William Pilgrim: The Passion of Survival
by Greg Barraza
“I’m sure theres someone somewhere
believes in something still
he’s just not dying here
or staring in the eyes of the ones he kills for pay
so long so well
my darling, I’m not the man that once said farewell
and no one I ever wanted to be
keep these letters, I bid good night
whomever s left can tell us, who was right
sleep tight my darling
with love, farewell” – Farewell by William Pilgrim & the All Grows Up
A story so much more than music. This is a story about passion, survival, and the melody that carries us through.
When I walked into the rehearsal studio of William Pilgrim, Ish and Phil were working on a new song. I felt a sense of gratitude that they continued to work on the song for a about 30 minutes with me there. At first, I didn’t want to intrude, but after a couple of minutes, I was sorry I didn’t bring a six-pack. When they felt it was right to stop working on the song, we sat on the couch. I noticed philosophy books adjacent to self-realization novels. I knew this was going to be something special. They took their name from Vonnegut’s character in Slaughterhouse Five. I was already intrigued. But then we started talking. There are very few interviews where I had to sit alone for a couple of days after the interview and digest everything. This one was one of them. The topics discussed in this interview hit so close to home to me that I found it difficult to write the interview. But at the same time, I found it very therapeutic. Ish and Phil from William Pilgrim take songwriting and making music to its essence. It seems as if they do not do it for others, but still do to put their art out there for others to hear. Although it may sound selfish, their music is not selfish. They create it for themselves and for others at the same time; that is a truly non-selfish act. I listened to their album prior to the interview, and I listened to their album after the interview with a whole new perspective. I wanted to give a great biography of the two of them and sat here for almost thirty hours trying to think about what I was going to say about the band, and what I was going to say about the people. But then my son read the interview and told me all I had to hear: “Dad. The interview pretty much says it all.” I don’t think I will be the same person after writing this interview, and that is a good thing. I want to describe the train horn in the background throughout the interview. I want to describe the calmness Phil and Ish brought to me before and after the interview, but after reading the interview, I am sure you will have that same sense of appreciation and awe that I had when I started my car and left Old Town Orange. I pulled over and listened to the interview and sat for a few minutes. I am sure you will do the same.
ATOD Magazine, GREG BARRAZA (GB): You wrote on your homepage “In the end, The Great Recession is not a financial crisis but a meltdown in human thinking.” The meaning can be interpreted in various ways, so explain the purpose of having this particular quote on your home page.
PHIL: The record that we made is called The Great Recession and the album is a collection of songs written in the form of characters speaking first hand, speaking about what has occurred in their life. And what is common as a thread throughout that record is the characters are flawed individuals who suffer results not to their liking based on flawed thinking. We were making a parallel to the thinking of Americans that ultimately led us to what we call the great recession, so that was the parallel we were trying to draw between the message and the music.
Phil: What we were trying to communicate as opposed to financial crisis, what a depression indicates is there is a recession of thinking. What we are saying is that our current situation is not due to a financial meltdown, they are due to a retreat of thinking or wisdom or thought within our culture as a people.
GB: So on a social level?
Ish: What’s funny because the first time I read that quote it struck me on the difference we make between a recession and a depression and how it has nothing to do with how we are spending our money, it’s more about how we are thinking. It’s funny because now that you ask about it, it really hits me how deep the quote is.
Phil: The parallel is how got the name of the band, William Pilgrim, which is a derivative of Kurt Vonnegut’s character in Slaughterhouse Five. That character in the novel deals with non-linear time. He is wrestling with the lack of free will and the decisions and the lack of thinking because if you are looking at non-linear time there is no need to think because your life has already been thought, so that’s the other parallel we are trying at another level to connect the dots to.
GB: William, Bill, Pilgrim, or Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut’s semiautobiographical novel of his time in Dresden as a POW. It was one of my favorite novels growing up. Vonnegut is one of the authors that inspired me to study literature. So it’s known that the subterranean slaughterhouse saved Vonnegut’s life. Ish: explain the relationship, or parallel if you will, of Bill Pilgrim with how you relate to the character.
