Ex-Walkmen's Peter Matthew Bauer Is an Astrologer
Once the guitarist of The Walkmen, Bauer now splits his time between indie rock and getting extremely astrological. So we had him do a reading.
Peter Matthew Bauer says my life could be kinda shitty for a little while. Specifically, he says I'm stuck in the "stress position" for seven and a half years—but, he adds, at least this tumultuous time will be action-packed. The ex-Walkman, current solo artist, and longtime Vedic astrologer is giving me one of his signature astrology readings based on my birth chart. After asking via email, for my birth city, date, and time, he calls me to go over what's happening with my planets, moons, and cosmic energies.
Bauer says Saturn is about to cross my birth moon, Sagittarius. "All of astrology is scared of Saturn because it brings difficulty and struggle," he says. But there's a positive side to this—I think. "It's self realization, ultimately," he says, "but it's having to face what's hard and push through it." Sounds about right for my shambolic life, where I'm currently trying to have a kid, figure out how to move out of the loudest apartment building in San Francisco, and juggle multiple freelance gigs.
Given that I've only met Bauer once before, when his living room tour came through San Francisco this summer, it might seem strange to be discussing my deep-seated fears with the musician in a one-hour phone call. But his readings are like having a lightening therapy session with a philosophy professor intent on turning ancient symbols into pathways towards "greater personal realization," as he puts it.
He gets right to the point of what's troubling you, and based on the archetypes that arise from his reading, helps you understand that your particular brand of shitstorm is just one of many kicking up dust in the universe. He also describes how to navigate that storm. I actually feel better when I get off the phone with him, because my chart apparently prescribes not fighting against all the atypical turns my life is taking. "The feeling of being alive isn't where you do something the way you were supposed to do it," he says, "Or even when you put on yourself, 'I think I'm supposed to do it this way.'"
Bauer's advice could work for his own life as well. The Walkmen played together for almost 14 years before announcing an indefinite hiatus in 2013. Since then Bauer, who played bass and organ in the group, has been creating a new life for himself. He moved his wife and two kids from the East Coast to Los Angeles last year, and is simultaneously trying to build a new band as well as a new client base for his astrology practice (he books readings, which cost $100–200, through his Laurel Canyon Center for Consciousness Studies website). He made his debut as a singer, lyricist, and frontman in 2014 with an incredible album, Liberation! showcasing slow builds of Eastern-tinged, ebullient melodies, group choruses, and chants overlaid with Bauer's classic rock drawl. The lush record fits somewhere between The Walkmen's hot-blooded momentum and The War on Drugs laid back vocal style. The songs are a mix of self-descriptive titles showing spiritual reverence ("I Was Born on an Ashram," "You Are the Chapel") and a sly poking fun of organized religions ("Scientology Airplane Conversations," "Shaved Heads & Pony Tails"); even the lyrics within these songs offer shifting perspectives on spirituality.
Bauer's complex perspectives on the ethereal are evident in conversation as well. He's very self-effacing when it comes to his New Age tendencies, but his humor belies a lifelong passion for understanding people through their astral connections. Noisey chatted with Bauer (an Aquarius) about his double life as an astrologer, the creative spaces that astrology helps artists access, and his yearning to form a new band—upon the recent completion of an as yet untitled follow-up to Liberation!—in the wake of The Walkmen.
Noisey: How did you get into astrology?
Peter Bauer: I grew up in different ashrams. When I was a little kid I went to India and we went to ashrams in upstate New York all throughout my childhood. My parents had a meditation center in their house. When I was 19 I dropped out of college and started doing the equivalent of being a musician, where you get a backup thing going—that was astrology in my family.
So astrology was your backup plan?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I studied Indian astrology with [renowned Vedic astrologer] Chakrapani Ullal. I used it as a side job while I was a musician for a long time. I built a practice and I was good at it. People got a lot out of it. I didn't feel like I was ripping people off, but I also was very skeptical of the whole thing and I remain very skeptical. I don't think I'm a true believer of anything. Despite being raised in what people would probably think are cult-y situations, I was taught that you could always question everything.
There are strange things that happen with people when you're doing their charts. I very much enjoyed doing people's charts when they had incredibly interesting lives. I saw a lot of people in Washington, DC, in government or odd high-level jobs. That kept drawing me into it. I also had a lot of theoretical ideas that became really important to me in terms of art in general. One of my main influences is this fellow named Henry Corbin, a French phenomenologist and Islamic scholar in the 20th century. He really framed my understanding of astrology. It's about cutting through to the symbolic understanding of certain archetypes or forms. Jung is another person you can look to to understand astrology. One thing they have in common is this big idea that there's an ultimate reality to imagination, and the realness of this intermediate field, which is what you're talking about when you're talking about making anything, or entering into an artistic field.
So if I'm understanding you correctly, astrology is a way to access a liminal space similar to a way that music gets you into a liminal space?
Totally. What's interesting about astrology versus many other forms of art or meditation is you can bring it into the circumstantial. It's very multidimensional. So it's not just this other place, it also adds meaning to people's foibles and has this grand idea of being a potential state. It works on a different level. It's not just something that makes you feel peaceful. And I like that because I don't know that I'm a particularly peaceful person. I feel the same way about art.
How does astrology fit into your life right now? Is this something you're putting as much effort into as you do your music?
It's another aspect of it. I see a lot of people and I like the one-on-one aspects of it. I want to write something about the strange interactions that happen when you start to view the world as a participatory cosmological world. It does something to you. You hold imagination and creativity as the entrance to the person you want to become, whatever it is we're all grasping for. It's reading the world as if you're an aspect of a greater field, and this is one language to do that.
