Interview with Pete Simonelli from Enablers, August 2009

Pete Simonelli is a writer and poet, who not only creates powerful words on paper but transforms them on stage with the rest of the band that is Enablers: currently Joe Goldring, Kevin Thomson and Doug Scharin. With Simonelli being an "underground literary veteran" and the rest of the band being musical veterans they created three albums up until the latest piece called Tundra. From intimate confessions to powerful, raging words, Enablers have it all and this makes them a band not to be missed. Pete Simonelli took his time to answer some questions on the transformative process on stage and on the albums, the roots of Enablers, the necessity to move on stage and much more in the following interview.

Pete Simonelli

R.: How was your recent tour? Which places did you enjoy and what did you experience on tour?

Pete Simonelli: It was great--- as they all are, really--- but this time was a little different. We had a new drummer, Doug Scharin, and because we didn't book this one I think we were exposed to a few places we ordinarily would not have played. Andreas Kohl (Southern Germany and Exile On Mainstream) re-released "Tundra" in a limited edition box set and handled the booking and the tour for us. His main territory is Germany, which we had never toured much of, so we covered a fair amount of ground there. He definitely opened some doors for us and has broadened our future intineraries for sure. Poland, for one, was great, and we also played Prague for the first time and had a great show there. In all, I think this tour proved to be a more expansive one, musically (because of what Doug brings to the band) and in a motivational sense as well. Touring will do that; it gives you a sharp sense of focus and can tell you where your strengths and weaknesses are. This one did that, and now we're ready to record some more damn songs.

R.: How did Enablers get together in the first place?

Pete Simonelli: I approached Kevin Thomson about a book project I had in mind. Neither of us expected a band to emerge from it at all. He was playing with Goldring (and still does) in a band called Touched by a Janitor, and I was--and remain--- a very big fan of them. Kevin and I were working at a bar together at the time, so I eventually asked him if he, and possibly Janitor, would be interested in providing some music for this project. Basically I wanted to read some poems over good, challenging music and use the recording as an accompanying CD to a book I was going to put out myself. Nothing new or novel about that--- we both knew it--- but we were opposed to the usual and obvious "backdrop sound" that so often says very little for the music and leaves most of the ear time to whomever is doing the speaking. I turned over a few poems to Kevin and within a short amount of time Goldring became a part of it. Joe Byrnes, on drums, was added a little later on. Songs were being developed at a pretty steady clip once we had everybody there. But it was Byrnes who essentially initiated the band. He said that in order to record, he'd have to play the songs live a couple of times. Shows pretty much just kept coming from there on out. And we were already recording what would become End Note by that time anyway. Those few local shows turned into a small European tour and, almost on a whim, Goldring gave Neurot a demo and they decided to put it out. The "project" pretty much fell by the wayside at that point and we started to get more serious as a band.

R.: How do you write songs? Do you already have the lyrics (or poems) before the music is created?

Pete Simonelli: For the most part, yes. End Note was all old stuff---even then. I'd written most of those poems years before, which more or less prompted my wanting to record them as part of that initial project I'd approached Kevin about. By the time Output Negative Space was being recorded, we'd toured two or three times already and many of the poems on that record were written specifically for that release. I still had some old ones around, like "For Jack", but that record is primarily taken from what were then new poems. I only mention all of this because we were essentially becoming more and more serious and devoted to the band by that time. As a result of that, we were also becoming hungrier for newer material, which created, and still does create, broader or different approaches to how the songs are written. We're all constantly working on something anyway, and now that I'm living on the east coast, we've gone the way of audio files and whatnot. They have riffs and ideas, they send them along; I just keep writing, but I hear, and write, a lot more musically now, for better or worse.

R.: Was it clear from the beginning that you’d perform your poems to the songs? What is the difference between the three albums – musically and lyrically – for you?

Pete Simonelli: No, it was never clear. In fact, it was the last thing I wanted to do. But as I mentioned above, it was just something that transpired out of a need, for Byrnes especially, to get a better feel for the songs. The irony is that most of the poems I now write are intended for the band--- to be perfomed, that is. Not all of them make it and that's perfectly fine. As a writer, I need my own stable of material anyway. The same can be said for the others in terms of music. We've always recognized that there is Enablers material, and there are things that are distinctly not Enablers material. Which sort of carries over to the latter half of your question. The main difference between all three albums is growth, really. Music gets developed by one's involvement with it. If you like the sounds and noises you're making with other people--- fantastic; you keep moving along and growing one big ear together. That's where we are now, especially with the addition of Scharin on drums. He brings an intensity of focus and musicianship that I wouldn't say was necessarily lacking, but it drives the rest of us into newer territories because we have this renewed or invigorated presence in the band. We're more inclined to take risks without the fear of failing. I hear that in the course, or arc, of the three records. Lyrically, the writing has become more focused on sound, which created a lot more editing. On "Tundra" for instance, the poems' words are slightly different than the lyrics to the songs. "Carriage" is a perfect example of that. It's a permutable piece of writing. As a poem, taken on its own and away from the music, it reads differently than what you'll find on the lyric sheet. In short, there's a lyric version and a poem version that exist independently of each other, but they have the same title. As another, but different, example, "The Achivement" started out as a story (and was recorded as such) and then was cropped down to fit a certain shorter arrangement. Weird? Maybe. But it's a definite indication of how we're all willing to shift our roles to the desired effect of the songs or situation.

