March 15th, 2011 | Interviews

Photography by Theo Jemison

Pianist Austin Peralta has been traveling jazz’s interstellar space ways since he was 15 and his new album, Endless Planets, hangs naturally in the Brainfeeder universe. He speaks now about life and death and the few feelings worth feeling in between. This interview by Lainna Fader and Miles Clements.

How did it feel to be the first and last jazz band ever introduced by Gaslamp Killer yelling at the crowd to ‘MAKE SOME FUCKING NOISE’?
I think this is what it needs. Jazz can be so stuffy and the audiences can be so pompous that it needs that kind of reception, it needs that kind of audience, it needs that kind of energy. It needs to make people feel like they’re having a deathgasm. And it can be through jazz—why not? Who’s to say that punk rock is more hardcore than jazz? It’s not true.
Why is your ensemble called Deathgasm? What is a deathgasm?
It came to me a few months before the album release show. That was sort of the debut of Deathgasm. I had seen this film called Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé and I had been interested in the Tibetan Book of the Dead long before seeing the film. I felt like music has the power to evoke spiritual places akin to death or the orgasm or love or whatever. I just thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s call it Deathgasm.’
As a jazz musician, how do you think you fit into the Brainfeeder universe?
I think Lotus, coming from the Coltrane family, is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition and he feels an affinity for it. I would even consider him a jazz musician in a more post-modern sense. He wants to make that very much a part of his universe, the Brainfeeder universe, and as you saw with Cosmogramma, clearly there’s that influence. It’s also a way of saying that we’re not trying to uphold genre boundaries. All music is acceptable; it’s all part of a bigger plan. All these different musics can say the same thing and they’re all interrelated. Flying Lotus said the sound of Brainfeeder is the sound of the seeker—someone trying to understand this world through music. How are you trying to understand?
I guess I would start by saying that for me, music has always been the way to connect to reality or to the world. It’s been my life—ever since I was 5, that’s what I’ve been doing. So it’s a very natural way to get in touch with both myself—emotionally, spiritually—and the world. I couldn’t pinpoint it to something specific but it’s always been there for me.
Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?
Absolutely. Not in the sense that I follow a specific religious doctrine, but I feel like I’m in touch with the cosmos in a spiritual way and mostly through music. I think music is deeply spiritual and can take you to cosmic places.
You got started playing classical music first. Why the switch to jazz?
I still continue playing classical to this day, but around age 10 [after playing for about five years] a friend of mine gave me this CD of jazz pianist Bill Evans, who played with Miles Davis, and I don’t know—something clicked. Before that I was very turned off to anything besides classical music and then once I heard that, I was sort of bit by the bug, if you will. Ever since that moment I’ve just been trying to learn how to play it and going out and playing in jam sessions and whatnot.
How many instruments do you play?
I really play the piano as an instrument. I can mess around on soprano saxophone and play a little bass and a little drums, but you know—nothing that I am proud of.
In Miles Davis’ autobiography, he said that the Fender Rhodes has only one sound, and that sound is itself. Are there any other instruments that are that individual—that embodied in one sound?
In a sense, every instrument, if you play it authentically, is the embodiment of itself. For me, soprano saxophone is a very unique sounding instrument and it can only be itself. Sort of like an Indian snake charmer.
What does it mean for an instrument to sound authentic?
I guess it’s necessitated by the performer in that they are coming at it with a sense of their own musical authenticity. They have at least a decent know-how of the instrument in order to express their ideas but then they take that beyond just the technical aspects to create something truly honest and musical.
How does Strangeloop’s aesthetic suit your music? Why do you work so well together?
First and foremost because we’re really great friends and we’ve known each other for several years. We met at a coffee shop two blocks from here actually. I walked outside with my coffee and there was this guy sitting there and he just started ranting to me about the Apocalypse. I just nodded my head and he took that as a cue to launch into a tirade. I thought, ‘You know, this must be a like-minded cat.’ So we ended up connecting through that and it was serendipitous and it totally worked out and we’ve been best friends ever since. I felt like the record [Endless Planets], before I asked him to participate, it had something missing. I said, ‘I’d love to tie this together with some of your work.’ A melding of the acoustic and the electronic worlds.
