Updated: Dec 24, 2018
Read the full transcript below of Haloscope CEO and Editor-in-Chief Savannah Bradley’s interview with New England musician Eli Anderson-Song, known underneath his stage name, peanutbuttertablerebellion.
SB: First things first, you know, usually I tend to stray away from this question because it tends to not really apply to the other interviews I do— but I wanted an explanation on the origin of “peanutbuttertablerebellion” as, just, a name. [laughs]
EAS: Okay, so, in middle school, I- I went to this small, Catholic middle school in New England- my family is really Catholic- and, you know, it was kind of strict, right? So they had- instead of having a peanut-free table where people couldn’t eat peanut butter went- they had a peanut butter table where if you brought peanut butter, you had to sit there, right? And a lot of people in my class liked peanut butter. They only had one table, and it just wasn’t big enough for everybody, so the group of us wanted to expand the table options- but, you know, they were worried that if we went to another table, then they’d have to clean it and they didn’t want to do that. So, they were forcing us not to do it. It was really cramped, so I got everyone in the seventh grade and the eighth grade and the sixth grade to all bring peanut butter in one day, almost everyone. [laughs] So this group of us called ourselves the “peanut butter table rebellion,” and I kept that, mostly because it was the first time that I ever organized something or felt like I was part of a group of people. Looking back at it, it was really an experience that helped me see that I could actually make something happen.
SB: Yeah, right, exactly. We had a similar occurrence at our school, growing up, I think. Was a stage name something you always wanted from the get-go or did it just come by as a spur-of-the-moment thing?
EAS: It was something I wanted. And I might change it in the future, I don’t know- I’m not sure if I’m gonna keep “peanutbuttertablerebellion” or if I’m gonna change it to something else. But, two reasons [in re using a stage name]: “A” is that it's just nice to not- you’re not necessarily having to put yourself out there. On one hand, having a persona- people see it as you trying to “hide” your true self from the public, but on the other hand, I think hiding some parts of yourself is doing a service to the public. I mean, I don’t think I should be a role model [laughs], I try not to say “You should be just like me!” but I know there are people that will take what I say at face value, so I think I have to present an image of myself that is somewhat healthy, and even if I can’t do that, I can at least put on a sort of persona. And also, you know, it makes it less about you then.
SB: Absolutely. And you don’t feel that sense of alienation from your stage persona to your actual persona?
EAS: Yeah, yeah.
SB: With that being said, I wanted to talk about your latest LP, Who’s Gonna Save the Hill?. Can you talk about the conception and recording of it as a whole? How did it come about?
EAS: I’m actually looking at it right now [laughs]. There’s a hill out across the street, and I would go there when I was younger. There’s a homeless community there. I wouldn’t say that we were friends, but we did have some kind of a relationship- this eight, maybe twelve year old kid- and we’d walk through the woods, as you do, and they wouldn’t bother me, and I wouldn’t bother them, and I’d just kind of explore. And recently, they [developers] tore half of it down- half of the forest, half of the area, and they [in re the homeless community] were all kind of displaced. Some of them fled to the forest past the train station. It kind of signaled an end to me, as I also just turned 18 last year. I made some other kinds of songs throughout middle school and freshman year that I kind of liked- but this was the first thing where I wanted to make a full story around it, about this. It’s just gonna be kind of a goodbye to that era of my life, I guess.
SB: I really wanted to touch on the lyricism there, because the tracks touch on love as much as they touch on disease and homelessness and societal displacement in general, really. And, you know, that’s a very political thing, there. Given how fraught the political climate of America is, did that play into your work at all going forward with the album?
EAS: So, my real name is Eli Anderson-Song, hyphenated last name- my mom is Irish “Anderson,” my dad is Korean “Song,” and growing up- it’s hilarious, actually- I mentioned the sheriff [referring to the title track]. When I first moved here, you know, we’re a half-Korean family- we moved right next door to the only black family in the neighborhood. And, so, other than that, when I first went to that school, there was my family, one Chinese kid, and then the only other black kid, who lived right next door to me. And that was it, that was it.
SB: That’s surprising for New England, it's usually a bit more diverse. In comparison, you know, with Haloscope and everything, we’re based primarily out of the South. So, you know, it’s definitely- it’s a similar sort of phenomenon.
