4. Tony Petersen
A van, temporarily parked in Columbia, South Carolina // October, 2017
I've known Tony Petersen–a talented guitarist, thoughtful songwriter, and all-around great guy–extremely well for several years. We met in Boston in 2010, when Saint Anyway, a now-defunct bluegrass band from Minnesota of which Tony was a founding member, hired me to play upright bass for a bunch of shows around New England. In the years that followed, he and the other two people in that band would frequently bring me on board to play various instruments on all their recordings and a bunch of their tours, and in the process I came to be very good friends with all of them. Throughout my early twenties, I slept in vehicles and on hardwood floors with Tony and his bandmates all over the country. We've played together on rooftops, on festival stages, at the very dive-iest of dive bars, in fancy theaters and damp clubs, and in at least three different barns; suffice it to say, we've been to lots of strange places and seen some deeply bizarre things together. Tony now performs full-time with an excellent and increasingly successful rock band called The Social Animals, with whom I've also done a bit of work over the years, and we did this interview last fall, in the hours before a gig in South Carolina at which I was playing keyboards for them.
I wanted to interview Tony because I thought it was important for this collection to include the perspective of someone else who spends more time in motion than they do in one place: for years, before they were picked up by big-name booking and management companies who finally imposed a more reasonable schedule on them, the Social Animals kept up a pattern of more or less nonstop touring, driving nearly every day to some new corner of the country to perform. There have been very long stretches during which they effectively lived on the road together, and we talk a bit here about what that lifestyle can be like. While we obviously both spend a shockingly huge portion of our lives driving around, it was interesting to uncover the ways in which our experiences of that, and of the places we pass through, are in some ways pretty markedly different.
You'll probably notice that this talk really winds up being more of a co-interview: Tony starts asking me some really good questions at some point, and probably did a better job here of interviewing me than I did of interviewing him. If you're interested in looking into some of his current work, you can listen to The Social Animals' music here and check out their upcoming tour dates here. They are good people and good musicians.
Anyway, here's a couple of old friends and fellow travelers giggling with each other for about an hour and a half.
- - -
Tony Petersen: I made these notes, hang on. (pause) Huh.
Yeah… yeah, know what, I don’t like any of it.
[both laugh uncontrollably for about 7 seconds]
Ben Cosgrove: To be clear, you went to the trouble of writing all these things down you wanted to talk about and you’re just abandoning them wholesale before we start?
TP: Yeah, I mean… ha, I guess looking now, they’re more about being a musician than they are necessarily about traveling or anything. Which isn't...
BC: Oh, we can talk about that! Really, don’t worry; this should be pretty low-pressure. I started recording, by the way.
TP: Well there’s one note I have that’s just about… well, you know, little nooks and places that become yours in a city. To me, that’s one of the fun aspects about traveling like this so far, is that you get into a little spot that you find on your own and that becomes your routine, or a place you have to check in to feel grounded. Like that little mountain in Hailey, Idaho?
BC: Mount Carbonate!
TP: Haha yeah! It’s a helpful thing, for me, in traveling around a lot, just to develop a set of things you need to do every time you hit a familiar town.
BC: That’s interesting. Yeah, and I suppose you do do that ritual walk around Boston every time you're there. I guess it’s like how a security guard has to tap an ID card at various points around his or her route.
TP: Yeah, it’s a fun, or important part of constantly moving – just finding places and routines that are yours. Like, “wow, I’ve got to go back there again,” or “I’ve got to do this,” whenever you return to that spot.
BC: Yeah. I do the same thing in – yeah, actually. I think we both do that. The place I think of is Montpelier, you know, whenever I go through Montpelier, even now–
TP: That hill, with the tower thing!
BC: [laughs] Exactly!
TP: Man, I haven’t been there since Saint Anyway days. That was kind of a thing you and Jamie would do, mostly.
BC: But yeah, whenever I’m there – and yeah, Jamie and I would always do this, especially, I remember – we’d have to climb that hill and check out the view and only then would it feel like you were actually there in town and not just breezing through. It becomes this weird ritual, like, whenever you go to a city you kind of do all of the same things so that – well like, in Philadelphia, I do a big long walk along a very similar route every time, and carve out hours to do it, all just so that I can feel grounded there before I have to leave again.
TP: Same with Boston, like you said. Obviously I have to go down Newbury Street, I’ve got to see the Common, I’ve got to walk by Fenway. Anyway, that’s one note, so this should be fine, whenever you’re…
BC: Oh, it’s been rolling.
TP: Ha! All right. Welp.
BC: Should we introduce you? Who are you?
TP: I’m Tony Petersen.
BC: And how do I know you?
TP: We’ve been playing together for… what did Facebook just tell us? Seven years? Eleven years?
BC: Not eleven, but seven seems right. I met you guys in Boston, in that year right after college, when you were finishing up at Berklee.
TP: We were in a bluegrass group.
BC: YOU were in a bluegrass group, in which I occasionally found refuge.
TP: [laughs] Yep, it was a band called Saint Anyway, pretty much me and our mutual good friend Jamie at that point, and we were based in Minnesota and Boston. And we needed an upright bass player, which turns out to be one of the things you know how to do, so we convinced you to drag this thing around...
BC: I met you guys because Jamie’s co-worker that year had been my college roommate. I think we met at a bowling alley?
TP: [still laughing] Yeah, and we played at all those outrageous… we played at the All-Asia Bar, the Phoenix Landing, the... the Wadzilla Mansion.
BC: But critically! Now, where are we – in what state?
TP: We’re in South Carolina. Which is important! Because neither one of us has played in this state yet. But that changes tonight!
TP: And yeah, there are… three left now that I haven’t played in, as a touring musician.
BC: Three?! You have three now?
TP: Yeah, I have Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii. And I think those are the only three.
BC: Are you kidding me? Maine is such an outlier there. MAINE?
TP: What are yours?
