The Rumpus Interview with Peter Squires

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Peter Squires describes playing in bands as his “favorite social activity,” and by that standard he is a very social fellow. In the past he played with “the fake Christian rock band” The Sin Destroyers and prog-rockers Monster Eiffel Tower. Currently, he performs in the folk duo The Farthest Forests and the garage band The Landladys. Rumpus-ites will likely be most familiar with him as a solo artist—he’s performed at the Monthly Rumpus, and conducted a one-word interview with Isaac Fitzgerald upon the release of his debut solo album Woe is Me—and it’s about this subject that I recently had a chance to talk to him. Peter’s most recent solo album, Where the Bunny Meets the Bear, is a terrific, varied, searching effort about bad love, good dogs, death, and cutting loose.

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Rumpus: I found it telling that the bottom of your Bandcamp page was tagged “alternative, folk, anti-folk, diy, folk rock, indie, indie folk, indie rock, rock.” There’s a restlessness in your music that’s so compelling. For instance, a polished, irresistible rocker like “Sweet Release” could slot into an anthology of the great alt-rock tunes of the last twenty years and not sound remotely out of place, whereas a track like “Mississippi Noodle Hound” is nakedly, genuinely sweet in a way that has rarely, if ever, been cool enough for the mainstream. Can you talk a little bit about covering so much ground on one record? Did that feel like a risk?

Squires: I didn’t think of it as a risk—I actually didn’t think much of it at all. If I’d recorded these ten songs acoustically, they would still have felt different from one another, but people probably would have recognized them all as “folk.” Since I decided to flesh them out with other instruments, they started to head in different directions genre-wise. But I feel comfortable playing different genres of music because I really like listening to a lot of different kinds of music. I think that’s true for most people, too. I doubt I know anyone whose iPod only has one style of music on it. The music I want to listen to at any given moment has everything to do with my mood in that moment. Similarly, when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about fitting into a given genre, I’m thinking about reflecting a mood.

I performed “Sweet Release” for years as an acoustic song, but I needed the song to feel more guttural…to reflect a meeting at the intersection of anger and jubilation at the moment when you have to choose between continuing to look backwards and starting to look forward.

Rumpus: What about “Mississippi Noodle Hound”?

Squires: “Mississippi Noodle Hound” is one of the only songs I’ve ever written when I was happy. Most of the songs on the album are either about heartbreak or recovery from heartbreak, and there’s a lot about wanting what you don’t have. Noodle Hound is about feeling happy and grateful for having landed in a good place. And yes, it’s silly to attribute that to a dog. I’ve pretty well given up on trying to be cool though, at least within the context of what’s “in” at the moment. I obviously want to be liked—everyone does—but I want to be liked for being who I am. I am goofy and I love my dog, so I wrote a song that says so.

Rumpus: I find the sincerity of your writing extraordinarily winning. The exhortation of “Go Forth”—”Just because life hands you pain and loss/Don’t mean you can’t show that motherfucker who’s boss”—doesn’t mince words. In “If I Hadn’t Changed” the voice of the song makes a confession that’s simple, but strikes incredibly deep: “You know the day we first met/I thought you were ok,/but had my eye on something better.” I’m curious about where you started as a writer and how you got to the place where you’re at now. How did you approach your subjects as a younger lyricist and how has that changed?

Squires: The most important realization I’ve ever had as a writer is that by speaking specifically to your own experiences, you’re not alienating people, you actually make yourself more relatable. Everyone’s been through heartbreak, on one side or the other. Everyone’s experienced loss or failure, and hopefully felt the joy of redemption. So I try to speak to those experiences exactly as I’ve lived them and to say what I mean. There aren’t a lot of poetic images or metaphors to read into. I think the worst lyrics happen when writers try to get smart or artsy or cool and lose sight of whatever point it is they actually want to get across.

Rumpus: “Two Bunnies” is a track that fascinates me. It has that unearthly vibe that you sometimes find in very old folk songs. The story it tells is so simple, and yet so odd—the bunnies take the bear’s soul—it clearly invites interpretation. I can’t decide if it scares me or soothes me; I just keep listening to it. Why did you decide to draw the album from this particular song?

Squires: “I can’t decide if it scares me or soothes me”…can’t it do both?

Rumpus: I was hoping you’d say that.

Squires: I mean, the song’s about death, which everyone’s terrified of (which is silly, because it’s the one and only experience that every single human has in common)—but it’s also about being reunited with your loved ones in heaven, which is supposed to be, like, the best place you can go, right? I’m not religious and don’t actually believe in heaven and hell, so it’s really about having something to look forward to and believing in your darkest hour that there are brighter days ahead.

