Another day, another buzz band. Not so with The Stepkids, a Connecticut trio of music industry veterans attempting to stand out from the fray (pun intended) with a retrofunk sound and trippy light show. On stage, Jeff Gitelman (guitar), Dan Edinberg (bass) and Tim Walsh (drums) balance machismo guitar solos with the intuitive baton passing of jazz musicians: no one member hogs the spotlight for too long while performing. This collaborative approach carries over into the band’s songwriting and recording process, where everyone contributes equally. There’s no denying their skills–separately, members have toured with the likes of Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill, as well as indie punk band Zox. Signed to Los Angeles-based Stones Throw, the band’s collage of styles is at home among labelmates J Dilla, Madvillain and Dam-Funk. Following the release of their self-titled debut in 2011, The Stepkids are currently on tour with Mayer Hawthorne. Treeswingers geeked out with these purveyors of psychedelic soul after their show at Paradise Rock Club in Boston to discuss Steely Dan, keytars and the importance of good visuals.
Treeswingers: That was an awesome set, I really enjoyed it. I’ve been following you guys because you’re on Stones Throw, one of my favorite labels. Tell me a little bit about yourselves, and how you got together?
Dan Edinberg: Well, Jeff and I met on a bebop gig in the summer of 1998, when we were teenagers. We played a lot of bebop together that summer.
Jeff Gitelman: We even made a jazz record that summer, and we kept in touch.
DE: We always wanted to do music together. Jeff and Tim [Walsh, drums] started doing a lot of recording together at the end of the aughts – that’s the mid 2000s –
TS: I call it the noughties.
JG: Oh, the noughties, I love that.
DE: That sounds best with the accent. (Note: I have an English accent.) Anyway, Jeff was Alicia Keys guitarist and during his time off he would record a lot with Tim. And during one of those times they invited me over to the studio and we totally connected, kinetically, in Connecticut.
TS: You said you played jazz, is that your background?
JG: Yep, all of us. We all went to school for it.
Tim Walsh: Jeff went to Berklee College of Music, I went to Western Connecticut, Dan went to Brown.
TS: Oh cool. So, you released your debut album last summer. When did you guys finish working on that?
DE: March 2010. So it took a year and a half to actually get it out. Since then, we’ve been pretty heavily incubating our second album, which will be out very soon.
TS: I was listening to what you called the “newest, newest” song during your set, and it was very Dam-Funk, especially in the very beginning when it was just the bass and drums.
JG: We love the same stuff Dam loves.
TW: We love Prince. I mean who doesn’t love Prince? I think everybody does. We also love Rick James and there’s nothing better than the Rick James’ bass tone.
JG: We also love good lyrics – Joni Mitchell, Roger Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. There’s a lot of good writers, so we might sound like Dam but our lyrics are certainly-
TW: A little further out there for sure, in a good way!
TW: Well, you never know. We still need an instrument for me to come out of the drum set with so, maybe.
TS: Didn’t you have a backing track?
JG: Those are just little people, little people who make all kinds of “wah” sounds.
DE: I think that was the DMT you smoked beforehand.
TS: That would do it. So what is your set up?
TW: [Joking] An iPod. That’s all we have – it’s literally right here [pulls out an iPod]. We literally plug it in, press play, and act like we’re doing something. We actually like that, because we see it as fusing DJ with live set.
TS: Anyway, I really enjoyed seeing a real live band right now rather than a DJ. Is any of that improvised?
DE: Quite a bit, yeah. We got in a really funny conversation with a few people in Germany because they were like: “What percent of your set is improvised?” It’s very German, right? And I was like, “I don’t know, maybe 20-30,” and they were like: “No. It is 40.” [laughs]
JG: It’s about 20 percent of the set. We could go more, though. One of the things we’ve been learning about this business is how to adapt. Believe me, what you saw tonight was definitely a toned down jam version of us. That was the least we could jam–anything less than that and we were not going to feel right.
TS: Yeah, makes sense. What’s it like touring with Mr. Mayer Hawthorne?
TW: He’s awesome. Like all the guys in the band are super knowledgeable to talk to about music.
JG: It’s nice to tour with another rock band, but it’s really nice to tour with a funk band.
TW: A soul band.
DE: He’s doing something no-one else is doing.
JG: You know what I realized, he looks like if Michael J. Fox was a singer. The spitting image.
TS: Crossed with Michael Bublé.
JG: You’re the third person that’s said that. That blew my mind.
TW: Also Barry Manilow – very classy, very charming.
JG: And here we are with acid trips.
TS: So yeah… where did the white come from and where did the graphics come from?
