Steve Steele

I could fill up much more than this introduction with a dissection of the fantastic influences that shape the melodies of singer/songwriter Steve Steele - in all likelihood, this entire feature could be dominated by a dive into Steele's song making process. His debut record, "The Expat" is the culmination of years of experience and experimentation, with cues taken musically from David Bowie and Prince, and lyrics rich with texture based on the written genius from Thomas Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., T.S. Eliot and others.

"The Expat" was based on  an intellectual approach from the start - an equation Steele defines as "energy + ambience + narrative". The theme for the album is intriguing to be sure - described as "being disconnected." Steve says "I live in Houston, and I don’t feel comfortable here at all.” True, the collection isn't exactly friendly to the Texas city, but it certainly creates songs worth your undivided attention - a catalogue that should keep your mind moving.

Steele dives further into the sound of "The Expat": "I never settled on one instrument or one style. I was fortunate to study music theory with a true genius in Dr. Kevin Korsyn. He stressed that I transcend music’s technicalities and express music as life... I let my musical boundaries be so wide that hopefully my vocabulary and imagination for music seem endless." Steve is already hard at work on his next project, a sort of act two titled "Small Hours". After this album is complete, expect Steele and his band on the road often. There's a whole lot more to get into, so read on for all the answers to the XXQ's.


XXQs: Steve Steele (PEV): Compared to artists like Prince and Bowie, how would you describe your sound and what do you feel makes you stand out over the others in your genre?

SS: I started playing music very early on, but I never settled on one instrument or one style. I was fortunate to study music theory with a true genius in Dr. Kevin Korsyn. He stressed that I transcend musics’  technicalities and express music as life. So, like those artists, besides just playing various instruments or knowing music theory, I let my musical boundaries be so wide that hopefully my vocabulary and imagination for music seem endless. I feel more like an orchestrator  or a conductor, or a film-maker than just a singer-songwriter. So, whether it's sound or words, I think the narrative aspect of my music is what defines it more than anything else.

PEV: Calling Houston, Texas home, what kind of music where you into growing up? Was anyone your main influence?

SS: I started so young that it must have been method books at first. My parents weren't musically inclined, but they provided me with piano and guitar lessons, and I sang in church choirs. I spent most of my time listening to and playing music that people older than me were listening to. I was lucky to have musician friends who were a little older than me and they would turn me on to older classic music that was progressive, yet still mainstream, like The Beatles, King Crimson, Prince, and even bands like Steely Dan. They, being older and better players, pushed me to catch up and to try to move beyond musically, but not in a competitive way. I was very competitive, but only against myself. That's the way it should be as a musician. I’ve always listened to a wide range of music, anything from the Sex Pistols to Beethoven, Black Sabbath to Debussy. It all had equal value, as far as I was concerned.

PEV: Having played in the business for a good time now, what was it like for you when you first started out?

SS: I really haven’t been in the business that long, per se. I never wanted to be a solo act. I've always wanted to be in a band. Somehow my vision has been so much different than my friends that I just had to finally do it myself. I've learned different instruments because I like playing them but also out of necessity. I’ve been performing ever sense I can remember. So being on stage is one of the more comfortable places for me to be. I did some touring before I was old enough to get into clubs, so it just seems normal. From my earliest memories I’ve had that dialog between a performer and an audience going on in my head.

PEV: Playing guitar, bass, synth, drums and percussion what can fans  expect from a live Steve Steele show?

SS: There is so much sound to reproduce, and I don't want a large band, so although I prefer to just front a band I have to do more. But I think I probably set myself up for that. In all humility, to be in my band, you have to be at least better than me on your instrument. I’ve taken turns, going for playing guitar while singing, just singing and being a front man, playing bass and singing, playing piano and singing, and.. To be honest, I looked performers like Prince and Freddie Mercury for some answers. I can’t focus on the narrative, or the audience if I’m up there fiddling around with a bunch of knobs and pedals, etc.. So, I’ve settled on mainly just singing, with moments or shows where I’ll play piano or guitar.

PEV: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage?

SS: Breathe. Then look at the audience in the eyes, and then let it happen.

PEV: Any preshow rituals before going on stage or do you just wing it?

SS: I warm up my voice earlier in the day, but the rest has been worked out way ahead of time. Ultimately there should be a balance between routine and improvisation. Obviously I'm influenced by artists or bands that had a firm structure, but that could improvise and jam also. I need both. In this world of computerized perfection, it's a really wonderful challenge to make a great record and then make a potent live act. Not too many bands can do that. Before I retire this business I want to make a really great live record that has no overdubbing.

PEV: What was the underlining inspiration for your music? Where do get your best ideas for songs?

SS: Good question. Honestly, if either I go on long walks, or, oddly enough, go for a swim or take long showers, those activities get some chemical in the brain working and ideas just present themselves. If I need a productive lyric writing session, I’ll go to Memorial Park and walk around the trail a few times and I’ll have two or three songs pretty much outlined. I also do a lot of reading, and I watch a lot of films. I spend a lot of my time alone, daydreaming and taking notes all of the time. I have notes everywhere. I even have a notebook or two of fake notes, just for the fun of it. My nephew is a great writer too. He gives me a few free lines sometimes.

PEV: Tell us about your debut album “The Expat”, what you call “a fascinating collection that explores both the dichotomy of being isolated in a city of millions and the reality of feeling disconnected in this modern world of social networking.”

