Iron Axe Man
Iron Axe Man
A Q&A with Eddie Arjun Peters
By Geoff Gehman
Eddie Arjun Peters was a Queens teen when he was electrified by an electric guitar plugged into an amplifier. The powerful sounds played by his friend Walter, his heavy-metal guru, made him realize that he could actually learn to perform his favorite six-string solos from Metallica, Iron Maiden and other heavy-metal heroes. That day he convinced his father, a singer raised in Guyana, to buy him his first axe, so he could be an “Iron Man” iron man.
Three decades later Peters is a different brand of iron man. For 15 years he has been the guitarist, composer and leader of Arjun, a trio that specializes in an intriguing, engaging blend of rock, jazz, funk and cosmic fusion. Peters has all the tools of an exceptional guitarist: robust tone; keen phrasing; a tasteful, tuneful collection of effects and voices; a natural balance between thrashing and caressing. His playing dovetails with his spacious, searching suites, which feature dynamic dynamics, cinematic images and melodic conversations. His skills are showcased on the Arjun albums “Space,” “Core” and “Gravity,” a 2013-16 Pheromone trilogy inspired by trilogies from Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and other jazz luminaries. The latest CD contains prominent solos by prominent guests—organist Cory Henry; Jeff Coffin, a flutist/saxophonist with Dave Matthews—and percolating production and mixing by Scotty Hard, a Brooklyn-based maestro who has teamed with the likes of Bjork, Wu-Tang Clan and Vijay Iyer.
Peters, bassist Andre Lyles and drummer Michael Vetter will perform April 20 in the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where they’ll shoot the galaxy with “Orion,” “Ascent” and “Longass.” Below, during a conversation from his home in the Bronx, Peters discusses his debts to Prince and Jimi Hendrix; the pains and pleasures of directing an adventurous ensemble; the importance of a good musical vibe, and the unlikely hug during a white-supremacy march that gives him hope for harmony
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned your world upside down and inside out?
A: Can I give you a tie? The first song that really hit me hard, when I was eight or nine, was Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man,” from his “Turnstiles” album. I loved his piano playing in the prelude and the middle section. To me it’s prog rock, almost classical. It has different sections with unorthodox forms, like songs by Yes and King Crimson. I think it’s mind blowing.
I had totally forgotten about that song for years, maybe because it was so played out in my mind. It was so overplayed I actually asked people to stop playing it. A couple of weeks ago it popped into my head and I don’t know why. Maybe because the universe knew I was going to be talking to you and you would ask me about the first song I couldn’t forget [laughs].
The other song that’s definitely still on my all-time favorite list is Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening,” off “One Trick Pony.” It has great percussion, a great horn section, and such a great groove. I loved that little guitar solo at the end, and that was before I knew I was a guitar guy. The song is multi-colored and hip: “So I stepped outside and smoked myself a ‘J’: at the time I had no idea what that meant but it still sounded cool.
The songs that really affected me when I was six, seven, eight were on records brought home by my father, who is a singer. He would unwrap them, put them on the turntable, drop the needle, and I would go crazy. I listened to everything my father listened to, everything that was happening on the radio. It was a good time to listen to radio because it was so diverse. I probably bought my first record around the same time, when I was eight or nine. I saved up my quarters and walked with my best friend about a mile to the Wiz on Jamaica Avenue [in Richmond Hill, Queens] and bought the 45 for [Marvin Gaye’s] “Sexual Healing.” It was big on the radio at the time and I always love good grooves. I remember being so nervous standing at the counter, giving away the money I had scraped together. It was nerve wracking, just like anything that’s good for you [laughs].
Q: What was the first guitar tune that hooked, lined and sank you?
A: Prince’s live version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” from the “Sign o’ the Times” soundtrack. That was the first guitar solo I transcribed. None of my metal-head friends were into Prince, so I had to keep that to myself [laughs]. I loved Prince. He took almost everything and wrapped it into his own thing. He was also a great songwriter who had this great visual thing going on. He helped teach me that music is much more than a song and a performance.
Years later, after I had gone through the whole Prince thing and the hip hop thing and the commercial radio thing, I got into heavy metal. I remember going to the back of the bus that took me to and from junior high school and sitting with my friend Wally [Walter], who was with his cool crew, smoking a cigarette, listening to his boombox playing Metallica. I loved Metallica’s music because it was very guitar driven, very energetic and very raw; I also appreciated that Prince kept his guitar solos raw. Then I got turned onto Iron Maiden: I loved the guitar harmonies between Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. Even as a kid I was always searching for new music, trying to find new sounds.
A record that had a huge influence on me, that Wally turned me onto, was Ozzy Osbourne’s double live  tribute to Randy Rhoads [the lead guitarist in Osbourne’s Black Sabbath, who died in a 1982 plane crash]. Rhoads’ long, challenging guitar solos really spoke to me. I remember thinking: What is this?
Q: You had another life-changing experience at 13, when you heard Wally, or Walter, play an electric guitar plugged into an amp at his home in Rosedale, Queens. What electrified you?
A: I realized that guitar sound I loved from Metallica and Sabbath and Maiden was within reach: I could grab it and do it. I went home and told my dad “We need to get a guitar! We need to get a guitar!! We need to get a guitar!!!” Being a musician himself he said: “Okay, we’re going to get you a guitar.” I started out learning solos that were easy to figure out. Man, it was such a high figuring out how to play “Iron Man”; talk about a religious experience.
Listening to Prince led me to a whole bunch of other artists, from Miles Davis to Joni Mitchell. I was also very much tuned into classic rock, which had a resurgence, a rebranding, at the time. I was really into stuff from the ’60s and early ’70s. [The Doors’] “LA Woman” came on the radio the other day and I found myself listening carefully to the whole “Mr. Mojo rising” breakdown section. You can actually hear the band jamming and feeling one another. There’s no click: they’re slowing it down and going for it.
A lot of that classic rock is so embedded in me. I spent so much time in my room listening to [The Who’s] “Live at Leeds” and Spooky Tooth’s “Wildfire” and Cream and Hendrix—“Axis Bold as Love” is one of my all-time favorite records. I think I’ve bought every live thing Hendrix ever released. I even own a bunch of his bootleg videos that somehow never got officially released.
I’m very grateful to have been exposed to such a wide range of good music at such a young age. Now I guess I’m regurgitating it. I had a guy come up to me after a show and say “I heard some kind of Zappa stuff in your playing; I heard some kind of Prince stuff.” It’s nice to know that music is being listened to in that manner; that’s a really good listener. Still, it blew my mind because I never think of those voices when I’m writing. You wake up with three different songs buzzing in your head, each with different melodies. You get your lazy butt up and play guitar and record them and they end up becoming songs. I might have a moment or two when I’m searching in a Zappa kind of way, or when I bend my notes in a Prince kind of way.
I should also tell you that Billy Cobham was a huge influence on me. I was in this keyboard class my freshman year at Jamaica High School. I was a full-on metal head wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt and this guy, who was a senior, looked at me and said: “Have you heard of Billy Cobham?” I told him I hadn’t and he told me: “You need to buy this record by Cobham; you need to listen to [guitarist] Tommy Bolin.” So I went to another Wiz and I bought “Spectrum” [Cobham’s first record, released in 1974]. I took it home and listened to it and I was forever changed. “Quadrant 4” got so inside my head, it could have exploded. I loved Billy’s drumming and Bolin’s solos; I even loved the segues between the tracks. It’s just a brilliant fusion of jazz and rock and soul and funk. It taught me to search for other revolutionaries; that’s how I came across Jeff Beck, Weather Report and Miles Davis. Miles’ ’70s records—“On the Corner,” “Bitches Brew”—have probably the most influential music I’ve heard in my life I still listen to a lot of that: I have a lot of Miles boxed sets and bootlegs. A lot of people thought Miles was dumbing down when he wasn’t. He had already achieved so much, he was just trying to break new ground and move forward. That searching is important to me; that keeps me inspired.