BC: After tonight? Just Delaware and Hawaii, man.
TP: Crazy. And yeah, we should tell the people – it doesn’t count if you’re just traveling through it; you have to play a gig. A real, booked, paid gig.
BC: Yep, of course.
TP: Wait… sorry. There’s four. I still have Alabama, too.
BC: You haven’t played in Alabama? I’m sort of surprised.
TP: Me too, clearly! Where did you play?
BC: As I recall, I played a really bad gig in Alabama. Way up in the middle of northern Alabama. Near Muscle Shoals. Some coffee shop, a few years ago. I want to say it was daylight out? [laughs]
TP: But it counts.
BC: Yeah, it was… I don’t want to tip the details, in case this is ever publicly available or anything, but it was kiiiind of like this gig we’re about to play, in that the only reason I took it was so that I could cross off Alabama. Which I sort of feel bad about. I mean, surely that isn't the attitude you should go into anything with, really, right...?
TP: Oh, but it gets you there. And then once you're there, you're still doing as good a job as you would have somewhere else, right? Anyway I’m 100% sure that a good chunk… no, MOST of these states I’ve crossed off, these magnets that I buy – I buy a magnet from a truck stop after each new state – are just really bad, really embarrassing early gigs. So I’ll have to return and really legitimize each one, maybe.
BC: Oh, no. No, no. Don’t change the rules of this contest now, when we’re so close.
TP: Fair point! Yeah, it’s just got to be any paid gig. Or even a gig! Maybe money doesn’t count.
BC: Mm… but it’s got to be a formal engagement. I mean, I was just driving through Delaware on my way down here and I was like “man, I could just storm into one of these places and beg them to let me play for twenty minutes,” but that wouldn’t be right at all.
TP: No, sir. Invalid. That’s cheating.
BC: [laughs] I’m so glad we’ve got this formalized.
So yeah, so how do you – well, you and I manage to stay in unusually good touch with each other. In fact, I communicate more actively with you even better than I do with most people I know, maybe because we’re both running around all the time.
TP: Mm-hm. Same. Agreed.
BC: But I drive around all the time by myself. And I almost literally cannot imagine what it’s like to travel around as incessantly as you guys do in the uninterrupted company of three other people.
TP: Totally different. But man. MAN, I feel like it’s way harder to do what you do.
BC: Are you kidding? This may be a weirdly inverted grass-is-greener situation here. I feel like I’d lose my mind in your shoes.
TP: Ha, this is actually a note that I had, that I wanted to talk about in this conversation. It must be so different and – at least I would assume – harder, to do it solo.
BC: Oh, no, no. I mean… it’s different. Maybe it’s just a different attitude that you have to take towards it. What you lose in companionship you make up for in agency. Like, I can take these extremely indirect routes to get where I’m going, and stop wherever I want to. And driving around is really the time of day – the only time – when I’m alone and I can kind of mentally... reset.
TP: That makes sense.
BC: But you guys are actually really good about creating hard and fast rules for, you know, carving out alone time and giving each other space, despite the fact that for all intents and purposes, you all live in a van together on an effectively permanent tour.
TP: [laughs] Well, yeah. It’s very democratic and it’s very fair. And everything that we do is split – all the duties, all the driving, all of that. Like, the idea that you do all of your own driving on these crazy tours you do is crazy. You drive a LOT. There have been times when we’ve hooked up with you for a set of shows and you’ll casually be like “yeah, I came here from thirteen hours away.”
BC: Ha! I don’t know about thirteen, but hey, point taken. I don’t know. Usually it isn’t too taxing; I’m usually super interested in the places I’m driving through, so it’s often more, like, engaging and restorative. But I guess some of the long ones… or this trip down 95 today was rough.
TP: I mean, I have no idea what would happen to me mentally if I drove for thirteen hours and then played a show.
BC: Look upon me and know thy fate.
BC: Yeah, I just think that if I were in your situation, I would feel… maybe claustrophobic? But I suppose you guys just become unbelievably comfortable with each other.
BC: But… I don’t know, I still feel like I would need…
BC: Yeah! Even just “I want to listen to the music I want to listen to.”
TP: Ha, we actually don’t force anyone to listen to anything in the van like we used to. There are a lot of headphones now. For exactly that reason. It’s more like an airplane now, I guess. There was a time when that aux cord was flying around and we’d all be imposing stuff on each other, but now, really, the only time something goes over the stereo it’s like, a joke. We’ll occasionally play something over the speakers if we think it's hilarious, but otherwise everyone’s in their own space.
BC: You’ve each got little private rooms in this strange apartment that moves.
TP: Yes, exactly! It’s our four-bedroom Chevy Express.
BC: People listening may think you’re exaggerating, but the interior of this van really is a feat of domestic engineering. You’ve each got private chambers and sleeping spaces and stuff, and it’s a van.
Yeah, actually – the moment that I knew I wanted to interview you for this project was this winter when I saw you guys in New York, we both had gigs in New York. And you guys played your gig… and then drove nonstop to Oregon, where you arrived precisely in time to load in and play the next gig. Which I find just… mind-melting.
TP: Oh wow, that’s right. Yeah, how many hours was that?
BC: I helped you set up, I remember, and you were just casually like, “oh yeah, when we’re done here – it’s kind of annoying – we have to drive to, uh... PORTLAND, OREGON.”
TP: Haha yeah, it was… that was weird. We had those gigs in New York because they were great opportunities for us, but then the new booking agency had already arranged this west coast tour and we ran the numbers and figured “hey, I guess this could still work.” But yes, it was – it was completely nuts, yes.
BC: So I just want desperately to know, like… just… what was that like? I’ve never done that.
TP: Traveling for that long?
BC: No, I mean – well, okay, yeah. That’s interesting. Is that how you would describe it? “Traveling for a long time,” rather than something like “traveling across this enormous, changing space?”
