Bass guitarist and keyboard player Pete Sears occupies what I believe to be a unique position amongst Terrascope interviewees to date, his career having begun with the first budding of English psychedelia and then burst into flower on the West Coast of the USA. Amongst the list of bands Pete can claim to have played with can be found such revered names as the Sons of Fred, the Fleur de Lys and Sam Gopal's Dream (on our side of the Atlantic) and Silver Meter, Copperhead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and, for thirteen years, the Jefferson Starship over on theirs.
For many years Pete travelled back and forth between England and the USA, touring and recording with artists as diverse as Rod Stewart, Jerry Garcia, Roy Harper, Nick Gravenites, Taj Mahal and Harvey Mandel. More recently, Pete has been active in environmental and humanitarian work, organising benefits and raising awareness of human rights abuses around the world. He is also currently playing with Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy in Hot Tuna and, occasionally, with the San Francisco band Zero.
For various reasons, not the least of which is the Terrascope's notoriously laid-back approach to deadlines of any description, it's taken three years to get this interview down onto paper. Pete has stayed in touch faithfully for all that time, and it's a measure of his integrity that even when something approaching a final draft had been prepared he was still on the 'phone to me asking if I didn't think there was perhaps a little too much name-dropping going down? He's probably right. But with justification. The relatively obscure, albeit hopefully interesting, nature of many Terrascope interviews and interviewees means that if there's a "name" to be "dropped" I'll invariably slip it into the article somewhere, usually in some unobtrusive place like the headline. Anyone though who can justifiably lay claim (as Pete does towards the end of this article) to have been "recently working with David Crosby, John Hammond, Bob Weir and John Lee Hooker" is entitled to drop as many names as he bloody well wants to. I make no apology therefore for the fact that the following interview has become something of a Festival of Name Dropping, save to excuse Mr. Sears himself from any culpability.
Pete Sears' musical career started at around the age of five, at a South London picture house talent show. "My older brother, John, shoved me on stage, stood me on a box in front of several hundred crazed school children, and insisted I sing an old wartime song, 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag'. I vaguely remember a sea of insane faces and not having the slightest idea what was going on. An annoyingly talented little boy who sang, danced and played the piano, won first place. I came in second and won a pencil case."
Pete took piano lessons from the age of eight, which lasted for about five years. Like many others before him, he then discovered the blues. "A friend of mine knew the owner of a record store in Bromley who specialized in Folk, Blues and Gospel recordings. I listened to Champion Jack Dupree, Big Joe Williams, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann and many other blues artists, whose influence I sort of subliminally absorbed into my psyche." The inevitable school bands followed, one called The Strangers, and later a band named Spitfire, named after the nearby RAF base at Biggin Hill, Kent (years later, Pete was to learn to fly aerobatics with "an old flight instructor named Bob Short, who was also a musician and played with the Turk Murphy Jazz Band. Bob was later killed in a flying accident)
Pete's first break into the music scene proper was meeting up ("on a fast train to Victoria") with guitarist Mick Hutchinson, at the time playing with an R&B outfit named the Sons of Fred. The band were in need of a bass player, so Pete traded in his six-string for a Fender bass and became a Son. They started playing six or seven nights a week, travelling around Britain in an old beat-up van, never quite sure where they were going to sleep. "We would try to get paid in cash, as we rarely saw any money if the promoter sent a cheque to our booking agent. I remember one idiot promoter set his dog on us and we ended up taking Mick to the hospital with bites in his backside. Vans breaking down, arriving late to a gig and setting up in front of rowdy, impatient audiences in the dark, was the best training for a life on the road a young musician could have... I suppose."
The pinnacle of the Sons of Fred's career was recording at EMI's Abbey Road Studios, in St. John's Wood, and playing a few T.V. shows such as 'Ready Steady Go' and 'Thank Your Lucky Stars'. Towards the end of the Sons however the band started playing what Mick Hutchinson has already described to us (in an interview in PT9) as mad, very loud, crazed feedback music, with both Mick and Pete occasionally going completely berserk. Unfortunately no recordings exist of this period, and soon afterwards Pete found himself sitting in with another local outfit, the Fleur de Lys.
