Dispatches from the North Coast Music Festival: 3 September 2010 - Chicago

Photos: Allison Taich

Chicago's inaugural North Coast Music Festival combined electronic and jam cultures for a pretty groovy three day dance marathon. First up in PopMatters coverage is an interview with local singer/songwriter Stephen Paul Smoker, who played a terrific Sunday set.

Stephen Paul Smoker

North Coast Music Festival

City: Chicago
Venue: Union Park
Date: 2010-09-03

For the past three years experimental musician Stephen Paul Smoker has cast an eerie glow upon Chicago music. The singer/songwriter arrived on the scene with hopes of revitalizing himself as an artist. Much to Smoker’s surprise, Chicago based Kilo Records took notice of his radiance and released his first solo EP Violent Sun/Violent Fun.

Smoker grew up in Lancaster, PA and was involved in music from a young age, thanks to his mother. His musical beginnings included involvement with faith based alternative bands MewithoutYou and The Mint. Smoker ultimately split from both projects to pursue music that better matched his wit and wisdom. After some friendly coaxing from his peers, Smoker relocated to Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, rented a stuffy attic apartment and got to work. The results lead toViolent Sun/Violent Fun, a one-man EP saturated in indie synth pop with a psychedelic underbelly, emitting cascading rays of sinister orange emotion.

Violent Sun/Violent Fun was released on Kilo Records 20 April, 2010. Following the album release Smoker expanded his act and formed a full live band, expanding upon the sounds of his dark side of the sun. PopMatters caught up with Smoker following his 45-minute set at the North Coast Music Festival in Chicago 5 September, 2010 to discuss his musical journey, new album, band and Chicago music.

You’re not from Chicago, right?

That’s right.

Then why did you come to Chicago?

Um, musicians down here convinced me to move to Chicago.

Any musicians in particular?

Grace Kulp, who is my childhood friend. He’s been doing music for quite a while, and I still play with him every once in awhile.

How long have you been in the city?

Four years

Do you identify yourself as a Chicagoan or as Pennsylvanian?

I definitely identify myself as a Chicagoan; a Pilsenite to be exact

When did you start playing and making music?

15 years ago. My mother is a music minister so I started playing on her worship team at church... My mom is the greatest influence in my musical career for sure.

Any defining moment that drove you to music?

It was a long, long slow road, you know? I had different opportunities that would come up, to do more things, to go on tour and stuff like that. Getting signed to Kilo was the first time that I seriously thought about doing music full time.

How many people play on Violent Sun/Violent Fun?

That’s all me.

How did you choose what instrument you wanted to play in the band?

I really wrote each song individually. The keyboard was an accident. I bought it across the street from a neighborhood girl, modified it, and put a quarter-inch jack on it and put it through a guitar amp. I really liked the sound and started putting it into different songs. That was a big starting point with my writing. The point of this record was to put together a band. I wasn’t expecting anybody to put it out. You know, when I signed the record deal with Kilo it was a total surprise for me. I recorded the songs so that I could give them to different musicians that I wanted to play with.

How did you choose your band?

My drummer is amazing and is very skilled. He was my downstairs neighbor and we moved in above him. I didn’t know he was a musician when I met him. We became fast friends, and then I found out that he got his Masters in jazz theory and that he was just an all around insane, excellent musician. So it was a no- brainer and I wanted him to be on the project. And through his connection I was able to find my bass player, and through Kilo’s connection I was able to find the rest of the people. Obviously the keyboard player is my wife.

Did you intend for her to be in the live band?

Ah, no, she forced her way in [laughs]. She said “You better let me play in your band and if I don’t go on tour then you’re going to have a very unhappy wife when you come home.” So I said, “Ok!” [laughs]

Has that worked out ok?

Absolutely. She’s a great musician. She’s a rare musician in that when I tell her to play a part, she plays it the way it should be. You know, a lot of musicians like to have their own ideas about things. She’s a very flexible musician, and I was able to teach her things and show her what to do, and she follows through with that so she’s invaluable.

Did you meet her in Chicago or back home?

I met her when we were 16. We were friends for six years and then we started dating, which if you have ever been in that situation it’s terrifying. It can be either a crash and burn or fly situation and obviously it flew. We dated for three years and got married after three years of dating, and we’ve been married for five years in September next week.

I know you touched a little bit on this, but could you explain your writing and recording process?

