Connecticut psychedelic-soul trio The Stepkids are no ordinary new band. Having been raised on the soul, jazz and gospel scenes of New England, all three band members – singer/guitarist Jeff Gitelman, bassist/keyboardist Dan Edinberg and drummer Tim Walsh –have forged successful careers as musicians, which include sharing stages with bona fide superstars Alicia Keys and Lauren Hill (plus the cataclysmic bellend 50 Cent).
Now, as The Stepkids, the trio is set to release a glorious debut album next month on über-cool LA-based label Stones Throw. The record manages to fuse old-school soul, jazz, traces of folk, African rhythms and a slew of psychedelia.
After a sonically and visually spectacular debut UK show in London earlier this month, The Line Of Best Fit caught up with Gitelman to find out why the three seasoned performers finally decided to form a band. We were also intrigued to discover just how big a twat 50 Cent actually is.
All three of you are successful musicians – how did you meet up?
It was at the end of 2008; I was leaving a tour and Dan was leaving a tour and me and Tim were building a studio, and that’s when I introduced Dan and Tim to each other and we just immediately hit it off automatically and we started working on some music.
Initially, did you have a vision of how you wanted The Stepkids to sound?
We actually made a bunch of music before we deemed it ‘special’, so to speak. We were initially in another band with two other people and we made a whole album. It was good, the songs were good, but we didn’t feel it was unique or special. We went ahead and finished the whole thing before we concluded we should really start from scratch, with just the three of us. When we did start from scratch in the summer of 2009, the first thing we did as a trio we saw as having a unique sound that we hadn’t heard anyone in our generation do.
What was unique about the sound? What had you ‘hit on’?
It was partly about the medium we were using. We had been recording on a digital format, but when we started incorporating analogue, we realised we had a way of incorporating soul music with indie rock. That’s when we thought we were onto something special.
I believe all of you were raised in the small state of Connecticut in New England. What sort of music scene did it have when you were growing up?
Connecticut has a pretty good jazz scene. Places like Hartford have traditionally produced a lot of great jazz musicians, so there was some jazz in the 90s. Also there was some soul and a great gospel scene in Connecticut.
Do you still live there?
No, our studio is in Bridgeport [in Connecticut] but we now live in Brooklyn. Bridgeport is an edgy place. There is an interesting dichotomy; Bridgeport itself has one of the highest poverty levels, but the town next to it Fairfield County is one of the richest places in the country. That’s what our song ‘Suburban Dream’ kind of alludes to.
You recently played your first show in the London, how was it for you?
It was awesome; we couldn’t have asked for a better first show here in the UK. The audience definitely got it. Just like anywhere else we play, be it New York or California, because we have such a multi-sensory experience, sometimes it takes people by surprise at first and they seem a little shocked for the first couple of songs. But, by the end they’ve got it.
Tell me more about this multi-sensory experience.
Well, we work with an artist – he is like the fourth band member – his name is Jesse Mann and he does projections for us, but they are not conventional projections where you have a screen and a band in front of it. We try to combine the two into one, so we are the screen. We wear white and our instruments are white, and the projections are on us as if we were a blank canvas.
That sounds amazing – has the visual side of a live show always been critical for you?
You cannot divide the two senses. You have a sense of taste and a sense of smell – you can’t have something that smells horrible but tastes great or vice versa, and that’s how we feel about our music. The visual part is very important. As we evolve and play bigger venues, we are definitely planning to evolve visually. Jesse has also designed a set that we can use outdoors in the light that is not projection-based. Music is a visual experience – you can’t help when you go to a show to look at the band you are seeing. We are always going to try and incorporate both of the senses into the performance and that will be stimulating visually as well as sonically.
It also ensures that a Stepkids show is seen in a holistic manner, in that you not just fixated on the lead singer.
That’s right. We love Pink Floyd and we love Kraftwerk and we loved how they went against the symbol of a rock star elevated on a platform – a frontman with everyone else in the background. It was more about appreciating the entire content rather than each individual.
You personally have worked with some amazing artists. What was it like being part of Alicia Keys’ touring band?
Alicia was great. It was a hard-working period in my life. We toured for two years non-stop. We wouldn’t sleep – we would fly from Japan to Spain, back to America and then onto Monaco. So, I learned a lot about the work ethic. For example, I remember one time we landed in Japan and we woke up at five in the morning after having only been asleep for a couple of hours. We went to do a TV show, came back at ten in the morning and I was so exhausted I just passed out. I found out that Alicia had gone and done about 20 more interviews in that time.
That’s insane. The woman must have incredible drive.
The whole relentless work ethic that Alicia has was wonderful to see that first hand. But that what it takes to hustle to get to that level and stay there. She was already a number one artist at this point, so she didn’t need to do all these interviews. That was the main thing I took away from that experience.
You have also worked with 50 Cent. He doesn’t have a great reputation in the UK. What was he like?
He doesn’t have a great reputation in our country too. Five years ago, I didn’t have the best impression [of him] and was not someone I wanted my future kids imitating. To be honest with you, the guy is really, really clever. He is extremely professional and extremely smart when you are talking business. He made me think, that either what you got used to seeing is not what he is really like, or he has evolved into a really intelligent business man.
Oh, that’s a bit dull. Are you sure he wasn’t just a tiny bit horrid?
Ha ha. No!
Okay, moving swiftly on. You are a new band, but by working with such high-profile artists you have seen at first hand a level of success that most musicians could never attain. What are your aspirations for The Stepkids?
Well, the thing that really inspired me to pursue this side of the business was in 2009 when bands like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors were doing their thing. It was inspiring because bands like that aren’t what you’d expect to hear on the radio. They are so challenging and so experimental yet it has an accessibility factor to it as well. It was beautiful to see them in the Billboard charts. Before that, you wouldn’t see that type of avant garde band be that successful. It was a liberating feeling. You could still be successful as a true artist. It gave out hope. So, do I see us being millionaires? No. Am I hoping we can make a living and feed our families by making great music? I hope so. Now is the time that it is possible.
The Stepkids is released on 26 September via Stones Throw.