Interviewed by Prue; edited by Mick
“To perform and share my music in a contemporary arena like Splendour is a total honour.” – Peter Westheimer
From a seven year old novice violinist to leader of the Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra, to a degree in Medicine, to political street theatre performer, to writing and performing in bands, to composing music scores for film and TV, to a term as a councillor in the Byron Shire… Peter Westheimer’s list of achievements just goes on and on. Check out his website and you will get my drift. Also check out his latest project on youtube Tranzworld Express. Wow!
I met with Peter on a seemingly rare sunny day in Brunswick Heads for a coffee and a chat that lasted for as long as his bio. Clearly there was a lot to cover. Starting with the usual Very Byron question of ‘When and why did you come to the Byron Shire?’
I came to Byron because I was interested in alternative culture, spirituality, and a hankering to reconnect with the land and country. I had grown tired of suburban Melbourne and after spending time in the warmth of Indonesia, studying Tai Chi and meditation, I chose to live in a warmer climate. When friends mentioned Mullumbimby I jumped on a train in 1974, not long after the Nimbin Aquarius Festival, and got off at ‘Mullum’. I eventually moved here in 1978 and after twelve months bought into an MO (Multiple Occupancy) near The Channon .
What did you do once you made the move?
I gained knowledge about the bush and building, and immersed myself in music full time. I wanted to venture beyond my classical music background so I tried Rock and New Wave… started playing in bands, writing and singing. Technology was beginning to emerge so I could put my music into the public arena myself, without a record company. I produced my first EP called ‘Laminex Lovers’ and it happened to get quite a lot of airplay on Triple J (Double J then). Then I enrolled in an Audio Engineering course at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).
You already had a degree in Medicine. Wow, you must really like studying?
Not really. I was well and truly over it so I didn’t sit any of the Audio Engineering exams. I wanted the knowledge, not the qualification. I even rebelled against reading music scores.
So did you ever practice as a doctor?
Yes, until five years ago I practised part time in the fields of occupational health rehabilitation and in the legal side of medicine.
Was it a good time in your life?
Yeah… Medicine gave me an income to support my music. I practised for about nine years and in that time bought a house, renovated it and built a home studio. I was also doing a lot of composing for TV and film in Sydney. One day a director friend did a video clip to one of my tracks and it was nominated as one of the Top 10 Australian video clips of 1985 by the producer of Rage – Mark Fitzgerald.
In 1992 you were also invited into the ‘Musicians As Artists’ publication. How did that come about? Do you also paint?
For my 1992 album ‘Transition’, I painted a canvas to reflect moods and concepts of each track and launched the album in an art gallery restaurant. A friend of a friend was putting the publication together in Los Angeles and he had a spare spot. He thought it would be good to have an Australian inclusion… a case of right place, right time.
What an amazing experience. You share equal space with legends… John Lennon, Carly Simon, Ron Woods, David Bowie… the list goes on. If you are struggling to read the above list of legends, click here for a clearer image… it really is a spin out.
Peter’s paintings appeared along side legendary names like John Lennon, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Ringo Starr, in the publication Musicians as Artists
So the creative process… when did you become aware of creating intuitively?
When I was a Med student I lived in a share-house near Melbourne Uni… lots of people would come through the house and we’d jam (me on the violin) and I soon realised I could create original music pretty easily. When I was in the right space, without getting too esoteric, I kind of channelled it. I use feeling and intuition for making music… I’ve rebelled against formalities of form and genre.
How do you get into the right space to create?
I simply spend time in my studio, or wherever, with the tools of songwriting… a laptop, good headphones, small mixer, decent speakers and good software.
I essentially do jam sessions with multi-track recorder software and overlay tracks… endlessly experimenting, adding and subtracting and ultimately honing the sounds. For my current album, Tranzworld Express, I brought in Amir Paiss on Persian Santoor, and Parissa Bouas on vocals.
The creative splash of this album happened a few months after my mother died and I felt the need to look inside for a while. I took off across Europe for two months where I spent a lot of time on trains. It was then that I wrote Tranzworld Express… hence the strong train theme.
Interestingly, there is a train theme running here also – you arrived in the area by train and you are Vice President of TOOT (Trains On Our Tracks) … the local action group trying to get the Byron train running again. Have you always been a politically active person… is that why you became a councillor?
I‘ve been political since I was 21. At Uni I lead a protest about the way medical students were being treated. I also did a stint of funded political theatre. I was in a group called the The Portable Players, which was funded by the Australia Council and the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union. We were paid to perform plays that questioned the establishment from an informed, and probably wholistic perspective, although that word was not in my lexicon then! I was also involved in street performance… protesting against the Vietnam War. When I came to this area I became involved in a variety of issues. In ‘92 I was part of the Suffolk Park Progress Association and we successfully took developers and Byron Council to court for over-development. I was also part of the Club Med push (a successful protest against Club Med building a resort in Byron).
LEFT: TOOT lobbyists campaigning for reinstating the Casino to Murwillumbah train. Pic courtesy of toot RIGHT: Protesting against the Club Med development. PIC courtesy of John McCormick
I decided to run for Council because I was involved in so many local political issues I figured I may as well be on Council full time where I could be better informed and potentially have more influence on what was going on in the Shire. I also wanted to take a break from my music and be more involved with people. I had put out an album the year before I got onto Council… it was like a sampler, or taster for music to be synchronised in films, so it could do its thing in the background while I focused on my role as councillor.
What were some of the key things you hoped to achieve?
I wanted to support creative industries. I wanted to protect and enhance the environment… particularly biodiversity. I wanted to be a voice on Council to get trains back on our tracks, to build more cycleways and for public transport development throughout the Shire. I supported a Byron by-pass, but only if it was in conjunction with a Park and Ride system.
