Songwriter Interviews

Pete Anderson

by Greg Prato

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Although Pete Anderson is probably best known as a producer (and with good reason: he has manned the boards for Dwight Yoakam, Roy Orbison, Meat Puppets, Jackson Browne and Michelle Shocked), he is also an acclaimed singer/guitarist/songwriter in his own right, having issued several solo releases over the years, including Birds Above Guitarland in 2013.

Specializing in Americana/roots rock sounds, Anderson produced and played on all of Yoakam's albums from 1986 through 2003, including such Country Chart-topping releases as Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., Hillbilly Deluxe, and Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room.

I first spoke with Pete a few years ago for the book Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, and as you'll learn by reading below, Mr. Anderson has some very interesting stories to tell, recalling first crossing paths with Yoakam, becoming phone pals with Roy Orbison, and why the record business is floating in the toilet. He also has some great insights on production technique, and why some artists can crank out a perfectly good album in weeks while others (Eagles, Boston) might take years.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I was looking at list of all the artists that you've produced in the past, and it's a pretty wide-ranging group. When it comes to producing artists, do you approach each artist differently?

Pete Anderson: Well, a lot of people are concerned with live, and there are so many factors that come in that create that to be a misnomer. There's only one really successful live record ever, and that's Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive. The rest are made in the studio - unless you're a jam band. But to make popular music or to service your fans, try to make an honest record. You don't want to film a play: when you do a movie, you do a movie. You don't do a play and film it. That's a different ball game.

That said, in producing a record, you'll see the thread that runs through the people that I've produced for the majority of it is songwriting. So I've produced a lot of songwriters. So if it was like, "Oh, that's weird, you did Dwight Yoakam and you did the Meat Puppets." It's like, "How far apart could that be?" Well, not very far apart if the only thing I was concerned with were the songs that Dwight wrote and the songs that Curt Kirkwood wrote for the record, and then I embellish those.

So that's how I look at it. The song is king. I use all the music that I've heard in my life as kind of a card catalogue in my head and look for inspiration from the people playing their songs for me on an acoustic, usually, and saying, "Wow, this one would sound great like this," or "this one would sound great like that."

Three of the biggest tips I could give to your readers would be as songwriters:

A) Don't be afraid to be corny.

B) Don't be afraid if it sounds like something else. If it sounds like "California Dreamin'" or it sounds like "Layla," that's a good thing. Those were hit songs.

C) Tempo. You want to find a map for your song and say, "You know, I wrote a song that's kind of like "Walking After Midnight" by Patsy Cline." All right. What was the tempo of "Walkin' After Midnight"? Go listen to that and get the tempo on your beatbox.

So tempo, obviously, and singing in the right key. But these are very broad things that a lot of times get dismissed, and I'm very shocked that they do get dismissed. I see guys writing a really good song and then putting something in there, like a weird bridge or a chord change or something that just. I call it a "groove breaker," because they're saying, "Well, it sounded too much like that." It's like, "No, no. That's a good thing." Don't try to be overly hip, playing stuff that goes over people's heads. So that's where the corny stuff comes in.

I've played many successful solos that were pretty simple, because they fit the song. And you have to serve the song.

In the early days of rock n' roll, most studio recordings were as basic as you could get: everything recorded live, sometimes with the vocals overdubbed later. In other words, one or two takes, and then on to the next ditty. But by the '70s, budgets swelled, allowing the excruciatingly luxury of studio perfectionism: songs could be recorded bit by bit, with every note the subject of painstaking analysis. The Eagles' aptly-titled The Long Run took over a year-and-a-half to complete; Boston's Don't Look Back, also took up a surfeit of studio time. Not every album recorded this way turns out to be Bridge Over Troubled Water - Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy took so long to record that it's sound was out-of-fashion by the time it was finally released.
Songfacts: As far as production, it seems like there are two different categories when it comes to recording albums. Either you can slave away on the album, like, say, an Eagles or a Boston recording, or you can just keep it live and do it as quickly as possible, like maybe some of the early Meat Puppets releases. Which one do you prefer?

