. I have some medical issues that I need to be careful about and as of right now I have no plans for playing in public. I am hopeful that an opportunity will arise for some outdoor shows that I can feel comfortable with this year.

What’s on the horizon for you?

I have about 6 songs that I’ve recorded for Blowup Radio’s Songwriter Challenge (Challenge: They provide a writing prompt and give 2 weeks to finish a song). Plan is to clean up those recordings and release another EP in 6 months or so. Tentative title is “2 Weeks at a Time”, though I hope to come up with something better. Bosco and I also have a handful of songs that we have written that we may get a chance to release in 2023.

Nice! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

Sweet Sweet Nectar: An Interview with BEES!

I had the good fortune of seeing BEES! at Ardmore Pennsylvania’s legendary Rusty Nail a couple months back and was blown away by their stage presence and energy. Worth noting: They’re not just Bees. They’re BEES! (Emphasis on the exclamation point; you need to shout it whenever you say it.) Since the show, I’ve had their CD, BEES in Space, on constant rotation in my car. It’s the perfect blend of 90s post-grunge guitars and old-school Nintendo video-game energy. To find out more, I chatted with the band’s singer/guitarist Mike Huff and bassist/backing vocalist Adam Sivilich…

What is it about bees as a species that’s so fascinating?

Mike: I don’t really know a lot about bees! The name is based on silly old monster/horror movies, like Tarantula! or Ticks. I’ve always loved that type of film – mostly cuz it makes me laugh. So it’s more like you’re in a horror movie, being chased down the street by giant, radioactive bees screaming, “BEES!”

Adam: So many things about bees are fascinating. The bee dance is a pretty good example. Researchers have studied the little shimmy bees use to communicate the location of that sweet sweet nectar. They found that the angle of the sun relative to the location correlates to the direction of the dance, even when the sun is obscured on a cloudy day, and the length of the dance correlates to the distance away. It’s also incredibly hip.

And your bees aren’t just ordinary bees, at least in terms of the art on your stickers and tee shirts. They have a kind of robotic, B-movie (no pun intended, mostly) horror sensibility. Who’s responsible for that art?

Mike: Brian Langan did the art for the original EP and BEES in Space. He’s so easy to work with and immediately knew what we were going for. He even designed a bee for our video game!

The Life Coach image was designed by Ardon Pixels, who we found through Reddit. Then we ran it through an image glitch website to get the We Don’t Wander cover!

There’s a bit of a video-game vibe—not just in the art, but in the music as well. How does gaming fit into the overall BEES! experience?

Adam: We’re both children of the early 80’s so we were kids during the golden age of regular NES & modems that go boing-boing. A lot of 8 bit tunes have been drilled into our brains over the years for sure.

Mike: We actually released a video game with our last single! It’s also called BEES in Space. It’s a Super Mario World romhack where bees have taken over the mushroom kingdom and Mario has to defeat them to survive. All of the bees in the game were designed by our fans! You can find out how to play it on our website. I’m also really proud of the BEES in Space theme music. It’s the first time I’ve created digital sounds “from scratch,” and I love the way it came out.

In terms of influence, gaming was a huge part of my childhood. At the same time that I was learning Green Day on guitar and Primus on bass, I was hearing F-Zero and Legend of Zelda on repeat. I think that’s pretty much how you get BEES!

(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to a trailer for the game: https://youtu.be/LHPqjUU91N8. Cool stuff!)

You also have a Twitch channel. How do you use that platform to engage with fans? Do you find it effective?

Mike: We started that right before we released the rom hack. Most rom hacks are insanely difficult, so we were trying to show people that: 1) rom hacks existed in the first place and 2) that they didn’t always have to be stupid hard. You need to spend a lot of time on Twitch to be a successful streamer, but a few people tuned in each time. If that got one person interested in our game, then it was successful! As of now, it’s been downloaded 331 times from smwcentral.net and hopefully a bunch more from our website!

