An Interview with Spotted Peccary Artist John Gregorius

John Gregorius has served as a producer, guitarist and engineer, recording various bands at his own studio in Southern California, Sound Art Productions. When he started recording his own compositions. it opened up a whole new dimension to his life that he obtained only by making music that honestly moved him rather than making music that he thought people wanted. His first album, Under the Ice was released in 2000, followed by Heaven and Earth, which became his debut album on the Spotted Peccary Music label, where he shared some of his thoughts about creating his music. “I’ve always enjoyed fingerstyle acoustic guitar and ambient, processed electric guitar,” says Gregorius. “Heaven and Earth is a combination of these two styles, which may seem quite different, but much like the intertwining of the physical and spiritual this combination seems to flow naturally from one piece to another.”

Heaven and Earth has been played quite a bit on John Diliberto’s amazing nightly music soundscape radio program, Echoes, which is syndicated all throughout the known listening universe. Eventually, Heaven and Earth was voted number 62 out of the top 200 CDs for the last 20 years of Echoes. After this he recorded an independent release called Hours with John Wineglass on viola at Saint John’s Episcopal Church. His interest in the contemplative spiritual life influenced the song titles, which have been based on the hours of monastic prayer. Hearing these songs that were recorded live in that beautiful church is an amazing listening experience. His next album, Still Voice (continuing in his own words) “is a mixture of acoustic and electric instrumental music that ranges from earthy fingerstyle guitar to ambient textural soundscapes.” This recording features his well known electric and acoustic ambient guitar with piano, cello, upright bass, drums, programming and vocals. “There’s definitely a spiritual aspect to the music. Silence, simplicity, service, communion, mystery and contemplative thought, are all inspirations for this work. Still Voice is the Voice that tells us who we are, beloved and sacred.”

The music of John Gregorius is easygoing and engaging, from refreshingly simple fingerstyle guitar to the emotional resonance of layered textural soundscapes. The sounds that result grow out of life’s mysteries, through this process the listener and player continue a search for meaning within a highly dynamic environment that is tightly focused on the volatility and transience of listening, a sound that is easily appreciated and enjoyed. I had the opportunity to ask John why he makes the music that he makes.

I think what drew and still draws me to instrumental music is the mystery. It’s a spiritual thing, it’s an awe inspiring thing that 12 notes can produce something that moves us so deeply. Music has often been used as a product but in its purest sense it’s the connection with something bigger, something beyond our understanding.

It’s sort of like breathing, it’s just something I love to do. If prayer is simply talking, connecting and or listening to God, then while creating, recording or “painting” the music, being awake to this conversation or simply being awake to the divine presence is how music can become prayer. Instead of getting lost in the mechanics, get lost in the present, listening and speaking.

What would you like to share about your introduction to music as a child?

There was a new Music teacher in 4th or 5th grade who received a grant and bought a bunch of instruments for the school. She invited students to come in and just play instruments. For some reason I went right for the guitar and honestly don’t remember trying anything else out. Soon after I got a guitar and started lessons.

What advice might you offer for someone starting out and considering their possibilities?

Through my years of playing with pop bands and many other times in life, I tried to make it or play the music I thought people wanted. It wasn’t until I started making the music that honestly moved me that “success” happened. Now, success often doesn’t mean money or huge numbers of people listening. Remember Van Gogh only sold 2 painting in his lifetime. Yet, there are stories of people playing my music through tough times and they found healing in it. Now, that’s success! I say this to you and to myself. I constantly question the worth of my music and why I work so hard to make it. This has to be the answer. I make music because I love making music. If one person benefits, then it’s worth it. There’s a poem by Emily Dickinson called “Not in Vain” which speaks to this perfectly.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

How would you describe your music’s spirituality?

My music comes from the desire for communion. It can be deep or distant or mysterious and at times it’s a struggle but much of the time it’s a space of being home or grounded. For me, I cannot be content without a close, honest and prayerful connection with our Loving God. I think this comes out in the music. On Heaven and Earth you hear a specific spiritual space compared to Still Voice which was a deeper time of searching for both God and who I was. Full of life is simply letting Joy and Mystery flow together, discovering spiritual connection in nature and love.

What is the most beautiful place you have ever performed in?

The most beautiful place I performed in was St. John’s Episcopal Church in Rancho Santa Margarita. The cathedral’s acoustics were amazing and was filled with natural light. It was a deep spiritual space which felt much like being up in the mountains with a breeze blowing through the trees.

What was your most positive surprise in life?

Well, this is an interesting one. I was ready to go into an Episcopal monastery to become a monk. Then, by some interesting circumstances I met my now wife Catherine. Soon we got married and moved to beautiful Tucson Arizona, where we are discovering together the awe inspiring Sonoran landscape and local culture.

What listening matter got you to where you are today?

