Peter Piek: traveling is more than a “+”


This month, music writer Sabine talked to a prominent figure in Leipzig’s culture scene: the multi-talented Peter Piek. He is a painter, performance artist and singer-songwriter. In his latter function he has just brought out his fifth studio album. It is called “+” and contains twelve beautifully crafted electro-pop gems full of compassion, energy and a dash of melancholy.

Peter Piek forest near Chemnitz 2017
Peter Piek in forest near Chemnitz 2017

Peter Piek is a very busy person.

Not only does the quirky artist fill huge canvasses, but preferring the circular shape to the classical square, he also composes music, organises lengthy tours and even small festivals on the premises of his own atelier. Hence, it was no small coincidence that my first encounter with him was back in the days when I still hitched rides to get from Leipzig to Berlin.

Back then, Peter was driving to the capital for the last leg of a tour that had started in the U.S. He was travelling with his support act, an American musician who was in Europe for the first time. While Peter was stoically driving in silence, his friend and colleague was chatting away about his amazement of the Old Continent.

Jump forward to Friday a fortnight ago. The place is the small stage at the Cammerspiele, situated in the Werk 2 complex. There is a similar juxtaposition of characters when Jon Lupus opens the record release concert for “+”, Peter Piek’s most recent album.

From the word go, Jon gets stuck, forgetting his own lyrics. This will happen a few times, but he crafts his errors into his charming character that is the unapologetic troubled troubadour. Jon announces to the amused audience that in the time allotted to him, they will sigh, laugh and despair with him.

His first song is full of melancholy. Then he suddenly bursts into outbreaks of passion, followed by fragments of new songs, then a sing-along anthem to unhinged drinking. Armed with nothing but his wit and his acoustic guitar, he leaves the small crowd just a tad too exhilarated for Peter Piek’s music.

Peter, on the contrary, is eager to get the performance of his fifth album right. Easy banter is not his style. On top of that, he subjects himself to an unusual formal frame: he performs each song of “+” in the exact order as they appear in the album. To avoid forgetting the new lyrics and fulfil the task he has set himself, he has prepared some sheets of paper that are lying across his synthesiser.

Yet, even though he frequently has to change from keyboard to guitar and tune the latter, he does not falter. While videos from his travels are used as a backdrop of the stage, he delivers the whole track list of his more or less multi-layered songs, from the energetic “1st Song” to the more mellow “No-one could have hoped for a better end”. In the end, he doesn’t need the papers. After he has thanked everyone involved in the making of the album, he adds three tracks as an encore and then offers everyone a little conversation at the merchandise stand.

The album artwork and T-Shirt designs are, of course, his own.

When I arrive at his atelier, he is just designing the inlays for the vinyl edition. A photo of himself lying sprawled across a canvas is making up one half, the other goes to display the track list.

Peter Piek 2016
Peter Piek 2016

We talk about a topic which naturally presents itself when listening to his lyrics or just taking a glimpse of the city and country names of his bygone tours: travel.

SW: The list of your talents is long. So is the list of countries you have visited for galleries, tours and video shoots…

PP: I actually have a list on my computer with all the countries I’ve visited. One of my life goals is to visit every country on the planet. But I don’t really believe countries. Some are big, some are small. So you could think of areas (instead). Maybe you don’t need to visit all countries. Like Luxembourg, I mean it’s a nice place, but you don’t really miss much if you’ve been to Belgium.

The latest addition to the list is Iceland. I got invited to play a concert there. They do the Melodica Festival, a worldwide songwriter festival. I got there and stayed a week and made a video. It’s beautiful. There are a lot of festivals there.

SW: At the record release party you said you prefer to play on stages that are not in your hometown, that you feel less inhibited somewhere else.

PP: Yes, I like to not know everybody. It’s great to play in front of people who are completely new to you. That makes me feel more free somehow and I’m more loose. I’m more relaxed and behave differently. I’m not easygoing. If there are people around that mean a lot to me or that I have known for a long time, it seems like there is more pressure on me. Even though that’s stupid.

