INTERVIEW: The Stepkids Nerd Out on Kimbra, Talk New Album Ahead of BK Funk Fest
by Dan Rys
I was standing outside the stage door at the Beacon Theater Saturday night (Nov. 17) having a strangely hilarious conversation with a security guard — something about delivery guys and artist demands. It was cold; much colder than the last time I had been at the Beacon in April to catch an Allman Brothers show, but the vibe Saturday couldn’t have been warmer than that day last Spring. For the Allmans, with security stonily keeping back the throngs trying to touch their Southern Soul Saviors, it was all business; for the Stepkids, with a handful of theater staff shifting back and forth to keep warm, it was all so… normal.
I was waiting for Jeff Gitelman, guitarist for the Stepkids, and when he duly showed up to escort me to the band’s dressing room he was carrying a plate of food, a quick dinner before his band was set to open for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for the second night in a row. Bumping elbows instead of fists by way of greeting, we stepped into what is by now the theater’s legendary backstage elevator, an old-style rickety machine run by an aging operator and covered in the signatures of artists that have performed there in the past — Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, the Civil Wars, Aziz Ansari, and, now, the Stepkids.
Up in their dressing room on the sixth floor, the band — Gitelman, drummer Tim Walsh and bassist Dan Edinberg — was relaxing on couches, drinking beer or water out of a cooler and nerding out about obscure music. That’s just one of the words used to describe the music of the Stepkids since they signed to Stones Throw Records in late 2010: obscure. They’ve been labeled as everything from psychedelic soul-pop to soaring synth-funk, experimental jazz-rock to West African traditionalists, old-school folk-country to up-tempo surf-punk. But asking the trio about what influences their sound helps explain those seemingly wide-ranging distinctions; it seems that the only genre the three former music students haven’t delved into is Celtic music, and at this point it’d be hard to count it out of any future forays.
The Stepkids have a new album, titled Troubadour, due out early next year, and the way they’re talking about it — or the way they can’t stop talking about it — it won’t sound anything like their 2011 self-titled debut. Instead, it’ll be the next installment in the band’s ongoing and ever-evolving artistic endeavor, one that stretches beyond their music into their artwork, their videos, and their live setup, the latter augmented by the “fourth Stepkid,” visual artist Dave Pond. Out on stage, their trademark white suits — even Walsh’s drum kit is bleached white — turn them into a canvas on which Pond splashes his Pollock-esque palette of colors and patterns, at times turning the band into mere shadows operating within a live rendering of the freakier parts of Yellow Submarine. On stage, they are ghosts of psychedelia, shimmering like the amorphous shapes on the backs of your eyelids during the depths of an acid trip. It is eerie, but undeniably absorbing.
When the band went out and took the stage at the Beacon Saturday night, they wasted no time breaking into the warm glow of “Shadows on Behalf,” a strangely melodic, 60s-era dream track off their debut record. There is a lot of space in their music that they often fill with warm reverb and vocal harmonies; there’s a reason that Pink Floyd is the first artist out of Gitelman’s mouth when asked that pesky question on influences. New single “Sweet Salvation” — which got a puppet-themed music video treatment that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the Flaming Lips’ repertoire of bizarrely hilarious visuals — was a new addition to the five-song, thirty-minute opening setlist, while set-closer “Cup Half Full” virtually defined the genre-less grey area that the Stepkids tend to inhabit. Starting off essentially as a Temptations-esque pop ballad, the song traveled all over the place — is that echoing Beach Boys’ surfer cool? Did he just bust out a pop country lick? Did we morph into Elvis-era boogie rock? — ending with Gitelman ripping off a guitar solo while on his knees, all before collapsing back into the Motown sound where it all began. A sonic journey to be sure, and one that is a microcosm of the entire experience of the Stepkids.
With a headlining set at the BK Funk Fest on the horizon next week, the band is looking forward to spreading out and crafting an arc into their setlists instead of “going HAM for thirty minutes,” as Walsh described their opening sets (in addition to their dates with Potter, they recently returned from a tour opening for Gotye chanteuse Kimbra). And while conversation was just as likely to shift from little-known groove records from the 1970s to the current genius of Kendrick Lamar without skipping a beat, the trio know what it means to get truly funky.
“Prince took what James Brown, Rick James and George Clinton had, and he capitalized on it, and he updated it,” said Walsh just before heading out on stage. In their own way, and with their own style, the Stepkids are out to update music once again.
The Couch Sessions: Your music is pulled from a whole bunch of different genres. What is the most ridiculous moniker somebody has used in reference to your music?