Sure. I start out with an idea, and each song gets served individually. I don’t like to record several songs at the same time. I like to set up each song until I feel like I’ve served it to my capacity, and then I hand it to the band, and they take it way further than that. You know? So that is the new writing process…and it all depends, you know? Subject matter and everything else all comes on the fly. I’m very, very good at taking the raw emotion and feeling in my stomach or my head, and releasing it, you know? So I try to do that as much as possible which is my personality; I’m always upward [laughs].

What do you want people to know about your music?

I really just write songs for myself, and if people are really interested in it, and they really want to grab that song and keep it, then that’s their decision to make. You know, I don’t try to force myself on people. I write about myself and my experiences and if they can relate to that then I am really happy.

Can you explain the new album a little bit?

It was written in an attic apartment that had three magnifying glasses or three sun lights. It was very hot, it was very bright, and I had all the time in the world to write and record. I spent a lot of time under the magnifying glass and it felt very violent. Also the songs that I was writing were really a huge leap forward for me. Violent Sun/Violent Fun is two things happening at the same time. It’s really me expressing my relationship with the sun. Everybody is affected by the sun, by the sun’s absence, and you know..when it’s here it’s hot as hell, and when it’s gone you miss it like hell.

Chicago winter is all I’m going to say on that…

Get rich quick and buy a house in New Orleans [laughs]. Take the Megabus down there…

Did you catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the fest?

I did catch them. I took my mom over there and we danced for a while. It was a wonderful way for me to relax, and my mom has always been excellent at calming me down. I’ve had her here all weekend and she’s the most encouraging woman, you know, obviously my wife is very encouraging too, but my mom’s been around a little longer and she has her methods.

Do you have a favorite track on your album?

“Oh, Daniel”.

Why is that?

It’s written about Chicago and basically chronicles the last three years of my life here. It was really the first song that was a progression away from the songwriting I was doing. It was the first song that really felt like if I could continue to do things in this manner, and I felt like I was able to do a lot more with music. It was that first spark. It made me think that maybe I would like people to hear this song and more songs if I can continue to write this way.

Then why is that not the single off the album?

It is.

It is? I thought “My Summers’ Waning Glow” was?

That is the song that people recognize right away, and latch on to, so we put that out there. But we are doing a video for “Oh, Daniel”. We’re trying to get a lot of multimedia things behind this record, a lot of things for people to grab onto and absorb. I really wanna put more attention towards “Oh, Daniel”.

It [Violent Sun/Violent Fun] has a very orange sense to me, I don’t know. Something about the vibe makes me think of orange.

Yeah? Orange is my favorite color, tungsten actually. The street light above us; that is my favorite, favorite color. [laughs]

Do you feel your sound, or approach to making music, has changed since living in Chicago?

Absolutely. It is a completely different atmosphere, you know? It was sensory overload. I grew up in a small town. I grew up a country boy and I’d have to go and find fun. But all I have to really do now is step outside my door and fun things can jump on top of me. It was really moving to the city and reinventing myself as a person all around, and moving forward and being more than what I was in Pennsylvania, you know? So, I would attribute Chicago to pretty much every aspect of my creative process.

What are your thoughts and feelings on the Chicago music scene?

The scene here is wonderful actually. Compared to the east coast it’s a community instead of a contest. I feel a lot of people have sincerely opened up themselves to doing things with us, not just putting on shows or trading, but creating together and upping the ante if you will. As opposed to the east coast where it’s more of a “fuck you” mentality, where “I haven’t heard of your band, and I don’t care..” sort of thing happening there that I never really cared for.

Do you have a favorite local band or musician?

Girl, that’s hard! [laughs] I’m a big fan of White Mystery. They’re always a fantastic show to go see live. I really like Maps and Atlases…I haven’t been able to see them live yet. I was being interviewed during their set, but I love the record and I think it’s great.

What else are you listening to these days?

My demos. [laughs] I try to separate myself and listen to music in moderation so that I can have a more clear and concise idea of what I’m doing when I write my own songs. I really feel like this next record is the most important record that I’m going to make. I was able to accomplish putting a band together, and having a record label put this album out was way more than I was expecting. Moving forward right now I just want to really dive into my creative process and put out a record that people will go to instead of trying to force it into people’s hands. So, that’s what I’m listening to all the time. I’m also listening to New Amerykah by Erykah Badu, I’m obsessed with her!

And my final question is do you ever go by Steve, or is it strictly Stephen?

No, Stephen is my name.

Stephen Paul?

Stephen, not Stephen Paul. Nobody ever calls me that. Every once in a while they call me Steve but I don’t…people call me Smoker..

Is that your real last name?

Yes it is! It’s German, derives from “shoemaker.”

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