Peter Wolf,
The TVD Interview

America’s independent streak started in the city of Boston. From the moment the “shot heard round the world” rang out to the day someone said, “Not everyone can have MTV? Fine! We’ll make our own MTV!” Boston has embraced its contrarians. 

New York may get all the glory, but Peter Wolf is one of those contrarians that made Boston his own. He found his way to his adopted city as a young art student from the Bronx in the late ’60s, becoming one of Boston’s favorite sons—pretty impressive, when one considers how Boston generally feels about people from the Bronx.

In the midst of studying painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Wolf stumbled onto a chance to sing in a blues band, and found his love (and deep knowledge) of music transformed into a new passion: performance. That passion transformed again into a gig as a DJ for Boston’s legendary WBCN, and again still when he founded and fronted the J. Geils Band with a cadre of fellow rock and roll fanatics.

Wolf struck out as a solo artist in 1984, near the height of J. Geils Band fame, and he hasn’t looked back. Released just last month, A Cure For Loneliness is Wolf’s eighth solo album. It’s a rootsy reflection on his musical past that is reverent without lingering too long.

“Change is constant,” Wolf says, “but it’s not necessarily negative, so you just have to keep rolling on.” The twelve new tracks have been a long time coming, and bring together rock and roll, soul, blues, and even honky-tonk to tell tales of survival and reflection that are both lighthearted and heartfelt. It’s pure Peter. 

We chatted with the Woofa Goofa about the new album, his fondness for independent radio stations, and why finding music in a record store is like coming home. 

I live in California now, but I grew up in Boston, and the late, great WBCN was a big part of what gave Boston such a unique musical presence. Just a few days ago, the City of Boston announced that April 13 will forever more be Peter Wolf Day. Was that a surprise to you?

Yeah. It was, but I knew it was going to happen. As it came down the pike, it was a very pleasant surprise. Also, it was nice that the ceremony for it took place at a shelter for homeless veterans. We ended up getting to play for the veterans, so that made it really even sweeter.

That’s very touching. I was thinking about that, and your legacy in the city, both in J. Geils Band and on ‘BCN. I work in Silicon Valley and I’m surrounded by a lot of very brilliant Millennials who find it hard to believe that media in different cities used to be very localized. Boston especially had all of these independent local TV stations and radio stations that weren’t part of a huge conglomerates. I know you’re still a radio guy… do you think independent radio will ever be as popular as it once was?

It’s an interesting question. As you experienced, we’re spoiled up here, because there is a lot of unique radio. A lot of the independent big commercial stations have become conglomerated by corporations that bought up everything. But what really saves Boston is there are so many great college stations.

Yeah.

Boston has kind of a unique stature as far as independent radio, so we get kind of spoiled. When you travel throughout the United States… other than college radio stations or small NPR stations, you don’t really get the same diversity. There are actually two NPR stations with some city funding [in the Boston area]. Then Harvard University and MIT have a great ones. Emerson College has a really fabulous one, WERS, that plays a lot of great music. I know I am leaving out one or two. There are some good commercial stations that are still mom and pop owned, like on the South Shore, WATD

The landscape of radio has changed tremendously. I think it’s not just because of the commercial buy-outs, but I think it’s the technological advancements that have fundamentally changed things. Many people have drifted to satellite radio in their cars; people on their cellphones find radio stations all over the world, or they just stream the different Spotify and Pandora stations.

I went to do an interview, up north of Boston, to a station called The River. It’s owned by this one person, the building is an art deco building, and it was built just for a radio station. When you walk in, you’re walking into a time capsule! They have all the booths and they have a performance area, and it’s just… hearkens back to when radio was king. But for good or for bad, times have changed.

I use Spotify, and it’s freaky how accurate their algorithms are. Their “Discover Weekly” playlists are amazing; they line up artists that I have never listened to, but end up loving. And it’s only going to improve.

Right! I think it’s all about what people are used to. With radio stations, the “curation” was you would tune in to hear a particular disc jockey. You’d say hey, I like their taste in music. Disc jockeys were able to play their own music, without a playlist, and because you would be interested in what they play, if there was a new release, you’d listen for the interesting cuts they’d pick from that release. It was a good connection.

For sure. As things move away from that kind of curation, there’s also this resurgence of interest in vinyl records and purchasing albums, and that long form format, with little or no guidance, which is almost like the pendulum swinging completely the other way.

Yeah. It’s interesting. I am not really sure what’s motivating the research of vinyl, particularly, but I am very glad that it is happening. When I talk to people who are buying vinyl, one of the things they don’t seem to care about is what it’s being played on. In my opinion, vinyl is superior to any kind of MP3 digital compressed format, because musically it sounds better. But what you playing it on matters, too. I know that they are making really great turntables and systems, but I don’t see too many people going out investing in, not necessarily very expensive options, but things that sound good to play the vinyl on.