SS: Those were a reviewers’ words. I can’t take credit for that well- worded quote. I’m an introvert. What can I say? But, certainly I can’t be the only person who feels this way, right? Houston is the third largest city in the US, but we are no New York City down here. Houston is more like Los Angeles, very spread out, everyone lives far away from each other. Houston is an ugly city. It’s flat, it’s hot, humid and hours from any really good nature. Not a day goes by that I don't dream of being somewhere else. I just don’t belong here. But I’m still frickin’ here aren’t I? So the only place to go is inwards.

I do have an escape route planned though. I just have to suffer it out here a little bit longer, because if there is one thing that Houston does have is, we have a lot of talent. The musicians I play with, and Steve Christensen, who tracked and mixed The Expat (he recently won a Grammy for his engineering), are oh so very good. My next album will involve the same people, using the same process. Anyway, to answer your question, in my mind, I’m already retired and gone, living way out in the high dessert somewhere, taking really long hikes and staring at the night sky.

PEV: When he first began working on the album, you wrote on a whiteboard three words that drove the project: “Energy + Ambience + Narrative.” With that, do you ever find yourself getting writer’s block and if so, how do you get over that?

SS: Quite the opposite. I rarely get writer’s block. I think that’s because I’m at it everyday. A lot of my day involves something that lends itself to the process. I have a few people that I teach music to and that is very helpful because whenever I feel like I could get stuck, another voice speaks up and I just work my way through it. If I can’t come up with a lyric, I’ll work on the guitar. If that’s not happening then I’ll switch to the piano, or the bass, then maybe the drums. A friend of mine said that when he has a problem to solve he sends a little messenger inside his head to go find the answer and to bring it back when he finds it. I love that.

That’s exactly what I do. Work on something else or don't work on it at all. Change the environment and wait for that messenger to come back. It’ll happen. It’s just a matter of time and persistence. I love puzzles, games, mazes, things like that. And of course that fastest way to solve a maze is to go backwards. It’s just problem solving, not divine intervention. Well maybe some divine intervention, but it’s having a good work ethic too. Writing music is like being great at martial arts, or chess, or being a magician - never put yourself in a position to get cornered, always have several ways out.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Steve Steele?

SS: I was a Precinct Leader for Ron Paul in the last Presidential Election. I'm not a nationalist. I respect culture but I do nozbelieve in pride for a nation, even if that is supposed to be based on an ideal. You have to be careful about having faith in something as nebulous as that. However, I'm quick to admit that I'm from Texas. There is an air of independence here, almost like we are our own country, and somehow I fit right in with that. Once we get rid of the phony “Texans”, (unnamed politicians) You know Ron Paul lives right down the road (ironically enough born in Pennsylvania). I drive by his  neighborhood on the way to the beach. Weather he's right or wrong, we need people like him. There is this phony image of a Texan is. I’m Texan!

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life when you knew that music was going to be a career for you?

SS: From very early on. There was never any question. I spend half of my day wishing I were a cosmologist. But music has the right balance of science and literature and that give me the freedom to explore things like sound or themes. Music as a business is awkward. But as a lifestyle it can be very balanced. I just want to be happy, and music is one thing that has helped give me that chance.

PEV: What one word best describes Steve Steele?

SS: Chameleon.

PEV: How is life on the road for you in the music world? Best and worst parts?

SS: The times I have traveled or toured, the best part was just, simply seeing new sights and meeting new people. I'm a very independent person, and the times I have traveled have been some of the most peaceful moments. Even when things went wrong (vans and busses breaking down). Siting in a bus or a van, starring out the window, reading, listening to music and writing was great. I learned to be patient. So many things can go wrong and you have to rely on so many people to make this business work. I love to travel. I haven’t traveled for The Expat yet. I want to after the next album. I hope I never get to the point where I have to travel by airplane a lot. That would be miserable.

PEV: You are already very busy with your next project, Small Hours, which you say, “Picks up directly after the last notes you hear on The Expat.” How will this be different from “The Expat” and what do you hope to accomplish or say with this work?

SS: If you know what The Expat is really about, then you can guess where the narrative might go. The music has to change or evolve because the narrative has. Consider Small Hours to be the second act. Some instruments will still remain but the focus shifts to other sounds and arrangements.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career? What’s it like when you get to play at your hometown?

SS: For the most part, while working on The Expat I kept it a secret because talking about something too much before it’s finished can make it lose all it’s powers. People like to be surprised. But generally most of my friends say, “Oh, that’s great Steve, anyways at work today, …blah blah blah..” Your friends and family aren’t your fans. Yet, you write about them, and other things, and, right, you really can’t go home again.

PEV: What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

SS: I watch a lot of films. If I lived somewhere else I would say I spend my free time outdoors, hiking, climbing mountains, surfing, camping in remote areas. That’s what I wish I could tell you.

PEV:  Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?

SS: I have no idea. I would love to name drop. But honestly I'm not paying attention. Although, I’m very happy to check out other bands that we play with and see that despite all of the ways to cheat these days, people are still trying to play music. There was this band that played before us last week… uh, Sunrise and Ammunition was the band and the bass player, his playing was wild and full of energy and he was jumping around, just completely engulfed in the sound, even blew  up one of his speakers. They were so much fun to watch that I would have forfeited my set and happily watched them. I mean, I need   somebody to rock my world too!

PEV: If you weren’t playing music now what do you think you would be doing as your career?

SS: My father worked for NASA. I mean, look, I love to travel. I can handle long periods of concentrating on one project and being in relative isolation. I'd be the perfect first man to Mars! Seriously, when I really do stop, like Liszt, I would like to teach music to   a few select students who really want it as bad as I did.

PEV: So, what is next for Steve Steele?

SS: Working on Small Hours and then I want to tour until I've seen as  much of the world as I can.

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