Who’s in the band? What does everyone do—music-wise, I mean. But if you want to get into day jobs, that’s fine, too!

Adam Sivilich, Jason Gooch, and Mike Huff of BEES! PHOTO BY MICHAEL KANE PHOTOGRAPHY

Mike: At this point, we’re basically Spinal Tap when it comes to drummers, but Adam (Sivilich) and I have been ⅔ of BEES! the whole time. I sing and play guitar, and Adam plays bass and does backup vocals. This summer, we were lucky to have Jason Gooch on drums, but now he’s driving across the country with his dog. My day job is music! I teach anything with strings in the Philly School District. I work at five different schools, so one day could be beginner Orchestra and the next day is High School Cover Band. I really enjoy the variation and that I get to work with kids at all levels.

Adam: In addition to playing bass for BEES!, I’m also a stay-at-home super-dad, amateur figure skater, and avid backpacker. In other words, I am one tired dude most of the time.

Geek-question time: Mike, I love your guitar. Is it a Reverend? How does it play?

Mike: It is! It’s a Reverend Descent, so it’s actually a baritone guitar. It has a longer neck than normal and I tune in C Standard, 2 steps lower than a normal guitar. I spent a month looking all over the country for the orange one too! It plays great. It’s super punchy and has a nice, full sound that you have a lot of control over. And it feeds back like crazy through the fuzz my friend built!

And I think I noticed that you play it through a bass amp for live shows. Is that right? How does that affect the sound or give you the sound you’re going for?

Mike: Yep! I’m primarily a bassist, I just play a guitarist in BEES! MarkBass amps are the best bass amps I’ve ever used. I like a lot of high-end and they’re really good for that, so I thought why not try it with the guitar? We’ve blended in “real” guitar amps on some of the recordings, but mostly what you hear is the MarkBass. I can get even more punch out of the low strings, but it also sounds great up high. And it’s really light!

Nice! Bass amps in particular can be heavy. It’s cool that you found that’s light and sounds good! On a separate note, you have a new album coming out in late September. Can you talk a little bit about that? How would you describe the music?

Mike: It’s just a couple songs, but we’re really excited about them. “A Thousand Times” is brand new, and it’s about how QAnon destroys families. Since we’ve been playing it live, we’ve found that it’s something a lot of people can relate to. It goes from calm, picked guitar to heavy, sludgy chorus and has your usual BEES! lyrical charm (“I’m so open-minded, my head is hollow.”)

The other song is “1×1.” It’s a fun punk song about leaving a band and starting another. There’s a demo on our bandcamp, but we never really got a solid recording that we wanted to release everywhere until now. This is the definitive version of “1×1.” Director’s Cut!

Adam: Yeah, we’ve got another real banger coming out soon, different I think than anything we’ve released before. Recording is always such a great time. Once in a while when we have a few new songs we work them out in the basement, get as tight as we can, then in the studio the fellas at Cardinal Recordings get us tracked and add the final seasoning. Recording, like live performance, is a critical part of developing musically. It drives the finer improvements to technique and helps shape the direction of the band.

Can you talk a little bit about recording? What’s your process? How do you go from having an idea for song to the finished version that appears on the album?

Mike: Most recently, we recorded “Sorry,” “A Thousand Times,” and “1×1” all at the same time. I write the lyrics and chords/riffs for most of the songs, but then we’ll spend weeks trying different variations, styles, note choices, or rhythms. When it’s finally right, we just kinda know! Going into the studio, we just shed the songs like crazy – working with a metronome, playing separately and giving each other feedback, recording and listening back over and over. Recording “Sorry” was really rewarding because most of the chiptune stuff was just in my head. The distorted guitars and chiptune sounds so good together and I wasn’t entirely sure it would!

Also, huge thanks to Mike Weiser of Cardinal Recordings for playing drums on “Sorry” and “A Thousand Times” with hardly any notice or practice. He and Steve Angello are the best.

