An Interview with Trent Wagler of the Steel Wheels

Blue Ridge Americana quartet The Steel Wheels is coming to the Jefferson Theater on Friday, April 28th. Singer/guitarist Trent Wagler, fiddler Eric Brubaker, bassist Brian Dickel, and mandolin player Jay Lapp are in the midst of touring with their latest album, “Wild as We Came Here,” to be released officially on May 5th.

On this new record, the group explores less familiar territory, augmenting their old-time string band sound with keyboards and percussion for the first time. “Wild as We Came Here” shows the Steel Wheels holding onto their roots in folk songwriting while growing into fuller instrumental arrangements.

This album is the first one you’ve done with percussion and keyboards. Are those now elements of the live show as well?

Yes. We’re touring with a great musician, Kevin Garcia, who plays drums and some keys. So he’s kind of pulling double duty. But yeah, it’s a new element for us on stage, we’ve recorded with some percussion in the past, but certainly this record had it much more organically as a part of a lot of the songs, and we felt like we really wanted it to be able to live on stage that way. We messed around with a few different possibilities, but in the end we’re really excited to be touring with Kevin. He adds so much, particularly to the new material but also we throw him into the old stuff, and it really reinvigorates some of the songs that we’ve been playing for years. So it’s fun. It’s a nice new chapter for us.

It’s very much in keeping with this idea I get from the record; it seems like there is this exploration of the past and the present colliding. So that’s an interesting way that’s manifesting.

Yeah, for this project we worked with a producer, Sam Kassirer, great producer. We worked in his studio, and he brought to the table a lot of ideas that I think were right in line with some things that we sort of joked that we feel like we’ve been hinting at for years, but he really helped us flesh those things out in the studio in a much more complete way. And some of the atmospheric sounds that you hear, while in the foreground you might be hearing still some acoustic guitar or something, behind it there’s a whole layer of, maybe electric guitar pedals that are on a delay that are creating an atmospheric element, or keyboards. We played a little with juxtaposition, as you said, of these moments that it really sounds like an old-time band playing in some post-modern era. And I think that was a really fun element to what we did sonically.

I think the song where it stood out to me was “Till No One Is Free,” where after you have the band stop, there’s this continuing pad that goes on that’s very atmospheric and cool.

I really give a lot of credit and respect to Sam Kassirer, the producer, for especially the keyboard parts. You know, there were times where he was like, ‘yeah, I hear a Hammond organ on this,’ […] and then he goes in there and just takes the song to another level. And it was fun to be in that creative process with him, and then to take that and say, ‘okay, cool, this is exactly what the song needed’ […]. Now we go from that studio element to the live element, and trying to be honest about the songs we created in the studio and represent those well in a live setting.

One thing I read about this record was the way you recorded it in this renovated Maine farmhouse, very isolated—how did that setting influence the way you guys wrote and recorded the album?

I think we’ve never quite done a record like this, where we pretty much put it all in for these ten days and we didn’t do anything else [laughs] we didn’t have any other responsibilities. I left the house for a few good walks, and I took a bike ride on a couple days, but I never crossed paths with anyone else besides the guys in the recording studio. It was like, wake up in the morning in the studio, we slept there, we ate there, we cooked there, it was really all things in. And I think even though it was relatively a short time, there’s something beautiful about that experience of getting inside the songs and not feeling too overly influenced by any other outside sources. […] I think sometimes that comparative analysis needs to come, you need to be doing that early on in the songwriting, and saying ‘does this song really do what we want?’ or ‘what are the different elements we want to allow ourselves to have in the studio?’ ‘Who are the players we want to invite?’ All the preparation has to be there, but then when you get in the studio, there needs to be this element of being willing to go any direction and scrap all the ideas, and strip it down to one instrument, or change what you’re going to play. And I think that aspect of the exploration while we were there […] was so distilled down because we didn’t do like, three days and then take a break, or whatever, which is so much lived in that, completely in that ten days.

