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Pepper Rabbit

Singh-ing Songs for the Outsiders

Sep 09, 2011 Web Exclusive
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Ask a blog-approved artist these days what bands from yesteryear were especially influential on them, and you’ll often hear names like Galaxie 500, Spaceman 3, Orange Juice, The Cure, OMD, the evergreen MBV and Joy Division, and so on. Far less often do you come across an indie up-and-comer who utters the names Supertramp and Chicago. But then Xander Singh, singer/songwriter of L.A.-based Pepper Rabbit appears to revel in going against the grain. Red Velvet Snow Ball, the second album to come from his partnership with drummer Luc Laurent, is, upon close enough inspection, a chamber pop celebration of outsider-ness. There’s “Allison,” an ode from afar to a celebrity crush; “Rose Mary Stretch,” born in a moment where Singh realized the life path he had chosen left him with little in common with old friends; “Murder Room,” which he describes as “a song about wanting to be alone”; and two songs inspired by outsider types real and imagined, “In Search of Simon Birch” and “The Ballad of Alessandro Moreschi.”

And yet, to speak to him, Singh certainly seems perfectly at ease with the world. In an extended chat (extended in part because our call kept getting dropped as he made his way in a tour van from Columbus to Chicago), Singh was eager to discuss Red Velvet Snow Ball, and yes, how it reflects his recent interest in the “classic pop” of such bands as Supertramp and Chicago. A rare indie frontman who considers himself first a singer, and yet who has hardly ever met a new instrument he didn’t want to learn: Xander Singh of Pepper Rabbit.

John Norris: Xander, you are in the home stretch.

Xander Singh: Yeah, this is the end of our last tour supporting the first record and then we’re gonna take a bit of the summer off to kind of sleep in and relax a little bit and then start getting ready for the new record.

Which of course is Red Velvet Snow Ball. It must be nice, the prospect of going out in this fall with a new record. Because even though your first album Beauregard came out in the fall of 2010, most of those songs had been released previously, they’d been around for a year or two right?

Yeah they’ve kind of been floating around and gradually picking up a little bit of speed but yeah we’re really excited to start playing the new songs live, and have the record out and let people hear some new stuff from us.

You guys spent most of the past year on the road, so how did you manage in sessions for the new record?

Before we started really heavily touring, Luc had moved out to LA after he graduated college. This was probably four or five months before we heavily started touring. So we kind of took that time and started writing and heavily demoing and recording the new songs. It was definitely kind of done in pieces. We spent those first few months writing and demoing stuff and then we went out on tour, and we found this little break I think last August. We had like two or three weeks off, so we went up to this studio outside of Seattle. And we recorded for about a week and a half or two weeks, then headed back out on the road, then came back and kept recording at the house in Los Angeles and then eventually got another break, started mixing for two weeks in December and finished mixing another two weeks in January, and finally February or March finally got it mastered. We would just work on it when we could.

Was it nice to have some breaks so you could maybe take a step back from it, then come back to it?

Yeah definitely. I think we’ve been on the road so much the last 12 months or so that I think we’re all a bit tired and could use time to relax a bit. We’re gonna use a lot of our break trying to figure out how to play the new record live. We’ve already pieced together three of the songs, but it’s gonna be interesting to see how it plays out. It’s a really exciting part of being in a band, especially the way we do it, we kind of write the music as we’re recording it. And then come back to the songs and try and figure out how to play ‘em live, especially things change a lot. When the instrumentation is so dense and layered, you can’t do on stage everything that you do in the studio.

Speaking of that layering, I think if there is one reputation Pepper Rabbit has gotten in the past year or so it’s that more is usually more for you guys, and that Xander never met a new instrument that he didn’t like.

[Laughs] Yeah that’s true.

How did that come to be?

I mean I started out like probably most kids, just focusing on one instrument, and for me it was acoustic guitar, when I was in high school. And then I started listening to different music and thinking, “Oh, maybe I can play more than one instrument.” And I just tried out everything I could and figured out that I liked everything that I tried.

