Nashville-based duo Until the End of the World – husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Ian Webber and Meg Olsen – have a name that’s very apt for these dark times we’re living in, but they actually took their moniker from the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same name. In fact, their debut single, Just Let Go, which came out this summer, was influenced by Wenders’s road movies, as well as the films of David Lynch.
It’s a gorgeous, stripped-down, six-minute ballad, with Olsen on lead vocals and Webber on guitar and backing vocals, that recalls the fragile, dreamy, country-psych-folk of Mazzy Star.
New single, another slow song, the equally lovely Stars Fall Down, has a slight ‘50s feel, thanks to its twangy, late-night guitar sound. “I was imagining Richard Hawley-esque guitar tones and I’ve been inspired by a French band called The Limiñanas – it’s like lo-fi Velvet Underground meets Serge Gainsbourg and I love the vibe,” says Webber.
Adds Olsen: “When I first heard the music for Stars Fall Down, it set an immediate tone and mood for me. I gravitate towards melancholy themes – love gone wrong, etc. The lyrics flowed really easily from that initial mood that was set by Ian’s guitar. I think I wrote the first draft in an hour and we finessed it slightly from there. I was genuinely happy with it, which is rare for me.”
The Until the End of the World project began in April this year, during lockdown, as Olsen explains: “We started very superficially working on ideas together on piano and guitar in our living room, but then Ian started composing things up a storm. He encouraged me to sit down with the piece of music that would become Just Let Go and he just kept it really low-key and simplistic. We liked the end result, so we kept going from there.”
Talking about Just Let Go, Webber says: “It was a lot of me figuring out how to record everything myself, without a producer or engineer. When I was recording the basic tracks, I wasn’t sure if I had reached three minutes or not, so I kept going, so that’s why it ended up a six-minute song.”
‘I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me’
The duo are planning to release an album in the first part of next year – hopefully in the spring. “It’s a little over halfway done and it’s been an interesting and exciting process,” says Olsen. “And it’s something that I’m not sure would have happened without the lockdown.”
She adds: “This project has been such an interesting learning curve for both of us. Ian has had to navigate recording and producing, and I’ve totally upended my process as a songwriter. I normally go into the studio with finished, or almost finished, songs. In this case, I was coming into fully-formed music and having to work out melodies and lyrics from there. It seemed daunting, but it’s been really good for me and for both of us as artists.”
It’s the end of the world as we know it, but they feel fine…
British singer-songwriter Ian Webber, who is based in Nashville, Tennessee, has just released his most political album to date.
Op-Edstackles social issues including women’s rights, fake news, war-torn Syria and the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy.
Musically, it’s very stripped-down – mostly just Ian and his acoustic guitar – and it makes for intimate and sometimes uneasy listening, as he shares people’s stories of hardship and struggle.
Opener Follow Me and its parent song, The Regime, are haunting tales inspired by reading news stories about families suffering in Syria, while Frontline is a protest song that has its roots in ’50s rockabilly.
First single, Radio Zero, is an ode to the healing power of great music – while the world is going crazy, sometimes you just need to switch off from all the doom and gloom and crank up some classic rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Ian sings the song in a Bowie-like croon that sounds like it’s been beamed in from outer space.
In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Ian to find out why he’s made such an overtly political record and what it was like recording it in Nashville…
Q & A
Your new album Op-Eds totally surprised me, as it’s a lot darker and much more political than I was expecting. Did you deliberately set out to make a political record? And if so, why? What was the starting point for this album?
Ian Webber: The starting point for this album, and pretty much all my projects, was the music I was listening to and absorbing before I began writing it. This time it was The Velvet Underground and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That’s a strange combination, but both were essentially using blues-based chord sequences, keeping it fairly simple, so the vocal melody could take the priority.
The first couple of song ideas were very New York Warhol/Reed inspired. ‘Late night, up on the corner’-type songs, so that’s where my head was to begin with.
I also had a really great hallway with excellent reverb, so that was a good place to stand and sing ideas in a low vocal key.
I had no idea that the record would turn political at all – that really only started when I took breaks from strumming to catch up on daily news. I was intrigued by articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. I discovered really compelling stories, which in turn inspired me to create mini stories as lyrics.
Lyrically and thematically, the album deals with social and political issues past and present, including protesters affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline, women’s rights, the plight of families in Syria, politics in Virginia and immigration issues… This is heavy stuff.
Was it difficult to write such political songs? How did you tackle the issues without sounding trite, or patronising? Was it a worry or a risk?
IW: The universal theme was a common bond that I felt with other humans – all of us moving through life.We all start out the same way, wanting the simplest things, and that gets lost as we grow up.
The world as a whole is a small place. I’ve travelled a lot and you find, whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and, in a small way, shed light on the bigger issues, too.