What was your greatest achievement as a councillor?
Getting the Mullum Civic Hall restored. It wasn’t part of my platform but I took it on as part of a personal initiative. It wasn’t the only thing I did but it took a good part of the four years I was there. The effort I had put in to make the restoration happen was enormous and the relief of its completion was very emotional. I am currently completing a stint as chairman of the Hall’s board of management, trying to introduce air conditioning, a portable stage, solar panels, improved acoustics, Internet capability and improved audiovisuals. Council staff obstructed these improvements when I was a councillor.
Was being a councillor a thankless task?
No, a lot of people thanked me. Some even gave me a hug. Generally I found it a positive experience. Not so much the hugs, but more the privilege of being a representative of such a vibrant, creative community. I have thought about running again but it is all-consuming… too many dealings with mediocre bureaucrats, too much mundane reading and too many sweet biscuits at too many meetings… and it’s stressful. You get paid the equivalent of the New Start Allowance… that’s a problem for many people who might consider being a councillor.
Do you think Australia is over-governed?
Definitely, Prue. My model would scrap the State Government tier and have larger regional councils answerable to the Federal Government. Too many local decisions are not understood and overridden by State bureaucracy. That sucks when your driving motivation for being on Council is your passion for the area.
Given Council elections will be in September this year, what advice would you give to a new, successful candidate?
Make the most of your first term. Choose two or three key areas in which you want to achieve something because as a councillor you are pushed laterally all the time… and be prepared to spend an inordinate amount of time reading material that’s not your core interest. Be positive, responsive and gracious with all the amazing people in this Shire. I did feel it was a privilege to be voted in… to have that amount of support. It was a great feeling.
One of the reasons I wouldn’t return to Council is I have found another vehicle, in the form of my music, to express myself politically. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been asked to perform at Splendour.
Do you consider it an honour to be invited to perform at Splendour?
Yes, absolutely. To perform and share my music in a contemporary arena like Splendour is a total honour. My show is evolving… it incorporates contemporary issues into the lyrics and partially fulfils my desire to speak out. For example, one track I’ll be performing is called ‘Change Now’. People don’t like change but the lyrics are all about it. Another track is called ‘Peace Dance’, which proposes if life is a dance then we might as well dance for peace. I’m also singing about 100% renewable energy. I feel there is now a positive, achievable solution to this issue, so it’s worth trumpeting.
When are you performing?
I’m performing twice… at 9pm on the 27th and 28th July on the Temple Stage at the Global Village. The show will include videoclips of each track, costumery, masks and vocal overlays.
Bringing it back to Byron… is there anything else you like about living here?
I love the creative and political community and the extraordinary coastal and hinterland beauty. I do a lot of land and ecological restoration and I find every day I’m nurtured by this environment. It helps give meaning to my life. I like Byron, Bangalow, Mullum and Brunswick Heads for the urban fix, the people-part of life. I feel very fortunate. Generally I like the climate, except for summer… it’s a bit hot.
Where in the Shire do you currently live?
I live on the land not far from Mullumbimby. It was pretty much all cleared when it was bought. I have been revegetating large sections of it… restoring the wildlife corridors with tree plantings and bush regeneration.
Are there any aspects about life here you find challenging?
One thing I still find challenging here, and why I remain politically active, is the terrible public transport. I grew up with good public transport in Melbourne and I have seen how effective it is in Europe… I’ve seen how disempowering the lack of transport is, particularly for the elderly and youth. I remain really passionate about that… hence my involvement in TOOT.
I am also guarded against rampant over-development. As beautiful as the Northern Rivers is, there is still a lot of degradation, and it is in our own interests, as well as tourists, to preserve and improve the natural attributes of this jewel in a challenging and challenged world.
What are your thoughts on tourism?
Tourists are inevitable… the question is how we manage them. The pressure of 1.5 million visitors a year on the Shire’s infrastructure is enormous. We don’t get enough financial support to accommodate the influx. I see good public transport as an essential. A tourist bed tax would work too, if the State Government would allow it. They did it for the Sydney Olympics.
In the context of development, how do you see Byron Shire in 20 years time?
We are still operating under a 25 year state regional plan that started about 6 years ago. That plan sees neighbouring Shires ear-marked for growth, whereas Byron is not. We will still develop, I just hope sustainably… for example, where people aren’t so reliant on cars. I am optimistic that in 20 years time the Shire will be better than it is now more vegetated, cleaner rivers better transport and clean air. However the newish NSW Liberal/National coalition could threaten the rural/village mosaic. We will need conviction councillors who are prepared to speak up for environmental protection, enhancement, and sustainable development.
Finishing up with some lighter questions… what’s your favourite local eating place?
Lulu’s (Mullum) for healthy and hearty food… The Poinciana (also Mullum) for ambience and the Top Shop and The Balcony for Byron ambience.
What’s your locals’ tip for tourists?
Oh, you must do the walk from the Pass to the Lighthouse via Little Wategos and stop in at either The Pass or Lighthouse Cafés… and Broken Head track from the caravan park is sensational for coastal views.
This gorgeous arial image of the lighthouse (that has been graffitied by Prue – apologies Craig) is courtesy of Fotografx Photography, contact Craig Ching 02 6680 7977 email@example.com Top: The sensational views from the Broken Headwalking track
What’s your favourite thing to do in the Byron area?
I love walking in the hinterland bush and on the beach and having coffee with friends… and my music gigs… pretty simple really!
Simple huh? Well I should think so… with such a long list of achievements, I would be exhausted and seeking simplicity too had I achieved so much! Thanks again Peter for your time, it was incredibly generous, inspiring, somewhat overwhelming and a complete pleasure to meet you.