Q: While you were making “Gravity,” your latest album, did you significantly change any of your writing, playing or recording rituals? It’s the most live sounding, the most searching, of your trilogy CDs.
A: You know, “Space” , the first album, wasn’t meant to be released. We were recording songs we had already been playing for a few months. When I hit playback I said, okay, it sounds so good, we’re going to release it. That began the whole trilogy thing. We rushed out the next record, “Core”  with a lot of things we shouldn’t have done. I didn’t like the drum hardware or the bass mike or the guitar I played. With “Gravity”  I said, okay, we’re going into [producer/mixer] Scotty [Hard]’s studio and we’re going to change the way we record the bass and I’m going to use a different guitar. It didn’t work out as well as I hoped to because we didn’t practice enough, mainly because of schedule conflicts with [bassist] Andre [Lyles] and [drummer] Lamar [Myers]. But we already had a good chemistry, which meant we were able to play the songs well, with a good vibe. I don’t mind being shortchanged in quality or if there are mistakes as long as the vibe is good: if the vibe isn’t there, it’s useless. The vibe became super tight with Scotty, who really knows how to record and mix. He’s a real old-fashioned, analog, hands-on guy; oh yeah, he’s working those faders with his hands. He figures out what I want and makes it better. I’m glad to call him a friend. I look forward to the day when we can actually do a full-on project; that will be exciting.
Q: One of the impressive elements of “Gravity” is the fluid flow between the band members and the guest soloists. Flutist Jeff Coffin really goes to town on “Run.” And organist Cory Henry expands and elevates “Ascent” like he’s channeling Billy Preston.
A: Like everyone, I’ve bought records with great guest artists who are so underused, you wonder what they did, if thev were even on the track. I told Cory: Let’s extend this solo and jam on it, dude. He knew how to groove with the song and not overplay or show off. And Jeff made the call to play flute. I was thinking, I want me a Jeff Coffin sax solo, and he was saying, I’m feeling flute. And he just blew my mind. I mean, when was the last time you heard a two-minute flute solo?
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you seriously considered abandoning your calling?
A: There was a time when Arjun was functioning as a collective, with three drummers and five bassists. I needed to keep the band going; I did not want to just rely on two guys. I was probably playing way too much with too many people who didn’t understand, or care about, my music. There were certain session guys struggling to make a living, who have this bad attitude they don’t even realize is disrespectful. I’m not trying to make them play anything that’s cliché; my stuff requires some dedication. I was going for a specific thing, not a sound that’s very common. It’s not a sound I can easily convey, partly because I’m not a very vocal person, although I’m getting better at being talkative. When people come in and disrespect your music, it’s worse than disrespecting me. I can be OK if you disrespect me: after all, I’m a Queens kid. But the music thing, it’s my baby. I don’t have kids for the very reason this is my baby–I‘ve devoted my life to this.
When your baby is disrespected, it does something to your insides, your soul It’s a hurtful, painful feeling I even became enraged at times, which I had to check. That can make you feel, okay, why am I even doing this? You understand why people in general become depressed when people don’t get who you are. And that’s why I’m very compassionate about mental illness.
Q: How about your happiest time in the music trade, when you felt so free you might even play for free?
A: Our music has reached new heights the last month or so with Andre on bass and Michael [Vetter] on the drums. The connectivity, the chemistry, between the three of us has become so good. Andre is probably the best musician I know. He can do whatever I want and make it completely different and completely better. He holds the whole song together when I’m going off on my astral journeys. And Michael has got this whole jazz/improv sensibility. He’s got the rock and the funk things too and I’m always pulling those elements out of him. When he’s locked in, when he’s delivering on all cylinders, he’s almost on fire. That’s when there’s nothing left to do but have fun. That’s when we look at each other and go: Wow, are we really grooving this hard?
