Joe Peppercorn looks to the sky on forthcoming 'Darkening Stars'

Joel Oliphint

Around noon on January 20, 2017, Joe Peppercorn was at Giant Eagle drinking coffee while his kids scampered around the grocery store’s play area. Just a few weeks earlier, the musician had given himself an ambitious challenge: Write a new song every week, all year long — 52 songs in 52 weeks.

While his kids were occupied on the playground, Peppercorn decided to work on lyrics for that week's song. Nearby, a TV was broadcasting the inauguration of Donald Trump. Glancing at a newspaper next to him, Peppercorn noticed a headline about the death of Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to walk on the moon. Nothing felt good.

“I'm sitting there in a Starbucks in Giant Eagle, with super awful lighting, watching [Trump] give this horrifying, nightmare inaugural address about how awful everything is, and I look over at the newspaper … and I was just like, ‘This is so depressing,’” said Peppercorn, who managed to transform the ominous scene into a thing of beauty.

“There’s no one left who walked on the moon/Darkness falling at the break of noon,” Peppercorn sings on “Walked on the Moon,” the leadoff track on the musician’s forthcoming album, Darkening Stars. The song's chorus is bathed in the harmonies of his Sgt. Peppercorn’s Marathon bandmates, who have developed a palpable musical chemistry after years of performing every song in the Beatles’ catalog in one day (not to mention the countless rehearsals in Peppercorn’s basement leading up to the event).

Peppercorn completed the 52-song project at the end 2017, and over time he culled the tracks down to 14 songs that he re-recorded last year with some of his Beatles bandmates: bassist Chris Bolognese, drummer Jesse Cooper, guitarist Jon Wink, guitarist Tommy Young, multi-instrumentalist Phil Cogley and engineer/guitarist Jake Remley, with additional contributors adding parts in the last few months (several of the musicians overlap with Peppercorn’s other band, the Whiles). Peppercorn will perform some of the Darkening Stars songs at a piano tonight (Thursday, Aug. 6) at 7 p.m. in a livestream event tied to “Apart Together,” CAPA’s series of virtual concerts.

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Revisiting the 2017 songs after some time away, Peppercorn was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed them. Some he didn’t even remember writing. “It's almost like hearing someone else,” he said. “Looking back, the songs are all about this need to attach to something and feel some sort of meaning when it feels like there's this horrifying nihilism that surrounds you all the time. If I go on my phone and start reading news, I can get swallowed up and end up in these really dark places where you're imagining this Mad Max situation, like, ‘How am I gonna hide my kids in a bunker?’”

References to celestial bodies are threaded throughout Darkening Stars, which Peppercorn attributes to the time he spent staring at the night sky on evening runs and the books he was reading at the time. “When I was writing the lyrics, I was reading ancient Roman poetry, which, a lot of the time, they're talking about how insignificant they feel looking up at the moon or the stars. It’s comforting, and then also it makes you feel like you're nothing,” said Peppercorn, who, over the course of previous Whiles album Mercury Ghost and the forthcoming Darkening Stars, has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of making himself smaller.

“Every breath is yours/Every move is yours/All of my blood are yours/I don't need myself anymore,” he sings on “I Don’t Need Myself Anymore,” one of several songs inextricably linked to Peppercorn’s roles as husband and father. “I was just embracing the moments and my situation,” he said. “It's not sexy to be writing songs while being a dad, but I think it's more interesting than a dad trying to be sexy.”

Peppercorn plans to officially release Darkening Stars, which is currently being mixed and mastered by Jon Chinn, by the end of the year, and possibly much sooner in digital form. He’s convinced the album contains some of the best songs he’s ever written (he’s not wrong), from beautiful ballads (“Lean Against Me,” “Never Be Ready to Say Goodbye”) and shimmery, jangle-pop sing-alongs (“Floor of My Heart”) to Guided By Voices-indebted fist-pumpers (“She Sparkles”).

Plus, the record provides a needed dose of musical excitement to keep him sane — especially as the possibility of a December Sgt. Peppercorn's Marathon looks less and less likely.

“My 20s were defined by the Whiles and trying to establish some sort of music career, and that ended up working in certain ways and really failing in others. And then my 30s were defined by raising children, and the Beatles show started when I was 30. And now I'm 40,” Peppercorn said. “Now that the kids are in school, I kind of want my 40s to be defined by making music. I’ve been making a lot more of it than I ever have in my life, and I think I'm better than I've ever been.”

Joe Peppercorn and son


Joe Peppercorn