And of course it’s not true, it might actually be the opposite but it feels like that sometimes. And when I play in Leipzig, at home, you are always disappointed about something. You are disappointed because this friend didn’t come and stuff like that. When you play in a place you’ve never been before, everyone, every single person is a surprise. Like ooh, there are actually people coming to my concert!

SW: Your travels have brought you as far as China, a country known for its harsh censorship. You displayed artworks in a gallery. How limited were you in those projects?

PP: Freedom in China is a very interesting topic. Because it’s not free in many ways, but also very free in other ways. It’s quite strange. I did exhibitions there and I noticed a huge difference with the gallery scene here. Here they plan one, two, sometimes three years ahead. They are so well organised, almost too well. It’s not spontaneous anymore and it’s killing a lot of possibilities, a lot of topics that should be discussed right now.

I mean, the world is changing faster than the art world.

Like the gallery world is not coping with, it in my opinion, and that’s really sad. It’s not the case in China. For instance, it’s very fast. It feels very free.

For me these were my biggest exhibitions, but by Chinese measures it was really on a super low level. If you visit museums in China, it’s really boring. It’s technically good stuff, but mostly Chinese traditional artworks, sometimes maybe a bit modernised, but it’s not what you as a foreigner think should be there. Maybe it was because the cities I was in were small, but it really sucked, because it felt like how I imagine local museums were back in the GDR days.

Peter Piek and best friend in GDR
Peter Piek and best friend in GDR

SW: This reminds me of a photo you posted recently on your page. It shows a childhood friend you had almost forgotten about because his family had crossed the German border shortly before the reunification.

PP: Yes, I recently stumbled upon a photograph that my sister had sent me. It shows a friend and me when we were about six or seven years old, just outside the house where we used to live. And then I remembered I had this friend who used to be my best friend back then. And I think I share this story with a lot of people who grew up in Eastern Germany.

Nowadays there are a lot of people who come into the situation where parts of their family or friends have to move away because they have to flee from something. During GDR days you never knew which day they would leave. They went without saying anything. It was better like that, safer for those who stayed. And so I tried to use this story for a comment on the present political situation.

[Author’s note: in the original post, Peter expressed his regret that even though he later on met his best friend again, he hardly recognised him and that people who support nationalist movements threaten relationships like these.]

SW: On a more optimistic note: What is the next country on your to-do-list? Any plans you are excited about?

PP: I’m going to do a tour in Italy in February where I’ve been a lot of times, this will be fun. And I will also go to Switzerland for a few dates. As for the next country I haven’t been, well, I’ve been to Russia before, but this year I plan to do the journey on the Siberian train. And I want to record an album inside the train.

That’s the plan for August. So we are going through Russia; I mean I’ve been to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but Russia is much bigger than that. Then we are going to Mongolia and then, of course, to China. So, that would be Mongolia for sure where I haven’t been and most parts of Russia and even Ukraine is new to me. I’ve been a lot to South and West Europe, Southeast Europe too, but not really to the East. I’ve been to Estonia, but hardly further.

Peter Piek in Alaska
Peter Piek in Alaska

There are many more places to visit, but I’m not that crazy. After all, it’s difficult to travel with music. If you are only travelling, it is much easier. Now I have to bring my guitar and my electro stuff and my merchandise. In some places it is hard to organise.

Shortly before I leave, he tears away the fresh half of the manually designed track list, surrounded by paintstrokes of blue. He doesn’t like the look of the list with the length of each track added. Which is quite fitting to the lyrics of his 1st Song: “Time is running too fast”.

If you are interested in seeing the result, go to his homepage or bandcamp, where you can also get a first impression of the whole album.

Photos from Peter Piek website with his permission.

Peter Piek in concert
Neues Schauspiel Leipzig
7 March

Sabine grew up in the idyllic suburbs, appreciating the benefits and offers of a city close by. Apart from a short au pair stint in London, this anglophile music lover never left her hometown, because she never saw a point in doing so. At the local university she threw herself into the humanities, where she followed her passion for the English language, names and the arts. At the university’s radio station she lived out her adoration for musicians who are always a tad out of the ordinary. The avid cyclist values things that are cleverly designed and done properly. The only thing she loves more than music is food enjoyed with family or friends. In her garden, preferably.

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