Local Current Blog

Peter Asher on the British Invasion—and EDM, and Hans Zimmer, and much more

Peter Asher at The Current's studios in 2013. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

When a colleague saw I was editing an audio recording called “Peter Asher,” he gasped. “Wow!” he said. “The Peter Asher?” Yes, indeed: the Peter Asher.

Best-known as the “Peter” of Peter and Gordon, Asher has enjoyed a remarkable career in music that’s encompassed work as a producer and manager—perhaps most notably as a significant force in the careers of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt—as well as writing and performing. (In 2013, he visited our studios and spoke with Jill Riley about jamming with Paul McCartney and more.)

Asher, 70, will be in Minneapolis this coming Sunday as a performer and emcee on the British Invasion 50th Anniversary Tour, which is making a stop at the State Theatre. We spoke by phone about topics ranging from the British Invasion to Asher’s favorite single of the last six months.

The show on Sunday is all about the British Invasion. Can you believe the British Invasion was 50 years ago?

I know! I think it’s 51 [years], even. “World Without Love” was number one in, they tell me, ’64, so yeah, it’s amazing. It’s become history. It’s fun. We’ve been having a great time. We’re about halfway through the tour now. There’s a bunch of us out on the road, and we’ve been having a great time meeting the audiences. One of the advantages of playing a modest-sized place is that one can hang out and meet the audience afterwards. It’s amazing how many people bring their own stash of vinyl to sign…they have their own memories of what they were doing when the songs were out and about and so on. It’s fascinating. It’s really fun.

This isn’t the first time you’ve participated in a throwback show; over the years you’ve been involved in a number of specials and projects celebrating the British Invasion. Does it all still seem fresh to you?

I don’t know if “fresh” is the right word, but it’s still meaningful and enjoyable. It is historical in nature, but does it feel good, singing the songs again? Yes, it does, but one is aware that one is singing something that isn’t brand-new, for sure. It is a historical artifact, as are all of we, I guess. It still feels musically fresh, certainly, yes.

What would you say is the lasting legacy of the British Invasion? How did the British Invasion change music?

I don’t know if it did. Music changes gradually and it’s a huge number of factors. The British Invasion, for one thing, re-emphasized the importance of the American music that it was all based on. I mean, that was its first triumph. Essentially, what we did was take your music and love it and go crazy for it and copy it and then, kind of miraculously, sell it back to you, which was quite a coup!

I don’t think America realized what a treasure trove of music it had, and how significant the art form [was] which was unique to America—derived of course from African-Americans originally, and from Africa. Rock and roll, jazz, the blues…rock and roll and everything that came from it was an American invention, and so, the British Invasion began as a heartfelt tribute, a giant tribute band in a way, to American music. I think the British Invasion advanced that cause by making people take the music seriously, so I would hope that’s one thing that we collectively may have contributed.

And then, of course, some of the participants in this tribute started writing songs on their own—including the most successful and famous and best songwriting duo in the history of popular music, which was Lennon and McCartney. So, I think that in discussing the British Invasion, one cannot forget that the British Invasion was 90% the Beatles and 10% all the rest of us. It did have a spirit of enthusiasm all of its own, which we were very excited to be a part of.

Are there any artists associated with the British Invasion who you’d say are underrated? As you say, everybody knows and appreciates the Beatles; are there any unsung heroes of the British Invasion?

I don’t know…there were an awful lot of great bands. The Zombies were great, the Kinks were great…but I don’t know if they’re “unsung,” really. People do recognize how good they were, but they do get rediscovered from time to time, when somebody in a movie uses “She’s Not There” or “Waterloo Sunset” or one of the classic songs of the British Invasion that are not the Beatles, you do kind of go, “Oh, my God, I’ve forgotten how good that is.” They keep coming back because they’re good.

Did it feel strange, at the time, coming to America with this music—coming from Britain playing American music to American audiences?

