"Remember, 16 seconds in between songs is an extra hour. Thirty seconds is two hours. Make the transitions as quick as possible. Play through the mistakes. Even if it's a disaster, play through," Joe Peppercorn instructs his bandmates.
It's Nov. 10, exactly one month from the day Peppercorn and two dozen local musicians will perform every album by the Beatles - 215 songs in all - in chronological order, plus selected tracks from the band members' post-Beatles solo careers, at the Bluestone.
On this night, Peppercorn and six of the 11 core band members - bassist Chris Bolognese, guitarists Jake Remley and Matt Peppercorn (Joe's brother), drummer Jesse Cooper, guitarist/singer Tommy Young and multi-instrumentalist/singer Phil Cogley - are gathered in Joe's cramped Grandview basement to play through the 30-track White Album.
A string of lights hangs from exposed floor joists in the ceiling, illuminating bookshelves and vinyl records and bins of toys. To accommodate the amps and drum kit and keyboards and seven grown men, Lego projects in various stages of completion have been relegated to one corner. Resting on a red toy piano is a silver coin stamped with a smiley face and the words, "I was caught being good!"
"You got the chunks, I got the stabs," Remley says to Matt before the band launches into a blistering "Back in the U.S.S.R.," after which Joe stands up from the keyboard and begins playing "Dear Prudence" on a 12-string guitar.
For the first two sides of the White Album, the band is down to business and in sync, with minimal lag between songs. Any kinks, like the quirky start-stop rhythm on "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," are worked out mid-song. The extended break comes a few songs later, as the band discusses whether certain harmonies should have been "Ohh" and not "Ahh" or three parts instead of two.
More beer is consumed, and the second half of practice is a little looser, with longer breaks between songs. This is just one of multiple practices for the White Album, so the band still has some time to firm things up. But not too much. Plus, there's the Abbey Road practices, the Let it Be practices…
The Beatles Marathon is arguably the most ambitious musical feat attempted in Columbus each year, and it has also become a beloved community event. For Peppercorn, who's now known more for the Beatles show than for his band the Whiles, the event isn't some excuse to play a bunch of covers and make some money. It's an essential, sacred part of his life.
"You could find better musicians - especially with me," Peppercorn said. "There are always at least 100 people in the Bluestone who could sing the song I am singing better than me. [But] we are the island of misfit toys, and this show is our home."
In My Life
When reflecting on his tween and teen years growing up in Upper Arlington, Joe Peppercorn describes himself as "literally the biggest dork in the world." Years removed, it's easy to laugh about a nerdy youth, but it wasn't easy then. In middle school, other kids bullied Peppercorn in a way that left deep scars. He struggled with insomnia. By the time he hit high school, Peppercorn didn't believe anyone was capable of caring about him.
Then he heard two Beatles albums, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road, and everything changed. "I no longer felt so alone," he said. "The insomnia that plagued me my whole life was OK. It was a declaration that I was OK, and I was going to be OK. I am not sure I would have survived my youth without this music. It was my escape and my safety net. Without it, I think there's a good chance I may have taken my own life as a teenager."
With his jazz-band classmates Paul Headley and Chris Bolognese, and later his younger brother, Matt, Peppercorn started a rock band and played "Hey Jude" at the high school talent show in 1998. When Joe was a senior, he and Matt bought the Beatles' complete scores and attempted to learn the songs together.
"I would look at those lyrics and chord changes and dream of one day playing them all," Joe said.
In 1999, the young band dubbed itself Mrs. Children, later becoming the Whiles when it released its breakthrough album Colors of the Year in 2003. Though the band toured with bigger acts and garnered some major-label attention, the Whiles never quite busted free of the outerbelt, yet it has remained active in fits and starts, releasing a new record every few years, including Mercury Ghost in early November.
"I don't have a regular job. I probably never will. My life is weird," said Peppercorn, who married his wife, Juliette, in 2003. He's the primary caregiver for the couple's three kids while also holding down bartending gigs and working as a church organist.
Several years ago, Peppercorn hosted a weekly open-mic night at the Treehouse (now the Treebar) and became good friends with Andyman Davis, the former Treehouse co-owner and then-program director at CD101 (now CD102.5). One night, in a two-hour drinking session around the piano, he and Davis plowed through the entirety of Abbey Road.
In 2010, Davis drowned while vacationing with his family, and it hit Peppercorn hard. Soon after Davis' death, Peppercorn was driving and listening to the Beatles' "She Loves You" while his 1-year-old son, Giuseppe, sang "yeah, yeah, yeah" from the back of the car.
"I remember being stunned by the beauty of that moment," Peppercorn said. "I'd let the Beatles go. They were not with me in my 20s. In high school everything was the Beatles, but in my 20s I had to reject that. Then, in that moment I was 30, and it was like, 'Oh, my gosh. This is beautiful.' So I said, 'I'm going to play the White Album at the Treebar.'"
