Finding the thing that keeps you going
Guitarist Frank Peeters’ secret of appreciating life
Dutch guitarist living in Belgium, playing in all sorts of bands from pop and soul to funk and jazz, composing music for TV documentaries and American musicals, Frank Peeters is visiting Latvia for the fifth time in August 2018. Just two months before his new CD is out, he comes for a show with an Italian singer in Jūrmala, taking some spare time to hang out in Riga afterwards. I’m surfing the net for more information on him before doing an interview and fail overall: there’s not much information on Frank’s biography, so I decide to start our talk with asking him why.
Frank, there’s not a lot of information about you available. Is this on purpose?
I did it on purpose, skipped the website. I think the channel most musicians use nowadays is Facebook. If you look at my Facebook, my name or my page, you’ll see a lot of little videos, and when you search for my name, putting the word «guitar» after it in English or Dutch, you’ll see a lot of Youtube things coming on with different people.
What’s your life story then? I can imagine you’ve done a lot of things.
My life story, being a musician… Oh… Let me say I’m playing guitar from my 10 — it’s 46 years of guitar now. That’s something. I’ve studied jazz guitar in a small town near Amsterdam, at the same time I met a jazz singer living close to me, and we’ve played a lot of radio shows at that time in the 80s. We played at large festivals like «North Sea Jazz» festival, the biggest in Europe — that was back in the 80s. I got my diploma at 1989, and played a lot of stuff ever since — jazz with the singer, fusion as a combination of jazz and pop, jazz and latin, jazz and funk, jazz and soul. In the beginning of the 90s I did a lot of theatre works with some famous Dutch artists, there were cabaret shows with me playing banjo and Spanish guitar. Then I started playing with American jazz guys — a singer from Santana — Greg Walker, we played a few shows in Holland, Las Vegas and New York. Then I played a lot of gigs with a saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Ernie Watts, who was in Holland for quite a time. Then I played with a singer in Egypt, played in a lot of states in America, meanwhile doing my own CDs: my first one in funk and soul came out in the late 90s, with my own lyrics on that (at that time I was working in production with American guys in Holland). Then I did a lot of recordings with different guys, doing Latin things, African things, samba, salsa, Brazilian stuff. Then … my God, there’s a lot of things! I’m a freelance guitar player. They always put me in a room of strict guitar players. Long time ago I was, but most people forget I play a lot of things.
Which of those things gives you the most pleasure then?
It’s where I started — funk and soul. What I did in the 80s. It’s more «me», and this playing in a kind of a bluesy way. It’s always good when you study jazz, you can put this material which you got in a grammatical way into the music you do. Now I don’t play jazz standards, but I always use something out of it. I improvise as well.
You’re touring everywhere, doing a lot of countries, lived in a couple of them, and returning to Latvia for the 5th time. Our tiny small Latvia, what is it here for you?
It’s nice because of the little things you do here, and because of the people. There are very nice people here. You have little opportunities to play, and I like to make people happy with small concerts like I did last year. I do it for myself. Every musician wants to make money from the concerts, of course, but living in Belgium being Dutch — it’s hard even in our country. But I like to come back here to give something I know. We did some workshops here at the Latvian Academy of Music with Ron van Stratum and Nadine Nix, so we could exchange our experience — that’s what I like.
Being a foreigner, you cannot escape my next question — what do you think of Latvian jazz scene?
I heard some things this week. I know it’s hard. I know how many people study jazz. What I heard being in Trompete — there are really good musicians. There are very young musicians, of course, but I think the quality is okay. What I can recall from all the times here — there were very good talented singers. During our last workshop with Nadine there were a few lady singers, very young and very good at improvising. I think Latvia has some talents here.
What or who inspires you to make music?
I have a very simple answer to that. I can mention a few people, being a guitarist. Pat Metheny, Dominic Miller, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, who by the way was the teacher of George Benson, you know that? That’s what I studied in the 80s. Those guys got me doing what I’m doing now. I can say I play crossover. If you ask me how I create my songs — that’s inspiration, first of all, but the most important is the atmosphere. When the song happens and I play it. If I put my finger wrong, and it suddenly sounds good, I think — okay, let’s add something. Then the song is created, and then I go on. Sometimes I do it in 5 minutes, sometimes it takes 2 weeks. I always write it down.
Do you feel any kind of connection to your instrument? How did you choose that?
That’s a good question. Of course I do! If you play an instrument, you always have a connection. As Pat Metheny would say, he sees all instruments as tools. Of course there’s a connection, but never forget that if you play one instrument for a long time, and you know it very well, you don’t think too much about the instrument, you think about your own soul and your own spirit, how you create something in the atmosphere. It’s a tool for saying things out loud, express my inner feelings. It’s not about the technique, the chords or the melodies. That’s the most important.
You’re doing quite a lot of solo projects as well. How does that differ for you from playing in a band or accompanying someone?
For me it feels the same. When I play guitar in a company of another man or a woman, it’s the same feeling. It’s nice when you play your own material or you’re a leader of the band. Then you can express more of your own things. But I like them both — being a helper and being a front man. I’m doing my own project in Belgium in October in a little theatre, using all the material I wrote. It’s my thing. It’s going to be acoustic, electric, film kind of music. I’m playing with a band and some solo pieces. They use some of these recordings I made on television in documentaries, where they used my music. It’s kind of a compliment. This new CD is going to be more electric, more improvisation. Just instrumental. I always play with singers, but I want to be the most important one in this story.
You’re telling me you also write lyrics.
This was 20 years ago! Not any more. At that time I was working with New York guys, and the singer. There was a little musical we’ve played. An American singer helped me with it a bit. Maybe I’ll do it once again if I have some inspiration.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you become?
What would I do with my life? I don’t know. I’m born that way, you know. I was 8 years old and started playing the drums, did it for 2 years. Being 56 now, I don’t know the answer. I’ll always be a musician until I die. I’m lucky, because most people in my place, in Belgium or Holland, a young generation being 25 just started or almost finished studying — it’s hard for them to survive, to get good gigs, well–paid. They have to pay their rent as well, they have to do different jobs to survive. I’m still lucky to have people I know for the last 35 years that call me every week asking to help with this and that. It could be a theatre, a wedding, a gig, nice things, not easy to get as a young musician. You need a lot of experience. You have to have a chance to build up experience, and that’s not easy. There are a lot of good musicians in our countries. I’m still lucky I can do all kinds of stuff.
You also teach, right?
Yes, I’ve been doing that for the last 12–13 years, teaching little guys and girls from 7 years old, from the very beginning. In the last years it got harder for me to do, because it takes a lot of energy. Then you have to earn your money with it. Sometimes it’s hard, but then again I get back to those guys at 25 who want to get that job at school! You see, it’s always something else. Everybody has to move in life, the question is what you’re doing with it. Being a musician, you always have to be somehow connected to that kind of stream, you cannot stop. You always have to find something that keeps you going. I think, that’s not only for musicians.
I really like the quote saying when you’re sad about your present, you have to remember when you’ve wanted to have what you have now.
Yes, I realise very much where I am, what I’ve done and what I maybe can do. And again, when you go back in time, you think — okay, I was there, I did all those things! I was lucky doing all that stuff! I’m very conscious of that. I’m a lucky man.
Yes, speaking of that, I’ve known you for a couple of years now, and to me you seem as one of the most positive musicians. What’s the secret?
I try to. That’s about seeing the good things in life and in people. There sometimes are moments for me when I think — oh my God, what is this. There’s a lot of negativity in the world. It’s kind of a job to always try and be positive. The story behind that was as follows — my mother was very negative and depressive, so I learned at a very young age how to not be like that. My mother couldn’t help herself, I don’t blame her for that, but I learned some things as a young guy. You don’t realise it when you’re young. I taught myself to be stronger than my own mother. Then I had my own friends at 15 and 16, saw their parents, and it was different. Then I went back home and it was like banging my head on the wall! I know a lot of people being artists with this kind of stories. You have to always find a way to be positive yourself, no matter what you’re doing. That’s what life is. A lot of people have real problems, with no money, no place to live, but I have to be happy I’m a musician, traveling, doing my thing, having my own little apartment in Antwerp I was able to buy. So I can say I’m lucky because I created that through my positive being and I see it all the time. It’s not always easy, but you have to find something. And then you’re a musician, you’re on stage, you can sit on stage, stare at your own feet, not looking at the audience, or you can be positive getting energy from the audience simply by looking, communicating, having pleasure in your playing. That’s what I’m trying to do myself and the guys I’m playing with.
Sounds like an inspiration to me. What are your closest future plans?
Speaking of the closest, I’m leaving this afternoon and playing with Ron van Stratum back home, his brother has a new company where we play at the reception, some nice music. I have to finish the CD cover, the girl I’m visiting within an hour is a Latvian painter whom I’ve met last November when I played at Kaņepes. I saw her paintings and thought they would be nice for the cover of my next CD. The CD presentation is so soon! Soon we’re going to do a lot of concerts near Czech Republic and Denmark with an Italian singer Giovanni Costello. In between that a lot of other little things and teaching. That’s what I do.
Something I realised, while teaching and coaching at a school in Antwerp. I see a lot of people between 18 and 22 who try to learn something, but are more interested in forms than studying the real thing. They want to become singers or piano players or whatever, but they’re not connected to the art of doing it well. When you go for something, go for it! I was talking to the opera singer last night, she’s 32, she’s traveled, did something in Australia, Italy, sang in Carnegie Hall in New York, doing recordings now. She knows how to do it, she has the spirit, and that’s even harder, being a classical musician. By her example, I want to say — go for it! If you’re an artist, a musician, do it! I see a lot of musicians doing only a half. Sounds nice, but not exactly the same. So come on, go for it, and you will find a way!