Can you read your own charts? Like, say at the end of The Walkmen, when you were trying to build your life as a solo musician, could you sit with your chart and see the things you'd need to consider moving forward?
Yeah, I think so, but when you put your concrete hopes about yourself into it, it's really hard to do. But creatively it's very useful. It's useful to see that I need to consider what's coming.
At the end of 2014 I went into Mercury, and that was a huge change. When I was in that old band, I was learning and kind of delaying myself. I wasn't ready [to go solo] for a number of reasons. When I went into Mercury I thought I'm all clear, everything should work out now. [ Laughs.] It hasn't been the case.
It was really strange thing to be like, "Well, if you're going to put any onus on this stuff, then why hasn't it worked out? Why has it been one cataclysm after another?"—which it has been in a lot of ways. But in other ways it's been an incredibly creative period and very strange in this very mercurial way. To drive the point home, Mercury is about trying to let go of all that control and go into what is more playful or intellectual or creative in a less serious way. I was so serious coming out of [The Walkmen] that I may not have made that jump fast enough.
What's the idea behind your Laurel Canyon Center for Consciousness Studies and what are you working on there?
I've been trying to find an intellectual frame to start talking about this stuff. To me, the most important thing on an artistic level is to talk about cutting through. That is one language you can put to it, astrology is another, as is music.
I noticed you have musicians and a filmmakers involved in the Center...
Yeah, that was a while ago. One thing is, if you go into anything that's slightly New Agey, you'll find that people are flakes. I've sort of tabled searching people out for now. I've just been putting out my own stuff and hoping something develops with it. And if not, I don't care, I'll just keep talking to myself. [ Laughs.]
In thinking of creating community around these ideas, do modern musicians you know also think deeply about astrology?
There's some connection there, yeah. There are lot of musicians you can talk about this with. But it's not a flighty thing. It's terrifying talking about this stuff to a publication like Noisey because it's like, Jesus Christ, I'm talking about this shit in public?
I talk about [astrology] in public on one level, but it's very separate from what I make and what I really care about, which is a record. But at the same time it's completely interrelated and makes sense. Aesthetically it's terrifying because I am so afraid of New Age things.
Well you get that, because your last record, Liberation!, definitely had a playful attitude toward spirituality.
Yeah, the whole record started out as a takedown and it turned into something else. It started out as making fun of spirituality and New Ageism. It changed into this thing that's not that. Because what else are you really writing about other than what is life and what is consciousness? What is this thing we're experiencing in the most fundamentally felt way? We're trying to do that in making music. I'm not trying to explain it. I'm just trying to feel that over and over again from a new angle every time.
Tell me about the new record. You just finished recording…
I'm going to get off the phone with you and just—damn if I don't, I'm going to finish the words to this last song so I can go sing it tomorrow. We have to mix it and we have to do the very last bits on it. It's been going on for so long. It's just about done.
When you say "we," did you not play all the instruments on this one? Are you working with a band again?
No, I have a lot of drummers, basically. It's been very piecemeal because it's been a very borrowed, "Please let me into your studio," "Can you mix this for me?" I've basically run out of IOUs across the earth at this point. My friend Nick [Stumpf],who has been helping to produce and mix it for me, has been very kind, as is my guitar player Matt Oliver, who I play on tour with, he's been mixing a bit. And I ran into this great drummer the other week, Matt Aveiro, who was in The Cold War Kids for a while, he finished the drums. [The new record] couldn't possibly be more one person's weird little world, though. I thought for a while about calling the record "Pete and the Quitters" and finding pictures of cool people who I'd want to be in my band and putting pictures of them on the record. It wouldn't explain the record but it would explain the problem of really wishing you had a way to do this that wasn't imaginary.
I'm excited for people to finally hear the record, though. I had to go away from it for a while to make life work. It's about much of what we're talking about very directly. The way I did the last record was to try and write an autobiographical record about spirituality. And so this is sort of trying to be an autobiographical record about love and being with other people and the world as you relate to people—but that as a door into this strange field of life and death.
Do you have a record label for this one or a release date?
No, I have nothing. I'm going to sell it to the highest bidder and that bidder will give me a sandwich. [ Laughs.]
Your living room tours seemed to do really well. Do you even need a middleman anymore?
It's the most tempting thing in the world to just put it out, and I know what I'm doing with all this stuff. But there's this feeling of like, what if I don't? Then I'm just throwing away everything I did for a year. I go back and forth. I would love to have something where I could mix things and travel with a band. I like big rock 'n' roll music. It's fun to get on stage and do rock band things. I miss that. I don't necessarily want to be man with guitar explaining myself every night. I want to go around with a gang. I miss my gang. That's my problem. I keep trying to find new people.
I like having a big rock band and pretending like I'm in The Cramps or something. I have this old punch drunk boxer thing going on that I think works, or that's what I end up looking like. [ Laughs.] I figured I'd finish the damn record and then put together the most kickass band I could and do it right.
Getting back into astrology, who are your clientele and how do they find you? Are they fans of your music?
I was doing readings on the East Coast for so long that it was basically word of mouth. On the West Coast I am accepting clients. [ Laughs.] They say Los Angeles is the world capital of astrologers. But I don't run with that crowd so I don't know how to get into that crowd without having to hang out with your Burning Man types and whatnot.
Very rarely is it people who are into my music, no. I've always kept things really separate. This [interview] is the first time I've ever done something that's slightly of the same world—talking about astrology with a music publication. It's hard because I don't like when musicians sound overly serious. Astrologers sound serious though, so it's hard to figure out what your personality is when it involves both without making yourself sound like you think you're like John Lennon or something. [Laughs.] Like you're a little big for your britches.
All photos by Marisa Brown.
Jennifer Maerz is a writer living in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter.