Halloween Baptizm is a very unique acoustic guitar album in various respects. First, the songs are written and arranged for four guitars and are played by Shawn Persinger:
- Taylor 6-string acoustic guitar
- Taylor 12-string acoustic guitar
- Taylor 6-string nylon guitar
- Taylor 4-string GS mini bass
As he mentions in the interview, these guitars perform the standard SATB ensemble.
This amazing CD is available for just $5 as a digital download on Bandcamp. Check it out!
Shawn messaged me on Facebook back in April 2015 and we loosely stayed in touch until December 2017 when I got his sampler package. Wow! It was such a beautiful collection of amazing content. Two books, a poster, and a CD! I can barely get interview videos posted (hah)! Anyway, it was obvious Shawn had put an unusual amount of care into this project and I wanted to do it justice. As soon as I started listening, I was astonished and knew we had to feature him on the site.
Several months later, here we are! I hope you enjoy this very conversational interview. Shawn is an extremely intelligent and well-spoken musician and educator. I’m sure you’ll get some great nuggets out of this interview.
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
AG: Shawn Persinger, also known as Prester John, is an acoustic guitarist and a very versatile musician based in Connecticut, teaches at the University of New Haven, and has released a new album called Halloween Baptizm. Well it’s new in the last few months. It didn’t just come out, but I’m a few months late to getting to this. [Laughs.] Nevertheless, Shawn thank you so much for joining us today.
SP: Oh well thanks for having me today. I’m happy to be here.
AG: Awesome. So when I got your package in the mail, I just could not believe the amount of effort that you have put into this project. So, can you tell us a little about what you sent over and the kind of effort that you’d been putting into it?
SP: Sure. From the get-go, the project was designed to be music text and visual. The visuals are very important to me. I wanted to have that classic 1970s album cover artwork that you could look at it at depth and you could turn it over. Granted, it’s still CD-sized, but we did a tri-fold tryptic and that was always important to me from the beginning because I wanted the music to relate to the visual.
And then I wasn’t going to delude myself into thinking that contemporary audiences were going to try to find every little detail on the album covers, so I thought I would do a commentary for the album. That’s why I wrote Nobody Knows I’m Famous, to both talk about the production of the music, the hidden Easter eggs, the allusions that are in the music and the artwork, and also about being a musician in the 21st century in general because that was another thing that I found.
The circles I run in–you probably come across this, too. It happened a lot at the NAMM show. Having these discussions with your peers that you never really feel people talk about in print or in interviews about the–basically, the hustle. The hustle of always trying to get a new gig or trying to get a new writing job or trying to get a new performance opportunity. That aspect of being a professional musician, I think, is not–it seems like it’s not being discussed in contemporary circles online in a really frank and honest way.
It was very important to me when I read Bill Bruford’s autobiography and Bill Bruford tells this story of playing a gig and they walk in and the manager of the venue says, “You guys gotta be done and off the stage at 10 because there’s a DJ coming in.” It’s Bill Bruford! He just writes, “This is the way it is. This is what happens when you play a certain type of music.” I feel like a lot of people don’t talk about that. Or if they do talk about it, they’re bitter or maybe they do tell it in a funny, embarrassed way as opposed to, “Well, this is just a part of the job–it is work.”
AG: Yeah, so Halloween Baptizm–first of all, you play five different guitar parts. Correct?
SP: Four. Four different guitar parts.
AG: Okay. It’s a very layered, rich, dense album. I’ve heard influences from Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser and Frank Zappa and just so many different influences. There’s jazz, there’s kinda quirky humorous kind of music. It’s all over the board. And you’ve released all of the music in this notation book, which is really awesome.
SP: Yeah, that was–
AG: Yeah, you covered a little bit on the commentary for the album. Can you talk about the music first and then the project of the notation and how they’re intertwined and all that?
SP: Yes. So originally, most of this music was composed many years ago and I wrote it for registers. The idea was that any instrumentation could play this music. Basically, your bass, baritone, tenor, and soprano. A flute could play the highest part and a bass guitar or a tuba–the music was designed that any combination of instruments, or traditional string quartet, or a woodwind quartet, could play these pieces. That’s why there’s not a lot of chords. Even though it’s a guitar record, I was trying to avoid guitar tendencies. And even with that, I think there’s maybe four bends. I play four bends on the record.
So, it had all been notated years ago and then I finally had the opportunity to record it myself. That’s why I ended up using the guitars, but I also wanted to do a non-traditional guitar quartet. It’s nylon string, 6-string steel string, 12-string, and–thank goodness that Taylor Guitars put out this little mini bass last year.
AG: I can’t see. It’s not in view.
SP: It’s this little GS mini bass, which I sort of hedged my bets on. I talk about it in the book. It’s this little parlor-sized guitar, but it’s got a huge sound. On the record, it’s massive.
AG: Yeah, actually it sounds fantastic. And I think I saw you have an entry–because the book’s kind of in a diary format–where you get it and you’re really excited and it’s really cool.
