Well. Again. OK, then. In the midst of all this South By Southwest stuff – as well as an open mic we are holding at 200 East on Friday – the Americana Fest is set to go down this weekend at the Weinberg Center. And we, believe it or not, have actually talked to pretty much all the artists set to perform (yet not Keller Williams; he’s simply too good). This week, then, we have been running Q’s & A’s with the ones we were lucky enough to speak with. Today, we have regional Americana heavy hitters, The Steel Wheels (as represented by Brian Dickel). Among the things we discussed were when the band might get back to recording a new album, what goes into their Red Wing Roots Music Festival, and the prospects of a European tour later this year. They are headlining the first night, and you don’t need us to tell you that you won’t want to miss it in order for you to know as much, right? Right.
You guys are familiar names throughout the region. What are your thoughts on the Frederick/Maryland music scene and the Weinberg Center as a venue?
We’ve had the good fortune to play in Frederick over the past few years and from an outsider looking in, it appears to be alive and well! What has always impressed us is the wide range in age of Frederick music lovers and that bodes well for the future. The Weinberg and the people there have treated us so well. We feel comfortable there and the size is no longer intimidating to us. That allows a great rapport with the audience and letting the show develop organically. Some larger rooms like that can be tough to develop the artist/audience relationship but we haven’t found that to be true at the Weinberg.
The Red Wing Roots Music Festival is your baby – what are some of the challenges of organizing a music festival, ala the Weinberg’s Americana Festival? Red Wing is fairly established within the region – to what do you guys attribute that success?
We are rolling into year four of Red Wing Roots and it isn’t always smooth sailing, but the list of “problems” have been relatively minor in the scope of putting on a three-day festival. The number one thing we have going for us is a great production team. Along with the volunteers, they are the true backbone of making the festival work. We are the public face of it and I often tell people we get to do the fun parts of the festival like helping with lineup and artistic vision for the weekend, but we are not the ones doing the months and months of day-to-day operations. As a touring band, it takes a lot of our time doing what we do on the road, and I know that the festival and our yearly touring would suffer if we didn’t have good teams in place. I think people have gravitated towards Red Wing Roots so quickly for a variety of reasons, but great music with a family friendly environment in a beautiful part of the world is a good place to start. We want there to be a legacy of families growing up in this festival as we’ve seen in other festivals around the country. It’s very gratifying to think that we may have a small part in shaping the next generation of music lovers and exposing them to something that they may not have had an opportunity to hear without Red Wing Roots. All of us in the band have families with children and it’s one of the few (sometimes only) opportunity for them to hear and see us on stage in a year. It’s a great way for us to get a little family time as well while we are at work.
What does “Americana” mean to you?
I think this term is always evolving. The commercial sense of Americana is pushing forward into a more modern sound, but to me, Americana still encompasses a very broad range of music from that more rock sound to an old sound with fiddles, guitars, etc. It’s a large musical umbrella, but that’s what attracts me to it. I’m generally not a fan of music labels – although I understand why they need to be there – but I like when a genre can hand me thoughtful, forward-thinking music that still respects elements of the past with an eye to what is next.
You guys are playing Friday night with Parsonsfield and Tall Heights. Are you familiar with the other bands on the bill? Is there anyone you’re looking forward to seeing?
Getting to hear other bands is just one of the highlights of playing festivals. Most shows we do throughout the year are just us or an opening band. You don’t actually get to take in a lot of live music unless you count your own show every night. That being said, we are fans of music and someone is always showing up to the van with something new they’ve discovered. We hear a lot of bands and now, with us curating our own festival, we have really paid a lot of attention to who is out there and what they are up to. We are familiar with most of the bands on the bill and have had the good fortune to play with a few of them at other festivals. Parsonsfield once opened for us (under a different name) in Connecticut when they were just getting started quite a few years ago. It will be fun to reconnect and see where we both have grown to musically!
Who are some of your influences and why?
We come from a lot of different backgrounds and regions of the country. None of us grew up on this kind of music, but all fell into it organically at different points in our lives. Hearing artists like Doc Watson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice and many more opened our eyes to the Americana world before we even knew what it was called. I think for all of us, something clicked the first time we heard something like that and we wanted to learn more. We also all have a Mennonite background, which isn’t something you would typically think of as an influence. We grew up in many different communities, but with four-part harmony singing as a part of that culture, the communities all had something in common. We certainly didn’t think at the time that it was influencing our future music careers, but we find it is something that now comes natural to us and is more unique than we realized at the time.