So yeah, and I mean it was one of the most beautiful weeks of Fall foliage, and great weather, maybe that Maine ever has, but certainly that I’ve experienced almost anywhere. It was gorgeous. So when you did take those breaks outside the studio, you were filling up your tank with all this natural beauty, and I think that fits so well with some of the themes of the record. I don’t think the record’s themes are necessarily encouraging people to just go away and never come back, but I do think that there’s an important element […] I feel like I always need to remind myself to put down the phone, to get away from the screens, and to go out and be in nature, because I think I continue to fill up my own reservoir of being able to contribute to my community in so much of a better way when I can get away from all of these voices that are constantly trying to spin me something, even if it’s things I really love. The quiet of getting away from that is super important. So yeah, it’s very symbolic that we made this record that kind of has those themes within that setting that pretty much embodies that very thing.

I think it’s a cool way to approach this as, when you’re making a record, you have to put all the elements together such that the environment is going to be right for making the record.

Yeah, and we talked about recording in Nashville for this project, we talked about recording in Virginia, which we’ve done in the past because that’s our home, and in the end it just made so much more sense to go up to Sam’s studio because it’s where he feels most comfortable as the producer, and it’s a great place. I think we could have made a good record in Nashville, I think we could have made a good record at home, but I do think that environment and place and setting does find its way into these records. When you’re up in Maine, at least where we were, it’s pretty remote. And you feel that in a different way than if you were going downtown on the Nashville row and recording in the city, or somewhere else that’s a little bit more in civilization. It can’t be stated enough how much environment and context does find its way [into the record], even if it’s these intangible things that you can’t quite put your finger on.

That touches on something else I wanted to ask you about. You guys make this music that’s rooted in this tradition of Americana, and folk, and Appalachian music, and so how has being in a band and travelling around influenced the way you approach making music?

For this record specifically, I think one of the most tangible ways that really bore itself out is that we did some days last year on the road with Josh Ritter and his band, and listening to his music which, Josh is a great songwriter who very much started his career doing a lot of solo singer-songwriter acoustic guitar performances, but for years now has performed with this fantastic band. Sam, the producer we worked with, has toured on the road with Josh for years as his keyboard player. So we met Sam on the road touring, and saw what he does in that band, and what he brings to a songwriter. And that was when we struck up the conversation about possibly working together, and part of it was seeing how a songwriter who comes out at it from a very, like, I would place Josh Ritter in the vein of your Bob Dylan and your Townes Van Zandt as a very literary writer who has a lot to say in his songs. But just as Dylan had the Band, when Ritter goes on tour he’s got an amazing set of musicians behind him. And I think that’s what we wanted—we wanted somebody who’s going to take what we already do, and the songs we write, and the setting that we provide already, coming from the Blue Ridge, and being right here in Virginia […] and we wanted somebody who was going to squeeze that into some different places and create different atmospheres around it to make it new in a way that maybe we can’t see because we’ve been in it for quite a while.

I’m super excited about that because I think we do continue to hold that this is a natural evolution for most of our fans who have listened to us for years. It’s going to look different on stage, because it’s not just four guys singing into a large diaphragm microphone all the time anymore, and it’s not just acoustic sounding instruments, but all in all it’s still the Steel Wheels. But I feel like it’s a new chapter that really opens up the sound to perhaps the people who, when they see a banjo, they feel like, ‘oh, this is gonna sound this certain way,’ and I’m excited that some of the edges of what we’re doing add different elements for different ears that maybe we haven’t always been able to attract because of the Appalachian style we’ve been a part of.

This is a little bit of a tangent maybe, but I’m sitting in the room looking at my banjo. I wrote a lot with the banjo this time, and at the very beginning of this process, I was really interested in the interplay between banjo and drums, and that came into play because typically in our band, when I play banjo, Jay will move over from playing mandolin to playing some kind of guitar. And what that does is it in effect leaves more of an opening, because in a typical bluegrass or old-time band, the mandolin typically holds down the rhythm aspects of, like, a snare drum. When he moves over to guitar, guitar is still a rhythm instrument, but it doesn’t quite give the same snap that you get out of a mandolin. So because I was writing on the banjo, and Jay often was picking up guitar, it leaves this opening, and it made for a natural placement in a lot of these songs for the drums to come in and create their own voice. And we talked about that with Sam, like instead of thinking about instruments, and talking about it in terms of, ‘what am I gonna play, what’s he gonna play?’ more thinking about it in each song as characters, and ‘what does this character have to say in this song?’ and if that means that a certain one of us doesn’t play anything for this song, so be it. It was all about ‘how’s the song going to benefit from this character being a part of this story?’

