Ultimate chill guy Pepa Knight has been crafting kaleidoscopic, world-music infused sounds as the co-frontman of Jinja Safari since 2010, but this year has seen him venture out on his own. His work, such as singles Rahh!, Clams, and Coyote Choir, all from debut record Hypnotized Vol. I, have received critical acclaim from global sources that include Rolling Stone India and Neon Gold (USA). In anticipation of his upcoming tour, Pepa talked to Liz Ansley about his journey, his passion for design, and his endeavours in instrument invention.
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You worked solo before co-fronting Jinja Safari, and are now venturing out by yourself again. What’s this process has been like for you?
When I first started off doing a solo project, it was so many years ago, it was more like a test… I wasn’t super stoked with it. I did one show, I never really gave it a good shot. And then I met up with Marcus from Jinja Safari, and we wrote some songs – and the process now has been completely different. We had three managers in Jinja Safari, and a big group of people that had been helping push it, with the record label, a booking agent and everything. Jinja took off a lot faster than what we’d expected. So it’s been interesting to come back this year and start this project, managing myself, doing it all DIY. It’s a bit of a learning curve, it’s something new and it’s been really fun. There’s a lot more that I’ve had to invest in this project, but at the same time, I’ve got a lot more out of it.
You have a bigger hand in Hypnotized, even designing the artwork yourself. How did you find the process of reconciling music and artwork?
I actually have a second job where I work two days per week designing trophies. It’s pretty funny. But I’ve always been into graphic design, and my dad’s actually a professional artist, he’s an impressionist – he paints beach landscapes and everything, so I’ve always been interested in art. And especially with this project, I’ve been really focusing on having the visuals and the music inter-linked and working with each other. I think the visuals are a really important thing. I’ve been working with this guy who’s really talented, he’s putting together all these projections for this tour that I’m doing this month. It’s pretty cool – we’ve been testing it out over the last few nights, we’re doing 3D projections so the idea is that things will be jumping out at you while you’re watching us up on the stage. So we’re trying that out and seeing how it goes. I’m keen to give it a try and see how it works in small venues.
There’s been a fair bit of buzz around your upcoming tour. What can fans expect from these shows?
I’ve only done two shows now, and for both of them I’ve had this band of guys (Pepa’s band, the Salty Daze) that live just down the road from me, so they’ll all be there. We’ve been trying to make a new instrument for the tour out of bananas. It’s been a bit of a challenge! But I think I’ve figured it out now, we had a rehearsal today with it. So basically, each banana has its own midi signal, working with electrical currents [that travel] through my body into the banana to make – say, like a flute or a choir sound. So we’ve been trying stuff out like that, and also with the 3D projections… I hope it’s a different experience for people watching. But the first show (at the time of this interview) is in two days, so we’ll see how it goes then! You never know, with these sort of things, how it’s going to turn out. But it’s been fun, the process behind it. It’s a lot of energy, a lot of time, but I totally love it, I think it’s the funnest thing ever trying to come up with things to make a live show a bit more of an experience. I’ve never been to Brisbane before, so I’m looking forward to it!
Your music has a definite feel of the exotic, but your debut album has seen you exploring India – quite literally. What is it about that country that drew you in, and what was your experience recording your upcoming album there like?
For the last few years, I’ve just been a bit obsessed with India – I’ve done about three or four trips there now, and every time I’ve just been soaking up what I’ve learned from the local musicians there. Each time, I’ve brought like a stereo and portable mic, so I was able to meet people and ask them if they wanted to record something for the album. I was able to record some really amazing things. I always thought jazz musicians were up the top of the list of the most talented musicians in the world, but I think Indian musicians are that next level up. The time signatures that they use, and the whole improvised feel that they have, it’s just incredible. And the instrumentation as well. I’m a bit obsessed with all that. For each song that I wrote [in India], I’ve been trying to bring in the ideas that I recorded from there. One song that was recorded in Pushkar, in Rajasthan, I used this sample of this drum beat that this guy did for me, looped that and then added this gypsy woman singing over the top of it, and then wrote a song about the experience of being in Pushkar. That song doesn’t actually come out till next year, it’s on Volume II, but I tried a lot of stuff like that, [just about my] experience over there. I don’t know how it’ll translate with listeners, but it was fun for me!
