Joel Peterson is a Detroit-based musician, composer, and presenter whose projects include Lac La Belle and Box Deserter Trio, and he is a 2010 Kresge Artist Fellow. Recently I spoke with Peterson about his influences, his recent and ongoing projects, and Bohemian National Home.
DG: How did you first get interested in making music?
JP: It probably started with childhood piano lessons. It became a stronger impulse when I was about 11.
DG: Where did you grow up? How did you get involved with Detroit’s music scene?
JP: I grew up in the burbs. I lived close to the border and played my first gig in the city when I was 15, using a fake ID. My family wasn’t terrified of the city, like so many people in Detroit’s suburbs, so I was already pretty familiar with a lot of it. I continued playing in bands and moved to the city in Dec. 1993.
DG: Who are some musicians and bands that you like to listen to?
JP: My favorite bands are the ones that live together under extreme conditions for long periods of time: The Ellington Orchestra, The Sun Ra Arkerstra, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. I love Charles Ives, Art Tatum, Eric Dolphy, Eugene Chadbourne, Mission of Burma, Oum Koultum, Charles Mingus, and Ernest Tubbs.
DG: Who are some of your musical influences?
JP: Mostly the people I grew up around and learned music from. They included friends I played music with; they were much more formative influences than famous musicians. I studied double bass with Bob Gladstone, guitar with John Denome, and jazz bass with Dan Pliskow. I taught lessons as a teenager at Fiddler’s Music on Detroit’s East Side, where musicians like Ralph Armstrong, members of The Chisel Brothers/Was Not Was, and Thornetta Davis hung out. There was also this kid named Gabe Imlay who came to my school in 8th grade (1986), after living in a lot of other cities. He was into all the far out music that rest of us were clueless about.
DG: I enjoyed BoxDeserter Trio’s show at the Hungry Brain last year. How long have you been working with that trio?
JP: The show you saw was our second time playing together — the first was the previous evening at the Detroit Institute of Art. We played together at Skeeter’s house for about 20 minutes the day before we did the DIA gig. Thollem and Skeeter had never played together before. Since that tour, we’ve only played once — when Thollem recently came through with the Italian group Tsigoti. We had a BoxDeserter gig on the side.
DG: How did you first start presenting shows in Detroit?
JP: A childhood friend of mine really took to presenting show when we were about 15. He was cold calling people like Jello Biafra, and he booked the first Fugazi show in Michigan. It made our whole crew realize how easy it was to contact these people that we thought were totally beyond responding to some high school kids. It was the days of the whole DIY thing coalescing, but I think the first non-local show I put on personally was Eugene Chadbourne.
DG: How did you decide to start booking shows at Bohemian National Home?
JP: I was looking for a space for about a decade! The sole intent was to book shows and stir up the scene, which was defaulting back to worn out venues.
DG: What are some highlights you have of your involvement with BNH?
JP: Well, I made two shows happen that I had always dreamed of doing: Mission of Burma and The Sun Ra Arkestra. Great discoveries (for me) because of the venue include Thollem McDonas, Tatsuya Nakatani, Oluyemi and Kenn Thomas, Shoplifting. Other people that stick out are Sam Rivers, Fred Anderson, Henry Grimes, Charles Gayle, Rhys Chatham, Quintron, Instant Composers Pool, Noah Howard. Of course all the Detroit and Chicago improvisers — pretty much. A Faruq Z Bey/Viki duo stands out as a true rarity.
DG: How did your Lac La Belle come together?
JP: Nick Schillace and I were doing an acoustic duo that was instrumental art music. Jennie Knaggs moved into the Bohouse and the collaboration was born there. I knew Jennie mostly from a show where she opened as a soloist. I thought it was the best vocal talent I heard in a while. I had caught Nick’s solo guitar set too and we had traded some gigs before we started our actual duo project, Duo Unduo.
DG: Lac La Belle performed a great set of music during Chicago Calling last year. What songs were in your set?
JP: Most were original, but I know we did “Cattle Call” — a Tex Avery yodeling tune. There’s a good chance we also did “Prodigal Son” and “Silver Dagger,” both of which are old, anonymous folk songs. Probably 75% of the set was our own material.
DG: How did “Cattle Call.” become part of Lac La Belle’s repertoire?
JP: That was a tune that Jennie already had in her repertoire as a soloist and Nick and I just adapted it. We never listened to the original, although I’ve heard it at some point. In fact, we never base our covers off a recording. One person knows some portion of it and we work the arrangements together.
DG: What were some impressions of the panel discussion with Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago that you participated in last October?
JP: St. Louis gotta shake some things up! I guess it’s hard for people in other cities to understand how dysfunctional city government is in Detroit. A lot of partnerships with the city that seem reasonable in other places will just never happen here.
DG: What are some other projects you’re working on these days?
JP: There’s Odu, the large Afrobeat ensemble lead by Fela alumnus Adeboye Adegbenro. There’s a new non-profit, hopefully a new venue around the corner. My old group Immigrant Suns is reviving a bit. Lots of assorted hits. We had a large group on Saturday in conjunction with the US Social Forum in Detroit. Skeeter, Marko Novachcoff, Michael Carey, Kurt Prisbe, James Cornish, Curtis Glatter, Kenn Thomas, Piotr Michaelowski and a couple others accompanied Brad Duncan’s oral examination of the Abolitionist Movement. Brad was the usual door-guy at The Bohemian- an encyclopedia of all things revolutionary.
You can subscribe to the “Experimental Arts Examiner” article series by clicking on the “subscribe” button under this article’s title.