EAS: It’s gotten better now. Some of it- my dad grew up in rural Georgia, and to even go there, that was the biggest thing- with the KKK around and everything. And the similarities I see with my dad and me [sic], is that- they were the only Asian family in that county. So, politically, it’s that kind of outsider perspective. It’s very hard to talk about from your own experience, at least for me, because, “A,” I’m half-white, so it’s kind of a different thing for me- and it’s the way you’re going to treat people who, for whatever reason, can’t get a job. They’re sick. They can’t live the same lives as everyone else. Or they choose not to, which is respectable as well. Yeah, I mean, I had a relationship with someone who was- I don’t really want to talk about their story- but they were very sick and in and out of hospitals and so forth. It was kind of the way I witnessed my community and the place I grew up in and my school kind of deal with that, because it was a very visible sort of thing, and I wound up kind of in the middle of it. So I saw a relationship between that kind of sickness and the people I saw out on the hill, who often had some kind of mental illness or physical illness.
SB: Right, and folk has always been such a politically-charged and subversive, very emotional genre. There are definitely some folk influences I can feel on the record, and almost also lo-fi. Were you influenced by lo-fi at all?
EAS: Yeah, yeah. I really like Mitski, you know, Mitski and the Mountain Goats- they’re very different musicians, but I think they’re working from the same skeleton. The Mountain Goats aren’t as lo-fi anymore, I like their newer stuff- but it’s a different perception of what music is about. I kind of dislike the Grammy's. [laughs] Are they a decent meter of good music, of music that’s well-recorded and well-performed and well-crafted? Yeah. But I don’t think that’s what the purpose of music has ever been, a communal thing. “This is America…” We have to face the facts that almost all music that we listen to on the radio now owes its roots to African traditions, which is entirely based on a similar folk tradition. Hip-hop, you’re just sitting around a fire and you’re talking about your lives and your experiences, and it’s a natural outpouring, and music comes from that. Folk, it’s a similar thing, with people just talking about their experiences and, naturally, they find music there.
SB: Touching back on the Grammy's, do you think that the Grammy's started out as something sincere and then grew into a corporate, planned enterprise? Or do you think it’s always been that way?
EAS: I mean, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with awarding music and giving awards to music that is technically good. I think that’s fine. When you say you have to separate the person from the art- I don’t think I can separate the person from the art, but I can separate the person from the technique. Like “He can move his fingers well,” or “He has powerful vocal cords.” That I can separate from the person, like Wagoner [laughs].
SB: [laughs] Oh, absolutely.
EAS: Like, Wagoner was a jerk, but I can separate it because he had an understanding of harmony. That I can separate. The problem with the Grammy's, I think- I think it disparages music that matters from music that’s good. I mean, I don’t know. I was so mad, I was so mad [laughs] when Adele’s 25 beat Beyoncé’s Lemonade. There were six college courses on that album, and as far as I can tell, there’s not a single college course on Adele’s 25. And it’s a good album, right? But it doesn’t matter as much, in the end.
SB: It’s very similar to how when Beck won Album of the Year, and everyone was up in a tizzy about that.
EAS: Yeah, I don’t like- the issue I think is that I think people take it as “Beck’s album was better as whatever else came out that year.” It really is only a measure of personal quality. The Grammy's equivalent of the Academy is the Recording Arts Academy [sic], so lo-fi is entirely excluded from that. I don’t think lo-fi music is even actually allowed to be in there, if I remember correctly. So that takes out a whole genre! And it’s measured in a different way… it’s a really narrow and close-minded way of thinking about what makes music good.
SB: What is your recording process, then? Is it solely D.I.Y., do you record in a studio, is it a mixture of both?
EAS: I actually did record a couple of the tracks on the album in a studio, and then I didn’t use those recordings [laughs]. So I have those recordings because I think I’m gonna do more studio work in the future- there’s a place near where I live where I can pay an amount of money and use the studio. But for this at least, the concept for it was that I wanted it to sound like a tape you had found in the woods. Hopefully I’ll be going to college soon and getting a little more experience on how to work all that recording equipment to get all of the sounds I want- but for this, I wanted it to sound like the record itself was kind of broken.
SB: I really loved (karma, karma, karma) and just how frantic and almost... frenetic it is. It’s got that lo-fi energy, that broken energy. Looking at the album cut in its entirety, you play just an incredible amount of instruments on the record. From guitar to synth bassoon- I mean- is this sort-of jack-of-all-trades approach something that you’re used to, or has that been a more recent, you know, recent endeavor? How long have you been playing?
