Peter Kater is a very talented pianist/composer who makes his home in Santa Monica, California. Having been born in Germany, Peter came to the United States at a young age with his family and settled in central New Jersey. His mother thought it was a good idea to have Peter take formal piano lessons. He studied classical music for a while and then turned to jazz and popular music of the time. In his teens, he would frequently take trips to New York City to see musical events. Peter's mother passed away after a battle with cancer, and at the age of 18 years old Peter decided to hitchhike across the country and see where life would take him. It was a great adventure for him and he would take pickup piano gigs here and there to help pay the way. Eventually, Peter settled down in Boulder and began to hone his performance skills on the piano and played in local clubs and bars. After self - producing his 1st album, he began to perform in better theaters and churches in the area. With hard work and perseverance, Peter's next few album releases were getting major radio play. This led to a long fruitful career for him. He would frequently switch genres as his opportunities to collaborate with different artists began to flourish. Peter spent years working with John Denver, R. Carlos Nakai, and many other artists. He also composed music for many Broadway plays. Peter has just released a new CD called "Love" and I recently had the opportunity to discuss his career with him.
R.V.B. - Hello Peter, this is Robert von Bernewitz from New York, how are you?
P.K. - Hey Rob, how's it going?
R.V.B. - Pretty good. Congratulations on your nice career that you're having.
P.K. - Oh, thank you.
R.V.B. - I understand you have a new album out called "Love"? What inspired you to come up with that title?
P.K. - All of the songs are about different phases or aspects of love. I went through a period of about two years of recording all of my improvisations, casually. Every time I went over to the piano, I would just hit the record button. I noticed that my favorite recordings were one's that were something to do with my relationships, or a woman in particular... someone special. I decided it was a great theme, and pick all of my favorite improvisations and compositions that were inspired by love.
R.V.B. - Two years is a lot of time to put some good thought into it.
P.K. - I didn't really do it with the intension of making a record for it. All of a sudden, I had enough material for it. Actually for a couple of records. so I picked my favorite songs 10 or 12 songs.
R.V.B. - It's a really nice collection of songs. When you were a very young child, you grew up in Bavaria, Germany. Do you still go back there to visit?
P.K. - Oh yeah, I used to go back there every summer as a teenager. I spent all my summers in Germany, and I still go back and visit because I have family there.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up moving to the United States?
P.K. - My parents wanted to move there because it was the land of opportunity and they probably wanted to get away from their parents.
R.V.B. - Yeah, I guess everyone does at some point in their life. You settled in New Jersey. Did you visit the Big Apple a lot with your friends and go to concerts?
R.V.B. - What kind of music were you listening to as a teenager?
P.K. - I was listening to all the popular music of the time. Cat Stevens, Carole King, James Taylor, Elton John, Billy Joel, Zeppelin, Jethro Tull.
R.V.B. - Did you catch any of them live?
P.K. - I saw James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes.
R.V.B. - What part of New Jersey were you in?
P.K. - I was in Central Jersey near Plainfield. It was a 45 minute ride to the city.
R.V.B. - I understand that you hit the road at one point and just went out on your own and traveled around the country. How was that experience?
P.K. - It was interesting. I had come out of a kind of stressful couple of years with my mother dying of cancer. I was kind of free after she died... to do whatever I wanted, because my father wasn't around. I wanted to get out of New Jersey, so I just kind of hit the road with my thumb out. I was hitchhiking everywhere... sleeping on the side of the road, the beach, or a park somewhere. I had my backpack and my sleeping bag... a couple pairs of jeans and tee shirts and that was it.
R.V.B. - I read that you played the piano here and there for food and a place to stay. Can you give me an example of a place that you did that?
P.K. - I got to San Francisco and I had like no money. I remember I spent my last seven dollars on a pack of cigarettes, grapes and chicken. I started walking south down Route 1 and I hitchhiked to Big Sur. In Big Sur, there was this Inn and restaurant called "The River Inn"... It's still there. I looked in the window and I saw they had a piano, so I went in and talked to the manager. I auditioned for them and they gave me a camping spot in the back on the side of the river. They let me play for meals and tips. I stayed there for about 2 weeks.