Who are you listening to these days the most? Are there some artists we should be aware of, who we might not already know?
We listen to just about anything. We tend to seek out the latest releases and see what is new, but still come back to old favorites from time to time. The latest Jason Isbell album is fantastic. Leon Bridges, Lake Street Dive, Angelique Kidjo, Aoife O’Donovan and Hayes Carll are just a few that come to mind recently. I will say there are MANY artists out there that everyone should hear that are flying under the radar a bit. Once you are in the music business for a while, you realize just how much great music is out there that will probably never be available to the masses. One of the best ways to discover is to support your music venues and take a chance on some shows you may not know. You will occasionally be very surprised and walk away with a new favorite. That is also the beauty of attending music festivals – you may have attended to listen to one of the marquee names at the top and find yourself blown away by artists you didn’t know existed. Keeping an open mind and seeking out live music is the best way to expand your music finds.
Where are some of your favorite venues and places to play and why?
We have had the great fortune to play 100-plus shows a year all over the country for quite a while now. Each one has some qualities that stick out to you (not all good!) and it would be hard to pick one over another. Sometimes, the room is nothing great, but the fans who fill it that night and respond to the music with some energy make up for the lack of “wow” factor in the physical room itself. Other times, you walk in, and the building itself is stunning and a real joy to play acoustic music in. Occasionally, those two collide into a very special evening. We really like old theaters and are so happy to see communities all over reinvesting in those buildings and finding the value in keeping them running. One of our favorites we’ve ever played is the Stoughton Opera House in Stoughton, Wisconsin. The energy in the audience and the building itself have created some of our favorite performances the past couple of years. There are many others as well that we encounter every week. The hard part is finding the time to get back every year to all the ones that have that magic.
What does a dream collaboration look like to you? Who’s out there who you’d like to work with the most, be it another artist or producer?
That’s a good question and I’m not sure we know the answer. We always have our eyes open for mini collaborations at a festival set or backstage at a venue. I think you can learn something from anyone and the more you are open to that, the better musician and performer you become. We are in the beginning phases of the next album and Trent Wagler (our main songwriter) has been doing more collaborative writing than ever before. He has enjoyed the new process and bringing in some fresh ideas into his songwriting. We are talking to some producers for this next album and that is an exciting prospect for this next project. We’ve been open to outside ideas, but have mostly self-produced the last few albums. It’s exciting to think about being pushed in a good way in the studio and perhaps shaping us with some ideas we haven’t thought of before. I think being pushed out of your comfort zone while still remaining true to your sound and feel is a healthy way to stay excited with your own music.
When do you guys plan on getting in the studio again? I know you released “Leave Some Things Behind” last year, but how is 2016 shaping up?
We are looking to get into the studio sometime in 2016 with the plans to release a full length album in 2017. We are in the midst of writing and arranging a lot of new songs right now and have already hit the studio last month with some demo recordings. It’s a fun and creative time to be in and we are all excited to see what songs develop and make the cut for the next album. I think we’ve got some really strong material taking shape. Our mentality is always that the next one is going to be some of the best work we’ve ever done, so we really work hard on the songs and song choices to create an experience from start to finish. Aside from planned studio time, 2016 is shaping up nicely with festival and venue touring to some new stops and some old favorites. We also have our first full-band European tour happening in August with an amazing festival in Denmark called Tønder Festival. Many exciting things on the horizon, so stay in touch with The Steel Wheels.
And finally, what can we expect from your set at the Weinberg?
Well, we haven’t drawn up the set yet! We craft every set unique to every night and that is one thing I love about playing in this band. Right now, our sets are typically a nice mix of previous albums and a good dose off the latest album as well. As a headliner at Weinberg, we’ll have some good energy songs but we also love to pull back the reigns from time to time with a softer tune. We enjoy hearing an organic ebb and flow to a set with energy swells and valleys. Too much of one thing, and the audience loses interest. Much like an album, you want to create a journey from start to finish. We are fortunate to have great fans that are totally a part of that journey each night. We are really looking forward to being back at the Weinberg and are honored to be a part of the Americana Music Festival again this year.