Artist Interview: P.E.

Posted: by The Editor

P.E. was a New York inevitability. An amalgamation of Dull Tools labelmates Pill and Eaters, the DIY supergroup was never going to escape the incestuous web of experimental artists and musicians at the core of the city without forming something special. The friendships and shared artistic endeavors amongst the band’s members allow for a musical environment both seamless and primed for wacky experimentation. Their latest record, The Leather Lemon, features a rotating spread of blazing drum machines and traditional kits that lock into the gaps in Jonathan Schenke and Jonny Campolo’s bass runs as effects carousel around the mix. It sounds like a lot, but P.E. remain calculated even as synths, saxophone, and Veronica Torres’ dreamy yet biting vocals hit the senses.

They’ve mastered the push and pull of electronic music. Synth delay and pitch modulation are employed to squeeze incredible moments out of blank space while P.E.’s lack of guitar creates room for a smooth call and response between the instrumentation and vocals. The best experimental music sounds wildly inventive but wholly intentional. After speaking with them, there’s no questioning whether P.E. is just shooting from the hip.

Veronica Torres (voice, lyrics), Jonny Campolo (piano, synths, bass, percussion, voice), Benjamin Jaffe (saxophone), Jonathan Schenke (synths, beats, bass, percussion, voice), and Bob Jones (beats, samples, synths, bass, voice) possess more shared artistic experience than the grass at Oberlin. Veronica’s history in visual art translates to her impressionistic, often existential lyrics, whereas Jonny and Jonathan have a shared background in avant-garde film and art scoring that lends itself well to improvisation. Spontaneous flashes of creativity aside, P.E. are songwriters above all else. The painstaking refinement of their work in the studio is what makes the group transformative.

Having just flown into New York City, Veronica joined Jonny, Benjamin, Jonathan, and I for a chat about P.E.’s new record, The Leather Lemon.

The Alternative: Thanks for flying in and immediately doing an interview!

Jonny: Yeah, right? So rock and roll!

Was there any artistic or social connection between y’all (the collective members of Pill and Eaters) prior to the fabled house party where both groups came together to entertain a crowd that featured Wharf Cat Records employees?

Jonathan: There was a bit. Both Pill and Eaters were on Dull Tools [Andrew Savage’s label], so we played a ton of shows together and were always hanging out in a group of people. But I think the only actual crossover, [Jonny] and I did that soundtrack for…

Jonny: Oh, that’s right! Phil Birch.

Jonathan: Phil Birch! Johnny and I did a soundtrack for a friend of his where it was just like, show up for a day at the Mexican Summer studio, and we were doing all sorts of abstract recording with like, prepared piano. There was a guitar feedback thing where I had a microphone and was dangling it.

Jonny: Yeah, we were doing a lot of dynamic microphone moves. This was for an art piece that was shown in this gallery in the Lower East Side in 2017, right before the band [P.E.]. You know, music is so much about people that new bands happen because people just kind of wanna get together. And that was definitely the earliest collaboration, I guess, between the projects.

Jonny and Jonathan recall running into each other at a mutual friend’s wedding and making a pact to record something together. Jonny likens it to seeing an old friend and overzealously declaring that you both “have to do something together.”

Jonathan: There wasn’t a doubt that it wouldn’t work, but it was still surprising how well it worked.

Benjamin: I think everyone also has this idea that we never discussed, but whenever you’re playing, you’re really committed to that thing. If you’re taking a solo, you’re really committed to that solo. So there isn’t an attitude of like, “ya know, I’m just gonna improvise and see what happens.” So now that we’ve established that fact we move on from it. And the next step is what does the music tell you to play? Play that thing and be really committed to it. And sometimes that could be flailing about, acting like it’s the greatest thing to ever happen on your instrument. I didn’t come up with this. Miles Davis pretty much came up with this, but when you’re playing you have to make it sound like it was written out for you, and when you’re recording in the studio you have to make it feel like it’s live. If you’re always thinking that way then it’s always going to be cool.

