Pepe Deluxé: Interview
“The idea of doing just one type of music is abhorrent to me.”
The history of music is marked with far more dark revolutionary moments than delightful ones. Nine Inch Nails, The Sex Pistols, NWA, Nirvana, Metallica, The Cure, U2, Rage Against The Machine, Joy Division, Venetian Snares, Sage Francis, Radiohead, even Coldplay and Aphex Twin have made their unquestionable marks on culture by exposing its depressed and repressed side. Happiness, on the other hand, often comes with a price. Madonna, the Spice Girls, and Britney Spears make “fun” music, the kind that often portrays women as vapid sex objects. Boy bands create catchy dance tracks, which often glorify the socially accepted “caveman” who expect women to remain sex objects. Disco ushered in unprecedented coke abuse; funky house did the same for ecstasy; and "The Macarena" ruined sporting events for several years. Industrial, hip-hop, metal, drill & bass, and punk are renowned for their focus on injustice, but these days it seems that pop music can't have fun unless it is unthinking and self-centered. To think, The Beatles once turned the whole world on its ear by just wanting to hold your hand.
That's part of what made Pepe Deluxé's 2007 masterpiece Spare Time Machine such an achievement. Sure, the production duo is definitely not opposed to scantily clad girly-girls and the odd spot of drug use (they aren't naïve), but the beating heart of the record exists in its pure, nonsensical, indescribable, unadulterated joy. The record was a happy catharsis, painstakingly and intricately crafted in the Finnish wilderness to bring sun into the lives of people who don't get to see it very often. And yet, despite the fact the album landed on many year-end lists and earned an Emma (Finnish version of the Grammy) in the critic's choice category, the tour de force did not enter the revolutionary canon. So, what happened? James Spectrum (known as Jari Salo to his loved ones), the brain of Pepe Deluxé, took some time out from recording the group's fourth full-length to sit down with Tiny Mix Tapes and explain a few things.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Hope I'm not bothering you or anything.
Hey, of course, I've got nothing against that. There's always so many stories (so many people involved, so many locations, sessions etc.)... and so much gets lost as time passes by.
Spare Time Machine is already comfortably in my top 50 albums of all time, maybe higher, and my girlfriend adores it. We haven't simultaneously connected with an album like that in years. It is a rare ecstatically happy catharsis that doesn't take itself too seriously, something that embraces many modes of rock, psychedelia, and humor yet without leaving the listener feeling like they're being purposefully distracted or pandered to. You have achieved something amazing. Congrads on the Emma. You deserve that and so much more for that record.
Thank you very much for your encouraging words! It's been difficult for me to start working on new material, as while we received better reviews than even before with STM, it also sold waaaay less than the previous albums. Naturally, I can't please everyone and I always try to make as good music as possible... but I do admit I feel I need to try to make sure the new album is a bit less complex. One hit would also help... but I seem to have forgotten that formula. If you find it, please mail it to me.
That's so odd that Spare Time Machine sold drastically less. Everyone I introduce it to takes an immediate fancy to it.
So nice to hear this! There's probably more than one single reason for the low sales, but I'm so happy to have received all the encouraging feedback. Actually, that's one of the main reasons I've been able to keep going on despite the fact that it's been a very, very dark autumn/winter.
Perhaps "Pussy Cat Rock" wasn't the best idea for a single. To be honest, it's one of my least favorite tracks on the record. I figured "Apple Thief" would have been a shoe-in, and "Mrs. Wilhelmina" is number one for me, still blowing my mind every time I hear it, but I suppose they were both a little long for singles.
Yeah, those are my fave tunes too, but in UK where they decide the singles, they tend to go for the most simple tunes. "Pussy Cat Rock" is the least intelligent tune on the album... and that's probably why it works rather well live, and many kids of our friends seem to dig it. And I must say I've been hoping it ends up on some ad... not for the money (that I'd really need) but for the lyrics. " The Mischief Of Cloud Six" was on Grey's Anatomy, and the censors went thru the lyrics... luckily they didn't realize "walk the dog in a park" does refer to sex... actually that tune is based on a true story.
"Ms. Wilhelmina" was the B-side of the first single, "Pussycat Rock". Unfortunately, as neither of them are indie rock/electro/dance music, nothing really happened in UK on DJ-front. That tune is one of my own work ("PCR" and "Mischief" are Paul's compositions) that I keep thinking about "How the hell did we make that??!?!" I mean I don't really KNOW how to make this stuff; sometimes I just seem to get lucky. A result of sooooo many different sessions spanning over a year and then just combining all these bits and pieces... turning on the power switch... the monster lives!