"Fleur de Lys started out a pretty good band, playing mostly Impressions and Temptations material, with a little Four Tops and Booker T. thrown in. They already had a bass player, so I sold my Fender and bought this horrible electric piano. It was a Hohner Planet or something, and it never worked. It sounded okay in the lead singer's living room, but on stage, things started going wrong and I doubt it was heard once during my whole stint with the band. I couldn't even hear it myself! In fact, I quite often wasn't playing. I'd be sitting there with a soldering iron, a screwdriver and a tool bag, trying to play with one hand and fix the thing with the other. The instrument, and I use the term loosely, would be kind of shaking and rocking back and forth, and if I tried turning up the volume, it would make horrible noises and mysterious wisps of smoke would appear. I even thought of taking it to a priest to see if he could help."
Fleur de Lys: L-R Gordon Haskell, Pete Sears, Chris Andrews, Phil Sawyer, Keith Guster
"I had some good times with them though... I liked the lead singer and guitarist, Phil Sawyer, who later joined the Spencer Davis Group after Steve Winwood left [Sawyer was replaced in the Fleur de Lys by Bryn Howarth, who was also to play in Silver Meter, a band we'll meet a little further on in this piece]. I also enjoyed playing with Gordon Haskell. We recorded the song 'Amen' during this period and I actually got to use a real piano. Jimi Hendrix came down and played some nice guitar on it. This was before the Experience. I'd like to track down a copy sometime. Towards the end of my stay with the Fleur de Lys a few of us went to the Marquee Club on Wardour Street to see a new band we'd heard about called 'Pink Floyd'. We'd been playing mostly R & B and Motown, and here we were in this strange atmosphere with weird lights and surrealistic music swirling all around. The experience stayed with me and actually had a profound effect on me. I became increasingly discontent with Fleur de Lys. I liked the music we played, but somehow after seeing the free and adventurous spirit of Pink Floyd, I began to feel restricted. Of course it's possible I felt restricted for other reasons, as most of my creative energy was spent figuring out ways for my piano to be heard."
"I'd run into Mick Hutchinson again, and he told me he was working with a tabla player from India named Sam Gopal, and asked if I'd like to come down to the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road and jam with them. It felt good to play bass again. God, all I had to do was just plug in and I could hear myself. Mick had been studying Indian ragas on the guitar and Sam had studied tabla in India. I later began using keyboards (good ones) as well as bass and we started playing the Electric Garden, in Covent Garden, which was later to become the Middle Earth club. We'd sometimes play for hours in one key, improvising around Indian ragas. The music verged on the mystical for us, although the audience probably deserved an endurance medal."
"We were living inside the Middle Earth Club, as we had nowhere else to stay, and Graham Bond would sometimes join us. The owners would go home and padlock the gates from the outside, so if there'd been a fire or something, we wouldn't have been able to get out. We'd often have these weird all-night jams. Graham was a great keyboard player and he would often give me pointers on using the Hammond B3. He had a trio that would play the Middle Earth sometimes with Ray Russell on guitar. He asked Mick and I to join his band once. I sometimes wish we had."
"The Middle Earth was raided by the police occasionally. Graham would come into the dressing room yelling, "The fuzz - the fuzz" and we'd all start madly stuffing hashish in our mouths. They once took everybody off to the police station in two large coaches, but eventually all but one person was released. It's strange they didn't search any of the musicians... probably because Graham had been talking with a police officer about how terrible it is that young people today have to take drugs, whilst unbeknownst to the officer, chewing a large chunk of Lebanese. I particularly remember Fairport Convention playing there, and of course, the Soft Machine. A few American bands passed through also, like the Byrds. We'd play the Roundhouse and a club called Happening 44, with some all night gigs at Alexandra Palace. I remember the "Christmas on Earth" show in London, with two giant stages and Jim Marshall providing all the sound equipment... huge Marshall amplifier stacks towering up to the ceiling. Monitors were non-existent in those days; all you could hear was yourself, and when you're trying to play along with tablas, that's pretty hard. Mick was on the other side of the stage, while I played B3 organ on my side and we'd have to look at Sam's hands to try and see if we were playing in time or not. It was a classic sixties event that lasted all weekend and had an entire fairground set up at one end of the hall. It was filmed by someone... possibly the BBC. Somebody saw Hendrix filming us with his home movie camera. God knows how it sounded, but it would be good to look back on."