P.K. - They did have camping spots there but I didn't have a tent, so I was just kind of like rolled out my sleeping bag back there. Some people did go there to camp on vacation. There was a beautiful river that went through the back of it. That was the first place I ever saw a humming bird. That kind of stuff would happen here and there on occasion. I saved up a little bit of money and hit the road again.
R.V.B. - Where did that take you to? Did you stay in California for a while?
P.K. - No. Really for the most part I was always moving. I hitchhiked from New Jersey to San Francisco. I went down to LA... over to Phoenix... up to Denver, and then further up north... back to the east coast. I would stop for a week or two here and there, but I just kept feeling like I wanted to get back on the road. I just really didn't know what I wanted to do. My life was kind of spinning around. I had a lot of interesting experiences on the road. I was picked up by a lot of nice people and a lot of crazy people.
R.V.B. - What kind of crazy people?
P.K. - (Haha) One guy picked me up and it turned out he had a gun. He kept on thinking that he was being followed. He was very paranoid and weird. I left him behind after a while. I got picked up by a couple of girls. I got picked up by a Native American family outside of Albuquerque, and they took me in for a little while. I got picked up by a religious guy. He wanted me to become a Christian at his church. It seemed a little weird to me. He was a little pushy and probably wanted more from me than just being a Christian. Every once in a while I would get picked up by a really good person. Some guy had a van that was really decked out in the back with a kitchen and a bed. I slept the whole way from Denver to Seattle one time. It was really interesting and I was young. I was 18 years old at the time. You're pretty resilient at 18 years old. I remember sleeping on the side of the highway in Los Vegas. It was just crazy stuff.
R.V.B. - It sounds like quite the adventure though. At least you got to see the countryside.
P.K. - Yeah, I got a sense of different parts of the country, and how big it is. I also got a great experience of synchronicity and serendipity. I always felt like I was kind of watched over, and even though there was a couple of situations that were a little scary, I always felt that things were going to turn out ok. I think I developed a lot of trust in those years. Then I kind of got it all out of my system when I landed in Boulder.
R.V.B. - Was there anything that drew you to Boulder or did just happen to land there?
P.K. - I think it was the mountains, to a large degree. Boulder, back in the late 70's was a very hip little community. There was a lot of new things happening there. Things that are full blown now. Like the Naropa Institute. It's a Buddhist college. It has a transpersonal psychology kind of philosophy. They were just getting started back them. Some of their early players were Alan Ginsberg and Barbara Dilley, Trungpa Rinpoche... who is a Buddhist Rinpoche. He was around town all the time. It was a very fertile organic place and it felt like anything was possible. My career kind of began there.
R.V.B. - Was the music scene burgeoning also?
P.K. - It had a pretty good music scene for being kind of a cow town at the time. It seemed like if you really wanted to get out to work and play, and you spend a little time promoting yourself, you could get somewhere... you could get an audience. I was playing clubs and lounges for a year or two and I started getting tired of that. Then I was playing small churches and the next thing you know, I was playing theaters.
R.V.B. - When you started playing in the churches, did you enjoy the sound and the acoustics?
P.K. - Yeah, that's part of it. There's good acoustics in a lot of the churches. People that tend to go to listen to music in churches are a listening audience. As opposed to bars and lounges where people are getting drunk and talking a lot. I got sick of that and I quit all of my gigs. I really enjoyed the contrast of playing in a quiet, listening situation. where people can really pay attention.
P.K. - Yeah. Not long after that, I got an offer to make a record. Even though I was making music all of those years, I never really thought I was going to have a career in it. At the time, there wasn't a lot of instrumental music being played other than straight ahead jazz and classical. Even the whole contemporary jazz scene was new. The new age scene hadn't been born yet. I was not sure what I was going to do? I was playing piano and improvising and I didn't know if there was going to be a market for it. Then I got turned on to Keith Jarrett. He was improvising, and playing a hybrid style between classical and jazz. He was really successful and playing to large audiences. I thought "Maybe there is a market for this?" It inspired me to keep doing it... and doing it my way. At the same time, this whole thing with Windham Hill Record Company came around. It was instrumental music with some content. It began to spring up around the country and there was a market for it.
R.V.B. - So you started in on the grass roots of this new genre.
P.K. - Yes, very much so.
R.V.B. - That's very exciting and important in itself, in that you were coming into your own at the same time a new musical genre was being born.
