Talking Heads: Mark Peters

by Ben Hogwood

Mark Peters has enjoyed a richly creative year. A key member of the band Engineers, he has seen his own solo work flourish for the Sonic Cathedral label. His 2018 album Innerland made a strong impression, and now it has a complementary work in this year’s release Red Sunset Dreams, creating sonic vistas from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Arcana sat down to talk about the new album, its sense of time and place, its guest musicians – and how Peters has sparked creatively from them. It is a record working on several levels – on one hand you could bask in its Mediterranean warmth, while on the other it creates vivid imagery of a British summer. “It’s probably no accident,” says Peters, “as a lot of it was done at the back end of last year in the UK, and some of the tracks – the title track and one called Tamaroa that was done quite quickly, were done just as Autumn started.” Music experiences a resurgence as the seasons change. “It’s funny”, he says. “I think my music definitely suits the autumn, and I feel you get more attuned to your rhythms as an artist. It has a lot to do with visual aspect, and how we naturally hunker down.”

Peters grew up in Wigan, where he still lives – and where he had his musical epiphany. “I think the key moment for me was in a science class, and someone played me a record which I don’t regard as the greatest record ever, The Delicate Sound of Thunder by Pink Floyd. It was so different to anything I knew. I was into pop music like every other kid, towards more indie music like Echo & The Bunnymen. It really struck me as a wow moment, where things changed. It was the combination of a frivolous band name and the stark, gloomy presentation – and how relatable the lyrics were, with me being at school and questioning everything! It was “Oh, right – I’m not alone.”

This gateway moment led to the purchase of a guitar. “Wigan was a really fertile area for music then, with a lot of crate-digging. I think a lot of that culture gets attributed with funk and soul, but I was listening to Can at the age of 16, and Aphrodite’s Child, the band Vangelis was in. The doors opened and it’s carried on ever since as a massive melting pot!”

Peters’ music has a strong sense of time and place – which can be said for Innerland as well as Red Sunset Dreams. Does he have an image in his head when writing music? “I don’t know, but I am a very visual person, and I get a lot out of imagery and the natural world. Just looking at the sky, it does have a massive influence on me and my mood. It motivates me to write, record and mix, which is a big part of it for me – for some people it’s a more prosaic part of the process. Rather than a particular image in my head I think it’s more of a feeling, and then I start to work on something.”

The feelings can be personal in other ways. “These days I start to think about a feeling that others may have had, an essence of something or things that I’ve read or seen historically. Those things have quite a big influence on me. I did a project with Ulrich Schnauss in response to local landmarks, and I really got into the research, looking at things locally and in more depth rather than the everyday person in the car. That’s honey to the bees for me for creativity, those black and white photographs and seeing how people had to live. I feel tuned into the essence in places, which is something I would like to do that again. I’ve explored and formulated that with Nat from Sonic Cathedral.”

Red Sunset Dreams is essentially an Americana instrumental album, presented naturally and without cliché. “It’s about the stuff in our innate consciousness. I enjoy the kitschy thing that we’ve kind of explored on the artwork. It should be fun, and I don’t want to be pompous but at the same time I started to think about it. When I found out there was a local cinema showing Westerns purely from the late industrial revolution, that was massively popular, and that was a really evocative situation. You’ve got all these people working in mills all the time, who couldn’t see the hills because of the smog. They were going into the cinema to experience this vastness and freedom that had once been there, a generation earlier when it was all farmlands. That clicked with me, and I realised it may have been the reason that all the aspects of Americana came into the country.”

Was there a particular place that appealed in America? “There was one particular day I used for a video for Switch On The Sky that sadly got lost in time, just around San Francisco. There was a particular day where we drove from just north of San Diego, a place called Del Mar, up alongside the Sierra Nevada mountains up to a place called Bishop. The reason I took the title Silver River was because it was filmed near there. We drove all day, with loads of ambient tracks on – Brian Eno, Boards of Canada, and some things like David Crosby, It was a really evocative day, and the light was amazing – the sunset seemed to last from late afternoon. It was a real actualization of all those things you experience on TV – the sizes of the curbs, the fire hydrants. That day really stuck with me and gave it a mythical quality that really appealed to me and was enchanting.” He really enjoyed San Francisco. “I think it’s got a good atmosphere. The real journey for us though started once we got on the road out of the we just stuck to the coast road through Big Sur and right the way down, which was astonishing – especially compared to Los Angeles, which we now know as ‘Hot Warrington’!

