Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mrs. Children, The Whiles and The Beatles Marathon (Bonus Video Sunday)

Armed with a gorgeous command of melody and a fresh sense of wonder & intellect in their songs, Mrs. Children first burst onto the local Columbus, Ohio, music scene in 2002.  Actually "burst onto the scene" is probably something of an overstatement; it was more like they sidled into the scene, twisting a cloth cap in their hands, averting eye contact and murmuring, "Uummmm, we have these songs we wrote and like to play and we were wondering if you might want to hear them?"

I first met the band's main songwriter Joe Peppercorn in maybe January of 2002.  It was at my day-job at Ace In The Hole Music Exchange, an indie record store in Columbus, when he came in the day after I had co-hosted a local record review radio show.  "Was that you on Invisible Hits Hour last night?" the kid on the other side of the counter asked.  "Did you like the show?" I queried.  "Yeah, it was great," he answered.  "Yeah, that was me," I replied.  He paused for a moment, then said, "What were you gonna say if I DIDN'T like it?"  "I was gonna say it was the white-haired guy who owns the store.  The last thing I need is little 311 fans coming in here hassling me because I bad-mouthed their favorite band and I can't walk away from them."

Joe laughed, then got serious and said to me, "I just wanted to come in and thank you because five or six years ago you were on that show and you played The Velvet Underground and I had never heard them and got into them because of you."  I just stared at him for a second, then said, "You have just validated everything I've ever gone through to be on that show.  I owe Lou Reed a gigantic rock & roll debt and you just helped me pay some of it off."

We talked a little more about music & such and when he was leaving Joe said, "I'm in a band.  If we made a record would you sell it in the store?"  "Absolutely," I replied, thinking that was the end of it.  I would say at that point every tenth kid under 25 that came in the store was "in a band, and they were gonna make a record, and would we sell it at the store?" and not more than three of them ever returned.

That summer, amazingly to me, Joe came back into the store with the Mrs. Children Break My Back e.p.  I told him I'd give it a listen and if I liked it maybe we could play it on Invisible Hits Hour, which I was co-hosting what seemed like every five or six weeks back then.  I didn't really mean it, not one of the two or three other kids who brought in their little demo CD's could EVER have been played on the radio.  They were hopelessly derivative of whatever passed for rock & roll in those early days of the 21st century; bad Nickleback, bad rap-rock, bad Blink-182, etc.  Joe brightened up, said "That'd be great," and left me a phone number.

I waited until there were no customers in the store, threw the e.p. on the CD player and holy shit, it was GREAT!  Really melodic, smart lyrics, the band played like they'd known each other forever (which maybe they had, for all I knew).  The last tune, "Pictures," took me all the way back to the first time I heard The Zombies or The Left Banke back in the 1960's.  The last thing I expected from a bunch of 20-something Columbus kids in 2002 was a folk-rock record with inventive piano breaks.  It was the first local band I ever brought to Curt Schieber, the host of CD 101's (now 102.5) Invisible Hits Hour to play on the show.  He had serious doubts, wasn't crazy about hyping local unknowns on the air, but once he got a listen he had to admit there was something serious happening in those CD grooves, or whatever they are.

Joe and I kept in touch after we aired the band.  They started playing out a bunch live and I soon discovered  they had a great three-part harmony thing going between Joe, lead singer Zack Prout and bass player Chris Bolognese that hadn't been evident on the e.p.  Somewhere along the way Joe's younger brother Matt was incorporated into the band, playing Beatles-inspired guitar leads, always enhancing the tunes rather than taking away from or trying to overshadow them.  The same went for drummer Paul Headley, who almost played like a jazz drummer at times, actually listening to and complementing the songs, rather than just driving them along.  (I knew Mrs. Children were onto something when my drummer friend Jim Johnson - who played with Willie Phoenix and The League Bowlers and whose musical tastes run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to The Rolling Stones - hated the band and pronounced them "non-rock.")

