The Spirit of Kerosene: Being John Pegg

At the risk of being repetitive I cannot stress enough how much I admire Kerosene perfumes for their fresh, evocative, unpretentious approach to perfume. I was pleasantly surprised by R’oud Elements only to be swept off my feet by Creature and moved by Whips and Roses. John Pegg’s route from perfume critic to perfumer intrigued me and I contacted him for an interview, in search of the way he thinks when he creates his perfumes. He made time to answer my questions and this is what we came up with.

I’d love to do an interview with you. Send as many questions as you’d like and I’ll reply as soon as I can. I am busy, but make time for great people as yourself!
I can now finally breathe a bit. I was really working hard on W&R and SS and building the batches and designing the bottles which is fun, but exhausting. Now, I can relax and resume work on my two new releases for the fall. Got a great start on them.

So how long did it take you to develop R’oud Elements and how long to develop Whips and Roses?

R’oud took about 4 months at the creation table, and Whips & Roses about 6 months. Developing the leather/floral base in Whips was a tough challenge for me. And then to find the right rose absolute to blend in was another challenge. Im glad I didn’t skimp and used Bulgarian Rose Absolute. Gives the top a very fragrance, fresh, green rose aroma.

Apart from the trademark composition with the big opening and the friendly progression, I can also sense a trademark note. It is what I described as the “oud through the aquarium” in R’oud Elements and I can pick up the same note in Whips and Roses. A cool, part water, part volatile solvent note. It is there in Santalum Slivers. I find that many houses have this kind of trademark note. For instance there is a rubbery note in many Frederic Malle releases. Is this something you have actively incorporated in your compositions or is it something that emerges from the way you use materials and the materials you choose to work with?

Actually, I never really anticipate what Im going to end up mixing into the formula at the beginning stages of my work. I always start with a note or two that are inspiring me at the time and build from there. But to answer your question, at the end of my work day, I look back over my recipe and notice some trends in oils that always seem to worm their way into the mix. I love woody notes, and so in every composition thus far, it’s not a huge surprise they are a staple in my scents. I think a perfumist’s signature style evolves from following their nose and sometimes it’s tough to stray from a certain path because of what we like to smell in a scent. Sometimes that path can fork, and lead you on a side-track which can be fun, exciting and potentially dangerous. But in the end I always find the main path to where the scent should be going and grounded in.

So where did this path start from? How did you get hooked on fragrance? Is it one particular event or scent that started this or rather your whole background? And if you don’t mind a more personal question, what is your earliest olfactory memory? Be it a perfume a parent wore, a loved one, a natural smell. Or even the first perfume you bought for yourself.

I would say I’ve always been chasing scent trails, be them natural or in perfume. I can’t quite remember what or how I initially got interested in perfumes. My parents wore cheapies like Jovan Musk, ect. We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on extras in life, putting food on the table was the priority. So once I got my own job in high school, I began splurging on myself. All of my friends in school were wearing stuff like Cool Water, I was always a bit different and never really followed the crowds. I went to the mall counter and found a scent that struck me; Red by Giorgio. It was potent and very much different from what other high schoolers wore. When CK One came out, that was the hot one for a few years, and nobody liked CK Be, except me. That scent to this day is one of my favorites. Probably top three. Just love the stuff. I guess that’s where perfume purchasing/exploring truly started for me. As far as what revs my engine as far as smells goes, it’s nature’s aromas (minus decaying deer carcasses and spoiled milk). I grew up and still live nearby a large river and when it’s still, there’s a strong aroma of fish, rain, and dewy air. I think it’s one of my favorites because the scent takes me back very far as my memory can take me. Another smell I love is the scent of a thick forest either late evening or early morning. Everything’s gotta be damp for the smell to really bloom.

I know what you mean about nature’s smells. One of my favourite notes in perfume is damp earth. So far is there on particular ingredient that you have found most challenging, most difficult to tame and bring it where you want it to be in a composition?

The most difficult thing to accomplish I would say is creating the unique aspect of a scent. I never want someone to say that one of my scents is similar to such and such. For me, that would equate to a failure. Of course, there will always be a few similarities between scents, a lemon is a lemon of course, but I don’t want anything to smell exactly like something else. Then, step two is difficult also. Creating a unique scent and at the same time, making it approachable. Someday, I might release a scent that is way out there in terms of likeability. It would be more of a fun, off the wall, kind of scent, but for the most part, I will adhere to my three core values. Raw, unique and approachable. As far as taming certain notes, patchouli and vetiver are the two beasts that I have a difficult time taming. They can be very tenacious, which is good, but a drop or two of each can ruin a complete batch or trial.

I’ll be the first one to buy a bottle of your “crazy” scent. There is a big issue nowadays about whether perfume is a form of art. Regardless of what one believes, if indeed perfumery is an art form then it has an obligation to be hard to approach, otherwise it will be mere craft. As far as vetiver and patchouli being hard to tame, I can understand what you mean. Although I am big vetiver fan I have dismissed many vetiver prominent fragrances as being too literal, too close to the vetiver oil I have smelled.

You have been a perfume blogger/critic on YouTube far longer than you have been a perfumer. So how does it feel to be on the opposite camp? Is it weird to read reviews of your perfumes while you were only critiquing just a while ago?

