Joe Peppercorn and Co. find solace in the return of the Whiles

The long-running Columbus band has a new full-length on the way, and then in August the musicians will decamp to Chicago to record alongside engineer Steve Albini.
The Whiles
The WhilesTim Stridsberg

In 2017, Joe Peppercorn set a goal for himself to write a new song each week. As a byproduct of this exercise, the musician said he found himself in a near-constant creative headspace, which eventually spilled over into the Whiles – a long-running but largely dormant Columbus band fronted by Peppercorn that released its last album, Somber Honey, in 2012.

In a recent Zoom call, Peppercorn and his Whiles bandmates recalled how drummer Paul Headley and bass guitarist Chris Bolognese recorded basic tracks for 14 songs in a single day amid that outburst almost seven years ago. These loose song frameworks then sat largely untouched until last year, owing in part to the band members getting caught up in the hum of day-to-day life, as well as to the yearly pressure of staging Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon – a daylong event in which a small army of musicians performs the entirety of the Beatles catalog in chronological order, and in which every member of the Whiles plays a key role.

“Life is definitely what happened,” said Peppercorn, who will join Headley, Bolognese, Matt Peppercorn and Jake Remley onstage with the Whiles at Rumba Cafe on Saturday, Feb. 17, bookended by performances of the Paul McCartney solo albums II and Ram, respectively. “Paul moved [to Cleveland]. And I had three kids and Matt had five. Chris’ career skyrocketed. … Everyone’s life got very complicated. And it’s still complicated, but I feel like we’re in a place now where we can figure out how to do this.”

The musicians received an extra nudge from an in-progress documentary on the Beatles marathon, which recently wrapped its 14th year, the filming of which required all five of the band’s current members to sit for extended, in-depth interviews (Zack Prout handled lead vocals on the Whiles’ 2004 debut, Colors of the Year, and departed the band shortly after the album’s release). “And when you’re going through a process like that, you’re having to reflect on things you’ve cataloged,” Matt Peppercorn said.

For Joe Peppercorn, the interview process proved invigorating, reminding him of his innate connection with the Whiles and the reality there is no Beatles marathon absent that band. At the same time, the deep, winding conversations could be mentally and physically exhausting, forcing the musician to reflect on long buried memories, such as his mom’s struggles with her mental health and the childhood years when he was regularly bullied, unable to find a place in which he easily fit. As he navigated these on-camera dives, Peppercorn found himself returning at night to the frameworks of those songs recorded by the other members of the Whiles back in 2017, writing intensely introspective lyrics to the instrumentals, which provided him with a necessary sense of comfort.

“To hear Chris and Paul playing, it almost makes me feel safer. Where if it were just me, it would almost feel too vulnerable to really sit and write these personal lyrics,” said Peppercorn, who recently wrapped work on the last of the 14 songs, which will appear on the first Whiles record in a dozen years, due for release this spring or early summer on Anyway Records. (Another new full-length will follow in 2025, with the band recently confirming plans to record alongside engineer Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago this August.) “Hearing them in the headphones, it’s almost like a safety blanket. It’s like, okay, now I can think about the first time I realized I basically wasn’t going to have any friends through middle school. If it was just me on drums alone in the basement, it would be too much. But instead, it’s like Paul and Chris are in the room with me, like, ‘It’s okay. You’re good.’”

A new album surfacing two decades after the Whiles released its debut left the band's members feeling at times reflective. Bolognese spoke of how fleeting life can be, and about the youthful sense of ambition that buoyed him as he first stepped into the Whiles in his early 20s. “At the time, it was like, holy shit, we could be touring internationally. And we have to get this next record done because it’s going to be huge,” said Bolognese. “So, it’s refreshing to approach the recording now with age and maturity and not expecting big things to happen, which, it’s great if they do, but I think we have a different objective now. Or at least I personally do.”

With a new full-length set to land in the near future, the members of the Whiles are also set to dive deeper into the past, sharing plans to re-record their first two albums in sessions helmed by Remley. The reasons for the redo are multifaceted, but anchored in the idea that the musicians hope to capture definitive versions of records that they see as vibrant but also in some ways flawed, with Joe Peppercorn pointing to a handful of the lyrical choices he made on Colors of the Year, as well as the compressed sonics of Sleepers Wake, from 2007, initial tracking for which took place in a cramped attic space, and which even the skilled hand of producer Jon Chinn couldn’t fully rectify in post.

“It’s not going to be dramatic, but there are some pretty cringe lyrics. I was 21 [or] 22, and I was imitating Ryan Adams a lot, and as we’ve learned some 20 years on, Ryan Adams is pretty condescending toward women,” said Peppercorn, who also wants to capture his vocals on a proper studio version of the band’s debut, since he’s now been singing those songs for the nearly two decades that have passed since Prout left the band. “And it wasn’t just [Adams]. I was listening to a lot of country music, and they were always saying ‘little girl’ and ‘sweet little thing.’ And there’s too much of that on the first record, to where it’s almost distracting.”

While some degree of regret naturally accompanies reflections on the past – Peppercorn briefly recalled how difficult things became as relationships between the bandmates atrophied amid music industry-related disagreements and on again, off again conversations with big wig indie-rock managers – the musicians have long since learned to take an appreciative view of the journey.

“We had so much success on that first record, and then it all imploded. And that was jarring at the time, but now I look back and it’s like that’s how things had to play out,” Peppercorn said. “Sure, when we weren’t playing, things could get tough. But anytime we got together and played, everything made sense. … There’s something about playing music with people for a long time. Jake’s been in the band for 15 years, and Matt’s been in the band for over 20 years. And it’s just a really special thing. I can go and play with other great musicians, but that chemistry and history and everything is here. … And that’s the way it still is. I’m 43 and my kids are upstairs, and it seems silly, but this feels important. It feels really important every time we play. It’s like, oh, this matters.”

Correction: The article initially stated the members of the Whiles would re-record their first two albums alongside Steve Albini. The band is actually self-recording new versions of both records this year, with Albini helming a new record slated for release in 2025. Matter News regrets the error.

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