Are there new ones on Red Velvet that you hadn’t used before?

There’s definitely a lot more electronic and synthesizer work on the new album. Mostly because it’s something I have grown interested in. Because when I first started listening to electronic music I thought, “Wow, I have no idea how these bands are doing that.” So I got really interested in the idea of electronic music and synthesis in general just ‘cause I had no idea what they were doing. So I slowly started to grasp the concept of using synthesizers. And I was really excited to start incorporating that into the music. The new record is not heavily synthesizer-based but it definitely has its own little voice in there, very complementary to the usual piano and guitar. And there’s still some clarinets and horns in there.

So, when I read that there are 11 instruments on the new record-does that count synthesized sounds, or…

I think that’s counting keyboards as one instrument. [Laughs]

If I was to ask you to complete the following phrase: Red Velvet Snow Ball is a more (blank) album than Beauregard, what would you say? Is there one word you could use to sum it up?

I would say, colorful, maybe? The first record had a lot of dark places. Some points it’s slow, some it’s fast, kind of all over the place. So I wanted to make a brighter and generally more colorful sounding record.

Overall do you consider it less of a folk record?

Yeah definitely. With Beauregard I was trying to figure out how to write music, how to piece together songs—just trying tons of different things. It was more or less kind of an exercise that turned into a band. But with the new one, I think we went into it saying, “We want to make an album, and we’re gonna put all our energy and time into it and really have it be well thought out.” We definitely made a conscious decision to dive more into the general pop genre, where there’s big choruses and clear melodies and we tried to make every song have something that the listener can take away, and still be humming along to hours later. Especially while recording and before, when we were writing the songs, I started listening to a lot more classic pop music. Like David Bowie stuff or even like Supertramp or Chicago, bands that really mastered the craft of pop song structure. And we tried to kind of recreate that in a sense, but definitely in our own way. It’s still got weird sounds and everything.

I understand that this record was more “collaborative,” which I suppose it would be hard to be less collaborative, since the first one was pretty much all your thing right?

Yeah well it was made in a completely different way. Whereas the first one Luc was living across the country and I would just be working on something and send it to him and he would play drums on it or tell me what he thought. With this one, in the writing process we were living together. So anytime I was downstairs in the studio and came up with something I would bring him down there and we would work things out. It’s much easier to do that if you’re in the same room than from across the country.

I know you’ve got a bass player, Jonathan, for the live shows, but how many instruments are you yourself playing?

Definitely less than I used to. When we first started touring I was playing trumpet and clarinet live I had to realize that I am not the best trumpet or clarinet player. You know I do play a lot of instruments but not one particularly well. If you were at the studio and saw me try to record a simple trumpet line, I would probably give you a headache with how many times I would mess it up. So we kind of replaced the trumpet and clarinet with some samples and then putting those melodies on vocal lines or keyboard lines. But right now, I’m just playing piano, synthesizer, guitar, and ukulele. Still doing tons of looping and whatnot. And that’s an instance where the songs have definitely changed live. Where I used to loop a trumpet line for one melody and now I am still doing the same melody but looping it on a synthesizer, you know. The sound’s always evolving.

Speaking of uke, it seems there is less ukulele this time?

Yeah, I don’t think there’s one song on the new record where ukulele is the main instrument. It’s definitely in there as a supplementary instrument. It wasn’t much of a conscious decision, but I just started writing more of the songs on piano. Because when I was writing the songs for the first record, ukulele was really all that I had around to write on. I was in a small apartment. But with this one when we started writing the music, I had a piano in my living room. So I tended to play it more often and use it as the principal writing tool.

I want to ask you about some specific songs, and just in general are you writing from a different place now than you did for the earlier songs? It seems like there’s some pretty specific personal references in some of the songs.

Yeah, you know I never really consciously sit down and write lyrics, and say, “I’m gonna write a song about this moment, or this experience or this feeling that I’ve had.” I just kind of start, when I’ve got a vocal melody, just start singing words that pop into my head and sound good together, and I write ‘em down.

