In the musically fruitful land of Southern California (Fullerton to be exact), The Steelwells rock and work equally hard. Being in the music industry isn’t child’s play. Joey Winter, an avid blogger himself, recently had a conversation with Linescratchers about Indie rock, trying to balance music and faith, and making money. The Steelwells blend influences from across the grand swath of the modern Indie world (and add personality of their own), but Joey stresses that the important thing is the symbiotic relationship between the lyrics and the music, and above all, the communication to the listener.
Your band has two Latter-day Saints, Joey (the singer/songwriter/guitarist) and Robbie (the bassist). Is this a coincidence?
A: Robbie was the first to hear me play. I had written a bunch of songs but didn’t like the idea of playing them for people. I would send out my garageband recordings to my cousin who was friends with Robbie and thought he would like it. He did and we got to know each other through that. We would meet at my cousin’s house to jam and talk music and he would show me the stuff his band was working on. He went to the band and told them to listen to me. I was reluctant from the outset as I didn’t really feel like I was good enough to actually be in a band. They were reluctant to get some older guy to front their band. They came over to hear me play and it turned out that I already knew our drummer Brian at an old job. They liked the music and there ya go.
The Steelwells has been described as a cross between Arcade Fire, The Shins, and Wilco. How would you describe the sound of The Steelwells? What influences do you bring to the table?
A: This is a really tough one for me. I would love to agree with all of those comparisons because those are really some amazing bands that make amazing music. But I think more important than how we sound compared to other bands is the earnest nature with which we share our music. One thing that those bands have in common is that the music and the lyrics have a very symbiotic relationship. There is honesty and feeling in there that brings you along for the ride. This is what we try to make happen in our music. If it doesn’t feel like the right thing then we do our best to find what the right thing is. For me the music should serve the lyrics and they both should serve the listener so they can have an experience in the music.
As for bands that I like right now, I listen to a pretty wide range of things but to name a few of my main influences- (the top three included of course) Elvis Costello, Jeff Buckley, The Flaming Lips, Van Morrison, Yann Tiersen… the list will get really long if I don’t stop myself…
Can you give us a short history of The Steelwells?
A: I met Robbie who introduced me to the band and we started playing together in the summer of 2007 as a five-piece. We had another piano player who we lost not long after we started and about a year later we picked up Billy Kim to be our “utility” musician, but mainly he plays keys. In the band we have Andrew Eapen on lead guitar, Brian Manchester on drums, Robbie Gullage on bass, Billy on keys, and of course I do the singing and whatever else I can get my grubby hands on to play. During that first year we recorded 6 songs with our now producer Barrett out of his house which we called “The Open Letter” EP. It was a nice start but we were not yet satisfied with the sound and thought we could do better so we wrote another batch of songs which we are in the process of recording now. This past year we have been busy playing all over Orange County, LA, and some of San Diego. We are looking forward to getting out of town later this year to promote our forthcoming album.
Describe the songwriting process for your band. When a song is written, how much creative input does the rest of the band have?
A: It really depends on the song but in general we start with some chords, a jam, or lick that we like. Sometimes I am sitting in my room and write a verse, chorus, and bridge and get together with the band. Other times I will have “homework” where I take what we did as a band and put my own spin on it. Regardless of how the music is initiated we always take each others’ ideas and input and try everything until we find what we all agree to be the best thing for the song. So I would say that a finished Steelwells song has a pretty equal amount of input when all is said and done.
What role does faith play in your lives, and in your music?
A: I have my own experiences in life that have shaped how feel about God and my own faith. I am someone that believes very strongly in art and the ability to turn a vision into something tangible. Sometimes you find you’re in a position where you would like to express yourself in a certain way and that might be at odds with certain people’s perception of what is acceptable. I believe music is a way to communicate directly to someone’s soul and should cause us to think and feel connected to something. More important to me than anything else is whether or not I am being honest with myself. Sometimes this can be amazing and sometimes it can be dark. I won’t say this is not a constant struggle because it is, but all I can do is continue to do what I think is the best thing for me. I spent two years in the Philippines and one thing I learned from that experience is you can’t hide from the reality of your situation. You just have to deal with what is in front of you and keep working toward what you believe is right. If others don’t understand why your doing it that is there problem not yours. It is the same with my music, if you can’t see that what I am doing is good, that is your problem not mine. My mind is satisfied.
