With their twangy, spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, Nashville-based US/UK duo Steelism (Jeremy Fetzer – guitar and Spencer Cullum – pedal steel) hark back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also throw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic and cinematic soundtracks.
I spoke to Jeremy – the US half of the band – about danger, mystery, movie music and the making of their debut album, 615 To FAME, which was co-produced by Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes.
How did the two of you first meet?
Jeremy Fetzer: Spencer and I first met in Nashville – Spencer attended an Andrew Combs gig where I was playing. We then met up again in London a short time later, when I was touring with Caitlin Rose about five years ago.
Spencer took us out for drinks and got us all inebriated at a pub called Garlic & Shots in Soho. This led to him sitting in on pedal steel with us at our gig the next night in London and then joining the whole tour. We’ve been playing together since then.
You’ve both played as backing artists for several acts, including Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. What made you want to come together and write and record as Steelism? Did you get fed up just being the guys in the background?
JF: We both still love being sidemen and playing in backing bands for other artists. It’s also our job. We’ve learned a lot playing with artists like Caitlin Rose and Wanda Jackson. It’s a completely different role, though. With being a sideman, it’s all about supporting the artist’s vision and musically contributing to their lyrics and melody. With Steelism, it’s completely our own monster and our own material – and it’s a blast.
Spencer had joked for a while about a fictional pedal steel group called Steelism that had a record deal. I intended to make it a reality.
While we were touring in Europe with Caitlin Rose, we started to work up instrumentals during down time and sound checks and when we got back to Nashville, we booked some studio time and recorded them. We ended up releasing them as a 7in vinyl single and did our first show in Nashville to promote the record at a venue called The Basement. The show was a success and it made us realise it was something that we could pursue seriously.
Why did you go down the path of being an instrumental group? I’m a big fan of ’50s/ ’60s instrumental rock & roll, like Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, The Shadows, The Ventures and Link Wray. Have you always been massive fans of that genre? Do you feel that it has been neglected and forgotten about?
JF: I grew up listening to groups like Booker T. & The MG’s and The Ventures, while Spencer’s favourite steel player, Pete Drake, released many very successful instrumental albums in the 1960s as well.
Our musical interests are very diverse, though – from soul to krautrock to country to folk to reggae to jazz. This project allows us to explore all those different musical avenues. You obviously don’t hear any instrumental music on mainstream American radio anymore and, strangely, there’s very few indie groups doing it either. It seems that it really has become a forgotten genre in the 21st century. Despite the obscurity of the instrumental genre, we’ve been enjoying the positive feedback and warm response to the release of 615 To FAME and our live shows.
There’s an air of danger, excitement, mystery and fun about instrumental rock & roll, isn’t there? I love the titles of your tracks, like Cat’s Eye Ring and Cuban Missile. They’re very much in the spirit of tracks from the ’50s and ’60s…
JF: Thanks. It’s true – there’s loads of danger and mystery in Steelism! Coming up with titles for instrumentals definitely brings a laugh.
A lot of the titles have been inspired by our travels – Marfa Lights was inspired by Spencer’s trip to Marfa, Texas, Cat’s Eye Ring is named after a ring we saw while visiting the Alamo in San Antonio on a tour, while The Blind Beggar is our attempt at an English, gangster-inspired composition. It’s named after the pub on Whitechapel Road where Ronnie Kray shot a rival gang member.
Who are your main musical influences and inspirations?
JF: Our LP collections are constantly growing and taking over our houses. I’d say we are always sonically and melodically inspired by The Beatles, while we’re rhythmically inspired by the great American session musician teams including Stax, Area Code 615, The Wrecking Crew and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. We are always referencing the great film composers like Ennio Morricone, John Barry and Lalo Schifrin. We also love taking our turntables to Germany, Brazil, and Jamaica with artists like Neu, Sergio Mendes and Jimmy Cliff.
Your debut album – 615 To FAME – is great. The tracks are very cinematic. Would you like to write music for films? What are your favourite films and movie genres?
JF: We love making Steelism as musically dramatic as we can get away with. Film music is definitely a passion. Nothing beats the perfect piece of music paired with the perfect scene.
We obviously love a lot of ’60s film music, but there’s been some fantastic film scores recently – Jonny Greenwood has been doing amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson films, and the same with Trent Reznor on recent David Fincher films. Quentin Tarantino is still the master of the perfect soundtrack. There will hopefully be many Steelism-produced soundtracks in the future.
On your album, there are nods to spaghetti westerns, surf-rock and ’60s spy film soundtracks – Cat’s Eye Ring, The Landlocked Surfer and The Spook – as well as blues, country and soul. What was your intention when you set out to make the record? What did you want to achieve?
JF: 615 To FAME is definitely an eclectic group of tracks that we recorded in both Nashville and Muscle Shoals [in Alabama]. We were inspired by the historical surroundings and also wanted to showcase all the different stylistic interests of the group with our first record. We plan to musically take Steelism to many strange places.
What was the album recording process like? What was it like working with Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and what other musicians did you work with on the recording?
JF: We recorded the first half of the record in Nashville at a couple of different studios and eventually met Ben Tanner who offered to help us finish the record in Muscle Shoals. We tracked the rest of the record at FAME [in Alabama] and completed it in Muscle Shoals, with the help of Single Lock Records, who released 615 To FAME in the US. Going to FAME Studios for us was like a group of three-year-olds going to Disneyland.
We are extremely spoilt with some of the best young musicians in the world in Nashville. All of the players here are extremely professional and play way beyond their age. We try to use this band to showcase all the young sessions musicians in town, but we have had the rhythmic force of Jon Radford and Michael Rinne on drums and bass from the beginning. They are the best in town and we are thrilled they will be playing with us in the UK on this tour as well.
What are your plans for 2015?
JF: We just kicked off 2015 with a couple of great shows in Nashville and next up is the UK, which we are thrilled about. We really hope to visit the UK a few times in 2015. We have plans to do some recording collaborations with a couple of great singers in Nashville.
This summer we will be doing festivals and also plan to head to the West Coast in The States. We are also always working up and recording new instrumental material at our home studio.
Are you looking forward to playing in the UK? What can we expect from the live shows?
JF: Yes – it might be my favourite place to tour. This will be my fifth or sixth time visiting the UK. English people are so receptive to American music and are such wonderful listeners. Sometimes English crowds are so polite and focused that it can make American performers nervous, but we love it. I love English radio, too. I hope that everyone who comes to the live shows is prepared to have a few pints and get down! We want to make London swingin’ again! We are bringing a fantastic rhythm section and are ready to have some fun.
So, what are your ambitions for Steelism?
JF: For us to become a production team, session group, studio owning, film scoring and international, instrumental, touring live band machine!
Are there any musicians that you’d like to work with – either as Steelism, or as backing musicians?
JF: I think we should do a Steelism remix with Mark Ronson, or start on our ambient record with Brian Eno while we are in London this year. Perhaps we can see if Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley are around to put down some vocals. We can dream…
Steelism’s debut album 615 To FAME is released on Feb 9 – it’s on Names Records. The band will be playing UK dates in February:
London – The Windmill: Feb 19
Manchester – The Castle: Feb 22
London – The Social: Feb 23