The long hours and more rigorous aspects of recording can easily strip away the experimentation and purity behind the ostensibly enjoyable process. Drummer Tim Walsh realized this early on in his post-collegiate career, opting to build his own studio in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2009, where he later invited bassist Dan Edinberg and guitarist Jeff Gitelman to help work on solo material and music for a married couple they were all touring with at the time.
After getting along so well during their sessions and having already spent hours in a van together sharing each other’s music collections, forming a band seemed logical next and The Stepkids were born, not merely out of a mutual appreciation for diverse genres of music but also from the stylistic synchronicities that had evolved out of their classical and jazz training.
After watching the band open for The Horrors two nights in a row in Southern California last weekend, it was pretty clear that it was more of a double-headliner scenario rather than one band opening for another. In fact, numerous fans of the Stepkids approached members after the show, thanking them for their inspired performances and excitedly discussing their self-titled debut LP, out this week on Stones Throw Records.
The Connecticut-based three-piece (sometimes four, when backed on vocals by Edinberg’s girlfriend) has released a number of videos on YouTube and toured relentlessly over the past year, performing at least three times in LA before their most recent show with The Horrors. The pristine quality of songs like “Legend In My Own Mind” recall the golden era of Motown, while their improvisational jazz training and psych-rock influences rise to the surface during their live performances, which rely heavily on a visual component created by their friend Jesse Mann.
With years of classical and jazz training, guitarist Jeff Gitelman’s work on the road with artists like 50 Cent and Alicia Keys, and bassist Dan Edinberg’s work in the band Zox, the members all have industry experience and understand the pitfalls of the industry. Accordingly, they’re taking a measured and humble approach to everything from self-recording and producing their first album, to the resonating effects of their classical and jazz training, to the modern resurgence in soul music.–Aaron Frank
Do you think genres like soul and funk are gaining fanbases quicker now because of the internet?
Jeff: Definitely, we were actually already talking about this, The Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective were both on billboards, and their music is so experimental that the only way it’s competing with mainstream stuff is because of the medium and the accessibility of the internet. Avey Tare was actually saying precisely that same thing in an interview. They were able to get out and be more experimental and reach more people now because of this medium.
So with that medium sort of opening you up to all these fans with different tastes, do you feel more of a creative freedom?
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. While a lot of other people are bitching about the industry and how nobody sells any records anymore and all the labels are going downhill, to us it’s a hopeful and liberating time to know that our music is able to reach so many more people. We’re skipping over that middleman between our creativity and the public, so it is a very liberating feeling.
So what were some of the bands you guys were in before coming together?
Dan: I toured in an indie rock band that was signed to SideOneDummy Records for several years. The band was called Zox, and it’s really interesting to compare that experience to what we’re going through now. Just for example, there wasn’t even Twitter back then and the way the internet affects everything now, sometimes it’s arguably too much of a mindfuck. But I think we did it the old school way then, where our mailing list and MySpace were what mattered. Now it’s a different thing. What’s making us have a lot of faith in this project is that we just felt from the get-go that our sound was what set us apart from everyone else.
What do you think was more important in bringing everyone together: similar tastes in music or just being comfortable working together?
Dan: Both. I’ve known Jeff for like 15 years and we always wanted to have a band together. Jeff met Tim back in 2004 and they started recording a lot together in 2007, and the day that I went to the studio it just felt like we already had a band. We all share very strong jazz backgrounds, and all of our fathers are musicians, so I just think communicating musically is very natural for us. We’re very open with criticizing stuff and we don’t really hold anything back, so I just feel very blessed to have founds two other musicians that have a similar mindset.
I noticed the jazz influence in Tim’s style during soundcheck. Do most of you have that formal training or background?
Tim: Yeah, definitely. I went to school at Western Connecticut and studied jazz and classical there. It actually influenced me to pursue other instruments as well. I played bass as my first instrument, and all of us are kind of multi-instrumentalists, but once you learn theory and the science behind it you can pick up instruments pretty quickly.
Having that structure from all your training in composition, how does that affect the music when you’re developing something new?
Tim: Well it’s interesting because the composition that you study in school is a bit different than the composition you study when you’re out of school. Especially with all of the music that we were influenced by when we were making this record, I don’t know if I really studied many of those artists when I was in school. In school you’re studying all classical music like Stravinsky, and then you’re studying the entire history of jazz and learning to compose and arrange in those idioms. So we were all in school getting ready to get away from that, and then after school we really started honing more of the history of pop and rock and hip-hop and soul music. The more we learned about those, the more our attention on composition and songwriting and all those things changed.
As far as with the live show, do you think having that structure makes you a little bit tighter or polished at least when it comes to performing?
