Trash Mutant Interviews (TMI): Gregory Pepper
- by Señor Editor, 20 August 2012
TRASH MUTANT: We’re having this conversation only days before the release of your newest album “Escape from Crystal Skull Mountain” (it's coming out tomorrow, as we publish this), the third studio album under the Gregory Pepper and His Problems name. Exciting times! It’s been three years since the last record. What changed? What can we expect from the new one? We’re terribly impatient.
GREGORY PEPPER: These are exciting times indeed! We weren't even planning on making a new record but when Fake Four approached us at the beginning of the year and set a deadline, we got straight to it. At first it was gonna be all chamber music, then pitched-down 4-track noise-pop, then a completely acapella record. Those were all fine concepts in their own right, but we decided to just jump in and record the songs in a way that matched how they sounded in our brain's dick. Voila!
The previous Gregory Pepper and His Problems album (2009’s “With Trumpets Flaring”) had a lot of beats, synths and lo-fi style to it. Is “Escape from Crystal Skull Mountain” a complete departure from that sound?
We made a point not to use any digital editing or loops. There's synth on one song and a casio beat on another, but it's all analog. It's still "lo-fi", because the studio can fit in a suitcase, but the sounds on this record are deliberately more acoustic and natural. We got a full brass and string section on this thing, fuck MIDI.
What is the Crystal Skull Mountain?
It's like some fictional backdrop for the songs. Originally the album was gonna be all about different nightmares, but we only had a couple so we decided to stage the album at this place called CRYSTAL SKULL MOUNTAIN. It's a cold, barren setting where every meal might be your last. From a songwriter's perspective, it offered up a whole new canvas we could paint our black thoughts upon. Also, it sounds cool.
We’ve already heard some songs from the album and you seem more upbeat and happy on them (“Breathe In”, “Persona Non Grata”), compared to your previous releases. There’s always been a lot of humor in your music, but now it seems like you're generally in a really good mood. Am I reading this totally wrong or are you having an especially good time lately? Will this be more of a "Gregory Pepper Sans His Problems" type of record?
Well, Breathe In starts off with the narrator saying "I was a severed head" and Persona Non Grata is about a dude who wakes up on a barren dessert island, struggling to survive. It's not really the end of the world, but we're still trying to mask morose subject matter behind a veil of shameless poppyness. What's sadder and more problematic than being bummed out while acting happy?
(To check out both of the songs Señor Editor considers so damn cheery, scroll to the bottom of this page for the "Breathe In" video and download "Persona Non Grata" HERE for free!)
This is the Myth Busters section, if you will. When I was getting ready for this interview, I found some curious stuff about you on the internet. While sometimes an air of mystery surrounding an artist can be a good thing, I'd like you to set one thing straight and maybe expand a bit on the second one. We’re also hoping to someday be cited as source for this crucial info on your Wikipedia page.
First thing: "Gregory" isn't your real name at all, says an off-hand remark in an album review. What’s that all about?
That's funny. There's a long, boring story about how my last name was altered from it's Cyrillic origins and misspelled by some dipshit boarder guards in the 1950's, but Gregory is my real given name, pinky swear.
Second thing: You spent your early childhood in Zimbabwe. How did you end up there?
Now that's true. My parents moved there in the 80's right after I was born and we lived there for about five years. We left around the time that Mugabe assumed the position of president, when things were getting really rough. I don't have any memories from before the age of 5 or 6, so i don't actually remember any of it.
You’re also a visual artist. You paint, draw, make posters and make all kinds of cardboard sculptures and dioramas. In the “Drop the Plot” video you’re sitting outdoors, surrounded by pretty elaborate cardboard replicas of studio equipment. It’s quite the striking visual and most of all it’s a very interesting hobby to have. Where did it come from? How did the cardboard sculpting begin and what do you like about it?
Yeah, that project was directly inspired by some of the visuals in Gondry's "Science of Sleep". I built an entire full scale replica of my basement recording studio out of cardboard, mainly just to see if I could.
Funny sidenote: I ended up selling a bunch of pieces to these guys for their video and in typical Camp Pepper fashion I threw the rest in the garbage.
You have this podcast called “PEP TALK!” (episode 1 & 2 - highly entertaining and free for download) where you give away all manner of previously unreleased music you made. You’re also known to average a complete brand new song every few days. With that much creative output one has to wonder: how many unreleased songs are there in the Gregory Pepper vaults?