I don’t proclaim to be a learned scholar, but I really wanted to produce something that was a document of the times. This was the world through my eyes in 2017, living as a Brit in a very American, southern culture.
‘I’ve travelled a lot – whatever language, whatever culture, people are generally the same. I wanted to express that in these songs and shed light on the bigger issues, too’
Musically, it’s a very stripped-down album – it’s mostly just you and your acoustic guitar. Was that how you wrote the songs?
IW: Yes – I certainly had this idea that I would try to do the whole record alone.
I always have voice memos lying around, and when I played them in the car, or through headphones, they sounded great to me. I guess that made me want to make the album in essentially the same way, but obviously, with a better mic than the one on my phone.
Where and how did you record the album and who did you work with?
IW: I recorded the record at Historic RCA Nashville Studio A, thanks to my ex-band mate Dave Cobb, who runs the place, and who helped make time between projects for me to go in and record
There is a huge tracking room that’s big enough for an orchestra. I basically set up in the middle and sang live and played guitar. The natural reverb in the room is insane, and there were minimal overdubs. It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and Gena Johnson, Dave’s engineer, who produced the record.
‘It was a cathartic way to record – no drums, no bass, no other souls around except me and the engineer’
One of my favourite songs on the album is The Regime – it’s very haunting…
IW: The Regime started as a chord sequence that was similar to the ideas on my last record [Year of the Horse, from 2015] – walk down progressions and minor chords, of course!
The lyrics were based on an interview that a family in Syria gave to the New York Times, about trying to survive war in the city.
When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart. That song is a kind of companion to Follow Me, which deals with leaving that kind of scenario behind and having to find a new home in a foreign land.
Another standout track for me is Frontline – it has a ’50s Sun Records feel. It’s an acoustic, rockabilly protest song…
IW: That’s a cool observation, Sean! The love of ‘50s rockabilly music seems to be a recurring theme on my records, but I can’t say I had it in mind when I was writing the song… I have been having a Lightnin’ Hopkins obsession lately, so certainly that was in my brain at the time…
The song Spirit of Houston comes from a similar place, doesn’t it? What’s the story behind it?
IW: That’s the only collaboration on the record. I started the year chatting, via email, to an old singer friend of mine, Sam Smithwick. I was inspired and jealous of his ability to write blues songs. We had been sending each other finished ideas, kind of like a pen pal would write letters. One song he sent had no vocal, just a guitar riff. I took the idea, added words, looped the riff, and sang to it live in RCA Studio.
Lyrically it’s about the 1977 National Women’s Conference for women’s rights. Last year, I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, and the signs I saw and the voices I heard made me want to become more educated.
‘When you grow up, you have this romantic idea of the place you were born, and its streets and sounds, and fond memories. I could never imagine living somewhere you call home and watching it fall apart’
In the last couple of years, you’ve moved from L.A. to Nashville and you’ve become a father – congratulations! How much did relocating and having a son have an influence on this album?
IW: There were a few reasons for the move from L.A. to Nashville. I started out in Atlanta, playing music in the ‘90s, before moving to Seattle and then L.A. Coming back to the South was a way to reconnect with the culture and some amazing musicians I had played with. I got to do some touring for the last record with some former bandmates that still lived here, so it was kind of a homecoming of sorts.
My son, Wilder, was still inside his mum Meg’s belly when I was writing and recording, so his influence was there, but in little kicks. He did get to hear Fire on the Water being recorded, when Meg sang the backing vocals while pregnant!
You’re an English guy living in the U.S. What’s your take on Brexit and US politics at the moment? Is this album your chance to try and make sense of it all?
IW: I have my British passport, my Green Card, and am hanging on to my accent. Living abroad definitely makes you more nostalgic and somewhat patriotic.
One thing about living here is that the news is generally US-based, so Brexit is something I feel like a tourist talking about. From what I hear, it’s going to affect a lot of musicians from touring as freely in Europe. I would rather see a world without boundaries and barriers.One of the least political songs on the album is the first single, Radio Zero. It’s about escaping fake news and bad news and listening to classic rock ‘n’ roll instead. I think your vocal on the track has a slight Bowie feel to it…
IW: At the end of it all, I am a music lover, and so Radio Zero is a nostalgic look back at when I was lying on my bed as a teenager, late at night, scanning the radio for a good song. John Peel was still around, and also some AM pirate radio stations, so cracking rock ‘n’ roll was something I tuned in to and fell asleep to. David Bowie was one of my first musical loves, so maybe he was sending me messages through the wavelengths on that one. I hope so.
Finally, on that note, it seems apt to ask you what music – new and old – you’re currently enjoying?
IW: I like that you added the old and new line there… Currently in my mind – new:
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: