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LAist Interview: Peter Salett
To say that musician Peter Salett is a busy guy would be an understatement. A true “multi-hypenate,” Salett is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, actor and film scorer. The recent release of his fifth solo album, In the Ocean of the Stars, reveals a singer/songwriter at the top of his game. In addition, his soundtrack work has included Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the new film Role Models, which opens in theaters tomorrow.
LAist caught recently caught up with Salett over apple pie and green apple sorbet at Hal’s in Venice to chat about the new album, film work and his move from NYC to LA.
LAist: Your album has an organic feel even though you employ elements such as backwards strings and an echoplex. Did you make a conscious effort to give it that intimate feel amidst the lush instrumentation?
Peter Salett: Well, I mixed the record three times, so the third time that I mixed it, we were really conscious about trying to keep the sounds very organic in general. We recorded the tracks digitally and then finally bounced them to tape, which is where they belonged.
One of the times that I mixed it, I tried to go for a more digital sound. The songs have an older, classic feel to them, and I thought it would be interesting to hear how they would sound in more of a digital format. But they ended up sounding like shit. (laughs) So we went back to the way they were really supposed to sound. I used the echoplex when I wanted the music to retain a natural, otherworldly feeling, but not necessarily a digital feeling.
What led you to really highlight strings on this record?
Well, I think it was a combination of things. I knew some of the songs needed strings—such as “Magic Hour” and “More Than Blue.” Then I heard Chris Carmichael’s arrangements on my friend Joe Pisapia’s record, Daydreams. Joe is kind of the fourth guy in Guster—he plays all of the other instruments—bass, keyboard, banjo—and he’s amazing. I heard something in Chris that I hadn’t really heard in a modern string arranger, which was the real ability to operate stylistically within lots of different genres. His work is active and present in a way that doesn’t overplay his hand but at the same time isn’t just a keyboard player adding filler. I knew I wanted to meet him, so I went down to Nashville and we cut all those strings.
What inspired you to use the hard panning technique in “Far Far Away”?
That was producer Marvin Etzioni’s idea. He really added a great layer of artistry to the mixing of the record. I think we had been feeling like there were so many instruments in that song that what worked best was to strip them down. Most of the vocal and guitar stuff is live. That’s just me playing. Now, the funny thing is that I’m playing with the band—they played with me as it was recorded, but we stripped it down to having it just be me in certain sections. So I’m playing it and singing it with an intensity that comes from playing with other musicians.
Marvin had the idea to hard pan it, and it just worked. It’s a longer song and originally, by the end of it, we’d be bored. We thought, “What can we do to really make it sonically and narratively exciting?" And once we did that, it seemed to make sense.
"Miss You (Thought You Should Know)"
Given that you're a multi-instrumentalist, what’s your favorite instrument?
I can’t name anything specifically, but it’s when the instrument and I seem to be speaking as one. Any instrument can be a pain in the ass to play when you don’t feel like you’re able to say anything or it’s not talking to you. So for me, my favorite moments are when I really feel like I’m connecting with the instrument, even if it’s a really simple part.
Which multi-instrumentalists you admire?
I admire a lot of different people for different reasons. Just as one example, I look up to Jon Brion for his musical genius.
And he's also made some amazing music-related contributions to films...speaking of which, how did you get into the scoring/soundtrack arena?
There may have been other little shorts before it, but Hurricane Streets was the first time I had written a song for a film. I had always loved the movies and had done some acting. I was just interested in theatrical presentation, and I liked making music for other things—not just my own songs.
I don’t know if it was for that reason or because I had a theatrical background and that’s who some of my friends were, but those were the people who came to hear me play when I moved to New York. The audience was mostly comprised of struggling young writers, actors and directors. And as they became more successful, it’s just been a very organic thing that we’ve ended up working together.
Is it hard to balance what the song wants with the time constraints they give you for a scene? Does that sometimes just kill you a little bit inside?
Yeah, sometimes it does, but that is what you do in film work. It’s different when I’m making my own records, because I can make them just for me. I don’t have to have anybody telling me it needs to be a certain way. But then when I’m working on a film, I’m part of a creative process. I’m not the top of the food chain. My goal is to make sure everything I give them is something that has beauty and texture and helps the movie.
That can be a fun part, especially in smaller movies where you really feel like you’re collaborating. On larger studio movies, you sometimes feel like you’ve just got a bunch of people trying to get their two cents in. For them, when they watch the movie—and this is just my interpretation—they want to feel like they had a say in that moment. So you have to appeal to, like, 15 different people. That’s harder because you don’t know where the criticism is coming from artistically. But on indie movies, it’s usually just you, the producer and the director in a room and you’re just figuring it out together.
When you worked on Forgetting Sarah Marshall, did you do most of your writing on location in Hawaii?
Yeah, I did, because a lot of what I was doing was co-writing with Jason Segel, who was out there filming. It didn’t really make sense for us to be working separately. So Segel would be shooting during the day, then we’d be working at night. And on the days he wasn’t shooting, which was rare, we’d work during the day and I’d be working with Russell Brand on his performance.
What advice did you give Russell Brand for performing those hilarious songs?
Russell is an amazing improviser, but a lot of it was about figuring out his character—we knew he was a rock star, but we needed to figure out which rock star his character was.