Veronica: I mean, there is a lot of this improvisation that goes into creating the music, but then there’s also a ton of editing, a lot of listening back and making sure that all the seams match up and that everything flows. There is an element of crafting. I feel like it’s kind of like in photography, like there are two ways to shoot where it’s like, you either build the picture perfectly and then take one shot, or you take a million shots and then you go back and you create the narrative. And I think we’re more of the latter. 

Jonny: Totally. Yeah, although we came out of raw, open experimentation, like, we’re like what Ben said, we have moved completely beyond that. And this new record is totally an example of like, just songwriting. 

It’s not just randomness for randomness’ sake.

Benjamin: I mean, I only play out of key if they tell me to. They tell me a lot, but the way I’ve always thought about it is, it’s like, you really do—and this is another idea I did not come up with—but if when you’re playing a solo you imagine that you’re reading the sheet music going by, and if you see a spot where it tells you to rest for like three bars, then you rest for three bars. [If you think about it like that] then you know when you’re supposed to come back in. What really helps me read sufficiently in my head is that I can’t really read on paper.

I played saxophone in high school and can read fine enough, but you’re going to feel very buttoned-up listening to me. We played, like, John Williams.

Benjamin: Let’s trade. We could become…

The perfect player! Veronica, in the song notes for “Tears in the Rain” you reflect on the dismissal of ego and subsequently being able to read your life like it’s a book. I’m curious if it was intentional to have you and Andrew [Savage] write each other’s lyrics, keeping with that idea of objective retrospection.

Veronica: Yeah, that was from the start. We had sent the track to Savage maybe like the week before so he had time to meditate, and he just showed up with like, some really powerful lyrics. And so I was able to read them and build off of that. And again, both Pill and Eaters were on Dull Tools, so we have had a relationship for a really long time and a really solid friendship. So it just felt really natural. It didn’t feel forced in any way. It kind of felt like, have you ever made an exquisite corpse?

I have not, but I know what it is! 

Veronica: It kind of felt like that, where I was able to read some of his words and build off of it so we painted like, a fuller picture together. And I feel like there’s intentional meaning that both of us brought in that maybe kind of filled the gaps out and created a new meaning together. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just narrative building.

Jonny: I think it was like, pretty experimental of an idea, like a very artistic idea to start with the concept instead of “this is the song that I wrote, let’s fuck it up!” Instead, you guys had an idea of how to write a song and then just kind of did it, which was very cool. And it was very, you know, we’re pretty fluid in the studio. We provide feedback all the time. Even with Andrew, like, they wrote it together. It wasn’t flown in. We didn’t fly him in. They wrote it together and it sounds like that when you hear the call and response style of the vocals. They’re responding to each other’s words poetically. [They’re] not just singing together.

Jonathan: I love Veronica’s analogy of the exquisite corpse. Like we did that a lot in the studio, just people doodling and drawing. And all over my studio fridge there’s our exquisite corpses. But I think that’s a cool analogy for the way a song like that came together. It’s like, there’ll be the initial idea and maybe there’s only parts of it that somebody is responding to, but then they add a thing and somebody [else is] responding to that. And when you unfold the whole piece, maybe you have to like, extend some shading down to make it feel whole, but that’s how you end up with like, the webbed foot, long neck giraffe. It’s exquisite!

Jonny: That song is exquisite. And even when we play it live, you know, we’ve already done the proof of concept kind of live version of that song because we toured with Parquet [Courts] last fall. We would call Savage up on the stage and he would join us for that song. And that song on the record is the low point. In the whole arc of the record it’s the low point. Like it’s the slowest song, it’s the longest song. It’s kind of the most it’s going for beauty really. It’s Ben’s big solo on the record. The sax solo in the middle is like the big solo moment on the record, and even live, for such a pretty, slow song, like that became our big number! Just like, the crowds went crazy for that song.

Is the piano sampled?

Jonny: It’s a live sample that I played. It’s kind of the idea where we wrote the song and then we sampled the song that we wrote.

Hey, that feeds even more into the themes!

Jonny: Totally! It’s hip hop production too. You want it to sound like a sample, so you kind of have to write the song first. It’s kind of like, it’s a roundabout way to go into writing that kind of song, but like, it really did work.

Benjamin: That kind of R&B piano, whenever we’ve had time to chill out you’d like to sit down at a piano and play some sweet R&B. 

Jonny: It’s true, yeah. There’s a lot of piano on the record actually, now that you mention it.

Veronica: To go back to the exquisite corpse, it’s like a surrealist parlor game, which is what it started as initially. So I feel like, you know, I come from visual art initially. I mean, Jonny as well. And I feel like there’s a lot of, just like how when you see the start of a shape that gives an emotion, so does, like, the sound of rain. We kind of had some parameters that were initially given to Savage, like some kind of noir feel. 

Jonny: It was definitely a mood setter.

I thought I was listening to a Portishead song initially. That’s at least what I heard on first listen.

Jonny: I love Portishead! That’s awesome, dude.

Benjamin: They’re definitely an influence for me as far as thinking about space and color.

Jonny: Yeah, totally! That song has a ton of space too. And maybe it is a little antithetical, which is why we loved it so much and included it on this record cause it’s kind of the opposite direction of a lot of the manic energy or upbeatness of the rest of the record. The rest of the record is pretty fluorescent compared to that track. It’s a breath in the middle of the record. It’s the end of side A, which is very important about that song.

Jonathan: Yeah, I always think about that with anyone I’m working on a record with. It’s like, I always suggest to people that they think about it when you’re telling a story. So you think about your beginning, and your middle, and your end. So if you have the first two or three songs settled, the last song on side A, the first song on side B, and then where you want to end, the rest of the story fills in the blanks. And for this record, as Johnny was saying earlier, it was very much a concerted effort to lean into songwriting. And it’s not that we didn’t experiment. There’s a ton of really random shit all across the record, but we were really working to tell a story. It’s been a while since we delivered it, but I feel like it really does encapsulate the first year of COVID when we were really excited about this project that we had started and were looking to continue, and be creative, and really like finding inspiration and solace through creating and collaborating, even if it was long-distance at the beginning. And I feel like having moments like “Tears in the Rain” and how side B really works as a suite where things flow into one another, it becomes really surreal and psychedelic in a way that I think that first year of the pandemic felt, where you’re just like, “what the fuck is going on in my life?”

With Darwin’s ghost near, Benjamin drew parallels from P.E.’s inception as a studio band to natural selection. Their recording focused approach initially existed as an inconsequential mutation, but it soon became existentially invaluable. When COVID hit, their studio chops were all they could rely on.

Jonny: [For some bands] it happens on stage and the character of the band is on stage, and that’s the main focus of the project. You can say that about a lot of bands, but I think to speak to COVID and when we were making this record, we had sort of the realization that we can be recording artists. Like that’s half of it.

Benjamin: Yeah, like Steely Dan. [Laughing]

Jonny: We’re like, let’s lean so hard into the recording artist aspect of being in a band because we can’t focus on the stage right now. 

So with the way you’ve sequenced the record, how important are the formal aspects of an album to you when building a narrative? That’s obviously somewhat of a nonexistent thing anymore.

Jonny: Yeah, you’re hitting on something that’s huge right now, that music is kind of built for the single, or a lot of people are writing music to stream. That’s what the format is. But seriously, we as people, what this band is invested in, is we love records. We love records so much.

Veronica: And storytelling!

Jonny: We get so excited in the studio. Like what you were saying, Chris, is like, we’ll be writing a track and being like, “oh my God, this is A1! Holy shit, oh my God, this is B1. It’s the perfect B1!” And then when you have that idea in the back of your mind, it’s just, you’re looking at [the] big picture. It’s all big picture, right? You know, like, to speak to bands, like band to bands, that is the story. If you are thinking about just singles you’re missing the big picture. You’re missing the forest for the trees. Like you’re not thinking about long term and you’re not thinking about the trajectory of what’s going to happen. If you’re just having your nose down or your head down and thinking about one single at a time, you’re missing it. Like you’re not a pop star. Sorry, that’s what pop stars do cause they can afford to, you know. When we invest our time in making a record, we’re thinking about it being released on a label and what that means. All that to say we’re invested in making records. And that is classic a little bit, like you were saying.

