Pepe Deluxé
Photo: Courtesy of Force Field PR

The Devil Is in the Details: The Pepe Deluxé Interview

Pepe Deluxé make intricate songs with some of the world’s rarest instruments. James Spectrum says his band’s music is meant to be explored again and again.

Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1
Pepe Deluxé
22 October 2021

A 16th-century pipe organ? The world’s largest cowbell? A 1960s synthesizer powered by skin-on-skin contact called a “sexophone”? All grist for Pepe Deluxé‘s fifth album, Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1

The duo of James Spectrum and Paul Malmström spent nearly a decade hunting down the rarest of vintage instruments, layering on details on details until no listener could possibly get to the bottom of these songs. “There are things that you can discover even after you’ve listened to it for two years,” says Spectrum. “You say, oh, I never noticed that sound or that detail.” 

Pepe Deluxé has been a band since the mid-1990s, beginning its run as a hip-hop production ensemble. The band’s first song, “Call Me Goldfinger”, came out in 1997 on Bomb Hip-Hop Records Return of the DJ, Vol. II, a scratch-DJ compilation album by Bomb Hip-Hop Records. “We made one song and decided it was so much fun, let’s make some more music. That led to making Pepe,” says Spectrum. 

Pepe Deluxé soon diverged from hip-hop, using its members’ sampling skills to create elaborate musical soundscapes that referenced 1960s baroque pop. The band was working on a cut for Lee Jeans when Spectrum met his current musical partner Paul Malmström, then an advertising executive. That led to an assignment for Levi’s, a major coup for an underground band. “That was a big deal because at that time Levi’s was a really big, big brand, and that helped open a lot of doors,” says Spectrum. 

Spectrum and his partner took the Levi’s windfall and invested it in studio space and equipment. “Instead of going into taking the commercial path, we actually just took the money and started going into a much weirder direction,” he remembers. “We went from soundboxing to learning how to actually record music. We wouldn’t exist without having the pop commercial success, but instead of going in that direction, we actually took completely the opposite in going into creative, experimental artwork, while still keeping the pop element.” 

The Hunt for Rare Instruments

Pepe Deluxé made a series of increasingly idiosyncratic pop albums for Emperor Norton, Catskills, and Asthmatic Kitty labels. But after 2012’s Queen of the Wave, they found a new obsession that would occupy them for the next decade: rare vintage instruments. 

“It all started with the Prospekt pipe organ, which is the largest musical instrument in the world. This is the biggest musical instrument ever created, and it is like the eighth wonder of the world. You’re playing a mountain,” says Spectrum. “Half a million people have seen it every year since the mid-1950s, but nobody had ever composed anything for it. And realizing that, we thought, if there was this kind of a gem hidden, what other treasures there would be?”

Spectrum says that he never anticipated that this new phase of Pepe Deluxé would last so long or engross him and Malmström so completely. “The original idea wasn’t that we’re going to be spending the next ten years working on this. It was like, let’s see if there are one or two,” he explains. “But when you open one door and step in, you often find it opens a completely different world.” 

He and Malmström began contacting museums, visiting sites with antique instruments, and making initial recordings. “If I suggested to a record company that this is going to take nine or ten years, they would go, ‘Noooooo!’ Luckily, none of us knew,” he says.

More Cowbell!

Their finds included a one-ton cowbell that stands ten feet tall and is believed to be the largest in the world. It was originally manufactured as a promotional gimmick in the 1870s by a German family company. It was, Spectrum calculated, exactly the right size for a cow weighing two hundred tons. 

“When I first heard the sound of the cowbell, I was like ‘Is that it?’ Because it’s so low. It is like a cowbell that’s been tuned eight octaves down, like ‘Kla-a-a-a-ang,'” Spectrum explains. “You’ve seen the Saturday Night Live skit, the more cowbell skit? We wanted to have the most cowbell.” You can hear it in the song “Tyga Boy, Rocket Boy”. 

Yet finding the instruments was just the first step. On identifying unusual musical instruments, Spectrum and Malström would enter into a lengthy email conversation with their owners or the conservators at the museums where they were displayed. Often, they would coax the instruments’ caretakers to make initial recordings, sending detailed instructions on what they needed. “It sounds easy, but it usually would take close to 100 emails per instrument to get the settings and analyze the instrument and get a test recording and then, maybe, realize you need to reposition the microphones.”