P.K. - I was just doing my own thing. I wasn't trying to play that kind of music. I was just doing my thing which is a hybrid of my backround... classical, pop, and rock. All of those songs I've played to through high school. I played all of those Billy Joel and Elton John songs.
R.V.B. - What were some of the classical songs that you played at that time?
P.K. - Just the basic ones that you play as a kid... Chopin, Mozart, and the more challenging ones when I was a teenager. I wasn't really all that into it, to tell you the truth. At the time you chose, what do you learn, classical or jazz. My mother chose classical for me. I was doing what she wanted me to do up until a certain point, when I started doing what I wanted to do.
R.V.B. - So this time around when you made your first album, it was a mix of styles that you were exposed to?
P.K. - Yeah, it was very much my own thing. I recorded it myself. I hired a producer and had quite a good backer. I took the record around to different labels to see if they were interested. I was really surprised that several labels did want it. "Blue Note" wanted it, "American Gramophone" wanted it, "Narada" - which was pretty large at the time, wanted it. I couldn't believe what a small royalty they were paying for it. They were offering me like 75 cents per unit for an LP that was selling for 8-9-10 bucks. I just couldn't believe that I was going to make 75 cents per record. Everyone else was going to make 2 or 3 dollars each. I said screw them and I decided I was going to make my own record company. I just distributed it myself. It was king of a ballsy move for a 22 year old.
R.V.B. - What was the name of the company that you started?
P.K. - Source Music.
R.V.B - Do you still own that label?
P.K. - No, I've gone through a couple of labels since then. What I did realize was that running a record company was a lot of work. It was taking away a lot of my free time as an artist. After I did my first record on my own label, I started doing records for other labels. My first record was solo piano, but then I started wanting to add other instruments. I decided I wanted to try to get into the contemporary jazz genre. I did, and my next 3 or 4 records after that started charting on national jazz charts. I went from a top 20 record, to a top 12 record, to a top 6 record, to a number 2 record. I never had a number one contemporary jazz album, but I was playing jazz festivals around the country and getting a ton of airplay. That was in the mid to late 80's.
R.V.B. - It was at this time when things really started happening for you. You hooked up with Robert Redford.
P.K. - That was unbelievable. Redford was just starting the Sundance Institute in Utah. They were trying to raise money for that and gain exposure, and one of Redford's close friends turned him on to my music. Redford was really into what I was doing. He would fly me out to play for his donor's events. I went from not hanging out with any celebrities, to all of a sudden going over to Redford's place... staying at his guest house... and playing for all of these A-List Hollywood actors, directors and producers. Sidney Pollack, Alan Alda, Dave Grusin... I'm playing for all these people that are very successful and hugely well known. I felt like "What the hell am I doing playing for these people?" I look out in my audience and there's Redford listening.
R.V.B. - I'm sure that was a big boost for your career.?
P.K. - It did in a way. It's funny in a way, when you get to wherever you are, you're thinking about where you're going to next... especially at that age. You never feel that you've arrived anywhere. You always feel like you're trying to get somewhere. I did a lot at there at the Sundance Institute for years. He was a very generous, forthcoming guy. Then I got a call from a director in New York City. They wanted to use my music for this play that they were working on. I didn't know who John Malkovich was at the time... I didn't know who Joan Allen was... I didn't know who Lanford Wilson was, but they wanted to use my "Two Hearts" album as the score for this play that they were doing called "Burn This". It was written by Lanford Wilson and he was a Pulitzer prize winning play write. It ran on Broadway for over a year. I proceeded to do 11 on and off Broadway plays with the director.
R.V.B. - You wrote the scores for them? Did you ever come to New York to watch the plays being performed or actually participate in any of them?
P.K. - Yeah, I wrote the scores for them. I would come to the rehearsals... I would meet with the actors... I'd meet with the director... I'd record the music, and yeah I would go to all of the opening nights and the after parties. It was a jump into another whole echelon of talent. It was just amazing to be a part of it. It was Tyne Daily, Ethan Hawke, John Voight, Judd Hirsch...
R.V.B. - All major Broadway actors.
P.K. - There was Tony Randall, remember him?
P.K. - He started his own theater company in New York. He did "The Seagull"... he did a bunch of his plays, but I did the music for his production of "The Seagull". (Hahaha) He would call me on the phone and invite me to these parties. It was just crazy... it was just ridiculous... I used to watch The Odd Couple.