I guess that makes sense about "PCR." Regardless, "Mischief" is a great track (and wicked video). There is no reason it shouldn't have taken off while all of those bland indie rock/dance punk bands tear up the charts. And if anyone had actually listened to "Ms Wilhelmina," "PCR" would have been a gold record too. Weak sauce all around.
Hehehee... thanks for the kind words. I'm really bad at blowing my own horn, but yeah I think there's quite special music on the album. It's not perfect, but it was as good as we could make it and there were some seriously talented people involved. If you check out the drums on "Mischief," it goes thru so many styles (jazz, surf, soul, funk, rock, Latin), yet it flows smoothly and you don't really pay attention. It was fun when our live drummer Markku heard it for the first time: "Did Teppo (Mäkynen, probably THE funk/jazz drummer of Finland) play that in one take?!?!" I just had to say "Yeah!" Poor Markku! After a moment or two, I actually told him the truth; it was orchestrated, I had like 10 different reference clips and it's compiled of several takes, hehee!
You know, the album officially sold one copy in Denmark! I'd like to buy that back so I could have The Danish Spare Time Machine.
Ha! If I'm not mistaken, you had Emperor Norton promoting Beatitude in the stateside last time around, right? Does Catskills not have U.S. distribution?
Unfortunately not. We relied so heavily on Emperor... that was a huge loss also on a personal level, as I really loved working with the boss man Steve Pross. Such a wonderful guy!
I miss Emperor Norton, as I'm sure many do. There's just no comparison between the albums for me, though, Spare Time Machine is in another dimension. It's a sad world where the Kings Of Leon get pimped by Rolling Stone for schilling the same old Nickelback-flavored retro cock-rock swill, and something as honestly reflective, overwhelmingly original as STM doesn't register a blip on their radar.
Well, Husky Rescue's Marko Nyberg told me (he heard it from Minty Fresh) that U.S. music mags really won't write any articles or even review albums of band/artists that don't tour USA/Canada. It's a bit of a catch 22.
Sad but true. Geographical chance and style over substance doesn't last forever, though. Even if the album never makes you a million bucks in this lifetime, you can be sure that it will outlive us all. The cream always rises to the top, even if it takes the whole world a generation to catch up. Rocky Horror Picture Show and Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (not the new Charlie...) both bombed in the theaters when they first came out, and now they're virtual institutions.
Hehee, nice comparison! We actually just got Willy Wonka from library to be watched tomorrow. Anyways, me being a Finn, I'd normally feel almost ashamed because of all your great feedback and support... but it's really needed and I'm very grateful!
How important was it that STM be a happy record? Is positive thinking essential for mental survival in the long Finnish winter?
It was very important, and, yeah, the winters can be bad, especially now that we get less and less snow in southern Finland due to the climate change. I am a perfectionist with a habit of stressing a lot about things and getting a bit depressed every now and then, so for it's natural to try to fight that, bringing positive vibes to people with music. I don't really enjoy depressing tunes.
"You know, the album officially sold one copy in Denmark! I'd like to buy that back so I could have The Danish Spare Time Machine."
Why did you name the album Spare Time Machine?
That came from my and Marko's trip to NY, and from the fact that I realize the only thing my friends REALLY lack is time, especially spare time. So I was thinking of a machine that would produce something giving you a little break, a little holiday, a little time just for you… and in a NY subway, seeing so many commuters listening to their iPods etc. with eyes closed, it occurred to me that that's what good music can do to you. [It can] take you for a short holiday in another world or dimension, (hopefully) giving you some extra energy.
There was about a four-year gap between your first three albums. What took so long?
Groups don't generally spend years working on albums; pretty much no-one (except Axl Rose) can afford it and/or stay sane when doing it (Axl Rose? Hmmmm...). Why we are so slow? Basically, because pretty much everything was treated as samples: I had to learn (took a looong time, and it's not like now I know it so I don't have to worry about it) how to make things sound like old recordings, and then they were recorded as samples: thousands of recordings to cassettes, not synced to anything. Then editing, assembling, and mixing the material from all those bits and pieces.
The craftsmanship comes through. Don't ever change. What are you working on these days, anyway?
I just finished lyrics for what is hopefully the last tune for the new Husky Rescue album, and I've started working on the Pepe vocal melodies. Me and my wife Sanna are actually away from home, taking care of an old shop and the owner's dog while she's on a holiday in Greece.