Like every band we have issues and kind of get at each other’s throats. Only a few weeks ago we were ready to kill each other. It was mainly growing pains: I didn’t want our sessions to run amok like they did when we had the collective thing. We got out of that unhealthy groove because Michael and Andre are not only brilliant musicians, they’re great people. I consider them my friends, my brothers. I walk around thinking: How did I get so lucky? The exciting thing is, all of our struggles come through in the music. We’re telling a story and it’s filled with emotions we’ve experienced, separately and as a unit. And the really exciting thing is that we can do so much more.
Q: So, Eddie, what tops your Bucket List?
A: That’s a really tough question. There’s so much I want to achieve. I want to be on the Beacon Theater’s marquee as the headliner. The Beacon is a very special place; it’s probably my favorite place in New York. That’s where I saw the Allman Brothers, probably one of the best bands ever. I loved seeing, and hearing, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge; it was almost a religious experience. And “Live at the Fillmore East” changed me forever.
Another goal is playing Europe and Asia. This November we’re going to perform in Wales; it will be our first time in Europe. I’m trying to be cool, to contain myself, to make sure I’ve got my chops together. I’m so ecstatic about meeting the people and just breathing that Welsh air. .
Once our band really starts to move in the right direction, I’d like to get into charitable work with orphanages. I want to help needy people.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I wish we could get past our differences and conflicts and take people at face value. I’m going to call my next album “Face Value.” I’m thinking of this video where this black guy gets in the face of this white dude marching with other neo-Nazis and he asks him: “Why don’t you like me, brother? Give me a hug.” And the white dude looks him right in the face while he’s marching and he says: “I don’t know why I don’t like you.” And then they hug and I went: Yes!
We should all stop believing the fairy tales that come along with religion, the politics and greed that keep us separated. I don’t know if I should say this but, ah, what the hell: I’d like to see “American Idol” just go away. It’s the worst television franchise ever because it’s not real. Real music is an art, not a contest. To be successful doesn’t mean you have to be packaged and sold to do specific things. Corporations control too much of the music industry today. They send out acts that sound the same; they process and compress the life out of music. I’d like that bubble to burst.
I’m glad that more and more performers are going independent and not signing with major labels. I’d like more fans to get out of the mainstream. I mean, in New York you can go see something 50 million times better than the junk on “American Idol” for, like, 20 bucks. And it will be a really exciting, real experience.
Eddie Arjun Peters: The Scoop
Born in Toronto, he will celebrate his birthday early with a May 7 concert at the Iridium, the popular blues/jazz/rock club in Manhattan.
His parents grew up in Guyana, the only South American country where English is the national language. His father is a retired civil servant. His mother took care of his dad and their three sons. “She held us all together. She was the sane one with the sixth sense.”
He wants to do a “full-on” music project with his father, a singer of Hindi and American country songs.
He has fond memories of attending Halloween concerts at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan starring Medeski Martin and Wood, whose keyboardist John Medeski played organ on the title track of his album “Core.”
His rock-funk composition “Longass” was named by Andre Lyles, Arjun’s bassist. “I’ve had to explain to people that I’m not talking about an actual ass. When I was writing it I was thinking of a guy grooving down the street in a pimp-daddy suit. You know, that ’70s jive thing.”
His primary guitar is a black Paul Reed Special from the early ’90s, part of a 100-instrument edition. “I’m actually sitting here in my car, pulling up to my guitar guy to get it ready for the Mauch Chunk gig. It has the right tone for what I’m trying to convey. I’m not a tech guy, although I am a bit of a tone snob. Once I have my tone right, that’s all I need. I’ve had the PRS for 20 years, a very long time. It’s just so reliable. I’ve never gotten tired of it—you pick it up and it always does what you need it to do. It’s an extension of me, a part of me. It’s my baby, you know. And it’s sexy.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Eddie Arjun Peters’ fondness for Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Yes. He can be reached at email@example.com