- Luke Awtry
- Tom Pearo
As is typical of the heroes of epics, Tom Pearo began his latest journey at an intense low point. A 10-year relationship had just unraveled, and the stress and anxiety pushed his body into the red. The Essex-based guitarist and songwriter became bedridden for days. The world outside held little joy for him, and the walls of his bedroom seemed to be closing in.
"At some point those feelings either take over you, or you pick yourself up and say, 'I'm not going to let this devour me,'" Pearo asserts. With long hair tucked beneath a wool cap and eyes shining behind his glasses, he smiles as he recalls the day one year ago when he chose the latter option.
"Shay came over to rehearse," says Pearo, referring to violinist Shay Gestal, who has played with him since his 2017 debut solo Headspace. "I wasn't really in the mood to play, honestly," he continues. "But we started playing, and this melody started to come out of my guitar."
Gestal remembers that moment with clarity. "We were just playing and vibing, messing around until it all transitioned into this beautiful thing," she says. "Suddenly we looked at each other like, What just happened?"
The melody the duo had stumbled into would form the basis for Pearo's new record, I Am a Mountain, which was released in October. The vast majority of the two-song album is the mammoth title track, an instrumental work fusing celestial rock, ambient jazz and new-age music that clocks in at nearly 39 minutes. The song also serves as a soundtrack of sorts to an epic story that Pearo developed. It's a tale of a nameless protagonist who's struggling with despair. When the hero receives a vision of a mountain filled with light, they're spurred to leave home and set out on a long, arduous journey to reach that light.
"The story really developed in the studio," Pearo says. "I definitely didn't set out to write a concept album at all."
He'd intended to record a different album entirely, one whose songs were similar to the ambient jazz found on Headspace. "But for whatever reason, they just weren't clicking with me, emotionally," Pearo says.
Buoyed by the song he and Gestal had been jamming on, Pearo decided to abandon the planned album and record the new piece of music, formless though it was at that point.
Pearo explains that his recording process typically starts with laying down guitars.
"I make a series of long guitar loops so the other musicians can play along, and I'll usually just cut the song whenever they get bored and stop playing," he says, as a wide grin spreads across his face. "Only, this time, they all kept playing for the whole song. And were super engaged!" he recalls. "That kind of showed me I was on the right track."
First in was drummer and coproducer Dave DeCristo. He's a founder of the Burlington production company and recording studio (and onetime venue) Signal Kitchen. DeCristo has been a part of the Burlington music scene for years and played with his longtime friend Pearo in the band Quiet Battles.
"Playing music with him, you're not there so much to play your instrument as to be part of the meditation," he explains of collaborating with Pearo on their distinctive brand of atmospheric, neo-psychedelic music. "So I try to play the drums with a more symphonic approach than, say, a rock-and-roll type of feel."
With DeCristo's parts in place, Pearo began to visualize his epic. The more he listened to the drums, the more a bedrock began to form and the individual instruments became a sort of map.
The drums would be the mountain, the heart of the record. The electric bass, played by multi-instrumentalist (and regular Seven Days freelance photographer) Luke Awtry served as the earth, constant and unchanging. "It's just four notes the whole time, and one of them is an octave!" Pearo says, laughing as he describes Awtry's rudimentary but critical part.
Gestal's violin and the other strings — played by Eli Goldman on double bass and Danielle Hill on cello — function as the wind. They're in the background at first, serving as atmosphere, but gain prominence as the song moves on.
Finally, Pearo's guitar forms the path itself, his loops and solos leading the listener along toward the mountain of light.
The creation of Pearo's new composition coincided with him coming out of the doldrums and feeling healthier overall. Like most journeys, however, it was far from one smooth ride to his mountain.
Around the holidays last year, Pearo says, he started to feel down again.
"I come from a religious background, in that my mother is a Jehovah's Witness, so we never really celebrated at that time of year," he explains. "It was a time I just always felt a little awkward about in general.
"But as I started to feel better, just in life as well as physically, I grew more concerned about her faith, how cultlike it all seemed," he continues, "and those feelings naturally slipped into my playing, my writing."
That effect can be felt around the song's 25-minute mark. Pearo reveals that this is when his protagonist finally reaches the mountain, only to find a cavern full of robed figures clutching candles with skeletal hands. They claw at the hero, trying to initiate the traveler into their haunted order, as Pearo's guitar layers swirl over the epic tapestry created by his band.
"I have a bad taste in my mouth about religion, honestly," Pearo concedes. "But I know I'm a spiritual person, and I want my music to deliver a spiritual experience."
"Tom is a wizard, a Zen master type," says Gestal. "But overall, he's just a beautiful human who makes beautiful music. He can be intentional and meticulous, for sure, but his process is also warm and instinctual."
For a while, the story ended with the traveler fighting off the robed figures, a sort of final battle. But that didn't feel quite right to Pearo. Enter the album's six-minute epilogue, "Ascension."
The song is essentially a shortened remix of "I Am a Mountain," but Pearo strips away all of the grounded, controlled elements. The path (guitar) disappears, as does the earth (electric bass). Finally, the mountain itself (the drums) evaporates, as well. Only the wind remains, in the form of strings, as the protagonist turns into a ball of light and expands past the mountain-that-never-really-was.
"In all these stories, there's always some treasure or reward awaiting the hero," Pearo explains, adding that he hopes to include a written version of his story with a planned vinyl LP release next year. "But what I've found is that, when you get to the mountain, there's no treasure, no mountain. Only acceptance and ascension."
It's been roughly a year since Pearo began his journey with I Am a Mountain — the same amount of time his protagonist spends searching for enlightenment. For Pearo, enlightenment means a better understanding of why he makes music in the first place.
"My goal is to create a musical meditation," he says. "I'm just trying to encourage the listener to let go of conscious thought and to feel the music. That's when the mountain disappears."