I found this fragrance by John Pegg to be a disconcerting and strangely affecting scent. I have sampled all of his work to date and enjoyed his tenacity and olfactive alchemy. Not everything has come off; you can sense the experimentation and challenges in the blends of materials and creativity. Certain notes smell untamed, clawing away from themes and structures. Some formulae feel a little too grainy and unfinished. But John’s imagination is an extraordinary thing, building scent upon scent in his self-taught mind and just doing it, fuck opinion. Dirty Flower Factory, his most floral and unusual composition to date is a compelling blend of blue-collar romance, yearning and acquiescence.
Todd Hido Witness 7 (2009)
It is the guy heading homeward after a long shift on the car assembly line. It’s late; he’s exhausted, stained and craving love and quiet comfort. He buys flowers, any flowers on the way, from some small late night brightly lit store and heads back home to his girl. She kisses his rough, ashen face and holds the blooms to her nose. In the subdued light of their traffic lit rooms, she smells oil, grease, dirt on petal and stem.
‘…All flowers should smell like this…’ she says, touching his weary skin.
John used to be Kerosene Trewthe, posting online fragrance reviews on YouTube. The name refers to an old MySpace band page John had, the trewthe part referring to his strong spiritual beliefs in a search for God. Now, I’m not a huge fan of online video reviewing, it’s just not my thing, but it’s hugely popular and some people are really good at it. It’s an informal and direct way to speak to people, usually in a straightforward this is me and my bottle sort of way. In the US it’s very dude-y and in the UK oddly nerdy or generally just a little toe-curling. I don’t like the amateurishness, which I guess is sometimes the point. It some ways it feels like a reaction against the oft-perceived pretensions of fragrance blogs and niche reviewing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion mind you, it’s just that occasionally I feel the dominance of generic guy/street style scent reviewing feels forced, an attempt to butch up and reclaim a traditionally ephemeral industry.
Kerosene perfumer John Pegg
John’s reviewing was unusual in its mix of niche and mainstream offerings and in showcasing his commitment to elucidating olfactive thematics for himself and his followers. He is a handsome, old-fashioned guy, with a discreet and wolfish charm. He’s one of those guys who will listen carefully to you, process information and empathise… yet there’s a shadow over him, a metaphorical caul, something that sets him apart as different. He can goof off, cut loose and rave like anyone else, but John Pegg is a serious man, devoted to pursuing an idea of himself through this incarnation of scent creator. I’m not sure how comfortable he is with the label of perfumer. He is evidently creating perfume, but less I think to fit in with a conceived notion of industry standards or expectations. His is a rough hewn art, pulling influences from everything around him: his Michigan forested environs, his automobile employment history, local ice cream parlours, musical influences, seasons and weather, love and sex.
I first sampled Kerosene fragrances early last year. Christos who writes the wonderful Memory of Scent blog has championed John’s work for some time and it was while browsing some of Christos’ posts I came across his reviews and evident love of Kerosene. My friend and fellow scent hound Murray sent off for the sample tin that duly arrived, personalised and autographed by John.
What was immediately apparent was John’s obsession with effect and difference. His own personal background in blue-collar Michigan and journey to scent assembly via Internet reviewing and experimentation with the rawest of materials had forged a collection of oscillating variety and imagination. John taught himself how to wrench on motorbikes to escape the all-consuming Michigan car industry. In St Clair, where John hails from (about an hour north of Detroit) the seasons can be brutal and wild. Michigan can be cold seven months of the year. He has been quoted as saying this ratio has instilled in him a love of warmer, woodier notes, explored in some of his earlier fragrances such as Whips & Roses, R’Oud Elements, Copper Skies and Fields of Rubus.