Silver River was made with legendary slide guitarist BJ Cole. “I’d like to have a better story about this, but he just has an online service! It’s ridiculously cheap, and you send him the tracks. We had a chat about who I was, and we had some people in common. Being from Wigan, I know the guys from The Verve, and he briefly joined the band in the late 1990s. He wasn’t on any recordings with them but is on Richard’s first solo album. We talked mainly about that, and that was it really – he’s a busy guy and still doing a lot of really cool stuff. He sent me a guide track, and we made him the lead instrument. I felt I should show a due amount of respect. He sent me six takes of improvisation, and as with all those some were successful and beautiful, and others you go a bit wrong. I edited it to keep all the good bits. When I heard it all together as a collage I was blown away – it was so fluid, with a watery feel, and when I found out the title it felt ideal.”

Peters’ other guest, Dot Allison, is also a natural fit. “I’ve been working with Nat from Sonic Cathedral for many years now, and I said it would be great to have a singer on this. I don’t want to make the same album as Innerland. He said, “If you could choose anyone, who would you go for?” I said Dot – and then some months later she heard Innerland and thought it would be a great idea. I think the reason why I wanted her to do it, aside from having the perfect vocal sound, was that I think it’s really important to choose people who are really going to get what you’re doing. I can’t think of anyone who would get it more! On our first conversation we talked about Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, and I realised it would flow incredibly easily – and it did. She actually worked with BJ Cole herself, on a track called Tomorrow Never Comes, which is such a good song.

Sonic Cathedral is the ideal match for Peters’ music. “I’ve known Nat since Engineers played a couple of shows for him in 2005. We’ve been friends and in regular contact since then. I don’t know why it took so long to do stuff like this, I think it was because I was used to being on big labels like Echo and K-Scope. I was maybe a bit spoilt, maybe not having the right priorities, but as you get older you realise it’s all about the A&R really. I couldn’t think of a better home in terms of having someone who understands me and has ideas that mean I never have to worry about how things are presented. We have so many current interests, and share music naturally, and that sort of thing can be contrived at major labels. I’m really proud of him for sticking to his guns like he does. Trust is the key word with a label, and that’s exactly what we have.”

Peters’ work is much more solo-based these days, though he does have a little contact with his fellow-Engineers. “I am in touch with Dan MacBean on a pretty regular basis. We made an album in lockdown called Pictobug, which we released under the Engineers name. It was a great experience because although we did manage to do a lot of experimental stuff on those early Engineers albums, we always felt like a lot of our time was spent trying to try and please the label. I can’t complain – it wasn’t a horror story – but when you are signed to a larger label, they’ve got certain criteria you are bound to try and fulfil. We always felt that the untethered, exploratory aspects were left aside. For Dan and I to make that record was really good. It was four pieces ranging from 8 to 13 minutes, just jams that we did as an online release – and people were enjoying it. I haven’t generally seen others from the band apart from when we got our publishing back last year.”

With an open musical mind, Peters is still open to collaboration. “Some things just naturally occur, and sometimes the universe is just pointing at you – you don’t need to think too much. When we did the tracks that are on my album, Dot and I agreed it had happened so quickly and so well that we should do some more. We’ve done two more tracks, and I’ve got a few more ideas to send to her too. With the live band, that’s been really enjoyable – and we’ve started to do some improvisation-based stuff that I’d like to pick up a bit more and record. We’ve got the live sound honed so now we can see what they have to offer as composers, and let them have some creative input. That’s a start of a nice little project.”

You can browse Mark Peters’ music at his Bandcamp site – which includes this Christmassy EP from 2019:

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