I love the way there is this light and dark dichotomy in a lot of the songs. Like when I hear something like “Allison” which has got almost this carnival, jaunty feel to it, and I’m at a disadvantage ‘cause I don’t have lyrics in front of me so I’m trying to make out what you’re saying, but this “you will know my name” refrain comes off as almost stalker-y or something.

[Laughs] Yeah.

Is that super autobiographical?

Kind of, yeah. But in more of a lighthearted way, not really serious. It’s about a certain actress that I had a celebrity crush on or something. I never met her, never will meet her but I see a tendency in the lyrics of kind of over-analysis of simple thoughts. Whereas I will have a real simple thought go through my head and just really run with it into some kind of fantastical story.

So Allison’s name has been changed, I take it?

Uh, yeah.

Last night I tweeted about “Murder Room” ‘cause I love it and it’s got this super bright thing, as pure pop a song as you guys have done yet. But then if I am hearing it correctly, is this lyric about someone who had their head chopped off? Was this some kind of murder story?

[Laughs] Well, no really the song is about wanting to be alone, and feeling crowded. Just a really strong desire to kind of be away from everything. And, which is definitely a feeling I get from time to time which I am sure most everybody does. And this is just the materialization of my brain taking a simple idea and running in a crazy direction.

Can you just run down for me what that opening line is, something about a head in the window?

Yeah it’s uh, ‘‘Next I put your head in the window/ For everybody to see,” something like that, um, “No one yet realizes that/ it’s not attached to your body.”

Exactly! That’s what I thought you were saying….

[Laughs]

And I’m like, ‘dude, he’s got some dark places in his head.’

I know, I don’t really consider myself a dark person? I guess that just came to me or something.

I know you told Spinner that “Rose Mary Stretch” was more or less a song about a being a year removed from high school running into old friends who were all on the “responsible” path, and your feelings about that?

Yeah, just in general, when I left high school moved to India for a few years for my dad’s job and pretty much the day I graduated high school. And I really had no idea what to do, I went to college for like a week, and decided I didn’t really wanna do that. And then just kind of started moving around and I found myself back at a party in my old hometown, when my old high school friends were back home. And I just kind of, everyone was talking about how they were working toward this kind of degree in this good school, and they’d be like, “What are you doing Xander?” And I was just “I don’t know.” Just kind wandering around trying to figure out what I want to do. And it was kind of a very surreal experience.

Speaking of your parents, are they back from India now?

Yeah they actually live right outside of Seattle now, close to the studio we recorded at.

And they’ve been generally supportive of everything you’re doing?

Oh yeah, they’ve been the biggest fans since day one.

Because I have some Indian friends and I know the parents can sometime be real conservative about career choices.

Yeah, definitely, and my dad has been the complete opposite. And I think it’s because he went through the same things that I was going through at the time. We started the band, and kind of wanting to travel a bit and figure things out. And he really wanted to be a journalist, you know his dad kind of threw him into business school and that’s where he’s stayed the rest of his life. So he’s kind of been the most supportive in making sure that I can live out my dream and do exactly what I want to do and have a support system behind it. Because that’s something that he didn’t get the opportunity to do.

A couple of other new songs. “The Annexation of Puerto Rico” is actually not that new, right? It’s just epic and kind of sprawling and clattering and terrific.

That’s actually a special song on its own for us because that was one song that we’ve been playing since we heavily started touring early last year, so it’s kind of evolved. It’s the only song we didn’t write while we were recording it or demoing it. So it definitely evolved over the six months that we were playing it live and then brought it into the studio. It’s the only song that kind of wrote itself through playing it every night and making subtle changes, every night playing it live. As opposed to playing it in the studio, experimenting with different things, editing, changing things on the computer and what not.

And then there are two later album tracks that both refer in their titles to two characters, one fictional and one real life who both, you might say, are “outsiders” in life? If that’s fair? Talk a bit about Simon Birch and how he figured into a song.