TP: I mean…
BC: I – okay, sorry. To explain my question better: whenever I have had to do a really long drive, I find it difficult in all the obvious ways, but I also find that there’s something truly… exhilarating and informative and even magical about it. You know, you think of all these parts of the country being separate and distinct from one another, and there’s something mind-blowing about watching these landscapes morph into one another.
TP: That’s interesting.
BC: Yeah, even coming down here. This is a light example, but I played in New Hampshire three days ago and then hustled down here, and... well, New York, Washington, DC, and South Carolina occupy three completely different zones in my brain, but I’ve just had the opportunity, again, to see how they connect to each other and now they feel more like part of the same fabric. You move through them so quickly that they’re fresh in your memory, you know? And it recalibrates my mental map completely every time I have to do something like that.
TP: Of course, the downside is that you don’t have a chance to take them in when you’re going that fast though.
BC: Yeah, exactly. But there’s still… I don’t know. It makes looking at a map seem more meaningful, or, you know [points northeast] I can genuinely, freshly feel that Washington, DC is over there and [slightly changes angle] New York is there. And, you know, the Great Lakes are up there [points again]. It’s almost orienting, unexpectedly. If you’re covering enough ground in a short enough time, you see how the trees change color and type, and how buildings rise and fall in height and how the towns around you shrink and grow; everything feels more… kinetic.
TP: See, that’s one of the things you can do because you drive the whole time – you’re taking in all of that stuff. But when we switch drivers…
BC: You go into your cocoon.
TP: Ha, yeah, I get into my cocoon! So I’ll emerge, you know, at a gas station hours later and we’ll be in Nebraska. We change the driving duties in shifts that are pretty short: each of us does two hours on and then six hours off. So I’ll often just be back there in my little cubby/nook that I built back there, the bottom section of a lofted area that we built.
BC: It really is beautiful.
TP: Yeah, thank you. It is pretty nice! We’re pretty proud of having converted a passenger van into what is now basically an RV. But anyway, yeah, I’ll be back there and six hours is a long time. So when I pop out, I’ll be in a completely, completely different part of the United States.
BC: It’s like riding the subway.
TP: A little, yeah.
BC: Or again, like an airplane. You watch movies and stuff and look out the window occasionally, but mostly you’re just in a separate, placeless zone.
TP: Totally! Which is kind of sad. It would be nice to keep my eyes out the window and, as you say, see the changes in geography, but it’s also pretty thrilling to be like “Whoa! When did we get to Utah?”
BC: That's interesting. But do you – I mean, I assume you still perceive distance as you’re moving, even if it’s just through time. That is to say… “OK, I’m going into this hole for a while, but I expect that when I emerge it’ll be… Arkansas outside.”
TP: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I know that if we’re consistently moving, we’ll wind up where we intend to be, when we intend to be there. And we don’t take many detours and keep a pretty steady pace, so it’s pretty easy to know where you’ll be in six hours just by looking at Google Maps. But – I mean, you know this – you can really get across the United States so fast. And with four drivers instead of one, that’s completely possible. And maybe that messes with our thinking about what those distances actually mean.
BC: I don’t know about “messes with,” but that’s an interesting point.
TP: It makes it feel like the United States is really small, actually. Because with the driving duties so fair and equally split, you can get across not only quickly but pretty simply: you can take like one road. So again, like, I don’t know how you do it all by yourself.
BC: Hooo… well, sometimes it’s hard. But I also don’t often try to tackle all of I-80 in one go, for instance. I actually even try to avoid interstates, and I never take toll roads. I think that, ironically, the more I can force myself to think actively about where I am, the less mentally taxing it is to take on a long drive. It’s like, an activity in which you are actively engaged; you’re not just waiting to arrive somewhere. Another reason the drive to get here was kind of tough on me: I had to come so far, so quickly, that it felt like the latter thing.
But I agree with what you’re talking about! I mean… I too have had the feeling that like, the United States is surprisingly small.
TP: I’m surprised by how often I’m back in a certain place that I thought I’d never see again.
BC: Ha, seriously. I no longer ever think, “I’ll never see this place again.”
TP: Or even like, “this part of Boston.” And I’ll say some teary goodbye, and then we’ll suddenly find ourselves back there like three months later. Which – it’s almost better that I’m zoned out, in our travels, you know, curled up in the back of the van, so when I pop out it’s always a happy surprise, like “oh my god!”
BC: That’s kind of a new phenomenon for you, though. I know that for a while – and certainly during Saint Anyway days – you really tended to take on the lion’s share of the driving.
TP: Yeah. That’s true. Before we split it up formally like this, the rule used to be just like, whoever had energy, that person would drive. And… hm. Also… well, sometimes you just don’t feel safe with other people driving?
BC: [laughs] Gotcha.
TP: And you know, it was also my van. So I would always put in eight or nine hours, regardless of whose turn it was or how I was feeling.
BC: So you do know what it is like to be me, though – it is exactly that. But with no opportunity for resentment because, well, ha – I just brought this all on myself.
TP: Mm. Huh. I guess.
BC: But also, you know, no one in the backseat, like, farting around while I’m driving.
TP: Farting is definitely a thing. But how do you… well, I want to ask you so many questions about what that’s like to be alone for so long and then SUDDENLY be slammed right into, you know, fifth-gear social mode the instant you get anywhere. That seems… I mean, you’re used to it, of course, but it seems like that would be a really hard transition.
BC: Hm, that’s a good question. I guess it suits me really well, in a weird way. It plays to a lot of random strengths of mine. I’m… well, I guess I’ve had to learn a lot about myself in the process of doing this all the time for however many years. And I think – well, for one thing I deeply love being around people, and meeting new people, and spending as much time as I can with the friends I already know, so the fact that deep down I guess I’m unexpectedly very social… helps. And I always have a car and a road to escape to, so maybe unconsciously it’s okay because my level of engagement is sort of up to me? But just as importantly, I’ve come to accept that I’m extremely, extremely restless, which helps because I don’t mind waking up before anyone else, or before the sun comes up, and ripping out of, like, Amarillo or whatever to be by myself all day –
TP: You always do that! And I’m just amazed.