Tim: Yeah, for any performance art you have to have some sense of structure. We specialize in improvisation, that’s really where our hearts are. So there’s nothing better for an improviser than to have a great structure to work off of. That’s what all great jazz musicians do. Some of them don’t have any structure and still do amazing things too, but that’s really what we focus on live is to keep our structure in the songs and then still leave room to do what we want.
So once you got out school and sort of broke from that mold, who were some of the most influential artists for you at that time?
Tim: A lot of 80’s and 90’s R&B music. I listened to Stevie Wonder pretty heavily, just a lot of pop music from the 90’s and the 2000s’ too. I definitely dove in to some classic rock and a bit of Motown, but basically a lot of the music I didn’t listen to because my dad listened to it. My dad had a really diverse musical taste, and when we were in college I definitely didn’t study much of that music. But when we got out I started listening to more of that stuff, like Yes and Weather Report and all those bands.
Dan: D’Angelo was big for me. R&B was a great transition for us from jazz to pop, so all of the neo-soul stuff in particular, like The Roots, D’Angelo, anything from that Soulquarian era. And then those of course took us back to people like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but there’s also a lot of rock influence too. Groups like Nirvana were big obviously.
There’s definitely sort of a noticeable psych-rock influence too. Who were some important bands to you in that regard?
Dan: We’re definitely big fans of Pink Floyd, and then obviously the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. We really just go through phases with our influences, more so than just having like a rigid set of influences. One week could be Brazillian music, another week could be 20th Century Classical. With the internet it’s so easy to go from track to track and just bounce through different eras seamlessly, and I think our music is a product of that in a lot of ways.
When you got out of school, did you all immediately start touring with people? What were the gradual steps towards the formation of the Stepkids?
Dan: We all went to college separately and we all wanted to be like studio sidemen, just professional musicians. So we just played with a whole bunch of different people. Jeff played with like the top names in R&B and Gospel. I was part of an indie band. Tim was actually making these solo albums where he would play every single instrument, as well as doing stuff on the side.
So you guys were sort of already versed in production and engineering before coming together?
Tim: Actually, no. My school didn’t really have much of a production focus, and my professors didn’t really know anything, or didn’t have any idea who people like Brian Eno were. In general though, we didn’t really study that at all and kind of had to figure it out on our own. I sort of learned about it through experimentation.
I had my own studio and kept buying more and more gear, and learning about different sounds and making more and more records, and from there I think all of us just collectively started listening to more records and learning about more technical aspects. I studied acoustical physics for a little while, and I think studying that stuff actually helped a lot, but just learning the history of recording was big. When we were getting together, Jeff would bring along this Beatles Recording Guide and we kind of used that as our Bible for a while.
Jeff: I feel like up until we graduated though, it was like almost eight years where we were recording everything. We recorded with rappers, singers. I was recording my own stuff, and finally we got to a place where we could take experiments and be creative in the recording process.
That sort of sounds like it’s where the band initially evolved from.
Jeff: Definitely, from home recording and just learning on our own.
I think that’s worth noting though, that you guys were sort of friends just jamming out ideas together before actually setting out to form a band.
Jeff: It’s crazy. Actually, a friend of ours (J. Pollock) had a movie. His first movie was a documentary called The Youngest Candidate and Dan had done a bunch of work on it, and he was looking for one more song, so that was the first thing that we ever worked on together. That was our first project ever, the one submitted to the film, and we were all doing independent things at the time. Tim was writing his own songs, Dan was writing his own songs, and I was writing my own songs, so we were just helping each other out with our own ideas and then we started writing together.
And because we were all doing every aspect of production and writing on our own before that, together we started collaborating on every aspect: recording drums, writing the lyrics, singing the lyrics, every aspect of recording.
With other bands, you have people specifically in charge of certain things. One person will be in charge of writing the drum part and playing that, and then one person will be responsible for vocals. We really all do that stuff together, and that’s what gives it that eclectic feel too is having all those different sides to explore. It’s really three different people working equally on everything.
So how long would you say it took to record the entire album after you got together?
Jeff: I would say about four months, maybe six months at the most. It’s been done for a while. We’re well on our way to recording our second album so I’d say we’re definitely evolving artistically. We don’t want to be pigeonholed with the sound we’ve developed, so we’re definitely trying to expand it.
How did the relationship with Stones Throw come about then?
Jeff: It was through Scotty Coates. He was an LA-based DJ and he used to work at this label called Ubiquity, but he heard our music and really fell in love with it and just shopped it unconditionally without ever asking for anything back. It was a really lucky situation, and he’s a great guy.
How is the tour with the Horrors going so far?
Jeff: It’s really cool. We’re making it to some markets that we’ve really been trying to hit so it’s great. For a first tour we really couldn’t ask for anything more.
