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Tom Pearo Searches for Sounds in the Deep

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Published August 25, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


Tom Pearo recording underwater sounds for his "Love Wave" single - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Tom Pearo recording underwater sounds for his "Love Wave" single

When Tom Pearo texted me one night after an early dinner, I had to reread the message several times. "We're at the lake, come on down! Recording underwater."

I read the text aloud, a note of incredulity in my voice. A stranger walking by looked at me oddly. I repeated the word "underwater," as if the passerby might have a clearer idea of what Pearo was talking about. Instead, they sped up as they walked away.

I couldn't blame the stranger — not everyone is privy to the casual madness of Pearo. The composer and guitarist has been a beacon of creativity in the Burlington music scene for many years, first popping up in the early 2000s with That Toga Band. Over time, Pearo morphed into a sort of ambient-guitar wizard, specializing in blissed-out, mantra-like melodies and all-encompassing soundscapes.

In 2018, the Isle la Motte native put out an ambient record/Joseph Campbell-esque mono-mythic tale called I Am a Mountain, further cementing his reputation as the scene's master of spacing out.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been so nonplussed when I arrived at the lake that evening to find Pearo submerged, grinning like a madman in sunglasses, his long hair wet and reflecting the sunlight. In one hand, he held a Bluetooth speaker; in the other, a special microphone created expressly for recording underwater sounds.

"Yeah, this is happening, man! It's happening!" Pearo relayed from the water — half shouting, half laughing — as he saw me approaching.

The "happening" would become Pearo's newest single, "Love Wave," released on August 18. The three-minute-and-32-second track isn't simply a new song he threw up on his Spotify account but a true work of collaboration.

"Love Wave" was commissioned by Burlington venture capital fund Hula, which hosts a series of climate summits called the See Change Sessions. The firm asked Pearo to write a musical score for the 2021 summit, which took place on August 18 and 19 and was focused on water conservation.

Pearo being Pearo, simply writing music with a water theme wasn't going to cut it.

"I just kept thinking, There's a chance to do something so amazing here," Pearo told me a few days after I met him at the lake. "Like, why make something sound underwater? That's been done so many times. I wanted to make the song underwater."

And so he did.

Pearo had already written "Love Wave" with collaborator and fellow ambient enthusiast Michael Crain. Crain helms a project called Tiamatu, which is Sumerian for "ocean," so the subject was right up his alley. The two met after Crain moved to Vermont from Orlando, Fla., and saw Pearo play at Radio Bean. They kept in touch, waiting for the right project to collaborate on.

"Tom had this piece based on a guitar loop he improvised," Crain recounted in an email. "We went back and forth, sending files. He sent me a mix, and I altered it to be more of a bed of atmosphere. Once he heard that, a melody came to him. It all evolved very naturally."

Pearo next reached out to Will Andrews, aka Willverine. The producer and longtime member of Burlington act Japhy Ryder first met Pearo in 2004 but had never collaborated with him.

"Tom is an interesting dude," Andrews said by phone from his home in Colchester. "You sometimes meet people and you can just tell they're way smarter than you. And some people are kind of dicks about it, but Tom isn't," he continued. "I mean, the dude is a fucking genius, a literal genius. But he never makes you feel less smart. He has such an inviting energy that it brings you into his orbit."

Andrews ended up sending Pearo more than 20 tracks of trumpet and synth, which Pearo described as the "ribbon on top" of the song. Indeed, "Love Wave" is built on a haunting bedrock of sound where the synths and guitar entwine. Combine that with Andrews' trumpet, and the song is an auditory expression of pure tranquility.

Much of that ethereal texture can be attributed to Pearo's madcap idea to record underwater.

"I love how things like this gather inertia," Pearo said.

He recalled how his friend Lewis Rapkin, a producer and composer who has worked for HBO and Vice, introduced him to David Rothenberg, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, "and things started to snowball towards me being in the lake with a microphone."

Tom Pearo recording underwater sounds - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Tom Pearo recording underwater sounds

Rothenberg uses an experimental underwater microphone — called, naturally, a hydrophone — to facilitate his recordings of whale songs. Thanks to his connection with Rapkin, Pearo was able to procure several hydrophones.

All of which led to the scene at the lake with Pearo in the water and Rapkin engineering from the rocky shores of Oakledge Park.

Everyone involved described the experience as "surreal."

First, Rapkin started the song, a four-beat click track beeping from the speaker in Pearo's hand. Next, Pearo submerged the speaker and Rothenberg's hydrophone.

We stood in silence as Pearo floated, grinning widely as if he could hear what was happening beneath the water. Dogs barked in the distance, and kids shouted as they swam nearby. From our little circle by the rocks, we watched Pearo in the lake as if he were conducting a symphony.

Pearo emerged after a few minutes, an expression of pure satisfaction on his face. Rapkin removed his headphones and flashed a grin.

"Oh, we got it," Rapkin enthused. "It's sounding incredible!"

"You never expect someone to take your tracks and do something like that," Andrews said later. "But if you hang out with Tom enough, you just realize that's how that dude rolls."

He and Pearo talked a lot about the underwater recording after hearing the finished track. The natural properties of the lake created something unique that sounded nothing like a plug-in effect or a cheesy synth version of water.

"A trumpet somehow sounds naturally good underwater," Andrews explained. "The water creates a randomized tremolo effect that comes and goes and moves like nothing else."

The project was such a success that Pearo and Andrews have discussed playing the tracks live next time and amplifying a direct signal from the instrument underwater.

"It seems like an extreme endeavor," Andrews admitted. "But once you're going for that vibe, why stop, right?"

For Pearo, the underwater experiment has opened doors, both to new sounds and to new collaborations.

"That feeling when you have a cool idea and you know there are some other musicians out there that will try anything with you?" he said. "That's the stuff, man. That's the wave."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hooked on Hydrophonics"