I don’t know for some reason that song title just one day popped into my head and that was a song where one day we realized we needed a tenth song and we only had nine. So that was written in one night maybe half way into the first two weeks while we were recording, and we started recording it the next day. And so there wasn’t really a title for it and the title just kind of popped into my head and I thought it was clever and interesting. But I’m not exactly sure why Simon Birch came to mind.

Are you a fan of the movie?

Yeah definitely, it’s one of my favorite movies.

And then, Alessandro Moreschi, the castrato singer?

Well I’ve always been kind of interested in, because first and foremost I see myself as a vocalist, because that’s how I was introduced to music was through singing and being in choruses. So I’ve always been interested in vocalists throughout history. And just the nature of the whole castrato movement was a weird and somewhat taboo thing that had always somewhat interested me. When I first learned about that it was kind of shocking and surprising that that actually took place. Especially because growing up I was in choirs and whatnot and I was always when I was younger a soprano, so I’d be singing these parts. And then when I found out about this….

And the idea of remaining a soprano never really appealed to you?

[Laughs] No, definitely not. I wanted to let nature take its course.

So did you look into his story?

Yeah, I read some articles and whatever I could find on him and he just interested me, mainly because he was the only one who was ever recorded. It was a very long standing practice and to only have one audio document of it was kinda cool to me.

Is that because, by the time audio recordings became common, they had stopped doing that?

Pretty much he was kind of the last one and audio recording had kind of just come out when he was kind of winding down his career. His story always interested me, I felt a little bad for him just because I don’t think that his castration was necessarily by choice. He was kind of forced into this life.

You think it’s trying to connect too much to say that Simon Birch and Moreschi each in their own way were kind of outsiders?

No I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head there, but, I mean, it’s something that I don’t often think too much about while I am in the process of writing. I kind of let things happen and then kind of reflect when I’ve had time to step away from it. But you know I’m still trying to figure out what some of these songs are about. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

On the subject of titles, I am really intrigued to know where Red Velvet Snowball came from. Is that a pastry or something?

It’s basically a fancy snow cone which, when we were recording the first record in New Orleans they have these very local kind of snow cone where it’s very, very finely shaved ice, with these almost very condensed milk syrup flavors and they have everything. So we’d go get them every day and I always got the red velvet cupcake flavored one. And it was something that just stuck with me. And we were originally gonna use it for the first record, but at the time it was like, “No, first record has to be one word,” so we went with Beauregard.

And then accompanying that title is this fascinating folk art on the cover. Who’s responsible for that?

Luc is, he’s very into painters and art and he came across this painting by this guy named James Ensor. And we both really loved his artwork and wanted to kind of do something like that. But neither him nor I are amazing artists, and we didn’t just want to slap his painting on the cover. So we gave it to one of our friends who is a great graphic designer and he really just kind of traced over it and put it in the computer, and messed with his own tracing and put in colors. And it’s kind of like an updated version of the painting. And like I say, I think the music is very colorful, so we wanted a cover that represented that.

But at the same time, as with the music it’s playful there’s just a hint of something unsettling or creepy about the cover, there’s a skeleton holding a baby, an ape’s face, a ghoulish guy in a top hat.

Definitely, it’s very colorful if you look at it from a distance. But if you really get up close to it and think about what you’re looking at, there are some weird things in there, just like the music.

One of the things I love about the album is that even with Beauregard when people would frequently compare you guys to Grizzly Bear or Morning Benders or Beirut or Neutral Milk Hotel, or even Animal Collective, none really fit. Pepper Rabbit really resists any of those comparisons. Because as you said, at your essence, you’re a pop band, but there’s other stuff going on there as well. To me that means you’ve cultivated that rarest of things, your “own sound.”

Yeah, and I think it’s because it all comes from a place of, I listen to lots of different music from tons of different eras and I really love all of it. So the influences are gonna come into the songs. But it all depends on my favorite band of the day was when I wrote the song. They all might pop up, and they all come from a pretty wide sound palette. Also I never wanna make music that feels just geared toward one specific person. I want everybody and their great-grandfather to enjoy it. I try and keep an open mind with it and try and write something that not only I really love but that anyone can. I think there’s something in there for everybody.

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