It’s cool that you get to tour with an indie band that sort of already has that organic following. Hopefully their fans are a little more open minded.
Jeff: Well it’s hard to say. I mean, it’s hard to divide people in to different groups because every person is their own island. It’s cool though. We definitely think about that since Stones Throw has sort of the hip-hop, soul side and the indie side to it, and this is more of the indie side were being exposed to. It’s been cool though since a lot of people have been coming out to see us too, so like I said for a first tour we really couldn’t ask for much more.
What have the different reactions been like from people in Europe and the States? I know from talking to Charles Bradley and Menahan Street Band a while back that they really seem to love soul music in Europe.
Jeff: They definitely love it over there. It’s been really great, and we’re excited to go to Japan too. We’re heading over there in about a month and we can’t wait.
It must be great to have all these bigger shows waiting for you right when the album comes out, having already built a strong buzz with the live show.
Jeff: It’s really been great and flattering, but we’ve gotta keep our eye on the prize. In this business, you have a night that makes you feel like a million bucks and then the next night you’re humbled right to the ground.
Dan: Our vision of the project was recording first. We finished the album before we played any shows, and it just felt better to do it that way because your recording can reach how ever many thousand people at the press of a button. Your live show can only reach just a few at a time.
Tim: And just as far as our composition is concerned, we’re not really in to getting together and rehearsing things without recording them. We do that to lay down songs and lay down rhythm tracks sometimes, but just compositionally and everything, we’re not the kind of group that has rehearsals for months. Our structure isn’t like that. It’s more like a lab where we just try out different sounds and it’s just a free-for-all for experimentation. It’s not really like a jam session feel where we just force ourselves to come up with ideas, and I think it’s much more pure that way.
But you definitely still manage to work that element in to your live show.
Jeff: It definitely ends up being a lot of both. Every single song on this album has been laid down like Motown-style, with guitar, bass and drums all the way through.
So a lot of it was live tracking?
Jeff: Definitely, some of those songs we just recorded with one mic, like “Suburban Dream”. We have both of those elements though, where we jam and sort of lay down the whole song, and then we get in to the lab and get nerdy about it and take one sound at a time as well.
It almost sounds like recording might be more of an enjoyable process for you then since you sort of get to improvise after laying down the main track.
Tim: I love it because it’s absolute freedom, and see the jamming is almost the easy part, but for me it’s that generating structure and just having fun and having the freedom to make the music you want to make in a studio.
Jeff: But as we tour more and get more established, we’re going to be able to have more liberty with the fans and because we’re coming from the improvised and performance art background, once we’re done with the “Hello. Nice to meet you. We’re The Stepkids” part, which is probably going to last for the first two years, maybe we’ll be able to get back to those roots even more and take the live performance to another level and enjoy that just as much as the studio.
What are you envisioning for the new original material that you’re working on?
Tim: There are a couple different things I’ll mention. One is I think the music is going to be a little bit more accessible. We’ve taken influence from a lot of different artists on this one and I just feel like the compositions on this one are a little more accessible. The second difference is I think a lot of the first record is a little lower fidelity. We’ve been playing with a little more high fidelity recording and more digital tape, and using both digital and reel-to-reel. That’s actually been a really fun experiment for us to find out what to use and what not to use to get certain sounds. We’re influenced by bands like Portishead and Radiohead and more hi-fi bands too, so that part of the process has been fun.
Jeff: I think it’s definitely more accessible, but also a little more experimental at the same time. It’s like a rubber band that we pulled. One side is definitely more accessible and I think there are some hits on the second album, but the other side got expanded too, and we’re able to take liberties now that we weren’t able to back then because we’ve established that sound.
Tim: We’re always listening to new artists too, so when we discover a new artist, we realize the potential of what our palette could be. I was listening to Tim Mia on the way over here and that’s one artist that we just discovered recently. Every time we hear something like that, we realize our ability moving forward and really try to stretch that rubber band like Jeff was talking about.
Jeff: The interesting thing too as we get older is that we’re less embarrassed to go back to our original influences, those academic influences that we tried so hard to get away from. Now we’re kind of making a full circle back to that and making those influences not nearly as subtle as we used to. We’re not afraid to be portrayed as jazz musicians anymore. For so many years we denied that and thought it was insulting because we thought people were saying we were too academic to be pop. But since that’s already established, now we’re able to go back to those influences that we were raised on.
I was talking to Faris from The Horrors recently and he was saying how this is their most successful record, but it’s also their third record so all that success they’ve gained on their own terms. And that makes sense instead of blowing up off your first thing and having all these expectations from different people. If you work your way up, that success is just more powerful because you’re not as easily swayed and it’s more sincere.