"For a while we wanted to reinvent the wheel with music, but now we're in a different place," vocalist-guitarist Jeff Gitelman says about the state of his yacht-funk throwback band, the Stepkids. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel; we want to find our own place in the wheel, because a lot of times people aren't ready for the wheel to be reinvented. They need to digest it one spin at a time."
On the group's easily digestible second spin, Troubadour, the trio — Gitelman, bassist-keyboardist-vocalist Dan Edinberg, and drummer-vocalist Tim Walsh — recorded 10 tracks that continue the vein of funky, jazz-inflected R&B they tapped on their self-titled debut, a record SPIN called one of the 20 Best R&B Albums of 2011 . After opening the album with the Sergio Leone-channeling line, "Once upon a time in Connecticut," they traverse a landscape of jagged, jazzy, Steely Dan–inflected interludes; Philly soul wah-wah skronks; and their unique layers of vocal harmonies. It's a concept album lyrically, but the funky bass, brassy outbursts, and spare moments of flute reprieve — not to mention the band's record-nerd sense of humor — keep it all from becoming too obtuse. It pays tribute to vintage dusty-finger treasures like Earth, Wind & Fire and David Axelrod, but never sounds dated.
"It still has that funk," Edinberg says. "To us, that is what the Stepkids are for now, and it's what makes us different." Listen to this funky follow-up below, check out their track-by-track breakdown, and cop it when it drops on Stones Throw on September 10.
"Memoirs of Grey"
Dan Edinberg: It opens with "Once upon a time in Connecticut," because when people think of Connecticut, they think of wealth, yachts, and boats in the water, but it's not like that. Some of it is, but it's a whole entirely different culture in the cities. We were really proud to be repping Bridgeport to the world, because Bridgeport is a city that exemplifies a huge inequality, since Bridgeport is largely very poor. We like all the different kind of implications a line like "Once upon a time in Connecticut" can have.
Jeff Gitelman: The album has a lyrical theme, a bigger narrative so these three-minute songs can work together. It's a coming-of-age concept. "Memoirs of Grey" is the intro; it states the thesis of the album. It's about a fictional character named Grey, who is a performer, an artist, or anybody else who lives for the show, and who almost puts his own priority and his own life second to entertaining.
Gitelman: The lyrics can be interpreted many different ways. For one, the gamble of love. "Are you a lover / Or a master of the fling?" You're taking a risk. It's also about Grey, and his gamble of being in the art and entertainment world. It is a big gamble. You literally gamble your whole life away.
I was playing with Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder prior to the Stepkids. I had to throw away my whole career and risk it on a garage band with my friends. Everyone kept telling me pragmatically, "Don't do it, Jeff. You're making a lot of money. People would kill to play with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. Why would you leave that stuff behind?" But some chemical in my brain kept telling me to just follow my gut. It's a huge gamble, but everybody gambles. If you're not gambling, then you're obviously not going to win.
Edinberg: It should be obvious we were listening to a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire and Steely Dan, music where jazz is an essential part of what makes it pop. We tracked that song live as well, so the drum, bass, and guitar are just all played in one take. We actually even used sheet music in the studio.
"Desert In The Dark"
Gitelman: We wrote it on a West Coast tour with Matt and Syd from a group called the Internet, members of Odd Future. Before we got to L.A., we were driving through a lot of the desert, and since we're from the East Coast, we're not used to it. It put us in a really languid mood — this yellow desert of nothing, stretching miles. The guitar just sounded so Western. Syd said it reminded her of the desert. I just thought it's amazing to make up a metaphor for somebody who is just dry and lifeless and lethargic. So the song is a metaphor for somebody looking for life in a place where it doesn't exist.
Edinberg: We were really setting out to make modern funk music with that track. We recorded it on analog tape, so Tim manipulated it, making the percussion in the "whoa" part sound different. Also, just to throw you off, we added a Willie Nelson bridge. It's an attempt to fuse a lot of different styles, but really it just comes down to that funk for us.
Gitelman: "Insecure Troubadour" is about traveling the world and telling stories, but then having to convince yourself that you're nothing special for your own ego to survive. Some of the most successful people I've ever met are the most insecure people in the world. A psychology teacher in college told me that he found it so interesting that he could meet a musician or performer that is so introverted and quiet in person, but when they get onstage, they become an animal. As I grew and started performing thousands of shows throughout the years, I've realized it's very true. You almost assume another identity when you're on that stage. They are looking up to you; you're looking down on them. Then you get offstage, and it's time for you to do laundry.