From a production standpoint, you tend to think about those different voices more in terms of the frequency range they occupy, or the rhythmic character of them. But I’m an English major, so any time you make it literary you’ve got my attention. I love that idea of characters in the story of the song.

You know, I already mentioned Kevin, who’s our drummer on the road, but Kevin wasn’t a part of the recording process. We hadn’t connected with him yet at that point. Sam brought in this percussion player named Quinn from LA, who, we had heard some of his work on previous records, most extensively in some of the David Wax Museum records that he also did with Sam Kassirer. I’ve never worked in the studio with a drummer as extensively as we did, and Quinn was an incredible musical drummer. And I don’t say that to subconsciously put down drummers as if they’re not musical typically, but the amount of tonality and frequency range, as you mentioned, that he paid attention to with his parts was absolutely incredible. There were times when we thought, ‘man, he’s laying down a part here that should be on the soundtrack for Jurassic Park,’ like, ‘what are these sounds?’ ‘How is he making these rumbling sounds out of these drums, or these screeching noises from cymbals?’ There’s a song called “Heartbeat” on the record, I think it most impressed me, even though it’s a subtle percussion part that almost comes midway through the song. But he creates these atmospheric sounds with cymbals and with drums that he’s running his finger across the head really lightly, that creates this rumbling sound, and then as this beat, where again you sort of ask yourself, ‘is he using toms for this? Is it a hand drum?’ He does an amazing job where you can’t picture the kit that he’s using for any of this stuff! And I saw him, he has these deconstructed old brake drums from some old truck, and he used little kids’ toys, and he used these shells, and so many different things to get the percussive sounds to help sort of create these different characters within the songs.

And certainly, we talked a little bit about inspiration within the production, and we talked about Tom Waits. I’ve always been inspired by Tom Waits, from his flair for the dramatic and his songwriting, speaking from, as you talked about, an English major perspective. I feel like Tom Waits takes some of the lessons that you can learn from Shakespeare’s writing, of the consonance and the sound of the words. Any great poet does this, not like it’s just Shakespeare and Waits, but I feel like there’s times where you’ll hear a Tom Waits line and it takes you a while to decipher what he’s actually saying, but it’s this rhythmic, musical set of consonants, you know, that emote just from their sound. I find that kind of onomatopoeic way of writing really admirable and fascinating to listen to. On top of that, Tom Waits’ production has these crazy elements of howling, and chopping, and it feels like you’re listening to some sort of abstract postmodern theater being performed, rather than a guy on a drum kit hitting what you consider to be drums. It sounds more like he took apart a kitchen and started banging on things. And so we talked about that with Quinn, being like, ‘this is the kind of notion of drum kit that we really love,’ and we’re not looking to copy what Tom Waits does, but that was a source of inspiration on a song like “Broken Mandolin,” of having those crashing feelings, and noises that you can’t quite place what he’s using all the time. […] There’s a cool element to that, of while in the foreground you’re going to hear a banjo, or a guitar, or something as a lead instrument, there’s a lot of other sounds going on that will continue, I think, to give the listener something to chew on for a while.

You mentioned the song “Broken Mandolin,” and that’s the one I was most interested to talk to you about. What can you tell me about the background of that song?

That song was inspired by Anthony Doer’s book All the Light We Cannot See. And there’s this small line, […] this passing scene where I believe one of the main characters of the book is going into a restaurant in Berlin and as he does they just mention that they see on the street this man, a drunken man laying with a broken mandolin on his chest, or something like that. And it was something about how vivid of a picture for me that was, of a broken mandolin, and my juices just started flowing with this notion of like, ‘why is it there? How long has it been broken? Did he just break it?’ It’s much more interesting if he actually brought that to hang out outside and play this broken instrument. And what does that say? There’s something so hopeful about that, that you’re going to sit out and play some melodies out of a broken instrument. What does that mean? To me it’s a great metaphor, because we’re all broken in some way, I think. It’s part of living, and we’re trying to make some beauty out of it.