I was touring with Hamell On Trial pretty constantly in the early 2000's and was on the road for weeks at a time at some points.  I remember coming back to work at Ace In The Hole in April of 2003 after one tour and there was a stack of burned CD's in our giveaway section on the ledge in the front window of the store.  (This was back when people still actually bought CD's and the record companies still gave away promo materials for said CD's and whatever Pepe, the store owner, or I didn't want to keep went in the front window for customers to take home.)  The CD's were just in plastic slip-cases and had "Mrs. Children demo" written in magic marker on them.  My first thought was, "Cool, Mrs. Children must have recorded two or three songs and put 'em out."  I remember staring at the display on the CD player when it registered 18 tracks and 60:07.  There was an hour's worth of music on a demo CD?  A FREE demo CD?

It turned out Mrs. Children had put out a CD of 12 brand new songs (most of which would comprise the band's Colors Of The Year release after they changed their name to The Whiles) plus the six tunes from the first e.p. AND WERE GIVING IT AWAY FOR FREE!  Even more surprising, the 12-song demo was AMAZING.  There had been an exponential growth in songwriting from Joe after the e.p. and there was nothing even approaching a weak tune in the bunch.  It was, quite literally, breathtaking.  The demo CD was all I listened to the rest of that day at work.  I called Joe and said, "What are you doing giving these songs away?  You've got to make a cover for this and start selling it right away, as merch at your shows if nowhere else."  Replying quietly to my raving Joe said, "Well, they're okay for demos but we're going to be going into the studio and I think we can do even better, so we're comfortable giving them away." 

Still to this day, nine years later, I consider that demo, cut in somebody's basement, the second-best recording EVER by a Columbus band, after Watershed's The More It Hurts, The More It Works CD.  (And I didn't begin working for Watershed until 2005, so nobody was paying me to say that back then.)  I was also certain back in April 2003 that Mrs. Children would get into the studio and some producer would ruin the magic I heard and cherished in that demo.  (Musicians reading this blog will be all too familiar with the phrase; "They shoulda released the demos.")  I was wrong.  Producer Jon Chinn did a fantastic job interpreting and enhancing the demos and the Colors Of The Year record stands to this day as a masterpiece.

So somewhere between the demo and the CD release the band changed its name from Mrs. Children to The Whiles, largely because they did an internet name-search and discovered there was a band in Japan called Mr. Children.  "So what?!?" I argued, "You guys plan on touring Japan anytime soon? After you're huge they'll have to change THEIR band name."  (My favorite rejected name-change bandied about early on; Battleship Gay.  Joe also liked it, but the rest of the band thought it needlessly provocative.)

So the newly-christened Whiles had a killer CD release under their belt, they played a summer-long Wednesday night residency at local club Andyman's Treehouse (it's one of my top ten Columbus rock & roll regrets that I didn't attend more of those shows), they were on the verge of signing a management deal with nationwide representation and, WAIT FOR IT; lead singer Zack quit the band to go back to college.  It was heartbreaking.  It was heartbreaking to ME and I wasn't even involved with the band as anything but a fan.  I can't imagine how they felt.  In Watershed terms, it was snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Still, to their eternal credit, I have never heard ANY of The Whiles utter one negative word about Zack and his decision.

Joe took over center stage as lead singer.  It was really their only rational move.  The band was so insular, so closely interlocked I don't think they ever even considered auditioning an outside lead singer.  And as the songwriter Joe was the natural choice as lead singer.  However - and this is coming from somebody who loves the guy and who has seen him grow by leaps & bounds as a vocalist and a frontman - Joe Peppercorn was just not as good a singer as Zack back in those days, and the lack of a third voice in The Whiles' three-part harmony flow was problematic.  Plus the national management deal fell through when the band wasn't prepared to tour after Zack's departure.  The band continued, but a lot of momentum was lost.

Sleeper's Wake was released in 2007 to good local reviews, the band played out to a faithful local following, opened shows for the likes of Arcade Fire, The National and Andrew Bird, but there was no large-scale touring.  The Whiles' third record, Somber Honey, recorded in 2008 and 2009 wouldn't see the light of day until 2012, owing to a host of factors; problems with the band's record label, neck surgery that sidelined Joe for months when he literally couldn't lift his guitar (or his newborn son Giuseppe), Headley relocating to Cleveland for career opportunities, etc.  In 2011 Joe declared dual rock & roll citizenship and joined local favorites Watershed as second guitarist, contributing crucial songs to that band's Brick & Mortar release.

