Finding Jupiter’s Peter McDonald: Bass-ics of Color in the Music

Jumping to conclusions can lead you down a slippery slope, and I found myself stuck at the bottom with Finding Jupiter’s resident bass man, Peter McDonald when I just went and assumed he was still hitting the books at Stanford. Instead I learned he was all done with his English major and spending his time writing here and here and doing some freelancing on the side.

With one of their own in China at the moment, Finding Jupiter is doing what they can to stay active with some gigs here and there, and possibly adding Lana Del Ray to their cover list, which already includes a little 50 Cent and Britney. But the real reason I reached out to Peter was to get his two cents on being black in a “white” world in regards to music. It’d be a lie to say that he was quite on the subject.

Kendra Beltran: Being tri-racial I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to race. Have you experienced any drawbacks being half black?

Peter McDonald: Like in life? That’s kind of a broad question, but I’ll try to answer it. Without going all Tim Wise or Malcolm X on you, I’ll just say that like half-black Ultimate Spider-Man, my bi-racial superpowers are both a gift and a curse. I feel like I’ve grown up with a sense of awareness that my white friends could never hope to have, because I’ve had to think about my racial identity my whole life, but my skin privilege also lets me assimilate into white society without too much trouble (go incognegro, if you will). Essentially, I get the black cultural heritage without the visceral aversion with being ebony dark. Of course, just like the Spidey sense can go off in really inopportune times, sometimes you end up feeling alienated from both cultures. This will manifest itself in the patently ridiculous situation of white people telling you that you’re not actually black because you liked nu-metal as a teenager. I’ve had to adjust my outspoken knowledge of hip-hop and the NBA as a result. I’m definitely lucky that I haven’t experienced any serious form of racism in my life (hell, even in my run-ins with the police, my race usually gets listed as “White” or “Undefined”). For me, the problems of racism are more minor annoyances that pop up from time to time. It’s like having allergies.

Kendra: Do you think that it’s less about race in the music world than in the “real” world?

Peter: Oh god, you hit me in my wheelhouse. I’ll try to keep this brief. The entertainment industry might be the most openly racist industry in the country (see George Lucas and the saga of Red Tails). It still is quite segregated, and its business model is based on segregated audiences. With regards to the music industry specifically, remember that the R&B/Hip-Hop hits chart was just straight up called “hot black singles” as recently as the 1980’s. (This wikipedia article that shows the history of what that chart has been named is quite fascinating). We still have a chart for “Latin Singles” explicitly and that’s not even something that people view as an issue. Pop is the large, generally shitty, umbrella that can be somewhat colorblind, but minority pop stars are still racially polarizing figures (I think this is more true for women than it is for men). Thank God for Rihanna, otherwise I would have been made to feel like a race traitor for thinking that Beyonce is stupid and boring. Most if this is because the music industry is only 30% about the music itself and the rest is about the image of the person performing (or selling you) the music.

Back to my genre of choice, rock, the general face is white, even though much of the innovation has come from black people (Jimi Hendrix and Living Colour are the exceptions that prove the rule, and even with Living Colour, everyone kept trying to classify them as funk or hip-hop). It generally doesn’t matter if a member of the rhythm section is a minority, but I’m sure there have been a great deal of talented rock bands that have been held back because some clueless (or maybe not so clueless) A&R person thought that having a black lead singer or guitarist wouldn’t “sell in the heartland.” I always thought this country had weird priorities when it came to race and music. Why is sharing a swimming pool not OK, but dancing to the primitive Negro jungle rhythms alright? Then again, music has also always been a special institution which allows marginalized groups the chance to say things they would never be allowed to say in most other situations. The short answer to your question, I guess, is no.

Kendra: What was the first thing you fell in love with when it came to Jazz?

Peter: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I ever publicly proclaimed my love for jazz, but I guess it came when I actually started learning how to improvise. It’s fun to explore your own musical ideas (especially since a lot of classical arrangers almost go out of their way to make the bass part as boring as possible), and actually push the boundaries of what sounds good, trying to figure out how to make tritones work and all that, though at the same time, and this probably comes from being a bass player, I’ve never really had a preference for free-form jazz sessions, where the sax player is going to loop the 16 bars for a 6th time because he wants to try out Phrygian mode. I’ve always been a bigger fan of tight poppin’ big band arrangements. So, what’s the first thing I fell in love with when it came to Jazz (capitalization is mandatory)? Probably screaming trumpets. I love people that can do that. Their egos are entirely justified.

Kendra: I was excited to hear Finding Jupiter had a new EP last year, I remember reviewing the demos so I was stoked for you guys. So being all Stanford and having a new EP “io,” if you had to compare the EP to one of your classes which would it be and why?

Peter: Since I’m not in any classes, I’ll just go with some of the last classes I took this past year. Ugh, I have to look up my transcript for this. I guess I’ll go with “Mutually Assured Destruction: American Culture and the Cold War” which was about the 1950’s. I guess you could say that the mode of the EP matches the mood of 1950’s America. Do It Again and Don’t Know Why represent the outward sunshiny image that the Reagan-sympathizing among us like to assign to the decade, that image of newfound material success and the rise of suburbia, coupled with the tinge of ennui and the suppression of domestic issues and angst under this all-important facade. The bridge in “Do It Again” could really speak to that. “Roses” sort of beckons toward the future, providing a glimpse of the simmering anger that our country’s marginalized groups were developing in that decade, watching their concerns get entombed underneath that very same facade, anger that would explode in the next decade, though the 1950’s were not a peaceful decade by any stretch of the imagination. Soldiers reflects more of the attitude of the beat movement, which is often misunderstood. “Beat” referred to the feeling of being beat down by a culture that stymied humanity at every turn. That same sense of weariness is an important component of “Soldiers,” also the message is one that could arguably be directed toward the Korean War. I’m pretty sure that exasperation toward the prolonged struggle of the Korean War was what Sarah was thinking about when she wrote it. Stars, of course, speaks to the title, the worry over “mutually assured destruction.” We often liken that song to a tornado or intergalactic warfare, so I think nuclear war would also be an apt comparison. I can go all day with this stuff.

Kendra: Being Golden Mixtape, it’s time for you to make one and become part of our collection.  And since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I want you to make a mixtape that showcases your love for your fellow band mates. So five songs for the rest of Finding Jupiter, go!


  1. I’m always spouting Rick Ross lyrics in practice, so I’d probably dedicate “The Boss” to Sarah, she being the boss and all.
  2. I’d throw out the “Bob the Builder” theme to Taylor for his passion for architecture.
  3. Dean’s always on top of his stuff and knows how to get things done, and as such I’d give “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel to Dean for his future trajectory.
  4. The band does a whole lot of bitching about the ladies in practice, so I’d probably dedicate “Dysentery Gary” by Blink 182 to that end, though if this is going on Golden Mixtape “After Dark,” then I would say “Bitches Ain’t Shit” Dr. Dre, not Ben Folds. Ben Folds and everyone who sings that version without ever having heard the original can go fuck themselves. For a song that is absolutely impossible to defend, this is a sensitive issue for me.
  5. And finally, just as a reminder to everyone stay strong and stay on their respective grinds, I’ll throw in “Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid Cudi. We’ll all be fine once we get it.

Originally published Feb 7, 2012


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