As a music lover who appreciates music geeks, Paul Pesco is a blast to interview, if you can keep up. Pesco may have a sleek exterior replete with long black shiny ponytail but make no mistake; there is a geek in there.
While I prepare the recorder, I’m listening to Pesco talk in that special musician’s code. He’s talking about his new guitar rig for the Hall and Oates tour and getting that “Philadelphia sound.” I understand Coptic Egyptian better than I understand what he’s saying. Whatever it all means, he explains it with charm and laughter.
Here’s a man happiest at work. “I just got off tour with Hall & Oates and got my new studio set up. I’m working on some Mary J. Blige songs for her new album, doing some tracks with Busta Rhymes and, Lisa, so much stuff. Can you hang on a second, I gotta order a pizza for these guys.”
His credit list is vast and eclectic with highlights such as working extensively with Madonna from the very beginning of her career and well into a decade. He played the famous riff for C+C Music Company’s “Everybody Dance Now,” written and performed songs on soundtracks for such films as Happy Feet, Be Cooland Robots, and produced dozens of albums for funk, pop, rock and jazz artists, among a cajillion other things. The full list of his accomplishments is too exhausting to type so you can check out his extensive bio on Jango or his IMDB profile.
Pesco could by all rights be a name-dropping douche bag as so many who have do so much are wont to do. But he isn’t. He’s far from it. It’s rare to find in an artist who’s been touring for over 20 years, has worked with an A-list of musical gods and is well adjusted. Actually, it’s a miracle amongst the human race.
Plus, he is really good at what he does and, man, does he do a lot. He’s a guitarist, composer, arranger, sound engineer, writer, singer, mad scientist… And rather than trying to impress me with his long ass list of accomplishments, he tells me jokes. “What do you call a guitar player who just broke up with his girlfriend?” “What?” “Homeless.” His delivery is so enthusiastic, I have to laugh.
But as he describes a piece of music he’s crafting, he gets all professorial on me. He loses me at the first comma. Thank goodness I just get to listen to the music and don’t have any part in creating it.
But what really makes Pesco unique is that at 50 he’s just as enthusiastic as any 16 year-old starting out. “I’m so lucky to get to do what I do. It’s been the best life and I’ve seen and done so much. And I keep getting to do more. How cool is that?”
He has a Sicilian dad who is an accomplished opera singer and continues to teach. His Korean mom, who is an author, is currently out on a book tour. He has equally talented and accomplished siblings. The Pesco family never lacked in culture and lived in Germany for a stint before they moved back to Long Island.
Pesco is part New Yorker, part West Coaster, part European, part Asian and a little like Dr. Who if he looked like Keanu Reeves and played guitar like Jimmy Page. I’ve never quite been able to figure him out and I don’t really want to. The mystery is the thing.
Pesco is in New York these days, practically living in his studio and working long hours, but happy as a merry Mad Hatter. While telling me more about the Mary J. Blige project (he co-wrote a couple of songs with Blige and performs on her new album), he interrupts himself to tell me that he wanted to be a drummer when he was a kid. His parents, probably envisioning their eardrums bursting from the constant racket, shut that down pretty quickly.
Instead, his parents had him taking extensive piano lessons. Pesco, who liked football and other sports as well, had thought banging on some drums would be pretty cool and might lure the ladies. He then interrupts himself again to tell a joke. “What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?” “What?” “A drummer.”
While working on everything under the sun it seems, he takes time to work on his next album. I thought I was able to run circles around kids younger than me but Pesco makes me look like a couch potato. This is a guy who is not going to look back at his life with regret. I find this refreshing, as a lot of people will sit and lament about how the doors were never opened for them.
I don’t think Pesco ever even saw any doors. He simply crawled in through a window. “I started out working as a tech during the day and constantly practiced on my guitar at night. I played in bands, picked up any gig I could. I just never stopped. I aimed at being flexible and adaptable, a well rounded artist.”
Besides his duties as guitarist on the latest Hall & Oates tour, Pesco is co-producing Hall’s latest solo albumLaughing Down Crying on Verve Records along with Hall and The Fugee’s Jerry Wonda. He’s also the Musical Director and guitarist for Hall’s Webby award winning show Live From Daryl’s House. The hugely popular show premiered on the Internet in 2007 and has featured a long lists of impressive guests such as Todd Rundgren, Smokey Robinson, Ray Manzarek and The Dap Kings. The show will make its TV premiere this September. The half-hour weekend show will be seen on Tribune Broadcasting stations in seven markets, including WPIX New York, KTLA Los Angeles, WGN Chicago, KDAF Dallas and KIAH Houston.
But at this moment Pesco is focused on feeding the crew in his studio. “Hold on, Lisa, I need to get these pies sorted out.” I listen to him on his landline switch to a heavy New York accent to negotiate toppings and the studio’s address.
Pesco doesn’t think himself too high and mighty to take care of his crew in a session. He’s a mensch. “Sorry about that. I gotta feed these guys. It’s long days,” Pesco says as he softens his accent to the more West Coast surfer dude tones I’m used to.
I ask him about advice he’d give up and coming artists and his voice immediately brightens. “Oh, wow, just be enthusiastic, practice and get yourself out there. But with YouTube, you really just need to be good and have a laptop. It’s an exciting time right now. You can get discovered in an instant.”
But I offer that instant discovery isn’t always a good thing. Pesco worked his way through the ropes and that has kept him grounded. He agrees with this. “It’s not always a good thing to have what you want too fast. It’s like the struggle and hard work change you in the best ways, polish you up a bit. Fast fame, well, it can be a distraction and your longevity isn’t always guaranteed.”
I ask Pesco if he ever wishes he’d done anything else. “You know, let me think about that.” There’s a bit of a pause. “Nope. I’m quite happy to do what I’ve done and to be able to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s a good life.”
And with that, Pesco is off to the next session in his jam-packed Sunday; after the session he’s performing in the city. But before he goes, he’s got time for one more corny joke, “What does a musician say when he gets to the gig?” “What?” “You want fries with that?”
I can’t help myself, I laugh. Man, talking to this guy makes you happy.