First Night Preview: Pete Oundjian’s Classic(al) Rock

December 17th, 2015, 2:00 pm by Greg


Interview and story by Gabe Cohn

“My buddy delivers Chinese food to Keith Richards,” Pete Oundjian, 23, says to me over the phone from the kitchen of his family’s home in Toronto. Before explaining the statement, he interrupts himself: “Mom, your English muffin is on fire.”

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Oundjian was bred in a musical household. His father, Peter Oundjian, is the musical director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a successful violinist. His mother grew up playing the clarinet, and her father is a classical music recording engineer. As we speak, Oundjian is preparing to leave for the symphony, where Peter Sr. will be conducting.

Classical music was constantly present in his house growing up. “It was a big part of our lives, seeing classical shows,” says Oundjian. “I’m very grateful for having that from an early age.”

But Oundjian’s own influences are heterogeneous, leaning away from his classical foundations and towards folk, classic rock and jazz. Some of that, he says, also comes from his parents: “My dad raised me a lot on classic rock — the Beatles being a big one, Yes, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer… From there I kinda discovered what I liked.”

Suddenly, I picture his father, the refined classical conductor, returning from an evening conducting the orchestra, sitting on the couch with his son, and putting on The Wall. “Have you heard of Nick Drake?” Oundjian asks me. Before I can answer, he responds to a voice speaking to him from elsewhere in the room: “Yeah, I’ll mention that I played the cello.”

For Oundjian, the album that changed everything was Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. “It’s 28 minutes long and 11 tracks,” Oundjian says. “That was the record that made me want to be a singer and a songwriter. I’ll never forget how many times I listened to the whole thing.”

At home on the folk stage, Oundjian has performed both as a solo act and as part of the short-lived Skidmore College-based folk group Skinny White Folk, which he formed with his friend and collaborator Elliot Daniels. The group only recorded a single song, 2012’s “Portland,” but the recording showcases that outfit’s sound — tightly harmonic with a polite sprinkling of country. As if someone were to leave the tape rolling in an alternate reality where Fleet Foxes and the Grateful Dead were having a jam session.

At First Night Saratoga on Thursday, December 31, Oundjian will be performing by himself, with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. He tells me that he will be playing new songs that nobody has heard before. “I’ve been doing a lot of writing… It’s grungier stuff. A little more raw, a little more abrasive… You can expect me to be honest, and to give it my all,” he pauses. “And I hope that it just sounds like me.” With Oundjian’s unique and eclectic musical background, fulfillment of his desire for idiosyncrasy is all but guaranteed.

After these words, Oundjian says goodbye, hangs up the phone, and leaves for the symphony — what he might listen to on the car ride over is anyone’s guess.

Pete Oundijan is one of the featured performers at the 20th annual First Night Saratoga celebration, where he’ll be playing at the Saratoga Arts Gallery at 6, 8 & 10pm on Thursday, December 31. First Night buttons are available for $15, which includes admission to all 30 venues throughout Saratoga Springs.

Gabe Cohn is a senior English major at Skidmore College, Editor-in-Chief of The Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter and the publicity intern at JetPack Promotions.