A Relic of 1960s Happenings

One of the disc’s most unusual instruments, the sexophone, was housed at the Museum of Modern Art in Finland, close enough that the members of Pepe Deluxé could visit and play it themselves. Invented by Finnish sound engineer Erkki Kurenniemi, the sexophone requires two to four performers to be connected by wires and handcuffs to a central processor. “The more they touch each other, the more skin area there is, and the more humidity, the more the synthesizer makes sound,” Spectrum explains. “This was in the late 1960s when there were ‘happenings’ here in Finland and also Sweden.”

Kurenniemi only made a couple of the instruments, but one was on display as part of a larger Kurenniemi exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. “I got to try it out, to control the synthesizer by dancing. I’m a terrible dancer, so I made some pretty funny moves,” says Spectrum. You can hear the results “22nd Century Dandy”.

Technology Brings Old Sounds Into the Present

Getting usable music out of antique instruments wasn’t always the easiest thing. For one thing, some are so damaged as to be almost unplayable. That’s where technology came in handy. “There was a keyboard where we could record only maybe two-thirds of the keys, but we used those sounds to create virtual instruments for the rest of them,” says Spectrum. 

In addition, aligning the tunings of centuries-old instruments to those of standard rock guitars, pianos and such, could be a problem. “Many times, the tunings were different from the modern tuning, so we had to try to fix the tunings so these different instruments would work together. And sometimes it wouldn’t matter because we’d make first create virtual instruments and then make music with the virtual sounds. So, we’d take regular instruments like wind instruments and guitars and tune them to those instruments,” says Spectrum. 

“Tyga Boy, Rocket Boy”, is one of Phantom Cabinet‘s true highlights, a rollicking Bollywood-style fantasia about Tipu Sultan, an 18th-century Muslim king who led a rebellion against the East India Tea Company in his Kingdom of Mysore. In addition to ruling his country, Tipu was a pioneer in rocket artillery, developing technology that the British later used against American rebels. “When you sing, ‘And the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air’, that’s Kipu’s war rockets,” Spectrum explains. He and Malström spent a full day in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum recording exotic instruments. 

“Tipu was a Muslim ruler in India. So, we had to imagine taking Indian elements and then taking Arabic elements and building this sort of almost like a Marvel film,” says Spectrum. We combined these different elements, and then we brought our own flavor to it, and also taking ideas from the instruments, from the Indian instruments, but not trying to make it a copy.”

Halls of Kalevala

The album’s most fascinating track is “Halls of Kalevala”, a fantastical tour through a multi-roomed museum, which ends with an imagined conversation between architects Le Corbusier and Eliel Saarinen. 

“That song actually started with the idea of architectural drums,” says Spectrum. “We got access to this huge old place that used to be a kettle factory. We had the idea of creating a drum track that would take the listener from one space to another.”

Spectrum is fascinated by architecture, especially the works of the pioneering Finnish father-son duo of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. He explains that Eliel designed a landmark building commemorating the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1919. The building was intended to be a center of Finnish research and culture, with a crypt where the country’s greatest heroes would be interred. But newly independent Finland had little money for ambitious national monuments the hall went unbuilt. Spectrum’s song takes the listener through its imaginary corridors. 

The narrator of this epic composition is the psychedelic pioneer Cyrus Faryar, who, in 1967, made Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, the first-ever rock-based synthesizer album. Spectrum had been fascinated with the record for years when a friend mentioned that Faryar was still alive. Spectrum contacted him through Facebook, and soon after, the 88-year-old artist had recorded the track. He did it remotely, and, oddly enough, the engineer was his old friend Chip Douglas, most famous for producing the Monkees. 

A Virtual Cabinet

It’s difficult at the best of times to perform an album like Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1 live, with its unwieldy antique instruments and large ensemble of guest artists. Spectrum says there may be a few shows, but probably not a lot, and many of the sounds will be sampled rather than performed live. But for the curious, he and his bandmate have created an online virtual cabinet where visitors can view drawings of some of the instruments and learn more about them. Right now, the exhibits are fairly limited, but Spectrum says they’ll add more as time permits, some from the current album, others from the upcoming Phantom Cabinet Vol. 2

Meanwhile, we have the music, intricate, multilayered creations, with detailed backstories and an overload of sensory stimuli. Safe to say that casual listeners will grasp only a fraction of what’s going on in these songs, so we asked Spectrum, does he mind that?

“Not really. We take inspiration from the film world. We’re not really making music for films but rather making music that’s almost like short films you can see with your ears,” he explains. “You know, Kubrick, when he built his sets for Space Odyssey, he made huge rows of buttons, and every single button was labeled. The camera never goes even close to the buttons but it was important for him that everything is as real as possible. It’s the same thing. I believe that when you pay a lot of attention to the details, people don’t have to get them all, but it’s reflected in the whole.”