Think back to June of 1997. What was your life like then? Where were you living and working? Who were you spending time with? Were you in school? In diapers? Were you even born yet??
Think about how much your life and the world around you has changed since then. For some, that is an entire lifetime! Others have seen their lives evolve from one phase to another. Many of us have lost loved ones and experienced the birth of children. Relationships have ended and new ones begun.
Back in 1997, Bill Clinton was president. The world lost John Denver, Princess Diana, Chris Farley and Notorious B.I.G. Titanic and Men in Black were winning Oscars, Seinfeld and E.R. were the most popular television shows, and most people still used dial-up modems to get on the internet. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline was $1.22, while the average cost of a movie ticket was $4.59. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 7,000 for the first time, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, and the First Harry Potter book was published.
One thing that has remained consistent over the past 22 years, however, is that Kaleo Wassman, Bret Bollinger and YesodWilliams have been making music and touring together as the reggae/rock band, Pepper. Very few active bands in the American reggae community can boast about being contemporaries of Sublime, the scene’s progenitors. How many surf roots bands are performing original music that has been around for close to two decades?
What is the secret behind Pepper’s longevity? According to drummer Yesod Williams, the answer is simple: “Being a family first and a band second.” It’s an appropriate answer for a band that hails from Kona, Hawaii, where islanders stress the importance of Ohana. These strong bonds have surely helped the band avoid pitfalls that many lesser artists have succumbed to.
And after 20+ years, Pepper is not just enduring, but excelling. Last month, they dropped their 8th studio album, Local Motion, which currently sits atop the Billboard Reggae charts. Featuring collaborations with everyone’s favorite, Stick Figure, top reggae producer E.N Young and the widely respected Micah Brown of Iration, the album might prove to be the band’s biggest commercial success. Add to this the fact that Pepper is in the midst of a massive national tour with Iration, Fortunate Youth and Katastro, which kicked off with a celebrated 4.20 performance at the legendary Red Rocks Ampitheatre and continues through the end of August.
Speaking of the Live from Paradise! Summer Tour, at the end of this article, Rootfire will be giving away a pair of tickets to see a performance of choice.
Below, Yesod Williams shares some thoughts with Rootfire about various topics, including the band’s new album, their history and the growth of the musical community they’ve grown up in.
Pepper has been making music for over twenty years now. The landscape of the American reggae scene has grown quite a bit since then, especially in the past ten years. From your viewpoint, what was the community like back then compared to now?
There really wasn’t one. We were fans of Sublime and went down the wormhole of finding out where all the music they were playing came from. The was when the world musically exploded with inspiration for us, and when we found out about your Tenor Saw types, it was all over… we were hooked! We moved over to the mainland and had been hearing some noise back in Kona about this band Slightly Stoopid. We linked up, and as far as up-and-coming bands it was just us. Brad had died a couple years before so the elder statesmen were Long Beach Dub Allstars…..but that was it! It was a few bands playing reggae rock “against” the rest of the industry to gain recognition, and that’s the beauty of it…we didn’t need anyone, just the music. Flash forward to now and it’s the music leading the way as it should be!
I think most people in the reggae industry would view this growth as something favorable. More fans, more bands to tour with, more festivals and venues booking reggae bands should translate to more money and a bright future. Is this how it seems to you or, beneath the surface, have you found there to be any drawbacks from this growth?
Totally agree on all those positives, and the main positive is all these fans and bands you talk about are spreading just that, POSITIVITY, which is why it continues to flourish. The only drawback in my opinion is that with anything growing big, it tends to get watered down here and there with so much volume.
Could you tell us about Pepper’s first ever gig?
Oh yes, this was June of 1997. Bret and I had just graduated. There’s was a grad party at our friends’, The Campbells. We had just started the band with a handful of practices, a couple originals that ended up on Give n’ It, and a ton of covers. It was glorious, though I’m sure sloppy. We played that Bloodhound Gang song with Vanilla Ice on it and our buddy Sasha who is coincidentally tour managing us now, haha!!!! Regardless, it was then that the dream was born…
When Pepper started in the late 90s, did you think this would last two decades and turn into a full-time career?
No, but I always had some instinctual faith that we were headed somewhere, and if we continued working hard we’d get there. I think the only thing ever in question is the destination, which is what keeps it exciting… and to be honest man, I respect the shit out of the process!
I’m sure you have enough crazy stories from 20 years of touring to fill a book. Can you share one of your favorites with Rootfire readers? (Something appropriate for all audiences, if you get my drift!)
