That Dude With The Bun: An Interview with Peter Enriquez

Photo courtesy of Peter Enriquez

Interview by Ben Williams

Peter Enriquez may already be familiar to you. Chance is, you've seen him somewhere around campus. If you haven't, then you should probably start going out for more music. Peter's played with Butter, Richard, Lawrence, the Brown University Jazz Band, among others, and you can find him most Wednesdays in the Underground, jamming with a motley assortment of student musicians.

"What Do You Think? - Musical Reflections on Identity" is this Friday at 8 PM in Grant Recital Hall. As part of his honors thesis, Peter composed an entire album, drawing on jazz, R&B, soul, and hip hop influences. Show up and you'll get to hear the album in its entirety, with no interruptions.

Listen to Peter's work on his SoundCloud and check out his website here.


BW: Talk a bit about what you plan to do on Friday.

PE: In general, the project is my personal investigation into identity and music. All music investigates identity, but this in particular is both investigating my personal identity through my family and through my racial identity, and then also this question of what does it mean to be a musician that I constantly struggle with. I don’t know if I totally identify as a musician.

Basically on Friday we’re going to play the album top to bottom. There’s an intro and an outro both of which are instrumental and are reasonably contrasting pieces, and then there’s four songs in the middle in pop song format, a little bit more involved. Then there’s two sound-based interludes, one of which is a voicemail from my grandfather and the other is a reading of my grandmother’s recipes over a piano piece that’s a traditional German folk song called Lili Marlene. Towards the end of my grandmother’s life—she had Alzheimer’s—the only thing she could say was “That was the story of Lili Marlene.” She’d just say it over and over, so I learned that piece and thought it could be a nice ode to her.

This isn’t a performance; it isn’t a concert. It’s much more an exposition of work. I’d rather put it all on the table first since it’s very much systematic in the way it approaches all these concepts.

Peter performing at the 2014 Rhode Island Seafood Festival with the Clyde Lawrence band, courtesy of Peter Enriquez

BW: You’ve been in a lot of groups in Brown—Butter, Richard, Lawrence. How would you describe being an integral part of the music scene here? How does this impact your identity, or non-identity, as a musician?

PE: It’s kind of weird. I identify as a performer first and foremost. I don’t identify as a composer—I’ve really become an audio engineer. But in general my whole life has been performance. With all these groups I’ve been playing other people’s music, playing other people’s parts, playing the gig as if it were a job. With Butter, it was a vaguely communal compositional process, but they were all covers, so it was more of an arranging session. With Richard, it’s definitely compositional as a group but the whole idea of it being a hip-hop group is it’s kind of like live sampling. What’s an iconic drum beat we can use? What’s a chord progression that we’ve heard? Our single “Too Often,” if you listen to the whole bass line or theme, it’s the outro to a Snarky Puppy song called “Binky.” I remember we were listening to it and we said, “This could be a great hip hop thing.” We just kind of fooled around with it. Lawrence was all original work, but I was totally not involved in the compositional process. Clyde was very good at writing parts for every instrument cause he could play all of the rhythm section and could hear horn parts very well, so I would show up to rehearsal and learn my part. It worked perfectly. With my project, being in control of the creative process, it’s something that I’ve literally never done.

Being a public figure at Brown is one of the most weird things I’ve experienced since I don’t consider myself a person who’s in the public light. I don’t do a lot of things on campus; I’m not a part of any organizations, I just kind of play. I have accidentally appeared in so many social settings because of gigging—at a certain point I was in 4 bands and taking 4-6 gigs a week. I’ve turned into this figure that people just kind of know. People are like, “There’s the dude with the bun. There’s that kind of brown dude with that edgy look.” I don’t feel super separate from my music, like it’s kind of my identity in general, but it’s weird to think that my identity for most people has been “he plays music.”

I came in here not as a music major and I was not intending to play much music. I was trying to do something else. Until I conceded to music after I realized that it was the only thing I cared about, my whole dynamic changed at school, and I liked it more. I met so many more people and people who I shared interests with. I really credit the Brown music scene with making me a happy person, but also I drained myself doing it.

BW: Can you talk about deciding to focus on music?

PE: People don’t believe me when I tell them I wasn’t a music major. I came in Cognitive Neuroscience and I was intending to go to med school. I spent my first year or so taking all science classes. I had taken a Cognitive Science class in high school, and then I worked in a hospital over the summer. I kept doing it, then I was like “I don’t know if I’m very good at doing this.” I don’t know if I have the stamina to grind out things for test, or memorize parts of the body. I decided to take MUSC0550 and 0560 since I thought it’d be nice to have some formal music theory.