EAS: I started out on the piano- Asian father, he put me on the piano [laughs]. Especially on the ambient tracks like karma, the influences were more along the lines of Debussy and Impressionist styles of music. Then I switched to guitar, because I thought that was cooler, and then I played bass for a while. Just out of serendipity, there’s a guy who lives near where I live who’s Malian and teaches djembe, so West African percussion. So, I got to actually take lessons from him for a while. That really helped with my overall understanding of percussion. This year I started trombone and I’m working on horn instruments. But yeah, hopefully I’ll be studying musical composition at college as someone who wants to become a composer. A composer… I’m gonna go for a Journalism and Composition [degree], but that’s what I want to do, composition. I think it’s important that I understand the physical experience of playing these instruments, even if I’m not going to be amazing at them. I’m not an amazing pianist. It really is a jack-of-all-trades thing. The idea is that if I can understand what whoever’s playing them is thinking and how they have to move their fingers, I can make music sound more natural, or I can subvert that so that it’s naturally awkward for the hands- that can have a totally different effect. I think the one thing that classical music misses sometimes is that it’s very uptight and you have to stay very still, but playing another instrument or singing- it’s a bodily experience, and I think I have to understand that bodily experience in order to write for that instrument. If I want to compose a piece on the piano or the trombone...
SB: Based on that, then, what genre do you consider yourself to really be? You seem like such a permeable artist that can move from genre to genre very easily. Through that, you know, who has been the biggest influence on you as a musician and as a creator?
EAS: I would like to be a permeable artist [laughs]. Hopefully that’s part of my learning, going to college and beyond. I think Donald Glover, he does an amazing job of switching from genre to genre on a dime. I think it’s kind of incredible. Childish Gambino, yeah… and then the first musical I saw as Rent, by Jonathan Larson. As a writer, he gets all of that music from the 80's and the 90's, those eras- and he manages to make a good song on its own within the genre he writes. There’s like eight different genres, if you go through Rent- there’s Angel doing his [sic] sort of Prince thing, but then you have Roger who’s doing the, the sort of….
SB: Grunge, post-rock…
EAS: Yeah, yeah, grunge. And I thought it was incredible that one guy wrote all of that and had such an understanding of all those different genres. I really think I want to be a musician who plays with convention- ooh! I almost forgot to mention Prince, of course, too.
SB: Lyrically, though, who has inspired you? Also Prince and also Jonathan Larson? Or do you have completely different influences when it comes to forging lyrics?
EAS: Lyric-wise, it’s probably a mix between the Mountain Goats and Mitski. Then, definitely, of course, Fall Out Boy. I’m kind of going for the Mountain Goats, subversive thing… and borderline overly verbose at some points, it’s a fine line [laughs] with the Mitski sort-of melancholy and frankness in the delivery, too. But, no, yeah, Fall Out Boy and that early era of just being overly witty and dramatic.
SB: Like From Under the Cork Tree and that era or even before?
EAS: Yeah, From Under the Cork Tree.
SB: My favorite song, though, on the whole of Who’s Gonna Save the Hill? is probably the title track. That intro reminds me so much of Sufjan Stevens during his Illinoise era- such a landmark record. Could you talk more about the writing and recording process on that particular track?
EAS: That was one of the first ones I wrote. I think it’s one of the most simple songs on there- musically, at least. It’s just four chords, those same four chords the whole song. I had percussion at one point, I had bass at one point- I took them both out and just isolated the guitar. I actually played trombone for that intro but then I switched to a synth sound because I wanted it so sound more- it sounded too grand, with a regular trombone. It sounded too much like a color-guard, army march [laughs]. I wanted it to sound more as if it was fading in, like a radio. The idea for that opening, though, I wanted it to sound like I was sinking into a dream. Historically, at least, in the musicals and ballets that I watch, they use a- this is getting into music theory, because I’m a nerd for that [laughs]- a descending whole-tone scale. It was meant to kind of mirror a Nutcracker and those dream sequences that you see. It’s gonna sound like you were sliding into a dream.
SB: I feel like that song in particular and so many songs on the rest of the record are incredibly reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. He was nominated this past year at the Oscars for his work with Call Me by Your Name- are you yourself interested in all in doing scores and songs for film and other media projects, or solely studio work?
EAS: Yeah! No, one of the reasons I’m going for a Composition major- because what I’ve heard from my friends who are in college or out and what they do- somebody asks, “Hey, I’ll give you three-hundred bucks if you write a couple songs for my video game.” I think it’s a really cool way to make money as a musician- and I don’t have my life planned out- but what I really hope to do is have that be a sort of [sic] commission composer, in that way. It gives you a new challenge every day and you have to work at having to express different ideas, or even your own, musically.
SB: On the track itself, looking it at lyrically- you reference the Bible, the Grateful Dead, even Shamanism… so, naturally, I sensed an undercurrent of religious imagery, there, even an underbelly of 60's and 70's messages. Did that play into your concocting of the rest of the album, on a written level?