What’s next?

Mike: Ska! No, seriously. We’re doing a ska cover of “I’ll Be Haunting You” by They Might Be Giants! Our friends in The What Nows?! are part of a group of musicians that puts out ska cover compilations called Rudy Reboots. They’ve done Ben Folds and Barenakes Ladies, and coming up is TMBG and Broadway. We’re big TMBG fans, so we’re glad they wanted us to contribute!

We’re also playing the Part-Time Rockstar Festival at Phantom Power in Lancaster with Scoopski on September 10th!

Very cool! You guys and Scoopski pair well together. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Mike: Thanks!!!

Something Incredibly Emotional: Down the Beach Boys Rabbit Hole with Jeremy Warmsley

Fans of the Beach Boys are a curious breed. We can’t just listen to the music. We need to do something with it. We need to spread the word. Take, for example, my good friends Matt and Greg Coffey who spend a few hours every Tuesday night hosting their wonderful Beach Boys Talk web series. Or, for that matter, take a look at my book Tired of California: The Beach Boys Holland Revisited. Or give a listen to the spectacular forthcoming album from London-based musician Jeremy Warmsley, American Daydream. It’s a loving, heartfelt tribute to the genius of Brian Wilson that perfectly captures the good vibrations of the band’s Pet Sounds and Smile eras. Being a fan of the Beach Boys (and now of Jeremy Warmsley), I reached out with a few questions…

Let’s start with the Beach Boys. What do you love about their music? 

Oh man, where to start? As a musician myself, I like to think that I’m drawn to sophisticated and unusual arrangements and instrumentation, surprising harmonic turns and powerful performances, and the Beach Boys certainly have all that. But past all that there’s just something incredibly emotional about their music that defies all my attempts at analysis or categorisation.

And beyond that there’s just that deep, deep Beach Boys rabbit hole that you can lose yourself in for years. From the myriad unreleased albums (American Spring is a favourite right now) to the unbelievable anecdotes (Dennis meeting Charles Manson for the first time 36 hours before recording “Be Still” comes to mind), and all the session out-takes we get on box sets — the Pet Sounds box set taught me how to produce music, really.

And finally… Sometimes the Beach Boys are just a bit crap. And I love that too.

Where did the idea for turning your love for the Beach Boys into an album come from? 

Inspired by the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Owen Pallett and Joanna Newsom, I’ve often used high-concept ideas to give projects a reason to exist. For instance, my other musical project — a duo with my wife, the filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey — is called Summer Camp and our first album Welcome To Condale was set in a fictional Californian suburb. It was just a fun setting for the stories we were telling in our songs. And my last album, A Year, was twelve songs, one for every month. 

When I was deep, deep, deep into the BB rabbit hole in late 2019, I decided I wanted my next album to sound like Pet Sounds: Part Two. But I couldn’t think of a good reason to do that. Meanwhile, I was reading every Beach Boys book I could get my hands on and boring my wife rigid with every random BB fact, until she finally suggested that I make an album about Brian. So it’s her fault really!

I have to say that I’m completely bowled over by American Daydream. It feels like the soundtrack to a musical, complete with characters and, given the subject matter, plenty of drama. Do you have any plans to adapt it to stage? 

Wow, thank you so much. Only a few people have heard it so far so that really means a lot to me. Despite that, you’re actually not the first to suggest that. My feeling is that a stage show about the Beach Boys would really have to only have music by the Beach Boys or it would just be a huge disappointment. Imagine turning up to American Daydream: the Beach Boys Story and not hearing “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” – it would be bewildering. 

Fair enough! In addition to making a number of overt references to the Beach Boys and their music, I feel like you’ve also given die-hard fans plenty of subtle nods to play with. How did you decide which details of their story to include in your musical narrative? 

