Interview: The Stepkids
Published on August 5th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Rocksucker has met many a music nut over the years and no-one – repeat, no-one – is as enthusiastic and downright thorough in terms of exploring new sounds than Tony SoapCo, main man and musical brains behind the magnificent, cast-of-thousands recording project that is The Soap Company.
So, when Tony issues such a superlative as “hands down the best new band I’ve had come under my radar this year”, you bloody well listen. Rocksucker did and it paid off in spades, as we now find ourselves rabid with anticipation for September 27th: that is, the scheduled release date for The Stepkids’ self-titled debut album on the similarly excellent Stonesthrow Records label.
There’s so much to say about the Connecticut trio’s sound – ‘psychedelic soul’ and ‘soul-infused psych-pop’ would be two of the better attempts at a concise categorisation – but we shall spare you the slavering quest for invective and instead urge you to watch the videos scattered liberally down this page. On Wednesday night, The Stepkids played their first ever UK show at London’s Cargo venue and it’s fair to say that they absolutely owned the joint. In Tony’s words:
“Atonishing…pissing over pretty much every gig I’ve seen this year (Rocksucker says: that’s a lot of gigs!) with the kind of ease you associate with superstars in waiting. They’re back in November and you MUST NOT miss them.”
We were delighted to be granted the chance to sit down with the band before the show for what turned out to be a lengthy and illuminating chat, the juice of which we have reproduced, as it were, for you below. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, introducing Tim Walsh, Jeff Gitelman, Dan Edinberg and live keyboard player Fred Dileone, the virtuoso writers and performers that constitute Rocksucker’s (and The Soap Company’s) favourite new band of 2011…it’s The Stepkids!
Simple question to start with: what brought you guys together?
Jeff: Dan and I have been friends for twelve or thirteen years. We recorded a jazz album when we were kids, went to college and continued to play, and after college Dan was touring with a rock band and I was touring with some R&B stuff. I was living in Connecticut after touring and that’s where I started working with Tim. We started building a studio together around late 2008 and the beginning of 2009; I introduced Dan and Tim and we started recording in the studio as a trio. I’d also known Fred for a long time as well.
Tim: On my first time meeting Dan, we had a studio session booked to do a track.
Jeff: The three of us also joined another band with two other people, a husband and a wife. We would travel two-and-a-half to three hours each way some times for rehearsals so we spent a lot of time bonding in the car. We listened to a lot of music, we talked a lot, we sang a lot, so those car rides were really the…uh…
Tim: Inception point.
Jeff: Yeah. The inception point of our creative development.
Was there a single moment which made you realise how compatible you all were as musicians? For example, maybe you tried out a three-part harmony and thought, “Hey, we’re on to something here”?
Jeff: Yeah, actually, there was one song we did with the old band that Tim wrote called “The Man and the Bird”. The other singers sang it and we were like, eh, it’s pretty cool. Then we worked something out for it and we were like, wow, this is really challenging for all of us. This is what it should all be about, that kind of gratitude after accomplishing something. It felt like we’d surpassed ourselves individually by doing something collectively, the three of us.
Purely in terms of vocal harmonies, who would you cite as your biggest influences?
Jeff: We love old stuff like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Funkadelic, The Temptations, The Beatles…but when we started doing stuff in 2009, there were a lot of bands doing three or four-part harmonies, like Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, even Animal Collective in the studio. So we were definitely influenced by those groups but we wanted to do something different.
Jeff: Yeah, we know Super Furry Animals. We love their song “Moped Eyes”.
Is the album still due to come out on September 27th?
All: (Various utterances of “absolutely”, “yessir” and “on time”)
What can we expect from it? Be as abstract as you like here.
Jeff: It’s just one cohesive listen, like a lot of the Pink Floyd albums that we really like: it’s wasn’t so much about one song as it was about the overall statement or concept. So you can expect to be able to listen to it all in one sitting. It’s not that long either so you could have ADD and still listen through the whole thing!
