The guitarist talks about The Steel Wheels’ latest album, Over the Trees.
Fresh off the release of their new album, Over the Trees, Americana-roots group The Steel Wheels — comprising Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel, and Jap Lapp — are now on tour through October
Recently, we talked with Wagler about the new record.
Cowboys & Indians: You just released your seventh album, Over the Trees. What are you feeling now that the record is out?
Trent Wagler: Whenever you get to this point in a release, where you’ve been all the way inside of every moment on every song of the album, you’re very ready to get it out into the world. I’m incredibly proud of the new sounds and songs we put together for this recording. It’s as bold and gutsy as we’ve ever been, and that’s a good thing to be able to say this far into the career.
C&I: How does this compilation of work compare to your other albums?
Wagler: We grew a lot in the last two album cycles. Most notably we grew a drummer. When we recorded our last album, drums were an add-on, a choice we made in the studio, but shortly thereafter we brought Kevin Garcia on the road with us to make percussive sounds for our live tour. So, as we began this process, we knew we had Kevin for every song, and that changed the recording and even songwriting quite a bit. It allowed us to see drums as an integral part of the band’s sound, rather than a final touch or accent. And Kevin is a tasteful player who listens and fits into the pocket of what we do, so everyone benefits.
C&I: What’s your songwriting process?
Wagler: That really depends. I think you take songs however they come. I’ve started with melody, or at least a chordal structure first, but I usually get an idea for a lyrical phrase, or the better part of a verse or chorus that inspires the start of a song. It usually comes in some kind of rhythm at least, because the lyrics dictate the meter to a great deal, but sometimes I feel a little like the lyrics write the melody. As I get the idea for a phrase, I sing it a few ways until it feels right. I write on guitar or banjo mostly. Sometimes I’ve written on piano, because I am not a good piano player and I don’t have too many ruts that I’m stuck in.
So, I can have a fresh approach to the writing as a musical person, not a learned musician. Sometimes that freshness really helps. On this record, I remember writing the song “Under” on electric guitar, with some crunchy overdrive and some reverb, but by the time we recorded it, I was playing banjo. So things can be very fluid, and it’s important to stay open and exhaust every idea before becoming too conclusive about any song. Conclusions can be the death of creativity.
C&I: The album opens with the groovy track “Rains Come,” inspired by the tale of Noah’s ark, but it also feels very relevant to today. How did you go about writing about a story that is well-known and relating it to today’s ideas about climate change?
Wagler: It felt like the connection was just lying there, ready for me to pick it up. The story of Noah’s ark hasn’t really been an allegory that I thought connects much for me. Maybe I never really liked the idea of a vengeful God wiping everybody out except for the one “good” guy and his zoologically advanced boat. But I think when we see the way the temperatures are increasing and the rapid cascading effect it is having on the entire planet, it starts to feel like maybe we’re all in a little bit of denial. It is big stuff and feels so overwhelming for any one of us to really tackle, so we keep doing our routines, and maybe we look for ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle, or decrease our carbon footprint. But sometimes it’s important to remind ourselves of the difficult things that are right in front of us. And we might need to start preparing for bigger ways things will change in our lifetimes. Serious changes are bound to come and they won’t be of the plastic-straw variety.
C&I: Are there any other stories about how other songs on the album came together?
Wagler: I wrote with percussion in mind so much more this time, so in my initial demo recordings I would often overdub some rough drum loops that get some start for what I was hearing. Luckily Kevin could see through those underwhelming starts and bring in something really cool and specific to each song.
One of the songs that had a unique process was “Something New.” I wrote it on the gourd banjo, which is a fretless banjo made out of an actual gourd and tuned down a fifth from the standard banjo tuning of G major. The song was inspired by a conversation I overheard in a hotel breakfast room somewhere on tour. I don’t remember the details of the conversation anymore, but the gist of what I heard was that as long as we didn’t have the same old leadership we’ve always had, even if we had inexperienced or bad leadership, something new would be better. And I extrapolated from there. The process of the song really grew through my writing on the gourd banjo, and Kevin’s drums. We added the chorus of voices that really made it feel like a mindless group of brainwashed automatons. Sam Kassirer (producer and engineer) and I also fine-tuned the lyrics to try to leave things open to interpretation lyrically as well.
C&I: You all stated that the album, as a whole, was a collection of songs about surviving tragedy. Would you talk a little about that?
Wagler: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I saw them that way when we recorded them. There is a song we recorded called “Waiting in the Dark” that was inspired by my parents’ experience of losing a child in a drunk-driving accident years ago. Then in the months between the recording sessions and this release, our fiddle player, Eric Brubaker, was hit with the unimaginable: His daughter Norah passed away after complications related to a bacterial infection. It goes without saying that this tragedy will seriously define this time and we decided to dedicate this album to Norah’s memory.
A lot of our songwriting leaves things open to interpretation. I’m drawn to that kind of writing, because it gives room for the listener to insert their own experiences, their own desires, their own lives into the song. As we looked at this record after walking beside Eric through this extremely difficult time, it makes you wonder if we somehow write the songs we’ll need to sing, when we’ll need to sing them. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but looking through this collection through the lens of this crisis gives it new meaning.
C&I: Was it difficult to translate those tough subjects into song?
Wagler: The way I write is to try to take a snapshot of a feeling and put it into a song. When you do that, the feelings are universal and can be translated across experience. So if I’m writing about my parents’ past tragedy, maybe that can translate to someone’s recent horrible breakup, or to the battle with cancer that you’ve been in treatment for. I feel like the delicate and private experiences of our lives are the veins that carry the blood of emotions that we all understand and share. It can be difficult to write any song, and it can be tougher the closer you are to that open wound. But songwriters should be harnessing emotions of some kind or another. That’s the job.
C&I: Is there a specific song your fans have really taken to?
Wagler: I don’t know. I get people telling me their favorite song is “Keep On,” the first single, which has a big anthemic kind of catchy hook. But I’ve also heard people deeply impacted by “Falling” for its sparse, haunting instrumentation, or “This Year” for its four-part harmony and contrast between serious and humorous lyrics. I guess you should tell me what song resonates with you. I hope each song is a chapter in the book and they all have resonance.
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it on the album that we can expect to hear later on down the road?
Wagler: Yes. It was torturous, but we kicked two songs off the record that we recorded during these sessions. Ironically, one of them was an early favorite of most of us, but it just didn’t quite make the final list. I guess it’s a good problem to have, and all writers will tell you some of their best work never sees the light of day, but I’m excited about releasing both of those songs at some point and giving them their own life. One of the nice parts of the digital platforms these days is that there are no limits on how many and how often you can release songs into the world.
C&I: What can we expect next?
Wagler: Always wanting something new, I see. Geez, let us breathe a little bit. Just kidding. We’re touring this record through the fall/winter. I’m going to be back writing new songs as soon as the dust clears from the festival and release. We will be releasing those other two new songs I just mentioned as singles down the road. And there’s always a revolving door of weird ideas for covers albums, rereleases on vinyl, and concept albums. You’ll just have to wait and see. For now, it’s summer, the garden has come to harvest, and we can’t wait to share the songs we’ve grown into full bloom on this album.
For more information about The Steel Wheels, visit their website.