Fearless Radio: WS on Boolean Knife
Back in March, I had a chat with Shelia at Fearless Radio about Boolean Knife and the ‘Astrid and the Killer Penguin’ EP.
William Steffey, the Chicago, Illinois, post-modern rock singer-songwriter returns with his just-released 11th studio release via his own Aquariphone label. In this exclusive, he gets intimate with Arena and shares the details behind the music
The first thing that you are going to notice when you listen to William Steffey’s new EP Accidents and Melodies that you have never heard anything quite like this before. Sure, you may have heard a lot of the influences, but the Chicago resident puts it together in a way no other artist can imitate.
At least two songs from the seven-track EP, “In A Town” and “Lake Effect,” are just as good and much more daring than anything clogging the rock airwaves today.
With a portion of the album’s proceeds going to Thresholds Chicago, Steffey making an impact on both listeners and the local community too. In this exclusive, he takes Arena behind the makings of Accidents and Melodies.
Arena: Accidents and Melodies is your 11th self-release. Quite the prolific songwriter you are! Being such a veteran at this, tell me what goes into releasing your own record once the songs are written and recorded.
William Steffey: After the songs are finished, I register them with the Office of Copyright and also with my performing rights organization, which happens to be ASCAP. At this point, I’ll send the wav files off to the plant if I’m making CDs. Then, the promotion begins.
Arena: So as an indie artist, take me into what you’re doing to promote this record and, following that up, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being your own label, as well as the artist?
William Steffey: Being your own label just means that you have to do everything on your own, or outsource it, and it also means you probably have less money to work with. For Accidents and Melodies, we’re doing a stripped down approach, utilizing social media channels and local press to get the word out. By the time my next project comes out — [tentatively scheduled to drop] late summer 2015 — I’ll have my live show up and running, so at that point we’ll do a bigger press push utilizing an outside publicist.
Arena: Is there anything special planned for the release of Accidents and Melodies?
William Steffey: I’d like to mention that for the first week of its release, I’m donating 100% of profits from Accidents and Melodies to Thresholds, a non-profit organization in Chicago that provides a variety of mental health resources to the underprivileged. Between Mayor Emanuel closing down half of the city’s mental clinics, and Governor Rauner slashing the social services budget, many people in our community have nowhere to turn. So buy the album or a t-shirt this week, and you’ll be directly helping these folks.
Arena: When someone asked me to describe your sound, I said, “Imagine if Steely Dan went to college in the 1990s and listened to a lot of Ben Folds and Nirvana.” That said, what would you describe your sound as?
William Steffey: You’re pretty right on. I like to call what I do “post-modern rock,” as it contains 70s style songwriting, 80s vocals, 90s guitars, and contemporary production that ties it all together. I’m not sure how I arrived here … [maybe because I was listening to] a lot of my dad’s records when I was a kid and a lot of radio in high school.
Arena: I have been familiar with you and your music for quite a while, and I feel that your new EP, Accidents and Melodies, on a writing level, is your best. What inspired the songs on the EP and how are you usually inspired to write a song? Or is there no usually?
William Steffey: First off, thanks for the compliment! It’s funny you ask about inspiration because Accidents and Melodies came out in a very unusual way. At the beginning of the year, my girlfriend told me about the “RPM Challenge,” where participants are invited to write and record 10 songs within the month of February. I accepted the challenge and indeed recorded the songs, seven of which ended up being Accidents and Melodies. In the past, I did just wait around to be inspired, and songs generally took three to four months to complete. Writing for the challenge meant I had to do a song every few days. It worked out well because I ended up writing about things without censoring myself. The end result was a very personal record.
Arena: You have a lot of music on Arena. If someone asked you which songs of yours they should listen to first, what would you tell them?
William Steffey: I’d say to start with the newest material and work backwards.
Although we may be highly influenced by the music that came along before the digital age, the beauty of technology is how it has opened doors for Indie artists to record, produce and distribute their music without the 100s of thousands usually put up by a record company and promoters.
William Steffey is one of those musicians so dedicated to his art that the creating and sharing is more important than the time and energy needed to deal with a producer and record company. He’s all those guys wrapped in to one and has been recording his own music for 25 years.