Then the idea grew. "I like to do stupid things to impress people," he said, "so really stupidly I said, 'You know, I'm supposed to play the White Album in two weeks. I'm gonna play every Beatles song.'"
Under the glow of multicolored Christmas lights and an Elvis-head lamp, Peppercorn performed every Beatles song on Tuesday, Dec. 28, deciding on the fly whether he'd play guitar or piano. Instruments were set up so that others among the 50 or so gathered there could join in, and they often did.
Peppercorn admitted the first year was not very good musically. There was some ego in it, too - a stunt to merely prove he could pull it off. But toward the end of the night, as he played "Because" from Abbey Road and attempted to sing it in the rasp of a voice that remained, the show became something else.
"The whole room sang it, and it was this very beautiful moment," Peppercorn said. "I think that was the moment I realized this was something special. It wasn't just this idiot doing this stupid human trick."
Tommy Young of Low Men was behind the bar that night, occasionally singing into a mic (until Peppercorn kicked him off). "Watching him do that almost entirely by himself, I was in awe of Joe," Young said.
After that first year, Peppercorn wondered if he could do it again, but better.
We Can Work it Out (With a Little Help from My Friends)
For the second iteration of the Beatles Marathon, Peppercorn enlisted the help of his Whiles bandmates and others and booked a December date at Kobo (now Spacebar), a small Old North club. About 300 people came to watch. Phil Cogley, who performs as the Saturday Giant, planned to arrive in time to hear the White Album and then leave. The Beatles' music had never particularly grabbed him.
"I hadn't quite made it inside yet because there was a line out the door, but I was watching through the porthole windows, and they were hitting 'A Day in the Life,'" Cogley said. "What they were doing was something you can only do if you've been playing music nonstop for six hours. It was so locked-in. You could just feel the energy and the chemistry and the determination. It had such an amazing vibe. The room felt so alive. I was like, man, I would kill to be a part of this."
The next year, when a musician dropped out two weeks before the show, Peppercorn invited Cogley and Young to join the ensemble. For that 2012 performance, he initially booked the Bluestone, but then backed out and returned to the smaller confines of Kobo. "I didn't think we were ready to do it there," he said. "[On a stage that size], it has to be theater. It has to be a show."
By 2013, the band was ready and played to about 1,000 people at the Bluestone. By 2015, attendance had more than doubled. As the audience grew, the number of rehearsals climbed. This year, Peppercorn and his bandmates began practicing in August, and they try not to use sheet music while performing.
The months-long Marathon prep is hard on the players and their families, particularly Peppercorn's. "I remember looking at [Juliette] after the first marathon and saying, 'This could really be something, but it will be incredibly difficult for you every year. Is that OK?'" Peppercorn said. "She said yes and has always been there to take care of the kids and make sure the rest of my life doesn't fall apart."
While Peppercorn said the show becomes less and less about him every year, he's still the undisputed captain of the ship. "He's always at the helm, without a doubt," Young said of Peppercorn. "And directly behind him is [bassist Chris Bolognese]. Chris is the engine of the ship as Joe is driving it. You couldn't have one without the other. If there's ever a question in rehearsal in regards to how the song goes or what we're singing, Joe goes right to Chris."
In concert, Peppercorn and his bandmates don't wear mop tops or dress up like Sgt. Pepper or sing in faux British accents. It's not a parody. The musicians try to replicate the tunes as accurately as possible - every harmony, every tambourine shake - but they also don't deny the fact that each player brings his or her own musical personality to the show.
"You don't see bands cover the Beatles because they're really hard to cover," Peppercorn said. "They do a lot of weird things. They're hard to sing. The George Harrison guitar parts rely on this control and this tone that very few people can do. A lot of these albums are made not to be played live."
Mastering 215 Beatles songs is a feat unto itself, but performing them all in one night is a superhuman endeavor. The morning of the show, the musicians tune dozens of instruments, some of which won't be played for hours. And in order to keep the crowd engaged while performing 12-plus hours of material by the biggest rock stars in history, Peppercorn plays the role of rock star, jumping, swinging his mic and venturing into the audience.
"The persona I adopt onstage is influenced by guys like Ron House, Jerry Wick and Eric Davidson," said Peppercorn, referencing three Columbus frontmen. "When I was in high school, seeing Gaunt, New Bomb Turks and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments was an incredibly formative experience. While those guys probably think the Beatles show is the dorkiest thing this side of the Scioto River, I'm performing with them in mind every year."
Even with other singers like Cogley, Young, Nate Rothacker and Carrie Ayers taking lead vocals on songs, Peppercorn inevitably loses his voice about three hours into the show, usually during A Hard Day's Night or Beatles for Sale.
"It's terrifying. My voice starts to go, and I have 150 more songs to play," Peppercorn said. "I start chugging a lot of honey and I drink a little bit of whiskey, and I panic. It sucks. There's like 1,000 people [watching and listening] and I'm just choking on this song. And then it comes back and everything falls into place."
At a certain point in the show, after the jitters wear off and the hours of rehearsal take hold, Marathon musicians describe an almost spiritual experience onstage.
"You sort of enter this trance where you're not thinking as much, and you're very emotional and very open," Peppercorn said. "Your senses get heightened. It's an unbelievable feeling."
"You're not thinking about anything," Cogley said. "It feels very Zen after a certain point. There's nothing but what's on the stage. … I've [run] a half-marathon, and it takes you to a similar place - that mental focus and clarity and the way the world collapses into what's directly in front you."
Every year, Peppercorn tries to incorporate new elements into the show. This year, Samantha Schnabel, a violinist and singer in Ghost Shirt who has played in four Beatles Marathons, is bringing three of her orchestra students from Granville High School to form a string quartet on a trio of songs.
For Schnabel, the Beatles gig is forever linked to one of the biggest moments of her life. In November of last year, she went into labor with her first child, and while she and her husband waited, they listened to Abbey Road. When their daughter arrived, they named her Lennon. Less than two months later, Schnabel performed onstage in the Beatles Marathon.
"I've been a musician pretty much my entire life, and the Marathon is my absolute favorite stage," Schnabel said. "Last year when Joe sang 'Blackbird,' I stood backstage with tears streaming down my face as I listened to the crowd join him. It was just so perfect."
Jesse Cooper, who plays in the Receiver and shares drummer duties with the Whiles' Paul Headley, said the Beatles Marathon is what keeps him in Columbus. "I remember being on tour with the Receiver this past summer and would catch myself daydreaming of possibly relocating to another part of the country," Cooper said. "The only red flag in that pleasant dream was the thought of not being a part of the Beatles Marathon. … There's nothing like it on the planet."
A strange thing happens, too, after playing in the Beatles Marathon: These songs that were recorded in the '60s by an English rock group and are beloved by millions of people become something else entirely.
"At some point, so many of these songs don't even feel like Beatles songs anymore," Cogley said. "They feel like our songs."
"When I hear somebody else playing Beatles music or I walk into a place and they're playing Beatles music, I almost feel like, 'Yeah, that's mine,'" Young said. "If a person says, 'You like the Beatles?' I'm like, 'You don't even know. I am the Beatles.' ... We've played the songs so much that it feels like it's our band, and the rest of the year, when we're not doing these songs, it feels like something is missing."
To hear the musicians talk about the Marathon experience is to understand why Peppercorn so often has to say no when someone asks to be a part of the event. "It's a deeply personal show for me, and I just couldn't do it with people who were not inextricably a part of my life," he said. "They are in my basement and my kids are walking around them as they play, and that's a huge part of why the show works."
Back in Peppercorn's basement, 3-year-old Cecilia wanders downstairs in the middle of rehearsal.
"Daddy, can I have a treat?" she asks in an impossibly cute Cindy Lou Who voice.
"Did you finish your dinner?" Peppercorn responds.
"Can you finish it?"
This scene is repeated two more times as Cecilia becomes less and less enthused about finishing her pasta. In the back corner, Giuseppe and his other sister, Olivia, wear orange protective earmuffs and yell over the din while a Lego drama unfolds between them.
The kids seem perfectly accustomed to the rehearsals. They know life doesn't stop for the Beatles. Peppercorn still plays organ gigs and bartends at Giuseppe's Ritrovo in Bexley and Little Rock Bar in Italian Village. But in the middle of all that, it's Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.
"Every year, I'm reminded leading up to the show just how immersive I have to become," Peppercorn said. "All I listen to is the Beatles. Even when there is other music playing, I hear the Beatles. When I'm playing with my kids, I am visualizing the show. When I'm on my phone, I am messaging about practice or last-minute changes to a song."
As fun as the rehearsals often are, Peppercorn said the last few weeks leading up to the show are hellish - full of nerves, fear, self-doubt and regret. "It becomes an intense mental battle for me," he said. "Thinking constantly of the band that was most successful at music, which is what I wanted to do with my life, while ultimately being a failure in all commercial measures in music, is heartbreaking at times."
When less than two weeks remained until the Marathon on Dec. 10, Peppercorn said he was running a fever and having a recurring nightmare in which he wakes up at 3 p.m. the day of the performance and has to play the entire show in half the time.
"This show really shouldn't be possible, and in certain ways, it's not. I still feel like we - and especially I - have never performed all the songs in a way I was entirely proud of," Peppercorn said. "But I get into the room that day with a bunch of friends, most of whom I've known and played music with for 20 years, and I look around and everyone is smiling, and I'm playing these songs that are just an absolute blast to play, and I feel at home. I feel comfortable in my own skin for one of the very few times in my life."