Anderson: I think it's a happy medium. In the case of Boston and the case of the Eagles, those are great records, but I think there's some compulsive obsessives going on, you know what I mean? [Laughing] But a lot guys that have made a lot of great records, they're pretty much in the flow. The cats get it done, this in a week, that in a week.

The big job is getting great pre-production where the songs are ready and arranged, where you sit down with an acoustic guitar and a beatbox and you know the chord changes, the intro, the outro, the tempo, the key, and now it's a matter to fill in the blanks. And with digital, it's easier than ever.

But some people get lost in that, too. I'm fortunate to have an analog background, and I live in a digital world, so I always think like analog but I take the gifts that digital gives us as far as manipulation of sound and speed of work, and use them to my advantage, as opposed to using them as a tool to create a record. I don't do that.

So I think there's a happy medium between that. Sometimes it's right. You can just go in and bash out a record. I mean, Michelle Shocked, I made a record with her called Short Sharp Shocked that had "Anchorage" on it. Very successful record. The record was made in no time because she was unbelievably prepared, so I could sit her in front of a microphone with a guitar and a banjo player or a dobro player and say, "Sing this song," and it would be like two or three takes of it. That's done.

So are you prepared? Are you ready to go? Well, that could be achieved with a lot of pre-production, which means we just go in a rehearsal room or your basement or your garage or your office or wherever you do it and practice it till you get it right.

The Eagles, and probably Boston - they were writing, creating, and doing everything in the studio. They were doing pre-production and practicing, but they happened to be doing it in a recording studio.

Up until recently, Pete and Dwight Yoakam were long-time collaborators, with Pete handling sole production of such classic Yoakam titles as Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. and Hillbilly Deluxe. And although Yoakam was the main songwriter on those albums, Anderson often lends a hand musically, but providing guitar, backing vocals, and a variety of other instruments. The last Yoakam album produced by Anderson was Population Me, released in 2003.
Songfacts: Let's talk about Dwight Yoakam. How did you first meet Dwight and start to work with him?

Anderson: I was a guitar player for hire in the early '80s in Los Angeles, and I played mostly country music. I played some blues gigs and kind of roots rock Americana gigs. On the backside of Urban Cowboy, there were a lot of gigs to play country guitar, because country is guitar centric, and I was playing a lot of it. He needed a guitar player to play a gig, and we played together. He was playing some of his original songs and I got to hear the songs and said, "Man, these are really good songs."

We created a bond based on the quality of his material. I was smart enough to go, "Yeah, I write songs, but I certainly don't write songs like this, and I don't write country songs, and I don't sing like this guy." So he had great songs and he had a great voice. He needed maybe some structure and some arrangement and basically just some moral support. One guy can go out in the world and believe in himself and really have a dream and want to do it, and it's possible to get beat down. There's a lot of "no" out there. There's a lot of "no" and a lot of people that don't know good from bad that are saying "no." There are some ridiculous things in Dwight's career where he was as good as he was and people didn't know good from bad. You run into that, and that eventually could discourage you.

If you have two people - and I'm nine years older - there's a little more support where you can get dinged by somebody and the partner's going to go, "That's not true, let's keep marching." So I think the two of us together were much more able to take the disappointment. One person might take too much of a beating and get discouraged. So that was a big plus.

We played clubs together, we borrowed money - I mean, it's a dream story. We borrowed money from a friend of Dwight's, $5,000. We went in the studio from midnight to eight in the morning, when we could get cheap studio time. We created an EP that was called Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc, and we put it out. It became a gigantic success just by luck, through publications and newspapers and Associated Press wires, and it got great reviews. We finally got the attention of Warner Brothers Records - we had been passed on by Warner Brothers and everyone else, and then finally they came back around; a girl named Paige Levy - Paige Rowden was her name at the time - believed in us, and she demanded that Warner Brothers sign us.

That EP added four songs and sold two million plus records. So there you have it. And it was just get on the bus, get on the train, get on the plane - go - for 20 years. It was a great ride, great career, great music, and I produced and arranged everything. Played some bass on a few things and did the percussion and filled in. But it was a great guitar-chair gig and I produced it. And a great arranging gig to arrange great songs. It was a challenge and it was a great relationship.