R.V.B. - I did and I think 90% of America did at the time. (Hahaha)
P.K. - (Haha) He'd call me up in his character. The funny thing is, the character that he was portraying on "The Odd Couple" was very similar on how he really was.
R.V.B. - Really? He was a neat freak?
P.K. - Yeah, kind of a neat freak and very formal. He was very sociably polished. He would call and leave me messages, and say "Kater, this is Tony. I'm calling you rather apologetically and belatedly to invite you to this party this afternoon. (Hahaha) He would just go on and on. (Hahaha) I was living outside of Washington D.C. at the time and I'd hop on the train, and go up there.
R.V.B. - Now during that time you also had a long standing working relationship with John Denver. No. 1, how did that come about and No. 2, how enjoyable was it to work with him?
P.K. - It was the same thing. I got a call one day from one of the producers... he used to hold these events every year up in Aspen called "Choices for the Future Symposium". He would always have music as a part of it, because he was a musician... obviously. The producers called me up and asked if I would come up and perform at it? I said "Of Course". These are like 4 day events with speakers from all over the world. "New Thought" thinkers... "Quantum Physicists"... "Environmentalists"... "Humanitarians"... people from the UN... musicians from everywhere. It was a think tank symposium and 8 or 9 hundred people would attend. So I went up there and I played, and he was really into collaborating with people. I'm playing "Country Roads" with him... "Rock Mountain High"... some new songs that he had never recorded before. He really liked playing with me. I wound up pretty much coordinating the music for that event for the next ten years. It was one of the high's of my life. Those weekends were just like some of the best times ever. I met Kenny Loggins at the UN in 1995. We were both receiving this United Nations Environment Leadership award. He had Kenny come and play... and John sing. There were some of my other favorite musicians like David Darling, R Carlos Nakai, and there was a really close knit family vibe that began to happen. John was a great guy. When he died in that plane crash, it was just a tragedy.
R.V.B. - It was a shock. He really stood up for what he believed in... even to the point of going in front of Congress.
P.K. - Yes, he was a true humanitarian... true activist, and it was a shame that the media like to pick on him.
R.V.B. - Because he smoked a joint or two here and there.
P.K. - He got a D.U.I. and he had pot in his car. "Big deal" I mean come on.
R,V.B. - Exactly. People make a mountain out of a mole hill. So you ran into a Native American Flute player... and again you switched things up. How did you meet him?
P.K. - Again, it was something that just happened. I was doing all these jazz clubs... jazz festivals, and working the charts... Billboards, and I was given a cassette tape of R. Carlos Nakai's "Earth Spirit" album. I put it on, and it was solo Native American flute. It was so cool, the way the instrument sounded. There was so much space in it. It really sparked my imagination... what it would be like to be out west in the prairies, before civilization hit. It was just Native American culture living off the land... playing their flutes. It just really interested me. I started playing the piano along to this cassette and there was so much space in it. I thought it sounded really cool, so I tracked him down. I had no idea where he lived... whether he lived on a reservation... a house, or what. He agreed to fly out to Denver so that we could talk and maybe get some music together. We didn't really talk that much because we were both kind of uncomfortable and apprehensive about each other. Once we got in the studio and started playing, it was like "Oh my God", all kind of magic was happening. I was still thinking it was going to be this little side project that I was doing just for me. I didn't really think there was going to be a market for it. Then this record company was interested and wanted the record. I was happy to give it to them, because I had no idea what I was going to do with it. All of a sudden, it started selling 10X as much as my other stuff. I was doing good in the jazz world and all of a sudden, this Native American flute and piano album started selling hundreds and thousands of units.
R.V.B. - That started a nice long relationship and a lot of creativity.
P.K. - Yeah. We never discuss what we're going to play, we always improvise. We get up on stage and we just pick a key...
R.V.B. - That's one thing I wanted to ask you... the Native American flute, depending on how it's made can be not in true pitch. How do you work around that?
P.K. - You have to get one that's in good pitch. They only play in certain scales. The Native American flute plays in a pentatonic scale. It's different than a diatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is missing several notes, and it only has an octave and a half range. You have to know what the flute can do, and you have to be aware of what notes you are playing... and not playing. That's something that I got good at.
