Good old fashioned malt-shop, doo-wop, retro-kissed glimmer abounds in plenty with the Brooklyn pop group PEP. Don’t be fooled, however–it’s a taste of yesteryear with a twist. Brainchild of former Starlight Girls drummer Karys Rhea, PEP marks the songwriter’s first full-on foray into lyrical waters.
The result is an ambitious, theatrical outfit that comes across both classic and innovative. Rhea’s penchant for old-school soul formulas mix with 80s and 90s inspired pop to create a blend that feels instantly recognizable but never contrived.
BTR talks with the songwriter about PEP’s history and the cultural well that it draws from.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): Tell me a little bit about what the band has been up to lately.
Karys Rhea (KR): PEP has pretty much been recording for the last year and a half. The album is taking longer than expected, so this summer we decided that we’d release something else in the interim.
We have so many talented friends playing music that inspire us, so we thought we’d record three covers by bands that we know personally and deeply respect. We recorded a song by Fort Lean, Little Daylight, and Battlehooch (from San Francisco).
We’re currently finishing up those tracks now and they’ll be released in early 2016…then it’s back to working on the full-length!
BTR: Speaking of which, you’re getting really close to releasing the full-length debut “…Presenting PEP!” What’s the process been like so far, in terms of both writing and production?
KR: It’s been quite a learning process. I’m currently re-recording all the lead vocals because I didn’t do it right the first time around. I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned so far is that I need to be the one editing my own vocals, and that I should never sing more than three songs in one day when I’m in the studio.
I’ve played on many recordings, particularly when I was drumming in Starlight Girls, but this was the first time I sang lead on a full-length and produced my own songs (with the help of Jake Aron and Andrew Lappin). Even though the parts were already arranged before recording, once we laid everything down, something seemed to be missing. The sound wasn’t full enough. So we invited our friend Michael Rosen to add some Wurlitzer and organ. Then Christina B, lead singer of Starlight girls, and I recorded some midi keyboard parts on top of that.
That really made the difference and resulted in us bringing keyboardist Sharif Meckaway into the band as our seventh member.
BTR: How did the rest of the group come together? I read somewhere that it all began after you heard “Runaround Sue” playing in a clothing store…
KR: In the beginning it was just me. I used to hum doo-wop style melodies to myself while practicing drum rudiments, and I started turning them into songs. I made an EP while I was on tour with Starlight Girls, but before I released it I figured I should get a live set going. I bought a looper and tried to play the drums, guitar, and sing back-ups myself.
I quickly realized that looping is insanely hard, pretty much an art in and of itself, and that I was kidding myself. So I birthed out my own back-up singers, straight from the womb, picked up some dingy dudes off the street, and formed a band.
Images courtesy of PEP.
BTR: PEP really nails the ’50s look, with an almost satirical twist. How does that particular aesthetic factor into the vision of the band?
KR: The aesthetic was a natural outgrowth of the music actually. I never imagined the project would be as thematic as it is and have such a strong brand. But when we began to play shows, we understood that the music demanded a certain kind of professionalism on stage. We’re not a rock band. We have choreographed dance moves and intense vocal harmonies. We’re an act, or an “outfit”, if you want to sound old-fashioned. It was inevitable that we step up to the plate, aesthetically, so the performance could live up to the music.
BTR: Your sound takes its roots from doo-wop, but manages to turn them it into something fresh. How do you go about capturing some of those vintage sounds on songs like The Marvelettes cover “All The Love I Got”?
KR: When you listen to those late 50s/early 60s doo-wop and soul acts, it’s easy to hear how the songwriting generally adhered to a certain formula, one that I found to be incredibly moving and evocative. Those writers had a pop sensibility that never fails to amaze me. So I started playing with those chord progressions and guitar picking patterns and bass licks and mersey beats. Incorporating those elements into my already 80s and 90s influenced compositions created a unique style that called for its own music project.
BTR: Do you think the technology available to musicians today can bring us closer to recreating some of the sounds from that era? Are there some things that simply can’t be recaptured?
KR: I’ve thought about this a lot. There are definitely things that can’t be recaptured, and I actually think technology moves us further away from recreating those sounds–which is ok, because technology is enabling us to make new sounds that are just as expressive and stimulating but in different ways. But these vintage sounds are impossible to duplicate with technology because the very act of using technology, such as melodyne and plug-ins, to achieve that sound is inherently only a reference to the sound, not the sound itself.
Even if you have the tightest band in the world that can record straight to tape with no overdubs, and even if you get your hands on one of those $40,000 reverb plates, you’ll still hear a difference. That’s why old music is sacred. It’s unique to its time. So you have to find your own sound and strike the right balance between familiarity and originality.
BTR: You’ve toured pretty extensively as of late, including a coast-to-coast tour in the fall of last year. What are some of your favorite memories from being on the road?
KR: Personally, my favorite memory is eating Montreal bagels with schmear after arriving in Canada. We also enjoyed hot-tubbing with our drummer’s dog at his parents’ mansion in Bel Air.
BTR: What’s in store for 2016?
KR: We’ll be handing out egg sandwiches at future shows.
To hear more from PEP, check out their bandcamp or tune into BTR’s very own In the Den.