On the release of their new record, ism, Jeremy Fetzer, one-half of the Nashville duo Steelism, discusses the origin of the band, achieving their 1970s hi-fi recording aesthetic, and working in the evolving culture of Music City.
Ism is your second full-length record. How is it different from your last record?
With our first record, 615 to FAME, it was about sidemen coming to the forefront and exploring what we could do as an instrumental band. We experimented with many genres while recording it in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals and putting the history of those 2 places into the album. If that record was in black & white, we wanted ism to be in full-blown color. We knew we wanted to have the addition of vocalists for this record, while attempting to fully integrate them into our instrumental Steelism aesthetic, without distraction. We wanted the the vocals to become another branch of our steel and guitar and flow through the record like a film score. We are still an instrumental band though, as the voice is another instrument.
How did you guys meet? What were your first musical collaborations?
Spencer & I met in London in 2010. I was on tour with singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose in the UK and reached out to him as I knew Spencer had spent some time in Nashville previously. Spencer took Caitlin & I out for drinks at a vampire bar called Garlic & Shots in Soho, and naturally, we kicked it off. He then joined the tour the next day after sitting in with us for a gig on steel. It instantly clicked and Steelism was conceived during the soundchecks on that tour. Spencer moved to Nashville not long after that tour and here we are...
You two have played with many musicians from Nashville as supporting guitar and pedal steel players. How writing Steelism record different from those types of collaboration? How does stepping away from a songwriter's vision allow you two to create more independently?
When we play with different artists it’s all about supporting their song and vision - while always sneaking some of our Steelism flavor into it. With Steelism, we put our wacky musical ideas into the band that we can’t get away with while playing with other artists. Steelism is our escape.
What things have you learned being supporting roles that was most helpful writing the Steelism records?
We’ve spent so much time in recording studios and around professional songwriters over the years that we’ve become producers and songwriters without even intending to be. The creative journey of Steelism has happened organically. Musically speaking, we’ve also developed a lot of restraint in our playing and writing from those supporting sideman roles. It’s always the goal to say more in 3 notes than someone else can say in 20 notes.
Jeremy Fetzer has been pretty active in design for other artist's album covers and tour posters. How does visual art creation differ from musical creation for you?
I approach music and graphic design in the same fashion - piecing together musical ideas and visual designs are very similar to me. Finding the perfect few parts and colors and aligning them together while constantly striving for minimalism. And of course everything is inspired by the vinyl age of the music industry.
The record doesn't really sound like a quintessential Nashville record. I think some of my favorite recent records are from artists who started in a country role and moved into different, less twangy directions musically. How do you see your country instrumentation experience impacting the sound of this record? Were you trying to do some genre-bending with the record?
We love to put the pedal steel and Telecaster in new situations that you don’t always associate the instruments with. They can musically and tonally do so much and we purposefully don’t include many country elements into Steelism. However, we did bring in legendary session man and “Nashville Cat” Charlie McCoy for the ism sessions to play vibraphone and harmonica. He helped put Nashville on the map in the 1960s in both country and rock n’ roll genres and we’re honored to have him on our record. He had an instrumental band called Area Code 615, which has been a source of inspiration for Steelism. They were basically a prog-rock honky tonk group.
How do you like living and working in Nashville? We've heard people discuss "new Nashville" and "old Nashville." What's your stance on these shifting tides some people are seeing in Music City?
We still love Nashville. Nashville is currently evolving culturally and is going through some growing pains at the moment, but it continues to be a creative mecca and collaborative atmosphere for all us. There’s a reason so many people want to move here. There may be more traffic and it may take longer to find a table at restaurant than it used to, but it’s mostly bringing in all kinds of new people from all over the world, which is great for work. The town is slowly becoming a real city. My major concern with “New Nashville” is many of the city developers don’t have enough respect for the past and are tearing down a lot of Nashville’s vibrant history before it can be protected.
What were the motivations behind the sound of the new record? How did you select the contributing artists featured on songs like Shake Your Heel and Roulette?
The sound of ism pulls from so many different aspects of our personal record collections… Brian Eno, Serge Gainsbourg, AIR, Pink Floyd, Ennio Morricone and on and on. It’s almost similar to how a hip-hop producer pieces old samples together for a track to create something new and original, but we strive to do this in performance in an all organic and analog way. We went into the studio with the intention of striving for a hi-fi 1970s recording aesthetic made to sound great on a turntable.
Ruby Amanfu was the first artist we reached out to once we decided to add the vocal element to ism. Steelism had previously performed live with Ruby on many occasions, but this was our first true collaboration. We worked on the lyrics together to form Ruby's cinematic femme fatale character for “Roulette”, drawing from some of John Barry's James Bond themes with Shirley Bassey. There’s no better singer in Nashville than Ruby Amanfu.
We’ve also been fans of Tristen for many years. Our co-producer Jeremy Ferguson had previously worked with Tristen on several projects including her solo records and reached out to her to help us finish “Shake Your Heel,” which we were struggling to finish. It began as an instrumental that we wrote on the day David Bowie died. Spencer had some lyrics for the melody and Tristen helped us finish them in the studio right before doing her vocal take. It was the last session of the album.