Songfacts: How many albums total did you produce for Dwight and what would you say is your favorite work with Dwight?

Anderson: Wow. You know, off the top of my head I don't know how many. I did every one he ever made for Warner Brothers except this new one. So up through 2002 I made every record. They were all for Warner Brothers and then one was for Koch Audio. That was called Population Me.

My favorite record? I don't know if I have a favorite one. Each one has its own psyche. You can't have a favorite child.

But the most successful one was This Time. That had "Fast As You," and "Pocket of a Clown," and "Ain't That Lonely Yet." That was a massive record and massive production - it was the first time I used Pro Tools. It was in the early '90s when Pro Tools was in its infancy.

Even now when I listen to that record, it's quite a brick wall; it's a massive record. But that's the pinnacle of the career: This Time, that record and those songs and that production.

Songfacts: Something else I always thought about Dwight is that he's a very underrated actor. I thought he was excellent in the movie Sling Blade.

Anderson: Yeah. [Laughing] He was good. The downside is that the character in Sling Blade, which he did well, is not a redeeming character. That unfortunately doesn't do much for your music career.

And if you put his music career on a scale with his acting career, the acting career doesn't get off the ground. His talent as a songwriter and a singer is incredible. Not that he's not a good actor, but if Sling Blade is the pinnacle of the character he should play, there's not a lot of redemption there. Why do you want to go out and smash people and kill people just to act when it does nothing for your recording career, which is where your gifts lie?

But yeah, he was good in that movie.

Roy Orbison is remembered as one of rock n' roll's all-time greats, so it's hard to believe that circa the mid-'80s, the same artist who inspired The Beatles and delivered classic songs like "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "(Oh) Pretty Woman" had been bypassed in favor of the MTV generation. But thanks to an all-star collaboration as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, Orbison's career went on the upswing. It was in the midst of this resurgence that he died of heart failure on December 6, 1988 at age 52. A few months later, Orbison scored a massive posthumous hit with the album Mystery Girl, and the single, "You Got It."
Songfacts: What songs did you work with Roy Orbison on?

Anderson: Roy Orbison and kd lang did a duet, and it was part of a movie with Jon Cryer [Hiding Out], who's become famous for being Charlie Sheen's brother in that TV show [Two and a Half Men]. We recut "Crying" - how daunting is that? That's like asking me to be a plastic surgeon and do a skin peel and some eyelifts on one of the guys on Mt. Rushmore! You know, "Would you go Mt. Rushmore and fix Lincoln's nose." Are you nuts?

But we did it. The editor cut it for the movie, and he slowed it down for this scene where they were roller skating. So my daunting task was to recut "Crying" as a duet with kd lang, Roy Orbison, and slow it down a little bit. It was great - it's Roy and kd, so you can't go wrong no matter what you do.

I more-or-less witnessed it because they were so terrific. The biggest plus out of it was just getting to know Roy a little bit and spending a little time with Roy, who was a very, very special person. Sweet, gentle man and obviously one of the most gifted singers of all time. One of the most incredible singers of any generation.

Songfacts: How close to his death was that recording?

Anderson: Probably two years.

Songfacts: And does anything stick out as far as producing him in the studio with that song?

Anderson: Well, we started to do it, and oddly enough he was on tour playing clubs and had no record deal. He had no record deal! How can Roy Orbison not have a record deal? [The songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly thought the same thing - they wrote "I Drove All Night" for Roy around this time.]

That is such an astounding indictment of the record business. It's shocking. He had no record deal when I went to see him play. Kd was there, too, and we were going to record after the show, but he caught a cold and he couldn't sing. We cut the track and we put kd's vocal down, and then we reconvened a month or so later in Vancouver. Roy was there, kd flew there, and I went there. We got Roy's vocal, kd did some harmony parts, and it was just amazing. He's just a sweet person.

Growing up as a little kid, you hear Roy Orbison. You never think you're ever going to meet him, let alone produce him. Which, I loosely use that word; basically witness him perform in the studio, let's say.