John’s fragrances have an unfinished edge, a sense of work in progress, an olfactory mind in motion. This is not a criticism; I have a love of perfumers who lay out their workings and developmental thoughts for us to witness and inhale as them grow. His is a quiet and thoughtful style of assemblage, influenced by his past, present and emotional connections to his environment. John is very open in interviews about his work. His lack of guile and pretention sets him apart from many contemporary perfumers but also places him amid the rapidly burgeoning US niche and artisanal scene. Perfumers such as D.S. & Durga, Ineke, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, Heather Sielaff (Olo Fragrance), Mandy Aftel, Dawn Spencer Horowitz, Capsule, Sonoma Scent Studio, MCMC, MiN New York (their astonishing Scent Stories are aromas to watch…), Josh Meyer of Imaginary Authors and the defiantly cryptic Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse have all helped to refine the independent landscape of American scent.
Mr Kerosene is a little different though I feel. I hate to put gender spins on scent creation, but John’s compositions are for the most part quite masculine in tone. Even his green floral Pretty Machine was pretty savage in its massive bitter throw of linden blossom. Whips n’ Roses while ostensibly a rose was hijacked by the bleak crack of leather and bitter wood. Rather than consciously creating his and hers perfumes, John actually formulates concepts that compel the skin of lovers to be inhaled. He understands the need to taint the prettiness, smear the beauty and smudge the beautiful scented face.
Black Vines and Dirty Flower Factory dramatically expanded his olfactory palette. The sense of sooty, discreet ambiguity still remains but both fragrances are for me an evolution in John’s trademark style. I’m not saying what came before was poor or in any way particularly inferior, but there comes a point along many an indie perfume highway when elements, confidence and experience coalesce into magic. Like artists, perfumers spend months on ideas, honing, criticising, and experimenting, often in solitude or with the help and support of a few trusted friends or loved ones. Mods are scrapped, concepts discarded as materials fail to behave in expected ways.
Black Vines was a very eccentric interpretation of liquorice, using fig, anise cinnamon and feral Canadian Fir to deepen the intensity of the darkness. I love licquorice/anise in scent and have a weakness for Diesel’s gorgeously trashy chewy Loverdose and the vastly underrated Au Masculin for Men by Lolita Lempicka. On paper John’s scent seems destined for an odd olfactory direction but once the notes hit skin, the unusual name of the fragrance begins to clarify itself. This definition of the etymology of liquorice strips the meaning back to sweet root…
Middle English - licorice, from Anglo-French licoris, from Late Latin liquiritia, alteration of Latin glycyrrhiza, from Greek glykyrrhiza, from glykys sweet + rhiza root.
This is where John’s talent reveals itself, creating in fact an earthy and sweetly rooty scent with lashings of glossy spice and oiled sugar. Sampling the decant I have, I am reminded of corroded corridors in endless industrial chic sci-fi movies, pipes and wires dangling, glistening black in the flickering lights of chases and bloody slashing. It’s a puzzling scent, the memories of childhood candies polluted with a creamy forested haze. It’s a little like smelling sugar dusted lichen. This shuttered, pooling juice is quite a leap forward in terms of assembled effect.
I like the earlier scents though; Unknown Pleasures in particular is a bonkers gourmand with earl grey tea, lemon and a melting-down-the-hand waffle cone effect. It smells sticky and moreish, a bleak scent of wandering indulgence. Creature horrified me when I first inhaled it; the brutal menthol landscapes floored my senses. Mint on malachite on lawn on lashed leaves on storm-wrenched birch. But Creature is one of those things you just can’t stop smelling, I returned to it over and over, nudging the edges, worrying the drydown. The touch of citrus on oily sage, cypress and moss is perfect. A febrile jasmine note flickers amid the leafy assault. It’s quite an experience. I’m not sure I could wear it a lot, but the execution of shredded minty verdancy is pungent and arresting.
The interesting aspect of these earlier fragrances is the sensation you have of wearing something built. The lines, joints and scented workings are a little more exposed, one can almost feel the spaces between notes, inhale the sometimes ragged shifts from accord to accord. This is no bad thing, as I said earlier, one of the great joys of indie perfumery is personal growth and the reflection of this in the olfactory palette. No one is a perfume genius overnight. You must work bloody hard with mind, body and soul, immersing the senses in hundreds of oils, aromachemicals, extraits, tinctures, concretes and multi-facetted mods. You must be prepared for your work to be scrutinised and judged by people like me, ruthlessly wearing the juice and seeking to view beyond the convocation of effects to the hand and mind measuring materials and thought.