EAS: To be honest, no. [laughs] I’m actually- I don’t know that much about the Grateful Dead! I actually found- that was a literal thing that happened. I was walking and I found burnt pages of a Bible and a book on the Grateful Dead and a text on Shamanism. It’s very literal. [laughs]
SB: [laughs] That’s one-hundred percent an omen.
EAS: I know, I was thinking to myself, “Okay, this is creepy.”
SB: No, but yes- there’s definitely a 1970’s air in the beginning of the album, very Arlo Guthrie. Something I always tend to ask is how people got into music. For me, you know, with favorite artists like Joni Mitchell, it was having “Free Man in Paris” on a mix CD my aunt made for me as a kid. With the Mountain Goats and Mitski and even Childish Gambino, how did you personally discover them?
EAS: Honestly, my first inspiration to go into music was musical theatre. My older sister, she’s at Tisch, she’s incredible- she does theatre and acting, and I used to do that kind of stuff until I realized I don’t want a director telling me what to do all the time, it’s pretty tiring. I wanted to make my own stories, tell my own stories- I’d like to write a musical one day. I don’t think I have the compositional ability to do that yet, but a lot of it came from just trying to tell stories through music, and musicians that I found that did that were the ones who ended up inspiring me. I think, like, Childish Gambino in all of his albums has a bit of a theme and it runs through, like Camp, Because the Internet… and then Mitski, she invents characters, and definitely the Mountain Goats invent characters, too, especially on their more recent albums, which are the ones that are coming out as I’ve been growing up. I remember Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ were the ones that came out when I was growing up, and Transcendental Youth really- it felt like if you took all of the songs from musicals that introduced the characters and then just took those and made an album out of just those- that’s how it felt. It felt like it was just introducing a new character with each song, which I thought was a cool way to do an album.
SB: Alongside Rent, then, what are some of your other favorite musicals, or ones that you were exposed to early?
EAS: So, I saw Rent way before when I should’ve seen Rent. [laughs] Shortly after that, I saw Pippin- I still love Pippin- I really love Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, along with my good Catholic family [laughs]- then I got to see Wicked live, of course, which was because of my sister- which was amazing!- I like Next to Normal, Dogfight…
SB: Dogfight is a masterpiece.
EAS: Yeah, Dogfight- with Dogfight the songs kind of work on their own, too. I think it’s amazing when you can create a large piece of work that functions both as a larger piece of work and a way for the individual songs to stand out on their own.
SB: Whenever I listen to that soundtrack, it almost feels like you could hear any one of those songs being played on the radio and it wouldn’t feel abnormal.
EAS: It’s very impressive. Rent, too, I think any of those songs could stand on their own and be released on their own.
SB: Besides making music, what are your other pursuits?
EAS: What I really hope to do in college is get a double major in Journalism and Music Composition. I like to write, I’m a big history person. What I recently actually did was- in a local museum- I got to give a little talk on Chinese prostitutes and how they related to immigration law. [laughs] I like to find these, uh- I’m a researcher, I guess. I love history and I love to explore subcultures in history- if you could call prostitution a subculture- and how they affect the community at large. And I guess I’m going into two somewhat-dying fields but I like to write, and it’d be great if I could research and write to amplify the voices of people that don’t get to talk as much as they should, that don’t get the microphone, so to speak.
SB: Going into journalism, you know, are you interested in all in music criticism?
SB: [laughs] No, not at all? It’s understandable. Pitchfork and other outlets of that caliber get a lot of flack.
EAS: I understand the value of having a field- in having a community of people who talk about music and determine the worth of music, I think we need to have it- but I don’t want to be there, I don’t want to go to their parties. [laughs] A party full of music critics? That would be- that just sounds awful.
SB: And, you know, Grimes- it was 2015 when she released Art Angels- she recorded a whole song on that record in reference to the hypocrisy of Pitchfork. They do tend to sometimes give very unfair scores, so on and so forth- what’s your view on those types of outlets, like Pitchfork and Noisey and co.?
EAS: Yeah, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats wrote an entire book about it [laughs], about how much he hates the music criticism industry in general. But no, yeah, I think future historians are going to be glad that it’s there, and it’s incredibly useful to get a sense of what people think about music and I think it’s necessary to have people talking about it- but on the other hand, it just feels like they’re going for blood but they’re not going to offer any of their own. I- I think it’s necessary. But I don’t want to be a part of it. [laughs]
SB: It’s definitely something that’s changed in the past decade or two. Back in the 70’s, back in the 80’s- you really only had Rolling Stone, maybe Interview. Both of those outlets were steeped less in criticism and more in general music journalism, almost sort-of gonzo journalism- and now it’s morphed into fully opinionated pieces, which is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. Aside from that, are there any other projects you’re working on right now?