Ish: (he pauses in thought) The way that I relate to Bill Pilgrim, the character, is really deep. I’ve traveled throughout the country often times on foot with a backpack. I have seen a mountain of whimsical bad situations I’ve found myself in is insane, but every situation I’ve learned something about life. Much like me, the character was all over the place with the way we think …
Phil: And where you ultimately end up. Bill being unstuck in time and he doesn’t know where he is going to be or what part of his life he’s going to arrive at. Ish parallels this because he kind of goes through his life not knowing where he is going to be the next moment and I think that.
Ish: His time in Dresden was his war. And my war was finding myself on the streets of Los Angeles homeless so I think what I got in common with this character is the fact that my life is linear but the events that have happened has been all over the place. Although they seem separate and isolated, they all spiral up and create one ball and I just kind of look at it like that.
GB: I will like to get into what you were just talking about because like yourself I was homeless for a good part of my life, so I can associate with the idea of not knowing what is going to happen, not just tomorrow, but in the next five minutes (Ish laughs).
Ish: How long can I sit here? … I used to sit in the NA hall because I used to get free cigarettes and coffee.
GB: You know? And that is like Bill Pilgirm because there isn’t that time relative that society runs by. It’s the survival relative. It seems surreal, like a dream, sometimes a nightmare.[/question]
Ish: (Ish nods.) Yes. Especially when it becomes a nightmare that seems like it is all you are doing. And if it’s my doing then shit I’m just going on and do it now and then you are like oh my god what the fuck did I do (uncomfortable laugh) so I know. And pardon my French.[/answer]
GB: That being said how did affect you for the positive?
ISH: Obviously I’ve got a lot more compassion for the homeless than your average person would. When it comes to the people at the bottom [of the social ladder] I’m more inclined to see—I hate to say this word—but when it comes to really poor people I guess I’ve learned how to see the god in them. I’ve learned to see that it’s just made me kinda like a humanitarian. It’s made me kind of a crusader as far as the positive aspect, and it’s made me choose my allegiances really carefully. Knowing the people at the top, they got it all. They probably got everything you need but what kind of person will you become following them when you stay down here like at the bottom circle. You get this kind of Buddhist kind of way of things. There’s certain lessons in life that you are not going to learn unless you take away everything (emphasis) all the money, all the physical, and once all that is gone there is definitely a spiritual journey. It’s the reason why I wouldn’t allow myself to be homeless for the next 5 years. I’ve done that to myself. I see …I’ve become a better person being on the streets always having to take care of each other, always having to look out for one another (he goes into narrative) Hey can I sleep with you over here cuz I just got run out of my spot, or holy shit I just went back to bushes and my sleeping bags are gone, or brother do you have an extra blanket. Often times, when it’s all about money and material stuff that’s not so important because things don’t’ have any real value to me. But other things do have a value to me because one of my best friend’s name was George. He was dying of cancer and one night he approaches me in the pouring down rain. He had a shaved head because he was going through chemo he’s like a homeless guy and he comes to me because he know I had a fuck load of blankets and he would do anything for me. He looks at me deep in the eye and says, “Ish I just got out of chemo. I’m sick. I’m cold. It’s raining. Do you have a blanket?” And just because I didn’t want to deal with that moment or whatever I walked away without thinking two seconds about it and the very next morning he died, so I still go back to that question: next time when it comes down to life make sure whoever needs it and you got it, give them that blanket, give them that shirt cuz sometimes it’s too late…I just became a better person.
GB: So it characterizes the idea of the quote on the homepage. What you learned is making you live a progressive life, not a recessive life, right?
PHIL: And again there has to be a distinction between individuals and society. I think that we are falsely under the myth that we are a collection of individuals. Words like socialism and collectivism and community have somehow been hijacked to be negative terms. And I think that is a huge downfall about us as people. We are making decisions right now based on a collection of individuals and really [the decisions] are short sighted and any level of reason, any level of thought would take the blanket, so to speak, off of that myth. That goes to our politics, our policies: environment, domestic policies, social policies, foreign policy. The list would go on forever and that is one of the things we are speaking to in this, and like Vonnegut who refused to call Slaughterhouse Five a war, or anti-war, novel –who was it that said to be anti war is to be anti hurricane—they are an inevitable part of humans. We didn’t want this record to come off as being preachy or anti-war or anti-government or anti whatever you wanted to say. What we were doing through these songs is we are laying out a story. If you want to listen to it at that level based on what this character is doing…fine, but we also give you wide birth to go at it at a deeper level on what is being said. So the website and that quote was a way to stimulate someone’s thought process and to go a little deeper on the surface of the music where we weren’t being that direct with the songs.