There was an awareness of shifting when John decided to change his bottle design. Originally his scents were housed in bottles that were hand-finished by John himself, sprayed in vibrant shades of car paint, which gave the finished product a high gloss assembly line shine. Ropes, ribbons and tags augmented the lids and flacons, making each piece appear quintessentially bespoke. The names were embossed unevenly into copper type plaques on the front of the bottles. My only problem with this design was the oddly disjointed effect the mix of colours seemed to have on the eye. Now, I have never been one for buying juice solely on the look of the bottle or packaging, but say what you like, these things matter. (You can still request these old style bottles from John if you want one of his bespoke blends, form his Custom Shop service where he works to create something unique to just you)
As the launch for Black Vines grew closer John announced a new bottle design, a square heavyweight enamel bottle with a repeat of the embossed metal plaque from the old designs. This time the letters were deliberately askew in set designs, as if old-fashioned typewriter keys had missed lines. I like these new bottles; they come nestled in a plain black bag, with a discreet tag. They are heavy in the hand and (sorry John..) buy they feel and look more luxurious than the car lacquer flacons.
Black Vines wasn’t just a new bottle though, it marked a shift in scented habits; John moved his style on. Simple. He has not sacrificed any of the charm and urbanity of the earlier Kerosene perfumes, but advanced his skills, developing a more polished and emotionally intense approach to his work that has now revealed itself superbly in his best fragrance to date: Dirty Flower Factory.
The projection and presence of Dirty Flower Factory is wonderful, a quiet glowing aura of tainted blooms, woods and amber. John has used the strong indolic nature of orange blossom and jasmine to hint at machine oil, spilt fuels and a weird bitter soapiness that keeps reminding me of scrubbed hands and oil-stained overalls. The complexity of the aroma mix is quite striking in comparison to his earlier work, this dense and heady machinist floral smells layered and multifaceted. The chilli pepper seems to just lift so many of the elements, adding an edge of metallic spice to the skulking rose note.
My first couples of tries; I thought this was a very odd scent for John to be creating, but as I continued to wear and inhale Dirty Flower Factory on troubled skin, the dirt bloomed and I realised that this was far from conciliatory and romantic in the conventional sense. It made the skin smell violated, pawed and smeared in workshop oil, bikeshop grime. The bitterness of orange blossom is beautifully played out over these blue-collar tones allowing a sharp piercing light to murmur outwards. It’s a perturbing floral, one that perhaps will sit in the air, waiting for words to form. It has its own sense of seduction in the enamelled glint of ambered jasmine, an opiate radiance that really seems to stain the air around you. I smell a lot of musks, fuzzy, hydraulic accents that ease out a potent drydown, the musks are oddly pollen-tinted, with a oily mimosa hit as they tail off under the weight of the spice and bloom.
Floral Vortex (white), TSF
John has always been quite keen that people wear what they like. Dirty Flower Factory is a tricky floral for boys I feel, the jasmine and orange blossom are strident and the composition as a whole vibes of tender flesh and the promise of protection. But I adore it and my skin loves the complexities of disarrayed bloom, thumb-pressed with assembly line daub and the darkening smears of worked-in graft and love. There is personal magic in Kerosene juice; John Pegg works hard to conjure up new and provocative fragrances that perhaps challenge our way of imagining niche scent. He doesn’t really care for pretty or sensual, sexy or romantic. He is searching for emotional connections, impact, spark and storm. This of course in its own weather-tossed introverted way is unbearably sexy and beautiful.
Dirty Flower Factory smells of late night, complicated, weary love, the leaning reliance of two people whose desire has seen so much savagery and incandescence. As the notes drift in night, the dirty flowers rest exhausted heads and let loose dishevelled petals onto dusty, shadowed floors.
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