Jeff Gitelman: West African. We said it one time in an interview that we were influenced by it, and it somehow made it’s way into our permanent description bio, somehow. It’s just funny to actually list that as your sound description, I don’t know how that happened, really. We were really into it in college, but I don’t think our sound necessarily reflects it that obviously, but it’s just funny that the bio writer included that, and we didn’t fight it that much, it just stayed permanently in our bio. In every bio, it’s like, “They make psychedelic with West African…” It’s like the second or third thing that comes up.
Dan Edinberg: Might as well just call us Celtic.
What are some of the artists for you guys musically that influenced you?
JG: I think artistically and musically, we really look towards, like, Pink Floyd is definitely one of them for sure. Those guys are prolific artistically, they have a very awesome brand.
Tim Walsh: Nah, they suck man. (laughter)
JG: You’re right. Let’s talk about Rihanna.
DE: They mastered the concept album again and again and again. We also really love Steely Dan quite a bit too.
JG: I mean, there’s just so much, honestly. We’re a little older — we were in college ten years ago, twelve years ago — so we discovered a lot of fuckin’ music in our lives. It’s kinda hard to say at this point what’s influenced us, ’cause at this point it’s easier to say what HASN’T influenced us.
JG: (laughter) Probably, yeah.
TW: I haven’t really practiced the frame drum in the past year.
JG: But you know we went through so many phases, we all studied music in college, like classical, jazz, reggae, R&B, rock, a lot of the traditional Balkan music, I’m Romanian, and my dad plays that, we got into this whole nerdy period in college where we studied Eastern European-influenced jazz. West African, like we played with this West African drummer from Mali and it was unreal. It’s just been all over the place, but at the end of the day we just wanted to make pop music, so here we are. This is our take on pop music. We’re definitely gonna be getting a little closer to the nucleus of pop.
You guys have been touring seemingly nonstop recently, with Kimbra and Grace Potter, how has that been going?
JG: It’s just been great. The Kimbra tour, we got spoiled, man, plain and simple. It’s gonna be a rough awakening — it’s a cold world out there — but it was a warm world touring with Kimbra. Her fans loved us. They were all young kids, and they were so open-minded.
Meredith DiMenna stopped in, who later came out to sing on the Stepkids’ “Legend In My Own Mind” during their set that night.
What was it about the Kimbra tour?
JG: Well, there were all these young girls, right? (laughter) No, no, no, what I mean about it is they were open-minded, like moldable clay, open to the culture of experimental music.
TW: A different culture.
JG: We’ve done some tours, and every one has been about half and half — because we open up for people — so half the time the audience has been really receptive, and the other half the audience has been like, “what the fuck?” It’s tough as it is as an opening band. But with that tour there wasn’t a single bad show, it was the first time we’ve done that where there wasn’t a single time where the crowd didn’t really treat us like a headliner, and it was crazy for us to get exposed to that. Like I said, we got spoiled, man.
I saw that you guys had Tweeted, Facebooked, Instagrammed, everything, a photo of you guys writing with Kimbra. Anything going to come from that?
JG: She’s appearing on our upcoming album, actually.
Tell me about this new album.
JG: Man, it’s gonna be a concept record, and it’s gonna be a good one.
DE: We’ve been working on it for a really long time actually, off and on. Right after we finished our first record we started, and we probably wrote and recorded maybe half of the songs that are on it, and then we started touring and our influences developed a lot since then. So it’s actually a pretty nice combination of the analog sound and influences from our first record and then just a whole lot of other stuff. We feel like it sounds a lot more expansive than the last record.
TW: It’s nice too, because the format of our writing is very malleable, so we can go and leave it for six months; there was one song we actually left for an entire year and then came back to it, and we were like “wow, does this really say December, and it’s January of the next year?” But like I said, it’s malleable, and you can go back and revise it however you want. So we do that with songs when we hear new things that we’re influenced by.
JG: But it’s crazy, I mean we got some songs on here, man, that it’s scary. I played it for a couple people and they were just like, woah. You guys just did it. We have this one song “The Lottery,” very excited about that one. It’s just crazy, the album goes between our old sound, but we also do Southern hip-hop sounds to straight country, broken down, three-part harmony country singing, too. So we really expanded way more than just the sound that we developed, even though our first record was eclectic too. It’s exciting to also keep the mind-frame of an entire collection, of an album, and lyrically the album has a really interesting message. It definitely applies to what we’ve been going through and what we’ve been living, and it’s very exciting.
You guys dropped this video last month [for “Sweet Salvation”] and after I watched it, my first reaction was, “Holy Shit.”How did you guys come up with the concept for that video?