I would probably agree with you. I’ve talked to a bunch of different musicians and, of course, there is always the “well, we listened to stuff on transistor radios!” school of thought—people who claim that the quality of the sound didn’t matter to them because the songs were amazing. Looking at your new album cover… you’ve got a single spinning on a little 45 player. That, to me, is so emblematic of that concept of music-over-format.

Yeah, it was a kind of spoof. I mean, I love 45s and, technically, after the 78 the sound became inferior. The 78 was actually the best way of reproducing the sound of a recording; then the 45 RPM singles came along, and then the 33 1/3 LPs, where the sound quality dropped more because of the even slower speed.

But I love LPs, and I grew up with them. Transistor radios meant that a lot of people’s music came from something that was the size of a cigarette pack. But I think the idea was that if people liked something on the radio they would, of course, go out and buy it. So, the transistor radio was just a means to an end.

That’s fair.

Most people don’t realize what’s happening to sound, and how compressed it’s become when it becomes an MP3 file. It seems like many people don’t really care about that, but then there’s the vinyl explosion. I think eventually, and this is just my humble opinion, that Pandora and Spotify will offer a high-resolution 96k, CD-or-beyond quality that you will be able to put through your system or your quality headphones. People are investing better quality headphones because a lot of the music is being listened to that way.

For sure. They’re trying it with Tidal, but I don’t think people are interested in having yet another service. 

I think that’s what Neil Young has done with his Pono player, offering a whole catalog that you can download. As time moves on, it’s all going to improve, just like television, and become high-definition by default.

I’d love to talk about your new album, A Cure for LonelinessI read somewhere that it was almost called Rolling On, which is the title of the opening track. What caused you to change it?

Someone who is pretty popular singer songwriter said to me recently, “Why are you spending so much time working on albums? You don’t have to worry about the sequence or the graphics anymore, because people are going to get it online, and they don’t really care about the visuals or the order of songs; they are going to pick and choose, and play it the way they want.” My response was, “It’s my job to put together a record, put together the graphics, put together the sequence—the beginning, middle, and the end.” That’s what I feel is the obligation of an artist, and that’s what I do.

I personally feel obligated to do it that way, and “Rolling On” was a title that I played around with, because the content of the song has a lot to do with where I am right now. It’s the theme of the album that runs through a lot of songs. Previous albums I did, like Sleepless, which was focused on the title track, “Sleepless,” which had a lot to do with the rest of the recording. After a while, I thought “Rolling On” might sound a little too, I don’t know, metal-ish, or seventies or something. It just didn’t seem to quite… I thought it could be misinterpreted. [Laughs]

So, the phrase “a cure for loneliness” came up. Someone mentioned it and I said, “That’s an interesting turn of phrase, the cure for loneliness.” I thought about how music has been my cure for loneliness throughout my life, and how important it was for me as I was growing up as a painter… I thought about love affairs, finding love, losing love… there’s always been a soundtrack. It seemed like the right title for the right recording.

I like that. I think there is that inherent loneliness that a lot of artists and musicians feel—a loneliness that you try to fill with the art that you make.

Yeah. I didn’t want to come out, Jen, with music that’s that sort of generic, classic singer songwriter, woe-is-me stuff. And I didn’t want the loneliness to feel lonely, or the music to feel like I was the victim of loneliness. But music is the cure for loneliness. At least it is for me.

I have stacks and stacks of records; I have stacks, and stacks of records; I’ve got stacks and stacks of CDs; I got a little funky jukebox, I got my little 45 player, so you can name an artist, I can walk up to the shelf, and pull it right out. When I was making Midnight Souvenirs, I had Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Meryl Haggard take part in it. The press kit for that record explains all the records that I have. I don’t consider myself a record collector; I just consider myself someone who loves music.

This album has been a long time coming, too. You’ve had these songs percolating for a while.

Yeah. It’s like, between touring and the shifts in the music world, it’s not enough just to put out a record; you want to put out a recording when you feel it’s the right time, and the band is ready, and you want to get out there, and hit the highways, and get around city to city. It just seemed like the right time had come, so I just pulled it together. I am fortunate to have the collaborators that I have on it—they started on Fool’s Parade and stayed throughout. It’s a camaraderie, and I really loved the collaborative aspect between myself, the musicians, and the making of the record.

There’s a theme in your lyrics, and in a lot of the songs, too, which is this balance of this reverence for where you’ve come from, but then the desire to keep moving forward, and playing, and moving on with life. For instance, on “Piece of Mind,” you talk about not knowing what song to sing. On “Fun for a While,” the lyrics are about the recklessness of youth: “I miss it now and then—it was fun for a while.”

