Pepper: Start with reggae, stir in rock and soul |

Pepper: Start with reggae, stir in rock and soul

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Jared MilgrimCalifornia reggae-ska-rock group Pepper plays a two-night stand, Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 11, at Belly Up Aspen.

ASPEN ” Jamaica isn’t the only island where reggae rules. On the islands of Hawaii, too, reggae is a force ” so much so that there is a local hybrid, Jawaiian, a cross between Jamaica’s most popular export and indigenous Hawaiian styles. Jawaiian music has at times dominated the airwaves to the point of creating a backlash against it.

Growing up in Kona, on the big island of Hawaii, music-minded kids like Yesod Williams, Bret Bollinger and Kaleo Wassman could not escape the sound of reggae, in all its varieties. “UB40 ” that’s the biggest band to hit Hawaii,” said Williams, referring to the British band that reached its height of popularity in from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, mostly by putting a reggae accent on soul and pop songs. “Even now they’re on the radio constantly. They’re as influential as Bob Marley.”

When Williams, Bollinger and Wassman formed Pepper in the mid-’90s, reggae was the most obvious place to turn. On the trio’s fifth CD, “Pink Crustaceans and Good Vibrations,” reggae remains a clear touchstone: The album, released in July, kicks off with “Freeze,” an upbeat song pushed by the distinctive Jamaican drum-and-bass beat. The positive mindset of roots reggae runs from the album title through songs like “Love 101” and into the liner notes (“thank you God for the best jobs in the world”).

But Pepper only began with reggae. The 29-year-old Williams was raised by his parents on a diet of classic rock, especially Led Zeppelin. Williams, Pepper’s drummer, says that Zep drummer John Bonham “is the end-all, be-all for me.”

When he began developing his own tastes, Williams dug around in harder stuff: early Metallica, Slayer, and above all, Pantera: “They had a groove, a melodic sense, even though they’re as heavy as anyone out there.”

In the late ’90s, Pepper relocated to Southern California, and soaked up the sounds of their new home, especially So-Cal bands like Goldfinger, Pennywise and NOFX, who used ska ” a Jamaican forerunner of reggae ” and punk as foundations for its hardcore style. As much as individual bands, the trio ” with Wassman on guitar and Bollinger on bass ” admired entire record labels, like Epitaph, owned by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, and Phat, launched by NOFX.

“They had such integrity. Even if you didn’t know the band, you knew it was going to be good,” said Williams.

Pepper looks to emulate that business model. They recently formed Law Records, which released “Pink Crustaceans” and has signed two other bands in the reggae-rock mold: Georgia’s Passafire and Florida’s Supervillains. Those two join Pepper on their current tour.

Just as Pepper invites bands into its stable, they happily welcome more styles into their own musical make-up. On “Pink Crustaceans,” they have stirred even more into the pot. Along with the harder-hitting sounds, there is also a touch of smoothness in the melodic guitar hooks and the vocals ” not .

“A few of the songs have almost a Motown element,” said Williams. “And that’s super-cool because it’s something we’ve not had before.”

I mention that songs like “Things That You Love” and “Musical 69” have an old-school soul feel, and the drummer lights up.

“Soul ” that’s the one major groundbreaking element. It’s a huge honor to have your music called soulful.”

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