SP: Oh my God. Because it could have come and I could have gone, “Oh my God, I just spent six months waiting”–I was really waiting. And I talk about waiting and procrastinating, like maybe I was just, “Eh, I’ll get to it eventually.” I was waiting for that bass and as soon as it came, it’s like the whole record came together because originally, you can see it back here too, that’s my 8-string baritone. I thought I would end up recording the bass parts on the baritone guitar, but that had limitations, too. The biggest of which is it’s tuned down a 4th from the other guitars.
AG: Would you mind pulling that off and just going through each string?
SP: Sure. Sure. So, let’s see here. When I strum an E chord…
AG: Oh, wow.
SP: You hear a B chord. And I was writing music for this instrument as well because this guitar is really great. When I talked to Bob Taylor, I said, “Who did you make that guitar for? It’s a really weird guitar.” And without missing a beat, he said, “For old guys who can’t sing CCR in the original key anymore but don’t want to transpose it.”
AG: That’s awesome. I remember when that guitar came out and I thought, “I really want one of those because I bet it sounds really interesting. It’d be a great instrument.” I never would have thought “CCR.” [Laughs.]
SP: You don’t want to have to sing that C, so you strum a G chord in the original key, you’re singing your G. It’s a lot easier.
AG: Oh that’s so cool.
SP: To a certain degree, and I say this with all due respect because I absolutely love this instrument, this instrument is really difficult to do much more on than just strum chords because as soon as you try to solo, it gets–the octave strings in the middle throw you off. These strings are so heavy it’s hard to play traditionally. You’re trying to play fast. So when I got it, I realized, “Oh I could write music for this. I could do like what composers did”–I forget what century it is. When the piano finally came to fruition and people who had been composing harpsichord music said, “Oh we can do other things with the piano.” And the shift in composition changes. And I thought, “Well I can do that with this.”
Unfortunately, it’s not like the 8-string baritone usurped the 6-string steel string. So the audience for writing music like that is relatively limited and I talk about this in the book. As it turns out, the quartet even as esoteric as that is, there’s a broader audience for both the music itself and for playing it because most people do have access to any sort of 6-string guitar, bass, and for the most part, a 12-string guitar. 12-strings are not that uncommon either. So that’s why the quartet is the instrumentation that it is. It’s because I wanted to be diverse and I wanted to be able to exploit the tonal characteristics–the difference between a nylon string and a 12-string, for instance.
AG: So tell us about the–if you want to put the guitar back, that’s fine. [Laughs.] Can you tell us about what inspired you to write this music? Because it’s not what people might think. It’s not like an easy-listening kind of California Guitar Trio kind of thing where it’s sometimes experimental. It’s kind of the opposite. It’s very experimental all the way through. Extremely musical, but it definitely touches a lot of edges or boundaries.
SP: Yeah, I think this ends up just being my personal taste in music. I shouldn’t say my personal taste, because my taste is extremely broad. I like pop music and I listen to tons of pop music. I play in a Jackson Browne tribute band, so it’s not like these things are one or the other.
SP: But for me as a composer, I’m always–I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant because I think it’s very hard to do new things–but I thought, “At the very least, the instrumentation is unique and I can do this balance that I’ve always tried to strike of the weird and the commercial.” It drove me nuts that you’d get these 12-tone composers and not only were they trying to do a serial composition, but they’re also doing this outrageously rhythmically complex music.
This is not entirely true, but I always thought, “Well, if I can use all 12 notes, I’ll keep my rhythms a little more simple. And if I’m going to do really complex rhythmic music, I’ll keep the melodies pretty simple.” So, like number 8 on the album, not that it’s outrageously complex–I think number 10 as well–those are pretty rhythmically complex, but they’re all completely tonal. Almost 100% diatonic and then a piece like number 7 on the album is outrageously rhythmically complex. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to record. It’s really tough and it’s short. It’s only two pages of music. I think it’s 38 seconds long, but it’s really, really tough. But it’s all completely diatonic. Oh, I was kind of drifting myself.
Another piece would be something like–I’m trying to think of something that has a lot of different notes, but the rhythms are pretty straight ahead. Maybe I don’t do that as much as I think I do. And again, you know this because you make weird music, these things are all relative. What is weird to Joe Average is pretty normal to us.
SP: So, something that I think, “Oh that’s normal,” somebody else looks and goes, “That’s–I can’t. I don’t even have a point of reference for it.”
AG: Right. For perhaps progressive rock listeners, whatever progressive rock is, I kept finding myself thinking, “Wow, this is like Gentle Giant meets Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists meets Frank Zappa’s symphonic work arranged for acoustic guitar.” There’s so many wonderful influences. I just love the album, but yeah it’s definitely not a “normal” acoustic guitar album.
SP: Well, that’s the other thing. The acoustic guitar world tends to be pretty–the most diplomatic way I can say it is “safe.” It’s relatively safe. The other influence I want to mention because I didn’t mention it too much in the book is Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. I got obsessed with their melodies. Their solos? I don’t need their solos at all. In fact, I’ve got recordings where I’ve just chopped off the heads. The beginning and the ending because I like to hear them play together in unison or in harmony. And those outrageously complex melodies. That’s a big influence for me.
