If the lighter and darker music of The Beatles, The Shins, Elliott Smith, Ben Gibbard, and Nick Drake could all somehow melt into one sound of today, it would be called Stephen Steinbrink. Or maybe it would be called French Quarter. Or in this particular case, it could be either.
Stephen Steinbrink is a 24-year-old musician who has been playing music full-time since he graduated high school. In total, he’s released 12 records–five LPs, three singles, and four EPs–under his name “Stephen Steinbrink,” and his moniker French Quarter. Up until he recently left for his latest tour (an extensive U.S. trek via Greyhound buses with fellow musician Emperor X), the western state of Arizona was his home. As of mid-August, the musician will be living in Olympia, Washington.
Steinbrink’s latest creation, I Drew A Picture, is a 10-track collection of songs that each fit into their own genre, etching images of childhood memories and cross-country travels. There’s a song for every feeling, every mood.
We caught up with the musician while he was hanging out in Deland, Florida before the evening’s house show.
THE BOMBER JACKET: How is tour going?
Stephen Steinbrink: It’s been good. Emperor X and I started the tour before he went over to Europe and then we met up in New York when he got back in the middle of July and we’ve been touring ever since. We have a house show tonight in Florida.
That’s a long string of shows. How many of the concerts are house shows?
I’d say about a solid 15 of the 40 shows. A large number of them for sure.
How has that been?
Well, there are two kinds of house shows–the ones with hosts who know what they’re doing who make the shows more about music, and then the ones who just want to have a party. Seven years of touring has helped narrow things down and help me tell whether or not I’m booking a good house show or a bad show. The good ones can really be amazing.
Interesting point. I don’t think friends and fans always realize how demanding a tour can be and how hard it can be to play shows that aren’t well organized.
Yeah, sometimes for people who are on tour a lot, you’re showing up at a house where everyone’s partying and no one knows you, and it isn’t the best environment to be in when you’re tired and grumpy and hungry. [Laughs]
How has the travel part been? From what I’ve heard, it’s mostly via Greyhound?
We started the tour in my car and we’ve been on tour since the beginning of June. Started in Arizona and did a leg together and then Chad went to Europe and I hung out in Olympia. Then we met up in New York and we’ve been doing the Greyhound portion since July 15. Chad is such a pro, so it has been relatively easy–it is nice having him around–there are lots of mistakes you can make while traveling by Greyhound that can ruin your trip. It is crazy. I’m glad im doing it, but I definitely don’t ever wanna tour on a Greyhound again.
Wow, so it really isn’t easy?
[Laughs] No, it isn’t easy at all, but there’s something to it. When I first started touring, I felt a pretty incredible sense of wonder all the time, like, “I’m seeing America, this is great,” but then I’d travel and tour again and be like, “No big whoop!” But now it is different again. You get out at your stop at the city and you have to walk to your show. The sense of wonder is back a bit, but it is more physically and mentally demanding now.
Can you give me three traveling-by-Greyhound tips?
1.) Never lose sight of your stuff. Try to carry as little stuff as possible.
2.) Really plan your meals ahead so you don’t have to eat whatever is at the bus stop at the side of the road. It’s not always ideal for nutrition or costs.
3.) If you get to your bus earlier, you can find your seat first before others. This is important because Greyhound sells more tickets than each bus can actually hold. So if one bus is full, you have to wait for the next one.
[Laughs] Okay, sounds good! So this isn’t your first big tour, is it? What’s the response been like on this one?
I’ve done five or six big tours like this since 2007 and it’s been good. The response has been really good. It has been fun with Chad and playing different types of shows. I’m playing six shows in Florida and I’ve never spent so much time here, but Chad is from here, so it is nice to play around familiar places of his.
How has touring with Emperor X been different than touring in the past?
It is about different kinds of people coming to shows. It’s really nice. I don’t think we play music that’s totally dissimilar, but it’s cool. It works vice-versa, too. It’s the reward of touring with another band–to share fans and friends.