I called him at his home in Malibu once. His wife, Barbara, who's passed away, answered the phone. I said, "Hi, this is Pete Anderson." She goes, "Oh, hi Pete. It's Barbara." I said, "Yeah, could I speak to Roy?" And she goes, "Yeah." And she went, "Roy, it's Pete." And I was like, "Roy knows me as 'Pete'?" It wasn't like "Pete Anderson's on the phone." And he got on the phone and he went, "Hi, Pete, how are ya?" And we had a chat. It was about the music and this, that, and the other. I would never, ever, ever, think in my wildest dreams that Roy Orbison would know me as "Pete." He'd know me as Pete Anderson, the guy that produced your record, you remember him? But no, it was Pete. And that was to me just like, wow. I mean, we're kind of like buds! If I saw him at the grocery store, he'd go, "Hey, Pete!" And I'd go, "Hey, Roy!"

On an aside similar to that. You know, Albert Lee's a friend of mind and I love Albert's playing. We played together somewhere about four months ago. He was playing piano and guitar. It was just some little thing we were doing in LA, and I went up to him after and I said, "Albert, I think this is the first time we've ever got to play together." And he said, "No. Actually we played together somewhere," and he remembered. I went, "You know what, you're right." I was so impressed and so flattered that he remembered playing with me years ago at some benefit somewhere.

Little occasions like that come up pretty landmark for me.

The Meat Puppets finally made the jump to a major label (London) after a decade with an indie (SST), for 1991's Forbidden Places. And the person that the acid-country-punkers enlisted as producer for their major label debut was none other than Pete Anderson. While the album wasn't the big hit the label hoped for (that would be the group's next release, 1994's Too High to Die), it did spawn such subsequent Puppets concert standards as "Sam" and "Six Gallon Pie." Although the Anderson-Puppets union only lasted for this album, he and Puppets leader Curt Kirkwood would reunite in 2005 for Kirkwood's solo debut, Snow.
Songfacts: As far as the Meat Puppets, you produced what I think is one of their most underrated albums, Forbidden Places. What do you remember about working with them in the studio?

Anderson: We opened for them at McCabe's with Dwight many years ago. We might have had an EP out, but we weren't on Warner Brothers. We were hot in the neighborhood; people wanted us to play because we were drawing a crowd and getting some press.

I've always been a fan and I think they were shocked: They see the cowboy gear and they think, "Oh, these guys are like rednecks, they ain't going to like us." I was like, "Man, I love the music." So I've always been a huge fan, especially of their songwriting.

They're all three artists. They're artistic people - like a psychedelic version of Cream or something. The music is artistic and it crosses genres and boundaries.

Curt's an amazing songwriter, I love working with him. I love the record I made with him from my label, called Snow, which is without the Meat Puppets - it's kind of like me and him and percussion loops and a little of this and a little of that, and Curt doing his thing.

His whole career is underrated. You listen to "Teen Spirit" and you go, "Oh, yeah. That's Curt Kirkwood. I get it." And to his credit, Kurt Cobain had said, "Hey, I'm really influenced by Curt Kirkwood."

So, yeah, I think Forbidden Places is a monster record. I think it's the best record they've ever made. I would have loved to have continued working with them album after album. That would have been just skyrocketed - the ideas that I had to take a two or three or four album run with those guys would have been amazing. But I love the record Snow that I made with Curt, as well. I don't talk to him very often, but we definitely have a bond between the two of us that goes beyond music, because of mutual respect on one hand, and on another hand I'm a huge fan. I'm astounded by his melodic and lyrical concept.

Songfacts: Would you ever consider producing another Meat Puppets album?

Anderson: Yeah, because I like them so much. It's just different now. Producing records and making product for somebody, it's just not what it was. It's a wide open boutique field that is a self-promoted kind of thing. If there was a lot more at stake, like the music business was under control, there was a chance for the Meat Puppets to make some money, like they did on the record after mine, where they had "Backwater," they had a hit somewhere.

Songfacts: It was the song "Backwater."

Anderson: Yeah. With Paul Leary. It's just different now. The stakes are different. I think you make the best records you possibly can under the circumstances that you're allowed, and you go sell them off the bandstand. You service your fans. That's it. If I'd have got on a roll with those guys and turned them into String Cheese Incident or the Dave Matthews Band or some kind of cult band that had four records in a row that culminated with me producing a record with the Meat Puppets with the Philharmonic Orchestra behind them, how powerful would that be? Unbelievable.