I will confess: My output has definitely slowed down in the past couple years. I'd like to say I've traded quantity for quality, but maybe my brain just isn't as creatively fertile as when I was younger. That said, I've got too many leftovers to count, mostly from doing ad work, writing for other bands, and just silly hobby songs. There's all these fake bands I have too, like the grindcore band "Dead Animal Circus" and this snotty punk group "Rape Kit". Oh, and "Chocolate Kaleidoscope", the worst jam band of all time.
Is a man in a luchador mask getting your face tattooed on his ass a sign that you made it big in the music biz? And do you have any other interesting fan-related stories like that?
That's a standout, weird-fan moment. I've gotten nice hand-written letters and drawings, heard some neat covers of my tunes, but for the most part I'm enjoying the privacy that comes along with relative obscurity.
Let's reverse the ass tat scenario: if you were to get a tattoo of a beloved musician's face on your own butt, who would it be?
Man, I'm not even sure if a butt tattoo falls under the category of admiration… It's more like a perverse joke, really. Weird Al in his Michael Jackson fat suit?
Since 2009 you've been releasing your albums on Fake Four Inc., the label founded by indie rap artists Ceschi & David Ramos. Fake Four doesn't restrict itself to hip-hop by any means (and the hip-hop they put out isn't restricted by any genre conventions), but I'm still very interested in how you ended up signing with them in the first place. Could you shed some light on that?
Ces had heard this song "Pinball" that I did with Noah23 and Madadam in 2008. He emailed me and asked what I was working on so I sent him a folder full of songs that was eventually whittled down to "With Trumpets Flaring". It never really felt like "signing" to a label or anything, he just said 'hey, I like these songs! Do you want to put out a record?'. Even though that sounds casual, it still meant a lot to me. And Ceschi ended up being one of the most supportive, hard-working guys I've ever met, so I feel really lucky to be on the roster.
You’ve been doing a lot of features on hip-hop songs over the years. You once said you’re sort of filling the Nate Dogg role for all those indie rappers. As Common Grackle (a duo with the prolific producer Factor) you’ve made one of the most interesting and fresh records in recent years, “The Great Depression” (video for the title track below the interview), and it was often described as a “hip-pop” record. You guys even had the legendary Kool Keith on that record. So, plenty of connections to hip-hop in your music career. Is there any rapper from outside the Fake Four camp that you’d really like to make a song with someday?
I've been saying for while now that I want to produce a collab album for Livestock and EPIC. You may not have heard of these guys, but they're two of the REALEST emcees I've ever known. They each have really distinct voices and bring a degree of honesty to their rhymes that always blows my mind. Plus they're also two of the most unreliable dudes ever, so it would be a remarkable accomplishment to finish a single track with them!
Guelph, Ontario is your stomping grounds. What’s the best thing about Guelph?
Do you remember when Agent Cooper is sitting there whittling on a stakeout and he describes Twin Peaks as "a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up"? Not to romanticize Guelph, but there's a mellow atmosphere and sense of community that suits me better than bigger cities. If you're curious, there's a big ongoing piece at Choose My Music about all these different bands from Guelph and how the city has informed their work.
Other than writing songs for your own albums and for bands you’re friends with, you also write music for commercials, television & movies. In terms of the creative process, how does this type of work for hire differ from making the songs you’re writing with yourself in mind? Which one comes easier?
The 'Gregory Pepper and His Problems' stuff is is all very internal. Like, i'm trying to relate this intangible thing through melodies and chords and stuff. There's no rule book, so sometimes it feels a bit daunting trying to decide where to start. When I sit down to write a jingle or something, there's a very definite feeling I'm trying to convey in a short period of time. Both are rewarding in the end, but in a different way.
As soon as the new album drops you’re hitting the road for a Canada & US tour. How do you feel about playing all the new songs in front of an audience for the first time?
We're actually going to be playing the whole album from start to finish for the Canadian tour dates. It might be a little more challenging for the audience, since they're all new songs and they move pretty fast, but it's going to be even more challenging for my band! I feel like ESCAPE FROM CRYSTAL SKULL MOUNTAIN is a record that people will need to hear a couple times to absorb all the recurring themes and stuff, so I'm definitely nervous about playing it live. Then again, I always feel nervous and unsure about performing in front of an audience, so we're just trying to say "yes" to everything these days and roll with it.
Big thanks to Gregory Pepper for doing this interview for us! We wish him all the best with the new album and tour. Meanwhile, visit Camp Pepper, Gregory's official website, to listen to all the albums he released, view his art, check the tour dates, get some free downloads and buy anything you like! Also, make sure to check out Fake Four Inc. for all kinds of quality music that you might enjoy!