I'm certainly stoked to see the album IV session photos on MySpace, especially if it means not having to wait another few years for it. You guys look like you're having a lot of fun, and the locale looks quite inspiring.
I'm glad you like the pics! I'm actually waiting for some more material from USA, no pics of Paul's own sessions so far ... and I hope to get a few Tesla synth imags too.
You're using wine glasses?
Musical glasses, a two-and-a-half octave set. You can fine-tune them by varying amounts of liquid inside. They sound very magical. Jarmo Saari, a terribly nice multi-instrumentalist who plays them, inherited them from his grandfather.
What's the pneumatic percussion machine all about?
It's a long story, but it was originally [built] for a "Konela Symphony," a musical performance where lots of engines and machines (along with some standard instruments) were used to create music. Samuli Kosminen's (he owns and plays the instrument) father is an inventor who's been building pneumatic machines for decades, and Samuli asked him to build a mechanical percussion machine, sort of a crude drum machine. I recorded it for a tune called "Science, The People's Friend" that's about people asking (Victorian) science to solve all their life's problems.
You spend a lot of time trying to make things sound like old recordings (according the STM press release, you spent years engaging in musical archeology, finding old gear). Why do you do that?
People, especially men, generally just love to collect things. I've done my share of hunting vinyl and studio gear (you might not believe it, but I actually have too much stuff)… nowadays I hunt knowledge and ideas. Mostly ideas from the past, as I believe the masters lived in the past (just try to find a normal guitar mag that hasn't written about Henrix/Page/Blackmore etc. in the last three issues). I'm good at combining and modifying things, and I'm very humble when it come to my own "creativity." I have this "reverse pyramid" approach: start with an insane amount of idea and material, get rid of all the bad stuff and refine things and try to squeeze all that into tiny little diamond. I also get bored VERY quickly. The idea of doing just one type of music is abhorrent to me... that's why I try to squeeze so many styles and ideas into Pepe tunes.
How is the recording space influencing the album's feel?
Well, I'm allergic to commercial studios in general; most of them are as boring as offices or hospitals. As I come from the background of working with samples, I enjoy locations that have character and/or unusual acoustics. You get that something extra on many levels: I and the performer(s) get excited and you get the sonic fingerprint of the room on all the sounds.
I have an almost portable setup. With all the mics, stands, the cassette recorder, preamps (including our own prototype model) -- it weights a bit too much, and I always make the same promise to myself: "from now on I'll go to the gym at least twice a week." With my way of working, the albums take a LOT of physical work too!
You had said STM was your take on a groovy summer album; is the new album ending up as fun and funky or are you finding the mood is expressing a different season?
It's gonna be once again a bit different. I'd say at least as crazy, but much more serious. Less Monty Python and more Jules Verne. It also seems it's gonna be a bit more pop, and the tunes are shorter. Naturally, a lot depends on the vocals; there's 27 pages of lyrics, including material from Victorian poetry and cowboy songs, all modified to fit the main theme and stories of the book. Lots of harmony vocals. Early on, I decided to keep things simple, but now it seems there's gonna be like 15 singers, including the choir people. Can't help myself... more is more! So I really need those art grants (and hopefully we'll sell some albums too), otherwise I will be financially ruined.
Do the Husky Rescue guys add ideas to tracks you're working out, or do you come up with their role(s) in advance?
I guess I'm more or less the director, first instructing Paul Malmström and then planning instrumentation and choosing added artists based on the demo tunes. Actually, this time there was only Ville (a percussion player and a keyboard wizard) playing, and even he is on a leave from Husky; so technically speaking, there was no direct Husky participation, but we recorded stuff like horns and percussion and keys at Marko's and Ville's studio El Camino, Helsinki.
And without Marko's encouragement and support, and without having written the new Husky lyrics, I wouldn't have dared to start working on such a mad album idea.
How is the new Husky Rescue turning out? Is it a departure from the trajectory of their first two?
It's definitely louder and more uptempo. One of the reasons for this has been the festival gigs: playing the fifth quiet downtempo tune in a tent while NIN is blasting at full volume on the main stage (and completely drowns the Husky music) can be a bit frustrating. Also, I feel the album is also more pop, but there's also very fragile moments and lots of art stuff. The main theme of all lyrics is escape and non-participating observation. We didn't plan it that way; it just happened. Some of the material sounds like a weird community of outback hippies having heard a techno tune on AM radio and trying the recreate that with music class instruments such as electric accordion.
Any chance PD will ever come out with an Xmas single/EP/LP?
Why not... maybe not LP, but an Xmas single could be much fun.