We got in touch with Joe Steven of NYC’s Peel Dream Magazine to chat about everything surrounding the band’s superb debut record Modern Meta Physic.
In the first of our IN DEEP WITH.. series, HOH writer Sam Nicholas talked in depth about all things Peel Dream Magazine with the band’s songwriter Joe Steven. They talked about the innocence of 60’s music, dipping into Chinese philosophy and break down the production of the record.
Hard Of Hearing: So Joe, how is New York treating you?
“It’s wonderful. We had a really late fall this year, it was eighty degrees a few days ago, but I’m feeling good.”
Hard Of Hearing: The interview you wrote for Renato at TBTCI was what initially piqued my interest in Peel Dream Magazine, what do you make of it?
“I’m down to do whatever. I don’t wish to begin a crusade on music interviews. I’m always trying to do something a little different. It’s fun for me and everyone else when it’s like this. There’s so much stuff that gets institutionalised being in a band, so you know, it’s fun to be a little different. People can be different, but in the same ways. I just wanted to stand out.”
Hard Of Hearing: What makes Peel Dream Magazine stand out then?
“I’ve been writing songs for a long time and I’ve been listening to mediocre music and seeing people do mediocre things for a long time. And, I dunno, I’m not even sure what I’m doing is unique. To me PDM is different because it just pulls different levers compared to other stuff I don’t like.
I have this big thing against party-oriented rock music. I have a big thing against art school quirky oriented music as well. I feel like there is a thing in NY especially – you get sucked into either doing, like, kinda archetypal ‘rock music’, where you’re playing guitar and ‘rocking out’. The other end of the scene is being ‘quirky’, like the Dirty Projectors. I mean I like the Dirty Projectors, but I hate that there only seems to be two options.
I didn’t want to be either, I wanted to do my own thing. It’s artsy in my own way, and it’s not a quirky indie movie at the same time. I don’t want to do that. So this is my thing that I feel needs to be made. This is more chilled out, cerebral psychedelic music. And I kinda look at all this late eighties and early nineties stuff as a gold mine right now.
In fashion people will tell you yellow is important this season, but why is it important? It’s the same with music. Peel Dream Magazine is yellow. My spidey-senses have kicked in, and I feel like the music I’m making is important now.”
Hard Of Hearing: When did you reach the stage when you knew people would listen to music?
“I took piano lessons from the age of six. I grew up always talking about and making music. We had this kind of conversation at my dinner table when I was eight years old with my brother. We talked about John Cage. I didn’t have cool taste or anything, but I always thought of music as exciting and rewarding. At a young age, I wanted to carve out a space for myself. I’ve always wanted to write fun songs that are interesting.”
Hard Of Hearing: What did you first tracks sound like?
“I don’t know my first song, but it was probably just a melody. I wrote one song when I was like, seven, when I was figuring what a triad was on the piano – a three note chord. I was doing simple triads, and I came up with this thing called Monkeys In The Outfield, and it’s about monkeys invading the outfield of a baseball match. The whole game would have been ruined cos of all monkeys!”
Hard Of Hearing: When did you know you could produce a record that people would listen to?
“Right before I made this record, I was at a pretty low point. I didn’t feel comfortable with what I was doing. I reached a critical mass of disappointment, especially when working with other people’s direction.
I had worked on a couple of records, and everything kept falling flat, and some of it had to do with the personality and ethics of people I was working with. I did one record with Cherry Coals, and that was an absolute nightmare. I realised that the way I work is to get into a private place, like a nook, and once I get into that place, it’s like a fountain, there’s just so much stuff I can keep doing.
I get so many ideas. I need to be alone, and constantly getting the ideas and discarding them. If I involve another human being in that process, I have to have conversations about all of those things. I also have to wait, and a lot of my ideas are bad. I can’t wait a week and have an awkward conversation with someone about one of my bad ideas. I know when I have a bad ideas.
