Absurdist Art Punk for the Thinking Man in the Tradition of Dada
New NYC Region CD Releases #3
One evening, about six months ago, I attended a fundraiser for the benevolent organization Limb Possible, an organization that raises money to aid amputees. The proceeds from their events provide prosthetic limbs and other needs to persons that have suffered the loss of members. It was a fun night that included MILF & DILF, a duo of farsifa organ and washboard that is kind of like the Dead Milkmen meet Question Mark and the Mysterians. Like the Dead Milkmen, MILF & DILF incorporates comedic skits along with their very original music. Later that evening a quintet called The Pepper Kings hit the stage with the vocalist wearing a crown and royal garb playing the autoharp. There was an inflated blimp on stage that was later launched and knocked around the room. The costume reminded me of those trippy kid shows like Sigmund and the Seamonsters from back in the day (what were they smoking on when they dreamed up those episodes?).
It was Dada. It was the theater of the absurd. Dada was an art movement in Europe that grew out of the protest of WWI, which usually incorporated live performances. Poet Hugo Ball and others would recite poetry with nonsense lyrics and don outlandish costumes to express the chaos of the political moment. Ball was famous for his obelisk costume. Being that obelisks don’t walk, Ball had to be lifted on and off the stage as part of this performance.
The PKs have this same sensibility. But what about the music? They are more fun than a barrel of monkeys to listen to. They just released an EP that is self-titled and have an LP in the works. I love the album, though it’s only four tracks but it packs a punch. It starts off with an intentionally mindless but rocking track called “Shave the Leg” that leads you to the rest of the CD, that takes you through a weird musical porthole, leaving off with the almost folk track “Otto’s Tiki Bar.” The PKs deal with ridiculous subject matter. The opening track “Shave the Leg” is about shaving your leg because stubble can be annoying to the the person you are sleeping with. It’s a straightforward rocker that features Richard Kabot on the drums and builds up into a surfy climax. Kabot also does some vocals.
“Hoot Owl” is a quieter song that features guitarist Ted Kersten on keyboards and Nicholas Irons on clarinet. It is an infectious track featuring vocalist and frontman Tony “Autoharp” Arena, who plays his signature autoharp on it and breaks into a spoken word political monologue on how the intellectual is kept an outcast. You can really hear the subtle textures of the autoharp and clarinet. Initially I thought Kersten’s keyboard was a vintage farfisa, but it is a circa 1990 Casio. It has the same synthetic quality of the farfisa and Kersten gets some interesting effects out of it, hitting the right spots. Arena shows contrasting vocal styles on the album and on “Hoot Owl” Arena deliberately places hoots and other non verbal phrases. Irons, who usually plays guitar, does the reed work for the band told about how this musical usual recipe came about:
“Well, I suppose it all started with the song ‘Hoot Owl,’ where the clarinet’s tone and range just seem to fit well. In fact, when I was first introduced to that song, what came to mind was Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ in which the characters are voiced by orchestral instruments. For other songs, I hope the clarinet serves to add a little tonal color, some whimsy, too.”
The whimsy works.
The PKs are calculated. They are not hap hazard for as nihilist as their music is comes off the first time you hear it. They juxtapose their musical sections nicely.
On the EP they do “Blimp Driver,” a highlight of their live performances where they usually throw a blimp into the audience encouraging frolic. The song is built on discordant grooves that grind against one another. It seems to draw from minimalist ideas, it sounds like what Philip Glass would sound like if he were pissed off. The last track, “Otto’s Tiki Bar,” is an ode to the popular East Village rock & roll venue Otto’s Shrunken Head. This track is a little different, it is a slow heroic ballad about getting beat up and other tribulations caused by the excessive consumption of alcohol and the lesson learned therein. The song has a bit of twang with hints of country swing. A nice example of how the PK can write in traditional harmonic style when they want to.
I asked the PKs a few short questions and got some long answers which I welcomed because Arena had a lot to say.
Q: The concept of the Pepper King is provocative. Is there a concept behind the costumes and the cover art (the sleeping king etc)? (Arena also illustrated the CD cover and does most of the promo art for the band.)
A: Essentially, I try to use the ridiculous trappings of monarchy to express my loathing and ridicule for any authoritarian-tyrant mentality. Quite a few of my lyrics are about my distaste for stressing competition and domination in our society, at the expense of cooperation and partnership. But the EP cover that depicts a king sleeping on a pile of peppers has nothing to do with all that. It was more inspired by the children’s book story; The Princess and The Pea about the princess who was so delicate she needed twenty mattresses on her bed to be able to fall asleep. I thought; “what would a pepper king sleep on?” Peppers, of course!
Q: My first impression of you guys when I saw you was Dada. Was I off?
