Q & A with Pete Berwick

by Dawn Casey Perreault

When did you first realize that you had musical ability and the desire to create music?

I don’t think of it so much as the first time I realized I had musical ability, but more in terms of as the first time I realized that I wanted to be in show business. I recall being in the city with my dad, and seeing all the businessmen dressed in the same suit and carrying the same briefcase. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to be like that. The natural evolution for me from there on was rock and roll. There was never an in-between for me. 

Was there any one particular artist that inspired you? 

My first inspiration was Dean Martin. When I was as young as ten I remembered seeing him on TV and understanding that he was the consummate performer. Watching him was a clinic in how to connect with an audience. It’s more than just standing on stage singing song after song. Anyone can do that. It’s what you also do in between that people remember. Did you make them laugh? If not, you lost an opportunity, because people remember laughing.

What was the first band you were in and was it one that you started or one that you joined? 

As far as my first band, that was around 1979, and I would just as soon forget it. Just me and some roommates trying to learn how to be a band. We basically sucked, but got good enough to eventually go out and play. I carried the act on my back because none of the other members had any principals or direction. They just went with the flow and could have cared less, whereas I wanted to take it further. It really was a crash course in how not to be as a band, and I don’t have many nostalgic memories of it.

What was your very first gig like? Did you start out doing originals or covers?

Our first gig we played for hamburgers, and there I was singing Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” at a church rummage sale. I felt like a rock star singing live for the first time, but looking back, I should have been shot on the spot, saving myself and many others a lot of misery.

Tell me about how your music has evolved over the years. I know you had a heavy punk edge to your music earlier in your career and I’ve seen some transition into that cowpunk style that you have developed. I’ve also seen your personal growth and experiences reflected in your lyrics as you’ve progressed, I see a lot of inner reflection that seems to speak of personal experiences along with some cynical observations of life around you. You definitely seem to see the irony and hypocrisy of life and it reflects in your music.

Well, can’t add a whole lot, because in your question you also pretty much answer it. I really don’t know, I could write a book to this answer I suppose, but in short, I just try to write good songs, and if it turns out a good county song then it makes the short list for my new album. If the next week it’s a good punk song, it also makes the short list. You grow in anything you do just by doing it a lot. The first time you fly an airplane you’re more focused on not crashing than flying. Same with songwriting. At first you’re just trying not to suck. Then after decades of doing it, it becomes harder not to suck because it’s second nature. I just try not to bore the listener. That’s a challenge right there, because today’s listener has heard it all. So what the hell is new that I can give them? I really don’t know. In the end, you really just have to do it for yourself, to prove you can do it. Sure, I’ve lived the hard life and paid the decades of dues, but if the songs I pen as a result of those adventures puts my audience to sleep, then I have failed. My real fans know my biography, the places I have been, and the trails I have blazed. It makes my work more meaningful to them. The younger generation with their smartphones stuck up their asses aren’t going to relate to me, and the feeling is mutual. I’m a goddamn dinosaur. After me and my kind are dead and gone, everyone and their dog will be an internet rock star. It’s fucking sad, really.

You’ve written and produced an extensive library of songs. Do you have a personal favorite?

My favorite songs are the ballads. I have a reputation for writing rowdy ass-kicking songs, but I tend to lean toward the more introspective ones, such as “Only Bleeding ” and “I Fought with Angels.” As far as memorable gigs, man, where to start? There’s been good ones and ones from the dark depths of Hell, which yes, my novel “The Bar Singer” delves into with no corners cut.

Your novel really brings out the reality of gigging. Any of us that have slogged through the club circuit should be able to relate. It’s not always glamorous. But can you tell me; do you have that one show that sticks out in memory because it was everything you hoped it would be?

As far as my favorite, that would be in 1992 when I opened for Charlie Daniels with my band “Pete Berwick & The Nashville Underground.” We got the star treatment, and it was just a great weekend partying and hanging with all these Nashville legends backstage. Of course, the next week it was back to singing to ten people in the dive bars, but that is the reality of the music business. It’s a job, and for years posers and wannabe’s have been trying to cover up that fact with spandex pants and pretty hair. But all it is a lousy job, and I only do it anymore because I have to. The only reason I keep on being Pete Berwick is because no one else has offered to be me, so what choice do I have? Am I jaded and burned-out? Take a wild guess. Thirty-five years of being pissed on will do that to a man. I don’t want to come off in this interview like I’m some almost-famous rock star. Sure, I am at a point in my career where many critics and fans are starting to use the L word, as in legendary, so I’ll take it, but the truth and the reality is…well, if you want to know, buy my book. That tells the reality. The music business is barely above the first level of Hell.

Your one of the few musicians I know that actually makes a living performing. I know you do a variety of things that involve music, from bar singing, to kids shows, to marketing your work publicly and have even had several of your songs used in movie soundtracks. I find that admirable, I think a lot of musicians go in with stars in their eyes thinking its all about fame and fortune and the magic record company genie is going to come along and give them instant success. You tend to roll up your sleeves and tackle the work part of music head on. Can you give any advice to up-and-coming musicians on how to survive in this industry?

How to survive in the music business? Easy answer. Pick a different business. But seriously…how can I even answer that? That’s like me telling someone how to go to war and not get killed. Anything I say could be the wrong advice. How one survives all depends on what one wants out of it. If your goal is to work a day job and go out and gig on weekends or every now and then, you won’t be under as much pressure to survive as one doing it for a living. Hell, I don’t know. I can only speak for me. I had my head split open several times as a little kid, so that may have something to do with not having the sense or brains to quit when all seemed futile, and most of the time it was and remains that way. But a man has to do something. Music was never a choice for me. I had to do it.

