Introducing: The Ah’s “Pepper Pupil”

The premiere of a music video 20 years in the making.

Yesterday, on a cobblestone street in Polignano, Italy, I passed a green wall. Under a darker splotch of green, graffiti had been painted over making an accidental gibberish street art palimpsest. It occurred to me that if someone asked me how I write music, I might tell them about this wall. There was something about the unintended but form-like organization of the colors that reminded me how I choose notes.

It isn’t possible to find new notes in our Western harmonic system. They’ve all been written, performed or recorded in some way or another, but there are still so many ways to reshape and express different kinds of feelings and colors within those 12 notes.

My experience as a composer has been: put things in a pot and shake it up. For example, sometimes I transcribe the form of a song I like, and then, after adding new harmony and melody, slow it down and try different rhythms. Or maybe by playing a rhythm incorrectly I’ll stumble upon something new I like. If vocals don’t seem right, then maybe I’ll sample the sound of dolphins or birds. I love to try and find sounds in nature that can emulate synthesizers. When an atmosphere starts to emerge I know I’m on the right path. Like using a time machine; you can make things that have already happened into something new.  

The cobblestone street led to a view of the sea. Staring at it, I felt as though I’d never seen such a shade of blue-green before. Maybe I hadn’t, but that shade was made up of blues and greens that are around me all the time. There’s something magical and yet practical about these connections that both inspire and calm me, a certain logic and mystery that I’ve learned to embrace more than understand. On numerous occasions, I’ve written songs about things in my life that haven’t happened yet, or things I wasn’t aware of at the time of writing. Such experiences help me trust how words may feel, as opposed to what they mean.  

My song “Pepper Pupil” has been an ongoing journey, the video for which began 20 years ago.

When my sister Liz first started dating Jared (now her husband) around 2001, he and I instantly got along and would have fun making video art projects together during family holidays. One of the first videos we made was at my parents’ house in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they had just moved from Boston. Jared had a cheap new video camera and wanted to experiment with it, and we decided to shoot a video for a piece I had recently written and recorded, an arrangement of the Ravel String Quartet in F minor. It had been my final project for my arranging class at Berklee and I was very proud of it. I’ll never forget the confidence I felt handing it in and the disapproving face of my teacher telling me I hadn’t followed even one of the rules for the assignment. He gave me a D, saying it was the best he could do. Despite this rejection, I felt a liberation in making something new of the failed assignment.

Jared was excited to try out different camera techniques, and we created a loose narrative around them. A depressed man (played by me) comes home from work, sad and bored. Upon falling asleep in front of the television a magical creature (my sister) brings him into another dimension full of excitement and wonder. It was no masterpiece. In fact, it was borderline embarrassing and became a fun sort of family relic. We showed some friends at the time and eventually even put it up on YouTube, new at the time, and there it sat, sinking into the abyss.

Fast forward to when my parents were about to move out of that house, almost 20 years later. The whole family gathered together there for the last Christmas, 2019. Though Liz and Jared’s hands are more full these days with careers and their three beautiful children, we still do try to find the time to do creative projects when we can. On one of the final nights, I sat with Jared by the fire, trying to come up with an idea for a music video for the new album, Mere Husk, of my solo project, The Ah. Time was running out, but we had agreed to shoot something before the holiday was over. Suddenly I remembered the old video we had made. Could we use it? We set up the computer and put the audio from my new song to the old video. We could not believe our eyes and ears; all the edits lined up perfectly, profoundly.

There was only one problem: ”Pepper Pupil” was longer than the original video, and re-editing or slowing things down or duplicating pieces just didn’t feel right. Then something occurred to me, and I almost couldn’t say it because it felt too obvious and too precious. We were all in the same house where we had shot it, and for the last time, and my sister and I could finish the video by re-doing the same shots from 20 years earlier — in the very same places. The absurdity and the melancholy of it added a whole new dimension and depth.

Recreating these dance scenes with Liz was a way to feel, deeply, the passage of time, to see life from further away — future to past and back again. And like the splotches of dark green creating a new gibberish on the wall in Italy, we had painted new elements, shapes and feelings on top of an old design, soldering the present to the past. 

— Jeremy Gustin

Mere Husk is out now via NNA Tapes. 

(Photo Credit: Jesse Harris)

Jeremy Gustin is a one-of-a-kind drummer who has toured and recorded with RubblebucketOkkervil RiverDavid ByrneMarc RibotDelicate Steve, and Albert Hammond Jr.. He has long been in demand for his ability to bring a touch of the unorthodox to highly structured and improvised musical settings alike, so it should come as no surprise that on his own solo project, The Ah, Gustin explores the outer boundaries of his imagination to the fullest.

The Ah’s new album Mere Husk, the follow-up to 2017’s Common Bliss, sees Gustin once again crafting animal noises, water sounds, miscellaneous found audio, and his own playing into a harmonic language that straddles the line between his love of pop songcraft and his equally strong attraction to the abstract. Rather than employ gurgling fish tank bubbles and dolphin calls for their ambient properties alone, for example, Gustin bends them beyond recognition so that they mimic synths or serve the role of instrumental parts in an arrangement that falls together like a classic “song” — whether Gustin includes vocals or not.

Mere Husk expands dramatically on the vision introduced with Common Bliss. Though twirling from playful to solemn and back again, Gustin’s music is as easy to take in as watching the myriad shades of colorful marine life swimming through an aquarium.

(Photo Credit: Jesse Harris)