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Interview with Stephen Peppos, October 2010
The Indiana Jones of New Age music? Interview by Michael Debbage

Interview with Stephen Peppos, image 1
For some of you the name Stephen Peppos may be a new artist when in reality Stephen has been tolling over many years of labor hours associated with television productions. Peppos is now making up for lost time releasing not one, not two, but three full length solo albums in less than two years, keeping in mind that this does not include his Christmas Nights EP also released in 2008. With that kind of creative output one would think diminishing returns but to date this has not diluted his ability to compose and create very memorable albums.

From the frantic and energetic debut Vertigo to his most recent ambient mellow magic of Stephen’s Dreams, the Indiana Jones of New Age music is more than capable of taking his listeners on a magic carpet ride to faraway musical worlds of entertainment and escape. However, Peppos is not just a musician wanting to create and make a livelihood but is a man who feels his faith is an intrinsic part of his life and anyone asking he is willing to share that testimony. Peppos clearly refuses to pigeon hole himself both in his music and his faith and takes bold liberties when at work and life. He recently was kind enough to find time some time to share his thoughts with Mainly Piano.

Q: Your debut solo album premiered back in 2008 but contrary to popular belief you have been paying your dues for many years courtesy of TV jingles. Tell us a little about your early beginnings in the TV industry.

SP: My first TV/Radio jingle was for a clothing store in downtown Norfolk, VA called Rices Nachman. I think I was 15. Then I figured I could make a living doing jingles, and so the journey started. I started a jingle production company with a couple of friends and began doing jingles for a radio station ad exec who brought us a lot of work, about 2 jingle projects a week. I recorded all of this myself in my parent’s garage where I put in a pro ½ 4 track studio. Later, I opened a larger recording studio and did work for anyone needing to record. I worked with Glen Campbell back in 1985 when he did the vocals on a jingle I composed for the Christian Broadcasting Network in Va. Beach, VA called “Discover The Book”. I also started a music & sound effects company called Techsonics and I created 1000’s of specialized sound effects and music cues that are still being used today on Radio promos. I also did a ton of library music beds that are being used on radio & tv for music behind commercials and also in high profile TV programs. Universal Music is marketing some of those products now.

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Q: Your website indicates that you frequented jazz clubs at an early age. How has this genre influenced you?

SP: Two of my all time favorite pianists are Bill Evans and Joe Jones (local guy). Of course, rock music I was immediately drawn to, but when I was looking for a more in-depth musical expression, I turned to Jazz. A singer in one of the early blues bands I played keyboards with turned me on to the jazz great, Bill Evans. WOW, such talent, depth and expression. I studied his playing and picked up what I could. But even earlier at age 15, I went to a local Jazz club where Joe Jones had a trio playing great jazz version cover tunes, but his own arrangements. I remember going up to Joe one night and asking him if he would give me piano lessons. He was cool, thanked me for asking, but said he didn’t do that. I was seriously bummed, but just kept listening to as much jazz as I could get my hands on and learning. I love the jazz greats Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, Amad Jamal, Oscar Peterson and just about every record on Blue Note Records.

Q: Are there other musical genres and artists that have influenced you and why?

SP: Yes, I loved rock music, as I mentioned, I was also drawn to pop & soul music. My parents always played music around the house, all kinds. When I was 3 or 4, I remember running around the room pretending I was conducting the full orchestra version of the Mexican Hat Dance whenever my Dad played it. Maybe then my parents knew I had a love for music. I know you’ve heard this one before, but seeing the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show was a watershed moment for me. I guess it was seeing how the audience reacted to them, but more so for me . . . it was the music. I was still in elementary school when that event took place and I bought everything most 60’s groups put out. I was able to teach myself how to play guitar and played lead guitar in several local bands. I also took up keyboards because as a kid, I had 4 years of piano lessons, (but then gave them up as I wanted to improvise too much instead of reading the notes from the music chart.) Other artists I was influenced by are Jimi Hendrix (saw him perform, not only was Hendrix a monumental guitar player but he also created some of the most interesting music ever), Electric Flag for their sheer love of playing, Zephyr with Tommy Bolin, Simon & Garfunkel for their incredible songs and harmonies, Bob Dylan for his songwriting (didn’t like his voice too much, but have grown fond of it now), The Allman Brothers for Duane Allman’s expertise, Led Zeppelin for their BIG sound and originality, Jeff Beck, Frank Zappa, Chick Corea, Donny Hathaway, Motown, and Stevie Wonder, Vangelis for his musical brilliance, to name a few.

Q: After many years of creating TV jingles, in 2008 you finally decided to release your first full length solo album Vertigo. Your debut was well structured and very impressive and showed no signs of being pieced together jingles. Tell us a little about the recording process.

SP: Thanks Michael! This album was certainly a long time coming. Some of the music from Vertigo was actually from ideas I had years earlier. Recording the Vertigo album took much longer than expected, because I was dealing with mostly everything in a digital platform, meaning an original G5 Dual computer and virtual instruments. I had so many midi tracks, effects and virtual instruments going that the computer couldn’t keep up, so it was frustrating me. I had to deal with a lot of technology instead of dealing with just the music; for instance, buying several drives so all the sounds wouldn’t all be coming off one drive and clog everything up, burning midi to audio tracks when the parts were not really fleshed out. Then I had to go backwards, fix the midi track and relay audio again. Stuff like that. Mixing everything inside a box, which took a long time partly due to my getting used to the recording platform. I come from an analog recording background with 2” 24-track tape machines and analog mixing boards, so a transition had to take place. I absolutely love the digital medium now that it has improved so much, but I’m still upgrading my system as I go. I wanted this 1st album to have no limitations musically, but I was hampered in the recording process, so it just took longer to finish. I actually started creating the music of Vertigo in Aug. 2005 and finished creating in Oct. 2007, then mixing and CD production culminated in the release in Feb. 2008. So it was almost 2 1/2 years from start to release. I wasn’t going to have my first release be something I wasn’t happy with.

Q: Vertigo lived up to its title and at times was dizzy and hectic, nevertheless original and creative. Did you ever wonder if this album would find an audience or was that not a factor in your creative process?

SP: Of course, I wanted to have an appreciative audience for my music, but I also had a need to express what was in my heart and mind through the creative gift that God has given me. Writing just for commercial purposes is challenging but not as fulfilling on an emotional level. Vertigo was my first album and I really wanted it to showcase my versatility. I was impatient in that I was unwilling to stick with just one style through the entire album. I wanted it to show my love for many styles of music, and it seemed just too boring to do it any other way. It was certainly not what the record labels expected, but all the music in me wanted to bust out all at once. I wanted to believe that people appreciate creativity and excitement, that they want music to really listen to, instead of music to just play behind dinner conversation.

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Q: Your son Kevin is featured on guitar on the title track. Any plans on any future collaboration?

SP: Yes, Kevin plays electric guitar on Vertigo, the title track. I had to coax him into playing it, you know, its Dad’s music or something like that. I just had him play what he felt, I knew he could do something wonderful and he did. The guitar on that track gets commented on regularly. Kevin also plays drums & bass extremely well, and I have some ideas for him to be much more involved in my work as I will be with his work as well. As for other collaborations, funny you should ask. 2010 has been a very creative year for me, about 20 new songs have emerged and a new album will soon be coming. I’m working with an incredible vocalist from TN and we’re doing stuff from my studio and from the vocalist’s studio. Many, many vocal tracks are being created right now. I will update you more on this effort soon, but I’m very excited about working with this person.

Q: Like a bird let out of his cage, the same year you released your second solo effort Follow The Mist which reflected both the chaos of Vertigo and an artist willing to express more reflective musical moments. At times the album appeared to be in conflict over its musical themes, best reflected by the track “Angel Talk”, yet it worked. What propelled the musical themes this time around?

SP: Immediately after the marketing stuff on my Vertigo album calmed down, I immersed myself in the Follow The Mist project. Everything just seemed to flow and went along very quickly. I actually had the artwork finished before I started on the songs, and I put up a big image of the album cover in front of me when composing. I intentionally wanted to do something different with Follow The Mist but still take a few chances. Yes I knew the track “Angel Talk” was going to raise some eyebrows as it did with one un-named music reviewer where he commented, “The strangely titled Angel Talk has to be, hands down, the most un-angelic song ever recorded.” I strangely take pride in that comment from this reviewer. It was meant to be just that. Other reviewers got my vision of Angel’s talking to each other. Angels are amazing, powerful creations of God. They just don’t float around on clouds playing harps for eternity. They are on important missions from God, which is what I wanted to express, with a little Chick Corea influence sneaking into the track.

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Q: Why was there such a quick follow up?

SP: I guess you could say “I have the music in me?” Wasn’t that a 70’s song? I usually don’t answer questions with a song title. Sorry, couldn’t resist! Really there’s no answer to that other than the music just kept flowing out of me.

Q: While Follow The Mist gave brief glimpses of the mellow side of Peppos, your third full length album Stephen’s Dreams was fully dedicated to an ambient musical theme. Why the completely different musical approach?

SP: I wanted to do a fully ambient piano album and I had a larger “New Age” label (which has now gone by the wayside) considering releasing it. I was seeking a broader audience with this label, and I knew the label would not consider a project that you might say didn’t stay consistent on the entire project. Stephen’s Dreams album has done pretty well, but not really more than Follow The Mist. And now with iTunes, hey, just pick and choose what songs you want to buy. Most people hear my work on Music Choice’s Soundscapes channel and they play tracks from both of these albums for which I’m very grateful.

Q: Your songs on Stephen’s Dreams are void of any descriptive titles and are simple titled Dream 1 through Dream 13. Is there a reason why the songs are not given a descriptive title?

SP: Yes, I was tired of naming songs! LOL (not really). I wanted the listener to have no preconceived notions of what to expect in the music. My goal was to take the listener on a journey, but not my predetermined one. Some of the songs, of course, are my own dreams and I could have named them, but I thought this was best for this project. I noticed that Brian Eno had done this on his “Music For Airports” album, which I thought was genius, no titles just # "1/1", # "2/1", # "1/2", # "2/2". Just 4 long songs, 2 on each side of the vinyl release.

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Q: In reality this was not your first introspective project. Some of your fans may have missed your EP Christmas Nights also released back in 2008. Do you have any intention of releasing a full length Christmas album?

SP: The Christmas Nights EP came over the summer of 2008 and I didn’t have time to put too many songs on it before the release. I would like to make it a full album of 10 songs, but not sure when that will happen.

Q: For those of us who still appreciate a physical cd with artwork and credits, your first two albums also included Scripture references of Psalm 65:8 and Ecclesiastes 1:4. Are the Biblical references to help further illustrate the musical theme or is it a more intrinsic expression of who you are as a person?

SP: Both. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. The scripture reference Psalm 65:8 “They who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Your signs; You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy”. In all living things I see God’s work, and I stand in awe. It’s so easy to see, if you really look. As I previously mentioned, God gave me the talent I have, and He is the inspiration in the creative process. The music I create is a labor of love, hopefully this passes to the listener too, but I know for sure it is a labor of love between me & God.

Q: You have nicknamed your recording studio as the Cacoon. Give us a quick tour of your den.

SP: The name Cacoon comes from music being created, incubated, finely tuned, and then hopefully, with God’s help, becomes a beautiful butterfly, full of color and able to fly. I take up most of the 2nd floor area in my home in VA. You can see a picture of my main working space on my website. I’m still working with that original G5 dual, but an upgrade to my “dream studio” with a MacPro 8 Core with 2 Cinema displays are in the works. I’m always adding virtual instruments to expand the musical palette.

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Granby High School, Norfolk, VA
Q: On your website under Equipment you refer to the use of vintage synthesizers. What are some of the older equipment that you still prefer to use and why?

SP: I have many vintage synthesizers. An original Mini Moog, Jupiter 6, Roland 800, JP-8000, Ensoniq TS-12, EMU E-5000, Yamaha DX-7 and a few others. Not all of these are used. Sometimes they just sound better have that magic sound that isn’t found in a virtual instrument. One day I hope to do an all synthy-type project, like early Jarre. I’d like to pick up a Jupiter 8, I have played one and it’s cooler than the 6, but it’s also very heavy. When I have the opportunity I want as many vintage synths as possible to my collection. I’m just a synth freak I guess.

Q: I have affectionately referred to you as the “Indiana Jones of New Age Music” as no one can quite anticipate what the next musical adventure may be when it comes to your material. Any ideas yet on where you might be taking your listeners to next time around?

SP: You know when I saw that in one of your reviews I wasn’t sure how to take it, but I decided it as a compliment! LOL. The next project coming out in 2011 (mid to late) will be completely different from what I’ve done before. Staying creative, being able to explore, having fun with the project is what it’s all about. It’s as if I’m a kid in a musical candy shop and I can’t wait to taste what that next bite will be (or sound like.) I’m always excited about a project, or it doesn’t happen.

Thanks Michael so much for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your readers! -Stephen
For more about Stephen and his music, visit his website or his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Michael Debbage
October 2010