[8 May 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Steve Schiltz is happy to be here. In fact, he’s ecstatic.
After all, as the frontman for the band Longwave, Schlitz has already gone through enough ups and downs to fill a few Behind the Music episodes. After playing at seminal New York club the Luna Lounge for a good while, club owner Rob Sacher eventually tried to push the this little guitar group right into the national limelight, going as far as to releasing the band’s self-produced 2000 debut Endsongs on his own Lunasea imprint. Yet right around this time, another NYC band wound up making some headlines: some new talked-about group called the Strokes. Albert Hammond, Jr. and company took a strong liking to Schlitz’s band of merry men, and soon the group was opening for the Strokes on their much buzzed-over tours, and, lo and behold, Longwave was signed to RCA records shortly thereafter.
When the band dropped their Dave Fridmann-produced 2003 set The Strangest Things, they were greeted with commercial acclaim and modest sales, the band appearing on shows like MTV2’s Subterranean while slowly inching towards national prominence. Everything seemed to be going well for the Longwave, at least, until the recording of 2005’s There’s a Fire with producer John Leckie—best known for his work on Radiohead’s The Bends. Reports emerged saying that Leckie did strange things with the group, such as making the band record their songs at slower and slower tempos, switching up and changing things around at a moment’s notice. As the band began making their songs more and more complex, RCA was feeling the crunch in the struggling music industry, and when There’s a Fire failed to garner any significant attention, the band was abruptly dropped by the label.
Somewhat lost following the RCA split, Schiltz found inspiration in the support of an old friend: Strokes lead guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.—who has released two well-received solo discs—invited Schiltz to be his touring guitarist, and, as the months went on, Schiltz rediscovered his love of playing guitar. Now with a new label (Original Signal), and some new members (drummer Jason Molina and bassist Morgan King, joining Longwave’s co-founding guitarist Shannon Ferguson to round out the foursome), Longwave went into the studio to record last year’s Secrets Are Sinister on their own terms, largely self-produced with only the occasional assist from Peter Katis (best known for producing the National’s Boxer). The blaring, immediate, and distortion-fueled Secrets Are Sinister marks a more aggressive change in the group’s sound, but, clearly, the changes are doing the band quite a bit of good.
In talking to Schiltz, it’s obvious that the man’s passion lies in his music, and for good reason: 2009 marks Longwave’s 10th anniversary of existence. During our interview, Schiltz wound up talking about his friendship with Hammond, his feelings towards There’s a Fire, and how some of the best advice he ever received was from ... the Edge.
One of my favorite releases from you guys is the Life of the Party EP released in 2004, where you tried so many different stylistic things. I think you came a bit more into that with your 2005 full-length There’s a Fire, even if I kept reading reports about how the producer kept making you slow your songs down and doing other “out of the box” things that gave the sessions a bit of tension. What was going on during those sessions with you guys?
Well, first, I think Life of the Party is one of my favorite things that we ever did, so I’m happy that you like that. I like that little EP, and that last song [“Sunday Nite Health”] was something that Shannon and I did almost entirely on my laptop and then went in and recorded the drums and bass with our friend Pete, so that was especially rewarding, ‘cos we did most of that ourselves. Then There’s a Fire ... I think ... I too like that record, and I think there are some great moments on it, but on the other hand, I do think that there was a bit of “chasing our tail” going on for that record. We knew that [at the time] RCA was dropping a bunch of bands, we knew that they were expecting this record to do well for them or else that would be the end of us working with RCA. So they suggested John Leckie [Radiohead’s The Bends]—who turned out to be amazing—but I think [the label] wanted somebody who was gonna make it a hit, in a way.
Of course the record was not a hit, and we ended up learning a whole lot from John, but I don’t think anything about him slowing the songs down, nothin’ like that was ... he didn’t ruin anything. If anything, he made things better. I just don’t think that we had the record conceived as well as we could have. And definitely there was something charming and good about us being able to do things ourselves like we did on that EP, so that’s why when we did this new record, we did it mostly ourselves.
It’s almost as if with There’s a Fire that I get this sense that this was trying to be your “Radiohead record”, as it was a lot more serious than, say, Endsongs.
Yeah, that was probably me. I definitely wanted to have a band that could come out and I could play a huge guitar of all these different varieties and I would have a good time doing that, but I don’t think it was playing to our strengths, which were just the guitars. [These] big, dramatic rock guitar moments is, I think, where we were failing on that record. But on the other hand, as I say, I think that if we had taken two songs off that record and sequenced it differently, I think it would’ve been a really great album.
Well there’s still a lot of great moments on there ...
It should have started with the last song.
[Laughs.] I always thought that last song [“Underneath You Know the Names”], afterwards, I was like “I like that song.” It could’ve been something, especially in the UK where the record never even came out, you know?
Well when the Greatest Hits album comes out, then you’ll be set.
Well with the new record, it almost feels like your “revenge album” to a degree—not in the sense that you’re bitter or anything like that ...
[Laughing:] We killed off the old bass player in the car!
Well there is the bass—which is the first thing I noticed ‘cos it’s just huge and gigantic—but there’s also the realization that “we’re a guitar band: let’s play our guitars a lot on this record.” I guess that’s why there are insane amounts of guitar solos on here, as if you’re saying “Take that, Guitar Hero!”