I remember I had just gotten out of music theory lab, which was just singing. It was so much fun, and I had just sung for the first part of my day. I walked into CHEM0330 like 15 minutes late and I was not in the mood. Sitting in the back part of MacMillan, staring at my laptop, taking notes, I had this moment where I realized that I don’t have to care about this. Nothing is stopping me, forcing me to stay here except me. I stood for a second and muttered to myself “What the fuck am I doing here?” Immediately I had to go. I packed my shit up, power walked out the door and sat outside the SciLi. I pulled out my laptop and just dropped CHEM0330. I called my mom and hung up cause I didn’t want a lecture. It turned out she knew the whole time and supported me.

BW: How do you incorporate learning in classes and your performing or writing?

PE: I should’ve been a MEME concentrator, but I’m not. I’ve studied classical music, which I’ve never studied in my life. I showed up to MUSC0550 and thought it was novel I was learning about Bach. All these people would be listening to a recording and would quote some famous classical piece, and I’d feel really dumb. I definitely consider jazz my method of learning music, and really the structures in jazz are the same as in classical. Nothing’s particularly different. They just stretch it out a bit more. It’s not so stark. If you listen to 20th century classical music—the atonal or 12 tonal stuff—it’s just like the same principles of jazz. They’re thinking of musical gesture, form, improvisation, and other alternative methods of composition. I got better at reading music, whereas before I had not really read music.

Contemporary classical music is very interesting because it doesn’t have the same constraints on traditional harmony—it focuses much more on a concept or a direction or a gesture. The style of music I’m trying to write—it’s supposed to be pop music that’s really thoughtful. I love R&B music and hip-hop, and there are always ways to make it more hip. There’s all these hybrid jazz-R&B crossover albums where they do these really danceable grooves but with really hip, interesting harmony. My goal was to do that, to write music that was really interesting, but could also be listened to as a song, without being taken apart. It’s easy to get lost in that hyper academic world of jazz. I can see why people don’t want to listen to jazz all the time. It’s very exhausting. But I didn’t want the vapidness that comes with a lot of pop music. I wanted to be predictable but not obvious. It’s a fine line to balance. Thundercat, Flying Lotus, The Robert Glasper Experiment, Hiatus Kaiyote, D’Angelo—all of them do exactly this perfectly. Obviously the new Kendrick stuff is exactly that. He’s basically rapping over straight-up jazz. One of the tunes on the new untitled unmastered is a jazz standard, just stretched out at a quarter of what the tempo usually is.

Learning the classical stuff has been important for perspective, especially the more contemporary stuff, and the MEME stuff has taught me that you have to just keep fucking writing in composition. It’s been a lot of thinking of what I can do in regards to gesture or musical practices, rather than harmony or tempo. It’s been really effective.

Peter performing at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, courtesy of Peter Enriquez

BW: Your project focuses on identity—you’ve already spoken about the identity of a musician. Can you talk about the other aspect of identity inherent in that?

PE: Sure. If you look at the styles I’m playing, they’re basically all historically black music styles, and I’m not black. If you’re thinking about hip-hop, jazz, and R&B, those are all totally black dominated styles, and that’s their culture. And there’s such a problem of appropriation with those three cultures. It’s thinking about how to thoughtfully approach all those styles in a way that you’re not appropriating, but you’re paying homage or honoring them in some way. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this recently, but I find my goal was to find, as a non-black biracial person, where do I stand in this world.

In music it’s not so much about saying “I am acknowledging this tradition” out loud or writing out a statement. It’s more about the stylistic elements that you’re employing when you’re writing. There’s a difference between taking a D’Angelo chord progression and playing a D’Angelo groove. You have to sit and process and embody that work in a certain way. It’s particularly obvious in jazz because jazz is totally whitewashed now—it’s academic, it’s in universities, it’s just what it is. But the way you avoid the idea of the hardcore traditional jazzists, or the cultural appropriation aspect, is where you study the tradition. In your solo, you might play a lick reminiscent of Charlie Parker, a lick that everybody knows, and that’s your version of saying “I know this tradition. I know it came before me. I am paying honor to it,” while still trying to include my voice but not take up too much space. I’m trying really hard to do that but not in a bad way. I’m half Asian, and I don’t know where that plays in the game of any Western music really. There’s not any particularly Asian-dominated Western pop music. I don’t really know where my place is nor do I think I ever will. Especially since I don’t pass as Asian—I pass as Hispanic most of the time.