R.: Was it easy transforming your poems into spoken song lyrics?

Pete Simonelli: I suppose I sort of answered that already--- getting ahead of myself again. Sorry about that. Sometimes it is easy, other times not. The idea, or the aim, is to retain the integrity of each element--- the writing and the music--- so that they can work together and independently of each other. But I think under the crux of the harder times you can really see the limitations or the possibilities of the lyrics. There have certainly been times when I'll have to call a break, sit down and get to work all over again--- sometimes right then and there, in the studio. "Transforming" is the perfect word for the process, though, because there are times when the song's arrangement will dictate how a line comes across; it will heighten or lessen segments where I haven't necessarily seen it coming and I'll have to adapt a line, or a break in a line, to the direction of the music. Again, this is one definitive way the whole approach has changed over the years. The push and pull has sort of shifted. Where they once felt the need to accommodate the words, I now feel the responsibility to accommodate the music. I have to adapt more now, and I think that only helps. We're much more at the mercy of the song and the arrangement now. Not always, but a lot more than before. You have to reconcile space (voice) and sound (music) accordingly and do it in a way that still makes sense to you, the listener and, hopefully, to the whole and eventual combination of the poem and the music.

R.: Your words in your poems have sometimes an intimate quality to them so that I could imagine that it could be difficult performing them. Do you see that as a challenge?

Pete Simonelli: A challenge, yes, but a welcome one. It's really just about feeling your way through the process of combining these two separate things. Mistakes are often very helpful because you can step away from one approach and see another developing. We're trying to record everything now--- the practice, that is--- to see where the possibilities lie, and to what advantage they can best be used. Intimacy comes out of that. I can't really come in and say, "Ok, it's gotta be really quiet here," or, "Dial it down here because I gotta get sexy with it; I gotta get this line across." None of that shit. The intimacy will reveal itself as you get more familiar with the song. I mean, I first thought that the poem "Tundra" would get a sort of quiet or mild treatment. Then Kevin introduced this really great southern fried, ZZ riff and I got such a resounding hard-on about it that the aggressive delivery kind of took over. And then it got even more raging when they told me it had to be delivered harder, dirtier. That movie, "Downfall", had just come out; we all really loved it, and I can remember Kevin telling me to basically imitate Bruno Ganz as Hitler raving in the bunker--- the ebb and flow of it. That was an intimate performance to me so I ran with it. Performed live, I love turning into an absolute fucking lunatic with it...with some hearts and flowers thrown in for nuance of course.

R.: How do you perceive yourself on stage during a performance?

Pete Simonelli: I try not to perceive myself. That's troubling. I do some things in a performance and wake up the next day wincing out of physical pain or sheer, psychic embarassment. Other times everything's ok. From a techical standpoint, I'll think, alright, I hit my marks, the voice felt good, the delivery seemed good; I fell ass over heels over the monitor, but that's cool; it got a laugh--- all of that. I guess I'm still trying to figure it all out, faults and all. I don't worry about movement, though; I know that'll always be there because those guys make truly compelling music that forces me to move and respond to it. Who wants to see a "poet" or "singer" just standing there as this provocative music pours around him? I wouldn't, so I suppose I react against that kind of perceived performance. Ultimately, it's rock music, and there's an inherent demand on a performance. You should come out with the intent on delivering something people can take away with them.

R.: Could you elaborate a bit on what some of the lyrics/poems mean to you?

Pete Simonelli: They all have a special meaning. I wouldn't have written them if they didn't have some kind of initial curiosity or emotional weight. Other than that, I really don't care to elaborate on what they "mean" or how they come about. I will say that their origins may not indicate the outcome. I just don't believe in breaking down the meaning to any poem, and as I progress as a writer I think the writing and thus the point/meaning/gist becomes clearer. As a favorite poet of mine, August Kleinzahler, said, a poem is just another form of entertainment. If people accept a poet or a poem deeply into their lives and it somehow gives them succor or meaning--- great. But I wouldn't set out to specifically do that; that would make for some startlingly BAD work. But I will say that poems like "Mediterranean" and "A Blues" are definite points of pride, and for various reasons.