I recently had a chance to talk to him about his music and what makes him tic, to take a look inside.
Jen Kehl: I’m really interested to know what created your passion for music?
WS: I had a rather stormy childhood, but was always able to find refuge from the elements in the grooves of vinyl 45’s in my parents’ basement. Paperback Writer, Day Tripper, Paint it Black, I Get Around, Kodachrome. Music was a magical world where I could escape and reflect. In my early teens I remember visiting Lake Geneva regularly with my mom and her boyfriend where I was introduced to the great songwriting of Chapin, Croce, and Lightfoot.
JK: How did that translate into you playing and recording your own music?
WS: I [began playing] all the ‘rock instruments’, which basically translates to guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals. I also have been producing since my father gave me a 4-track recorder when I was 12.
JK: Wow, that’s a lot of instruments! Do you have a favorite?
WS: My primary and favorite instrument is “the song”. All the instruments I play are just the tools used to compose and realize a solid track.
JK: It sounds like you had a really solid foundation in Rock and Folk Music. Is there a
musician or songwriter that influenced your sound more than any other?
WS: From a production standpoint, Thomas Dolby has probably influenced my sound more than anybody else. He’s known by his 80’s hit “She Blinded Me With Science”, which was somewhat of an anomaly in his catalog. The lion’s share of his other songs feature Introspective lyrics, interesting chord changes, and lush production. Guitar-wise I’m largely influenced by Johnny Marr who began his career with The Smiths.
JK: So now, with your varied musical influences, what is the genre with which you most identify?
WS: My songs fall somewhere in between new-wave, rock, and electronic with a tiny hint of jazz. I sometimes use the phrase “post-modern rock” to describe the pastiche of styles. Some of the groups that I find influential (e.g. Prefab Sprout, Roxy Music, The Smiths) have been labeled “sophisti-pop” and I think that works for me, too. The genres tend to move around a lot on my albums, and it’s only just in the past year that I’ve consciously been honing in on a more solidified sound. I recorded a song called “Scattering Platinum” and I liked the feel of it so much that I decided to make more songs using the same sound palette. I’ve been writing a few more tracks sticking to the exact same drum kit, effects, guitar tone, and keyboard patches. It makes for a kind of cohesion that comes naturally for bands that go in and record in a more traditional studio.
JK: Clearly your music is constantly evolving, where do you see it going next?
WS: I think my lyrics have always been honest, but they’ve also been incredibly cryptic. While I still have been writing with a decent amount of word play and metaphor, I am becoming more direct. I’m almost getting to a point where two listeners might come up with the same interpretation for the same song!
JK: (chuckle) That being said, who is your primary audience?
WS: Many of my songs are played online several hundred times a month… the song “Molly Molly” is consistently the most popular, but I have no way of telling who the audience is. I’m guessing much of my audience is comprised of people named Molly?
JK: Do you have a lot of interactions with Molly your listeners?
WS: Just enough to keep me going, and not enough to disrupt my routine at all. I occasionally get email from listeners, and just recently was recognized by a fan while I was out having coffee. He took a picture with me, and had me autograph one of my cds which he happened to have on his person. It is entirely possible that I was more excited than he was.
JK: How has the readily available digital download effected you?
WS: I like that my music is available online all over the world. It has allowed me to connect with people I never would have otherwise. Also, it costs me practically nothing to release an album, whereas manufacturing cds on a regular basis was getting pretty expensive. Also, I don’t have to worry about my catalog of songs getting lost.
As much as we love our well-known artists here at Raised on the Radio, we recognize the amazing music that is being made by Indie artists who are playing for the love of music.
1. In your own words how do you describe your music?
Post Modern Rock: electronica, honest hard rock, and 70s FM songwriting. I tend to make the music that I’m not hearing on the radio yet. There hasn’t really been a sensible culmination of prior decades. It’s all so sporadic, don’t you think?
2. What bands/artists if any influenced your work?
Thomas Dolby, The Smiths, Steely Dan, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Bjork.