"I remember somebody recorded Mick and I at the Speakeasy in London once. It turned out there'd been this buzz going around about the band and the place was full of record company people. Of course we were oblivious to this fact. It was near the end of the band and for certain pharmaceutical reasons, we were completely out in the ozone that night... playing very weird stuff. I think it was a little ahead of it's time for the record companies though, like maybe 2000 years. It was insane music, but I loved every minute of it... Hendrix got up and jammed with us. That was nice."
"Mick and I often wish we'd recorded an album as Sam Gopals Dream, as it was only after the original band broke up that Sam did any serious recording. If you could call it breaking up... we just parted company and drifted off into other things. Andy Clark later joined Mick and I, and with Viv Prince on drums, we put out a single called 'Floating' on Screen Gems under the name Vamp [Viv, Andy, Mick and Pete]. It was a pretty short-lived band which lacked direction and didn't perform much. I formed my own band soon after that called Giant. That was also short lived, without much direction, although there were a few moments when it seemed to take off. There was a show at the Roundhouse in London that went pretty well. John Peel talked about it a bit on his radio show the next day, but it didn't feel right, and the band soon fizzled out."
Pete Sears (background) with Marianne Segal and Jade
Pete also found time during this period to perform with another band close to the Terrascope's heart, Steamhammer: "I wasn't in Steamhammer as such, but I'd sit in with them occasionally and played piano on one of their records. They had a really good guitarist named Martin Pugh, with Keiran White on vocals and harmonica. Martin Quittenton and Micky Waller worked with them for a while. I later worked with Martin and Micky on the Rod Stewart albums."
Interestingly, Pete also formed a band around this time with the original singer with the Fairport Convention, Judy Dyble, and former Them guitarist Jackie McCauley. "We never actually performed anywhere, but we enjoyed rehearsing together, and it was obvious we had a good thing developing... pity we didn't follow it through. I was drifting around from project to project during this period. I remember having a few rehearsals with Jon Hiseman's Coliseum, with Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax. Mitch Mitchell and I talked about doing something and I also talked with John Mark, who went on to form the Mark Almond Band."
Despite all the available work, Pete had a yearning to visit the USA, because, as he said, "much of the music I enjoyed listening to had originated there and I had this strange desire to travel off to some far away exotic land. Mick Waller had introduced me to Leigh Stevens from Blue Cheer, who'd told me I should look him up if I ever made it to the USA (which seemed exotic enough at the time). He had drawn me a map of the Santa Monica Pier in L.A. on a piece of scrap paper. It had an arrow pointing towards an old merry-go-round and an outside staircase leading to an apartment above. Six months later, after saving up enough money, I bought a cheap airline ticket to America. I left London and arrived twenty four hours later (an hour with engine trouble) in L.A., half asleep and with five dollars in my pocket. It was the boiling hot summer of 1969 and I remember standing on Santa Monica Pier in my thick, black, British overcoat, holding all my worldly possessions in a couple of tattered old suitcases and dying for a good strong cup of tea. Good luck! It felt like a bizarre dream, with the merry-go-round music and everything. Anyway, I somehow found Leigh and ended up sharing the apartment above the merry-go-round with a few musicians and several thousand giant cockroaches."