R.V.B. - I want to ask you about some of your performances. Let's go with the jazz genre. What was one of your favorite performances prior to the Native American music?
P.K. - There was a lot, but the first one that comes to mind is, I headlined the Norfolk Jazz Festival in Virginia. There was a ton of people there, and I remember it was hot and humid. I had a 5 piece group with me... piano, bass, drums, saxophone and guitar. I had just released a record called "Gateway" and on that record was a song called "Reunion". It was No. 2 nationally, at the time. I had this great sax player named Bob Rebholtz. I remember it was just a very "on" gig. The audience was really into us. When we left the stage we were dripping in sweat and soaked. It was a great experience.
R.V.B. - You've played overseas a few times right?
P.K. - Yes. I went to Japan and Korea.
R.V.B. - How did the audience take to your music over there?
P.K. - Amazing... especially in Japan. A lot of the Japanese people keep themselves pretty guarded emotionally, up until a certain point. When they're around music, they let themselves go. It was such a gratifying experience... playing music there. It was great hanging out at some of the after parties, with the Japanese people. It was emotional and generous. My music tends to be on the emotional side. I played my own set and I also played with John Denver over there. Since he was super huge there. I kind of reaped some of the benefits of being part of his group. I was treated like royalty... it was beautiful.
R.V.B. - What about some of the performances that you had with R. Carlos? I gather it's a whole different experience playing live him... more spiritual.
P.K. - Yes, it's very, very different. It's more subtle. A lot of times, the contemporary jazz thing is about chops... licks... how cool that line is... how funky the groove is. Playing with R. Carlos is like... (haha) so quiet. There is a lot of subtle textures with the flute and the piano. It's much more of an inner, deep listening experience, other than an outward party experience.
R.V.B. - Did you ever perform that music to Native Americans?
P.K. - Yeah. We played in front of some of Carlos's core Native American followers in Arizona.
R.V.B. - How did they take to a non Native American playing with such a purist?
P.K. - It was mixed... to be honest. I didn't always feel like I was always part of the group. R.C. was always kind and generous. I sometimes found myself being quiet and off to myself. They have a very different culture, than a European culture.
R.V.B. - Did you experience other Native American instrumentalist? Did you get teamed up with other artists, maybe on the same bill?
P.K. - I worked with a lot of different Native American artists. The records that I did with R. Carlos were so well known and so popular, that the record companies would ask me to play with other artists. I have collaborated with a lot of different flutists and singers. I collaborated with Rita Coolidge. I did a couple of records where I had a different Native American on each song.
R.V.B. - I see that you've performed at a lot of classic venues such as: The Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Red Rocks, and even the United Nations. How did you enjoy playing in those venues, and how different was the sound from playing in a local theater?
P.K. - Playing at all of those places was a rush, because of their reputation and all the amazing talent that has played at those venues. They were all different. Carnegie Hall was much different than Red Rocks. It was great to be on that stage and be a part of the lineup for that year. Unfortunately when you're on stage, you don't reap the benefits of the acoustics of the hall, because we're listening to the music through monitors. You have to have trust in the soundman to make sure it sounds good out in the audience.
R.V.B. - The stage volume and the stage sound is very different than what is being projected out. Where do you see yourself in the future? What would you like to have happen in your career?
P.K. - I thought I was going to move to Maui to just chill out and not focus so much on my career. Then all of a sudden I realized that I haven't really given my career 100% attention. I'm at a good spot right now where I have a lot of wherewithal to do pretty much whatever I want. I decided to go to Los Angeles and really give it my best shot for the next few years. I don't know if it's going to be 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years. In that time period, I feel like I want to do my best work. I want to do some collaborations that I'm really excited about. I want to do some projects that can really use all of my capabilities and experience as an artist. So when I'm done, I can really feel like I gave it everything I had, and I can walk away feeling good about it.
R.V.B. - Well your career has been fantastic already, even up to this point. You've done so many things. You've done music in different genres. I guess the good part of collaborating is that you're getting input from a different source.
P.K. - Especially if it's with an artist that you really admire and respect.
R.V.B. - I wish you all the luck with your future plans. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
P.K. - Thanks Rob
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Peter Kater visit his website http://www.peterkater.com/site/
Thanks to Beth Ann Hilton
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