3. What bands/artists are your favorite?
see #2. Also storytellers like Harry Chapin, Suzanne Vega, and Jim Croce. 80’s masters like New Order, Duran Duran, and Def Leppard. And naturally guitar heroes like Eddie, Joe, and Steve.
4. How long have you’ve been playing?
I started recording when I was 12. At that time, my dad was a rep for several audio gear companies (e.g. Tascam, Shure, JBL) so I got a factory sample 4-track recorder when I was just a pup. Started on trombone in 4th grade. Guitar in 7th, keyboards, bass and drums quickly followed.
5. What is your musical history? Instruments you learned on, schools you played in, other bands you were in.
Basically self-taught. Played brass in concert band in junior high, then jazz-band on guitar at Deerfield High School for several years. These jazz band members would later spawn ‘Captured by Robots’, ‘BlueMeanies’, and, well, me. Must have been something in the water.
6. Of all your work, what if any was your favorite?
I could play the “well, they’re all like my kids and I love them equally” game, but in all seriousness, they’re all like my kids and I love them equally. (stage whisper: ‘Waterside’ from the Silver Nitrate cd.)
7. From conception to finished version, how long on average does it take complete a song?
Shortest song about 3 hours, longest 4 years. I’m trying not to fuck around so much though… I should be focused enough to complete things within a week or so. I did a cover tune for a friend’s birthday recently and it took me only 3 days. I thought to myself- okay… you can do your own tunes in 3 weeks tops if you apply yourself. I just have to assign my priorities as such.
8. How did your band come together?/ How did you decide on your career?
Oh man, I wanted to be in a band since 3rd grade. I made up little pretend bands around that age. I wanted to be famous since forever. Then I was deathly afraid of fame. Now I don’t know what the hell is going on! My center says… ‘William… you must make music…’ so I just follow that.
9. Where do you find your inspiration?
On the surface, the love I have for friends I’m close to. They tend to be my proverbial muses. But I think that even if I’m writing a love song that social commentary tends to come through all over the place. So much in fact that sometimes I feel that “the love song” is actually my medium.
10. Of all the elements in the periodical table, which one most symbolizes you and why?
LOL. My friend Lis equates everybody to some element on the periodic table. The elements on the left are unstable… need to bond. Everybody is evolving, drifting to the right… toward the independent noble gases which occupy the far right column. What am I really? I’d have to say Helium because it’s a noble gas but it’s still a little tricky.
KK :: Your CD “Roadstar” combines ambient and rock. Do you think that this is a direction that will continue to grow? Or is it a brief exploration of the two mediums together?
WS :: Fusing ambient, rock, and jazz was never conscious for me. It’s just the way I write. I think I’ll continue this way for a while. I would like to make the guitars harder and the synthesis more prominent and cooler, if that makes sense. I’d like to like to bring a little more cohesion to my next album. I love the way Roadstar visits lots of different places… but in the future may want to visit fewer locations and appreciate the sights at each a little more
KK :: How long have you been playing music? Why did you start?
WS :: The official start was playing my dad’s records in the basement when I was 4 or 5. All kinds of 60’s stuff. I think I found a special connection there… a kind of voice… while it wasn’t really my own, it still was a kind of voice for me. My childhood was not an ideal one, and I’m pretty sure I found refuge there in those grooves. I picked up guitar in seventh grade and keyboards right after. I think I started because I wanted to participate in that fantastical world… the other side… that land where the records come from. The land that saved me!
KK :: In reading your journal (www.williamsteffey.com), you make mention of the unique planetary alignment that recently occurred. Is this an interesting scientific observation or do you believe that there are energetic and emotional repercussions from this? In other words – do you think that the planetary alignment affects human interaction?
WS :: Well, first and foremost it is an interesting scientific observation. As far as songs or things in my journal go, I basically like to put stuff out there and let people attach whatever they’d like to it. I don’t know. What do you think? I don’t really make a definite call on it even for myself. I do think it’s incredibly important that people feel a link to the universe, and celestial events provide this. It’s something the city lights continue to drown out…
KK :: What intrigues you lyrically? What do you write about?