BW: Can you talk a bit more about your influences—Hiatus Kaiyote, Robert Glasper Experiment, D’Angelo—and how they do certain things you hope to emulate?

PE: I think the number one influence for me is the Robert Glasper Experiment. He is a traditionally trained jazz piano player. And I believe he has roots in the church. You can tell by a lot of his piano playing since a lot of his chord voicings are very gospel for the most part. They’re very open and not particularly dense. They still fill a lot of space—it’s a registral based thing. He has big hands too.

*Plays piano*

BW: It’s weird—that sounds like something that could be on a Kendrick album.

Yeah exactly, and Glasper played like half the keys on To Pimp A Butterfly. He’s all over that thing. That whole sector of people, they’re all totally interrelated. They all make music together all the time and they’re all doing the same shit. That’s what’s cool about that world. Obviously they have their different sounds, but they’re so influenced by each other. A great example of that is The Soulquarians, which were the studio band for Voodoo and Mama’s Gun, all those classic 90s R&B neo-soul records. That’s the other main influence for me. It takes R&B, this interpretation of soul music, and smooths it right out. The thing I really take from Glasper is that he creates these melodies and these grooves that are very danceable and singable, where you don’t have to sit down like with jazz. You can walk around and hang out. Robert Glasper adds that jazz tradition via the harmony, but he adds the smoothest grooves over it. He has vocalists singing catchy hooks, y’know. He has people rap on his album. His whole point is that jazz isn’t just swing. It’s a black tradition, whatever that means, and I guess it depends on who you are. So for me, the question is: how do you stick that sweet harmony with a straight up normal groove for the average listener and a singable melody? All the other groups I spoke about do the same thing. Changes are hip; the instrumentation is interesting. They kind of subvert the idea of pop music. It doesn’t have to be boring. It can be cool.

D’Angelo, I just want to be a quarter as smooth as that stuff. It feels so effortless. Even though theoretically the chords changes are easy, to get a band to have that feel behind the beat, that’s hard. All the D’Angelo stuff is on the back side of the metronome, where it almost isn’t on the beat anymore. It isn’t on the beat. It’s behind it. That comes from J Dilla, who pioneered the behind the beat groove. It’s huge in jazz now, and hip-hop too.

Peter performing with Butter at The Sweet in Providence, photo courtesy of Peter Enriquez

BW: Lastly, what’re your plans for the future?

PE: I’m deciding between two places—NYU and Brooklyn College. I’m leaning towards Brooklyn cause I live in state and it’d be less money. They also have this new program called “Sonic Arts,” which is similar to the MEME program. It’s just so new, so it’s very flexible. It’s a sound program grounded in music. There, I could try to play in the big band in Brooklyn College and study with Arturo O’Farrill, for my personal music study. You can learn instrument building, or audio engineering if you wanna have a day job. You can also learn traditional sound art, building sculptures or alternative sound installations. It seems like a place I could do all of it, whereas the NYU program is incredibly well reputed, but it’s a straight up audio engineering program. It’s a music tech program. It’s very much more of a pre-professional program than it is a compositional based program.

Since I started writing for this record, I think composition is incredible and it’s so cool. I want to do way more of it and I see myself at some point composing a lot of music whether it’s writing songs, making albums, or writing jingles. It’s really rewarding. That’s why I’m leaning more towards the Brooklyn program.

BW: Anything you wanna add?

PE: I think the only thing I’d say is that the Brown music community has been incredibly supportive of this project in that I’ve asked so many people to be involved. I’m writing up a program for the show and I looked at it—I can’t fit everyone’s name on this program. There are too many people involved in this project. Even though I feel like it’s my work to a certain extent, I think to an even greater extent it’s the work of the Brown music community. Without them, this wouldn’t have happened.

And there should be more bands and more opportunity for bands to play around here. Cause it’s tough that there’s not a lot of student showcases. It would be so sick if on Sunday of Spring Weekend, BCA got some money and put up a small stage somewhere and every student band was allowed to play. There are a ton of student bands that don’t gig, which is dumb since there’s so many events that could have a band, but it’s basically the same 5 bands over and over. It’d be great if there was just more university-sanctioned support for student music. If you play at a party, your chances of getting broken up are so high. And you’ve only played 3 songs of your set.