Tim: As Jeff said, we really wanted to make it something that you would hopefully not get bored of. And if you’ve been listening to the tracks that are already out there, get the album and feel like you’ve heard all the songs already, then know that new songs are not too far off in the future!
How do you manage to get that kind of ‘vintage’ sound on your recordings? Do you use vintage equipment or do you simulate it with effects?
Tim: We do both, actually. We had some really nice equipment that we were using in the studio and we were recording digitally. One day in August of 2009, Jeff was recording using just an old four-track tape cassette record, this cheap thing that he had, and he was like, “Tim, you’ve gotta check this out!” That started a whole movement towards trying to record using tape and trying to find our sound as a group together, so we started with that tape machine and that led to us getting reel-to-reel machines, finding out what sounds we could do with those. Most of the record was done with reel-to-reel but some of the stuff on the record that’s a little more low fidelity was done with a tape four-track.
Jeff: We also imported it into digital format for the sake of editing so we ended up combining both of those aesthetics. So it is recorded on real mics, real preamps and reel-to-reel but we also did a lot of the editing and effects in digital, which is more convenient than sitting there cutting our fingers off slicing tape.
Dan: Digital editing is incredible in this day and age. You can take a whole section of a song and move it all to another place within two seconds, so the level of experimentation is really high. With the song “Wonderfox”, we started it doing one thing and then totally redid it all and if it weren’t for digital editing then we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did.
Dan gives a wonderful description of your recording process in this interview: “Even if we were trying to go for one influence in particular at the initial bass/drum/guitar tracking stage, we always made sure to take from another influence in the next step, and another in the following, until eventually you get something original.” We think you’ve absolutely nailed it there.
Er, that’s all we’ve got on that one. Anyway, we also read this, in which someone describes your sound as having a kind of ‘seventies porno flick’ vibe about it. We have to agree. Do you watch much seventies porn?
Jeff: Not seventies.
Dan: I prefer underground, 1940’s stuff.
Tim: I prefer modern, twenty-first century.
Jeff: But there’s a whole community of fetish-lovers out there for that too and we hope that we speak to them. You know, when I was a kid, twelve-years-old I think, we moved to a house where my parents didn’t have cable so I would try to get HBO in my room because after 11pm they would show erotica. My parents couldn’t afford it because it cost a lot of money, so the porn was blocked and you couldn’t see it. It was all blurry but you could hear the music and the sounds. Once in a while, the picture actually got good and you saw a breast, and then it would go again, so it was that constant kind of psychedelia/erotica thing. Subconsciously, that must have influenced me.
Tim: Ah, scrambled porn from the nineties! That’s crazy because I literally had the same experience. My dad had Showtime on the TV upstairs but, on the one downstairs, the picture was scrambled. Sometimes the picture would scramble with mad psychedelia and then, in one corner, you’d see an arm and be like, “Woah! What is that? Ah no, that’s just an arm.” Hearing those sounds and thinking you’re seeing something but the whole picture’s madly psychedelic because the channel’s not quite in…I think, subconsciously, that must be where some of the influences came from.
We’ve sussed you! Now, who or what is a Brain Ninja?
Jeff: If someone says something to you, like a lover…we were saying actually that this is the power that females have, that they can say something to you and you’re like, “Okay.” Then a week later you’re like, “Damn, I can’t believe she said that!” You know? It comes after you later. It’s the curse that keeps on cursing.
Tim: Though he’s not our favourite comedian, it’s definitely a rob from Dane Cook because he apparently coined that term, for what it’s worth.
You are going to be touring North America with The Horrors from November. Have you heard much of their stuff?
Dan: I know that Geoff Barrow did their album in 2009 and we have so much respect for Geoff Barrow. When we mix, we listen to Portishead quite a bit as a fidelity reference because, mixing-wise, that album’s a masterpiece. We haven’t checked out a lot of The Horrors’ stuff but we know that they’re massive here. A lot of my friends, when they heard we were going on tour with The Horrors, said, “What?? That’s a big deal!” so we’re really thankful and we’ll definitely get to see their show quite a bit next month.
