by Allen Thayer
“We hadn’t played a single gig, we didn’t have a single fan. We were keeping it a secret because I was still working with Alicia [Keys], and I didn’t want it to get out,” Jeff Gitelman says about the Stepkids’ auspicious beginnings. The trio recorded their first album live with a couple overdubs on analog equipment in their Connecticut studio during the final months of 2009 and started circulating it by March of 2010. They received several offers before giddily choosing Stones Throw. “We couldn’t ask for a better situation,” Dan Edinberg says. “Literally every artist that’s out on Stones Throw now we really like, and that says a lot, because we’re very picky… Being on Stones Throw is every White boy’s dream.”
These three self-identified jazz misfits: Jeff Gitelman (guitar and vocals), Tim Walsh (bass, keyboards, violin, and vocals), and Dan Edinberg (drums and vocals) first started playing together in 2008, but the Stepkids, as we know them, were a couple genres and an analog overhaul away from birthing their particular brand of psychedelic soul. Even so, “It felt like a band right when the three of us starting playing together,” Tim says from the green room at Bimbo’s in San Francisco on their first U.S. tour in September 2011. “It was effortless and very kinetic.” The weathered jazz musicians they are (all have played professionally since their teens), they organically and enthusiastically traded interview solos while ironing white dress shirts and pants, necessary items for their stage show where their projectionist “does anything and makes us look like anything.” Their instruments are also painted white, making themselves and their entire stage show a canvas for day-glo psychedelic projections.
The only multiple-artist group on the simultaneously forward- and backward-looking Los Angeles record label originally came together as three-fifths of an indie rock band in the style of Animal Collective, the Dirty Projectors, or Fleet Foxes. As experienced session players with adventurous tastes they figured, “We can just do any style,” Tim explains. Through that ultimately unsuccessful project, these three musicians bonded musically and resolved a solution: “We needed to do something a little more experimental, because if we’re going to do original music, I think it really has to stand out.” From that broken musical home, the Stepkids emerged, fully formed, delivering “contemplated, uncircumcised funk,” as Jeff likes to describe their music.
Before coming together as the Stepkids, Jeff explains, “We felt like the bastards of the music industry. I was playing with A-listers, stars, and stuff [like Alicia Keys, 50 Cent, Lauryn Hill, and Pharoahe Monch], and I really got tired of a certain vibe, and I wanted to get a little more experimental with the music. We felt like we didn’t fit in, and building this ‘home’ was essential for us to fit in.” Backstage before the show, this “home” feels more like a club house with strict membership requirements: songwriting skills, vocal chops (lead and harmony), eclectic tastes in music (pop and esoteric), the ability to flawlessly execute a jazz standard without rehearsal, jazz-cat-dads, and New England roots.
Nearly a year later, I caught up with the band over speakerphone from their Bridgeport, Connecticut, studio as they were putting the final touches on their follow-up album for Stones Throw, slated for release in September of 2013. A few new songs have surfaced in advance of the September 10th release of Troubador through live performance videos with only “Sweet Salvation” and “Bitter Bug” getting a proper 12-inch single release last September. The newest drop, “The Lottery,” sounds like a clear ode to Steely Dan, a fitting progression of their sound.
Their new album, Troubador, is about as hard to describe as their music. “The album is about a character,” Jeff tries to explain. “It’s a typical tragedy: a character imposing on the world and feeling his futility pushed back.” It’s a concept album in the style of Pink Floyd (with whom they share a similar sense of space and love of bass) they assure me. “We literally have an imaginary friend onstage with us, you know, singing the songs,” Jeff clarifies over speakerphone. “I’m only half-joking.” Tim chimes in: “And he’s in the studio helping us write.”
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