GB: And that’s the great thing about art, any form of art, you should be thinking of it on a deeper level, on a multi-interpretational level.
PHIL: And you have to leave it a little open for interpretation, if you paint everything out, if you write everything out, if you sing everything out then it becomes yours and not someone else’s so you have to leave enough space in it, enough room, for people to make it their own.
GB: Dave wanted me to ask you this question. Underwear?
Phil: No I do wear underwear.
Ish: I always thought that real rock and roll required you to free ball.
GB: Where does your song writing come from? Does it come from life experiences? Is it thematic?
PHIL: We are different and that is one of the main ingredients that make our music. Our perspectives are different so we don’t have a uniform answer.
ISH: Shoot. I don’t even know how songs come to me. I think the best way for me to write a song is I just put a piece of paper in front of me, and with no preconceived notion, just kind of begin to write, as long as there is a melody or somebody to play one for me. But most of the time, they either deal with things that need to be said, or things that are nice to say, or things I want to say; for example, things that are nice to say: love is nice idea. So it never hurts to write a love song and when you’re in pain or you’re hurting. That needs to be said a lot of times. I am just trying to be that channel because guys like me and Phil we get an opportunity to do something that a lot of folks can’t do. I know that not everybody can sing and write songs, but I believe in every heart there is a song, and I think it comes through us sometimes. I write out of a higher responsibility in life: alright dude you got to say what Joe Blow on the corner means to say but can’t put it into words.
GB: Really. That is the power of song because I was watching your video about a girl and I was going through relationship issues at that point, and I was listening to that song and looking at that video and I was just saying to myself: “How the fuck do they know,” and for that I thank you. And that is the power of song because there is that person who is thinking that same thing but can’t say it for whatever reason. What’s your take Phil?
PHIL: We are both independent songwriters so we follow our own process, so it varies. I don’t know if there is a formula, one way or the other for me, with writing. I’m trying to influence the space that I occupy and have a voice with it. That’s what motivates me or inspires me.
ISH: When it comes to writing I really like to wing it. Then we work together because he pulls me in and says you can’t sing that way (laughs). He keeps me grounded where I just want to shoot for the stars and wanna have it come out free unedited, but he reminds me—sometimes unfortunately—we are in the business of creating music. He reminds me of structure and just how things should go and its kinda
PHIL: (jokingly)Ish would write the best 30 second songs in history.
GB: Ish, how have you adjusted to being in a different place because you were talking about being homeless and now you are doing well.
ISH: I think I’ve adjusted fine but I still live with this fear that’s kind of healthy cuz that pavement is still fresh to me, so I never feel like I’m completely out of the dark. I always feel like I got to do this much more work, so I can get that much more further. It’s kind of nerve racking because it makes me not be able to be comfortable to chill in an environment that I know is cruel (snaps fingers). It’s like a hole in the bottom of a bucket you’re trying to fill. You’re running around while it’s spilling out. That’s kind of how it feels. Like I got a lot of water but I keep losing some somewhere. It’s one of those deals for me, but it’s a blessing. I got to get past the fear to enjoy the happiness.
GB: I agree. It’s been over 20 years for me and sorry to tell you this but the fear never goes away.
ISH: Really? Damn! Cuz you know it’s possible and it’s not impossible anymore. I think of going back to the street and I feel like you might as well throw me in prison. I tell myself that because I will do music for all my life, but a far as this stage in my life being closer to 30, its scary to be on the street at this age because I am supposed to be laying the ground work for the next decade. When you’re knocking on the door of 30 and you’re just getting out of the tall grass, it’s got an effect on you.
GB: Phil, you have known Ish throughout this transition, so how does that make you feel?
