On a late December night at the Mercury Cafe, a dozen or so people wander on and off the stage. Some fiddle with various instruments--guitars, horns, hand drums, keyboards. Some chat with those doing the fiddling. And others don't do much of anything other than soak up the atmosphere or entertain the handful of children running around the Mercury's second floor. This is definitely an all-ages show: Virtually the only demographic category not represented in or out of the spotlights is the two-and-under set.
Then, almost imperceptibly, music begins to emanate from the front of the room. First there's only rhythm--drums and bass. Next, guitars, keyboards and various percussion devices are heard. Hands and voices, too. The sound builds into a ragged but persuasive funk groove as more people spill out of the audience and join the congregation. The line between who's in the group and who's only watching it becomes blurrier and blurrier, and the pronouncements of Charlie Buchanan, a blond-haired, fuzzy-faced sort who's as close to a frontman as these Denver guys get, don't make the situation any clearer. "Pepperment isn't a band," he says into the microphone like a laconic auctioneer. "It's a community."
Banal hippie nonsense, you say? In this case, no--although there's definitely the scent of the Sixties about the combo. For instance, the musicians honestly don't know how many members of Pepperment there are (somewhere between ten and twenty is a decent guess), and the question of when the project got its start proves unexpectedly perplexing for them. Perhaps Pepperment's birthdate occurred in the spring of 1993, when Buchanan and Dwayne T. Wilson, Pepperment's spiritual leader, began to get more serious about their songwriting. It could have been much earlier--back when veteran Denver trumpeter Douglas "D.J." Jackson turned Wilson on to the joys of Parliament-Funkadelic. Then again, it might have been when the players were still in their mothers' respective wombs. Or maybe it was when solar gusts first whipped across the surface of the barren, fruitless Earth, creating a cosmic wind instrument, and the earliest thunderclaps gave the world its primary beats. Who knows? And why does it matter, anyhow? After all, chronology is an empty concept, man. The most important thing is the feeling. Or, as drummer/multi-instrumentalist Neal Landauer puts it, "Tightness versus vibe."
"Tightness went by the wayside," Buchanan reminds him. "We went with the vibe."
So they have. A well-structured performance be damned: Pepperment as a whole is more interested in breaking down the barriers that separate spectators from artists and artists from one another. At the Mercury, Pepperment plays its nameless jam and an eccentric dance/R&B ditty spiced by the flute playing of Chris Guillot before giving way to a singer/acoustic guitarist introduced as "just Lisa"; Sage, a young modern-rock band that calls to mind a homegrown Silverchair; and Pepperment vocalist Sara Hinnant, who recites a newly penned poem about her sad relationships with bad boys Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels (no doubt she would have been better off with Dr Pepper or Mr. Bubble). Even Pepperment's return adds to the variety: The act's core--Buchanan, Wilson, Landauer, guitarist/bassist Bob Grenz and multi-instrumentalists Pat Stolle and Aaron Langton--plays a generous selection of shaggy pop songs before segueing into hip-hop, jazz, funk and pretty much anything else that tickles the craniums of the others who join them at the microphones.
The melange is effortlessly "multi-culti" (Buchanan's word). At a time when the mass media is doing everything possible to segregate people with different backgrounds and cultures--by dividing radio formats according to ever-narrower definitions of age, gender and ethnic background, for example--Pepperment stands as a defiant alternative. Unlike most Colorado bands, it is not simply a white-boys' club: The outfit includes females (Hinnant, background vocalist Robin Landauer and keyboardist Katherine Fedde), African-Americans (Wilson, Jackson, an emcee named J.T.) and Chicanos (rap enthusiasts Mario and Ramone, among others). Likewise, the ages of the participants vary from teens to forties, and musical ability is not a prerequisite: Robert Hansen's role in Pepperment is to oversee "lights and aesthetic treatments."
Appropriately, Hansen considers live music to be an optical, as well as an aural, medium. "A lot of people here have backgrounds in the visual arts," he divulges. "Like Pat, who's an unbelievable sculptor."
"I think it's important to include as many creative expressions in a show as we can," Stolle notes. "That way, it becomes more than just people trying to rock you."
The Peppermenters haven't always needed to concern themselves with rocking anyone in person. The concept was initially a private one that existed primarily on the tapes that Wilson recorded and mixed on a modest four-track. He guesses that he has compiled at least fifty ninety-minute tapes of original Pepperment material. "It's kind of a collection of discourse between us," allows Neal, who also mans the board on occasion.
The few Pepperment recordings that have filtered out to folks not part of the inner circle--such as last year's Kona and X-Ray Noodlin--show Wilson and Neal to be producers with a taste for adventure. On Kona, cuts like "Restricted Labor," "Recollections" and "Elevator Funk" are merged into an effortlessly inventive collage of sound that's simultaneously disparate and of a piece. The recording quality is primitive, but the approach suggests a cross between De La Soul and Sly and the Family Stone.
The aforementioned influences come into play, as do the inspirations of P-Funk, Prince, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, James Brown, Cypress Hill and a list of others long enough to fill two more columns of type. That's a lot to juggle, and the daunting prospect of doing justice to this universe of beautiful noise kept Pepperment from entering the club scene for a couple of years. But last summer a truncated edition of the unit began popping up at area venues, and the Mercury appearance convinced the collective that a more expansive stage show can work.
"We never had so many people up there for the whole time," Stolle reveals. "Logistically, to bum-rush with fifteen or twenty people is something to consider."
"We couldn't have fit more unless we started pyramiding," Buchanan adds.
"We might do it, too," Wilson says. "And we might put mikes in the audience, or whatever. Just because something hasn't been done doesn't mean we can't do it. We'll do what we do naturally. We just want to make the stage a safe place to be."
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"Yeah--and get everyone involved who wants to step up," Buchanan elaborates. "It's therapy--therapy to the world."
Buchanan is prone to declarations like this one; another of his favorites is "You get out of Pepperment what you put into it." To that end, the musicians have decided to make Pepperment the focus of their energies. Several have quit their day jobs in order to devote themselves entirely to their creative efforts. They hope to assemble the best of their recent tunes, record them more professionally (possibly at the home studio of the Apples, with whom they share rehearsal space) and put out their first commercially available disc. "Whether it will be commercially viable is another thing," Neal concedes. "But we have plenty of itch right now, and the jones to write new songs."
"There are so many different ways of attacking it," Wilson points out. "And we'll probably try all of them."
Keeping this entire carnival together will certainly be a challenge. But given luck and hard work, the Pepperment team has an opportunity to broaden the neo-hippie genre--to make music that embodies the freedom and fellowship of the style without falling prey to the cliches that leave much of it seeming flaccid and soulless. "You'll probably see the pink people up front at first," Wilson says, "but the rest of us are pushing in there, too. And together, we can really go somewhere.