"Leigh and I would spend most of our time jamming and hanging out with friends and musicians at the Whale rehearsal rooms on the next pier over. Mick Waller flew over from England to help us get Silver Meter together and after rehearsing for a few months in Los Angeles, we moved north to Steinbeck country and spent two weeks in a small shack with no electricity up Big Creek, in the mountains of Big Sur. We then moved north to San Francisco where the band was managed by Tom Donahue. We recorded an album and did a few tours of the United States, but it was a relatively short lived band, even though we played well live."
After returning to Britain once more to work on Rod Stewart's album 'Gasoline Alley', Silver Meter finally disbanded and through the services of Tom Donahue Pete hooked up with a San Francisco-based group called Stoneground. Stoneground were the archetypal travelling band, living like a gypsy troupe in a caravan of school buses painted in psychedelic colours (the Medicine Ball Caravan), part of an avant-garde commune known as the Hog Farm. Pete ended up travelling through Europe with them as their bass player, the band eventually returning to the US to play a New Year's Eve show with the Grateful Dead and set about recording an LP ('Stoneground', Warner Brothers 1971).
"An earlier album had been recorded at Trident Studios in London with Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor which, in my opinion, was much better. [Recently released on the Blue Velvet label in Italy entitled, for some peculiar reason, 'Stoneground - On Stage']. It was more live and spontaneous, capturing the essence of the band, whereas the album we ended up releasing was over produced and over-dubbed to death. I felt Stoneground began to take itself too seriously and the music suffered as a result, although a later version of the band did make some good records."
It was while living with Stoneground in Mill Valley that Pete Sears first met John Cipollina from Quicksilver.
"We did KSAN radio's first live music broadcast on the Richard Gossett show, together with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Mario Cipollina. John and I hit off pretty well, and we talked about getting a band together someday, which turned out to be Copperhead. I met my wife, Jeanette, for the first time at John's house. I moved back to London soon after to play piano on Rod Stewart's 'Every Picture Tells a Story', but decided to return to the USA as soon as possible"
Rod Stewart tended to use the same core group of musicians on his solo records: Ron Wood, Martin Quittenton, Micky Waller, Ian McLagan and Pete Sears. The Faces, who Rod played with live and who made their own records, would always play one track as The Faces on Rod's solo albums. "'Every Picture' had some good musicians coming and going. Terry Cox from Pentangle, Dick Powell, the violinist from the Italian restaurant around the corner, Sammy Mitchell, Danny Thompson and many others. I liked Rod's approach to recording. We would go to his house in the afternoon and he'd play us the song he wanted to record on his acoustic guitar. We'd work up a rough arrangement on the piano, then go off to the studio and start recording. He always seemed more interested in the feel, and letting the song grow naturally, than getting hung up on some preconceived sound, or striving for perfect sterile assembly line music. You loose spontaneity when you do that."
Pete's next gig was a US tour with the Long John Baldry Blues Band. "That was a great band. Ian Armit from the Humphrey Littleton jazz band on piano, Micky Waller on drums, I played bass, Sammy Mitchell on guitar and John Baldry on vocals. It was John's first tour of America. We had some crazy times, but it was a good band and the tour went well. John was very adept at improvisation under combat conditions. Like the time we had a power failure at a gig in New York City and he entertained the audience with stand up comedy for thirty minutes. After I left the band, I moved back to Mill Valley California to form Copperhead with John Cipollina, and to play on a Papa John Creach album. I stayed at John's house on King Street and slept in one of his rooms that was crammed full of antique guns from the old west period. Copperhead wasn't like normal bands and often resembled a private club or something. We'd shut ourselves up in the old Quicksilver "house on the hill", with friends like Mark Unobsky, blues guitarist and owner of the infamous 'Red Dog Saloon' in Virginia City, and just hang out and rehearse for months, only playing the occasional gig in Marin County. I remember Copperhead did a live radio broadcast for Tom Donahue on KSAN. We were about to record our first official album when I received a call from Nicky Hopkins, who was forming a band to promote his record. So I left Copperhead to play bass with Nicky. I enjoyed playing with John and we had become close friends, but I was getting restless and felt it was time to move on to something else. Sort of a musical wanderlust. Besides I wasn't keen on the record contract Copperhead was negotiating. I went back to the U.K. for a couple of weeks to play on 'Never a Dull Moment' with Rod. Unfortunately, due to a commitment back in the States, I wasn't able to stick around for the album photo session, which featured everyone lined up on a soccer field in front of the goal post. I say "unfortunately", as he wanted some reference to me in the picture, so I ended up with my name under the football — there actually is some resemblance, if you look closely."
