by Andrew Norman
It's a cloudy, rainy day in New York when I reach Peter Buffett by phone in his office. He's about to hop on a train to Washington D.C. for a conference focused on promoting social and emotional education for students.
The new-age-musician son of the third-richest man in the world doesn't pop in ear buds when he commutes.
“I’m not nearly as curious, for some strange reason, as I used to be,” Buffett says. “It's almost like I [produce music] so much that when I’m not doing it, I don’t want to listen to more music.”
About five years ago, Buffett's father Warren gave and him and his two siblings about $1 billion each to fund charitable foundations. Peter and wife Jennifer Buffett's NoVo Foundation works primarily to empower women and girls globally through education, economic development and programs to end violence against them.
It's rewarding work for the Omaha native, who has a long history of social activism. When he can, he uses music to advance human rights causes. It didn't start that way. A freelance gig producing promos for then-fledgling MTV in 1981 gave Buffett his first professional music work. He went on to produce memorable commercials for companies like Coca-Cola.
But he had his own music vision. He signed to new-age label Narada Productions in 1987 and went on to record four records. The second album, One by One, caught the attention of actor Kevin Costner, who hired him to score the epic “fire dance” scene in Dances with Wolves. He worked with Costner again in 1994, producing the soundtrack for the miniseries 500 Nations, which won an Emmy. He earned another Emmy in 1999 for scoring the soundtrack to the documentary Wisconsin: An American Portrait.
He recently collaborated with Grammy-nominated R&B musician Akon on a song called “Blood into Gold,” aimed to draw attention for and raise funds to fight human trafficking. And he has worked with Grammy-winning artist Angelique Kidjo to benefit education for African girls.
Buffett's always done things his own way, a nontraditional path that helped turn his 2010 autobiographical book, Life Is What You Make It, into a New York Times best-seller.
He returns to his alma mater, Central High School, Thursday, April 28 to perform the book's live companion. “Life is What You Make It: A Concert & Conversation with Peter Buffett” combines multimedia storytelling with live music and a Q&A.
“The idea of where I came from — which is a curiosity to a lot of people — and what I did with that and where I went with my life sort of makes a statement that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you do with it and where you go,” he says.
Buffett's philanthropical work and family background has been covered extensively. But he's one of Nebraska's most significant musical products. So we wanted to talk music with the New Yorker. In a 30-minute interview, Buffett covers Alice Cooper, Ed Sullivan, being a “Frank and Earnest” Nebraskan in the Big Apple, why the good life state serves as a creative incubator, and how he's connected to Conor Oberst through the ears.
Hear Nebraska: What did you listen to when you were growing up?
Peter Buffett: “I watched Ed Sullivan, and that changed my life. I went and ran out to Crossroads Mall — which was probably brand new at the time — to get the very first Beatles record on Vee-Jay Records before they were signed to Capitol. My sister and I split the 99 cents, or whatever it was, for the first album, and that was the beginning.
“When I was 4, I was into Paul Anka. I was into music from a very early age. But then, as that progressed, my sister would always bring home whatever was happening in rock pretty much in the '60s and '70s. But my mother would bring home the soul. So while my sister would be listening The Kinks or The Yardbirds, my mother would be listening to Aretha Franklin and Sly Stone and the Temptations. So I really got this great combo from both of the women in the house.”
Those are all great bands. Did you have any guilty pleasures in high school — music that now you can’t believe you listened to?
“I loved Grand Funk Railroad. And Yes got me kind of into more progressive rock. And there was some Italian band … it was PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi), three guys’ names. They were kind of a takeoff on Emmerson, Lake and Palmer. So I sort of got into the more — experimental is too strong of a word — but more progressive, I guess, rock stuff
“Alice Cooper. Loved Alice Cooper. That might be the best guilty pleasure that would surprise people. The Alice Cooper album, Love it to Death, and Killer — I listened to that thing over and over and over. I loved that record.
Did you have band posters on your bedroom wall?
"I did not. It's funny — I don’t think I had any posters on my wall. That’s kind of weird …
"But I loved taking apart speakers, and when I was probably 8 or so, listening to Revolver or Rubber Sole – one of the earlier Beatles albums … we had a Sears portable record player and it was in my room and a needle broke. I went to my mom’s sewing kit and I got a needle out of there and I kind of jammed it up into the tone arm of this record player and it worked. That was my 'aha' moment with technology and music. And I was always into that — kind of taking things apart and trying to make things sound better, and usually they sounded worse."
Do you think that’s translated into the kind of ethereal music you produce now? It's not as simple as some of these bands you’ve mentioned.
“Definitely. As far as I’m concerned, I was born in the exact right time in the music business for the type of music I like to make and the kinds of things I’m attracted to.