It was a big influence for my electric band, Boud Deun. The violinist and I would always either play in harmony or in unison so that it didn’t just sound like, “Oh here’s a guy playing fancy.” It was, “Here’s a guy playing fancy and another guy who’s keeping up with him.” And that’s all Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. The other influences, Zappa, [Captain] Beefheart, Fripp, yeah those are all part of what I do. When I left the band–when the band Boud Deun broke up, I was trying to figure out, “How can I play the music of Boud Deun on acoustic guitar? One acoustic guitar?” Because that band was Frank Zappa and King Crimson and Mahivishnu. Those were some of the biggest influences. And punk rock.
Minor Threat and The Minutemen were big influences for me and that band as well. And how could I play that on acoustic guitar? Because for the most part, no one seemed to be doing that. If you look at the weirdest [John] Fahey or [Leo] Kottke or Richard Leo Johnson. Do you know Richard Leo Johnson?
AG: I’ve never heard of him. No.
SP: He put out this brilliant record on Blue Note years ago called Fingertip Ship, which is really stunning. You should check it out and have a listen. That was–He’s ten times the virtuoso–I should rephrase it. He’s ten times the player that I am. I’m just trying to stay modest here.
SP: But that complexity–he did it. But not a lot of other people do that in acoustic guitar world. Every now and then, you’ll hear people who are weirdos, like a Mike Keneally will do an acoustic track. He did that one acoustic album, but even that one acoustic album is relatively normal for Mike.
AG: For Mike, yes.
SP: Mike is a great example of the guy who balances all those things. He gives you a pop–I remember seeing him years ago. He came out and he would do a straight ahead rock song and then he would do something outrageously weird and then he did a song that had a jam in it where he could solo a lá [Jimi] Hendrix and he just kept repeating that. Like, “Here’s my pop song, here’s the weird, here’s the jam.” I thought, “That’s the way to do it.”
AG: Yeah. All right, so musically the album is incredibly interesting. The notation is just fascinating to go through, but the book itself, Nobody Knows I’m Famous. It’s right here, this white book. It’s such a comprehensive journal of all things musical. You’ve got family stuff in there. You talk about instruments. You talk about modesty. You talk about everything. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “This is more of a memoir,” and then the fact that you came out with all of this at the same time–how did you plan all of that? I mean, that’s a monumental effort.
SP: Yeah, I got lucky in a couple of ways that–I put out this guitar book called The 50 Greatest Guitar Books. It was five years ago, which ended up being a very successful book. Delightfully because everybody I talked to said, “Yeah that sounds like a magazine article.” “That sounds like a blog.” “You don’t want to write a book about other guitar books.” It turned out to be highly successful and I’ve sold more books than I have records, really, in the last five years.
So I realized, “Oh there’s a link here of I can do the music and the book.” Because I do enjoy the writing. I write for Taylor Guitars magazine and again, with all due respect to Taylor, Taylor lets me do a lot of weird stuff for a relatively commercial mainstream audience and they have readers who they love what I write and they don’t like what I play. I thought, “Well wouldn’t it be interesting if I can write to them so that they could have an entree into the weird weird music.”
Because I have no illusions that what I do is weird and not necessarily accessible to your average listener. And I thought, “Well that would be nice if I could not explain myself, but let people know…” I don’t know if this is true for you. I think there are a lot of weird guitar players, weird musicians. They have no interest in the mainstream. They’re willfully antagonistic towards them.
AG: Well when we met, we met at NAMM right after you’d hung out with Henry Kaiser, who is the exact epitome of what you’re talking about.
SP: Yeah, to a certain degree, though Henry embraces–I mean he’s a huge Grateful Dead fan…
AG: Yeah, he embraces everything, but he’s not known for that.
SP: Right. He’s not interested in selling records to a mainstream audience. A mainstream audience does not fall into his purview. Is that the right word?
SP: There’s a couple–I remember John Zorn and reading an interview with him. He would hang up flyers after the show.
SP: That’s so punk. And I love that, but it’s not who I am. I don’t find myself angry and resentful in my personal life, but as a professional as a musician, I really do want to reach a wider audience and maybe expose people to things. There’s a lot of music–aggressive, weird music that I understand why people don’t like it. Not everybody has to like Magma. It’s an acquired taste.
But if I can figure out a way without compromise to my music to invite a broader audience to come investigate some of this weird music–Again, Frank Zappa is a perfect example. You pick up the wrong Frank Zappa record when you’re 20, you’re never going to listen to another Frank Zappa record, which is a pity because you could listen to 20 different records and not hear the same music.
AG: Right. And I love that there’s an entry in the book about how much should an artist make. And you specifically talk about Frank Zappa and the variety of output. Can you go a little further into that?
SP: Yeah, so for me, what Frank’s 62 albums? 58 or 62?
AG: Actually I think–
SP: In his lifetime. Since there’s been like 30-something come out?
AG: Well, I think the new album they put out was his 100th last year.
AG: I can’t remember what it’s called. [Dance Me This.]
