Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper
The collaborators compare restaurant industry resumés, and the grind that connects music and service workers
By: Tom Beedham | Photo by: Colin Medley | Art by: Tom Beedham
Rattling off a handful of restaurant gigs he worked on College Street and Queen Street West, André Ethier is filling in a personal map of Toronto’s downtown when he lands on the time he quit a job to tour with the Deadly Snakes and ended up barbacking the original Silver Dollar Room through venue talent booker Dan Burke.
“I was complaining that I didn’t have a job, and Dan was like, ‘Come down to the Silver Dollar.’ That was horrific,” Ethier recalls. Before it was demolished and rebuilt to exact specifications as a sanitized cocktail lounge on the same site, the venue spent the best part of two decades enduring an era of sticky-floored underground guitar music and the occasional onstage brawl—not to mention the notorious after-hours party space downstairs. “My training shift was like, ‘The northwest corner is run by this gang, so don’t go in there; don’t clear any drinks.’ The previous busser had left because he had been given a concussion by some criminals that had picked him up and dropped him on his head on the cement floor.”
As Ethier offers his side of the Silver Dollar Room, Joseph Shabason is having trouble holding back his exasperation. Speaking over the phone from Shabason’s kitchen after lunch at Ossington falafel joint the Haifa Room, the pair is on the line to chat up Fresh Pepper, a band they assembled with peers between pandemic restrictions. The core members are rounded out with Kieran Adams on drums, Thom Gill on keys, and Bram Gielen on bass—familiar names for fans of Shabason’s solo records and work in DIANA; as well as vocalists Robin Dann and Felicity Williams, two more locally in-demand performers perhaps best recognized at the front of Bernice, which also features Gill.
Like Ethier, Shabason has also put in his time in the service industry, waiting tables and working in kitchens. “I’ve also worked in so many wedding bands,” Shabason says, “[which is also] somewhat service industry—we’d be eating in closets and working with all of the servers.” In fact, Ethier and Shabason report, everyone on Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled album has spent time supplementing their music careers in restaurants and kitchens.
“They’re very related,” Ethier reiterates. “Two perhaps enjoyed industries in Toronto, but underappreciated for how they grind people down and how difficult it is to grow up [around] and within those industries.”
Fresh Pepper provides a summit for service and music workers alike, toasting their interdependencies and challenging the conditions they bump against with metaphor-rich vignettes. “Dry your eyes Susie Q / An actor’s face at the window when it’s raining,” Ethier sings over a glassy set of keys before an upward saxophone swirl uproots the action and tosses it into glistering dream-like suspension on opening song “New Ways of Chopping Onions.” In the space of two lines, the song calls to mind film, music, and kitchen traditions and trade secrets; the antipsychotic drug Seroquel; even Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” monologue from the end of Blade Runner—a bouquet of gestures to some untold obstacles and indignities commonly endured in entertaining.
On a similar tip, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” features a guest appearance from Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar, stepping in to sing about the meticulous, extravagant lengths restaurateurs will go to provide a comfortable dining experience—”We harvest insane roses,” Bejar sings, Dann and Williams echoing him before Ethier joins in: “Every table gets a rose / Every table gets a candle.” It all gets lost in the busy dining-room chatter that pervades the track, playing off like a floor staff’s collective fantasy. That invisibilized verisimilitude is baked into the Fresh Pepper project.
“It does relate to the pandemic,” Ethier says, though he and Shabason are reluctant to ascribe too much of the album’s influence to its pandemic origins. “Playing live shows and being a band took a hit during the pandemic—[we] more or less couldn’t play shows, and restaurants couldn’t open.”
Writing a record was all they could do to nourish themselves.
“We’d call each other every day and just talk through things in a really nice way, and the rest of the band was very much integral to the record being done, but at the end of the day it was André and I just in the weeds day in and day out—and it felt nice to be there with somebody because it had just been me by myself or with my toddler for so long that to sort of feel like an adult again was doing something meaningful,” Shabason reflects. “Not that raising a child isn’t meaningful, but it’s also fuckin’ monotonous and crazy-making sometimes. And this was just pure joy for me.”
“The time flew,” Ethier adds.
Time figures prominently across the record: screaming into the foreground at the close of “New Ways of Chopping Onions” as an alarm clock telegraphs the opener was all a dream, some ungodly non-billable overtime; closing in with mounting intensity on the jazz noir Davis nod “Walkin'”; sloshing through a lazy river of woozy guitar bends and hungover flotsam and jetsam on “Waiting On”; swirling down the drain after blasting drum skins and assorted percussion implements like so many dishes with hot, vaporous sax fumes on “Dishpit.” On “Prep Cook in the Weeds,” the titular narrator watches flies slowly accumulate on the hands of a kitchen clock—time appearing to slow so much the future erases itself, life disappearing under the weight of agents of decay, the kitchen’s very biochemistry under threat.
“It’s a horrible thing to be at work,” Ethier says about his lyrics. “The flies have taken the wheel and they’re driving time.”
This could be pretty oppressive imagery, but the band diffuses the atmosphere with a sublime lightness, collectively conveying a kind of zen you could only arrive at through repetition, distance, and mutual support.
“For me, this record was the first time since the start of the pandemic where time kind of dissolved,” Shabason enthuses. “This was maybe the first time we had been allowed to be in a room together in a full year, so I think everyone was really excited, too. It felt joyful and fun and easy and like this kind of collective exhale of just being like, ‘Oh, this is so nice.'”
That’s felt in everything from the loose physicality to the folk wisdoms they elevate to oneiric guiding light. Shabason’s studio consists of one room, so to accommodate Adams’ drums, he and Gill recorded scratch parts on an MS-20 synthesizer and an early 2000s Yamaha MOTIF for the beds but ultimately kept them intact; Ethier’s guitar parts ring out without needing to be resolved. “Congee Around Me” builds itself up into an atmosphere of collective care and nourishment, its characters finding abundance in the elemental simplicity of pantry staples. It’s a dynamic that’s central to the song itself, Dann and Williams supporting Ethier’s vocals while the rest of the band patiently add their parts in brushes and swells.
“I hear it, and it makes me well up,” Shabason says about the song, though he might as well be talking about the album. “It’s everyone working in concert to make this thing that feels so emotional.”
Fresh Pepper‘s self-titled debut is out June 17, 2022 via Telephone Explosion Records.