Every decade ushers in new eras and in the ’60s the political strife and war sparked a rise in counterculture and with that came some of the most inspired music ever, and while many of those artists have come and gone, leaving just their music – others are still leaving impressions like Moby Grape’s Peter Lewis. The founding member of the San Francisco band is showcasing his innate skills on his 2023 release, ‘Imagination,’ out on June 16th. We talked about the past, the present, the personal, and more in this back-and-forth exchange.
Kendra: You were a founding member of Moby Grape, an iconic band that came out of San Francisco back in the late ‘60s. I gotta say, I love that era, but the city is not one of my favorites. Only because of all the hills. My stomach cannot take it. However, I tell everyone – if you go, you gotta see Haight-Ashbury. Was that a place you and Moby Grape found yourselves often back then?
Peter Lewis: In those days we lived in Mill Valley. There was an old ferry boat (the Ark) in Sausalito where we practiced every afternoon and then played every weeknight. So it was more practical for us to live in Marin. On the weekends we went to the city and played at the Fillmore, Avalon, or Winterland.
Kendra: And there is an abundance of differences in the music industry when you compare then to now, but is there anything we rarely talk about from that time in music that’s now just a memory that doesn’t get mentioned enough?
Peter Lewis: If you’re talking about differences in the music business between then and now, I would say that the days of Ahmed Ertegun at Atlantic or John Hammond at Columbia are gone. Nowadays multinational corporations dominate the music industry and what they want are not one-of-a-kind artists like Marvin Gaye or Bob Dylan that can’t be easily replaced if they burn out or kill themselves on drugs.
If you want a major record deal now your best shot would be winning ‘The Voice,’ or some other talent show contest. From the record business’s point-of-view, you would have already been pre-sold, have name recognition, and there’s no risk for them. Of course, what we risk is ending up with a lot of great singers who have nothing to say and the danger of turning music from an art form into a sport.
But I do not doubt that some real voices from the subculture are still out there and will get heard when they are most needed. I just wouldn’t look toward today’s big record labels to be their messenger.
Kendra: Now let’s talk more about the present. You went personal with the last record and more universal with ‘Imagination.’ Why did you feel the need to be more all-encompassing this time around?
Peter Lewis: I see more and more people nowadays trying to drink their way through life, killing each other for no good reason and/or leaving a trail of broken homes and hearts behind them. Although I still believe there’s hope for a better future, it would all depend on being able to finally reach some kind of consensus about how to keep these kinds of terrible mistakes from getting repeated over and over. This is what I wrote the first song,” Just Like Sunshine,” about.
In the second song “Without You,” I intended to use the word “you” in a collective sense. The idea was to suggest that no goal is worthy that can’t be shared. This may be another way of saying, heaven is not a private party where everyone gets a whole universe to themselves. People who are looking forward to that kind of final reward are the ones who have probably lived the most selfish lives and just might end up in that other place.
The third song, “Frank Zappa’s Ghost,” deals with the spiritual energy people create with their lives, but that doesn’t die when they do. Seen this way, the human race becomes like a relay race, where torches of spiritual energy are passed from one host to another. In the case of this song, I play the role of receiving host.
There are undoubtedly a lot smarter people out there than I am. So I will leave them to interpret the other songs on this record if they are interested. I would only hope they will see them all in the end as attempts to communicate something true about what they have seen and felt in their own lives as well as my own.
Kendra: ‘Imagination’ also covers the idea of mortality. Something I think we all struggle with, me especially. I even had to take a break while writing these up because my head started spiraling a bit. Other than music, what’s helped you sort of cope with your own mortality?
Peter Lewis: I personally just try, without hurting others, to do my best every day and let the chips fall where they may. What I don’t dig and never did, is the culture of fear we all live in. With the afterlife concepts of Western religion and the authoritarians threatening us while we’re still alive, all of us are conditioned to be deeply afraid of suffering and death.
Of course, the whole idea of the sixties counterculture was to free ourselves from this established reward and punishment style of controlling our behavior. Looking back at it now, some of us might say we failed. But after that came the seventies and artists like Jackson Browne. To me, his songs, especially “After the Deluge,” were directions to a new kind of inner freedom. That’s when I started reading Carlos Casteneda. In his books I learned of an escape from the classical judgment-day death we were all taught to expect.
In Casteneda’s explanation, mortality is not something to be afraid of but is accepted as a challenge. It is the path of knowledge upon which those who tread, do it in pursuit of total freedom. Casteneda’s books are still available to anyone interested. I still read them and have found what he has said to be the truth.
Kendra: One of the songs on ‘Imagination’ is “Frank Zappa’s Ghost,” which you say came to you in a dream. Do you keep a notebook or anything by your bed for instances like this?
Peter Lewis: No, the way this works for me is that if I can wake up without losing a melodic idea that comes to me in a dream, with or without words, I immediately go to my studio and record it. I also suspect having done this in a dream state. I say this because a few times I have turned on my recorder and found song ideas that I don’t remember putting on there.
Kendra: And why do you think it was Frank Zappa in that dream?
Peter Lewis: Because I actually heard the underlying chords and Frank Zappa singing the hook. I was dreaming about being in a famous deli in Hollywood called Canters. Frank Zappa was there holding court in one of the biggest booths. He was surrounded by some other LA musicians, beckoned me over, and then started singing “I’m a Frank Zappa’s Ghost”
That’s when I was woken up suddenly by the sound of knocking. I still don’t know for sure if I heard this in the dream or if it actually happened. All I can say is that it was real enough for getting me out of bed to open the front door. So that’s where the song begins.
Kendra: Time for a side note: This month I’m asking everyone for a song they listen to when they’re feeling a little lost creativity and are in need of some musical inspiration…
Peter Lewis: I heard Pete Seeger say in the ‘Dylan’ Scorsese doc that no one ever really writes a new song. His point was that we all take bits and pieces of music we’ve heard before, rearrange them a little and add our own words. I would agree with him. The trick would be ingenious enough to capture the interest of listeners originally.
So there isn’t just one song I listen to when I get stuck for inspiration. What helps me get beyond a creative impasse is more a case of admiring some of the more successful songs written by my peers and telling myself, “If they can do it, so can I.” At the same time, my goal is not to copy or try to outdo them. It’s more like Neil Young once said, “Just keep working on it and it’ll be great.”
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Imagination’ out on June 16th, what else can fans be on the lookout for as we roll into summer?
Peter Lewis: For a while now I have been playing with my daughter, Arwen, and a very gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist, George Adrian. We will be playing a set of original songs at the International Pop Festival at 2pm on August 5th at the Redwood Bar in Downtown LA next.
I live in the Santa Ynez Valley and we often play at a local nightclub in Solvang called Lost Chord. There is also talk of a solo gig for me at the City Winery in New York City. This would be for the fall, but nothing has been finalized yet.