SP: I’ve listened to almost all of them. I haven’t bought all of them. I’ve borrowed them from friends, I’ve listened to them online, that sort of thing. And I kept finding I would get frustrated. I thought, “Well how come Sheik Yerbouti doesn’t sound like Roxy & Elsewhere? How come Them Or Us doesn’t sound like Roxy & Elsewhere? How come Absolutely Free isn’t as a good–I’m sorry, I’ve got it backwards. Absolutely Free is one of my favorites. How come We’re Only In It For The Money isn’t as good as Absolutely Free even though it seems to be the same ideas and environment?”
SP: Yeah, Uncle Meat is unlistenable to me. I just don’t want to listen to that record ever! But Absolutely Free? I think it’s one of the top 10 greatest albums ever made. It completely changes rock and roll forever. You know, there’s these legends that people always talk about when The Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper. They’d say, “Sgt. Pepper is our Pet Sounds.” Well, supposedly more frequently, [Paul] McCartney said, “Sgt. Pepper is our Freak Out.” But that doesn’t get reported as much.
So those records are really important to me and I, as I say in the book, you don’t have to like everything an artist does. You don’t even have to like the artist as a person! They do XYZ in their career and you gravitate towards that and it’s completely valid for them being a fantastic artist whether they do a higher percentage of work that you’re not interested in.
AG: Yeah, you have a lot to say about a lot of topics and I really appreciated that about the book. I didn’t get to read the whole thing, maybe–I skimmed through a lot and read maybe half of the whole book, but man there–every time I would…something would catch my eye as I was reading and I thought, “You could write a whole book about this.”
SP: You absolutely could.
AG: This book is, like, full of books. So, can you talk a little about your–you’re clearly academically, well that’s your profession as well.
SP: Well, it’s actually not. I mean, I teach at the University of New Haven, but I’m an adjunct lecturer. My real education–I went to Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles, which was a great school, but it’s basically a trade school. For me, it was rock and roll, even though the curriculum was mostly jazz. Almost all of my composition skills come from listening to records and looking at scores.
I have no compositional training. My notation is pretty bad. I notate in Finale and Finale plays back the music and I go, “Oh that’s not what I thought it’d sound like. I gotta change that.” And all of a sudden I find–This was years ago. I’m slightly exaggerating. I’d write this piece of music with these triplets and I’d write in the triplets. It’s a triplet. And I’d listen back and it’s like, “That’s not what I want!” It would take me hours and I was like, “Oh, it’s two 16th notes followed by an 8th note. Duh-duh-duh-DUH.” Not “DA-da-da.” And those are things still to this day! I’ll notate them and go, “That’s–oh shoot! I meant this.” And thank goodness for Finale to play it back.
AG: Right. Yeah. But your background is–I know you’re a schooled musician, but you go so far beyond the musical elements and I think you said in your notation book, “You don’t know how much information you don’t need until you learn everything about music theory.”
SP: The music theory, yeah. You need to know a lot of music theory to know how much music theory you don’t need to know. That’s one of my favorite–one of my lines. It’s so true because there’s so much complexity, music terminology. There’s three terms for the exact same thing and the terms seem to contradict each other. Bringing that aspect–like you said, though, about the book. There’s these entries that could be other books.
A big one for me in that book was the harming power of music. I thought, “This is a book I wanna write, because why does music make me angry? Why, when I hear a song, do I get frustrated?” Because people talk all the time about the healing power. “When you listen to music, it activates every part of your brain.” Is this true for you? I know it’s not–here’s the other thing. There’s so many things that I think about that I’ve never heard anyone talk about, but I’m not arrogant–I’m just not arrogant enough to think that I’m the only one.
So I wrote this book so that people go, “Yeah, I think that too!” But I’ve never seen anybody talk about it. Why does–and I’ll say it here because I think I took it out of the book–why does Celine Dion make me so angry? I mean, from the get-go. Why do those pan flutes from Peru… I just want to go crazy. There’s a tone. There’s something in the overtone series. There’s something in the tonality that makes me cringe!
AG: Yeah it’s funny. My wife and I saw R. Carlos Nakai, who’s a Native American flute player and there were times where I thought, “Oh this is really beautiful,” and there were other times I thought, “This is the cheesiest music I’ve ever heard.” What is it about the Native American flute that can either be really peaceful or extremely cheesy?
SP: Right. And it’s not like I’ve listened to a lot of it. Back in the 1980s, there was the pan flute master, I forget–[Gheorge] Zamfir. There was those commercials and I remember busking in Europe years ago. I had this great busking spot and my battery ran out of power. I had to run down the street. I was in Denmark and I had to run down the street, buy a new battery, and when I come back, these Peruvians in this traditional dress had taken my spot. I was so angry. I’m not angry because of that, because they took my spot. It was the music itself that was really frustrating me. And so I thought, “Somebody must have done this.” So first I tried to get in touch with the guy who wrote “Your Brain on Music.”
AG: Oh yeah. Elliot Sacks?