But you build up to that, you make decisions based on that. They've had a rough-hewn career. I think Dennis [Pelowski] is their manager now and he's a good guy that really loves their music. But they had a moderately tumultuous career.

Songfacts: As far as producing nowadays, what would you say are some similarities and also differences to producing albums, say, back in the late '80s and early '90s?

Anderson: Well, my approach is not different at all. I consider myself much more of an architect than a producer. In other words, I look at it like an architectural drawing. If somebody asked me what's the best thing you've seen and the worst thing you've seen, the answer's the same: Digital recording, Pro Tools. It's the greatest and it's the worst.

There was a time when you needed a mega-console, amps, and countless snake-like wires to make a proper recording. But with the advent of Pro Tools - a "digital audio workstation" - the recording and editing process went non-linear: you could easily work on any piece of a song - down to the note - any time. It's cheaper and easier than tape, which is now obsolete. An engineer who fought through the vagaries of analog can be a tremendous asset, as a focus on preparation and performance can mean fewer fixes and a more authentic sound.
The greatest is because as an old-school analog guy, it speeds up the process for me, gives me more control; less wear and tear on the artist, more behind-the-scenes where I can do some things that I would have had to do physically. That just makes for a better record.

The worst thing is Pro Tools, because people are making records on their phones in their bedrooms, and the majority of them are awful, the concept behind them is awful. The playing is awful. The feel is awful. But they're in tune and they sound pretty and they've got software that almost does everything for you. So all it really does is confuse the marketplace.

If you had a nice little lily pond in front of your house and you had four of the most beautiful lilies of all time growing in your pond, and you had 55 pretty close replicas made out of plastic floating in your pond, that's what you have. It's like, I think I'm enjoying these, but oh my god, they're not real. [Laughing] As opposed to sitting there looking at four unbelievably brought-to-fruition by nature flowers. The pond is muddied up, and it's muddied up with some pretty good replicas of what music is. And then the viewer or the listener gets totally confused, and it becomes a struggle.

The major record companies have let us down gigantically by not controlling digital downloads. They dismissed it. Which is ignorant. It's unbelievably ignorant. They could have owned it and protected it and protected everybody. Instead, they gave it away. And then they capitulated to Steve Jobs and to iTunes. End of story. They could have said no. They could have said, "No, you don't have the rights to put my stuff on iTunes. Napster, you're out of business." And the guy, at least the Shawn Fanning, the Napster guy, was like, "Oh, I'm sorry, here." And they bought it from him. So they owned it for a minute. And they could have said, "All right. Hey, I've got an idea. Let's start our own music let's start our own record shops. So we'll have" whoever bought it, I think Universal bought it. "So we'll license it to Warners and this guy and that guy and this guy and that guy, and you can go to our web page and download our product from our web page. We can give away tracks, we can price them as we want, we can do whatever we want. We don't have iTunes telling us when, how, and how we can sell them and not really caring enough about sharing tracks and all that other shit, and let's protect our product." No, they gave it away to a second party.

And those guys that ran those record companies, some of those guys that were older guys, it was like, "I don't e mail. My secretary reads e mail. I don't read e mail." It's like, "What are you, retarded? You've got a learning disability? You're an idiot." And they just dismissed the Internet. And that is insane. So now we're in this fix. "Oh, yeah. We'll give you all your music back after we've completely destroyed the business and the structure." They all got their money, just like the Wall Street money barons, and they destroyed your retirement, they destroyed an industry and walked away. The guys that are responsible, they're all living in Malibu or wherever they live with millions of dollars that they wrenched out of the business, and they didn't protect it. They let the wolves have it.

And the real artists are left here to struggle and go, "I'm good, and these five other things that surround me are horrible. Find me. Hey, I'm here!" There's no protection. Everything's being stolen. You've got maybe close to two generations of kids that just think, "Well, you guys make a lot of money, music should be free." No, it's not. And we don't.