EAS: One of the big projects on Chinese prostitution- I wrote my junior year thesis paper on it- I have what will either be a musical or concept album that is going to be much more complex, recorded in a studio sort-of album about the lives of specifically two members of that community back in the 1850’s: Ah Toy, the first Chinese prostitute, supposedly- and Wah Lee, the first owner of a Chinese laundry [in the United States]. Which is a stereotype- but Wah Lee was the first Chinese man to come over and start a business like that. And so I really want to record an album and explore those two characters. They’re really similar in a lot of ways- they the first to come over, they came over at the same time, they’re in the same city- but it isolates the differences in gender, even in East Asian communities, how that all works. I don’t want to give too much away, this is probably going to be a year from now before that comes out.
SB: If you do conceptualize it as a musical, do you think you would ever try and stage it?
EAS: I have a few of the scores written, but there’s so much more to be done- it’d definitely get somebody else to stage it for me. [laughs] I’d find a director. In the end, I find that I really am just mostly interested in the music, and I think the other stuff is important- but as for what I really want to do, I don’t think that I’d be very good at it. [laughs]
SB: With these larger projects, are you going to release them on your Bandcamp, are you going to move it to YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, what have you?
EAS: I mean, other than that I’m working on a smaller, more D.I.Y.-recorded album right now- it’s just gonna be a smaller project that’s going to go on Bandcamp and YouTube and Soundcloud. This first album is on all of those platforms, too.
SB: I wanted to ask how you felt about streaming, just when it comes to Spotify, Apple Music, and things like that.
EAS: I’m fortunate enough where I don’t right-now need the money- I also want to quickly say that all of the money for Who’s Gonna Save the Hill? goes to charity- all the charity information is on my pages. I’m an artist, that’s why I have a moniker- I don’t need the money, and it doesn’t have to be about me and I’m just lucky enough that my family is well enough off that I don’t need to worry about that right now. But I think the issue with Apple Music, those things, it’s like labor… it takes your time, it has value. It’s going to be useful to someone, hopefully. That’s my idea. At least in my view, I like music that is hopeful to somebody, even if it’s just one person. And as a form of labor- if we’re living in this capitalist society [laughs]- you have to re-compensate [sic] that, in some form, and I don’t think the market right now fairly compensates people for their labor. I’m not an economist, I don’t know how to solve this. I have the luxury of not being in the thick of it, but I do think it’s not that the streaming companies are fully at fault- I’ve heard too many horror stories of record companies selling music and then not giving the artist any cut of that. Hopefully that’s why I want to get into journalism- as a musician, I don’t think I’m going to solve any of that, as a journalist- maybe I’ll be be a music criticism critic. [laughs] I think it’s the responsibility of me [sic] to stay engaged with the people who are in the thick of it.
SB: After this upcoming record is released, are you planning on touring at all?
EAS: Yeah, I’ve done a couple of performances in and around Boston- I got to be on the radio once, so that was killer- but I’m still in school, and will still be in school for at least the next four years, and if I do any touring it’ll be in-between that. Once I’m settled down- I’ll be in New York City for college- I don’t know how much I want to reveal. [laughs]
SB: There’s conservatively 200 billion colleges in New York, so you’re good. [laughs]
EAS: I think there’s a lot more opportunity there where I am now, overall.
SB: At the end of almost every interview we do, you know, we’re trying to get a running tally to see the percentages of this- this is wildly off-topic- but what is your opinion on pineapple on pizza? Pro? Anti?
EAS: Pro, I say I’m pro.
SB: You’re pro?
EAS: Yeah, I’m pro-pineapple on pizza. I’m a fan of it.
SB: [laughs] Every person we’ve asked so far has been pro. I’m still trying to find one person who’s even the littlest bit anti. Just one.
EAS: At least I’m indifferent. [laughs]
SB: Is there anything you’d like to plug? Where can we find you?
EAS: You can find me on YouTube at peanutbuttertablerebellion- I think I’m peanutbuttertablerebellion on every platform. My Instagram, though, is @eandersonsong. Please go to my Bandcamp- this allows me to shamelessly plug Who’s Gonna Save the Hill? because all the money is gonna go to charity, hopefully to help the homeless and people with chronic diseases, and hopefully it’s something good to listen to in the car. I hope you enjoy it!
After this interview concluded, Anderson-Song also stated his desire to further plug the artist Questionable Dog, who you may find on Bandcamp here.