I suppose when you were born to do and be what you are, it no longer becomes an issue of survival. But if you have to pretend or if you approach the music business so you can get laid or be a rock star, then you won’t last, because the business has a way of weeding out the hacks. Still, what the hell do I know? Sadly, today, some kid uploads a video of themselves sitting on their bed in their pajamas, strumming a guitar and singing out of key, and they get a million hits. Any idea how many gigs you have to do to reach the same amount of people? Pretty sickening. So younger musicians coming up aren’t going to want to hear my old-school advice about paying dues and singing in every dive that will have you and sleeping in your car and working decades on your craft so as to be the best you can possibly be. And maybe my advice is outdated. There really is no answer to this question.

Surviving is just doing it until you die. And if you love it enough, and it is what you are and who you are and you don’t have to fake it, then it’s no longer surviving, only being. I would say the most important trait would be patience, and I don’t know if the young artists coming up would be interested in that or not, because I think so many of them are more focused on being instantly “discovered” online. Do you know what makes Johnny Cash interesting, and why everyone loves him? Sure, great music is a big part of it, but even as much so is his life and legend. Do you imagine that Cash would be revered at all if all you could picture of him was him sitting at his computer uploading his songs? He was out there living the life and paying the dues, year after year, decade after decade. Any struggling artist that thinks it’s enough to shoot me an email generically saying “check out my music” or leaves a phone message with someone in the industry and then moves on hoping for the best, is a failure in life and business.

There is a guitarist who has remained on my radar since the MySpace days, over ten years ago. I never really paid him or his band much mind, as he was one of a zillion musicians trying to get my attention. Year after year went by, and every now and then he would write to me or comment on my page, and I think I may have given his band a listen a time or two, and liked what I heard, but was always involved too deeply with my own projects to be of any help, not that I was in any position to. Anyway, just recently, after ten years of this, he popped up on my radar again, the timing was better for me, I went and saw his band, and long story short, we became good friends and he will be playing some guitar on my next album. What did this artist do that most others fail at? He refused to give up. I’m not saying you should be a perpetual pain in the ass, but the last man standing wins. I respect that. If I don’t look at you and see blood and scars and bruises, I get bored instantly. I need to smell life on you. Otherwise, come back and see me in a decade or two after you’ve really lived it. Moral of story: If you are not willing to give it time, find another business.

I know you’ve been performing as a solo artist now for a while, but do you ever see a time where Pete Berwick might come out as a full live band again? A lot of us, myself included, would love to see that happen. 

I can’t afford to put a band together right now, especially in this abysmal economy. I have a wife and kid and a mortgage, and coming home with twelve bucks in my pocket after paying the expense of a band isn’t sound economics. I also have too much on my plate, but I have not ruled the option out. The solo gigs pay the bills. The overhead of a band leaves little left at the end of the night for bills. It’s simple math. If I had a secure job I could consider it, but being that my job is being a full-time entertainer, I can’t right now. How ironic is that? Besides, I can think of few nightmares worse than managing a band. Most every band I ever had and managed I had to hold most of the member’s dicks while they took a leak so they wouldn’t dribble on the fucking floor. Seriously, if I had to be in one more band where so-and-so bass player or so-and-so guitarist thought all he had to do was show up and stand on stage and pretend that anyone gives a shit…let me tell you, a band is a business, and that’s the mistake band members make, and why so many break up. EACH and EVERY member should carry their own weight and contribute to the business side of things. But I never had that luxury. Every band I put together, it was always, “Well, Pete will book all the shows and do all the thankless work and promotion and manage everything, and we’ll just hang along until he becomes a star.” Well guess what, you’re not in my band anymore, are you? I have no patience at this point in my life. When the guitarist shows up for rehearsal the night before a gig, and doesn’t even fucking know where we are playing the next night, meaning he did jack shit to help promote the show, all I can think of is where to hide the dead body and how much I can get for his guitar on eBay.

I’ve heard you are currently working on a new CD. When will that be available and can you give us any insight into what the music will be like? Are you still sticking with your cowpunk style or are you finding your style moving in other directions? 

My fifth album will be titled “Can’t Kill A Man Born To Hang.” Enough said there. Yes, it will have the expected elements of cowpunk, but also the token insightful ballads that my fans look forward to. I also will be recording my first cover song ever, one of my favorite songs, “Solitaire,” which the Carpenters had a hit with. Have I lost my mind? I truly hope so 

I also know you are working on finishing your second novel. Is it a secret or can you tell us what this next book will be about? I know “The Bar Singer” is very autobiographical so I’m curious to know what you will be coming up with next.

It is also fiction, and is titled “The Writer.” It is to struggling writers what “The Bar Singer” is to struggling musicians. This one is really not so much biographical as “The Bar Singer,” though in some ways it is. I think it is almost impossible to write even fiction without it becoming part of who you are, the same as songwriting. You may write a song about a murderer, and though you aren’t one, you still have to write about the murderer’s emotions and what’s inside the murderer’s head. And where do those ideas come from? From inside your own head. So yeah, in the end, everything you write is biographical in a sense. But lying is a big part of it too. William Faulkner once said, “I am a liar by trade.” I always liked that honesty. I leave it up to the reader to decipher the lies from the truth. Other than that, I ain’t telling.

Check out Pete on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/peteberwickband
and on http://www.peteberwick.net

Pete’s single “Renegade” is featured on the November Rock in Chicago Show