In your blog, you recently mentioned that being in a band is not the best economic choice. Is it hard nowadays to make ends meet? Do any of you have families? What effect does touring have on them?
A: YES, it is. None of us have any families but we do struggle to pay for all the things that go into being a band that is as busy as we are. We have not done any long distance touring at this point but if I had a wife and kids and had to go on tour I imagine there would probably be a lot of tears and anger at me leaving. It might even break up the band.
You have mentioned that honesty in music is important. What does this mean to you?
A: Yes, the honesty is paramount. For me it means taking a hard look at one’s self with a critical eye and trying to understand the reality of a situation as opposed to what you may want or think you want out of it. Some people feel that singer/songwriter types are whiny people who complain about stuff all the time. I agree that this does happen. But it happens to everyone. Most of the people I know have something to complain about in their lives. What I like to do is get down to the bottom of the complaint. Am I really the problem, is someone else, should I be looking at the brighter side of things or am I letting the problem consume me in an unhealthy way? All the while I try to pay attention to the feel of what I am playing and how it relates to what I am saying.
Would you still endorse the idea that faithful Latter-day Saints can be professional musicians?
A: I guess it is up to the individual. It’s not really a world that caters to any sort of religious belief especially one that is viewed in the music community as overly restrictive and bigoted. Despite whatever the motives are behind policies that is how we are viewed by a lot of people. I think it is unfortunate. Despite my own personal beliefs on certain topics I think if someone knows who they are why they believe what they believe, it doesn’t matter what else is going on around them. In the end it’s no one’s business what my personal beliefs are and I don’t feel the need to explain myself.
You are currently in the studio, recording an EP. Tell us about your upcoming EP, and where we can look for it.
A: We are very excited about what we are working on right now. We hope to have everything ready by the end of September. The name of the EP we are keeping to ourselves until it is released, but I am really happy that it is coming together better than I ever thought possible. All of the songs I think are a good representation of what we are and more importantly of where we are going. There are some recurring themes in the music and artwork as well as a video that we will be releasing at the same time to bring the experience full circle. I really feel like we are in the middle of making a well rounded piece of work with many layers to it. I never thought in my lifetime I would have the chance to be a part of something like this. Regardless of how it is received I can say that I will be satisfied at the end of the day.
The distribution of the record is something we are currently working on but it will definitely have a full online presence in all the major outlets as well as some in-store placement as well. And of course we will always have free CDs and full records for purchase at all the shows. We want everyone to have access to our music so if they burn it from a friend or find it online for free somewhere then by all means take it. If someone at a show does not have the $5 for a record we have burned copies to give as well. We will be coming up with other ways to make sure everyone that wants to hear can do so despite their budgets.
What themes can we hear in your lyrics? Is there a Latter-day Saint influence? What else drives the ideas in your music?
A: All of my lyrics are about some very personal topics in my life. I tend to keep the lyrics fairly cryptic for that reason. It’s like my beard, I can see out but you can’t see in. Of course many of them revolve around my inability to maintain relationships with the opposite sex. But there are some political and social themes in there as well. I would say much of what I have to say is social in nature. However I don’t exclude anything in my writing because that would be me lying to myself. My life is my influence and whatever creeps into the lyrics from my life is sometimes beyond me, so it is hard to answer that question in any direct way. That’s kind of like asking me if there is an Orange County influence in the music. If there is I don’t see it but others could probably conjure up some deeper meaning of something that may or may not even be true. I know I love to do it to others music so I’m sure it will be done to me as well.
Where else can interested listeners hear your music? How else can we support you in what you do?
A: Come to shows!!! We love to share this with people in person. Recordings are great but at shows we get a chance to connect with people and that is something you just can’t duplicate in a studio. Also be sure to check out our MySpace regularly for show updates and video updates at www.myspace.com/thesteelwells. The month of September will be pretty bare to get ready for the CD release but rest assured we are making plans to come to your town soon. Just check in or give your email address so we can keep you posted. If your in a band and would like to talk about setting up shows you can contact us at email@example.com or MySpace us. I also keep up a blog at http://thesteelwells.blogspot.com. And of course any help in the form of donation or record/merch purchases will be used on gas to get where we need to go so we can keep this going.