Jeff: Visually, from what I understand, their live performances and ours kind of overlap in some regards.
Tony SoapCo (on behalf of Rocksucker): How long is it going to be before you’re back in the UK?
Dan: It looks like we’re going to do a full US tour with The Horrors in September and then we’re going to go to Japan in the first week of November. We’re hoping to come back here late November or December, so sooner rather than later.
Jeff, we read an interview with you on The Stool Pigeon in which you said that you have plenty of stories about why you left Alicia Keys’ band…
Jeff: You see, what happened with that actually was…you know how you have two sources to record now?
(Cautious Rocksucker says: we did indeed have both a Dictaphone and an iPhone recording proceedings, just in case.) What happened was that there was only one source and that source got lost after the interview, so some of those quotes were from memory and it wasn’t exactly what I said. I don’t have that many crazy stories. It was a great time touring with Alicia and all the memories I have from that are really good.
Tim: Jeff took a really big chance [by leaving Keys’ band]. There’s a famous quote: “the only risk is the one not taken”. We kind of did “Brain Ninja” as a song together after we’d recorded an entire album together and Jeff was like, “This is it, I’m into this!” He made the choice to pursue this and took a huge chance doing so.
Jeff: It was so liberating to watch a relentless performer giving it her best night after night and have such power that I felt like I’d be a fool if I didn’t try to pursue something like that, try to be that happy in my life. It was working with her that encouraged me to pursue that so, when she first found out, she told me she was very happy for me, as I would be for anybody else who’d maybe learnt from me and then tried to take it to another level as well.
You’ve also played for the likes of 50 Cent and Lauryn Hill. Typically, do you get much interaction with these people, or do you just turn up, do your thing and quietly take your leave?
Jeff: There were certain artists I was able to talk more comfortably with than others. With them being your boss, there’s always a certain level of separation. And, with them being a celebrity, there’s always a certain level of separation because they never know who they can trust because they’ve all had people in their camp that they were close to at one point or another [who betrayed them]. I know Alicia had some dude who sold some pictures, I know that with 50 someone did something, so there are always people who they might see every day, travel and live with, but keep a certain distance from. I was fortunate that I got to hang out with Alicia and write a couple of songs; that was an interesting time and I felt like it was one of the few times that I got to really achieve a certain level of comfort. But it is always difficult with celebrities to be honest with them, because most of these people get paid to be ‘yes people’.
Are you familiar with the British R&B singer Estelle?
Jeff: Oh yeah, I got to play with her when she did something with Alicia years ago. She’s a powerhouse, her voice is amazing.
Well, to Rocksucker’s ears – and this isn’t a criticism as they’re both great songs – there is more than a passing resemblance between her song “American Boy” and your song “Shadow on Behalf”…
Jeff: Oh, I thought you were talking about Adele! But yeah, I know her too. Yes, somebody mentioned that.
Dan: (Starts singing “American Boy” to himself in falsetto)
Tim: I don’t even know that song.
Jeff: It’s like a major and a minor chord…
Dan: It’s a 1 major to a 4 minor.
Tim: Oh okay, yeah. So it’s as classic as any Beatles song that had that. (Starts singing “In My Life”)
Dan: (Singing) “She dances to the boogaloo…”
Tim: This needs a mash-up, for sure.
As well as Jeff’s session musician work and Tim’s solo albums, Dan was previously in the band Zox. All in all, how helpful have each of your experiences and contacts within the music industry been in terms of establishing The Stepkids?
Dan: I see The Stepkids as more ‘me’ than Zox, which was more the singer Eli’s creative vision with me helping out. It was a great introduction to how to produce albums, how to tour, how to deal with the whole megalopolis that is the music industry and all the psychology behind that, so it was very helpful. I learned how to be in a top studio making albums and how to work with other people to achieve a creative vision, the art of compromise and all that, but this project is everything I’ve worked my whole life for musically, for sure. It’s got all the influences that I hold dear and to be able to come to the front is really gratifying.