BC: I love that.
TP: You stay up late, and we hang out, like really late, and then, at five, six in the morning… you’re GONE.
BC: Yeah. I don’t know, I just…
TP: Sometimes do you just literally stay awake, and–
BC: Oh, no, nah. I always sleep some. But I guess I’m lucky in that so far I don’t seem to require that much sleep? That could all change one day, I guess.
TP: I sleep a LOT on tour.
TP: Yeah, in the back of the van? If that engine’s going and I’m in my cubby, then I’m out. It’s the best. I get more sleep on tour than I do at home.
BC: Is that true?
TP: Yeah, and I wonder if – I guess it’s because there’s a sense of getting good work done when you’re moving, so you can’t be as anxious about things…
BC: Oh god, ABSOLUTELY.
TP: That’s one thing about all this traveling that’s weird for me, is that when I get home I’ll get kind of restless. And I feel like, you know, “what’s my purpose right now?” But I’m even good about, like, if I’m in the airport and a plane gets delayed, I’m fine with it because, you know, I’m moving, I’m getting something done, I’m doing work. I’m in the process of something, even if I’m stuck.
BC: Ha, we really do have similar psychological pathologies, in that sense. Except there’s a critical difference, in that I freak out when I get stuck or stranded precisely because it means I’m not actually getting anywhere.
TP: I’ve always been really comfortable with that feeling of transportation, of being in motion. You know, some people hate airplanes; I hate sitting around and waiting. But when I hop in the van and we start moving again, even though our work only consists of carrying our gear in and performing, it keeps my brain busy enough to feel like I’m doing something, and I’m being productive enough to be comfortable with myself.
BC: I mean, you are!
TP: Ha, I guess, thanks. But when I get home, and all that shuts off, I’m really restless and I get confused about my worth is. I mean like, “I don’t have any gigs right now, and…” And man, that gets really dark, actually, really hard.
BC: Oh, me too. Me too. God. I – I couldn’t agree more. That kind of awful feeling of like, “what am I doing here?!”
TP: Exactly! But once you hop in the van and you start moving – even if you don’t have a gig for three days and you’re just driving the whole way there – you’re still in transit, and it feels like work. You’ve got some worth now!
BC: Because you have a thing you need to be doing, and you’re doing it. You know what you’re for.
TP: Now I just grab onto that idea and try not to overthink it. [laughs]
BC: So let’s talk about that – I was… well, I was just talking about this with another friend of mine, Max, who’s also a musician. But unlike you or me, his default position is really to be more of a homebody, just in that he’s not afflicted with this weird, obsessive need to race around that you and I clearly have.
TP: [laughs] Seriously.
BC: But he just did this long tour in Europe, which I think he may have been a little wary of before he went, but he actually really enjoyed it. And he was saying to me that he always forgets, when he’s not on tour, that thrilling feeling of how traveling kind of sharpens your senses. You have to be more alert to new people and new situations; your brain has to be actively taking things in and processing them in a way that it doesn’t necessarily when you’re at home. Or even when you’re moving around in a familiar place.
TP: That’s a good point. You have to pay attention to your surroundings, there’s always new people around, there’s new social settings all the time…
BC: But here’s a thing I wanted to ask you, because you’ve been doing this for exactly as long as I have. I have recently started feeling like – well, I… how do I put this. I have started to feel at home in, you know, a startling number of places. Like, when I get to… Duluth, for instance, I don’t have that gear that Max was talking about. It’s more like what we were discussing at the beginning: “Oh, I’m in Duluth; I’ll go do my litany of Duluth-specific things, then I’ll play the gig and say hi to all these Duluth people I haven’t seen in however long, and then I’ll leave.” You develop that routine and then it’s harder to recapture that feeling of alertness and disorientation that I feel can often be really helpful.
TP: Yeah, and there’s already a big part of you that IS THERE and it feels comfortable to have come back.
BC: Yeah, and I wonder if there’s a way to push back against the ways in which that pushes you towards… well, complacency isn’t the right word, but complacency. You know? When everything starts to feel familiar, obviously there are good things that come of that, but downsides too.
TP: That’s totally true. Um…
BC: I mean, it also makes everything feel less lonely.
TP: Oh yeah? I mean, I guess that’s a thing you’d have to worry about more than we would.
BC: Oh, it was a big, big problem when I was starting out, for sure.
TP: But you’re also so fascinated by geography and by place that it’s always seemed to me that you’re able to feel at home in new places more quickly. Like, when you come to Minneapolis, where I actually live, I always feel like you are totally at home all over that city because you’ve looked into it so much. You know? Like, you’re able to remain intellectually engaged with what you’re doing and where you are because all this driving around – which is, I think, for a lot of musicians, a necessary evil, for lack of a better word – is really something you’re genuinely interested in.
BC: Maybe. I mean, thanks for somehow framing that in the most flattering possible way...
TP: [laughs] No, I mean, I’m just – it interests me because I’m more about immediate, sensory… I’m just like, “oh, it’s hot here!”
[both collapse in laughter for about one full minute]
TP: That’s something I’ll notice, because, like… it’s different.
BC: You’re highly attuned to temperature change.
TP: Yeah, I’m like a fish.
BC: Ha. That’s interesting, though. I – yeah, I don’t know, you’re much better at the… well, my touring career is built around me being a geography nerd, whereas your touring career is built around… actually attaining a level of professional success. [laughs]
TP: Ha, yeah, I suppose – but I’d say those things that drive us are helpful either way. I mean, being a geography nerd makes it easier for you to do the parts of this job that are harder for some of us. It all comes out even, more or less. Like, we both work like crazy and don’t shy away from playing a million gigs in random places around the country, and that’s probably the important thing in the end. I mean, I earn all my money by playing shows, and that means I can’t stay in Minneapolis for long whenever I do get to go home. I have to get out, whether I want to or not.