Benjamin: Maybe that’s the good part of having an older listening style, but there’s a lot of people I know that consume music on Spotify. The majority of people I know in my life just sort of turn it on and like, let it play stuff for them. And that’s great if you’re taking care of babies or something like that and you just put like “calm list,” or like “new age.” You know, it’s like, that’s awesome, but that’s just not what music is to me. Music is whatever you need it for in your life, and I’m glad people still need music. So maybe Spotify is cool. I got free pizza when I went there once. [Laughing] I’ll talk about that conference some other time, but I’m just saying that my idea of music is real different from a lot of other people I know. I can’t expect them to be like, “oh, what you’ve really got to do is buy a cassette player off eBay and then get into collecting cassettes.” 

Benjamin declared scouring YouTube for concert bootlegs and albums the new crate digging, and the group spoke of their love for Joe Tex’s captivating stage theatrics.

What has translating the record to the stage looked like? Do y’all tend to stick to DIY spaces because they’re a little more adventurous?

Jonny: Yeah! I mean also, it’s a little more interesting and it’s where we are anyways. Those are where our friends are.

Veronica: Yeah, that’s our community.

Jonny: That’s where we came up as musicians. Venues that are really important to us, we’re still playing, like Union Pool. We have our record release show there next week. And by no means is this like some big venue that we can sell out and make tons of money. It’s a 160 cap. It’s a small, intimate venue where we’re going to look out into the crowd and it’s going to be all of our friends. That’s like, that’s kind of where our hearts are in music.

Veronica: I think our show is adaptable, though. Like we played to rock-and-rollers when we went on tour with Parquet.

Jonny: We take the same show and on tour with Parquet we played to like 1600 people in Virginia. We’ve played the big stages and it translates because it’s electronic music, and in electronic music you can plug right into the house and Bob’s beats sound massive, you know, massive in a big room, and it does translate. I think what this band does in intimate shows is just that, like, it becomes more poetic and it becomes more about kind of like getting the room to dance. But in a big venue this band sounds like a club. We can make a room sound like a club because of the nature of the music.

Veronica: But like, a gentle club…

A soothing club.

Benjamin: I also think that everyone in the band has the idea that whether you’re playing loud or quiet, you’re climbing all over your instrument to get it done. Audiences love to watch people struggle. As long as the sounds are great coming out, they love when you’re climbing all over your instrument, or climbing all over the vocals, or all over the stage, getting out in the crowd. It’s a natural thing, so we’re just selling the electronic music in that way.

Veronica moved to Minneapolis in March of 2020 to be closer to her family and partner. She now shares time between Minnesota and the rest of the band’s home base of New York.

Veronica: It was a really interesting time to move to a new city, where I couldn’t really form a community because everyone was indoors. And so I think there was a lifeline in receiving these files from my bandmates that were like, “hey, you want to play around with this?” And my partner is a musician as well, so I was able to like, record in our basement, test out different microphones in different parts of the house, and just really process, like, isolation, falling in love, my city burning, and COVID. So yeah, it was definitely wild to have this multi-city reckoning of the status of our world. But then I remember finally coming and being like, okay, like, we’re going to meet in New York at [Studio] Windows. Everyone had a mask on until it was time to go into the booth and do a part, and we revisited the songs that we had been sending each other, all the files, and rethinking them once we were all in a room together. Cause I feel like, again, that’s what we’re really good at, editing, shaping, and making sure that the story arc and poetry is consistent throughout. And yeah, I’ve now come [to New York] maybe three or four times to record the next album.

What were y’all listening to individually during the writing of the record?