After I finished recording the album, I had a really hard time settling on a title. The songs were written over the course of a few years, so the underlying theme wasn’t as readily apparent as when I’d written a 100% breakup album a few years earlier. I considered the topics that were most prevalent in the songs, and I realized there were quite a few mentions of death, of heaven, of grass growing greener on the other side, etc. So “Two Bunnies” seemed to be a fitting theme song for the whole record. I hoped the title Where the Bunny Meets the Bear would reflect a crossroads moment—life and death, fear and tranquility, softness and ferocity, and to have a sort of ageless, storybook quality (hence the illustrated cover too).

Rumpus: You performed nearly all of Where the Bunny Meets the Bear yourself. Besides the obvious advantages of doing everything yourself—cheaper, less potential for creative differences—is there something about this set of songs that made you want to take that route?

Squires: As someone who plays many instruments, I’d always wanted to record an album where I played everything—I don’t really know why it took me so long. It was actually a great experience. The challenge, though, is performing it live. I’m just now putting together my first “back-up band,” which is an interesting experience, and different from being in an actual band. In an actual band you assemble the group because of the unique elements that each member brings to the table. With a back-up band for an album that you recorded yourself, you’re really just telling them, “Play like me!” It can make you feel controlling and egomaniacal, but the album sounds exactly like I want it to sound, so I need to direct the other musicians (who are my friends) to recreate it—without being a dick.

Rumpus: In your career you’ve moved around a lot: Brooklyn, San Francisco, Puerto Rico. Now you’ve ended up in Eliot, Maine, and it sounds as though you’ve started to put down roots. How did that happen? What sort of role do your surroundings play in your songwriting?

Squires: In Brooklyn I felt like my roots had been firmly planted, and then yanked up out of the ground…so the songwriting I did then reflected that rawness and devastation. When I got up off the mat and dusted myself off, I hit the road. Even though in hindsight it was quite unglamorous (three months alone in a Honda Accord eating fast food and crashing on floors and couches), at the time it felt like a huge triumph. I was proud of myself for recovering from hurt and being brave enough to leave my home—so the songs I wrote on the road and my time in Puerto Rico and San Francisco mostly reflect that pride and optimism (“Go Forth,” “Sweet Release,” “I Wanted to Kiss You,” “Heaven”) with some jabs at my past (“If I Hadn’t Changed,” “Creator/Destroyer”), as well as some renewed pining for the life I’d lost (“Lovers”).

I wrote “Bummer’s Lament” and “Two Bunnies” after I landed in Eliot. After I left Brooklyn I was so caught up in the excitement of my travels that when I finally landed (in a completely new and unfamiliar place), I felt completely lost and aimless. Those months were extremely dark, and those songs obviously reflect that. In February of 2011 I started to emerge from that darkness because I got a job, got a dog, and started my band The Farthest Forests. It’s amazing what a cure for depression it is to have something to do, something to make, and something other than yourself to take care of. That’s what “Mississippi Noodle Hound” was about—though I didn’t actually write the song until the end of 2012. It was the obvious conclusion to the saga of my leaving New York…the moment I felt happy and at home again.

Rumpus: So what’s next? Are you going to blow the lid off Eliot, ME or what?

Squires: There’s not much of a lid to blow off of Eliot, ME. But living here, as well as a few other towns in this area (collectively known as “the Seacoast”) means you probably spend most of your time in Portsmouth, NH. For a town its size (about 30,000), Portsmouth actually has a pretty incredible arts and culture scene. When I lived in New York, everyone who made art of some kind was hoping to be “discovered,” and we went to such lengths to make our art happen. My bandmates and I paid hundreds of dollars a month to share a 10’x10′ rehearsal space with two other bands, and played shows constantly for the same group of friends, hoping we’d get a chance to open for someone better known than us, or catch the ear of an adventurous blogger—all in hopes that little by little we’d build a fanbase. But it happens for so few, regardless of the quality of your work. Here there’s no discussion of being discovered at all; everyone just makes art because they love it. And people pay to hear music and see plays and buy paintings and photographs—all by really talented artists, most of whom will probably never be “famous.” But good art still gets made, even when it’s somewhat under the radar. I’m happy to participate in a scene where there are no lids being blown off. I still want as many people as possible to hear my music, which is challenging, but I’m content to have it happen from the cozy confines of my house in the woods. For the moment, the days of sleeping on strangers’ couches are behind me.


Owen King is the author of We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories, and co-editor (with John McNally) of the fiction anthology Who Can Save Us Now? His fiction has appeared in One Story and Prairie Schooner, and Guernica, among other publications. Double Feature, his first novel, was published by Scribner in March. He is married to the novelist Kelly Braffet. More from this author →