Heard of Ashlee Simpson? This band hasn’t

Jon Dieringer

Up until a few short weeks ago, Pepper’s Ghost didn’t seem to have a “ghost” of a chance at success. Now with a hit single and an opening gig for Ashlee Simpson, things are looking up for the fledling band.

Credit: Beth Rankin

A month ago, the boys in Pepper’s Ghost weren’t sure what their plans for the future were.

Their debut album, Shake the Hand that Shook the World, is due for a spring release, but beyond that, bassist David Hartley said it all depends how things go during the course of their tour.

“We want to see what happens with the record and radio play and stuff. And if our single just catches — if it pops — that could change everything.”

“You’re In My Heart” debuted at No. 17 on last week’s Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. For a band that only recently signed with a booking agency after receiving attention in the Philadelphia area, that might require nothing short of a miracle.

Or an opening slot on tour with Ashlee Simpson.

“There was never any discussion about whether or not we should take the tour or not — we just took it because we all knew it was definitely the best thing to do,” Hartley said from a truckstop in Oregon in late February after a show in San Jose, Calif. “I don’t think we’ve had any reservations since then.”

But it still makes for an interesting contrast. Pepper’s Ghost plays good old rock ‘n’ roll in the tradition of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones with a melodic sense that often gets them compared to The Beatles. As for Simpson, well, most people know about her — even if Hartley said his band really didn’t.

“The only place I’ve heard her music is when we’re watching her play,” he said. “Most of us aren’t that tuned into the radio or MTV, so we didn’t really know much about it.”

They might have a reason to tune in soon. Even a week into their tour, Pepper’s Ghost quickly became acquainted with the big time. As swarms of cameras wrapped up filming the second season of “The Ashlee Simpson Show” during the tour’s first two dates — the band had cameras in their face the first time they met Simpson — Pepper’s Ghost had to familiarize themselves with autograph seekers and playing larger venues.

Having only played a few large venues before on scattered nights, Hartley said the transition hasn’t been too difficult.

“You’ve just gotta learn how to get in and hit ‘em early, get them on their feet and really establish a connection,” Hartley said. “It’s not like playing a bar where the audience is four feet away from you and half of them know you.”

So far, it seems to be working. Hartley said lines of autograph seekers have found the band every night, and the astonishing success of his band’s single indicates good things are still to come.

The single is taken from their upcoming album, which currently has a general “spring ’05” release date. Andy Johns, the man behind the controls for Television’s Marquee Moon, Led Zeppelin IV and Exile on Mainstreet, produced the album.

“Working with him was a unique pleasure because he is both a singular talent and crazy — and, at times, extremely difficult to work with,” Hartley said. “I’ll definitely never forget working with a living legend, because that’s what he is. He’s been in the room for some of the greatest moments in rock ‘n’ roll history.”

The praise isn’t one way. Johns has been quoted in press materials saying Pepper’s Ghost are one of the best bands he’s ever worked with. He and the band remain close, and they recently visited him when they stopped in Los Angeles, where Hartley said the group had a great time listening to the album.

Though it remains unclear when the public will have the opportunity to hear it, the material can be heard live as Pepper’s Ghost continues the tour through April, stopping this Tuesday at Cleveland’s Playhouse Center Square.

And with the cameras gone, Hartley said the band only has one thing to think about.

“Now that the cameras are gone it’s cool, it’s more relaxed, and we’re just focused on playing the shows.”

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].