When I got the word that Pepper bassist/vocalist Bret Bollinger would participate in an interview I began to think about what content I wanted to discuss. At first, I had planned to do the usual “new album, touring and collaborations” format. But, that all changed for me when we posted the interview announcement on our social networks. I was surprised, and little shocked, by the responses from fans. Some fans were calling Pepper “sell outs.” Some fans said Pepper’s new album catered to teenage girls. Other fans said that Pepper had lost connection to their “roots” and were motivated by the potential for mainstream success.
Change, personal growth and evolution are very personal and unique to each of us. Life’s tragedies, struggles and joys have a way of putting things into perspective and give all of the freedom to change and grow. Some of us choose to change and grow, and some of us don’t. Bands are no different. To me, it’s very simple. Bands are people, people change, and, therefore, bands change. However, what is not so simple is the process behind the change, the evolution; and what fans see (or hear) is the outcome of the evolution and not the process. We don’t get to learn about the tragedies, struggles and joys that are part of the evolution process. It was these factors that motivated me to discover more about Pepper’s evolution story—or, let’s call it “rebirth.”
Pepper was born out of friendship between bassist/vocalist Bret Bollinger and guitarist/vocalist Kaleo Wassman, who have been friends since middle school. They later added drummer Yesod Williams to complete the trio that we know as Pepper. The band began playing during their last year of high school and eventually garnered a loyal following on The Big Island of Hawaii. Even though all three had deep connections with their hometown of Kona and the community, they decided to try their hand at music on the mainland. “One day we made a decision, randomly, that we are going to the main land. As kids, it was about that thought out, maybe even less,” reflects Bollinger.
Pepper jumped into the California music scene feet first. They were living a dream—playing music, learning about the music business and how to be a band. The trio soaked it all in, created their own niche and attracted a loyal, and ever-growing fan base. The band recorded five studio albums between 2000 and 2008. However, Pepper’s musical identity, was the road, the high energy shows and the fans, which meant recording albums was always secondary. “We recorded albums so we could tour again. We’d jump off the road, take a little break and then say, ‘Okay, lets learn some jams. See you in the studio. We had no real musical identity in the studio,” says Bollinger.
This “road-to-the-studio and back-to-the-road” process continued for eight years, and in 2008 a realization struck the band. “We looked at each other and we didn’t even recognize the people, the friends and the brothers that we were. We’d lost connection with our personal lives, our wives, our dogs, our friends, our family—the people that provide the foundation of who we are as individuals,” reflects Bollinger.
During the same time as this awakening, there were added pressures from Pepper’s management to produce another album and get back on the road. So, that is exactly what Pepper did. In 2008, they went into the studio and recorded Pink Crustaceans and Good Vibrations.
“This was our worst album by far….it was a miserable time and we phoned it in on the album,” says Bollinger. Personal tragedies, divorces and deaths were taking a toll on the trio. “….but, we were numb to it, because we were just circling the world on tour. It was a hard time in our lives,” reflects Bollinger.
The growing disappointment of the album, eight straight years of touring and 250 shows a year culminated in disconnects from family, friends and each other, and created a crossroads for Pepper. In 2010 the trio took a long overdue break. “Some of us went on vacations, some of us went back to Kona to just try to reconnect, we spent time traveling and rebuilding our lives,” says Bollinger.
Bollinger, Wassman and Williams had to find themselves individually and personally, and at the same time, they had to collectively find Pepper. “There was never any drama between us. The break was about feeling disconnected from who we are. We put our career first, instead of putting ourselves first. We lost the connections to why we started this in the first place—because we love music, we love art,” says Bollinger emphatically. Bollinger continues, “Thankfully we didn’t lose ourselves, our friendship and we didn’t squander our career. We did the exact opposite; we reconnected and reaffirmed the band.”
Eventually travel, friends, family and community filled the emptiness, and Bollinger, Wassman and Williams began to reconnect. This reconnection meant that for the first time in eight years the trio spent time together as friends, not band mates or colleagues. “As weird as it sounds, this was the first time in eight years that we hung out together as just friends, and not working. We cried, we fought, we shared where we’d been, what we’d been doing. It sounds very kumbaya, but that’s exactly what happened,” says Bollinger.
It was these moments that allowed Bollinger, Wassman and Williams to reconnect, and check-in with each other about the future of Pepper. There was a collective sense that Pepper was not done, but that the band would move forward in a new way. This check-in was the beginning of Pepper’s rebirth.
Bollinger, Wassman and Williams began the band’s “rebirth” by reviewing every inch of their business—from the touring crew, to management, to executive management, to business management, to past producers, to future producers, to their booking agencies. For the first time, Pepper began to thoughtfully plan for their future. “As kids you don’t realize how nuts everything was, because you are bouncing off the walls, and saying ‘yes’ to every single thing. We were all balls and no brains!” exclaims Bollinger.
The second step was to develop an identity as recording musicians and as a recording band. To aid in this process, Pepper built a recording studio “The Hatch” in 2011. “This gave us the opportunity to rehearse for the first time. In the studio we taught ourselves how to record, how to write music together, and realized what we wanted to sound like for the first time ever,” says Bollinger.
The studio also allowed Pepper to be patient, experiment and fail. “….and accidentally erase an entire song because you don’t know how to use the recording equipment,” laughs Bollinger. The culmination was the EP “Stitches.” The process behind creating “Stitches” was empowering for Pepper. For the first time the trio was developing confidence in the studio and finding “their sound,” rather than blindly following the guidance of a producer who had a vision of what the “Pepper sound” was suppose to be. The momentum continued for Bollinger, Wassman and Williams and throughout 2011-2012 they continued to write music.
The final step of the band’s rebirth was Producer Matt Wallace. Known for his work with artists like REM, Faith No More, O.A.R, Maroon 5 and Blues Traveler, Wallace’s resume speaks for itself. But, for Bollinger, Wassman and Williams it wasn’t what Wallace listed on paper that impressed them.
“We connected with Matt Wallace because of the natural energy that was created between all of us. He just got it. He made us feel beyond capable, beyond safe and beyond invigorated,” says Bollinger.
Wallace became more than just a producer to Bollinger, Wassman and Williams. He became a professor, a mentor, and a friend. As a professor Wallace answered questions and provided history. As a mentor Wallace provided patient explanation, didn’t dictate, and proved to be a great listener by incorporating the band’s feedback. And, as a friend, Wallace regularly checked-in, drank beer and agreed to learn how to surf. “We made a true friend in life…we never felt like we were working, we knew we were doing something more than work, we were creating something special,” reflects Bollinger.
The Wallace-produced, self-titled album “Pepper” was released in 2013. There is a sense of pride, excitement and energy in Bollinger’s voice as he talks about the album, “This is our favorite record. It’s the only album that we have actually listened to. We have the deepest connection to these songs, because it’s ‘our’ music—instead of an album of Pepper that is brought to you by someone who is really talented and wants to showcase what they think Pepper should sound like. This album is Pepper learning how to be Pepper with the support of a world class Producer.”
Pepper is now defined by their rebirth, playfully calling themselves “Pepper 2.0.” Pepper 2.0 is completely free. There are no borders or limits. Pepper 2.0 is artist expression. There is a renewed focus, attention to detail and energy funneled in the right directions. Pepper 2.0 is a focus on the big picture. Pepper 2.0 is more brains than balls. There is an understanding that without relationships to people and the love for the music, Pepper doesn’t exist. But, even with all this warm-and-fuzzy enlightenment and self-realization, there is that fact that change is tough.
I don’t know anyone who says, “I love change” or “I love it when my life is completely unpredictable.” There are always exceptions to the rule, but I think it is part of human nature to strive for consistency, stability and security—and, change is none of these things. So, it makes sense that fans resist the evolutions and changes of their favorite bands. Fans feel as though their favorite band has “betrayed” them or “sold out” for less than honorable reasons—like radio play or mainstream success. And, yes, a band’s evolution could be selling out or betrayal, but it could also be the uncontrollable factors of life that force us to consider new things and result in change.
Bollinger, Wassman and Williams aren’t concerned about fan’s disappointments; rather, they love that fans hang onto songs from “Kona Town.” “Kona Town was the beginning for us. It was a great time for Pepper. And, the best part about it, is that those songs aren’t going anywhere,” says Bollinger. Pepper wants fans to hold onto the band’s “roots,” because it means that they know the band’s journey and evolution.
For Bollinger, Wassman and Williams, musical evolution is nothing new. “We have always been a band about evolution. If you listen to ‘Kona Town’ and ‘In With the Old,” they sound very different. At that time, it was important to us to have a song making fun of Kobe Bryant or a song about a cowboy who wanted to be punk rocker. That was Pepper, at that time. Evolution is just part of the deal,” says Bollinger.
Like all of us, Bollinger, Wassman and Williams are music fans. They have their go-to albums and favorite playlists. So, they understand the fan perspective and the resistance to change. Bollinger reflects, “I remember when Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) died. I was one of those fans who wrongfully thought ‘Alice in Chains is not that band, without ‘this’ ingredient or ‘this’ style.’ I had no right to think this—because it is important for all of us to allow people to come as they are, and appreciate, or not appreciate, what they have to offer…evolution is a natural part of art and people.”
Pepper’s story offers insight into the complexities of life that ultimately affect creativity, aspirations, art and, most importantly, relationships. I think it is easy to say “Pepper sold out!” or “Pepper needs to return to their roots,” because then we can conveniently disregard the messy parts of the story. If you think about it, selling out is easy. All of us can imagine the money, fame, sold out shows, endorsements, free shit—the list goes on-and-on. The hard part is self-reflection, disappointment, failure and the impacts of blind personal pursuit on families, friends and communities.
I hope that, at a minimum, Pepper’s story causes all of us to reflect on a handful of things. First, a band’s perceived evolution is more complex than assumed. Second, artists must be true to themselves. Third, personal relationships are just as important to success as making great records. Fourth, there are “real” people behind the music—whether you like the music or not—that must go through their own processes of discovery. And finally, musical evolution is the reflection of personal evolution, change and growth—and without it we’d all be stuck in the past.
Check these 3 videos below, with each member of Pepper talking about the making of their latest self-titled album…
Watch: Pepper – Making of the Album Pt. 1
Watch: Pepper – Making of the Album Pt. 2
Watch: Pepper – Making of the ALbum Pt. 3