The seriousness of his character’s performance of “We’ve Got to Do Something” is great.
Yeah, that mock seriousness…we had a lot of fun with that. And what was great was that I had the idea for this rant for Russell to do at the end of the song, and then we got to see his true genius. He just killed it. He’s so good.
Since Jason Segel’s character in the film is a musician who scores TV shows, did he borrow from any of your experiences?
No, he didn’t. Jason’s a skilled piano player, though his playing was very brief in the movie. There are actually some great sequences that didn’t make it into the movie that I’m hoping are on the DVD. Maybe it’s in the extended edition or deleted scenes. The Apatow folks love to shoot tons of extra stuff. Every day you’d be on the set and it’d be like, “Haha, that’s a funny joke—that’s for the DVD” and they were being serious.
Tell me a little about your cameo in the movie Role Models.
I’m a mandolin-playing medieval game guy. A part of the movie takes place in a live-action role-playing game, and at one point, we play a cover of the KISS song “Beth.” So we have Paul Rudd on vocals, and the rest of us on mandolin, recorder, violin and bodhrán, which is an Irish drum. That was fun—I did that arrangement.
Do you think you’ve really discovered the new paradigm for surviving in the music business—supporting a solo career through film work?
I’m doing OK. It’s so hard to sell CDs or records or digital files now. In a way I’ve been very lucky to get my music out there at all. I couldn’t be surviving just on trying to sell my songs as individual pieces of art.
Back in October 2000, a year or so before the launch of iTunes, you said in an interview, “If there was a way to charge a small fee—50 cents or a quarter—that the artist would split with the supplier, no kid would think twice about downloading and there'd be a bit of revenue.” What’s your current take on the music scene?
I think it’s a good thing. It is interesting how records are now broken up. I always enjoyed the album format, the 45 minutes of music, so it’s hard to see that split up. But I do like the ease with which it gets into people’s hands. It’s great—if I’m working on a Queen song, I can have it in my hands in two seconds.
It’s also strange to—within two weeks of releasing my record—type in the title online and see that it’s available for free all over the world. It’s hard because I have conflicting interests. I want my music to be heard and loved by people. I want it to have meaning in their lives. At the same time, I want to be able to survive. So that’s where the film thing has come in. It’s a way for me to survive. But I’m enjoying the creativity of it, too. It’s not like it’s something that’s a pain in the ass for me. I love trying to communicate through the film and the characters in the film so that the story and the emotions pop out and it’s more three-dimensional thanks to the music.
What’s the story behind the name of your label, Dusty Shoes?
I have a song on my first record called “People in the Sky,” and I just had a line about myself—that I’m this dusty shoe. At that time in particular, I was doing a lot of traveling and I just felt like that’s who I was. So when they asked me the name of my label for that first record, I said, “I guess…Dusty Shoes music.”
Speaking of traveling, you’ve spent some time traveling around the Far East. Can you tell me more about that? Where did you go?
I went to Thailand and China. I haven’t been back but I’d love to go again.
The story behind it is, when I lived in Alaska, I ended up living with this guy named Fred who is a Vietnam veteran and a very intense guy. He had become a Buddhist teacher, and had gone to live in Thailand. I was living in New York and he wrote me this letter saying that he’d opened a bed and breakfast in Thailand and that I should come visit him, so I decided to take him up on that. It was only when I got to Thailand that I realized he just had an apartment there with a spare room. (laughs) So I ended up living in Thailand for a couple of months and traveled around a lot.
Did it impact your music at all?
It did somehow. Not in terms of Thai music in particular, but I had some very intense experiences there and somehow I think it calmed my music down in a way.
And living with a Buddhist teacher probably didn’t hurt in that respect.
Yeah, probably! Maybe that was part of it.
Plus you also lived in Hungary as well, right?
Yup, in Budapest. It’s a great city.
Did you live on the Buda or the Pest side?
I was in Buda.
I’m beginning to see a theme here.
You’ve been all over the world, and now you live in Southern California. What led you to choose Venice after living in New York for so long?
There’s obviously a lot of arts and creativity on the Eastside. But something really drew me to the Westside. I guess I felt like, after living in New York for all those years, I just wanted a place where it’s still very artistic, but not hipster artistic.
And ironically, I’m not really a beach guy at all, but I like the fresher air and I like the cooler temperatures. What’s really nice about being a musician is that I don’t have a day job where I have to drive every day into downtown LA. So it allows me to bike a lot. It’s a little more like the walking street culture that I had in New York. It feels more familiar.
What are your favorite LA music venues?
Let’s see. I really like the M Bar, which is a place I play at all the time. It’s very chill and not super-scenestery. The Wiltern is great. And of course, the Hollywood Bowl is incredible.
Any favorite restaurants in the area?
Well, Axe is amazing. It’s ridiculous. It’s organic, and they’ve got a bit of a Middle Eastern vibe even though they serve all types of food. Wabi-Sabi is a good Japanese place. And we love Baby Blues, which is a great BBQ joint. There are so many amazing restaurants in Venice.
Thank you for speaking with LAist, Peter!
Don’t miss Role Models in theaters tomorrow, and keep an ear out for Salett’s song “Broken and Bent” during the film. To hear more of In the Ocean of the Stars, visit www.myspace.com/petersalett.
Photos by Glen Wilson and via Peter Salett's myspace page