Is that what you’re working towards?
I think everything is possible and anything is acceptable to me. Anything can be used to create the art. I’m not trying to create limits or box it in.
Sonny Rollins said that jazz is unique in that it can absorb all these different types of music and still be jazz. Do you think there’s ever a point where it will absorb too much and not be jazz?
No. Absolutely not. I completely agree with him. I haven’t heard that before, but I think that’s a beautiful statement. I think that’s what jazz means. It means everything. It means, ‘Fuck it.’
Do you believe in life after death?
I do but not in an egoistic sense. I think that in order for a body to be alive in the first place, there must be some energy keeping it alive. In the sense that matter cannot be created or destroyed, once the body perishes that energy will continue to exist in some form. Not that it is me or you but that the energy will continue to exist and will recycle itself.
Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
A couple times. Mostly through music in those rare moments when you’re caught in an improvisation or something and you just reach transcendence and it’s no longer you and the instrument and the audience but it just becomes pure connectivity to the ‘Other’ from whence the music derives. That and I’ve also had some strange sort of astral visions or projections. I’ve tried to practice astral projection and it’s very difficult. But there’s been some moments in the early morning when you’re sort of in that liminal space that I’ve found myself leaving the body and like actually getting freaked out and reeling myself back in.
Is that something you can teach yourself?
From what I’ve read, yeah—in the sense that you can command your physical body you can also command your astral body. It’s definitely fascinating to me.
I had a horrifying dream the other night where my teeth were all falling out one by one and I woke up totally freaked out and anxious and paranoid. When’s the last time you had a hard time distinguishing reality from a dream?
I have that all the time. Sometimes when I’m dreaming I’m convinced it’s reality. But it’s funny because the lines do blur. A lot of times I’m sitting around in what I think is physical, waking reality and I’m like, ‘Man, this is very dreamlike.’ And in that sense I don’t place one higher than the other or in a hierarchy. I think they’re both equal parts of a continual reality and have as much importance as the other. Has it ever freaked you out when you can’t tell the difference?
Not really. It’s all just as real or ‘unreal’ as the other. I know we place so much importance on physical life but who’s to say that this is more important than the dream life? The dream life is half our fucking existence.
In an interview, the director of Enter the Void said he enjoyed the idea of doing a movie that would portray a collective dream, like flying saucers or a collective need for people who need to believe in flying saucers. Why do people need to believe that there’s life after death?
I think the notion of life after death is very tied into the notion of the infinite. Without the infinite, to me at least, this would seem so pointless—if it was just this and that was it. I think the very fact that there is this means that there is the infinite. You can’t have one without the other.
Why do you think it’s important to find meaning in your life?
Life without meaning is a very dark thing. I’ve been there and I’ve struggled with it for years actually, just being in a dark place. When you have the love and the music—which I think are the same thing—it imbues your life with a sense of meaning and a sense of place. Despite how foreboding it can be, we’re supposed to be here. This is a beautiful thing even though it can be dark.
When you get to a dark place how do you get yourself out of it?
I guess just by going through the darkness. Plunging as deep into it as you can to come out the other side with the wisdom of what you’ve gained.
Do you think it’s important to go through these tough experiences?
Everyone has a different relationship to reality and the universe, but to me it’s definitely helped even though it was very difficult. Sometimes I’d say, ‘Why the hell is this happening to me?’ But in retrospect it’s always a learning experience and well worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.
John Coltrane said that he thought most musicians are interested in truth. What are you interested in? All these words that we’re throwing around like ‘spirituality,’ ‘truth,’ ‘love,’ ‘music’—to me, they’re all synonyms. Life after death, infinity, truth, God—whatever you want to call it—that’s all what music and any art is getting at. True art is truth.
How do you get closer to truth?
I don’t know—by trying to remove your ego and authentically engage with the source that provides you with the inspiration. Acting like a conduit for that higher energy to come through. Not being egoistic and trying to act as a secretary for a higher force. Being open. You were already touring Japan when you were 15 and 16, which are formative years for everyone. What did you learn?
