My electropop / dark indietronica band Great Highway is releasing our 5th album today. I always assume that, during a rare moment in my creative life like this, I’m going to be thinking about the work itself, about what tracks shine over others, where there are still flaws to nitpick apart, what are my favorite songs and how do they rank against my previous releases.
The truth is, though, that by the time I get to the week of an album release, I’m usually too exhausted with what I’ve made to think about it anymore. Instead, I always find myself thinking about the community around me. Who else has been putting out great work? What inspired me to make this crazy record? What was I listening to when I rounded that final base and drove it home? I also wonder who listens – who are our inexplicable thousands of listeners on Soundcloud, who are the thousands of people who gave a play count to the Daft Punk cover we did three years ago (our most popular track to-date), are they the same people I’M listening to? And if so, why isn’t it easier out there on the internet to connect with these people?
An increase in connections is the real reason I started writing this little blog series. It’s the reason I GO to Balanced Breakfast every other Thursday in San Francisco. It’s why I’ve developed relationships with local music scene power players and go-getters like Stefan Aronsen, Eve Fleishman, and Leanne Kelly (who I wrote about in my previous blog entry, and oh did I mention her project New Spell has new music out on Spotify and it’s AWESOME??).
As musicians, we experience tremendous highs during these moments of creative release, when we complete a body of musical work that is meaningful and spiritual and deeply personal to us. If we’re lucky enough to be in bands like I am, instead of a solo artist, we also get to share that high with our bandmates. We get to share it briefly, too, with our audiences at the shows we put on. But for local bands, those shows are seasonal, sporadic, special, and there’s a lot of downtime in between where those incredible musical highs are not accompanied by a connection to our community, to the world outside our band bubble. That’s why I picked Steve Ward Moore to talk about this week. Connection is on my mind, and that’s what Steve strives for at his own shows.
If you’ve never met or seen Steve in concert, it’s hard to summarize him. His own pages on Facebook and Spotify carry very few details except for a few humorous one-word reviews from supposed attendees (as in, “Wow,” and, “Huh?”). He wears a red velvet blazer with a signature pink ascot tucked over the top and dark round John Lennon sunglasses. His live music is a melange of danceable, digestible electropop mixed with floaty, space-y, long and winding electronic poetry that almost reads like a soliloquy. At different times he seems fully accessible to his audience, then off in his own digital world, but he’s never disconnected from the people. It’s an audience-first show, refreshing in a sea of DJs playing in the dark behind tall tables. Mix this with comic improv between tunes, direct interaction with the crowd, and even the occasional sketch or skit with ‘plants’ in the audience to enhance the live experience, and you’ll leave his shows wondering why more musical acts aren’t this entertaining.
His backstage persona is a completely different animal, of course. At the show he played with us earlier this year, he was a supreme gentleman and a total class act. He brought bottles of wine for the other bands, he was quick and efficient during sound check. He made a point to introduce himself and get to know everyone else in the show before we went on and congratulated everybody afterward. Along with our other act that night, the electro duo Topograf (which I very much also hope to write about soon), he was one of the easiest and lowest-maintenance artists we’ve ever worked with – and we’ve run the full gamut, believe me. Steve is as connected before and after as he is during a set.
So who is this affable, quirky, sometimes-hilarious, audience-engaging electronic artist? Who’s the real Steve Ward Moore?
I always dive into the music itself for the clues. I’d put on his full album “Little Fish Little Pond” a few times prior to the show; but after my bedazzling encounters with him, I went back to this record and took a closer listen. The first thing that catches me both live and on his studio tracks is the arrangements; lush, yet simple electronic hooks, repeating choruses driving home a definitive point, oscillating rhythmic synths and steady mid-tempo sampled beats. It’s all the great stuff I’ve been listening to for decades, ever since my high school girlfriend loaned me a Pet Shop Boys CD and I practically burned a hole in it (can’t recall the name, one of the mid-90s ones, post-West End Girls).
In my shallowest moments, I’ll admit that this style of pop is enough to carry me away and make me obsess over an artist all by itself, even if they’re singing about bringing an empty bag to a buffet to fill it with food (really, there’s actually a line in an Ed Sheeran song about this – look it up!). But Steve’s lyrics accompany this solid bedrock of indietronica with surprising depth, passion, and reflection. Most of his songs seem to be outwardly-facing, delivering a message about life and how to live. So it’s hard to glean the man behind the music. A rare exception is the track “Got a Way,” which finally speaks to Steve himself. And unlike so many inflated-ego artists, he freely admits to his failings as well as his philosophy in this tune, culminating in one of the most introspective lines you’ll hear in electronic music: “I’ve got a way of running away / And in a way it validates my mistakes / I’ve got a way of knowing when sh*t’s gonna break / I heard these voices singing in chorus today.” Geezus. I wish I was this brave.
For some reason though, my favorite song then and now is his eye-catchingly-titled “This Hatred Comes from Experience.” Maybe it’s the instantly hook-y bouncing ping-pong synth, the marching band rolling snare, and the L & R channel vibrating chords that surround his vocals as he observes the world around him. I think more than anything, though, it’s that middle monologue that seems to summarize the whole album’s thought process, talking about how he was “stuck” until he “broke free,” and how important it is to “not follow the norm…living on your own level.” It reminds me a lot of a book I’ve been reading called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a bestseller that’s basically all about doing the opposite of what people expect you to do and finding happiness completely to the side of a predictable path. I eat this stuff up; ideas like this have become my mantra as I come up on 7 years in the music business. As Steve says in conclusion, “Life. No more stuck. Can’t beat it.”