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Interview: PM Romero of William Pilgrim on upcoming documentary, ISHues

PM Romero has seen his recent efforts begin to catalyze the realization of his hopes and dreams. Alongside songwriting partner Ish Herring, their band, William Pilgrim, has earned equal parts acclaim and fame. Their two albums thus far, 2011’s The Great Recession and 2014’s Epic Endings have impacted the scope of modern rock, by way of Romero’s riffs providing a foundation for Herring’s grittily soulful vocal tonality.

Now, Romero aims to delve deeper into their history with ISHues, a documentary exploring the bond between the two amidst Herring’s struggles with personal demons, partly bought on by years of homelessness. Through involvement with music programs, Romero also spawned The ISHues Project, a pertinent web-based docuseries centering on improving the lives of homeless youth in Los Angeles, California. I caught up with Romero to discuss the endurance of his bond with Herring, the concepts involved in youth music programs, as well as what he hopes for audiences to glean from watching ISHues. The documentary will be applied to film festivals by next month.

ME: Your connection with Ish began once you answered his Craigslist ad, which led to his involvement in a project of yours. What was the project you originally had in mind?

PM: The original project was a group of protest songs, back in the time when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were in full-swing. I’d been involved with various artists who use their art as a form of what we felt was raw. I was looking for an original voice – something different to basically convey the message of these songs. Ish had a Craigslist ad, then I called him up and was just blown away by his [singing] voice.

ME: While reading the ad, did you immediately say ‘this is the guy’ in your head, or did it take some time to process?

PM: Ish always takes time to process. That said, his ad was probably the cockiest I’ve ever read in my life. It was the equivalent of saying “I am God’s gift of a vocalist. I can sing anything you put in front of me, and for 100 bucks, I’ll make your tracks sizzle.” So, the ad itself obviously caught my attention.

ME: What struck you most about Ish’s background, and getting to know him personally?

PM: For the first several months, I had no idea that he was homeless. All I knew was that his behavior was a little odd. Simple things, like taking him to a restaurant, he didn’t know how to order food from a menu, or how to use a knife and fork. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was a real foreign experience for him. Over time, I’d notice these little peculiar things, and began understanding that his upbringing and life were a little different than normal.

ME: When would you say your musical chemistry between one another began to solidify?

PM: It grew over years. Initially, Ish and I would do demos with just the two of us, and he would hit it out of the park. His vocals are incredible. He was comfortable, and the way he’d deliver the lines was insightful, energetic, and serious at times. But anytime we’d put the band together, or had additional people – engineers, producers, various others, Ish would panic. He wasn’t very comfortable in a larger context, and was very self-conscious. We had to go through various incarnations of how to get his vocals down on those initial tracks. There was always a little bit of a challenge to go beyond that, but over time, Ish and I became very comfortable with each other.

ME: Let’s talk a bit about the band you guys formed, William Pilgrim. Was that a direct result of these sessions?

PM: It was exactly. Initially, the goal was not to be a full band; just to write songs, get them out there, and that was it. But once I started understanding Ish’s background – the fact that he’d been homeless, what he persevered through in foster care, abuse, and various other trials in his life – and the talent that he had, I almost felt a responsibility to show the world what had been thrown away in the streets of Los Angeles.

Ish was born into this situation. He was taken away from his mom at a very, very young age, and struggled through the foster care system. These are things he had no control over that ultimately set the course of his life. I felt that that the world had overlooked this huge talent. If they’d just provide him a little opportunity, they’d see the same thing I saw – a talented, charismatic, intelligent guy who’d just got dealt a bad hand of cards in life.

ME: He wasn’t just some hired gun to collaborate with. In other words, he needed your patience and compassion in order to bring the talent out.

PM: Yep, that was my thought process. [With ISHues], we brought the film crew in, and were excited about documenting what we believed was going to be a success story. The two records we did had just taken off. People were excited about it; they were excited about Ish’s story. We were on the indie circuit playing great shows, and the response we were getting was overwhelming. We thought this film was documenting that story – that rags to riches talent who was given a chance and was able to shine. The ultimate film that we created is the kind you make as a [burgeoning] filmmaker, where your original idea fails miserably.

ME: From that standpoint, the emphasis wasn’t so much on monetary riches, but the emotional and opportunity-based kind.

PM: Right. What Ish needed was not to be a rock star. He needed what he was lacking his entire young life. He has scars from the damage done, and what this ended up being is the relationship between Ish and I. Music was what brought us together, but what took hold was this mentor/father figure relationship, where I wasn’t necessarily trying to help him become famous, but to find some sense of happiness in life.