DE: That was through a collaboration with a really good friend of mine named Jesse Mann who is a visual artist. We just wanted to use projections because it allows you a lot of control over the light, and we wanted to do it differently than we thought other people had done it. So we came up with this idea of turning the band into the canvas, so it allows us to kind of do anything. We can look any color, we can look like anything.
TS: So that’s completely pre-planned to coordinate with your set before hand?
TW: It is, but there’s also improvisation. We have this great guy, our light engineer.
JG: Every night, the show is a performance for him as well.
TS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems pretty rare for just the three of you to have your own light guy.
TW: I know, we don’t even have a keyboard player but we have a light guy.
TS: So let’s talk a little bit about how you record, then.
TW: We do everything at the studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut. We mix it all ourselves. The first record we did, we did it all to tape. It was very disciplined for us to go back and really learn the art of making music with tape – not necessarily making music with only tape, but making music with tape for sound purposes.
TS: Did you go in and record all three of you at once?
TW: Yeah, for this one we actually did go in and record all three of us at once. We recorded straight to tape and brought it into the digital realm so we could edit it. The way that we work is we write everything together. It goes through all of us before we lay stuff down.
We spend almost four full days a week working together, it’s like 12 hour days. We just love recording, being in the studio.
TS: You must be really good mates by now.
TW: Oh, we know each other really well by now. We’ve seen, smelt, heard felt everything, inside and out.
TS: How are you feeling about the rest of this tour? A lot of you have already toured with artists as backing bands. How is that different to it being just you three out there?
TW: Just to be on a road with a band where you actually wrote the music and were part of the whole process is so different. I’m in a band playing my part we all wrote for me, and Dan’s playing the part we all wrote for him. So if I screw up, I screw up Dan’s drum part. So there’s a whole new meaning to why we even play our instruments in the first place in front of all these people.
TS: You guys already mentioned Prince and a bunch of other people you’re into. What are you listening to right now?
TW: Shabazz Palaces. Jeff is loving them. Dan played me some Mr. Fingers, so we’re going back and listening to some weird house music. And Steely Dan.
DE: The American Beatles is Steely Dan. Did you get that?
Unison: Steely Dan are the American Beatles.
TS: Yup, I’ve got that.
DE: I want that to be the one quote you see.
TS: I’ll try my best with that one. So, you guys are super collaborative in the way you make music and it’s obvious you all really want to be involved with every single decision made. Is that why you don’t bring on board a producer?
JG: There are many reasons we don’t hire a producer. Number one, we all produce. Number two, we can’t afford to hire Danger Mouse, and even if we could afford to hire Danger Mouse, I would vote that we don’t hire him because I don’t want to sound like Danger Mouse. And we all produce. We all have a shit ton of ideas that we have to make solo records because we cant use all of the ideas on our album, so why would we get somebody else in? What we are going to get eventually is an engineer, so we don’t have to press record and then run into the living room. There are two sides to the recording process. There’s behind the glass and there’s in front of the glass, and we’re trying to do both.
[Mayer Hawthorne starts playing in the background]
DE: This sounds just like the riff from “Home At Last”
DE: Steely Dan again.
Unison: I know this super highway, this bright familiar sun, I guess that I’m the lucky one…
TS: Who have you seen as being your crowd, who do think your fans are?
DE: It’s diverse. We get the hip-hop heads, we get the hippies, we get pop heads.
JG: One of the advantages of getting on Stones Throw was that a lot of DJ minded people got onto us because a lot of great DJs from the last 10 to 15 years have come out of Stones Throw, and even since the inception of hip-hop, the sampling of weird, old things-
TS: Like Doom and Mad Lib?
JG: Well yeah, Doom and Mad Lib are doing it for sure. Like Raymond Scott, Mad Lib’s samples, or any of the abstract composers that get sampled by these guys who are just brilliant music historians. We try to draw from the same things and create in that same element.
TS: So what are the next steps for you?
TW: We’ve got a second album coming out, we’ve got a couple of singles to release.
JG: We’re going to be revising our sound, we’re going to be evolving in our stage show. We’re going to be going beyond projections, we’re going to be going beyond the visual aesthetic we’ve already established.
TW: It’s going to start with the music videos, we’re going to refine that a little bit. We’re hugely influenced by bands like Kraftwerk and this band from Japan called Cornelius, their light show and projection show is just amazing, the way they incorporate their projections to their music. We’re just inspired by people who have organised visual plans.
JG: We also want to go outside of it too and go to our jazz roots, too. Eventually, we’re going to go into more acoustic stuff, where we’re playing upright bass and all acoustic instruments in more of a jazz direction. We’re just very excited to be adapting to our environment.
The Stepkids- Shadows On Behalf (download)