Edinberg: That song represents the journey we took from the first album to the second, because when we started it, we were still using the same methods as the first album. By the time we got back from tour, the three of us got really hip to other different types of music — techno, house, modern hip-hop. So that really affected how we finished off the production of the song.
Gitelman: Stylistically, it shows our love for George Clinton, but we really wanted to make it a modern sound, not just copy what George was doing back in the day. For a while there was no guitar at all on the song. I was playing the drum machine; Dan was playing bass. I played guitar my whole life, and I just got sick of guitar songs. I was more interested in helping produce the sound of the song that didn't always contain guitar. But when we went back, we figured that I probably should be playing guitar, considering that a lot of people are not able to play guitar the way I'm able to. So it's probably better for the world that people do what they're specialized in. [<i>Laughs.</i>] I love Andre 3000 and his guitar-playing, I love him to death, but if those are the only people taking guitar solos, then we have a little bit of a problem. I should probably be doing what I'm good at.
Gitelman: Tim has a really sweet voice: It's a really smooth voice, like David Gilmour. Stylistically it's more of a Brian Eno/Pink Floyd thing, but when you hear the horns and the hook, it's more like David Axelrod, more classical music. With the horns, we were influenced by Axelrod, but, most importantly, Gil Evans and Miles Davis. We were very excited that we were able to incorporate some of that into modern pop music. The influence for that song lyrically came from the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where the author, Milan Kundera, describes karma or god by looking at it visually as symmetrical. A couple meeting in a location and then breaking up in the same location, that's symmetrical. A baby being born by the railroad tracks and then dying by the railroad tracks, that's symmetrical. So that's why this song talks about a woman finding two broken plates. Is it God? No, it's just symmetry. Is it meant to be? I don't know. It's just the symmetry of life.
Gitelman: When you look back at a memory, it's like a painting. That's what moving pictures are: It's a set of images actually moving. They aren't still-life, because if a memory is still-life, then the present is kind of moving. So it's like moving still-life pictures. It's hard to explain. These ideas come from such an abstract place in the brain and that's why…part of me doesn't want to explain it too much, because I kind of feel like I'll be ruining it for the audience. We're doing our hardest to express them verbally, but we're just guitar-players.
Edinberg: Jeff and I wrote that song about five or six years ago, so we had it written even before the first Stepkids record. Initially it was a double-time country, Fleetwood Mac-style song with a female vocalist. We knew that it was a really great song, and we knew we wanted to bring it to the Stepkids, but we couldn't get it to work. Then, once we hit on that drum and bass line, it all seemed to glue together.
Gitelman: The flute is our friend John Plank. It's so funny to see a grown man travel with a small, feminine flute case. I'll never forget him coming into the studio, and there's this big guy — well he's not even that big, but a grown kid with a beard — coming in with the flute case. It was like I was in fifth grade, and it was a freakin' six-inch flute case he was carrying. Hilarious. But yeah, he murdered that flute. He's amazing.
Edinberg: "Bitter Bug" had a whole different thing happening on the verses when we first made it — there was no rapping. The chorus is the same, but it sounded like we had this Morrissey thing happening on the verses, and it sounded too dark and depressing to us. So we scrapped it.
Gitelman: We like Odd Future, we like Lil Wayne, we like Drake. With rap, you could have a deeper message. That's why we chose to make the vocals a rap-sing. The song is about being on the road, doing what we do.
Gitelman: After "Bitter Bug," we wanted a little release. Sometimes you have to work hard to listen to our stuff. We just wanted to provide rest for the audience.
Edinberg: It's all one take. No metronome or anything. It was just musicians in the studio trying to play with as much feeling as we could on the spot. Even the vocal was part of the live take, too.
"The Art of Forgetting"
Gitelman: From a Nietzsche quote, and I'm paraphrasing: "Forgetting is an art." If you continuously remind yourself of the evil things going on in your life, it would be hard for you to move on and forgive. You almost have to practice ignorance. We thought it would be a great way to complete the album to ask, "How do you go back? How do you unlearn something?"
Stream Troubadour in full here:
- The Stepkids — Memoirs Of Grey
- The Stepkids — The Lottery
- The Stepkids — Desert In The Dark
- The Stepkids — Insecure Troubadour
- The Stepkids — Sweet Salvation
- The Stepkids — Symmetry
- The Stepkids — Moving Pictures
- The Stepkids — Bitter Bug
- The Stepkids — Brutal Honesty
- The Stepkids — The Art of Forgetting