Jonny: When we were writing the record that Yaeji album [What We Drew] came out in 2020. It’s her first full-length record and it’s fantastic. It’s a record that made me jealous a little bit, and that’s my favorite kind of record. I was like “what the fuck?” You know, [it] just made me really excited. And I remember just being like, “oh, we should make pop electronic music.” Like I was just really excited by that. That was my big one that year, at least in 2020. And we’re bringing up 2020 a lot because we delivered this record almost two years ago. Or one year ago, yeah, one year ago because of the vinyl backup, you know, like the production backup was very, very real. And we’ve been kind of reminiscing 2020 a lot for that reason because it’s kind of when we did the majority of the writing.

Jonathan: I think for me, I spent a lot of time in the early part of COVID revisiting some of my favorite artists and digging deeper into their catalogs. And two that stand out to me were Stereolab and Björk. Their catalogs are so extensive and really inspiring. And you know, you can pick something from like any point in the career and it may sound very different but very much them as well.

Veronica: I’m going to have to follow up with the Björk, at least vocally, what I was thinking about, there’s no way that I could compare myself to Björk, but just like even imagining how to stretch my voice. Her poeticism is also incredible.

There’s a lot less spoken word on this record than the last. Did Björk inspire that change as well?

Veronica: I mean, I think honestly just the vulnerability that I feel like I can allow myself with these people. Like I’m not a classically trained musician. In the last project I was in, Pill, I learned to play bass for that. I feel like a lot of the time for the music we were making, having a harsher way of presenting my voice made sense. And also, maybe it was a little bit of a crutch. Like I felt like it was too vulnerable to try to sing more beautifully. And I feel like, yeah, just being with these people, it feels safe to try to explore the limits of my voice.

Jonny: I think change is really important and we’re definitely going forward. We’re definitely not going to release the same record next time.

Benjamin: Change is the model.

Jonny: Like that is kind of what we’re about so far. 

Veronica: I also really love Exploded View and just trying to find a softness to my voice, even if it’s like intense or a strong statement. Like where can I find softness in that?

What about you, Ben?

Benjamin: So I decided for The Leather Lemon to redesign the saxophone sound and also the way that I was doing things. For studio ideas, I went back to a lot of Lee Perry and Scientist records. And one of the ideas that I’ll take from Scientist and Lee Perry both is that they would do this really cool thing where they would establish the vocals then chop them out. They kind of let you finish the sentence in your head because you already know what the vocal melody is. Same thing when I’d be doing a solo, sometimes when I improvise some of this I’ll play the first line in the solo, finish the rest of it in my head, and then come back at the end of what that line would’ve been. Cause that’s kind of like you’ve dubbed yourself out without anybody, you imagine that there’s already someone dialing you in and out, like as you’re playing, which is just something I’ve kind of been doing for a while, but I can really do it with these people. And then for the tone, I went back and listened to a lot of Yusef Lateef’s records (Live at Pep’s: Volume One and Yusef Lateef’s Detroit). What I figured out how to do is close certain valves on the horn that will let the horn resonate at that pitch, and I’ll sing notes through the horn. It’s not for a solo, it’s a part, and sometimes I’ll bang on the side of the horn to get effects on the vocals that I’m doing through the horn. It’s those kinds of ideas of room, like environmental ideas. So then the other [influence] for straight up, like, concepts, I really liked Drexciya, the Detroit techno band. It’s Afrofuturism, it’s an Afrofuturist group, and there are sounds on the record Neptune’s Lair where there’s a consistent feeling [being established] throughout the [entire] record.

We ended the call with Benjamin espousing his love for the gecko psychedelia of Bill Miller and Cold Sun’s “South Texas.” The band’s obsession with all things creative only makes me love them that much more. Geckos walking across a ceiling does also feel like an encapsulating image for The Leather Lemon. Don’t ask me how.

The Leather Lemon is available now via Wharf Cat Records! Check it out on Bandcamp and follow the band on Instagram and Twitter

Chris Burleson | @chris_b_kreme44

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