Anyway, so that's my speech. [Laughs]

Songfacts: Let's talk about your new album, Birds Above Guitarland.

Anderson: Well, for me it's a logical extension of the last record I made, which was called Even Things Up. It was really a step that I wanted to take where I was changing my career focus from being a producer who played guitar into being a guitar player who produces records. So my main focus over the last six years has been as a guitar player. I do produce records in the cracks and I have my own studio; a really nice place that I built. That's the best studio I built, so I can do music here and make high quality records. I've made my record here, as well as other stuff I've done.

So this record was the culmination of me deciding, okay, I'm going to concentrate on being a guitar player. My music falls on the blue side of the page. When I made Even Things Up, there was no playing off the bandstand. We made it in the studio, then we learned it and we toured it. And after we learned it and toured it, my style started to form during that time. I was using more complex chords, exploring a little with my writing and technique and the chord structures: more four note chords, tetra chords and such.

I was not specifically playing Chicago blues or Texas blues or copying T Bone or Stevie Ray or B.B. King or any of these guys. Really concentrating, keeping the blinders on as far as Pete Anderson music, allowing my right-hand technique and my understanding of complex chords to form the style and stay with it.

In your formative years, 20s and 30s, you listen to other players and their styles become very intoxicating. You go, "Oh, I want to play like Robben Ford, I want to play like Jeff Beck, I want to play like Freddie King [we gotta tell ya, poker's his thing], I want to play like B.B. King." These could be all inspirations that are like the carrot in front of the horse that leads you down the road. But you don't want to stay there too long because you're only, at best going to be a copy of these people. You're never going to achieve that.

Somewhere along the line the highest compliment is, "I knew it was you from the first two bars," or "You sound like you." You want to create your own style. So it's the best record I've made. I worked really hard on my vocals. It was the first time I've ever said, "Turn the vocal up. Is it loud enough?"

The usual suspects are on the record from the last record. Michael Murphy produced it with Tony Rambo. Tony and Sally Browder mixed it. Most of the drums is Herman Matthews, who played with Tower of Power, Tom Jones and everybody, and also played on my last record. He's from Houston, he lives here, but he's got that kind of '70s B.B. behind the beat, classy shuffle feel. He's a great drummer. Jeff Donovan from the Dwight days played on a track. Yesper Christianson, who is in my touring band for the last couple of years played on a track. Jack Sorenson, who's an educator and a great drummer from Texas who's living here now played on a couple of tracks. James Cruce who played with JJ Cale on the JJ Cale record that he did with Clapton [The Road to Escondido], he played on a couple of tracks. He's played with Tom Waits - he's a great, great drummer, very funky,.

So the drum chair moved around a little bit. I played all the bass, a guy named Steve Nelson played upright on a tune. Dennis Gerwill, a local great cajun accordion player played on a track. Lee Thornburg, who was the trumpet player on The Tonight Show for like two-and-a-half years with Kevin Eubanks before they switched over, he did the arrangements on the horns. He and Ron Jublo were the horn section and played all the horns. Mike Murphy played keys, Jack Maybe played keys. A great boogie woogie piano player who's living here now named Dona Oxford - I think she's actually from Brooklyn and lived in Chicago and studied under Johnny Johnson - she played some real cool blues-style piano on a track.

I played all the guitar, I played the harmonica. I played the percussion, I played the bass, and I sang. Bekka Bramlett, again, sang one of my songs. So there are two tracks, one with me singing and one with her singing.

So it's the usual suspects that I work with that make everything sound great. But I think my style of who I am just got a little bit more focused. It's "Pete blues." Like my friend told me the other day: "You know what your mantra should be? 'What he did for country, he'll do for blues'." So if people think that my guitar playing had anything to do with how revolutionizing the new modern country tradition was back in the '80s with the way I played, then I'm sort of doing that with blues. I'm not down anybody's trail but my own. But it definitely is blues. Blues-based, per se.

November 26, 2013. Get more at
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Comments: 1

  • Nina Gatlin from Grandview, TxPete Anderson is very, very good. I really enjoy the songs where he gets a solo..fantastic. I've admired this talent for the longest time. Good Luck! And thank you for the interview.
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