The king of dusty corners

When Stephen Steinbrink thinks of Charlottesville, he thinks of a trip to a swimming hole in torrential downpour, and how “drunk” locals are on the good shows that come to town. After a string of tour dates was canceled in 2009, the Arizona songwriter lingered here for a few days and played in some of our scene’s lesser-known corners. During his stay, Steinbrink gained a following—as he has in places across the country—which he’s parlayed into a bunch of increasingly successful repeat visits. This week, Steinbrink brings his understated songwriting and cherubic, Neil-Youngish vocals back to town for a show at another unlikely venue, Alhamraa, the Moroccan restaurant in the Ix Building.

 

The Arizona pop songwriter Stephen Steinbrink is always on the road, and, it seems, almost always on his way to or from Charlottesville. He plays Alhamraa on August 30. Photo by Nick Coultas.

 

People know you as the guy who never stops touring. Where are
you now?

On a street in Seattle. I’m on this two-month tour right now and I’m playing about a quarter of the shows. I’m touring with these bands called Pregnant and Alak, but I mainly came along to help out because they have a 1-year-old daughter. I’m mostly just hanging out and helping with the baby. I get back to Phoenix on September 6, and then my band and I are going on a big, month-long West Coast tour, because our new record is coming out in a few weeks—September 19, I think. It’s called Desert Wasn’t Welcome.

You’re known best for small, DIY recordings. What was the studio experience like for Desert Wasn’t Welcome?

My band and I recorded this one at Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, Washington, on a 2" 16-track tape machine with lots of fancy microphones and amps and compressors. They use lots of weird vintage gear there, so it still felt pretty DIY, even though the equipment was much fancier than what I’m used to. Dub Narcotic is a really neat place because it’s in an old synagogue. It has a very different feel than most studios. It still has the old windows and carpeting, almost like the studio accommodating the space and not the other way around.

That sounds like worlds away from recording on a MacBook.

Yes, the self-titled record was done on a Macbook. It was super weird. I only recorded it that way out of necessity; I had been recording on an analog eight-track, but it broke. So I had all these songs, but I didn’t have any money to buy a new eight-track or repair it, so I just started recording on a Macbook with the onboard mic. It took like three months to record it and nine months to make it not sound like shit. By the second record I was recording on a digital eight-track.

It’s Not Just Kissing was recorded in my parents’ dining room. I would stay up really late when I was staying with them in-between tours and just work on this music. I would have to be really quiet, and so I also had to be kind of creative about how I could make things sound loud even though they weren’t. 

Your songs “I Don’t Ever Want to Get Stabbed” and “The Cops” remind me of staying indoors as a kid and watching the TV show “Cops.” Are you paranoid about violent crime?

I don’t like “Cops.” That show just kind of depresses me, and I think it’s pretty messed up. Those two songs are mainly just about living in a sort of depressed city like Phoenix or Tucson. There’s a lot of weird, gross crime in Arizona, which is strange, because people don’t often think of it as a crime-ridden place. Phoenix is a huge city, I think the fifth-largest in the U.S., but so much of it is strip malls and suburban development. Those songs are about seeing weird, gross crime happen in quaint neighborhoods.

Your first record got a nod from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, which reviewers still mention when your name comes up. Did that freak you out?

People have been super nice to me with reviews. That Thurston Moore review is funny though, because he used to have this column where he would review hundreds of records at a time, so getting mentioned wasn’t that big a deal when you put it in perspective. It’s funny what people hold on to about you—it’s often things that aren’t actually that important.

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