SP: Uh, not Sacks because he’s passed away. He’s from Montreal, but he specifically says on his website, “Don’t contact me about XYZ interviews.” He’s a busy guy. I totally get it. So, I contacted another person who I thought might know somebody and I ended up talking to this Robert Zatorre, who’s a neuroscientist/neurologist. Neuroscientist, I think, at McGill University and he was great because he took time to talk to me. I said, “How come it makes me angry?” He said, “It’s a great question. No one’s done a study on it. People don’t want to know those sorts of things.”
There’s not funding to make people angry in an MRI machine by playing them either Celine Dion or Metallica, whoever you don’t happen to like. He said, “What you could do is you could put somebody in an MRI, play them a type of music and see them irritated. You can actually see them irritated in their brain, but we don’t know why that’s irritating.”
AG: So, have you come to any personal conclusions? Perhaps about Celine Dion? [Laughs.]
SP: Part of me thinks it’s tonality, like its timbre and tonality. It’s like Latin music. I remember–I grew up in DC and we had–outside of DC, Washington DC. And you’d have these Latin radio stations, especially on the Sunday morning or Saturday, and it always drove me nuts. I couldn’t stand that music and I’d turn it off. I was playing a gig years later, we were playing upstairs and a Latin band was downstairs and they were amazing. It was like, “Oh my God, this is–this is the real deal!”
And I realized Latin music doesn’t translate to vinyl record. It doesn’t translate to coming out of a little speaker in your car. You have to be in the room to hear everything working together and I think this is true of a lot of music that’s old. Right? You go to see a big band for the first time, it’s very different than when you hear it on a record and I think that something squashes sounds and overtones so that when you have them in one context, they don’t work in another context.
I think maybe I’m actually literally being irritated by the sound of the way the frequencies and the overtones–again, I’ve never studied this. I don’t know how you would begin to study that. If somebody out there does, I’d be happy to get an MRI and they could play those songs. I could tell you exactly what songs and what artists bug me.
AG: It’s funny, I’m the same way about the Sam Harris podcast. Not it’s not Sam Harris that bothers me because I like a lot of what he says, but listening to his–the recorded voice irritates me. I’ve heard people say, “Oh you’re so surface.” I see other people complaining about it, too, but I’m like, “No, there is something wrong with the way his voice is recorded and mixed and whatever compression he’s using.” It removes all the sibilance so you can’t even hear–you can’t distinguish an ‘s’ from a ‘t’ from a ‘b’ and then it removes his breath! It’s like it’s not a human speaking. Just the way it’s recorded, I have such a hard time listening to it.
SP: See, I think that’s the easy place to start. Maybe you just need to start with just a recording engineer. If you add more reverb to a thing, all of a sudden it doesn’t sound as good, but just the right amount of reverb makes something pop. That’s even a better example. You’re in a vaccum. It sounds horrible. You put too much reverb on, it sounds worse. You put just the right amount of reverb, all of a sudden, it sounds like Fresh Air with Terry Gross. It’s perfect. It’s exactly what you want.
AG: Yeah. What is it that makes listening to NPR so much more pleasing than listening to the Sam Harris podcast? I don’t know, but I do know that NPR has an engineer that has a very specific sound, electric flow. Everything is intentional. The microphone, the compression, everything, to get that sound.
SP: Yeah. Intentional to a point. I’ll tell you–I think the station is still out there in LA. KXLU, that was the radio station. I loved the station. In the early 90s, played a lot of punk rock, a lot of really weird stuff. I could just call up and say, “Hey would you play XYZ?” and two songs later, it would be on the radio.
This is funny because it was just when Smells Like Teen Spirit had come out. It might not even have been out yet. It was about to be released. It was getting played on the big radio stations and KXLU. I literally called up and said, “Play that new Nirvana song.” And the DJ said, “Yeah, this song’s getting played on the bigger stations, too, and I have a cassette of Smells Like Teen Spirit played on KXLU and it never sounded better.” It is the best and it’s because the compressor or something, the antenna, the signal that came out of KXLU onto my boombox is the greatest sound ever.
AG: So yeah, I think you touched on something because I definitely agree there is music and recorded audio that can make you angry for arbitrary reasons, or what seems arbitrary. You’re not criticizing the content, there’s just something about what you’re hearing that makes you angry.
SP: Yeah, the sibilance that you’re talking about. Is that how you pronounce it?
AG: I think so.
SP: The rough edges are cut off. That’s what Celine Dion–all the rough edges are cut off and everything is smoothed out. There’s an irony there because of course I don’t want rough edges in my house. I don’t want to get splinters. I don’t want my kids bumping their heads on coffee tables. And when you see a car, it’s smooth. It’s got curves. But somehow, I don’t want that in my music. I like the rough edges. I think Inner Mounting Flame is far superior to Birds of Fire because Birds of Fire is slick. They’ve got it. They’ve figured it out. Inner Mounting Flame, they are [slap] just go! It’s so rough!