DE: The director is this guy Jesse Mann, and he’s been with the band from the start actually, and he helped us conceive of and designed the light show. He’s an old friend of mine, too, we’ve known each other for a long time. We actually have a mutual friend, because we both used to live in Rhode Island, named Erminio Pinque, and Erminio is the founder and creator of this puppet group called Big Nazo. Jesse and I always wanted to get Big Nazo into a video, and we were just like “What can we do, how can we afford it, they’re so big, they performed at the Olympics.” So I just kept sending Erminio Stepkids recordings, and he really liked it, really liked the sound, and we just ended up getting all the schedules to align, Jesse thought of this concept based around Erminio’s puppets, and Erminio agreed to do the video, and yeah. A couple days of shooting and here we are. We’re really excited about it, it’s definitely the best video we ever made, and we’re really stoked about what it’s gonna do.
The first time I saw it I watched it four times straight, because I thought it was hilarious. What was the experience of shooting that?
TW: It was a lot of fun. It was just typical “let’s do another take, let’s do another take,” but the content was just so out there that it was like, this is a great time.
JG: It was a great time, and it was also the most opulent video experience we’ve done. We almost got spoiled by that shoot too, because that video looks like it cost a lot of money. We had the set designed from Saturday Night Live, we had Erminio who did Olympic stuff, we had all these people and we were like, “what?” Our first video we just shot ourselves. We did five videos before that, but we showed up and we were like, wow, we’re actually doing a real video. That one just got picked up by MTVU, so we’re hoping to get some more exposure.
One thing about Stones Throw that they are fairly infamous for is their focus on vinyl. Is there something about vinyl that you guys love?
DE: I mean I have a record player, records. What I really like the most about it is that I can just be somewhere and for $1 I can find a Sheik record, and I’m like, “What? This is worth way more than a dollar.” And the fact it’s something that you can actually hold is cool, and it sounds warmer. But all of us really are big mp3 heads. This is a crazy era where all of the world’s music is at your fingertips. But everything has been going back full circle, vinyl’s been growing, and I think a lot of that is because the minute that any tangibility becomes impossible, you search for something that gives you the most material satisfaction out of music, and that’s definitely vinyl. Plus, the artwork looks way sicker on vinyl than anything else.
Are you guys involved in the designing of your artwork?
JG: We usually work with different people on it…
TW: We say, “NO!” Or, “yeeeeeaaaahhhh.” (laughter)
Is there a bigger artistic vision for the whole band?
DE: Yeah definitely, I think what we’re really trying to do with most of what we’ve done so far is make you feel like you’re being transported into an environment rather than just, okay, you’re seeing Tim Walsh on the stage singing you a song. I mean we’re really influenced by Pink Floyd, the Dead, there’s always this current of — I don’t know what the right word is — sort of like transcending the medium, for whatever you get. When you get a Pink Floyd album you get much more than a Pink Floyd album, you get a concept, you get amazing songs, amazing production, blah blah blah. When you go see Pink Floyd you get way more than just a rock band, you get an entire lighting setup, you get something that’s gonna transport you out of your world.
TW: It’s all just a giant facade man, so that we can sneak up and hit you with the “Giant Steps.” (sings a jazz ditty) (laughter)
JG: We’re nerding out ’cause we’re jazz musicians, and it’s been one long journey to sneak jazz past some people. I was personally nerding out when we did the Carson Daly thing [on November 5], and they aired it, and there was literally John Coltrane-influenced music on national T.V. But you know, only us nerds found that as like a secret society. Like “Yeah man, you did it, you got one past the goalie.” Kimbra has that hashtag, the secret society of sevenths, for seventh chords.
DE: Yo but that sharp elevenths society is VERY secret.
TW: Well, that’s a whole ‘nother level, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.
…you guys really nerded out right there.
JG: Alright, strictly to business. (laughter)
So you guys are playing the BK Funk Festival next week. What can we expect out of you guys?
JG: I guess we shouldn’t do too many ballads at the BK Funk Festival.
TW: Expect some new material, one or two new songs.
DE: Yeah it’ll be good to headline, we haven’t really played a headlining set in a really long time, we’ve just been opening and opening for a while, so it’ll feel good, it’ll feel like we’re unleashing the beast.
Tell me about the beast.
DE: Well, it’s hairy.
JG: It’s definitely still in a cage at this point. It’s not ready to be domesticated out in the open.
TW: It has to hide within the confines of some sort of social order. So as long as we can have that, and it can still have its fury… (laughter)
DE: But in all seriousness, a headlining set is an opportunity to give your set an arc, to give your set a storyline. When you’re opening, we’re usually like, “Okay, what can we play right now that will get a few more people to like us?” But when you’re headlining you actually have good artistic leeway to create a cadence; to create a drop in energy so you can create a rise in energy later. So yeah, we’re definitely excited.