No, it didn’t. With the bravado of youth, we felt supremely confident. Yeah, you would think, wouldn’t you, that a bunch of white English schoolboys coming across and singing and playing American rhythm and blues songs to American audiences would seem ridiculously presumptuous, but when you’re young, you think, oh, they’ll love us! And thank God they did, miraculously.

As a producer, you became a huge part of the singer-songwriter movement in the 60s and 70s. To a lot of listeners, that back in the work of younger bands like Haim and Jenny Lewis. Do you hear the influence of that era in music today?

I think so, yes. I mean, if you talk to any of those artists you mentioned or another singer-songwriter of today, they generally do have a sense of the past, of the art of singer-songwriters. You’ll rarely find someone who doesn’t know every Joni Mitchell song, or James Taylor song. So I think they’re aware of the time frame in which they exist—but at the time they’re not, and shouldn’t be, intimidated by that past, because there’s so many great singer-songwriters today. Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars and God knows who else…so many unbelievably talented singer-songwriters out there now who are great. Most of them, when you talk to them, do have some respect for their predecessors.

Are there any artists in particular who you hear and think, “Wow, they really went to school on what we did back then”?

No, I don’t think so. You assimilate your musical history: you listen to your parents’ records, or whatever it is. I don’t think it should be thought of as “schooling”; I don’t think anyone’s copying. You have your idols…I mean, Gordon and I in the 60s, when we started singing together, we wanted to sound as much like the Everly Brothers as we could! We didn’t succeed; we sounded different, and people liked the way it sounded, luckily. Everyone starts off trying to sing like their idols, and ends up diverging, and that’s as it should be. It’s not so much educational as it is a love of that music. You love it, and so you’re subconsciously influenced by it.

Speaking of artists of today, your friend and longtime colleague Paul McCartney has been collaborating with Kanye West. Have you heard those collaborations?

I have that single, yeah, and it’s good! I think Paul’s done finer work, and I don’t hear an awful lot of Paul on that record, but I think it’s very good that he’s doing it. I think all kinds of cross-genre and cross-generation experiments are an unmitigatedly good thing—and Paul is a genius, and Kanye West tells us he is too! [laughs] I think it’s a very good thing to do. I’m not particularly crazy about that actual record; I think Paul has done better work, but it’s a good thing to do, for sure.

Among the many artists you’ve worked with, there’s one in particular I have to ask you about, because you produced one of my all-time favorite records: In My Tribe by 10,000 Maniacs.

That was great. So much fun to do. I did a couple albums of theirs: In My Tribe, and then I did Blind Man’s Zoo. Natalie [Merchant] is one of my very favorite singers. I did a song with her on a Buddy Holly tribute not long ago, and she was singing as brilliantly as ever. She’s a great person, too. I like her very much.

Thinking back, what are your memories of those sessions in the 80s with 10,000 Maniacs?

They were a little bit frantic; the band weren’t getting on very well with one another, especially on the second album, and it was all a bit divisive—so there was a diplomatic aspect to producing those records as well as a musical aspect, but I thought the band were brilliant, and as I say, I think Natalie is astounding, so I was happy and proud to do it, but it wasn’t entirely plain sailing.

So what was your goal as producer, other than just sort of keeping everybody on the same page. Was there a particular sound you were trying for?

I wanted Natalie to be more clearly audible, on a practical level. The indie albums they’d made, I just thought they weren’t really capturing the beauty of her voice and they weren’t making the literate and articulate nature of her lyrics as audible as they should be. So that was one practical aim—but in general, it was the same as it always is, just trying to find the best framework for the song, the best way of presenting that singer and that song in a way that will come across best and be most fun and most inspiring to listen to. That pretty much goes for producing records in general.

Of the many records you’ve worked on, are there any you’ve heard recently that make you think, “Well, that’s really held up”?

It’s fun listening to them, because they do take you back to the actual recording. Some records, when you talk about things that are underrated…I made a record with Amanda Marshall, a brilliant Canadian singer, called Everybody’s Got a Story, that I went back and listened to. Somebody told me they liked it, and I went back and listened to it the other day and that was one where I did kind of go, wow, this is awfully good! What a pity it wasn’t a big hit. We had a success in Canada, but nothing in America. Sometimes you do go back and think, yeah, this is quite good. Other times you go back and it’s disappointing, but it’s always interesting. It’s never exactly the way you remember it, either.