Yeah yeah, thanks. I actually just did an interview right before you called and the guy asked, “So is Shannon the lead guitar player in the band?”, and I didn’t know what he was talkin’ about! It took me a second to realize he was talking about the guitar solos—which are me. But I told him yes, in fact, Shannon is the lead guitar player in the band.
Following There’s a Fire and being dropped from RCA, I get the sense that there was this disillusionment you were going through, which is why you started touring with Albert Hammond, Jr. What was that experience like? Was it what you needed at the time in terms of performance-based catharsis?
It was funny: I said something to [Albert] at the end our touring together last year. I said that this was actually the second time that he has directly helped me to envision what I wanted to do. The first time was obviously when Longwave and the Strokes were touring together. It was like “Wow: here’s a local band who’s really doing something, and it means that we could maybe get beyond playing the Luna Lounge as well.” The second time is when were touring together last year and he was very encouraging about playing solos, and I would make a lot of noise with a lot of racket and feedback and stuff that wasn’t on his record, but as long as it sounded good, he was really into it. So it really kind of woke me up again as I started thinking “this is what I do really well—I can play the guitar!” So when it came time to make the Longwave record, I really wanted the guitars to be big. And Shannon is a fantastic guitar player, so I didn’t want those strengths to go unnoticed.
Well that seems to be part of what went on with the process for this disc as well: before you were at the hands of the producers, and this time—aside from a little help from Peter Katis [The National]—it was still largely your album. Given that you also produced the Life of the Party EP by yourself, did you feel like you got to do things you weren’t allowed to do before?
No, I just think that maybe when you have to do it yourself, the [ownership] is on you—it’s your responsibility. You have to make it good. You know, I can’t rely on John Leckie to tell me if the tempo’s right. Which we were much more engaged this time. I know all of us feel really proud of it.
For me, it reminds me of an interview I did with Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie: I asked him what his producing philosophy was, and he mentioned how in the age of digital correction, a lot of people feel like they can just record something and have it be fixed in the studio later, as so many people succumb to the monster of “Good Enough”. Is that kind of what Peter helped with a bit?
No—I think if anything, I was harder on everybody than Peter was, perhaps. That was definitely the case with The Strangest Things as well, although with The Strangest Things, I’m not sure if it was a good or bad thing. This time was definitely a good thing. I was definitely the guy that would say that “the bass is losing the sound, we gotta change the bass strings”—stuff that I guess a producer does. Shannon was there the whole time as well, and these are things that were really done on our own before Peter was involved. Peter came along to help do the vocals and the mixing, primarily.
When was the last time you listened to Endsongs?
(Laughs.) Probably more recently than I listened to There’s a Fire—but I like that record. I think I could’ve sung it better, but otherwise I like that record. I also think some of the words are a little naïve, or—there’s things I would do differently now, but it has its little charms to it.
There was a posting on Aquarium Drunkard awhile back about the latest Pavement reissue. It basically said that if you’re a psychiatrist and are trying to figure out someone, first, ask if they’re a Pavement fan—if they’re not, ask them to leave. But if they are fans, then ask them what their favorite Pavement album is, as all five of those discs are completely different from each other.
Yeah: “Which one? Which Pavement record?”
Exactly, and whatever record they choose will ultimately tell you so much about them. You can almost do the same thing with you guys, as I can listen to a song like “Exit” from The Strangest Things and not even hear the same band that is launching into a track like “Signals” from this record.
Yeah—it’s hard to say. To me, they’re almost the same. I haven’t heard “Exit” in a long time, so if I’m sure I listened to it, I’d ... that’s another thing about recording and making records is that a lot of times you have your own ideas about how other things sound, and sometimes you say, “Hey, can you make it sound like this?” and, in talking to someone like Peter, he’ll say, “It’s actually more like that than you know” and I’d say, “No, it’s not” and then he’d put it on and you’re like “Oh, shit—there’s only three guitars on that Led Zeppelin song: in my mind it’s huge!”, you know what I mean? But you fill in the blanks with your mind. There’s a lot of subjective things going on.
Well you’re not exactly pulling a Billy Corgan where you’re multi-tracking every guitar 13 times over …
(Laughs.) There’s a little bit of that goin’ on!
Finally, so far in your career, what’s been your biggest regret, and—conversely—what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
Proudest accomplishment [is] a tie between making this record by ourselves with nobody, really, around to help us; and then also we played Irving Plaza awhile ago, and it was our show—this was maybe four years ago—and I remember sitting upstairs in the dressing room afterwards thinking like “Fuck, this is great! All those people came to see our band—that’s amazing.” So that was good. And if I regret one thing about it, it would be that we didn’t release [Strangest Things track] “Tidal Wave” first in the UK.
As a single?
Yeah—we released “The Pool Song” ‘cos we kept getting told that “we gotta build up to ‘Tidal Wave’”, [as] that was the big song that got us a record deal. “Build up ‘Tidal Wave’!”, [and] both over there and in the U.S., we never ended up putting that song out. We made a video for it, but it was sort of over before the video was even done.
I remember seeing that on MTV2’s Subterranean program.
I remember seeing an interview with The Edge where he said [in response to the question] “What advice do you have for a young band?” and he said “Put your best song out.” It may seem stupidly simple, but I [agreed].