Since 1997, Pepper has been bringing their sometimes raunchy, sometimes heartfelt and always energetic songs to fans around the world. And vocalist-guitarist Kaleo Wassman is the luckiest man on the planet for being able to do just that.
Even in a short conversation, Wassman mentions how grateful he is more than a few times. He also attributes the good nature of the music and the longevity of the band to its Hawaiian origins.
“I’ve been lucky to travel all over the world during my career and see all different cultures,” he says. “But there’s nothing like Hawaii. To put it into words is difficult. It’s definitely more of a feeling. To express it, I can’t do it justice. The only way to say it is it’s magical.”
Wassman is the only Pepper member of Hawaiian descent, although he and his musician pals Bret Bollinger (bass and vocals) and Yesod Williams (drums and backing vocals) have lived the Hawaiian vibe. “I grew up very humble and poor,” Wassman recalls, “but we were still the happiest people.”
That carries through in the rock, reggae, punk and ska mix that Pepper will bring to the Westcott Theater on Saturday, Sept. 28. The group’s current tour has them traveling from Richmond, Va., to Boston to San Diego, with the Westcott Nation sandwiched between.
They’re also hot on the heels of a new record: Pepper, released Sept. 3 on the Island/Law Records/Velvet Hammer Music label, marks a turning point in the band’s career—one where they had to stop and rediscover who they are.
“After 2008’s Pink Crustaceans and Good Vibrations, it was a good point to stop recording,” Wassman says. “We started getting onto what I call the conveyor belt. There was so much traction, shows were getting bigger, albums were selling better and we got to the point where we got on this conveyor belt of what wasn’t healthy. We’d tour, come home, record, tour again immediately. That pace can wear down yourself and your relationships with your bandmates and anyone else. We needed to explore life.”
Pepper put out only an EP in 2010 and when they were ready to hit the studio again, they did it with the help of producer Matt Wallace (Maroon 5, O.A.R., Faith No More). It was Wallace who sat the three down and asked the troubling question, “Who are you guys right now?” “That was a really big question for a while,” Wassman says. “We had to think. And that’s why the album is self-titled. It’s an accurate representation, a journal of where the band is. We don’t want to pretend we’re something we’re not.”
What Pepper is can be heard on the album, but it’s best represented live. Energy is the name of their game and Wassman says the ultimate goal is to have everyone walk away with a smile. “We always want them to feel better when they leave,” he says.
The group has five studio albums they’ll draw from at the Westcott show and Wassman is hoping the crowd will return the energy they put out. “They say it takes two to tango,” he says. “So the band is one person and the crowd is the other. When you hit it off, there’s nothing better. That’s the feeling I’m talking about.”
Wassman uses a recent Baltimore gig as an example. At the end of the concert, the crowd demanded the band return to the stage. “I thought, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? It’s a Wednesday! Don’t you have work tomorrow?’ They did not want to leave. So we went out and did a few more and said, ‘Thanks so much.’”
Wassman also makes sure he takes time to emphasize that the upcoming show isn’t just about the headliner. “I’d really love to give some love to our opening bands, RDGLDGRN and Grieves,” he says. “They’re supporting acts out there doing it, grabbing new fans.”
As for the standing question of, “Who is Pepper right now?” Wassman now has a confident answer. “We are three guys from Hawaii who have been playing music around the world since we left in 1999, who are absolutely in love with what we do. We’re in love with the position we’re in and we’re in love with the people we play for. That’s who Pepper is now and we’ve got a lot more music inside of us. It’s so fun to play music right now and it’s not bullshit. It’s authentic.”
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