Gearing up for the most wonderful time of the year, we can’t wait to get back to the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd, Virginia, for none other than FloydFest! To get everyone ready for this one-of-a-kind event, we’re interviewing some of our favorite FloydFest artists on the road to FloydFest 17 ~ Freedom (July 26-30).
Trent Wagler of The Steel Wheels took some time to talk with The Poke Around for this fourth installment of FloydFest ~ Freedom Bound. The Steel Wheels are touring behind their recent release, Wild As We Came Here, which sees the band pushing the boundaries of their sound.
The Poke Around: You have played FloydFest before, yes?
Trent Wagler: It’s been a long time. We did play a couple of sets in maybe…2011? Might have even been 2010, I’m not sure. We didn’t have a very high profile at that point, but yeah it’ll be exciting to be there.
Can you tell me what you enjoyed about it? Or what you’re looking forward to about getting back there?
My impression of the time we were there–well, I got to see Levon Helm play–but it’s a really cool sized festival that combines a lot of different genres. That’s something I really get excited about. I got to see a living legend in Levon Helm, got to see Old Crow Medicine Show, and then also got to go over to a set by The Low Anthem. And this was 2010 I think, when they had just been kind of taking off, and that was the first I’d seen them. So discovering new bands, seeing a variety of different styles, but then also getting to see some legends in the same venue. And it’s such a gorgeous spot, those are the things I remember about the festival, and what I look forward to getting back to.
Your new album released last month. A totally new step in a lot of ways, going up to Maine to record it, working with a big producer, but, especially, lots of new sounds for you guys. Was this a direction you’ve known you eventually wanted to go?
It was an intentional step we had been talking about taking for a while. We’ve recognized what works for us, what doesn’t, what we bring to the table that’s different from other bands, etcetera. But also, I think we got into this place where we kept talking ourselves into and out of adding more sounds because when you find something that works, it’s very tempting to say, “Yeah but if we add something it might tamper with, or might even degrade or destroy, the things that were working.” So we were very careful to not add things just for the sake of adding them, but really feel like there’s an intention behind it. As we started building the new songs for the new record, we were writing a lot of songs, we had close to forty songs ready for the new album cycle. So we had a lot to choose from, and a lot of what I was creating in demos and was writing and even recording some simple demos at home with included electric guitar sounds, some simple percussion stuff that I was doing, whether it was feet on the floor or hands on random surfaces. Things to sort of create that feel. Once we started talking with Sam Kasseir, the producer…we haven’t worked with other producers before, so it was our first foray into that, but I would take his notion of what it means to produce a record. I mean, he more or less becomes a part of the band, another band member, for that process. He really became a trusted member of the team, and he wasn’t coming from that same baggage of ten years or so of playing together, or from a string band background, so he was coming to the music fresh, with fresh ears, and was like “why not? Why not drums, or keys on this? Let me just try this.” And I think, as we say there in the studio, it really became more and more evident that that is the future of our sound, and what we want to bring to the table. So it’s been fun, also in the aftermath of that record, to rehearse and put up a show that includes keys, that includes drums, and not shy away from pushing boundaries.
So, in the live shows, what has it been like for you guys, musically speaking, to play in this kind of new way?
It’s been good. We had some concerns about shifting and changing our live sound. We weren’t sure how the audience was going to accept it and receive it. You know, knowing that you’ve built a crowd over a number of years by doing a certain thing, to shift the sound and grow it, you figure there may be some people you lose. You just don’t know what people are attracted to with the music until you try something different. That’s when you start to isolate and are able to see what people are attracted to. Are they attracted to the songs themselves, and you can play them anyway you want to, and they’ll be okay? Are they attracted to a quasi-bluegrass setup that they really love, the really traditional elements that we bring in, and without that do we lose something? You just don’t know, and so going into it there was a little bit of…well, we felt very certain that this was the right choice for us, but we don’t know what our crowd’s going to do. And I think it’s been a real success, and that we’ve had some good feedback. (laughs) I mean, I’m certain there are people that have walked away and said, ‘I’m not gonna do that again,’ but we haven’t heard from those people. As time went on, I think that this was the right thing to do, and we also had less concern about that. Not to say that we don’t care about what our crowd wants and thinks at the same time. At the end of the day you really have to move and change with what you’re doing, and follow the artistic intentions that your music is bringing, from the inside out. We were ready for negative feedback from certain crowds, though we pleasantly haven’t heard or seen that much in that sense. So, either we didn’t push it as much as we thought we were, or those people are willing to come along for the ride.