ME: A major part of the documentary involves your role not only as Ish’s friend and collaborator, but especially as that mentor figure. When that role took hold, did you feel in control of it at all?

PM: I’ve never, ever felt in control of that role. To me, it had always been something that I’d been chasing. A lot of the process that we document in this film is my coming to terms with the understanding that there’s only so much I could do. Despite how much I may believe in him, or how much I think I’m offering him, his ability to process and take advantage of that is at his own speed. As much as I want to help him, he’s an adult now; not a kid. This is something he has to do for himself.

ME: Even though you strive to help him, you want him to be independent.

PM: Exactly. And it’s frustrating when he hasn’t accustomed to a basic routine, you know? You need to get up; you need to work hard; you need to shake things off and have a positive attitude; you need to do this on Monday and that on Tuesday. For someone who’s literally living on the streets, fishing through garbage cans for food, it gets difficult from my perspective of why someone won’t do what’s needed to better their situation. So, a lot of this is getting me to understand his thought process, his life, and what needs there are for him. It ended up changing me a lot more than I’d originally thought.

ME: At the end of the day, what you and Ish share is a basic respect for one another, and an assurance that you’re good at heart, because your bond is that solid.

PM: Absolutely. He’d just turned 30 now, and I’ve been in his life for close to eight years. I’m someone in his life who’s stuck around the longest out of his entire 30-year existence, and that’s deep, you know?

ME: To those planning on watching this documentary, what is it you want your audience to take away from it?

PM: The message that we hope to leave with our audience is this: What happens when your actions and efforts are destined for failure? What happens if someone cannot be helped, and if so, what do you do then? If you know someone who can’t be helped, do you just not help them? You can’t change the outcome if the effort is not worth taking.

ME: You’re also involved with various music programs dedicated to helping homeless kids. Can you tell me a bit about how that began?

PM: Through Ish, we got involved with organizations for kids in Hollywood. We started up a bunch of programs that teach music, and have recorded with a lot of them. What I can tell you is that there’s not a lot of success stories. To find one, you really have to squint and imagine that you’re making a difference. That’s a tough thing. Many times, I’d ask myself, “Why am I doing this? This may not be helping them.” And I may not have the right answer for everybody, but I’ve had to wrestle with myself at the time I’ve been doing these things.

ME: Had you found it difficult at times to determine whether these kids are benefiting to a true extent?

PM: Well, that’s what you hope for. But what ends up happening is you get connected with one person, and that that person connects you to another person, and then they connect you with an organization. It’s not so much that you keep going because you feel you’re making a difference, but because of the overwhelming demand.

In Los Angeles Youth Network, which is a homeless shelter, we developed a 90-day music program. The kids there are transitioning from foster care. We teach them things like guitar and songwriting. It was just an endless stream of kids. Many of them don’t stick around long enough to realize that music is a passion that they’ll keep for the rest of their lives. You’d hope so, but I guarantee you every time we’re there every Wednesday, there’s a new shipment of kids. It’s hard to stop because there’re just so many kids there.

ME: So, in other words, you’re uncertain whether these kids will maintain a passion for music, or otherwise pursue something completely different.

PM: Yeah, you just don’t know. These kids have been taken from their families because of a bad situation. And when the kids stay in this program for 90 days, the family has a chance to get their act together. If the kids can’t and they leave, they start the process of becoming a ward of the state. In that situation, these kids are dealing this very, very heavy stuff. What we try to create with these programs is a means to take these emotional times and find an outlet for them. We teach them how to construct poetry and lyrics to get what’s in their head out on paper.

During that time, we’ve had some success stories. A few have auditioned for the voice, went into the studio to record, and some that had gone on with subsidized vocal lessons. There are stories we hope turn out well, but ultimately, these kids move on. They become a ward of the state and move onto s different program. I don’t know what’s become of these kids, but I’m hopeful to have given them some way of challenging their circumstances.

ME: Regarding the distribution of ISHues, where will the movie be shown?

PM: Starting next month, we’ll be applying to festivals – Cannes, Tribeca, Sundance – and we’re very hopeful to get a showing in one of the major festivals. After that showing, we plan for it to be on all the distribution networks – iTunes, and places like that. I hope that toward the end of the year, there will be a chance to not only screen the film, but bring out some of the talented musicians in the film, and have them tell their stories firsthand. We hope to make this happen around New York and Los Angeles, since the film was shot around those areas.

ME: Lastly, anything you’d like to say to the fans?

PM: Check out our music! We’ve recorded two albums, and if they speak to you, you can head on over to ishues.org to keep up with the content. We’re always filming, doing all kinds of videos, and providing ways for fans to get to know Ish.

For more info, visit www.ishues.org

About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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