One Man Show: Gregory Pepper & His Problems
Gregory Pepper is a very interesting – and seemingly very busy – guy. Aside from his three records as a solo artist – as Gregory Pepper & His Problems – he’s released albums with hip-hop producer Factor under the moniker Common Grackle, designed album art for bands like Junior Battles, and built a life-sized replica of his home recording studio entirely out of cardboard.
On his latest offering – Escape From Crystal Skull Mountain – the Guelph, Ontario-based musician has somehow managed to pack 17 tracks of blissed-out pop perfection into an incredibly tight 26 minutes and 13 seconds. And it’s a concept album, too. Kind of.
We spoke to Pepper from his home in Guelph about his early influences, his love of black metal and the possibility of him infiltrating the world of online cat videos.
Escape From Crystal Skull Mountain is a concept album of sorts. How would you describe it?
Yeah, it was meant to be a concept album in the beginning, but I was kind of working under the gun this time. I usually finish an album when I finish it and then release it, but this time I had a strict six-month deadline. I was actually freaking out a little at first and every day I’d have a different idea for the record. It was going to be a baroque pop album with just piano and strings, and then the next day it was going to be all electronic sounds, and then the next day it was going to be chopped and screwed, and then eventually I just settled on getting some pretty awesome musicians from Toronto and Guelph to help me out and I went for this really clean, pop-sounding thing which is Crystal Skull Mountain.
The narrative of the album was supposed to be set in this fictional world of turmoil and suffering, and the narrator would find his way to the light at the end of the tunnel. But I was just framing a handful of existing songs in that story so whether or not that comes across is up to the listener. But I did try to make it more cohesive than any of my previous albums.
People have compared you to Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and The Beatles. Do you see the connection?
Those are three hugely influential bands, and when I was a young kid and I found my mom’s record collection I was enamoured with The Beatles – I assumed all pop music was that good [laughs]. And still to this day I get a boner in my brain’s dick when I hear that stuff. I really got into harmony a few years ago and started trying to figure out that Beach Boys sunshine sound and figure out their harmonies note by note and why they sound the way they do. Nilsson’s a great songwriter and a heavy drinker, so [laughs] I kind of relate to that too.
Who are some bands you like that people might be surprised at?
Well, I’m a huge fan of metal – I like the new Converge record that just came out. I’m a big fan of Cannibal Corpse and Sunn O))) and all kinds of big, dark, heavy stuff. I like classic pop as well, but I think it’s probably normal to find some kind of escapist delight in hearing stuff that’s very different from what you make. So yeah, I’m gonna go with black metal.
Besides being a musician you’re also a visual artist, a podcaster and you’ve done some musical work for ads and commercials. Which of these forms gives you the most pleasure at this point?
Well, I’m always happy when I’m making stuff, and I’m fortunate that I have the means to stay busy and be productive. I find it’s pretty easy to get burnt out on one medium, so after I finished my record in maybe June or July I didn’t sit down at the piano again for a while, but I started drawing a lot. I find a good way to recharge your creative batteries in one medium is to explore another, because you’re still exercising that right part of your brain, and you’re flexing the muscle. I started drawing when I was really young and I didn’t get into music until I was a teenager – and I’m definitely more active in music than I am in visual art – but I find being able to bounce between the two lets me keep a fresh perspective.
Your work tends to cloak some pretty dark themes in upbeat, poppy music, which for me brings to mind bands like The Smiths or even Belle & Sebastian…
Yeah, and I love those guys. But I think that’s very true to life – that everyone has a happy veneer that they put on, but there’s always something darker brooding below the surface. And to just be sad or morose for it’s own sake is kind of empty – there’s not much for the viewer or the listener to gain from that. So it’s sort of like a tug of war between the content and the medium.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of people throughout your career. Who’d be your dream collaborator?
I do all my records on my own, in my basement – I can basically fit my studio in a suitcase – so I’d love to be in a huge professional studio with someone like [Radiohead producer] Nigel Godrich and just make a clean, beautiful pop record with no expenses spared. But then again I do really relish having full creative control, which I think is why I’ve stayed a, quote, solo artist for the last few years.
I heard that you’re easily distracted by cat videos – a condition I also suffer from…
[Laughs] We’re among millions of North Americans who suffer from that affliction.
What’s the best one you’ve seen lately?
You know it’s funny, we watched a “Cat Fail” compilation yesterday morning, and a staggering amount of them seemed like they were from rural Russia – I think they must have just hundreds of feral cats running around. But I like Maru and I like Lil’ Bub…
Yeah, Maru’s cool…
Maru’s pretty great – you give him a box and he’ll get in it, regardless of width or depth. I’m hoping to get another cat sometime soon to add to my colony, so maybe I’ll start making my own cute cat videos. Become part of the system.
Escape From Crystal Skull Mountain is available now on Fake Four Inc.