So that’s kind of where it started from, and I certainly think about those many street performers. I’ve been one at times, I remember early on playing farmers’ markets and as the Steel Wheels, well probably not billed as the Steel Wheels, but we as a band, we busked on the street a number of times. I remember a time in, I think it was Lincoln, Nebraska, walking down the street and in two blocks, we saw two different people busking, and their act was a solo washboard player. And I’d never seen that before, but to see one person with just a washboard hitting it and asking for money, and being like, ‘well that’s interesting, that’s really not much of a musical instrument, but okay’ by itself it doesn’t do a whole lot for you, you know? And then to walk down the next block and ‘oh my god, there’s another guy who’s competing with the guy before!’ Anyway, that’s where that song got its start, from that line in the book, but it pulls from a lot of those elements, of maybe a character who’s trying to make it off the streets, doing the best they can, trying to build something beautiful with a broken instrument.

It really works on a lot of levels, as an image. It’s this great unifying thing that ties together a lot of different themes, and it’s also very rock and roll, which I like.

Jay is the one who got to play the electric guitar on that, and he absolutely loved getting his hands to really let it go on the guitar solo, and then there’s the great fiddle solo that Eric laid down on that one. That was a fun song to record. It continues to be a fun song to play live. So yeah, I’m really loving it. Brian’s picking up an electric bass on stage for a couple songs as well, and it’s fun to push the ideas of what a lot of people have seen out of the Steel Wheels previously, and that song perhaps is one of the most out there for people who have heard us before in a different sense.

You talk about being inspired by All the Light We Cannot See. Are there any other non-musical influences that inspire you?

I think you can’t be a songwriter and not be impacted and affected by the world around you. When I first started writing songs I wrote really horrendous and very pedantic political and social songs, you know? Just a bumper sticker chorus, just like, ‘pow, pow, pow.’ And I don’t feel like I’m any less convicted now than I was then when it comes to my thoughts and ideas about where we’re going in society, and politics, if anything I feel like I’m even more convicted right now. But I also felt like in those early days it was not the desired effect I had of creating art and sharing it with people. You’re either turning off people, or you’re a rallying cry for people, and neither of those two crowds are thinking or reflecting or connecting particularly to what you’re doing, they’re just cheering on or turning off. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who can write, I think John Prine perhaps is one of the best writers, Steve Earle has done it a few times where I’ve respected it too, where you write an issue song, but it also is grounded in a story, and because it’s grounded in a story it has a truth that you can’t just turn off from. If I am going to write about something that’s got more of a social issue underneath it, that’s where I hope it comes from.

So I am inspired by the issues of the day, I’m inspired by things I read in the news—I’m discouraged by things I read in the news, which is also an inspiration. […] I read a story about an activist named Tim DeChristopher who a few years back […] he stood up in a public land auction and started bidding in order to protest the gas and oil companies that essentially had run this through the state legislature to get these lands up for bid. And they were getting these lands for dollars on the acre. So this guy went to the auction, didn’t know what he was going to do, but just felt like he wanted to be there, and he just starts bidding. Bidding way above any means he would ever hope to have, and he ended up getting all these tracts of land and being in debt millions of dollars, and was arrested for it, but he helped actually to bring awareness to what was going on, which was essentially taking these protected lands, in this case in Utah, and turning them into, basically owned by gas and oil companies. And through his seemingly desperate act, actually drew enough awareness to where they were able to reverse the decision to put the land up for bid. And so it was a hopeful story for a number of reasons, I think in a whole larger sense, but to me what I really connected with was a feeling of helplessness sometimes in the face of a society where so many things feel like they’re coming across my screen that are crazy, and I feel like, ‘boy, things are just whirling out of control’ and it’s so easy to get apathetic, to get ambivalent, and to feel like there’s nothing I can do. And I felt that sense that in this moment this guy went just to be there, and he was inspired and convicted in the moment to do something, and even though that something was kind of out of control and crazy, and got him into some trouble, it also ended up having an outcome that was positive overall.

Desperate times and desperate measures, right?