AG: Well, you listen to Captain Beefheart, it’s like pristine recording. You can hear–it doesn’t even sound like it was recorded on analog tape, the way it was mastered or something, because there’s so much treble, there’s so much bass. Bat Chain Puller, that song–it’s such a rich sonic experience, whereas you might listen to–I’ll listen to a Jethro Tull album and I think, “The drums just sound so dead!” Even though Barrimore Barlow is killing it. Double kick and everything, but it’s like, “Why could Captain Beefheart get such a great sounding album and then you hear–” or even Dream Theater, some albums I can’t even listen to. The singer, some people hate him, some people love him, but just because of the drum sound, I can’t listen to it. You know? It’s like, what is with Captain Beefheart? Why can he get such a great sound on his records and then something else in that same era sounds so horrible?
SP: I think I might have an answer for that. This is just me pontificating off the top of my head. Again, this is with all due respect to Beefheart because I’m a huge fan. It’s super important to me. Beefheart is kind of one-dimensional. It’s not like you get a lot of different things from Beefheart on any individual album. Bat Chain Puller all sounds the same as opposed to Clear Spot or Spotlight Kid. Those are different records. They sound all the same and Trout Mask all sounds the same.
AG: It does, yeah.
SP: Guitar, bass, and drums, and the vocals, as opposed to the Jethro Tull where you have to have that hi-hat, that kick drum, and the flute, and the guitar, and the bass, and the timbre of his voice, so there’s more–and you’ve got the ballads and you’ve got the songs that rock. And then the songs that do both. I think those are harder songs to mix.
AG: There’s also–you listen to Tom Waits, and it’s like he only wants you to hear the rough edges whereas Celine Dion is absolutely the opposite. And yet, my wife might listen to Celine Dion and makes me, “Ugh! How can you listen to that?” And I listen to Tom Waits, and I’m like, “Oh it’s so gravel-y! Listen to the scratchiness of his voice, and that old piano, and the room and everything,” and she’s like, “How can you listen to that? It sounds like it was recorded in a barn and he’s some drunk old man yelling.”
SP: That’s part of the great thing of life. Everybody’s different, everybody’s got a different taste. For me, I think it’s important to be able to recognize that hopefully you understand why your wife doesn’t like Tom Waits and your wife understands why you don’t like Celine Dion. Although, it seems like that one’s the harder one for people to figure out. “Why don’t you like things that are nice?”
SP: It’s not that I don’t like it when it’s nice, I just don’t like it when it’s nice and it doesn’t seem sincere.
AG: Yeah, I get that. I just think that’s such a great question.
SP: Who am I to say what’s sincere? That’s the other thing.
AG: But your album, Halloween Baptizm, to bring us back to the reason we’re talking.
SP: Yeah we should come talk about me. Isn’t that what we’re here for? Dave Kerman–Do you know Dave Kerman? He’s in the 5uu’s and UtoteM, Thinking Plague. Amazing, amazing drummer. He said–I forget who he was talking to–every interview, whatever he’s talking about, he just brings it back to the new product.
SP: And he was a real weirdo artist because, “Oh yes, you want to talk about the color purple. Well, on my new album, I completely left the color purple out because…” Yes, Halloween Baptizm is the name of the new record.
AG: [Laughs.] Yeah, when did you release it?
SP: On Halloween!
AG: On Halloween!
SP: On Halloween of last year , which I thought was–well, if the record is not that successful this year, I’ll just re-release it.
SP: I can re-release it every single year on Halloween.
AG: What I love about it is, even though it’s called Halloween Baptizm and the art is very fall, you know, like the typical fall colors and that kind of thing–the artwork is beautiful, first of all. I love the artwork. But, the album–
SP: Which I didn’t make. I commissioned the artwork specifically from two artists. One was actually Maria Nickland, who was actually my first wife and the other it Gonzala Puentes, this Chilean–he’s from Chile. He’s a guitarist and illustrator. And both of them went above and beyond my expectations.
AG: It’s wonderful!
SP: I specifically knew what I wanted from them.
AG: What I do want to get to is, even though it’s released on Halloween, even though it’s called Halloween Baptizm, even though it’s fall colors and this art kind of reminds you of this time of year, the music itself is timeless. It’s not like–
SP: It’s not creaky door, Halloween spooky sounds.
AG: And I do want to at least emphasize that for anyone who might be listening. This is not a “Halloween” album and the album is just so musical and rich and interesting. And it’s the kind of thing where you can listen to it over and over again even in succession, it can be two or three listens in a row, because there’s something different that you’ll catch in every song. What I do appreciate is you do not over-polish anything. There are times where I can hear how hard it is to play that, just as a guitarist. And there are times where I can hear your hands on the instrument and you’re not trying to over-produce or make it fake. It’s like, here is me authentically performing this music, some of it is extremely challenging for me. So, I appreciate that and I think it’s a really great record.
SP: That’s–I’m not sure if I wrote about this in the book, but it occurred to me years ago, one of my biggest limitations is physical. Technical. I’m good at certain things, but other things, I just can’t get up to speed. You’ve done that thing about Fracture, that impossible-to-play piece, which it is! And then, the way I came to terms with it is I realized my favorite players are really sloppy and sometimes my favorite things recorded are horrible. Again, with all due respect, Larry Coryell’s Live at Fairyland, I don’t know if you know that record. It’s got a song called Stones on that album. There are times when it sounds like he has no idea how to play the guitar. And it’s so beautiful.