So you’ve moved out of Arizona now, right? Do you know where you’re headed after tour?
I’m going to spend some time in Olympia, Washington and work on a record and hang out with good friends. Then I’m going on tour in February and I’ll be touring Europe in March and April.
How did the Euro tour get set up?
It is still being set up right now. A new friend of mine just wrote an email and offered to book a tour for me. I had always want to tour Europe, so I accepted. I’m really excited to go and play…and to have someone book a whole tour for me…it’s really nice. We’re trying to make it as extensive as possible. I’m going to be there for two months.
You’ve released music pretty consistently since 2007 under your name or French Quarter. What were you doing before 2007?
Before 2007. I was in high school! [Laughs] When I graduated and turned 17 or so, I started touring immediately. I put out my first record when I was 18. I’m 24 now. That’s what I’ve been doing since I left my parents’ house.
What do you do when you’re not playing music?
I make art. I draw and sculpt, but pretty much everything I do is based around music. It’s kind of obsessive. Any time spent not doing anything that involves music feels like time wasted, which is good and bad at the same time. It’s a funny question when someone asks what I do, because I don’t really do much besides that. When I was home, I booked a lot of shows for touring bands and designed a lot of posters and flyers. I’ve also played in other bands in Phoenix, and I’ve had random day jobs to make ends meet, but for the most part, it’s just been music. I occassionally record for other people, but it isn’t a huge interest of mine to get deeply involved with others’ music. I recently recorded an album for an Indonesian gamelan ensemble–that was interesting because so many of the instruments I had never mixed before, like a huge brass gong. Basically the weirder the music, the more willing I am to record it, because it is a challenge.
You’ve released music in many different formats. What is your favorite?
I like the LP because it’s, you know, bigger, but I’m not a huge music collector. I don’t buy LPs and I don’t actively seek out records or CDs or tapes or anything, so I’m pretty indifferent, but I really like the VHS tape, and that was a really fun release. I made videos for every song on the album and put them on a tape. I did a West Coast tour after I made the tape and projected the videos as I was playing. The VHS tape is the only format I’ve ever been obsessed with collecting. At one point it was a problem and I’d go to thrift stores and buy boxes of unmarked VHS tapes and I’d take them home and work with them on my computer. It was cool–I’d find a stranger’s Thanksgiving dinner or a weird video diary, or recorded TV from the ’80s. They were like these little time capsules that people just threw away, but that got out of control and I had close to like 2,000 tapes in my room, so I had to get rid of them.
Awww. So where are they now?
I gave them away to a lot of people. I recently just got rid of all my stuff. I just put up a sign in my front yard that said FREE, and watched all my possessions dwindle down to nothing, so now I don’t really own anything at all. I condensed all my things to what would fit in the trunk of my car.
How did you develop your songwriting?
I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it too much, but it often tends to come from the same process in my head and then I’ll put it on a guitar or piano or tape recorder. I remember driving to Phoenix once in the night and writing a whole song–the melody and progressions–in my head. Sometimes I don’t need a guitar to start the writing. It’s repeating improvising words or melody until something fits. It’s a struggle but it’s not a struggle. It’s hard and easy at the same time. I’ll keep improvising a melody until some kind of structure emerges and then I’ll record it. Usually the final version keeps its initial structure. I basically write a whole song once and then there’s not too much revision.
You said you’re recoridng again this fall, right? What are the new songs like?
I’m still kind of writing them all, during downtime on the tour. I’ve been trying to sit with the guitar and come up with ideas and record them when I can. And then on the bus I’ll put them on the computer and edit them into a structure on the computer, which is a new and interesting way to write for me. One day I’ll come up with a bridge and chorus and then on the bus later I’ll splice it in with a song or something I’ve recorded a few weeks earlier. I like the idea of songs being some kind of collage.
Would you call that musical approach the Greyhound-inspired technique?
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I don’t have a final perspective on this whole tour yet, but I know after we’ve rode our last Greyhound my brain won’t be the same.