R.: Do you have any writers/poets or stories/poems that you like very much?

Pete Simonelli: Sure, there are many of them that over the years have proven to be really influential or just things that have made a strong impression. Over the last dozen years or so I've been reading almost everything August Kleinzahler has put out in that time. The first time I saw him read I thought, "Alright, now I know what I want to do, and, more importantly, what I have to do." I was reminded of Celine a little bit, because Kleinzahler has a great technique, style, and approach to how he writes: he combines everyday spoken language with a sort of elevated language that rarely loses the reader. He can write poems with his feet firmly on the ground and yet he can also launch a poem into these great, expansive territories of memory, history, or even science. He's a poet and writer with a lot of curiosity, instinct, and humor, and he just seems to be very comfortable doing what he does with language. He contorts it without becoming too vague, and at the same time will sort of retreat into a given character's (he writes a lot about people in his neighborhood, friends, acquaintances, strangers past and present) way of speech, which takes a very refined ear to pull off successfully. He's also a hugely tasteful music buff and critic, and has written pretty extensively about Jazz, old R&B, early Rock, Blues, and even the occasional Classical piece.
Another favorite of mine is a guy named Jack Gilbert. I came across him after an old friend of mine turned me on to one of his books, "The Great Fires." I've been hooked ever since. He's led a pretty interesting life. Grew up in Pittsburgh when it was still an Iron Town with a largely working-class population; a city based almost exclusively on heavy industry. He went to Yale, eventually winning a very distinguished award (The Yale Younger Poets Prize) and then fucked off to Europe and drifted around for the next 20 odd years before settling in some obscure part of Greece for many years more. His poems read like dispatches from acute points of pain, loss (his wife died at a young age), and the resolve that comes out of those emotions. A really strong, white-haired, white-bearded poet that believes in telling it like it is. He looks like a grounded demi-god that sort of wanders the Earth recalling things about a life lived with misfortune, fortune, and risk. I just re-read a poem of his called "A Kind of Courage" (from his book, Refusing Heaven) last night, and that's about as good as any poem can get. What he can do in a minimal amount of lines is by turns shocking and enviable. I've read some of his stuff over the years and thought to myself, "Forget it, man....Drop the pen and go do something else."

R.: Do you have any other favorite stories/poems not of yours where you could talk about what they mean to you?

Pete Simonelli: Well there's that Gilbert poem I mentioned above, but a lot of poems and stories come and go in terms of how they "hit" you. Something that blew you away ten years ago may now say nothing more to you than a simple "huh." Some stick with you, though. There's a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called "Crusoe in England," which comes to mind. That one I go back to and read time and again. It's a poem that reads like a short story and, in a technical sense, commands the reader with its transitional mastery, how it gets from point to point so fluidly and keeps its tension as she goes from point to point. And the ending of it breaks your heart. Dog lovers beware.
Aside from these, there are a lot of poems I come across in online journals and small print journals that are great. A guy named Matthew Dickman comes to mind. Kim Addonizio is another really good one. A couple of friends of mine write great stuff: Peter Funk and Mark Terril. Rilke's Duino Elegy #1 (translated by Stephen Mitchell) is an important one to me: "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." Not bad, eh? Bukowski had one that used to kill me, "Claws of Paradise" from Play the Piano like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed.
There's a line in there about toothpaste caps getting lost down the sink drain--- another stupid reason why relationships fail. I remember that poem having a lot of relevance at one time. Another old friend of mine, Jack Hayes, wrote some great stuff, namely "Sam Peckinpah Mexican Xmas" which I've read at readings a couple of times now. Jack (who is the person addressed in one of our songs "For Jack: A Philippic" on Output Negative Space) is a surrealist poet weaned on all those French guys (Breton notably) who brings a lot of 50s and 60s American Pulp and Noir into play in his poems. Great, vivid images and references to people like Tammy Wynette shake hands in the same line; it's often hilarious and loaded with overtones of pills, booze, deserts, Ecclesiastes--- all sorts of rabid and livewire kind of shit. Makes for a tasty stew.

R.: What were the last few bands/albums that you enjoyed?

Pete Simonelli: I've recently come across The Grails' last record and have been enjoying that. What a great band they are. Last night my girlfriend was playing something called Ballroom Dance is Dead, which is a New Orleans/New York collaboration involving a friend of ours named Lynn Wright. Really, really great. One of those things you hear and your ears just instantly perk up: " what's this??" Then I realized that I'd actually heard it before but hadn't remembered it, which is basically the same as hearing it for the first time. And then there's always Delta Blues stuff, which I'll always love and admire, because 50, 60, even 70 years on now (in most cases) that stuff still comes across to my ears more sincerely than any other form of music I can think of--- just watch, or listen to, Son House. Man.

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