“In 1979, you could buy a four-track tape machine, essentially, for the first time. It was small and fairly affordable. And I think it was like $600. It was still expensive, but way different than the earlier studio days. I went from that four-track, reel-to-reel machine — pretty rudimentary stuff — growing up.
“As I did, at the same time, the technology did to where we are today — where I can do everything on a laptop at thousands of times as powerful as the studio had back then.”
When you were growing up, did you listen to any Nebraska music?
"There was a band my sister was really into — The Megatones, I think — that was in Omaha in the '60s. I think they were the band that kind of almost made it out of Omaha. There were some others, but I was born in '58, so I was too young in the '60s. I loved it, but I didn’t go hear them so much, so I wasn’t as aware of the local bands. [The Megatones] actually had a record out, a single. So that was a big deal.
"When Mannheim Steamroller came out with their first couple records — their first one or two in particular — they were in all the audiophile shops in the '70s. They sounded so amazing that I was really into that when they first did their thing, cause they were so into the technology.
"I can’t think of any other local bands that I really knew of directly. I was never in one, which was also weird. I always just kind of played by myself at the piano, or with my friend Lars — we played four-handed piano."
When you think about Nebraska music now, what impression do you have? And what's your favorite Nebraska music?
"The impression I have is through Saddle Creek and Conor Oberst, whose grandfather was my pediatrician, by the way. He checked my ears when I was 5. To me, it’s really that …
“I sound like somebody who doesn’t live in Omaha, just knows what I read about. Frankly, I know there’s way more going on than that, and there’s probably multiple layers now based on the fact that people were paying attention to Conor and Saddle Creek and all that. I think it probably gave a huge boost to the local scene, which I don’t feel connected to, unfortunately. It’d be great to learn more about what’s going on there.”
How do you think Nebraska could increase its cultural presence nationally and even internationally?
"It’s sort of bad in a way, or maybe it’s just the way it is in life, that any region or city gets its reputation culturally usually by somebody that comes out of there: Seattle and Nirvana; Austin and SXSW. There are just places that are associated with a particular band or event. So it’s really all about that. That’s why Conor really did a pretty amazing thing for Omaha, and Nebraska in general …
"There are legislative ways, in terms of tax breaks and incentives for cultural hubs to grow and flourish. I know there’s that section now — the film center in Omaha that’s happening [Film Streams]. I’m excited to go see that now because I wasn’t able to last time I was there. Even the Old Market from the '60s — I remember as a kid that was such a cool place to go, because Homer's was in the basement of one of the buildings there way back when.
"It’s a combination of legislators, mayors or state government, recognizing that there’s real value in creating a cultural vibrancy to an area and giving incentives … and specific people like Conor popping up in a spot and then not forgetting their roots and keeping things going in an area. It sort of comes from both ends. I think that’s the key. It can come from one or the other, but it has to sort of come from both to make it really work."
Why do you think Nebraska is a good place for music and the arts?
"I know what worked for me was that it wasn’t noisy — there wasn’t a lot of distraction. There weren’t a lot of people thinking you had to be this way to be cool or that way to be whatever.
"I talk about this in my show, that the simplicity and integrity of my upbringing — it wasn’t about my father having money or any of that stuff — because when we were kids we didn’t know he did, because I don’t think he did. It was about my grandparents living a few blocks away. It was about going to the same school where I had the same English teacher my mother had. It was all these things that created a safe environment. I mean, I know they say that musicians and artists have to struggle and be miserable. First of all, I don’t think that’s true, although it does give you things to work with in terms of writing songs and things.
"I think it’s the environment’s lack of distraction that allows you to [produce art], and that’s why my dad stayed in Omaha, because he could focus on his version of art. I really think the environment — what some people might think, “Geez, this isn’t very exciting” — actually can be a great incubator for great ideas.
Do you live in Milwaukee now or New York?
"New York. I moved to New York in 2005. Lived in Milwaukee for 15 years, 16 almost."
Do you still consider yourself a Nebraskan?
"I do. I loved being in Milwaukee because it kept me feeling like a Midwesterner, and I really felt like that was also a solid base like Omaha was. But, definitely, I consider myself a Nebraskan, and quite frankly probably more so now that I’m in New York. It’s nice to refer to my Nebraska roots."
What do you find is the impression of Nebraska?
"I think it’s some of what I was saying: solid, integrity, authenticity. You know, those kinds of things that you think of when you think of Midwestern in general and Nebraska in particular.
“I like to joke about the fact that my great grandfather’s name was Ernest and his brother’s name was Frank, so I come from Frank and Ernest in Omaha, Neb. But people love that. Sometimes I say that in my show because it sort of brings it all to a point. It’s like, yep, that’s what we think of when we think of Nebraska. It’s pretty great."