So I’ve created this honest and casual dialogue with myself, where I really know what I’m going for and I couldn’t do that with other people. I’m open to collaborating, and I can’t wait for that to happen, but at the moment I don’t have the time, money or patience for it.
I worked with Sean Durkan (of Weekend – also signed to Slumberland). We were working together on recordings, and we weren’t sure where it was going. We were hanging out and making music. He was supportive of my instincts. We would get together and do something. I’d go home and do some work, and bring it to him and he’d always be honest with me.
He eventually told me to make my own shit. My girlfriend was also supportive, and she’s been particularly supportive—she always helps me stay positive frame of mind. It’s funny, cos she always opts that I do the ‘extreme’ thing, instead of the safe and straightforward thing. She told me to ‘do your thing!’.”
Hard Of Hearing: The artwork for Modern Meta Physic is clearly 60’s inspired. What do you think it is about 60’s songwriting that makes it so immune to trends?
“Well I mean, it was a very innocent time to be alive. There weren’t really a lot of sub-cultures around that music at that time. I’m talking about UK psychedelic stuff, Beach Boys, and stuff like that. There are so many different things happening in the sixties.
You wouldn’t put The Zombies, and Velvet Underground in the same basket would you? People forget that there was so much variety at that time. The music is so pure. It’s just pure melody and chords – that Tin-Pan Alley feel.
There was an industry of making fast, pop songs. I was all about writing two minute songs, you wrote in two minutes. Cute melodies and cute chords that tie neatly together. If you look at the later stuff, it’s more esoteric, and it didn’t really exist in that way. The sixties are just cool. Organs, bells and reverb – I love all that stuff.”
Hard Of Hearing: Do you have a favourite track on the record?
“I think Shenendoh is great. There’s a lot interesting stuff going on with the progression of that track. It’s off-kilter and twee without sounding derivative.”
Hard Of Hearing: It’s also an unusual way to follow up Qi Velocity?
“It’s actually pronounced ‘chi’ velocity (the circulating life force in Chinese philosophy).”
Hard Of Hearing: Oops!
“I laboured over Interiors for ages. I couldn’t figure out how a song like that could be recorded for the album. None of the other songs have a heavily distorted vibe. I laboured over the mix, but I didn’t want it sounds like an outlier. I had to keep the production steady, while trying to make it stand out which was tricky.
I also had a lot of fun with Wood Panelling. I wanted to make a sound collage. I watched You Only Live Twice, and I was so infatuated by Bond songs. It’s got this kind of cheeky vibrato organ thing. Then it gets really dark and majestic. I was trying to write a Bond film. I wanted to write an ode to midcenturyness – a bygone era.”
Hard Of Hearing: Things are moving quickly for PDM, how do you feel about that?
“I’m stoked that people are listening to it. I think Qi Velocity. I think there’s something more accessible about it. It’s an easy tempo. You can kinda nod your head to it. Someone who doesn’t have my taste would like it. It also has a Belle & Sebastian vibe. I love how dense the chorus is, and how much is going on. It all felt very natural.”
Hard Of Hearing: You’ve been mistaken as a full touring band thanks mainly to the production of your record. What do you think makes it sounds like a band?
“A full touring band can be a little lame. I don’t think the record sounds like that. It’s usually a function of experience. To me it sounds like the opposite. To me it sounds like ‘not a band’. It’s an amateur overdubbed record. The drums sound fake and the mixes are very ‘unlive’, so these elements make it very un-touring band. The next record I’m working on is much more band. It’s gonna be much more dynamic. A more lively version of MMP. The sound of people playing instruments in a band together.”
Hard Of Hearing: Any plans on coming to the UK soon?
“I would love to come to UK and perform. I’ve been contacted by people in England, which is awesome. A lot of English people seem to live it for obvious reasons. I mean, my name comes from John Peel and Slumberland is routed in UK happenings. There’s something special about UK music from the late-eighties.”
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By Sam Nicholas