Fred apparently invented a new kind of electric piano. Tell us a bit more about that…
Fred: I’ve always loved the sound of the classic Fender Rhodes pianos but I got tired of lugging them around because they weigh about one hundred and forty-five pounds. So I teamed up with a company, we invented a light one and we’ve got a little prototype here tonight. We’ll play it and see how she sounds. It’s got forty-four notes so it’s nice and small, weighs about thirty pounds. I can’t say I invented it – it’s more like an intense modification – but I came up with a way to make it more manageable. It’s such a sought-after sound so it’s amazing to have it.
Tim: For people like us who are analogue nuts, it’s nice to have the real thing and not a facsimile of it.
Jeff: Facsimile: great word!
It’s a fantastic word. So, are you all going to be focused solely on The Stepkids for the foreseeable future or are there any side/solo projects in the pipeline?
Tim: I think it’s inevitable that we’re all going to make music with other people in the future. We’re pretty prolific at making music in general: Dan makes music in his free time for movies and that kind of stuff, Jeff works with a lot of other jazz musicians as well. We’ll all keep doing those things for sure but, having landed on The Stepkids and spent two years honing it really hard, it’s been awesome to just focus on that for a while.
Dan: I’d never felt like I was honing in on a brand new sound before…
Tim: It’s hard to do that these days, in general.
Dan: Right, totally. Not that what we’re doing is “brand new” but we feel that it’s different enough. It felt totally fresh to all of us so focusing on that for now will only feed anything we do in the future. We still feel with the music that we’re making like we’re climbing to new heights.
Jeff: And vice versa too, you know. If these guys go out and explore some new territories with other people then they’re only going to bring those influences back and expand our brand even more. I think it’s inevitable that one hand will wash the other in the future.
There are a lot of different colours going on in your music. Do you ever experience moments of synaesthesia?
Dan: Well, I love Alexander Scriabin‘s music quite a bit. He was a classical composer who put synaesthesia at the forefront of what he did. We have a visual artist for our live show who does light projections on us: what we do is we wear white and put white sheets all over the stage. He’s here but I don’t even know where he is now. He’s probably sleeping off his jetlag! His name is Jesse Mann and he designed a unique set of visuals for every song and a lot of the time he’ll improvise with us as well.
Are there any other up-and-coming bands that you’d like to recommend?
Dan: Their live show in particular is very strong.
Jeff: And tUnE-yArDs, who’s also from Connecticut…
The tUnE-yArDs album W H O K I L L is quite possibly Rocksucker’s album of the year so far.
Dan: We like DâM-FunK from our label as well.
Jeff: And the James Blake record, but everybody knows that.
Finally, would you each be able to name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
Jeff: That’s hard.
Tim: There are too many. You’ve got to pick a genre. Or a year.
Tim: Alright, we can work with that.
Fred: The first Grateful Dead album, man!
Tim: Interstellar Space [by John Coltrane], that was ’67.
Jeff: Sgt. Pepper’s was ’67.
Dan: Jimi Hendrix did Electric Ladyland…
Tim: Nah, that was ’68.
Jeff: Miles in the Sky [by Miles Davis]?
Tim: Yeah, Miles in the Sky was ’67. (Rocksucker says: according to our findings, it was in fact ’68.) Water Babies was ’67 as well, I believe.
Dan: We’re huge jazz fans so that to us is like a goldmine of music that we like drawing from and which to us never really gets old, because it’s an art form that’s designed for there to always be something new.
Jeff: Oh, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [by Pink Floyd] was 1967!
The Stepkids, thank you.
The Stepkids’ self-titled debut album will be released on September 27th on Stones Throw Records. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit thestepkidsband.com