I think that this is a world of music – the Americana world – where fans are maybe open more than anywhere else to hybrids of sound and new spins of old stuff like string band and Appalachian music, as in your case.
Yeah. I also think that some of the trepidation we had for a moment of like, what’s our crowd going to do, I think some of that’s faulty thinking. I think that a lot of, as you said, the genres of music have become less and less strict because more and more people over time have taken their own influence and the influences of music have become just so cross-pollinated anyway, that trying to waste our time talking about what is true bluegrass, true old time, or true folk music, is a worthless endeavor in my opinion. I think that we all have these influences that are all over the place, and it would be less genuine for our bands to go on stage and play a straight up bluegrass sound, because that’s not really where we came from. I mean, I did grow up on a farm in Southern Indiana. I did hear a lot of old time and folk music, I’ve been influenced by that as I’ve gotten older, but I’m not coming straight out of the field, picking on a banjo with my relatives since the day I was seven years old or something. That’s just not reality. So the fact that we’ve been influenced by that music but also by rock n roll, and by blues and by jam music, the art of it then becomes creating a sound that feels true to where you are coming from. So it’s been enjoyable, and it continues to be an enjoyable endeavor to sculpt that sound and to take it out to venues and festivals and just see how it hits people. That’s one of the most fun things about it, I think.
Talk to me about your tour right now. You’ve been hitting the road hard. How’s traveling and all the rest going?
Yeah, well it’s been a good tour, definitely. We’ve been a lot of places in the last 50 days or so. We just got off from a run that included some of the bigger markets on the east coast. You know, a lot of bands we talk to are like, ‘oh we’re going to New York, we’re going to have a good time.’ For us, the big city is this kind of daunting thing, both just getting your band in and out of the city, figuring out parking and all that, all the logistical details, but then also, you’re just in such a huge market, with crazy saturation of so many things that you’re just one little drop in the bucket. So those cities can often be a discouraging thing, but this run has been great. We had a great time playing in New York, a great time playing in Cambridge, and Philadelphia was fun. So I think it’s been good press for the record, and some good radio play, and we’re feeling really positive. I’m excited to get to some of these festivals. We played MerleFest in the spring, and we’ve got another festival coming up in Connecticut in July, and then we’ve got Red Wing, and then FloydFest, and then a number of festivals in the fall as well. So it’s fun to have this record, which has a little bit of a bigger sound, bringing it to an outdoor, larger sort of stage. It really feels like this record in some ways was written for that, so when we get those chances and opportunities, it’s really fun. And I feel like a bunch of shows in the first half of this record release have also enabled us to get a pretty tight set with all the new songs kind of thrown into the mix. So it’s fun. I enjoy the challenge of creating a show with new material after you’ve gone through several album cycles of old material and then trying to sort through what are we going to continue to play, what are we going to be featuring off the new record. You know, people come to your shows because they’ve seen you before, and since you got all this other catalogue of songs, it’s important that you don’t leave that stuff behind and yet we’re really excited about all of this new stuff and the new songs. It’s a fun challenge, I find, to just create the setlists each night. And we’re still tweaking it, I mean each night can be very different from the night before in terms of what songs we’ll include, in terms of how the show flows. And that’s a fun experiment I think.
Article by Miles Hurley