In the end, Nicky Hopkins decided not to get a band together and after several more months of session work and gigs, in 1973 Pete flew back to England to work on Rod Stewart's 'Smiler' album, an LP which took almost a year to record. During the course of that year, Pete received several calls from Paul Kantner asking him to fly over and work with the Jefferson Starship. "I'd met Paul and Grace while I was working on Kathi MacDonald's album 'Insane Asylum' at Wally Heider studios in San Francisco — they were in an upstairs room recording Grace's 'Manhole' album at the time. I improvised some blues piano and Grace started madly writing lyrics on the spot. It turned into a piano and vocal number called 'Better Lying Down', one of Grace's more subtle lyrics... They mentioned they were starting a band which was to be an extension of the Jefferson Airplane, called the Jefferson Starship, and asked if I would play bass and keyboards. Jeanette and I finally left England in 1974 and flew to the USA for Jeanette's sister's wedding and to see if this Jefferson Starship thing held any possibilities. The Starship sent a limousine to meet us, gave me a wad of cash, and put us up at a hotel in San Francisco! So I thought I'd try it for a bit. I was with them thirteen years. It started out okay, but turned into a horrible thing in the mid- to late eighties. It was at least an honest band during the seventies.
"'Dragonfly' and 'Red Octopus' had a certain freshness to them and were the first official 'Jefferson Starship' albums as a band, keeping the same line-up of musicians throughout the seventies. I played mostly bass and keyboards. I also started writing songs with Grace around this time. The band was doing well for a while, with records going Platinum and playing large stadiums and all that stuff. We were willing to live dangerously with plenty of improvisational sections during our live shows. I even used to do a five minute bass solo. Gasp! Not another bass solo, please.
(Jefferson Starship in 1978.
Clockwise from left: John Barbata, David Freiberg, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner,
Pete Sears, Craig Chaquico, and Marty Balin)
Around 1978, we lost all our equipment during a riot at Lorelei on the Rhine river, in Germany. We did a bizarre T.V. show with borrowed equipment in Hamburg and went on to do a show without Grace (as she had decided to leave the band) at Knebworth, England, with Genesis.
In 1980 Marty Balin left the band and Micky Thomas was drafted in as a replacement, and, with producer Ron Nevison at the helm, the Starship recorded 'Freedom at Point Zero', an album which met with a mixed reaction.
"It ['Freedom At Point Zero'] turned out to be a good record actually, although it had a completely different feel than earlier recordings. We had used Larry Cox throughout the seventies, who co-produced with the band. He was a good engineer and had an understanding of the music. Larry was able to draw the best out of musicians while still keeping the identity of the band intact, instead of altering the sound and losing sight of whatever it was that made it popular in the first place. Ron Nevison produced some good albums for us, although he and I locked horns a few times. From my point of view, it wasn't until the mid eighties when we hired another producer that things really turned sour. Grace wasn't singing enough and we turned into a sort of pop band. Pop means popular and there's nothing wrong with being popular, but if it is at the expense of integrity and originality, you sometimes get into trouble. I found myself on stage one day, watching Micky Thomas lying on a park bench, with a lamppost overhead as a prop, singing this drippy love song, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. To each his own I suppose. The band had developed this infatuation with getting a hit single, and had decided not to use inside material, as it was too esoteric, and didn't conform to the current trends in music. They would wade through stacks of song demos, looking for the right hit song. Some would say this is good business of course. But the Starship began to sound contrived, and by trying to improve it's record sales through market analysis, it quickly alienated it's audience. That approach may work for some, but not for the Starship who was trying very hard to be something it wasn't and as a result, the extensive radio airplay they received wasn't reflected in sales. I began to feel more alienated as time went by and there was no chance to play free during live shows, as everything was compartmentalized and in its little place and had to be played exactly the same way every night. Even solos. They also became resistant to any lyrics that were controversial or political in nature, which was a hundred and eighty degree swing from the seventies. Jeannette and I felt it important to spread awareness on certain issues and Jeannette had always had complete freedom in writing lyrics to my songs on every album since "Freedom at Point Zero". So this new policy was difficult for us to swallow. I suppose you could get the impression from all this that the band and I weren't exactly thrilled with each other at this point."