It’s funny because you’re right. I was so young. I’m still young, but looking back I was almost too young to know what I was doing in a way. It was very surreal. I wish I didn’t receive such high praise at a young age. It got to my head and I had to have a few reality checks since then to put myself in place and realize I always have things to learn. It’s hard as a young person to get your praises sung so highly. The ensuing years have provided me with a much better sense of perspective.
I read that you didn’t promote the first two records you released in Japan because you didn’t have total creative control. How have you been able to make sure that you have total control over your art?
Well luckily after that I haven’t encountered that problem. Those records were controlled by a producer so they weren’t my artistic vision. That’s precisely why I don’t promote them. But with Endless Planets, I produced it and wrote it entirely on my own and then gave it to Flying Lotus. He’s an incredibly open-minded guy who’s all about artists’ visions and he’s not trying to tamper with them which is why I respect him so much. He just said, ‘I’m going to give you a platform to do what you wanna do.’ That’s what Brainfeeder is.
I didn’t realize the album was finished before you took it to Brainfeeder.
Yeah, it was finished and I was looking for someone to put it out. David [Strangeloop] introduced me to Steve [Flying Lotus] and I got a call the next day and he said, ‘I love this. I want to put it out.’ It took awhile, about a year. It’s still a small label but they’re growing rapidly and doing great things.
I’ve always thought that Brainfeeder is kind of like a younger generation’s and a different generation’s Impulse! Records in that there’s kind of a distinct vision and everyone involved is friends and collaborators. Do you see it that way?
More and more it’s like [Flying Lotus] is letting all kinds of different voices speak. This is why it’s hard to classify Brainfeeder because it’s becoming this real open platform for artistic dialogues in so many forms. There’s a photographer on the roster, visual artists, a whole array of musicians from all different genres.
What’s the next direction for Brainfeeder?
I’m not exactly sure and it might be better to keep it a surprise. It’s definitely going to defy categorization. We’re going in all sorts of great directions.
Back to Bill Evans. He used to get annoyed when people would pick apart jazz intellectually because he said for him it was a feeling and not a theorem.
I completely and utterly agree. I hate when people get caught up in overanalyzing the harmonic sequence and all that. I don’t mathematically plot my music. I feel something and I just go with it. Having knowledge of the history is good, but once you have that knowledge your music is breaking all the rules.
What do you feel when you play jazz?
I feel the same thing when I’m surfing or making love—it’s just beauty. It’s all the same thing. It’s not a specific feeling, just one of warmth and happiness and love.
We saw your album release show at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock and I get the impression that a lot of musicians would have a hard time keeping up with you. Who have you worked with that you’ve had a hard time keeping up with?
I still practice a lot of classical music and I’d say I have a hard time keeping up with the composers’ demands, such as Chopin or Rachmaninoff. I’ve also worked with a lot of exceptional jazz musicians who have very much pushed me. I had the chance to perform with Chick Corea years ago and that was incredibly intimidating. I was so young—I was 15 and not anywhere near his level as a musician. Any time I work with great jazz musicians of a high caliber it always pushes me. But any different musical setting presents its own musical challenges. Playing on a hip-hop session or working with Strangeloop. Everything is different and every situation has its own unique challenges. I could be afraid of these challenges but I force myself to address them for the sake of bettering myself.
John Coltrane said people thought he played angrily. But to him, what he was doing was playing every idea in his head all at once and it was all pouring out in search of the one perfect idea. How close have you come to that feeling?
I have experienced what I think he’s getting at. It’s weird because I’ve been playing before and things that would appear as anger in the music aren’t anger. It’s just another side of how profound the universe can be when it gives you information. It manifests itself in many different colors, but they’re all beauty to me. With Coltrane, everyone has their own process, and he had his process of playing everything he heard at once to sort of find the one ‘essential,’ is I think what he called it, but it’s definitely not anger. It’s visceral exploration. It’s so passionate, it’s so fiery, but it’s love.