There’s never been a presidential contender quite like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the gay, Episcopalian, Maltese-American millennial and Afghanistan veteran who plays classical piano, speaks seven languages and has emerged over the past few months as a legitimate challenger to the better-known likes of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And although Buttigieg, 37, hasn’t told voters much thus far about how he’d govern a profoundly divided nation, we already know a fair amount about something almost as important: Mayor Pete’s eclectic taste in pop music.
Buttigieg is an avowed Dave Matthews Band fan whose repertoire as a garage-band keyboardist includes “The Way We Get By,” by Austin indie-rock lifers Spoon; last week he cited Everlast’s 1998 folk-rap lament “What It’s Like” as an example of “the way we should come to politics.” His official campaign-trail playlist — as tweeted out by Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg — features crowd-pumpers like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend,” Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” and Curtis Mayfield’s Obama-approved “Move On Up,” but also “Tweezer Reprise,” the propulsive studio version of a live staple by the Vermont jam band Phish.
Just as Beto O’Rourke’s admiration for Fugazi — modern punk’s most passionate refuseniks — marks him as the archetypal Generation X candidate, Buttigieg’s all-over-the-map tastes are emblematically millennial, the preferences of a listener whose impressionable years spanned the decline of the mail-order record club and the dawn of file-sharing. We caught Buttigieg between campaign stops to talk about Radiohead, garage bands and listening to Pharrell Williams in a war zone.
How did you discover Phish?
When I was really getting into music, as I was about to head into high school, there were two things that interested me a lot. One was classic rock, especially when I got a guitar — Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix. And the other was jam bands.
It started with Dave Matthews. I didn’t get to see them play live much. A couple of times. But the idea that every song was different, that they would settle into the music and take it interesting places, really excited me. And when I discovered Phish, they took that to the next level.
Were those concerts an eye-opening experience for a young man from South Bend?
[Laughter] It was different, for sure. There were a lot of things going on there that I was new to.
You studied classical piano — were you the kind of Phish fan who got excited when they’d play in 11/4 time?
Sometimes I’d catch stuff like that. I wasn’t super-expert about it. I’d played piano at a fairly serious level, but I don’t want to overplay how sophisticated I was.
You’re an only child. You didn’t have an older sibling handing stuff down to you. Where did you get your information about new music?
It started with local radio. There’d be a good amount of Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette, but also a lot of Christian rock. Some of which is quite good!
There were also guitar magazines. There'd be five or so songs in every issue that you could learn to play. Sometimes I’d try learning how to play a song before I really understood what it meant musically.
And then I joined a little garage band. We just did covers, but the guys in the band helped broaden my musical horizons.
What was the pinnacle of that band’s career?
We did the Battle of the Bands at St. Joe High School. That was probably our crowning achievement. We did [Steppenwolf's] “Magic Carpet Ride,” which is pretty fun for me on the keys. We did the Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight.” And then I got a friend with a violin — it wasn’t an electric violin, but we made it work, and we did a Dave Matthews song. I think it was “Two Step.” Jammed out on that.
What was the first CD you bought with your own money?
You remember BMG [Music Service]? You sent them a penny and you got a bunch of CDs. I don’t remember all of them, but one was definitely a Fender compilation, of [songs by] people who’d played Fenders, which is basically everybody. “Smoke on the Water” was on there.
Is BMG still after you, or did you manage to fulfill your obligation to them?
[Laughs] Yeah. The CDs just kept coming.
Did you and your husband have a “wedding song” when you got married?
Yeah. It was Alison Krauss’ “When You Say Nothing at All.”
What’s the significance of that?
There’s a connection that forms between two people that’s beyond expression — as a very verbal person, who’s with somebody who loves music, I think there’s a lot in that.
When we're home, a lot of times we'll have Pandora on the bluegrass station, or an Allison Krauss station, or a Waylon Jennings station, something like that. Chasten and I have pretty different tastes in music. He’s into more poppy stuff and more musicals — I’m into more of the brooding stuff.
Did you take music with you when you were deployed?
A little. I brought a harmonica with me. I couldn’t bring a guitar, but I did have access to one some of the time I was there. And I had my playlists. But the song I associate most with my deployment is “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. It was the song of the summer, or about to be, when I was packing my bags and when I was in combat training.
That is an extremely surreal thing to imagine, listening to that song in that context.
It’s funny — I can still picture the first time I heard it. We were on a school-bus-style vehicle getting us out to the shooting range. We’re all in our battle rattle. Like two men could barely sit next to each other on a school bus seat, when you’ve got all your body armor and stuff on. And “Happy” was playing on the loudspeaker of the bus. It was definitely a little unreal.
What did your parents listen to around the house?
Classical. My father got a certain passage from Beethoven’s Seventh in his head and hummed it to himself for the next three or four years while he was doing the dishes. He was into more minimal stuff, too, like Vaughan Williams, which I love.
Did you have band posters on your wall in high school or college?
I had Rage Against the Machine. Hardly because of the band, largely because the posters were so good. And Jimi Hendrix. The Woodstock one, where it’s kind of a gold background and he’s got his head thrown back and he’s rockin’ out.
If you could only pick one Radiohead album…
“Only pick one” is the hardest question, I know.
That’s why I’m thinking hard about this. Um, “Hail to the Thief.” I know it’s not as canonical as “OK Computer” or even “Kid A,” but it holds together better than almost any of the others.
Before a campaign event this month, you were filmed playing a solo piano version of “That’s the Way We Get By,” from Spoon’s 2002 album “Kill the Moonlight.” Is that your favorite Spoon record?
Uh, yes. No, wait, now I gotta go back and double check which ones are on “Kill the Moonlight” and which ones are on “Gimme Fiction.” No, it's actually “Gimme Fiction” — even though I love “The Way We Get By,” “Gimme Fiction” is the one that I listen to the most.
We can agree to disagree. When you sit down at a piano, is that your go-to song?
These days, I’m on an “Angel From Montgomery” [by John Prine] kick. I don’t know why it took me this long to realize what a beautiful piece of songwriting that is. But most of what I learned on piano is classical. Gershwin was my big thing. I learned enough Christmas music to have a good party piece. And there are some friends I gig around town with once in a while. The set list is usually stuff that’s easy for me to play. We’ve been doing “Dog Days Are Over.” Tom Petty is very easy — “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” And [Lefty Frizzell’s country standard] “Long Black Veil.” That’s a fun one to do.
Okay, lightning round. Beatles or Stones?
Backstreet or ’N Sync?
Probably wise. Jay Z or Nas?
Nicki Minaj or Cardi B?
Ooh — Cardi B.
Who’s playing at your inaugural?
A lot of my favorite music is too dystopian for an inaugural. But if I could see one performer live again, it’d be Thom Yorke and Radiohead. I’m not sure that’s inauguration kind of stuff, y’know? Lin-Manuel Miranda should totally be a part of any inauguration. And it would be fun to have Dave Matthews there. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself and be, like, measuring drapes.
I listened to a lot of Radiohead around the last inaugural, I’ll tell you that.
Yeah. They’re pretty timely in that sense. I remember being in a very bleak mood about the world when I was a graduate student. And it was around that time that Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” came out. It captured that sense of illness around that time.
So it sounds like your position on Radiohead has evolved since you wrote about “Kid A” in your college paper.
Oh, God. I don’t even remember that. What did I say?
This was in 2003. You were writing about Dave Matthews, but there’s an implication that Radiohead’s popularity was a symptom of our post-9/11 malaise — that their “dyspeptic experimentation” struck a chord with people because “We, too, are nationally unwell.”
Oh, interesting. We all evolve.