by Amanda Kaiser
Following the release of their sophomore LP, Red Velvet Snow Ball, L.A.-based duo Pepper Rabbit hopped on a bus for a sweeping tour of North America without stopping for air. The tour, fronted by Montreal-based group Braids and followed up by experimental indie pop duo Painted Palms, began in June spanning coast-to-coast and will finish up mid-October. Comprised of frontman Xander Singh and drummer Luc Laurent, Pepper Rabbit’s attitude towards the music industry seems to be “go, go, go,” but the psyche pop pair’s sonic vibe is anything but. Soft, lushly painted soundscapes and twinkling synths are the defining sound of Pepper Rabbit — peppered, if you will, with the eclectic sounds of the xylophone, trumpet, ukulele and more (their recent album used a total of eleven different instruments).
Painted Palms set the dreamy tone for the night at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. The duo blew the crowd away with their surfer-pop dusted with looping synths and echoing envelopes of noise. Pepper Rabbit, joined by their touring bassist Jonathan, took the stage next and warmed up the chilly Tuesday night with a good sample of Red Velvet Snow Ball (they played about ¾ of the album, including the single “Rose Mary Stretch”). Pepper Rabbit’s set was kicked off by the haunting song “Allison,” dedicated to a mystery girl, with gorgeous layers and an eerie carnival feel, and ended with “Murder Room,” a sweeping ballad off their most recent release. The duo even catered to the audience’s request and played the popular track “Older Brother” off Beauregard, their debut album of 2010.
Luckily we got a few moments with Xander Singh of Pepper Rabbit to discuss the band’s North American tour, experimenting with instruments, and dirty socks.
Amanda Kaiser: Have you ever been to Chicago before? Do you have a favorite spot?
Xander Singh: Yep, I’ve been in Chicago I think four times. I really love Schubas. It’s a great venue to play at. I’ve been here mostly for business, unfortunately, so I don’t really leave the music venue, it’s just back onto the bus once it’s over.
AK: Everyone at UR Chicago loved the story of how you guys bought instruments and learned to play them watching YouTube clips for your newest album. You’ve definitely left behind the stripped-down sound of your first album Beauregard in place of eleven instruments including the synths and even a ukulele. What inspired you to add these new instruments to the mix?
XS: Well, I’ve always been interested in how an instrument sounds more than I’ve been interested in how to play them really well. I never really sit in my bedroom and practice guitar for an hour or so. I’m more, you know, scrounge around Craigslist or different stores wherever I am and try to find a new sound I haven’t heard before and then try to do something with it. So that’s why I tend to gather a variety of different instruments. I’m far more interested in the sound of something than, you know, how well I can actually play it.
AK: How does this incorporation of more instruments affect your live set?
XS: Well, it’s kind of the same as the first record where there were a lot of different instruments and we couldn’t take everything out on the road, so we rearranged a few songs and played them a little bit differently. Sometimes we played a trumpet melody on a keyboard or something like that. And we’ve kind of done the same thing arranging the new sound for the live show. We’re also using a few more samples and sometimes leaving a few parts out here and there and adding a different part [trails off as his voice is drowned out by a fire siren…]
AK: So, you were saying you’ve been using different instruments in the live songs?
XS: Yeah, mostly because, like I said, I’m not very technically proficient at most of the stuff I play [Author’s note: he plays about ten instruments though. Cut him a break!]. For instance, when I’m in the studio recording I can allow myself four hours to just nail a simple trumpet part, but I can’t do that live. Onstage I’d have to hit it every time. We actually brought the trumpet out when we first started playing and never played any of the parts right, and I did the same with the clarinet and messed up a lot so we eventually said, “You know this trumpet line, maybe we can all just sing it,” or, you know, play the clarinet melody on a keyboard or something to make it a little bit more risk-free.
AK: You two seem to jibe together pretty well onstage. How does your relationship play out during the writing and recording process?
XS: Well, normally I’ll kind of just wake up one day and be like, “Okay, today’s the day I’m going to write a new piece of music.” I have a home studio, so I’ll just go downstairs and mess around on different things until I get a structure of a song, and Luc will come downstairs and write the drum parts. Then we’ll listen to it a bunch and edit a few things together, then go back and finish it up. But the live show is definitely very different. I play most of the bass parts on the newest record but our touring member, Jonathan, is an incredible bassist, so he pretty much rewrites all of the bass parts off the record for the live show and makes them a lot better. The live show is a very, very collaborative effort, so to speak.