WS :: I like writing about magical worlds that may or may not exist. There are incredible things going on all around us all the time. I’d love it if I could put people in touch with that mystery a little bit more. City of Heroes and Tread are good examples of this. Other times, I write scathing personality assassinations of other people (which are really just demolition derbies of my old selves!)
KK :: “Roadstar” has a transcendent theme for you, which is why you didn’t put the song “Breathing Underwater” on it – because it was about being under water – and “Roadstar” is, as you put it, “the metaphorical ascent from the water”. Can I assume that you are undergoing transformational experiences? And if so, is there anything that you want to say about that?
WS :: I’m definitely subject to transformational experiences all the time. I’m afraid anyone who isn’t is not truly alive. I am aware of these themes in my work but I don’t really choose them… it’s more like the themes choose me. They’re a kind of roadmap to let me know where I am. I think it’s good for everybody to find some creative outlet for just this reason.
For a long time I was stuck on an “ideal vs. real” theme. Then for an even longer time (and there’s still smatterings of this on Roadstar) I was way into “death” themes. Grow Crazy is a violent example of this. But when I say “Your gruesome death is just a formality” it’s very scary, but it’s as natural as a caterpillar entering a cocoon. I’ve recently been writing more about the butterfly, or “resurrection” side of the equation. Like when I say “if you hit the lights just right, Ashland will be green all night” I am talking about a street in Chicago, but am also using Ashland as a codeword for this “life after death” which can be youthfully green if you play your cards right. And when I mentioned ‘demolishing my old selves’ in the last question, I wasn’t talking about some past-life thing… it’s here that we’ve got our different lives, and here that we have to symbolically die and be reborn if we’re to get the most out of our experience.
Excerpt from EDEN…
Despite the fact every object was in its place, there was something very different about the highway that day. The swirling Coca-Cola sign by North Avenue was there as was the Morton’s Salt girl with her usual purple umbrella. It seemed that there was a new light shining down from the sky, as if a new and better sun had come to take the place of the old one. Every street sign, every license plate, every roadside abandoned suitcase flirting trails of underwear and paper- these things were stitched together by the speedometer into a beautiful and elaborate story that was life.
KK :: In addition to writing music, you also write poetry and stories. Do you find that your song lyrics are related to the other literary mediums you pursue? Are the processes linked in any way?
WS :: Yeah. Eden is a primer on synchronicity, basically. The way the fabric of the world fits together immaculately. Pretty amazing stuff. A friend of mine insists “Eden” is my grail and he may be right. Synchronicity is a theme that I explore alot over Roadstar. It’s a higher level of cognition than we’re used to, and I think it’s one of the prizes of evolution. City of Heroes is all about that. So the same themes do come out in the different media. I’m not sure the processes are all that different. Pen, notebook, blood, sweat, etc…
KK :: Do you have any favorite “unknown” musicians, projects, authors?
WS :: A friend of mine named Michael Cummins is a great songwriter. An artist deserving of a second look would be Thomas Dolby, who too many cast off as the “she blinded me with science” guy. In actuality, he went on to make quite a few great albums after that.
KK :: I used to live in Chicago and would go to poetry readings at Estelle’s Bar. It was an eclectic crowd – hipsters and homeless people alike would take the stage on Tuesday night. Have you ever been to this place? Do you think that poetry lends itself to breaking down social status barriers more so than other mediums – like music?
WS :: I have been to Estelle’s, but never on a Tuesday. You’ve hit on something interesting here. In poetry, genres are less pronounced than in music- so you can get a pretty eclectic audience. The homeless guy, the metalhead, and the hippie all go back to back with their poems but would never be caught dead at the same music venue. Music as of late does tend to reinforce social barriers rather than break them down, but alot of this is because of the way the industry is set up- Radio formats consciously divide those social groups for the sole purpose of target advertising! (That’s why you’d never hear country next to alt rock next to soft rock.) While the attribute may be dormant, I believe music still has the power to break down social barriers. For some reason lately, people cling to their individuality as if it is all they have that makes them human, when in fact it’s the sameness that makes them so. Who knows. Maybe it will be music that will spark the understanding of that unity. The realization that we’re all one organism is far and away the key to our evolution as a species.
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