SP: It’s glorious. Marc Ribot, his Saints album. Oh my God, it’s just full of what sounds like mistakes and you couldn’t play something better if you wanted to. John Fahey, he’ll do these things where you just think any second, he’s gonna just stop and go, “We’ll do it again” For me, I think, I love that.
AG: I do, too. I saw John Scofield play with Brad Mehldau and Mark Giuliana. It was an awesome show and when I first saw it, I was like, “Wow, Scofield’s the weakest guy up there.” And then into the show, I’m like, “No this is his thing. This is how he plays,” and I began to appreciate it differently. He’s got that kind of messy thing going on and that’s cool. You know?
SP: I’m a huge fan of the mess. Huge fan.
AG: Yeah, the mess is great.
SP: And, hey, I like technical guys too.
SP: Leo Kottke, the complete idol. Robert Fripp, I love that stuff.
AG: Tommy Emmanuel.
SP: I appreciate Tommy, yeah, from the technique and the skill. Tony Rice. Huge Tony Rice fan.
AG: I don’t know Tony Rice.
SP: Tony Rice is a bluegrass guitar player. One of the most underrated guitar players. In bluegrass circles, everybody knows that Tony Rice is basically the greatest bluegrass guitar player of all time, but you never hear other people talk about Tony Rice. But Tony is immaculate and tasteful and what an amazing songwriter. If you check out his work with the David Grisman quintet and then his records, like Mar West or Back Waters. Great, sophisticated acoustic guitar music. It’s jazz-influenced and bluegrass-influenced, but never sounds like either. Very unique.
AG: So for anyone looking to listen to this record or find out more about you, where should they go?
SP: You can go to PresterJohnMusic.com and if you want the Halloween stuff, you can specifically /halloween. But PresterJohnMusic will get you me, it’ll get you everything I’ve done. I was originally in a progressive rock band called Boud Deun, we put out a couple of records ourselves and on Cuneiform Records. That, to me, is still one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, to have records on Cuneiform. That band was Mahivishnu, King Crimson-esque.
And then I went solo and then I had a duo with a mandolinist named David Miller and now I’ve got this quartet. It’s all kind of the same idea. The way Frank [Zappa], if you really do delve into Zappa, even though he does a lot of different things, there’s always a thread.
AG: The Project/Object.
SP: Even if you don’t like it, you still know it’s Frank. I’ve tried to keep that. I think John McLaughlin is like that, too. If you listen to the Extrapolation album, then Mahivishnu, then Shakti, you can hear those–he does those same ideas. It’s not that he’s just playing the same lick, it’s that there’s a conceptual idea running through those things.
I think for me, conceptually, my idea is: how can I play weird music in song form? That’s a big thing for me. Most of my songs are kind of–some people would say A, B, A, B, but I’m inclined to say verse, chorus, verse, chorus, here’s the bridge, and if you’re willing to listen to the more complex music, you do go, “Oh, I do hear it. He’s repeating those little ideas.” In fact, Halloween is very much one big idea, melodic themes. I did write about that as much as I could in the book that there’s the intervals that I play correspond to the song number titles, or there’s some sort of theoretical idea in each of the songs.
AG: Yeah, I actually am reminded of a couple questions I wanted to ask. Tell us about, there’s a lot of kind of scientific influence and mathematic influence in the song titles. Can you go into that?
SP: Yeah, so I had a friend who told me, “Well, I really love the record and then I read the song titles.” A couple of them are a handful. The second piece is called “One is the First Sophie Germain Prime.” Oh, sorry, two! “Two is the First Sophie Germain Prime.” And that’s a tribute to this woman, Sophie Germain, who was a scientist and this is my very, very superficial way of paying tribute to science and innovation and the scientific method of trying to explore things and find things out.
I didn’t want to just guess why music was making me angry, I wanted to go to a scientist who’d studied these things and find out if someone knew why. And that’s a theme that runs throughout the record. There’s a tribute to scientific ideas, mathematics because of the number idea. I don’t want to say I crammed in some mathematics, but there’s some mathematical things. I’m horrible at math. I’m awful. I’m bad at everything except playing the guitar, and some would argue. But really, and I’m not being–if it’s musical, I’m interested, I’m intrigued, but everything else I’m really horrible at.
But I have an immense respect for people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, or one of my favorite podcasts is The Infinite Monkey Cage. I really like these scientific ideas and I like the idea, too, that scientists are willing to admit, “Well, we’re not 100% sure, but we think this is the way it is. When more information is available, we’ll reevaluate what we think.” I like that idea of scientific discovery with the guitar, with music in general. How can you–I like to start with inspiration. I’ve got a musical idea, I play it, it comes to me on the guitar, now how can I use the theory to develop it into something bigger? And how can I take all the people–the predecessors, because that’s the big thing. The long line behind me. That “standing on the shoulders of giants” cliche that I’m trying to build on.
AG: And then, finally, tell us a little about the name “Prester John.”