It’s a story that keeps on happening over and over. I become aligned somehow with someone I’ve grown up listening to that has greatly inspired me…One of my faves is on a headlining tour around 2007…I think Mad Caddies were on the tour, and we were doing the “Brodeo.” (One of the, if not the first incarnation of the Brodeo.) We were doing an acoustic version of “Eat The Meek” by NOFX. One of the last shows was at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where Fat Mike showed up and wanted to play bass on it (acoustic bass, ha) because he caught word of it……mind blown on many levels!
Pepper has always been known for a mix of reggae and rock in the vein of Sublime, who had served as a big influence on the band upon starting out. While ska and punk have always been part of the Pepper sound, a lot of the band’s music really ventured into just straight up modern rock without even a touch of reggae. It seems with the last couple of albums, especially the latest, Local Motion, that the band’s music has become more consistently reggae-centric. Does this have anything to do with the production or was it all because of the songwriting? Was there a conscious decision to move in this direction or did it just evolve that way?
I think both. A conscious decision, and the people we entrusted in a huge way to produce this record for us. An equal 50/50. Reggae is our roots. We’re Kona boys. It’s in our blood and we’ll never forget that! That being said, I don’t think the three of us would have entered a studio and left with such a reggae–heavy result, so that’s the other 50% of the equation. Which, selfishly as such a huge reggae fan, I’m not complaining whatsoever. The “Local Motion” is working in my opinion! In a weird way we’re evolving by going backwards if that makes any sense.
Along those lines, to me, Local Motion seems like it could potentially be the most commercially viable album the band has released. Does the band feel that way as well, or do you not really think about such things? I’m just trying to get a feel for the creative energy and approach that went into making the record, and what kind of things were discussed or strategized during the process.
At the moment we’re not thinking that way. Of course, we want to succeed with the album, but we think that best way is to respect the process heavily. Let the music lead the way, which we are incredibly grateful to be a part of…and most importantly, have FUN every step of the way and the rest (whatever that may be) will follow.
Some of the songs on this album remind me of the Dirty Heads a bit. Can you see where I’m coming from on that?
Dave from the Dirty Heads worked on the album so absolutely, haha! We love those hammers.
What are your favorite songs off the new album? Which songs off the new album are fans most likely to hear on this upcoming summer tour?
As far as live so far, “Warning” has become a crowd favorite already on the last leg of the tour. This summer, we’re gonna hear more of that with fun guests happening all the time. You’ll hear, “Carnaval,” “Candy” and maybe even some “Sugar.” That’s only speculation…the Ohana usually decides what ends up being mainstays in the live show. My top 3 at the moment are ”Sugar,” “Warning,” and “Neighborhood.”
Hawaii has always been a hotbed for reggae music and a number of artists with Hawaiian origins such as Iration, The Green and HIRIE have become hugely popular on the national stage. Who are some of your favorite Hawaiian artists, past or present, that may not be as well known outside of Hawaii?
Landon McNamara is a beast. Noah Cronin who produces his records actually did some of Local Motion as well.
On a personal level, what got you into drumming? Who are your favorite drummers?
My parents and family, lot of music everywhere. My mom was an artist, my dad a musician. Then, being a fan is what was the catalyst. Heavy metal, early Metallica, Zeppelin, seeing Metallica and Motley Crue in the late 80s. A lot got me inspired and still does. My favorite drummers are John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Dave Grohl, Grizzly from Steel Pulse, and Claude from Ween. I actually still have all of my mom’s old records from when she was growing up. OG pressings of Zepp, Queen, Elton John… they sound amazing!
What kind of music do you listen to? Who are some of your favorite musicians?
I listen to most everything, even listening to a little modern country on vinyl these days, which is heavy to me…ha! Ween is my all time fave. The Police, Queens Of the Stone Age, Sublime, UB40, Prince, Pilfers, Graham Parsons I have a heavy respect for, Keef Richards, NOFX, Ludacris, Atmosphere, Tupac, Mad Season, Tenor Saw…I could go on forever. If you tune into my podcast station on the Yo Radio app, you can listen to an ongoing playlist of over 1000 songs to give you an idea of the broad spectrum.
If you weren’t a professional musician, what do you think you would be doing?
Still living in Kona, working in some sort of tourist gig, possibly still at the restaurant Roy’s that I worked at before and during the first couple years of the band. I would still be loving life, traveling to surf, probably just wouldn’t be having as much fun at my job, ha!
Wrapping up, after this extensive tour concludes, what do you think will be next on the docket for Pepper?
We actually have some more music in the can but not sure when we’re gonna release… but that’s the beauty of us having our own label in LAW Records — we can release it however we want! But the main focus right now, this tour and beyond, is spreading the local motion throughout the world!
Pepper’s Live from Paradise! Summer Tour continues through August 25th. Register to win a pair of tickets at a venue of your choice.