PHIL: I recognize he’s a heartbeat away from being back on the street (joking). The fear that he has I don’t necessarily understand it, but I do get that that is a reality so what I am hoping that this project, this band, and our friendship creates some life lessons, some sustainability, some influences that he realizes that he has some control over certain things in his life. There are certain things beyond ones control, so the thing we talk about on a regular basis is letting go of the things you can’t control: the history, the past. The things that are gone but you have this moment; you have everything from this moment beyond and the influence and responsibility to take control over those things in your life that you can make a difference. I think you both hit upon this when you’ve been where you’ve been when you’ve hit the lows that you’ve hit, you live in a sense of immediacy and when your senses are focused on that survival, that immediacy, that moment you also look for happiness in those same moments and those moments are fleeting. What you end up doing is having a life that ends up being a collection of these fleeting moments. Life then needs to become a matter of planning of making decisions to building a life as opposed to living a life in the moment. It might be romantic, it might be the subject of Disney movies, but it’s not going to get you very far if you just constantly live in the moment to the detriment of the future.
GB: Well put. This question is a two-parter, so I am going to direct to Ish. First, and I’m sure you will know where I’m going Phil after I ask Ish his question, at one point, Ish, you said to yourself, I’m going to put an ad on craigslist? Why?
ISH: It had worked before. I had but a dollar to my name, and I was like there was a few times they paid me to this singing stuff. So I just put an ad on craigslist because there was just nothing else going on and I can’t lose by placing an ad on craigslist. I tried everything in my desperation. He just happened to pick it up.
GB: That brings me to your question, Phil. At one point you looked at that ad and said I’m going to answer that one.
PHIL: Nothing special. I was answering a hundred of them.
GB: Okay. I was hoping you would say that. So if you were answering multiple, what stood out to you and said that’s him?
PHIL: That’s a real interesting story because he places the ad. And a month goes by and nothing happens, so he pretty much wrote it off and thought it was gone. Somehow I found it and it was an old ad. I, at that point, was just shotgunning everyday, five ten: I got a project, if you’re interested I’d like to…and some of them would not answer some of them would right away communicate. I think the way that ours went is that Ish responded back with at least a link saying this is who I am, because based on craigslist, you couldn’t go directly to your song . You (Ish) had sent me some links and then he went dark on me. I loved his music; I loved his voice. I thought it was really good, but then I couldn’t get him to return a call; I couldn’t get him to respond to email. And I have these songs and I need a singer and I’m ready to record and do this stuff but something drew me to his voice. There was something there but I couldn’t get a hold of him. There was another guy from Bakersfield. This guy was a responsive mother fucker. He was great and he did demos of the songs and he sang the songs for demo purposes. Then he[Ish] calls back out of the blue. I pretty much given this other dude the gig. And he says I can come out I’m like fuck. But what do we have to lose. So he comes out, but when he comes out I was already going in a different direction. We started talking and he sang some more. So the decision process for me was this: I got this one guy and he is safe. He is going to show up and using the baseball analogy he’s going to hit me singles and doubles all the time. Every time he comes to bat he’s going to deliver the goods. He can sing. But then with Ish there was a magic; there was a certain thing that was uncommon it was unusual. It was unexpected but he’s going to strike out 27 times up at the plate. But that 28th time he comes to bat, its going to be a fucking home run. This is a guy who doesn’t hit singles and doubles, he hits a home run and then strikes out. And the decision is: “Do I want to play it safe or do I want to aim for the fences”; I made the decision to aim for the fences. What we are trying to do with this project was not to create pop music, not to create commercially viable entertainment for people. It was to stimulate people; it was to antagonize people; it was to stimulate thinking and make a broader statement. If you’re aiming for something great, you have to make sure you have all the pieces in line and I couldn’t have got that with the other guy.
GB: I really reserve the following term; in fact, I only use it when I am discussing my daughter. I don’t like to use the term meant to be because we choose our own paths. I can tell the chemistry between you two is just rad. I can’t put it any other way. Because you—Ish—smile all the time and you—Phil—look like you’re in thought. Is that why this works or is there another reason why this works?
