Band: Steelism, The Pollies
Date: Sunday, July 9, 9 p.m.
Venue: Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, 916 Charleston St., www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Tickets: Call 251-433-9374 for more information
When Steelism made its Azalea City debut, the duo from Nashville delivered an infectious set of instrumental music powered by Spencer Cullum Jr.’s pedal steel and Jeremy Fetzer’s Fender Telecaster. Consisting of nostalgic, rocking jazz numbers from the early ‘60s, the set seemed to be pulled straight from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Steelism returns to Callaghan’s July 9 to entertain patrons with tracks from its latest album, “Ism.” Fetzer’s recent conversation with Lagniappe revealed Steelism’s goal for its new release as well as its place in the Nashville music scene.
Stephen Centanni: You hail from Nashville. Even though the scene has changed greatly, there are still a lot of old-school pedal steel players in that town.
Jeremy Fetzer: Definitely.
Centanni: Steelism maintains the twang, but you two have taken it into a new world with your sound. What kind of reactions have either of you gotten from old-school pedal steel players around Nashville?
Fetzer: I think it’s a mix. A lot of the foundation of this band is putting together pedal steel and Telecaster guitar, which are traditionally country instruments, and taking them into a new territory and showing that the tone of the instrument can do so much. A pedal steel can be a string section or a horn section or an organ. We get steel players that come to our shows. I think everybody loves Spencer’s playing, but there’s a conservative aspect to country music and pedal steel. There’s a formula to how it should be played, but we’re constantly breaking that.
Centanni: For anyone familiar with Steelism’s sound, the first minute of “Ism” proves your sound is evolving. In the past, you guys have had this early ‘60s jazz-rock vibe. Now your sound is going in all kinds of directions. I see a lot of influences from the early ‘70s and even songs where I’ve been, like, “Wow, they’re getting into a little country.” What brought about this change?
Fetzer: With each record, we try to push ourselves and do something completely new. Our first one was us discovering what we could do as an instrumental band or if we could pull it off, because it was the first time that we had done it. In lots of ways, that album sounded black and white. It was us exploring these old genres and ways of playing. Now, we’re trying to push forward into this new hi-fi colorful sound. That’s been the goal of this record.
Centanni: I also noticed the arrangements on these songs are different. The sound of some of these songs is really deep and grand. How did your goal for this album affect your songwriting process?
Fetzer: Well, for us, we sort of write these tunes as if they were a soundtrack. We added vocals to this record. So it’s like we casted these characters that we brought into this record. We sort of write to create these visuals landscapes that exist. We write to films that haven’t been made yet.
Centanni: I loved Consequence of Sound’s description of “Roulette” as being “the soundtrack to a nonexistent spy thriller set in the dusty West,” because it’s perfect, with its attitude and Ruby Amanfu’s vocals. How did this one come into being?
Fetzer: All these tunes, even the ones [with] vocals, began as instrumentals, because that’s how we write. We went through the ones that we thought that we could add lyrics and vocals to. We had an idea of what singers that we wanted to reach out to. These are all singers that we’ve worked with or friends with in Nashville.
Ruby is someone who has been a good friend and been a great singer to work with. We sent her the track, and she dug it. She came over, and we sat together and wrote the lyrics and created her character for that track. She sang that, and it took her two takes. That’s just how she sounds.
Centanni: Did you do that with each vocalist? Did you sit them down and tell them, “Hey, this is what you’re aiming for?”
Fetzer: It was different for each one. For the Andrew Combs one, he’s a professional songwriter. We sent him the track and the melody, and he wrote lyrics to the melody. We were hoping that he would be our Bernie Taupin-type character, where he would do the lyrics. He ended up singing the song, and it became a duet as well. For the Tristen one, called “Shake Your Heels,” Spencer started the lyrics on that one, and she came into the studio and finished it before she sang it. So each one was a different experience.
Centanni: You and Spencer produced this, but you also added a guy named Jeremy Ferguson to the production staff. What made you want to bring him in?
Fetzer: We’ve been working with him for several years. He’s helped us create our sonic sound. He’s in charge of how everything sounds. We did everything in his studio called Battle Tapes in Inglewood, a neighborhood in Nashville. He’s become another member of Steelism.
Centanni: With goals to change your sound up with each album, where do you see Steelism going from here?
Fetzer: We did this album in Nashville. With the next one, we’ve kind of joked that maybe we’ll do it in England. We have goals where maybe someday there will be a record without steel or guitar on the record and call it “Steelism.” We want to keep pushing boundaries and breaking rules, like being an instrumental band and bringing vocals into it. We’ll figure out something different for the next one.
Centanni: How are the vocals affecting your live performance? Are the vocalists joining you on the road?
Fetzer: We’re doing it when we can. We’re doing a handful of shows with Ruby and a handful with Tristen. So, we’re doing it piece by piece with different singers for different situations.