BC: Well yeah, I guess we both did similar… neither one of us really started touring in the way you’re supposed to.
TP: Like with the target zone and you expand outward?
BC: Yeah, we… I mean, we both completely ignored that wisdom. Could not have more flagrantly ignored it.
TP: Haha yeah, you’re supposed to, you know, pick a city and hit it diligently, then build a small orbit around it, and then a bigger orbit around it, and a bigger orbit around that, and then link to another metropolitan area, and built your fan base from the ground up.
BC: Which totally makes sense.
TP: But we were each like “or we could just keep driving back and forth across the entire United States and pick up little pockets here and there!”
BC: “How about we play for tips at a coffee shop in Colorado and then drive to a gig at a dive bar in Wisconsin?”
TP: Yeah… those were definitely the early years, for sure. Lots of tiny islands of 3 or 4 people who really liked our music in like, basically inaccessible parts of the Deep South or the Rocky Mountains.
BC: But we’ve both settled into more – even me, and my system is a probably a bit more chaotic than yours – more stable patterns. Which I’m sure working with the booking agency has helped with.
TP: For sure. And yeah, this is why neither one of us has Hawaii. Although I can’t believe you don’t have Delaware; that’s great. I’m glad that I got that one.
BC: I can’t believe that you got Delaware. Wasn’t it a festival?
TP: The one music festival in all of Delaware. I got to check it off the list. But yeah, there’s definitely a predictable, defensible pattern now, you know, where we go and why. And yeah. It helps that – well, you’ve come to this just by experience and knowledge and where there’s money and where your fan base is and so on, and to an extent so have we – but for us it has helped a ton to be working with the agency. Before it was much more scattershot, like, “I don’t care WHERE we go, I just want to be working.”
BC: Yeah, but it seems like you’ve sometimes found that stressful too, no? Having to hand that over? Like, the booking agency may or may not share your sense of urgency about playing enough gigs to earn enough money to get by.
TP: Yeah, true.
BC: And that’s resulted in situations like…
TP: Like having to drive straight from New York to Oregon?
BC: [laughs] Exactly.
TP: Totally. Yeah, there’s a disconnect now in the emotional aspect of planning our tour, in that now it’s purely like, business. Formal. Like right now we’ve got Friday and Saturday off, coming up next weekend. Which is crazy – like, when you’re on the road, that’s the wrong thing to do. But not if you’re trying to conserve your impact on particular markets which we’ll be going back to soon. So this random tour this month, which we begged them to book at the last minute is like our Sundays-through-Thursdays tour of the eastern United States. It just feels weird. So yeah, there are some drawbacks.
BC: But… obvious advantages, surely.
TP: Oh yeah, obvious advantages for sure. And now we’ve got someone to blame!
BC: [laughs] Who isn’t you!
TP: I used to get it constantly, because I did all the booking. Boyd especially would constantly be like “Tony, this was the stupidest venue…” or like, “Where are we tonight? Oh nice, another restaurant. Good work, Tony.” And now it’s like, “Ahhh, the stupid booking agency,” which is much nicer for me. I can be a part of the complaining and don’t have to feel guilty for booking us at another dive bar.
Like, just for instance... this dive bar we’re about to play at. [laughs]
BC: Man, forget that; I’m excited to play at this dive bar. It’s nice to be playing in a dive bar again!
TP: I noted with satisfaction that all the monitors were covered in red metal cages.
BC: [laughs] Yep.
TP: [laughs] I wonder how many times their monitors got booted out before they decided they needed to invest in a set of red metal cages.
BC: Oh, man. I realize that I forgot to do the most important part, which is kind of walking through your own geographic biography. Tell the people: where did you grow up?
TP: I grew up in Cloquet, Minnesota.
BC: A paper town.
TP: A paper town, yeah! A big paper mill is there, which used to be Potlatch and now it’s... Sappi? But yeah, I kind of grew up into Duluth. Went to Boston for college, came back out, lived in Minneapolis, lived in Duluth again, lived in Oregon for a short while – same time that you were out there, of course! – and now I live in Minneapolis.
BC: Not bad. Hm, though. To what extent do you actually feel like you live in Minneapolis? That is to say, how often are you there?
TP: Oh, that definitely is one of the more positive things about–
BC: That the tours are more concentrated now?
TP: Yeah, exactly. It’s more on-and-off, in terms of like, we’ll do a month on and then a month off. Maybe more than that, but that’s roughly the rhythm. Whereas before it was always like, constantly on. Which is really a strain on relationships, romantic relationships, that kind of thing.
TP: And you do it constantly! You NEVER stop, which is just sort of unfathomable to me. You’re always, always moving.
BC: Eh, yeah. But – yeah.
TP: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. And you always know every place that I’ve told you about. Like I’ll text you whatever city I’m in and you’ll every time be like “oh yeah, you have to check out this bookstore.” [laughs]
BC: Hey, but that’s why I have such admiration for the fact that you have, for instance, an address and a girlfriend and all these other important parts of living a life. There are extremely important elements of being a person that I often feel I’m neglecting, at my own peril, by operating the way I do.
TP: Everyone’s different, though. The apartment thing, that’s just something – for whatever reason, I always felt like I needed to have one somewhere, and have kept one up somewhere or other even when it made no sense. It’s always been important to me.
BC: You are a world-class nester, it’s true. I'm a subpar nester.
TP: I’m REALLY good at nesting. I’m good at being home, that’s a big priority for me. That there’s a home life and I enjoy it for periods of time, until I get restless again. But I do get a lot from the knowledge that I do have a home, a sense that somewhere there’s a home.
BC: You know where you’re going back to.
TP: Exactly. So when I’m traveling – which really is when I feel like I’m my best self, right now, on the road – even though here is where I kind of thrive, it’s hugely important to me to know where I’ve left from and where I’m going back to.