This is a big list! I think Kansas and Led Zeppelin moved me early on in elementary school through Jr. High. In high school I was a big progressive music fan plus classical guitar which I was self taught during this time. A record by Allan Holdsworth called I O U came out in the 80s that simply blew me away. Another guitarist who influenced me was Phil Keaggy who could play incredible electric, classical and fingerstyle steel string guitar and is a man of faith. At the same time I loved Tears for Fears, Simple Minds and other 80s bands. Fast forward to my beginning of loving ambient music. After my daughter was born, I found this space of being in the moment, in nature and being a dad. Artists like The Blue Nile, Peter Gabriel, Cocteau Twins, Harold Budd resonated with me. I became inspired to start making my own instrumental music. As I look back, whether Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Beatles, Yes or Genesis, I always like the slower, minor, more ambient songs. This recording I released independently and soon after recorded Heaven and Earth. Today, I love modern classical like Arvo Part, Olafur Arnalds, and Max Richter along with Post Rock bands like Hammock. No matter what, there is a spiritual side to music that moves me.

I see from your biography that you are involved with the Orange County Christian rock scene, such as East West, Reel Big Fish, Bionic Jodi…

Well, Reel Big Fish is a ska band I recorded while I was the owner/operator of Sound Art Recording. Now they definitely aren’t a Christian band but it was a lot of fun recording a style of music I hadn’t really listened to before and they were great kids. For other bands I became more involved in the production, guitar playing and writing processes. This was a great time to grow as a producer. As for bandmates, most of the people who have played on my recordings had a history of together in church. There was a great connection playing music together to celebrate God’s love.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?

I would say either sitting in a quiet room with a guitar, looper and reverb or out in nature. We were able to get a home on the east side of Tucson. We are only 2 miles away from Saguaro National Park west which is home to the Rincon Mountains. It’s a place we often hike. We often watch the evening light change these mountains to an amazing pink color.

How does the landscape you are inhabiting influence your music?

For this recording especially, I’ve been influenced by the Sonoran desert of Tucson. There is so much life that thrives in the many seasons here. We have a fairly short monsoon season in the middle of the hottest time of summer which nourishes the plants and animals through the year. The Saguaro cactus somehow thrives in the environment and can live up to 200 years. The spring is full of colorful flowers and creeks running from snow runoff. It snowed a winter back and it was amazing to see snow falling on the cacti. So there is this great mystery of life in the desert. Maybe this is why mystics and monks have found deep spiritual life in the desert.

What is one of your most meaningful moments/discoveries in your life?

On a beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest, I was walking with my freshman high school friends, laughing and having what seemed like a perfect day. Yet, once alone I had this deep question, is this all there is? This is where my deeper spiritual journey led me to communion with the Creator who loves us and brings us to wholeness which I found in Christ. Over time my faith has broadened and grown but the central view of Jesus’ life and death and life has been my connection, my communion with God.

What would you like to try that you have not tried yet?

I’d like to do a solo backpacking trip. There’s something about the solitude and challenge that interests me.

Where do you dream of going?

I would love to see what Southern California, Tucson and other beautiful spaces looked like when only the Native Americans lived here. I have a deep respect for the way the land was taken care of in a sacred way so maybe I could sit and listen to the wisdom and enjoy the clear air, flowing water and abundant wildlife.

How do you balance producing and teaching and performing?

This is interesting, because as artists we have to make a living. The kind of music we do with Spotted Peccary has a broad audience (and I find most people desire contemplative ambient music) but there aren’t many avenues to play live. So teaching became my main source of income but I don’t want to belittle it’s importance. I taught art, Music and coached sports for 15 years and loved it. Teaching is something that came naturally to me. Currently, I teach guitar to about 50 students at Allegro School of Music. This gives me time to keep creating music and I’m very happy with the new release Full of Life which is deeply influenced by my new life with Catherine and the Tucson desert. I think this is fertile ground because I’ve written many new songs for my next recording as well.

You have such an abundance of original music that you share with the world, what is your compositional process like?

It usually starts with one or two chords or arpeggio. Then, I add harmony which moves it the way I’m feeling it should go. Sometimes I start out looking for a certain space, like slower repetition or maybe a bit more complex solo piece. I’ve been inspired by using different tunings. For Full of Life, I used Robert Fripp’s New Standard Tuning which brought new ideas and ways of approaching the guitar and writing.

Much of the music is “written” on acoustic with a looper to either create atmosphere or second and third parts or melodies. Solos are improvised but I do this sparingly. The more ambient pieces like Rincon Fading Light are at least begun with improvisation. From there I work intuitively with layers, atmospheres and melodies.

How do you decide between electric compared to acoustic guitar sounds?

Hmmm, I wonder if it’s just what I picked up that day? I’ve always liked the sound of electric or electronics along with acoustic/organic sounds. So, as I’m recording, I may try different guitars to add interest or breathe a different life into a song.

What is next for your music?

I’m very interested in music as prayer. Does that mean a more stripped down, solo performance kind of recording or a simple prayer without ceasing approach to production? Maybe it’s an entire record where the listener can sit in a prayerful space? I’m not sure yet, but I’m excited and inspired right now to keep creating.

Thank you for this opportunity to explore your music further!