Calling a band ‘eclectic’ is not a term that raises eyebrows any more. But sometimes it is the only way to describe an outfit like Finnish outfit Pepe Deluxe, who all but define the label with their recently released fourth album Queen Of The Wave. Described by its originators as “an esoteric pop opera in three parts, it harks back to the concept albums of the 1960s and 1970s – but keeps in mind the fact that this is 2012, and a lot has happened in electronic music since then.
When we meet him, James Spectrum (real name Jari Salo) is discussing the future of metal. But in turning his mind back to the opera, and the album, we ask if Queen Of The Wave is a conscious effort to revive the album as a format.
“Yeah, definitely,” he responds. “That’s what I grew up with, the idea of the album, and saving money for a month to be able to buy one was a regular occurrence. You would go out and get it, then run home and put it on. Sometimes it would be a huge disappointment, but then other times the liner notes were great. With Frank Zappa, for instance, you had the description of the freaks scenes. Music is the centrepiece, but I would like to think what we have done provides some of the feeling that we had when we were young. It’s crazy because in the late 1960s and early 1970s records had the best sound quality, and the most information. Vinyl is still the best format for me, 40 years on.”
Queen Of The Wave is based around Frederick S Oliver’s mystical 19th century book A Dweller On Two Planets, which concerns life in Atlantis and on Venus, sci-fi futurism and reincarnations. It was just the sort of source material Salo was looking for. “The first book was so crazy, so strange and really inspiring. It was 2008 then and the talk was about the death of the album, but we were about going against the grain so we said: ‘Let’s make a concept album!’ The chapter titles gave me insight of how the music could work.”
The music – as you may have guessed, by now – covers an array of different styles, working classical influences in with more obvious references to hip hop beats, psychedelic 1970s rock and a smattering of prog. “I can presume you listen to more than one type of music,” says Salo on hearing these observations. “We’re used to people knowing us, and I find that people in the UK remember us almost more than people in Finland. Some say this is cheesy music, and ask where are the beats. Well, when we started 15 years ago, we used a lot of samples, but now we’re done with that – and this record doesn’t have a single sample.”
He describes the new album and its influences thus: “This album is almost more pop I think, because of the background. I like the originals that we found in surf music, and we definitely drew on that. British 1960s pop music is great but I like the French version of that, adding an eccentric attitude with the cool accent, and we took from that too, from what they call the ‘yeah yeah girls’.” How did the music form? “I come up with the crazy parts and Paul (Malmstrm, Pepe Deluxe’s other constituent part) did the classical stuff, with the choir and everything. I give him crazy stuff, and he comes up with the nice polished exotica.”
Close listens to Queen Of The Wave are revealing, the layers showing that a lot of effort has gone in to its construction. “That’s great to hear,” says Salo, “because people here don’t hear the difference, or don’t hear that so much. We’re inspired by the 1960s sound as I said, so it’s difficult to get the sounds that are inspired by that. Everything with cassettes that we’ve worked with is off sync, and so we have to treat them like vinyl, and that’s something the average listener won’t pick up. They often think we are using samples when we aren’t.”
One truly unique aspect of the album is its use of the Great Stalacpipe organ – not a mythical instrument, but one that exists in Luray Caverns, Virginia. It is operated by a special keyboard that taps stalactites with mallets, so replicating the sound of the pipe organ. Even Salo is in awe as he talks about it. “The sound of the stalacpipe organ is so visceral, and the organ sounds so unusual. I missed the recording by one week which I was really disappointed about. It’s impossible to describe, Paul said, as you’re sat in the middle of the cave operating it, and can’t really hear it properly. The instrument is deteriorating really quickly, the humidity and coldness is really eating it. The guy asked me if I was able to fix it every day, but this might be the last recording of it.”
The band are unlikely to get back the cost of using the organ, either – as all the proceeds from sales of Queen Of The Wave are going straight to the John Nurminen Foundation, which strives for cleanliness in the Baltic Sea. “If we make any money it’s a Pepe joke,” explains Salo. “As this album belongs to the sea you’re not stealing from a record company, because all the money goes to keeping it clean. We made a deal with the foundation; it’s run by admirals and the ex-head of Helsinki University; they have very big business heads. When I explained the project they said it would only work if we agreed on the full profit. What they do is really good, as they are looking to clear the biggest source of pollutants. The Baltic Sea is one of the shallowest seas in the world so it needs protecting against oil tankers. It is a good way of helping them to do that.”
As a further sign of their commitment to things aquatic, the album launch for Queen Of The Wave took place at the London Aquarium. “I really enjoyed that,” gushes Salo, “and it was great to hand out the album companions there in print. The printed versions are nice, and it’s so much fun when you have it!” Salo’s sense of humour almost got him in to trouble with the invites though. “I did this picture of a shark with false teeth, but that was declined as they said they were trying to protect the shark’s image. It was really funny how she gave us the whole of the dancefloor though, right next to the shark tank. It was a great night!”
Pepe Deluxe’s album Queen Of The Wave is out now through Catskills, including the single A Night And A Day. For more information and to download album companions to Queen Of The Wave, head to pepedeluxe.com.