Pete remained active outside of the Starship meanwhile, playing blues with various people like Nick Gravenites and Doug Killmer and doing a series of shows with Gravenites, John Cipollina, Billy Roberts and others, under the name 'Seven Deadly Sins'. He also played on the 'Tiger Rose' album for Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, a partnership which has remained active until today. He also organised some benefits, including the music for a successful event called "The Soviet American Peace Walk". Fifteen musicians (including John Cipollina and Jerry Garcia) were gathered together for a concert in Golden Gate Park on a beautiful, sunny day and the event attracted about 20,000 people.
"It was a release when I finally left the Starship. I should have left years before, but these situations creep up on you. Aynsley Dunbar and I started to form a band with Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush, but we couldn't find the right singer and it fizzled out. It was then that I sort of rebelled against the recording techniques of the Starship and took some of the instruments I'd always enjoyed listening to, like the Celtic Harp, Peruvian Flute, Mandolin, Slide Guitar and Bag Pipes and threw them all together. We had drums, acoustic piano, guitar, celtic harp and latin percussion, all recording along side each other, live in the same room. There's nothing revolutionary about this concept, of course, but it was a reaction to the last Starship producer, who programmed drums, bass and keyboard tracks on a sequencer. It was also nice having the freedom to do what I wanted musically. I had a few friends helping me out: Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Mimi Farina, Holly Near, Greg Errico, Kitty Beethoven, David Hayes and Bayview studios owner Steve Suda. We had this killer Latin percussion section with Tony Menjevar and Leo Rosales. My wife, Jeanette, feeling a similar freedom lyrically, wrote about everything from genocide in Central America, to the world's disappearing rainforests (which are interconnected themes, actually.) Her mother had witnessed a massacre while living in Guatemala and as a result, Jeanette and I had become involved with Central American Refugee relief efforts and with various human rights organizations. We organized several radio drives to gather food and clothing for refugees fleeing the oppression in Guatemala and El Salvador. Working with these people had a strong effect on us and Jeanette wrote about it in the song on my album 'Watchfire'. I also recently helped put together a concert for some Native American projects (featuring Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen and Chris Whitley), and last month I played at a concert for a joint University of Arizona/Hopi Indian agricultural project, which I'd like to more energy into.
"I'm currently working on a new CD out at Bayview studios which I hope will be released on Grateful Dead Records, [who just reissued the 'Watchfire' album, originally released on Redwood Records]. I'm sort of going back to my pre-Starship years. I started out with folk blues, R & B and psychedelic music in the sixties and got sucked into the garbage pit of the Starship in the mid eighties, although, I enjoyed playing with them in the seventies. I'm playing a more folk, blues based music again, with bands and people I can relate to... like Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy in Hot Tuna. I also play sometimes with Zero, whose music sometimes verges on jazz. I like to listen to a lot of Celtic and Bluegrass music, which is influencing my new recordings. I'm looking forward to taking my own band out on the road soon. I've jammed a little here and there lately with people like Nick Gravenites, John Hammond, Bob Weir, David Crosby, Peter Rowan and Blues Traveller and I'm working on an album with John Lee Hooker's guitarist, Rich Kirch, featuring John Lee singing on a couple of tracks.
Produced and directed by Phil McMullen between June 1992 and May 1995, © Terrascope. Immense thanks are due to Pete for all his time, patience, hard work and 'phone calls.
For further information, visit http://www.petesears.com/