A: I hope you’re not off! Dada was an art movement that was funny and lots of fun which also inspired people to think. I hope Pepper Kings do the same!
Q: You guys are punk and kind of art rock; what do you consider yourselves to be?
A: I suppose, if we have to label it, I think we’re art-punk, with touches of folk & psychedelic thrown in.
Q: You use unorthodox instrumentation. How did you come about using an autoharp in punk?
A: The autoharp used to be a little more common in rock music than it is today. The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Electric Prunes, and some lesser known bands like Michelangelo featured the autoharp in the 1960s. I’m trying to bring it back! But it’s true, this is an instrument that’s more associated with folk music. I feel it should not be limited to folk music.
Q: Your themes range from political themes to songs about food. What other topics do the Pepper Kings find of interest to write about?
A: Yes, not EVERY song should be an enraged political diatribe, don’t you agree? I love adding food to PEPPER.
Q: Tell us about your up-and-coming LP?
A: Our album was recorded by Mike Arz and Dan Bouza at Tone House Recording Studio in West Babylon, NY. It was picked up by Walt Stewart’s Tarbeach Records label of Queens, NY, who also released our debut 4-song EP. We’re very grateful to Walt. His label features so many interesting and diverse groups, and we’d like everyone should check Tarbeach out. It was great fun recording this album and most of the songs are still frequently played live, while a few are them we don’t play out as much anymore. We’re very proud of it and we’re already looking forward to recording our next one!”
Q: Would you say that you guys are post-punk? What are the similarities and differences between what you do and punk?
A: It’s funny that you ask this question because I asked a very similar question to the band Imaginary Icons back before Pepper Kings, when I was doing a fanzine. The connection is that two members of Imaginary Icons eventually ended up in Pepper Kings. Ben Mancell of the Imaginary Icons was in Pepper Kings for a while, and Ted is with us now. And both Ben and Ted are also doing a side-project band going called Famous Logs In History, who you could say are also playing stuff that could be “Post-Punk.” We’ve done some gigs together on the same bill. Well, anyway, back when I first asked Imaginary Icons about this, our discussion of “Post-Punk” concluded with a general agreement that we’d all prefer not to use that term. We favored “art-punk” instead. My own feelings about it are that the term “Post-Punk” makes it sound like Punk was first and then it ended, and this kind of music came afterwards. But, the truth is, Punk never ended. And many of those same bands who they called “Post-Punk” such as Wire, Pere Ubu, The Fall, Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, Kleenex/LiliPUT, Devo, and The Residents all started at exactly the same time or in some cases even BEFORE some of these bands called Punk like The Ramones, The Damned, Dead Boys, The Rezillos, The Dickies, and Sex Pistols, (who we also love.) So, I ask you, how can these bands be “post” (after) what happened simultaneously? Ben felt it was probably because some of these bands were making music that was considered to be a little more advanced in style. But, then there were so many other bands like X-Ray Spex and The Stranglers who you never hear called “Post-Punk” but were always classified as just “Punk,” not “Post-Punk,” even though they were just as unorthodox musically. To make this even more complicated, there are bands like The Buzzcocks and The Clash who, it certainly seems to me, also do a little of both the Punk and the “Post-Punk” sounds. And where do Public Image Ltd, fit into all this? So, it kind of makes me feel like “post-punk” is a term without any true meaning. I like the music of the so-called “Post-Punk” genre. I just don’t care for that “brand” name.”
Since punk’s inception there has the question of if punk is marketable or not. Bassist Rick “Hambone” Bruccoleri, who remembers the original punk wave in the late 70s added some comments on the topic:
“Today it appears to me that music is much more controlled than the early 80s. I was ostracized for wearing red converse sneakers back then and today middle aged woman have blue highlights in their hair and think of Nirvana fondly. But…the music industry doesn’t support new groups at all and I think they are missing their mark. I think a lot of people would enjoy the Pepper Kings and thousands of more underground bands if they actually heard any of their music.”
To quote Iggy Pop’s address to his audience from the Stooges live album Metallic KO: “Does anyone hate the Stooges? Well we’re the Stooges and we don’t hate you, we just don’t care,” paraphrased. Stick to your guns and maybe, like the Stooges, in 25 years or less someone like Madonna will tell the masses that you are cooler than they’ll ever be.
The Pepper Kings EP gives a slice of the band can do and I’m eager to hear what they will soon release in LP format. I hope it includes their brilliant “Tyrant,” “Cut You Up,” and “Hors d’œuvres.” The later is just one of their songs about food in the pop art tradition. “Tyrant” one of their political numbers. It is scheduled to drop late 2017 or early 2018.
Pepper Kings Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pepperkingsband/
Pepper Kings Sound Cloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-767909978