BC: Oh, that’s interesting – do you really feel that way? That you’re your best self while traveling? I guess that comports with what you were saying earlier, but it’s a little more surprising in the context of what we were just talking about… I would guess, I suppose, that for a lot of people – people who travel around a lot, you know – that they would use their home time to build their reserves of energy back up and restore a sense of themselves. And then they slowly spend that as they go back out on the road.
TP: I think it’s the opposite for me, actually! I build my reserves and rebuild myself while traveling, and then I go home and I get to spend that battery life. And I feel wonderful for like, two weeks, and I’m really social, and I can go hang out with anyone, meet new friends, be in any situation… be in what would otherwise be a stressful social situation and yet feel lots of stability and self-worth. And then that will deplete over time, when I don’t have gigs – I’ll start to lose that part of myself.
It’s kind of like a… I’ve always thought that I’m very introverted, and a pretty shy person, but there’s also a part of me where I just crave… well, you know the idea of the “performing introvert?”
BC: No, but… but I can see where you’re going and that makes sense.
TP: Yeah, definitely – there’s definitely part of me that gets a sense of validity and self-worth and gratification from the, well, the approval of other people. You know, like, I was never really good at sports, never really good at any of the obvious paths to coolness, but I did eventually become a musician, and as that became my identity I became, like, guitar guy. And everything then came from that.
BC: When was that? I don’t… I don’t even think I know this, your origin story.
TP: Oh, this would be like 2001. Right after September 11th was when I started taking guitar lessons.
BC: What kind of kid were you like before that?
TP: Kind of like a skateboarder, I guess? I was always pretty good at just blending in with the different cliques at school. I would hang out with the jocks and nerds and just bounce between the cliques, but never really had my own identity, necessarily. So when I found “guitar guy,” I latched onto that pretty good.
BC: And then when you were in high school, you were… guitar guy.
TP: Yep, by then I was guitar guy. And I don’t know, I guess in a way, that’s still where I am – there’s stuff from there that fills me in a certain way. Makes me feel like I make sense and have a specific worth. So what were you? What are you?
BC: Ha, I wonder what I am.
TP: You’re musician-traveler guy! Well, sort of… you’re also --
BC: Ha! Well yeah… I don’t know. Among musicians, I tend to feel and act more like the guy that is, you know, off in a different lane – I have these fairly prominent nonmusical interests that guide my career, and I don’t write lyrics, and whatever. But then when I’m among environmentalists and writers or whatever, then I tend to identify myself as a musician. Which, I suppose, is pretty transparently just a way for me to try and triangulate myself away from feeling any sense of competition with or pressure from the people I work around, or even just of being pigeon-holed as one type of person.
TP: Innnnteresting. Ha, interesting.
BC: Wait, sorry – we were talking about your... existential batteries?
TP: Right, sorry, yeah – when I’m home, I feel like that’s where my battery drains. Because my excitement and pride in myself can deplete when I’m not playing shows, when I’m not working. It goes fast, like two weeks. And then after that part of me feels pretty worthless until I travel again. But it doesn’t take long to come back! I can play one gig, one show, and feel like, ‘oh, that’s my purpose and I’m fulfilling it.’ And then I feel much better about that. About everything. Anyway, that’s my battery.
BC: I – yeah. Huh. That’s interesting. [pause] The first time I drove cross-country was in college, when I was working for that travel guide – did I ever tell you about this? Anyway, it was this unbearably lonely experience because I wasn’t – well, it hardly required anything of me; I was just sprinting from town to town from Vermont to British Columbia, on this truly bonkers fast-paced schedule, and just frantically fact-checking the previous edition of the guide book. So I’d roll into all these different towns and and just desperately run around making sure all the details and prices and things for the places in the book were still the same and that nothing had gone out of business. “Is this still $3.99?” and “Would you still describe this hamburger as ‘sumptuous?’ – that kind of thing. And that was all fine, but then I’d finish all that work and the shops would close down, and then I’d just be there, in Oswego, New York. With nothing to do, and I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t have any useful function, and I just did not belong there. And so I just remember spending all day, every day just dreading what the evening would feel like. Where I’d just be somewhere I didn’t know, and have no one there I knew, and really, a feeling like I almost didn’t know who I was, because there was nothing familiar for me to cut my personality against. And obviously I’m better about that now that I’m not, you know, nineteen, and I feel like I can more reliably depend myself to be the same person regardless of where I am and who I’m around. But I still dread nights off, in this weird way. And maybe it’s that same thing, of feeling you’re losing a part of your identity when you’re someplace foreign without having a strict reason to be there and a role to play. Feeling like you have no business being somewhere that isn’t, in some sense, yours unless you’re supposed to be, for some reason.
TP: I still get that. I had it a couple of tours ago. Not even on nights off! But it was happening at like, a certain time every day – I remember that the sun going down was something that I lit-ter-al-ly chased in the van every day. I remember being in Hailey – Hailey, Idaho, which we were just talking about – and you know how the sun goes down behind those mountains?
BC: Ol’ Mount Carbonate. Croy Canyon?
TP: We were there for a few days, and every single day I would drive to the last parts of town where the sun was still peeking through, just to keep it from going down.
BC: That’s funny. Afternoons are often the part of the day I’m trying to get through – I’ve sometimes done the opposite thing, where I’ll desperately want the sun to go down so that we could move on into a new and different chapter of the day. Like, I’m generally only productive from the morning to the early afternoon, I usually only work in the evening, so late afternoons are reserved for long drives or existential crises, unless I am able to fill them with something else.
TP: What about the battery thing, though? Like do you find you wear down after a certain amount of time away from familiar places? Or do you recharge there? How long does it take for you before you start feeling, you know, despair?
BC: I definitely recharge by traveling, like you. But for me, I think the kind of bad feeling you’re talking about, for me that comes on the nights when I don’t have gigs. If I’ve got a gig, even if it’s a terrible one, it’s fine, somehow. Because regardless of where I am, I know that the thing I’m there to do is something that I do all the time, that I’m very confident in, and so I can feel a lot of stability and home in that, no matter how it goes with the audience. On nights when that gig isn’t there, it’s harder for me to hold onto a sense of where the ground is. I guess that’s a thing that is worse if you’re traveling alone. But I’ve spent a lot of time working on that specific thing over the years, so it’s consistently a lot easier now than it was in the early days. It used to wreck me.
It’s not totally unlike what you were saying about being, you know, guitar guy. Once I’m able to persuade myself that I’m not a random person here in, say, Oklahoma by accident – I’m here because I’m the guy who plays these particular songs and tells these stories, whatever – that changes everything. I know why I’m there and so I know who I am. I’m in this town because I have to play a show for, you know, maybe it’s just like four people, but it’s literally why I’m there. And when that obligation isn’t there, it’s harder to answer that question.
TP: It’s nice too, that you have a few different skill sets, so when you’re not performing you can pivot to these other things – writing and so on. I would love to have a second skill that isn’t music that I could do to fill days that are empty of, you know, music work.
BC: Pssh. Aw, c’mon, you have lots of skills.
TP: Eh, I could pick up a different instrument, I could learn a different thing, but…
BC: Maybe this isn't the kind of thing you're talking about, but I’m very envious of your skill set as a logistical thinker. You’re better than anyone I know at organizing and planning and keeping things operating smoothly.
TP: But that’s all gone from me now because… we pay someone else to do it.
TP: Anyway a thing I was going to say, relative to what you were just talking about, is – well, we have four guys in the band, which means we’re able to tease ourselves, or comfort each other, or whatever, when there’s a bad night – when we play poorly or play an embarrassing show or something. There’s a kind of solidarity; someone can say, loudly and sarcastically, “GOOD TO SEE ALL OF OUR CAREERS GOING SO WELL” when we get back in the van at the end of the night. But you don’t have that when you’re out there, and you’re fighting by yourself. How do you handle bad shows?
BC: Ha, I definitely have a lot of those conversations with myself. But did I ever show that email… from the school I played at a couple weeks ago?
TP: No, I don’t think so.
BC: So this was… this was very recently. I was doing a visit to a school, as part of this residency I’m doing with that hiking trail, and the school administrators sent ahead this prep email… [laughs]
TP: I’m very excited about this.
BC: The email was to all the teachers and me just like, a rundown of how the assembly would go. And it said like, “2:30pm – file in, safety lecture. 2:35 – second graders sing a song from Annie. 2:45 – fifth graders perform a pop song. 2:55 – guest artist Ben Cosgrove will play the piano. 3:00 – dismissal.”
TP: At least you were the headliner.
BC: [laughs] Yep, and definitely not deservedly, either; this was their crowd for sure. But I mean, to your point – this email absolutely delighted me. So I guess the answer to your question is that I can usually find the bad shows or the embarrassing shows really funny? You know, we both play all the time, and so I guess I’ve come to feel that one bad night or one ridiculous or humiliating gig isn’t enough to define you or your career. I’ve had a couple where I felt really taken advantage of, or disrespected, and that’s different. But in general, I think I’ve been forced, by playing in such a weird array of places for so many years, to never dare to take myself too seriously. Like you guys too, I’m sure.
But, I don’t know. That’s probably a little too self-flattering. I’m sure that part of it too is the thing we were talking about earlier, with the triangulation – I just try to maintain a sense of identity that has at least two points. Which obviously everyone does; maybe sometimes it’s just hard to keep them in your mind that way. But if one of those points – you know, Ben Cosgrove: Piano Player, has to sustain an ego blow, there’s still Ben Cosgrove: Friend and Ben Cosgrove: Landscape Enthusiast and whatever, still unaffected and still able to hold the boat up. Actually, jeez, maybe this is why I don’t generally like to write about music. It's a way to keep my worlds separate so they’re never vulnerable at the same time. You know how every year during the State of the Union address, there’s one cabinet member who has to be in a helicopter or something, just in case something goes horribly wrong? I think maybe you have to appoint one of your identities as a Designated Survivor in any situation you enter into.
BC: I wonder also if that’s secretly a way to rationalize bad performances and other flaws, though. Like, it could just be me giving myself permission to avoid addressing problems and limitations or learning from mistakes, maybe. So it’s not perfect.
TP: I do know that you also are sometimes able to mentally get through less-than-stellar gigs – because we’ve played a few together – just because you’re often just thrilled to be in some weird part of the country.
BC: Totally. That’s 100% true. “That show was terrible, but holy cow, I’m in New Mexico!”
TP: [laughs] Yeah, I have less of that. I hear what you’re saying too, though. Like in your mind you’re really more of a researcher than a musician, when a show isn't great?
BC: Ha! Yes, seriously. “Well, that was not a well-executed or well-received performance, but it sure was a productive research trip.”
TP: Yeah! I mean, I actually think that’s great.
BC: I guess you’re right. And that really is, more generally, how I do think of it. With rare exceptions, I don’t lose a ton of sleep over bad gigs, and I think in part it’s because it seems like it’s all part of the same experience. And you know as well as anybody, often the worst gigs yield the best stories.
TP: Oh, certainly. The other night – the other night! – we were playing in New Jersey, to nobody. Like, a nearly empty room. But the stage had this curtain, and the venue insisted on closing it before our set and then opening it right as we started. So the show begins, you know, we’re back there onstage, looking at a curtain, and the voice comes over: “WELCOME TO THE STAGE: THE SOCIAL ANIMALS.” So we start to play and the curtain starts to open, and a) that’s when we first discovered that there were only about eight people in the audience, and b) on its way past me, the curtain caught my microphone stand, dragged it, and sent the microphone clattering to the ground and I had to frantically run after it in front of these eight totally unresponsive people.