AK: You’ve been on tour most of the year preceding the release of your newest album Red Velvet Snow Ball. How’s that been?
XS: Very tiring. Very, very tiring.
AK: Understandably so. So, what are five tour essentials you make sure to pack in your suitcase?
XS: Definitely a fresh batch of stand-up comedy on the iPod.
AK: Cool. What are you watching now?
XS: I’m anxiously awaiting Patton Oswalt’s new stand-up CD. He’s my favorite comic. When you’re on the road you’re in the van so much constantly listening to music, and you end up listening to the same albums over and over again. It can just get kind of tiring being around music all the time, so listening to a podcast, radio show or stand-up album is definitely a nice change of pace. But the stand-up albums become a little bit less funny each time you listen to them, so it’s always important to have fresh ones. [Laughs] So, that’s one of the essentials.Of course you have a few good books for when your iPod, iPhone or laptop dies; you have to go primitive and read a book.
AK: That’s always rough.
XS: [continues] Water is an essential thing. I find we spend a lot of money on water because we go to a gas station and it’s kind of routine to buy a bottle of water, but when you go into, like, five gas stations a day those bottles of water get expensive. So, lately we’ve been trying to bring our own water bottles and fill them up where we can. Your own pillow is a very nice thing to keep some kind of consistency with your sleeping arrangement. That’s a good one. Also a bunch of socks and underwear, because most guys can wear the same shirt a few days in a row and be fine, but there’s nothing worse than wearing the same pair of socks twice in a row. It’s just an awful feeling! I probably have more pairs of socks than shirts with me on this tour. You can see how wrinkly this thing is [gestures to his not-that-wrinkled button-down shirt]. Well, it was far more wrinkly a little bit ago. I just pulled it out of my suitcase. [Author’s note: And that’s five items! Nailed it!]
AK: So, last night I started following you guys on Twitter. What’s your favorite Twitter account? Anyone that entertains you?
XS: Well, I’m very entertained by one of my friend’s Twitters, but I don’t think it’d be really interesting if you didn’t know them. It’s a good way to keep up with what your friends back home are doing. Even with as much downtime as we have on the road, whenever you have downtime you’re usually asleep, so it’s really hard to keep in touch with people back home. A lot of times, too, you’ve just been around a huge crowd and you don’t want to talk to anybody and then, you know, two weeks go by and your mom sends you a text like, “Hey, just want to check and see if you’re still alive.” So, it’s great that you can hit up your Twitter feed and see what your friends are up to. I’m also a big Apple and Mac nerd, so I keep in touch with the Apple rumors.
AK: What’s that? I’m a Dell person so I wouldn’t know.
XS: It’s a Twitter account that keeps track of all the rumors of new products and stuff, so that’s always interesting. But that’s a completely nerdy thing that you probably don’t even need to print. [Author’s note: Sorry, Xander.]
AK: Speaking of Twitter, last night I read that – [Xander starts laughing] You know what I’m gonna say?
XS: After a few too many beers. [Laughs] Yeah.
AK: The girl you wrote the song “Allison” about on Red Velvet Snow Ball is engaged, right?
XS: Oh, I’ve gotta keep that story close to my chest for fear of embarrassment. And if I actually ever meet her one day.
AK: So, you don’t know her. Celebrity crush maybe?
XS: Kinda. It’s all in the lyrics if you listen closely. But for the sake of my own dignity I’d rather keep that under wraps a little bit. But I will say I did have a few too many beers last night and got really bummed out when I found out she had gotten engaged.
AK: Sorry about that. So, what’s up next for you guys after you finish up your tour at the end of October?
XS: Lots of rest. Luc is working on a few things with another band, and I’m going to be working on a few things as well. You never know what the future holds, so it’s always a bit unpredictable. We’ll see what happens, I guess. [Laughs] You’ll know when I know.
AK: Sounds good, I’ll peep your Twitter then. Thanks so much for talking with UR Chicago and best of luck on the rest of your tour!