You found a way to do really positive work through your music. Why is music a good conduit for inspiration and social action?
"It still surprises me how powerful music can be … What it has shown me is that you play a song in an environment full of 200 people, 500 people, whatever, and it … music is a vibration. It’s wavelengths going out and our ears pick it up. But it’s more than that. It really does change the —not to sound new-agey — but it changes the energy or the feeling in the room and in people. So it’s a great conduit for messages, and it always has been.
“It’s been used for good and bad in different ways in the world for thousands of years as a way to get a message across that really gets people feeling or activated in a way that just speaking or reading something would never do. It’s pretty cool."
Please talk about exploring local music in other countries when you’re traveling for your foundation's work.
"I heard a guy in China last month play a 600-year-old instrument, which is to say, it was actually 600 years old, the thing he was playing. This is going to sound funny, but the first thing I thought of was Joe Walsh. I mean, he was playing these sly kind of bluesy things on this thing and I thought, 'Wow, if this doesn’t speak to some universality of music, I don’t know what does.' So that’s been really the fun of it is hearing these instruments that are usually ancient in some way or another being played and seeing how they speak the same language as instruments do today.
"Music, really, the fundamentals don’t change. It’s just like people. It’s the same and yet very unique, like a dialect or something all around the world. But it’s still all about the soul of the person and the instrument kind of working together and it’s just been extraordinary to see that and realize once again that we’re all connected to these things."
Why is supporting local music important?
"It’s just another root of whatever the local tree is. It’s so important because it’s part of the expression of the place. It’s like local food, it’s like local dialects, it’s like everything, which of course you’re seeing get wiped out everywhere across the globe. That’s why it’s even more important to keep it alive, because it represents the place in a way that just, again, reading about it, talking about it can’t.
“It’s really rooted, like the language, the people, the customs, the food — all those things really speak so specifically to the place you’re in, and I think it’s critical that it’s supported and stays vibrant."
You’re performing at Central high's auditorium. What memories come to mind when you think about that space?
"Talk about roots. It’s gonna be so much fun. The memories really that are most immediately associated with it are the Central High Road Show — the talent show that they put on every year.
“Sometimes, I remember embarrassing auditions, and other times triumphant performances. Specifically, my friend Lars Erickson and I would play four-handed piano. We did it at at least two of the shows, I think, which was a lot of fun.”
Finally, what would you tell kids who are interested in getting into music but may be intimidated?
"I was also intimidated, mostly by my friend, Lars, who was so good. I thought, 'I’ll never be any good at this.' But then, I realized that it’s like anything, really … it’s not about how technically perfect you are or how much you know, if you can get what you’re feeling out into the instrument and it’s authentic and true, people will pick up on that. I would say the more you know yourself, the better you’re going to be at anything you do, and certainly at music.
"Music is usually, through the musicians, an exploration of themselves. Look at all the songwriters — they’re really trying to put their feelings into a song. I can’t underscore how important being connected to a place in your soul that is speaking is. Then everything kind of builds from there.
"… To me, meaning I was a success was just paying the rent making music. I wasn’t caught up in anything other than that, so I wrote music for commercials — I wrote music for anybody. I was lucky I was able to do that. Some people will start by getting sandwiches at the studio for somebody and just being around it. And that’s OK too, you know. … It’s not ever thinking, 'I’m better than this. I should be doing something more important.' It’s being humble and just knowing that being around it is the start to wherever you’re gonna end up — not getting so attached to some version of success that at first it’s just getting one foot in front of the other being around music.
"Sometimes, somebody will ask me that question around just general stuff, in terms of how do you realize some dream. I say, 'Well, you may dream of being a dancer but either you’re not really that good or it’s not really pragmatic in terms of when you’re 40.' But you can go to college and get an accounting degree or something and then start a dance company or be an accountant for it … You can be around it and be a part of it and help it thrive and that at least keeps you connected to the thing you’re most passionate about. People get so fixated on this is the only way this can come true that they forget that there actually are multiple paths to that, and that’s OK."
“Life is What You Make It: A Concert & Conversation with Peter Buffett” starts a 7 p.m. at Central's Auditorium, 124 N. 20th St. Tickets are $25 for students; $50 general; $75 includes a VIP reception. Proceeds go toward the school's $1.4 million campaign to provide school-wide wireless internet , and to update technology resources for students. Click here to purchase tickets.
Andrew Norman is the editor/founder of Hear Nebraska. He's embarking on a 15-day tour with Love Drunk to shoot videos featuring 17 bands in 13 cities. He'll file his next two columns from the road. As always, send love letters or hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.