Well, as I mentioned, I read about a thousand books about Brian and the Beach Boys (including Mike and both of Brian’s autobiographies – though I somehow missed your book about Holland), and then let it marinate in my head for a couple of months. Then I made a list of all the most memorable things I could think from their story that had stuck in my head. I went back and fact-checked everything, and a few nuggets didn’t make it onto the final album. Other things were just too hard to cover: I wanted to dive deeper into the whole Eugene Landy thing (Brian’s abusive therapist) but I just couldn’t find an angle that didn’t feel distasteful. I also wanted to give Carl, Dennis and Mike their own songs but ultimately I realized that this album was Brian’s story, not the Beach Boys story.

Big Beach Boys nerd question: Are the clicks in “Spiral” a reference to Brian’s autobiography Wouldn’t it Be Nice? They sound to me like a camera shutter. 

Great question, and one which I leave to the listener to decide!

I’m struck by the fact that you address Brian Wilson directly in many of the songs. What was behind that decision? 

I’ve never thought about that before. It just felt natural I suppose.

As beautiful as the music on your album is, you’re not sugarcoating anything. Much of Brian Wilson’s biography is painful, and you deal with it in an open manner. How did you strike a balance between the darkness and light of the story you were telling?

I do believe that being open and upfront about mental health is a good thing. My wife actually went through a major mental health event in 2020, when the album was about halfway done – after giving birth to our son, she suffered terribly from severe post-partum anxiety and was hospitalized for a month. Thankfully, she made a full recovery. She was really instrumental in pushing me to make sure the album didn’t shy away from that side of Brian’s life. (If it seems like I mention her a lot – she’s really my closest collaborator as I self-produce my music – and we write songs together in our other project, and I produce on her films. So thank you Elizabeth!)

As I said before, there was plenty of moments that felt too painful to really confront any more directly than I did, so I’m really glad that it felt balanced to you. 

The production on the album is amazing. I mean, you’ve really captured the mid-to-late-sixties Beach Boys sound—right down to that ringing snare drum. What was your recording process? 

I’m really glad to hear that from you. I don’t like to discuss the recording process publicly because I feel it affects how people hear the music. The main thing was colossal amounts of research – I listened to every track the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson ever released, all the session tracks from the box sets and plenty of bootlegs too. I have to mention the videos of Joshilyn Hoisington which were an incredible resource, plus the people in #beach_science on the Beach Boys Discord, especially Will and John, who always seemed to know which drum machine or synthesizer was used on every song. The Sail On podcast was another great resource.

(I also want to add that I don’t mean to hoard production knowledge – if anyone ever wants any specific tips I’m always happy to talk production – I’m on jeremywarmsley at gmail dot com.)

The harmonies are amazing. Are you singing all the parts? 

Once again, thank you so much. I can’t sing as high as Brian or as low as Mike but I do my best! Elizabeth bolsters a few high harmonies here and there. I would name my tracks in Logic after band members to get me in the right frame of mind…

You also have a couple of big names on the album—members of Brian Wilson’s touring band. Is that right?

Yes, Probyn Gregory played tannerin (the theremin-like whistling sound heard on “Good Vibrations,” “Wild Honey” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”) on “Beach Girls” and Paul Von Mertens played wind instruments on a track which sadly didn’t make it onto the final album (though I will hopefully be releasing it later). Other notable musicians included John Brode (of Sail On and #beach_science) played bongos on “Brother Sound,” my good friend Pete Fraser who  played clarinet and sax on several tracks, and one Kristin Weber who played violin on “A Day in the Life of Brian.” Funnily enough, I didn’t realise when I booked her, but it turned out she had played violin on the 2020 “Add Some Music” remake!

What’s next? 

I have no idea! I was thinking about applying the American Daydream concept to another musician but it feels a bit formulaic. I actually got really into classical music over lockdown, so I was thinking about trying to make an album about Beethoven, but that feels like it might be biting off a bit more than I can chew…