What do you feel has changed about the way you approach music now, as opposed to how you did as part of Jinja Safari?
I’ve been so used to sending half-written songs away [in Jinja Safari], and then hearing someone else’s interpretation and collaborating in that way. That was a great process, but at the same time, it’s nicer being able to do whatever you want with a song and seeing where you can take it. And I think with these songs, they have a similar feel to what I had done in Jinja, but for this album I really wanted it to be all about those Indian influences – like a concept album, if you like. I guess that’s what I was trying to achieve with this. I don’t even know what I’m doing after this tour – I’m sure Jinja will start back up next year, but I’ve been really enjoying this project. It’s been a lot of fun – but I feel like I’ve spent all my money on [it]! This project is just for me, really. I have no expectations for it.
It’s been pretty well received so far!
Yeah, it has! I’ve been really surprised. I hadn’t thought about when I was going to do live shows or anything, I was just going to see how it went. And just having released the first song (Rahh!), Rolling Stone India got on board, they did an article and did an interview with me, and it sort of grew from there. I’ve been so surprised, and really lucky with the amount of support I’ve had for this project.
You’ve chosen to release Hypnotized Vol. I in a wide variety of formats – digital, vinyl, even cassette. What prompted you to do this? Do older music mediums appeal to you for any specific reason?
I wasn’t going to do vinyl, cos it’s expensive – but then I thought, why not? May as well! I listen to music on vinyl, and I think for these songs, cos I’m really attached to them, I really wanted to see them and hear them on vinyl. I just went, yeah, I’m just gonna do it, and spent all my money. I made my own website a few weeks ago (www.pepaknight.com), set up a pre-sale campaign where people can buy on vinyl, in a package with a few other things. I’ve got this guy in the UK who makes cassette tapes through POST/POP Records. I just received the order of tapes this week – and I don’t even have a tape player! I’ve just gotta get a Walkman or something.
I really love the idea of putting value back into the physical interaction with music, and that’s why I wanted to do it on these formats rather than the CD. I didn’t make any CDs for this release, purely because CD sales are going down – and a lot of people who did buy CDs are just downloading off iTunes or illegally! And people who really want to have a physical copy usually just want to have it on vinyl or something. CDs are great, cos you can buy them at a show and just put them in your pocket, but… it’s just that all the albums that I like, I have to get it on vinyl.
[The cassette release] was just an opportunity that popped up, and I’ve always wanted to do music on cassette tapes. The funny thing is with this tour, Hypnotized Vol. I doesn’t come out till November 28, so people can buy the cassette tapes but they can’t actually hear it digitally. So it’s basically forcing people to – if they wanna hear it, they have to buy a cassette tape player or put it in their old car or something!
You’re constantly interacting with fans both on and offline. Is maintaining a certain level of accessibility important to you?
I think it’s a healthy thing to have a bit of communication with people who like your music, it’s heaps more fun for me having people onstage rather than people offstage watching you. It’s fun for them as well. When I first started the project, I did little shows in Sydney and Melbourne, and I did a show in my backyard. I live in a tipi, so I turned that into a stage for the night and did a private show for friends, but then I also invited some people from Instagram and Facebook that were fans of the song that I’d released at the time. It was funny having random people at my house, but it was cool – if I was a fan of, you know, a band or something, I’d love to do something like that. So I think, if anything like that that I can do is possible then I will. I just dig it. For those shows I ended up getting people up on stage for half the set. It was more of an experiment to see how they handled it, how they liked it and what they ended up doing, and it was fun. I think it’s a good thing to interact.
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Hypnotized Vol. I, Pepa’s debut record, is out on November 28, with his debut album to follow in 2015.
Pepa Knight plays Milk Factory, Brisbane on 29 November. Read our full interview online at blankgc.com.au