Yeah, it’s really crazy to think about. I´m an emotional guy, so at the start of the first launch, I just told myself, “Here’s the perfume, if it’s liked, good. If it’s not, good”. From reviewing over a hundred different perfumes, I’ve come to appreciate honesty, whether good or bad. But the thing about scent is that it’s 100% subjective. It’s like saying, “Red is the best color ever”. When the next guy will say, “NO! Blue is the best color ever!” – who wins? Nobody! You have to keep in mind, everyone will not like everything. And I´m completely cool with it

And how do you manage to fit this new aspect of your creativity in your 24 hour day? You have a job, a personal life and now a new, demanding venture.Promotion, travelling… How do you make the time?

Man, I have no idea!! I’m probably putting in about 80 hours a week right now. It’s absolutely exhausting, but very rewarding at the same time.

I know that just collecting perfumes and talking about them and being passionate about them can attract a lot of weird looks from people in our social surroundings. How did your acquaintances or people in your professional milieu react to the news that you were actually producing your own perfumes and you were doing well?

Yeah, my friends and family never quite understood my obsession with smells and I guess they just looked at it as that it was a better obsession than, say, alcohol! Haha So like with all my interests, I’ve always just went with my heart and passions no matter what people thought or said. When I began creating my own perfumes, I clearly remember the weird look my brother gave me when I had a bunch of vials on a kitchen table. He was quite perplexed, and what did I do? I just kept on working and doing my thing. If there’s a fire in me, nobody is going to put it out unless I extinguish it myself.

I imagine the whole process from concept creation till perfume promotion has been a total roller coaster. What are the moments or faces that you remember the most during this rather brief but very intense career as a perfumer?

It was definitely a couple of months after I offered R’oud Elements to the public. I wasnt thinking that it would take off like it did, so I was completely unprepared for everything. Oil stock, didn’t have an alcohol purchasing permit yet, a solid painting system and all the while working my 40 hour a week job. I took a trip to NY in March and that sapped any extra funds I had and left me flat broke. I skipped a bunch of meals and was close to eviction from my apartment for two months. I did everything I could to survive, including selling off some of my perfume collection and basically living off beans and rice or less. That time was the most trying and also just beginning to learn the business side of selling perfume, including trademarking the Kerosene brand and shaping the complete vision of the brand.

This must have been a very difficult time but hopefully things are a lot smoother now and business runs less stressfully. With everything being hand crafted and blended making bottles materialize still takes up an enormous amount of time. Yet the development is still important. I hear you have a gourmand in your immediate plans. What can we expect by the end of this year?

It was really stressful, Christos, but now everything is much smoother and for the first time since launching in the winter of 2011, I’m finally caught up with orders and working on building stock. It’ll be nice to get an order and pull bottles from the shelf versus scrambling to paint and mix batches per order.

Correct! I have a gourmand finished, but it wont be released until the fall. It’ll have notes of: burnt sugar, vanilla, coffee, chocolate and waffle cones. I’m really excited to see this one through. I’ve been working on a gourmand since last summer, but worked hard on the waffle cone note to separate it from all the other cocoa and vanilla scents. A local legendary frozen custard shop was a lot of my inspiration. If you’re ever in the Detroit area, you gotta get a custard twist from Erma’s. It’s the best. This scent is giving me 16 hours of longevity and it’s a beast for projection. On my first day of an actual wearing at work, I never received more compliments on any of my scents. I think mostly because it does indeed smell like food and people in my shop arent used to that.

Also I’m working on another floral for the fall. This one is more secretive but a man should be able to pull it off easily.

Your approach on a floral is something I would love to smell. I am not a big fan of gourmand perfumes when they get too literally foody but I love how you reference your home town and every day life as source of inspiration. And I would be the first one to look out for a weird creation, inspired by nature or by the industrial environment. I think you could do this wonderfully.

Thank you for the chat and for the great smells

Awesome, Christos. And thank you.

And yes, I already have the name of my “weird playful” scent which is named after a a street about a block away from where I grew up. It’s just a strange name and always stuck in my mind.

photo from John’s archive

Kerosene Perfumes available from House of Kerosene

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

6 comments

  1. Thank you for this interview! I LOVE hearing about people that follow their heart whereever it might lead them. Reading about John was such an inspiration – and the scents are now at the very top of my toTry-list :)

    • John’s achievement is admirable on both personal and technical level. His perfumes are extremely evolving and need time to bloom and develop. This makes them by definition non-commercial so I am very glad to see them getting praises. It is proof that the public is not as simple minded as big perfume conglomerates marketing think they are.

  2. Is he the BOMB! Love the frags too,
    Portia x

  3. Fabulous interview, Christos. I’m so thrilled to hear he is having success with his venture after learning what lengths he has gone too, so far, to make it happen. You know a person is committed to their dream when they are willing to put the big things on the line … guess what I’m saying is that it must have been really scary for him to go through that period where he was skipping meals and close to being evicted from his apartment, yet he rode it out and pushed through to the other side. Really inspiring!

    • I suspected that it wasn’t easy for John and I also admire the fact that he continued and never looked back. But I also admire the fact that he dared to expose himself in a rather counter intuitive way. Usually critics start as artists or theorists and then move to criticism. I imagine it takes a lot of dare to start as a perfume reviewer and make the leap to creating and inevitably being criticised. John Pegg announced yesterday that he will not be able to keep up with his YouTube perfume reviewing channel.

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