SP: Oh yeah, that’s marketing. It’s totally commercial marketing, is all it is. Like Coca Cola. I was in this band, Boud Deun. It’s a horrible name for a band. It’s hard to spell. It’s hard to pronounce. Steve at Cuneiform still pronounces it wrong. “Bood DeON.” He says “Dion.” Celine Dion, right?
AG: He’s doing it just to rub you the wrong way. [Laughs.]
SP: Joyce at Cuneiform calls us “The Boud Deuns.” So, when I went solo I realized Shawn Persinger, no one is going to buy that record. I’ll put on the Prester John tag because that’ll be marketing. At least they’ll remember “somebody is something.” And Prester John, the legend of Prester John, is that there was a letter that circulated through Europe 500 years ago proclaiming of this realm of Prester John.
It’s basically a Garden of Eden. Mythical animals, jewels in the mountains, everyone’s well-fed. It was a prank, a prank letter. People looking for this personified fountain of youth and found nothing. I like this idea that it’s historical and it was a joke, so that’s where the Prester John part came from. It’s nice, every now and then, I particularly like this when I’m with my kids. My kids are 7 and 9. We’ll be out and someone will be like, “Hey! Prester John.” It’s nice.
AG: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time, Shawn. It was really a very fun chat.
SP: Thanks for having me. Oh, one more quick plug is WeirdGuitarLessons.com. How long have you had Make Weird Music?
AG: I think it’s since 2014, early 2014. Four years.
SP: Okay, so we started almost parallel. I’ll have to go look. We both had the same idea at the same time. You were going to promote weird music in your way and I was going to do weird guitar lessons.
AG: That’s awesome.
SP: Look, if you go to my website, I’ve got a miniscule amount compared to you. I think there’s only 9 lessons in five years, but again, there seems to be–if you’re a real weirdo, a lot of people don’t talk about what they’re doing from a–this is an easy to grasp. Well, not necessarily an easy to grasp idea, but I can break it down and show you how I do these techniques.
And again, that’s something I wanted to do because as an educator and as a kid who really learned to play guitar by listening to records and buying music books, I’ll send you–I’ve got a library in my other room. I own literally thousands and thousands of guitar books. I’ve read them all. Almost none of them are weird. Thank goodness they put out a decent John McLaughlin book last year and they started doing the Zappa books. I’ve seen those. One Size Fits All, the impossible guitar parts.
AG: Yep. I have it right there.
SP: I would give anything for a Trout Mask Replica book and a Lick My Decals Off book. A really good King Crimson book of Red, or I’d much rather have the box set, The Great Deceiver box set. Starless transcribed. I don’t know why Robert Fripp doesn’t sit down and do a real book of the old Crimson songs. That’s something I–maybe I’m rambling here, but I’m going to say this.
After I finished the 50 Greatest Guitar Books, what I really wanted to do was sit down with Larry Coryell and say, “Larry, show me this. Do this, do that.” Because I don’t think a lot of great players really know what’s great about what they do. Or some of them might even be, “Oh, you know I did that 30 years ago. I’m always moving forward.” “I’m sorry, I’ve got to know how to play it.” McLaughlin, I love this riff and I could tell you all the music theory behind it. [Plays “Meeting of the Spirits” riff from “The Inner Mounting Flame.”]
That’s a life-changing piece of music. The first song on that first Mahivishnu record. I want to sit down with John McLaughlin and say, “Let’s have a long, a really long conversation that I can turn into a really small book because we’re going to have to talk about 100 things to get the two that are the essence of what you do.” If I could sit down with McLaughlin or if I could have sat down with Zappa or Larry Coryell. I mean, Larry is one of my all-time favorites. Did so much great stuff. There’s a few other of those key players that you want to sit down and really digest what they do and be able to talk about it as peers.
You can’t go in there as a fan. Like, “Oh, I love what you do. Isn’t this cool? And weren’t you good?” You can really say, “I don’t want to talk about this thing you want to talk about. I’ve got an agenda that I think I and lots of other people want to know about. Can we do that in a way that’s going to be helpful to other people who are sort of at a lack–how many blues guitar books do I need?” Not many, but I could use those other books I’m talking about.
SP: I did see that.
AG: Yeah, and more is coming.
SP: All right, that’s good to know.
AG: Yeah, so I think there is–this weird music thing, there seems to be–well, probably because the music industry has fallen apart so now you’ve got to figure out, “How do I make money when my music makes me basically nothing?”
SP: Yeah and the notation–the other thing that’s really hard about that, right, is the notation. This is hard stuff to notate. Don’t get me wrong, there is this couple guys who do transcriptions for Hal Leonard. If you can do a Frank Zappa book, you can do a Dr. Nerve book, you can do a Boud Deun book, or a Mahivishnu book, or Captain Beefheart. I think there’s a reluctance on the bigger publishers and the original licensing publishers to say, “This is a lot of effort and we’re going to sell 20.”
AG: Right. [Laughs.] Yeah. Awesome. Thank you again, Shawn. It was really great talking to you.
SP: Hey, thanks for having me. A real pleasure. I hope to see you again soon.