BC: [laughs] Wow.
TP: Very Spinal Tap. But yeah, it’s also a Monday in Asbury Park, I guess.
BC: Bruce wasn’t there, huh?
TP: Bruce is in New York! Doing his Broadway show.
BC: Ohhh, right.
TP: Every day for a month straight.
BC: It’s supposed to be great, too.
TP: Yeah, I’ve heard great things. Man, he’s so great. And yeah, there’s a guy who – he’s also a really good example of someone who has a great capacity for self-criticism and introspection.
BC: Seriously. I finally read that book and I was surprised at just how self-critical he is, and seems to have been for his entire life. But maybe it’s not a coincidence that he’s still making great work after having done this for so many years; he’s never allowed himself to become comfortable, for better or worse, so he always has to strain for something.
TP: We were talking about the videos of those “We Are the World” rehearsals –
BC: [laughs] Yes, about how Bob Dylan just couldn’t nail that line.
TP: Ha, yep. But Bruce’s is just as interesting: he nails it over and over again but keeps asking for a better take, trying to do it better, until Quincy Jones is finally like, “there’s a lot of wonderful stuff here; you’re fine.” And it’s like, a two-syllable line.
But yeah! I do think that’s a big part of what animates me in this job – just that looking for self-worth. I’ve got to work, I’ve got to move, I’ve got to be doing this thing that I’ve worked to become good at. And I think I’ve always looked up to Bruce Springsteen because he seemed driven by the same things. Like remember how he talks in that book about how when he wasn’t on the road, he’d go crazy and just have to hop on his motorcycle or drive to California for no reason or something?
BC: Yes, that definitely... struck a chord.
TP: [laughs] I’ll bet.
BC: I mean, there’s something to that, getting back to how to survive bad gigs. When they’re over, you can leave. Not only that, you have to.
TP: You have to leave.
BC: I actually think that’s an important aspect of what makes it possible to emerge from them with your ego intact. You can literally leave it behind you. Not even a bad gig. Everything that’s grim, or shadowy and creepy about wherever you find yourself, on a certain level it doesn’t matter because you can get away from it. I think, in a weird way, that realization has made me more open. I can sit with things that would make me uncomfortable otherwise because they’re escapable and impermanent.
TP: Yeah. I appreciate some places because they’re fleeting for me, whereas if I lived there, maybe I’d hate them or resent them.
BC: Yeah, there’s nothing to lose by fully opening yourself. You can be fully present wherever you are. Because wherever you are, even if it turns out to be terrible, you have no choice but to leave in six hours.
TP: You have to. But huh, yeah. I was just thinking. Here’s another instance where our situations are somewhat different – because you do your thing, but I’m constantly with three other guys, and together we’re all kind of a rowdy, hard-drinking…
BC: Band of hooligans.
TP: Band of hooligans. And that can be a lot, to live among that and be a part of that all the time. So that means that part of my self-preservation involves a whole lot of tuning-out, sometimes. I have to make a deliberate, concerted effort to be aware of my surroundings. That loneliness you were talking about – I wonder if I’d actually benefit from that, because it seems like it pushed you to pay closer attention to the people and places around you.
BC: I see what you mean. And I’d definitely say that, yeah. For sure.
TP: Yeah, my default environment isn’t that loneliness, it’s like… the dudes getting together at the hunting camp on a weekend to drink some beers.
BC: Ha! Except it’s everywhere, all the time. Yeah, I get that, for sure. I don’t know how I’d handle that. Probably similarly.
TP: But yeah! That’s why I collect the magnets of the states I’ve played in–
BC: Way to bring it back around.
TP: –because it’s a small way for me to keep track of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Or like, where I am, almost more than where I’ve been. So that’s… yeah, I’ll be honest, when you first told me you were interested in interviewing me about what it’s like to be traveling all the time, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have much to say, just because those ideas aren’t on my mind the same way that they’re on yours. And I even spend a lot of time zoning out, like I said, and almost forgetting that I’m in a van, moving these crazy distances, at all. I feel like it would be almost overwhelming if I didn’t. I travel all the time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I know where I am… in fact, I probably know where I am less because I travel so much.
BC: Totally. But I think you’ve proven that in fact you do have a lot of great thoughts about what this is all like. I mean, whether you’re aware of them or not. And your situation is interesting, again, I think especially because… well, you say you feel at home in Minnesota–
TP: Yep, that’s home.
BC: –and yet you recharge by traveling.
TP: I see what you mean. But the van is another home. It is a very big part of my life.
BC: That’s a great point. It’s a location itself, no matter where it is on the map.
BC: When I would tour with you, I remember that even when a gig had provided us with housing, you would almost always opt to sleep in the van.
TP: Absolutely. Always. You guys would go to the house, or the hotel, and I would stay in the van. Part of that is because of that introvert thing, but I guess it’s also because it’s consistent, it’s comfortable – it really is like having a second home. Part of me is there. But yeah. We’re here now, but then I’ll be at home for four weeks.
BC: Four weeks. Wow, you’re going to go insane.
TP: I know. Even more than four, actually – our next tour isn’t going to be until January. But there will be little ones between now and then.
BC: Where will you guys be this winter?
TP: We’re going out to Montana and Idaho, actually, with a few other spots along the way. That’ll be in December – will you be out there?
BC: Nope, unfortunately. Where are you in January?
TP: We don’t know yet – we’re still waiting to know where it’ll be, which is still a weird feeling, but it’ll be after the release of this next single. So hopefully it’ll be another opening-spot tour.
BC: We'd probably better wrap this up pretty soon. Are you good? Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
TP: Not unless you have another question… I’m happy. Man, actually, this was really great.
BC: It was. Thanks so much for doing it. You’re the best, and you've got some great thoughts. I really appreciate it.
TP: Aw. Thanks, buddy.
[END OF TAPE]