Interview: The Steel Wheels Morph Their Sound for ‘Wild as We Came Here’
Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains conjure a certain musical idea: old-time strings, folk and bluegrass. Four-piece band the Steel Wheels fit that mold, to be sure, but on their newest album, Wild as We Came Here, the band decided to try something new: specifically, keys and percussion.
"What the album represents for the band, I think, and what [our producer] helped us do, is nurture some new sounds," says Trent Wagler, the Steel Wheels' singer, guitarist and banjo player, "and [create] a new kind of sonic landscape for us that broadens our sound a little bit more."
The Steel Wheels began to form in 2004, when Wagler met upright bass player Brian Dickel and fiddler Eric Brubaker while they were in school at Eastern Mennonite University; Wagler and Dickel started out in a punk / alternative rock band, then began playing acoustic shows as a duo and were soon joined by Brubaker. When Wagler met mandolin player Jay Lapp, their quartet was complete. After releasing projects together under different names and as a backing band for Wagler, the group released their first album as the Steel Wheels, Red Wing, in 2010. Wild as We Came Here, released Friday (May 5), is the band's fifth studio album.
For Wild as We Came Here, the Steel Wheels headed for rural Maine, where producer Sam Kassirer (who has produced a number of Josh Ritter's albums and plays keyboards for Ritter on tour) has a home studio. The band recorded the project over a 10-day chunk of time; the lived fully at the studio for the entire time, retreating to the wilderness when they needed a break.
"It was just gorgeous -- the most beautiful week of the year for [fall] colors," Wagler tells The Boot. "To be refreshed by that setting was amazing ... Being really remote and feeling very safe in the space was really nice for encouraging and facilitating the new sounds that we were able to make."
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The Steel Wheels have talked in the past about adding keys and percussion to their sound, but thanks to Kassirer's outside perspective -- the band has self-produced all of their records until this one -- Wild as We Came Here became the perfect project to try it out. Previously, the band would find themselves caught up in the logistics of adding such instruments -- what would it mean for them as a band? How would it affect their live shows? -- so they tabled those discussions until after the disc was complete.
"[Kassirer] wasn't there listening and [drawing comparisons to our past records or to other acts like us], and I think that was refreshing for us," Wagler explains. "Just listening to it as sound and music with really fresh ears, it was a blast," he adds, and because they weren't bogged down by the "what does this mean for us?" worries, "we had a lot more freedom to explore."
For their current tour, the Steel Wheels have recruited drummer and keyboard player Kevin Garcia. They're using him for some of their new material, as well as working his instruments into a few of their old songs; they're also keeping some tracks, both new and old, more traditional, with just the band's four official members.
"It really gives different levels to the show," Wagler notes. "I think we're really at a point where we're excited to be able to show what we can do onstage."
Wagler is particularly excited about how Wild as We Came Here's final two songs, "Take Me to the Ending" and "Till No One Is Free," sound in concert. The former is epic -- a "fun combination" of "mountain sounds" and more modern music -- while the latter is more minimal and beautiful.
"It's fun to get people dancing, it's fun to have people just rock with certain songs, but i love being able to really bring it down quiet," Wagler says. "And when you end a song and the crowd just stays quiet, even for 15 seconds ... there's a different kind of sense of togetherness as a body of strangers that is really sacred to me, and I think ["Till No One Is Free"] really has created that moment for people."
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