And, for the past three years, Peppercorn has mounted The Beatles Marathon; every Beatles album played in its entirety, chronologically, without a break.  That's 214 songs, people, in a row.  I missed the first year, 2010, snowed-in at Newark Airport during a blizzard while visiting Debbie's family for Christmas in New Jersey, when Peppercorn played the Marathon solo at Andyman's Treehouse (now The Tree Bar).  For the December 29th, 2011 edition he moved the show to Kobo and played with a four-piece band: Brandon Barnett from Ghost Shirt on guitar, bass player Bolognese from The Whiles and alternating drummers Jessie Cooper and Dan Murphy.  As we were loading-out of a Watershed gig the month before that Marathon, Joe asked if I wanted to roadie the show and named a figure more than twice my per-night fee from Watershed. 

"I'll work the show, Joe," I laughed, "but we'll talk about the pay later, that's way too much for one night."  "Uummm, there's quite a bit of work involved," was Joe's reply.  The Marathon that year began at 4:30 in the afternoon and ran until 2:45 the next morning.  Without a break.  Of any kind.  Joe never left the stage once.  The rest of the band came off here and there, drummers Cooper and Murphy played two or three albums in a row, alternating, but Joe never left the stage, even to piss.  It was mind-boggling.  He sang virtually all the leads (I think Brandon sang three or four, Chris one or two), played rhythm guitar and keyboards FOR MORE THAN 10 HOURS STRAIGHT!  It was really quite unbelievable.  By one in the morning I was so tired I was going to lay down on the pool table just to rest for 10 or 20 minutes while there were no guitar changes but I was afraid I'd fall asleep, and I wasn't even playing.  It was the most grueling, exhausting rock show I've ever witnessed, and I saw The Who in 1969 and Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band all through the 70's and 80's.

At the beginning of the show Joe handed me a stapled sheaf of papers.  It was nine pages of Beatles songs, single-spaced, with notes next to each about which guitars he and Brandon would need on which songs, special tunings for said guitars and all the places where there would be double switches.  (Thankfully Chris used only one bass - a Hofner of course - from the beginning until he switched to a Fender after Revolver.)  Plus Kobo was so jammed, so packed, so body-to-body for almost the entire show (certainly from 8 pm on) I couldn't GET to the stage to hand off the guitars.  (At one point I was holding two guitars over my head, trying to wend my way through the crowd and hit something really solid behind me.  I looked around and there was a kid with his hands over his eye, clearly in pain, and I thought, "Oh, fuck me, I hit that kid HARD," and prayed I didn't put out his eye.  Answering my prayers, no rock & roll law suit ensued.)

So now it's 2013, I've survived a second Beatles Marathon, December 29th, 2012, again at Kobo, much more of a Whiles family affair this time.  Paul joined the drum corps of Jessie Cooper and Dan Murphy and  relatively new member Jake Lumley (who produced Somber Honey and joined the band in the process) came in as a third guitarist.  Due to family matters Brandon Barnett had to drop out THREE WEEKS before this year's Marathon.  That resulted in a quick call to Matt Peppercorn, who came in to learn and rehease 214 Beatles songs in three weeks' time.  (I TOLD you he's a mathematical guitar genius.)  The show was on a Saturday this year, all ages from 2:30 pm 'til 8 pm, 21 and over after that.  The band played from 2:30 pm 'til just before 2 am Sunday morning, more than 11 hours, or approximately 10 hours longer than The Beatles ever played outside of Hamburg, Germany, or The Cavern Club in Liverpool.

Plans for the coming year include a new Whiles album, recorded and released immeasurably quicker than the long-delayed Somber Honey.  If the new songs introduced by the band at shows in autumn 2012 are any indication, this could be their best record since Colors Of The Year.  One of the new tunes featured Joe Peppercorn out in front of the band sans guitar, testifying like an alt-rock James Brown, leaping on stagefront speaker stacks, raving and wielding the mic stand like an unholy bastard child of Rod Stewart & Freddie Mercury, neatly exemplifying how much he's grown as a frontman since those first halting days after Prout's abrupt departure.

A new record from The Whiles in 2013, I can't wait.

Our Boys onstage at The Beatles Marathon / December 29th, 2011 / Kobo, Columbus, Ohio
(that's your Humble Author handing off an SG for a Jazzmaster at the outset)

© 2013 Ricki C.


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