Yeah, exactly. And the song “Wild as We Came Here,” it was inspired from that. Again, there may be listeners to our music who may or may not agree with that action that that guy did, but I feel like when you write it into a song and it’s not just a list of, ‘here’s what happened to Mr. DeChristopher,’ but instead it’s more about the inspiration to do something, people can then listen to that and hopefully connect to their own struggles in their life. If that inspires more activists to do great things out there, awesome. If that inspires somebody to pick up a pen and start writing their own poetry or that novel they said they were going to write in college, awesome. I find more value at this point in trying to write songs that hopefully people can find their own stories in and connect to. But yeah, there’s lots of inspiration that goes into it from my end that you don’t always see in the final product as clearly as that.

Another song that I felt like was in that vein of being inspired by the stories of the day was “Till No One is Free.” Is there anything you can tell me about where that one is coming from?

Yeah, you know, you’re definitely right. There’s a number of points of inspiration, and I’m careful to not want to place it for people so that they can’t just hear it and create their own story with it. But I will say that we recorded this record in October. So before the election. But I think that song can have some meaning that fits in with the sense of, I mean, you saw signs, you saw people saying ‘love will always win.’ And I think part of what I was wrestling with in that song, I—coming into the election, I have kids, and my wife told our kids that if Donald Trump was elected, we would be moving out of the country. And of course she said that, because early on, nobody took it seriously. And maybe that’s the bigger lesson of the whole time, but I think some of where that song came from was me thinking about ‘how do we talk to children right now about what’s going on?’ I was reading back some old blog posts on a blog called the Bitter Southerner, from like 2013, and in that case this person was talking about the way the 2012 elections went, and that it was pretty safe to say that people in the south, things are just getting more progressive, and it’s changing. And I think there was this sense that it was inevitable, we’re moving this direction, and that things are gonna continue rolling that direction. And I think that’s the story we told ourselves, that’s the story we told our kids.

It’s so tempting to believe that progress is linear in that way.

Absolutely. And so this notion that love will always win, this idea, especially in the sense of how many things Donald Trump overtly has come to represent—and even, you know, has accepted as his own mantle—whether it’s the arrogant businessman, or the unapologetic violent masculinity, there’s a lot of archetypes that I could go into. How do we explain that to our kids? And what does it do to us, I think, there’s a question of what does it do to us when we tell them love will always win, and then we ourselves are actually questioning that. To me, that’s the key part of the song. “Tell me again that love will always win / even if you don’t know if you believe” are these things that we hold to be these truths, and yet do we really believe them? And it’s probably more important to me that we can continue to be honest with our kids and talk about the complicated environment that they live in, that we all live in. And we have to be honest about that. I think if nothing else, that’s what this election is gonna go down in history as teaching us. Yeah, history’s not linear—

Yeah, and there’s no sure things—

There’s no sure things! We can’t rest on the idea that things are just gonna continue to progress in one direction, and we can’t always explain how things work. In that sense maybe it’s good, because maybe it’s going to get us all up off the couch and there’s going to be some serious motivation to work both at the local level and at the larger global level. So yeah, it came from a very political place, that song. I also thought at times when I was writing that song about some of the school shootings, and literally when we talk about “you hide your doubts all over the house / locked up and loaded till no one is free,” I think about the way those shootings continue to just hit us, and we continue, we just go down the next day, there’s something else in the news. And so it’s a call for remembering, it’s a call for acknowledgement, and acknowledging all of those things. And that song, it sneaks up on you, I think it’s become something when we perform it live it really seems to have an impact on people. That always feels good, but I think it’s one I didn’t necessarily anticipate would have such an impact.

And especially I think putting something like that as the last track on the album really leaves you with something to think about.

Yeah, it definitely is a punctuation mark. And we felt like there was no other way to do it, like that song had to be there. And yeah, when that organ note holds out at the end, it feels like a real last page. It’s very intentional in that sense, and it’s one we wanted to do, you know? We wanted to create a real album in an era where we know there’s going to be plenty of people who are going to carve it up for their own uses on different playlists, or through Spotify, but for those people who are going to buy the vinyl and really listen, side A and side B, there’s definite intention put into it.


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