Born out of the desire to "do stuff that went a little further down the field," Birmingham-based Step Pepper Records recently celebrated 5 years of existence with a day-long, multi-media extravaganza that looked firmly to the future.
When Lewis interactive designer Andy Stewart was studying at the Atlanta College of Art, he was presented with an unusual assignment: Cut four pieces of matte board into perfect two-inch by two-inch squares. “It was notoriously the worst project, says Stewart. “Nobody wanted to do it… I won’t deny that it was annoying and tedious.” Still, Stewart dutifully completed the assignment — embracing its lesson in craftsmanship while confirming an already deep-seated attitude about his creative life: “Early on I felt like I had a predisposition to doing stuff that went a little bit further down the field than the average person was willing to go.”
This same boundary-pushing drive fuels Step Pepper Records, the label that Stewart (a.k.a. Urbandy) runs with his partner (and Lewis videographer and editor) Charlie Brown Sanders III. Recently, Step Pepper celebrated its 5th anniversary by throwing a birthday party at Saturn — a gleaming, new 500-person capacity venue located in Birmingham, Alabama, where the label is based (though its roster features acts from across the world).
Stewart and Sanders love multiplicities — especially in art. So it’s fitting that the night’s entertainment features sets from 14 acts across a variety of genres: Omari Jazz’s ecstatic beatscapes, the Freaky Deakys’ miscreant garage rock, the entropic aural poetry of Ant’lrd, Balcony View’s sheets of precariously balanced sound, the Morricone-meets-math rock heaviness of In Snow, Cosmonaut on Vacation’s groovy yet art-damaged space rock, Onehundreds’ psychedelia-infused pop rock, and so on.
“I’m not even sure that the record label moniker is going to be applicable to us in five years. It’s growing into so much more.” — Andy Stewart
If that wasn’t enough, many of the artists obliquely (and, in some cases, quite deliberately) provided the soundtrack to colorful, frenetic, and deeply-layered films — each a uniquely mind-bending gestalt that left audiences in an exhilarated, almost hypnagogic, state. It was no coincidence that the Step Pepper’s party had an “art show” vibe. “What we really wanted to do, initially, was a new media exhibition,” says Sanders. “Where it wasn’t so much a concert or a festival but a big room where you would experience Step Pepper in kiosks. Make it truly interactive.”
Such ideas are commensurate with Step Pepper’s non-traditional approach to the music business. In fact, they don’t really see themselves as a record label at all. “I’m not even sure that the record label moniker is going to be applicable to us in five years,” says Stewart. “It’s growing into so much more.”
Be that as it may, Step Pepper excels at creating compelling treats for media connoisseurs of all stripes. Experimental, beat-driven electronic music initially fed the label’s roster. It’s often music that’s made to live on the internet, so physical product is an afterthought. Yet by approaching the internet as Step Pepper’s canvas, Stewart and Sanders utilized their own multiplicity of talents — video production, coding, design, and, yes, music — to give each release a vibrant, digital presence all its own. It’s a style Sanders refers to as “Joy Pop — bright colors and shiny objects.” Inspiration came via iconoclastic labels like Warp and Stones Throw, as well as Cartoon Network’s long-running surrealist wonderland, Adult Swim. “I was the original demographic for Adult Swim,” says Stewart. “Urban youth with earbuds.”
Though vinyl is fast becoming the hard format du jour (again!), cassette culture continues to thrive thanks to underground artists who place a premium on both scarcity and obscurity (e.g. In Snow’s “deal” revolved around getting 50 cassettes made). So, when it was time for Step Pepper to get in the game, Stewart took great pains in ensuring that their releases — including CDs and vinyl — would maintain the standard of excellence set by the music.
“Most people who come to us might have a cover design. But there’s so much more to be done to get something to become a physical product.” It’s here that Stewart flexes the muscles he’s built over the course of his eight years at Lewis — looking for patterns, breaking them down, and creating a new series of work.
He was able to take these ideas to a new level when the label began working with Nowhere Squares, a stalwart Birmingham spazz punk band whose unique style is cultivated in large part by the band’s lead singer, celebrated visual artist and filmmaker, Paul Cordes Wilm. “When we see something like Nowhere Squares, our mouths start to water,” enthuses Stewart. “It’s the perfect creative sandbox to do branded content. To take an existing aesthetic approach and fully play it out.” Together, the label and band created a series of cassette releases, digital downloads, videos, and a limited-edition, retrospective CD compiled from two decades worth of material.
As with all of Step Pepper’s physical goods, the entire run makes for a fetching merch table. And while creating tangible musical artifacts is gratifying for Stewart and Sanders, they’re not content with merely doing things the same old way. “There’s no definitive medium anymore,” Says Sanders. “If we’re still doing this in ten years, the merch table will likely have more unconventional and non-traditional formats.”
Stewart likens Step Pepper’s resourceful, DIY work ethic to calligraphy. “You’re trying to use as few strokes as possible to make the biggest impact.” He continues, “There’s a pressure, having a limited creative team, to never repeat and try to jerk the wheel for the next project. We want to create this sort of thing where, right out of the gate, you know that Step Pepper is a creative shop rather than a specific record label/genre.”
Stewart and Sanders have already entered into 2016 with clear sights on Step Pepper’s future: Widening its roster, creating partnerships with like-minded labels, and delving into the publishing and licensing worlds. Yet as some things change, for Stewart, other things will invariably stay the same: “Here’s to another five years of sitting in front of a computer with minimal exposure to sunlight.”