You’ve largely moved away from performing in recent decades…

Well, Gordon and I didn’t perform at all for nearly 38 years, and therefore neither did I. Then Gordon and I got back together for a benefit on Paul Shaffer’s behalf—a benefit for Mike Smith of the Dave Clark Five—and that was what led me back into the world of performing occasionally, but it’s a very small minority of my time in the grand picture. We’re doing this two-week tour, and that’s it this year, because I’ve got a lot of other things to do!

When you moved away from performing, were you finding that it was more satisfying to work on other people’s music? Was that a challenge that you embraced? What was behind your decision to have stepped away from performing?

Oh, I just got busy. I didn’t think it through that carefully. I like to do everything. I like to produce records, and I enjoyed managing people, though I don’t do that any more at the moment; I consult for various companies, I occasionally perform, I write. I like doing everything, so I don’t sit around and think, “How am I going to divide my time next?” It’s kind of, what comes my way and what opportunities fall into my lap. Most of my career has been a series of grabbing opportunities as and when they occur—and that’s what I continue to do.

So what’s next for you?

Well, I’m in the middle of the new Steve Martin-Edie Brickell album. The last one we did did well and won a Grammy and so on, and we’ve been working for a couple of months on a follow-up album. When this tour is over, I go straight back in the studio to do more of that. Some of the songs off of the first album also inspired a musical that Steve Martin wrote the book for and Edie wrote the music for, and we’ve been working on that for a year or so now. We did a run in San Diego that did very well, and we’re now headed for Broadway in the fall and have a lot of work to do on that. I’m also working on more movies with Hans Zimmer that he’s scoring and I’m producing the albums for; so, yeah, this year is looking pretty busy!

How do you enjoy working in film music?

Oh, I love it. Hans is a friend, and he’s brilliant. I produced the Superman [Man of Steel] soundtrack, and worked with him on the Spider-Man soundtrack. We did Madagascar 3, which I also wrote a song for—which I ended up singing on the soundtrack, to my surprise. Film is a whole other world, but it’s a fascinating one, and of course Hans is the best there is, so we get to work on some really huge and significant movies, and it’s fun.

Classical Minnesota Public Radio writer Garrett Tiedemann has argued that Hans Zimmer is the most influential film composer working today.

I think he is. He’s a rock-and-roller at heart, too. Did you know that? He was in the Buggles. If you look at the video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the skinny synth player in the back is Hans Zimmer.

Who are some of your other favorite composers working in film?

Oh, Alexandre Desplat is great—and obviously John Williams is great, but that’s kind of a given! I liked all the drumming in Birdman; I thought that was a really good score. There’s so much good music out there. I think there are great producers, too. Mark Ronson, I think he’s brilliant. I just heard some music he did for a film [Mortdecai]; I don’t think the film did very well, but the music is astounding. He did it with my friend Geoff Zanelli. There’s a lot of good stuff out there.

It’s been interesting to see—with producers like Mark Ronson and some producers working in hip-hop, it feels to me like some producers are coming out front in the way that they maybe used to be in the era of Phil Spector.

Yes, and I think a lot of that came out of the whole EDM thing where the DJ is the star and then you have people sing on the record or play on the record, so I think that’s part of it…[artists like] Avicii or David Guetta having hit records. So I think Mark Ronson is a product of that era to some extent. Yes, the producer is the creator behind the record and gets some other people to sing on it, and he’s done some amazing stuff. And sometimes it’s even a joint effort, like that thing with him and Bruno Mars, which is my favorite single of the last six months, for sure.

Thank you very much—and enjoy the rest of the tour!

Yeah, it’s fun and I urge everyone to come. We have a really good time. Everyone sings the hits, and we all hang out and chat afterwards and hear the audience’s stories as well.