ISH: I think a lot of it is over the past few years we have developed a tremendous amount of respect for each other. I think between us, and we have never had this conversation but there are these unspoken lines that you don’t cross and some lines you do cross, we’ve gotten to know each other so well. I think musicians have this mutual respect for each other. If that relationship is good, I think it bleeds over into the music. Plus, we are just different enough to make it work.
PHIL: I think that with any relationship, whatever that may be, for something to be sustainable and rise above the ordinary, it’s got to hit on several different levels. If the grouping of people doesn’t relate to one thing, it doesn’t touch forever. We hit at a couple different levels. I think that sometimes stuff just happens; stuff just works out, whether that is the power of the universe or just happenstance. Creatively, we hit. What Ish adds to my music and to my songs is something that is greater than I can produce on my own. I’d like to believe that I provide that to him. The process of creating is not easy. The process is not just okay this is it accept this. We challenge each other. He does things that I wouldn’t do and some of them I fight back and resist and some of them I’m like we will keep that. It’s the same process with me. He gets fucking pissed off with me. The result of that is what we come up with beyond that were friends. He has certain things involved in his life that I feel a certain responsibility and a certain need to help, so it’s a process that we are working and he helps me understand because as an artist, not being in his situation, my songs could be very, very fucking boring without a muse, without some kind of inspiration to make them relevant. When I tackle on the project of writing a song that speaks to the larger issues that we have in our society, Ish for me is a constant reminder at the ground level of what those manifests themselves into real people and their circumstances, So he’s taught me a lot about what’s going on.
GB: Phil, please explain the documentary you are working on house on the hill. What is the project and what is the motivation behind the project?
PHIL: The overarching motivation and concept is where we are going to deal with the larger issues in society through the eyes of Ish as a homeless youth living on the streets of Los Angeles. What we doing is documenting and showing these amazing people; this amazing talent, this amazing singer interacting with amazing musicians and creating this great music that speaks to a larger issue. But then we wanted to take the viewers away from that to show: look, this is where he is coming from, this guy you just fell in love with, this guy, this amazing singer that could be singing all across the world is literally living in a box somewhere on LA, and what we wanted to do is through that shock is show you the living aspect of the talent that is living on the streets. We wanted to bypass the myth of the struggling musician living on the streets for his big break. We wanted to show you this level of talent that’s singing just to have food. So that was the concept and Ish was obviously the way that we were going to do that. The problem became is that as we started working and doing what we do, Ish started changing; he started evolving. He is a very smart guy. So every time I came up with an ending for the script, he changed the ending by changing himself. So after a couple of revisions of the script, what we realized real quick was that this story is not over yet, and to arbitrarily say okay this is the end, would be doing a disservice to the project and to Ish as an individual, so instead we are still working on it. The ending will eventually arrive. In the interim, we didn’t want all this stuff to go to waste, so we came up with the idea of Live at the Icehouse. What Live at the Icehouse does is tells the story of Ish, but more importantly, shows the journey of Ish. As Ish is evolving as we bring in situations, as we interact and do things, Ish is very much part of that story. We have the benefit as webisodes go to keep going forward. As his journey continues, our journey continues.
ISH: this may be totally Hollywood, but on our trajectory I can honestly say that I believe in the destiny of this band. Outside of this band, I can’t talk with you much about destiny, but I have never done something that seemed like I was just fated to do it. Like, this band, your whole life, all that struggle everything you went through was really so one day you can be William Pilgrim. It’s occurred to me that the kid that Phil met two years ago, that was 100% Ishmael. And through this kind of evolution, through this kind of art I have been able to have I do feel that perhaps I am more William Pilgrim. Through William Pilgrim I have had to grow up. I realized that I was still a boy. In SF it says “Boys go to war, not men”; so it makes me feel that I am fated to do this. As far as the documentary goes, I think it’s going to blow up in our face, like it’s going to take off, like it’s going to set its own fire.
GB: Ish, if you could say one thing to Phil, what would it be?
(Phil interjects: Fuck you and we all laugh) I think it would be: Don’t let me be forgotten. If I were to step on the street and be killed, just don’t let them forget me.
PHIL: The world is bigger than you know, and you have the power to be great within it. That’s what I would say.