I think in life, you take one step backwards and you take two forward. Musicians, writers, and even the great painters are have been influenced by the previous artists that came before them.

But somebody like a Merle Haggard, who always used the past to create something new… I find someone like him to be so inspirational. He was somebody that was constantly continuing to do what he did and made no concessions. Merle remained totally original, was highly influenced by the past, and just kept enduring. I think the same is true for Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and many classical composers—they just kept doing what they do.

You know, that got me thinking: You’ve probably heard about that massive concert that is going down in Indio, California, with The Who, and Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, Paul McCartney and all these huge classic rock acts. What’s your opinion about that show?

I’m not quite aware of it, so …

Oh, okay.

It’s hard for me to speak about it, but if what you are saying is about a concert of a lot of players that have been around for a while… well, that kind of thing has been going on forever.

That’s true.

From jazz festivals, to the folk festivals… well, rock and roll just kind of has this stigma to it, because it started out as music for young people. It wasn’t considered anything but commercial junk by the media, and it took a while for people to realize what a powerful art form it actually was—and became.

Music that started off with Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino, and Buddy Holly, kept growing and turned into the Beatles and Rolling Stones. You had Elvis, and all these different periods that just kept building on each other; Bob Dylan, the folk scene, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell…

Take the Newport Jazz Festival, for example. It had people like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters… people never thought wow, it’s their last hurrah! They just were artists who helped define and who were continuing an art form.

Do you still consider yourself a rock and roll guy?

Oh yeah. I’m a rock and roller, first and foremost. I started off as a rock and roller. The first concert I went to, I was ten years old. I was baptized early on; on one stage, I got to see Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Dion and the Belmonts, Buddy Holly, Screaming Jay Hawkins, the Everly Brothers, Jo Ann Campbell, the blonde bombshell, and there were more.

That’s unbelievable.

Yeah. It was the originators, the creators of this new art form. I was ten years old, and I already had many of the records that these artists were singing. That was a hard concept to beat.

How would you define rock and roll, today?

It’s really… it’s so broad. It would be the same question as, “How would you describe the world of painting today?”

That’s fair.

There is so many subdivisions of it that I would just describe it as an art form that’s still defining itself.

I love that.  

Tell me about The Vinyl District.

Well, it’s a couple of things. We obviously are huge fans of the analog format and of vinyl records. We love to promote the format whenever we can. We’re also big advocates of mom and pop record stores. We have an app that you can download that will help you find the nearest independent record store to your location, no matter where you are in the US and parts of Europe, too. We kind of bring both worlds together that way, digital and analog.

I get to talk to cool people like you and ask about what you’re up to, and get to hear about what you’re doing and what interests you. But when you get down to it, we are just all about the art and doing our part to help promote people who feel strongly about music and albums and even vinyl records, even if their opinion is contrary to ours. I think The Vinyl District is mostly trying to perpetuate the idea that you can be a musician and you can create… that that’s a worthwhile thing to do. I think with the way things have been going in the world, especially given the rise of tech, our cultural center is not always around music anymore. It’s shifted, so we are trying to help balance that out a bit. I know that sounds pretentious as hell, but does that make sense? 

Yeah. It does. It all makes sense. Besides the great college radio stations, just to add in to what you were talking about before, the Boston area is real fortunate to have a lot of independent record stores—a lot of great places to buy vinyl that have it priced fairly that you can really play and enjoy. The interesting thing to me about these shops is that the people who work in them are really, very well immersed in the music—they are very passionate about music. There’s one called Stereo Jack’s where everyone in there is a different expert. One guy is an expert on gospel, the other guy is an expert on jazz, the other one is an expert on R&B… and so I love going into these stores, not just searching for records—which I have done all my life since I heard my first Little Richard song on the jukebox—but I also continue to go into record stores because, to me, it’s like going to a museum.

Just looking at the artwork, and the album covers, and having the whole experience—especially at the places around here—where the people who run the stores are so into the love of the music.

Exactly.

I support those stores all the time. It’s the same thing with independent music places to play. Those are always the most rewarding, because the people who go to those places care about the music. It’s a business, but it’s one for the money, two for the show; meaning, at the end of the day, it’s the music that matters most.

Those are the kind of people and places I tend to gravitate toward, because those are the ones I find the most sort of enjoyable and authentic people.

They’re the most meaningful.

Yeah. We are both fighting for the same fight, Jen.

Peter Wolf’s A Cure for Loneliness is in stores now via Concord Music—on vinyl.

Peter Wolf: Official | Facebook | Tour

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