One-on-One with Gregory Pepper

Gregory Pepper (photo by Jaime Hogge)
Gregory Pepper (photo by Jaime Hogge)

by Michael Thomas

“Maybe it was La Bamba that started it all.” Gregory Pepper, the Guelph-based indie-pop extraordinaire, is talking about what first got him into music. Is he serious? Who knows, maybe the Ritchie Valens biopic was what sparked his musical passion, but maybe it wasn’t. It’s hard to tell when Pepper is just pulling your leg, but what isn’t hard to tell is that he’s got an ear for catchy pop music. That ear for pop has manifested itself in his main act, Gregory Pepper and his Problems, alongside side acts that sprung up over the years, like Common Grackle and Big Huge Truck.

Pepper was born in Toronto, but spent three or four years living in Zimbabwe.

“My parents were crazy people I guess,” he says. “When I was a kid, I don’t know, maybe they wanted me to be eaten by a snake or something.” He would live in France for a bit before moving to Guelph, then Montreal for a bit, and then back to Guelph five years ago, where he currently lives.

While in Montreal, Pepper was part of a band called the Dymaxions, but when that band split in 2006, he released the band’s planned sophomore album under Gregory Pepper and His Problems, since he did most of the band’s songwriting anyway.

“I sometimes regret the name, Gregory Pepper and his Problems,” he says. “It’s too long, too long to put on a marquee. Too many syllables. I should have gone with a solid two-syllable name, but it’s too late now.”

But still, he likes the name. “I just like the cadence of it, and the slightly morose connotation. There wasn’t any grand design behind it. I like the vague, ominous sound of it. And the rhythm of it.”

A quick visit to Pepper’s Bandcamp page will show that the man keeps busy. Alongside three albums to his name, there’s also two under the name Common Grackle, which began as a “Postal Service type project” with Saskatoon-based hip-hop producer Factor. Pepper did one tour with Common Grackle as heard on The Great Depression, but not even a year later the sound would morph.

“I guess that was around 2011, we did a Western swing version of that album and released it as Great Repression instead of Great Depression, which made things much more confusing,” he says.

Big Huge Truck was another flirtation with hip-hop, though Pepper didn’t think the album would ever happen. It started as a collaboration with rapper Noah23, at which Pepper planned for an album to come of it.

“Then it ended up kind of by the wayside and it became one of those projects that people start rolling their eyes when you talk about it,” Pepper says. Fake Four Inc. put the record out in 2013, and Pepper describes it as “a pasty version of Gnarls Barkley.”

In addition to all of that, Pepper also has a podcast called PEP TALK! which he uses as a proverbial closet cleaning, as he writes so much material that many songs end up as orphans. He say he’s working on episode five now, which will feature a “fake band” theme that will reference his fake metal band, his fake psych-rock band and possibly more.

His latest release, though, is the My Bad EP, which is the first Gregory Pepper and His Problems release to feature Pepper doing all instrumentals. UK label Choose My Music will be releasing only 100 physical copies of the EP, though it will also be available as a free download.

“It was almost more like a glorified demo album,” he says. “I was really trying to embrace the flaws and mistakes that you hear on demos and make them sound a little more real and a little more human.”

Most of the material came from a song-a-day project he began last November.

“I’d write them in one sitting and try to record them as quickly as possible. Try to hold onto whatever sort of spark, life there is when a song is first birthed and not beating it to death with overdubs and trying to nail a part.”

Not that his songs are grandiose. He specializes in quick pop songs, most barely extending past two minutes. He has apparently been criticized for his brevity, but the fact that he can cram his ideas into an amount of time that some bands can’t even fathom shows that he knows what he’s doing.

“I don’t want to bore myself or the listener. So I usually just take one pass at everything and then try to repeat myself as little as possible,” he says. “It’s easier too. It takes less time. You get to play shorter shows. You only have to be in a space for like 20 minutes. You play 10 songs and that’s all it takes!”

In the near future, Pepper is hoping to take His Problems on a European tour, given the location of the label that’s releasing his new EP. But he likes to keep it real.

“The likely reality is that I’m going keep drawing and smoking cigarettes and eating chickpeas, the same old shit. Writing lots of songs.”

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