A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STEINBECKS
THE STEINBECKS emerged, blinking, from the still-smouldering ashes of the Sugargliders in 1994.
The Sugargliders (3/2/89-10/6/94) were the creation of Melbourne brothers Josh and Joel Meadows, who were teenagers when they started playing gigs and recording for indie label Summershine Records. The ’gliders went on to become part of the legendary Sarah Records stable, releasing ten 7” singles and a compilation LP, We’re All Trying To Get There (sarah 619), before self-combusting in June 1994.
Music press interviews from 1994 reveal some of the thinking behind the brothers’ decision to put the torch to the Sugargliders and become the Steinbecks. “The Sugargliders were developing into something which involved a whole lot more people,” Joel told Cameron Adams from Beat in November 1994. “We had a choice of trying to change The Sugargliders or make a clean break and start something new.” (Beat, 9 November 1994)
They chose the something new. The brothers Meadows joined forces with Robert Cooper, who played with the ’gliders on their last three singles and was also bassist with teen sensations the Earthmen, guitarist and trumpeter Adam ‘AD’ Dennis (Captain Cocoa, the Jordans, long-time Sugargliders collaborator and audio engineer) and drummer Bianca Lew, from young guns Snowblind.
Four-track versions of some of the first Steinbecks songs (such as ‘A Fine Vehicle’ and ‘Smoking and Driving’) were recorded at AD’s home studio, the Drawingroom, in late 1993 and early 1994. The 5-piece Steinbecks started playing together before the final Sugargliders gig. Rehearsals for the last ever ’gliders performance (at The Club in Collingwood, 10/6/94) became preparation for early Steinbecks gigs and recording. The name stayed under wraps until August 1994.
Four Sugargliders singles (‘Letter from a Lifeboat’, ‘Seventeen’, ‘Trumpet Play’ and ‘Will we ever learn?’) were recorded at C’estÇa in Collingwood by Siiri Metsar. The Steinbecks turned to the same trusty combination for the new outfit’s first venture into the recording studio. ‘Geology’,‘Snakes in the Grass’ and ‘Change the Weather’ were recorded in August 1994. The session was brisk and happy and all three tracks would appear on the debut album At Home and Abroad with The Steinbecks (shine CD013). But the difficulty of recording all instruments simultaneously in the small Collingwood studio convinced the band that the rest of the album would need to be taped elsewhere.
Robert Cooper had recorded with the Earthmen at top studio Metropolis and made the initial moves towards a ’becks recording session at the South Melbourne studio. Keen to capture the raw, organic sounds of the 5-piece band on vinyl, the group sought out high-flying rock wunderkind, Mat Gearing Thomas, as their engineer. Thomas had racked up hundreds of “flying hours” on the 1970s 24-track Harrison desk in Metrop’s studio 2 and had a deep love for valve amplifiers. The ’becks played him some demos and primed him with a sampler cassette of Big Star, Television and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. A deal was cut.
They recorded seven songs in three days: ‘Settlement’, ‘2-Star Motel’, ‘A Fine Vehicle’, ‘Smoking and Driving’, ‘The Needless and the Homely’, ‘Cosmo Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Listen to my Heart’.
The liner notes for At Home and Abroad don’t reveal much about the session, but the sounds on the debut album do. The instinctive pop sensibilities of the band collided with the clear, loud, analogue rock production of Thomas with stunning results.
The guitars for ‘Settlement’ were recorded clean and with the amplifier volume high. An old Zephyr microphone dug out of one of the studio storerooms gave the AM radio feel to Josh’s vocal. The descending “steel guitar” line in the verses (played by AD) was achieved by close miking an unamplified Maton Apollo semi-acoustic. Lew added a hired Ludwig snare to her standard kit for the session and tuned it tight for the rat-a-tat-tat of this track. Thomas flipped the tape and Josh recited a poem from John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works for the spooky backwards voice in the song’s middle section. It wasn’t until they mixed the track that the band heard the hidden message “meet you down the Napier” amongst the gibberish.
‘2-Star Motel’ benefited from the wide open spaces of the big studio. Bass and drums were recorded as the whole band played the song together, maximising the “live feel”, before guitars were overdubbed. A lot of time was spent on the thick layered harmonies at the end, sung by Josh, Joel, AD and Robert. The Meadows brothers were enthusiastic fans of Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album Girlfriend, particularly Sweet’s use of heavily compressed multi-layered vocal harmonies on songs like ‘Evangeline’ and ‘Divine Intervention’. Their admiration for Sweet’s recording method is evident on ‘2-Star Motel’. Mat Thomas was meticulous about recording voices and teased out one of Josh’s best performances on the lead vocal.
The music for ‘A Fine Vehicle’, written by Joel, was recorded as a 4-track demo while Josh was away walking in the highlands of Irian Jaya (West Papua) in November-December 1993. Joel considered the tune “a fine vehicle” for his brother’s voice, and the name stuck. For the Metropolis recording they borrowed a set of clay tablas from a friend, Richard Giliberto. Half way through each verse Lew’s tabla tapping is joined by a rhythmic beating played on the side of a double bass, giving the track its distinctive percussion. Cooper’s fretless bass is accentuated, adding to the otherworldly atmosphere of the verses, while Meadows Snr half whispers half swoons his suggestive sonnet. Only in the coda – played in 5/8 timing – does the band disrupt the smooth and sensual mood. AD’s guitar (right speaker) replies to Joel’s guitar (left speaker) while Robert and Bianca grind out the choppy, unusual rhythm. Engineer Thomas added a reverse gate to AD’s guitar line, for the swelling volume.
‘Smoking and Driving’ is a playful three-minute pop song that previews the complementary electric/acoustic guitar roles AD and Joel were to refine on stage during the summer of 1994/95. Josh’s lyric celebrates the irresponsibility of youth (“You were bold, a speedskating star / No crash helmet, no holds barred”) while pleading with The Kids to see through the youthful, rebellious image adopted by multinational corporations to fatten their already fat bottom lines (“How can we be different when the dollar sign is in our mouths / And how can we lead the way when we’re wearing their badge on our chests?”). The band wheeled the big Steinway grand piano out of the Metropolis foyer, past the Farnham and LRB gold records on the wall and into studio 2 for the piano notes at the end of the song.
Joel plays the Steinway on ‘The Needless and the Homely’. The album’s sparse, single verse version, clocking in at just under two minutes, later evolved into a live full-band epic with a second verse.
The rambling ‘Cosmo Cosmopolitan’ clearly owes a musical debt to Mercury Rev’s ‘Carwash Hair’ and ‘Crooked Rain’-era Pavement. The song had been roughly rehearsed, but Joel was keen that it retain a loose spontaneity and resisted the urge to record a demo. Most of the elements in the recorded version developed in the studio: AD’s electric guitar interweaving with Joel’s twinkling mandolin over the slow opening, Robert’s sawed double bass, Josh’s world weary vocals and Bianca’s crashy drums (listen for her crash cymbal and stand literally crashing to the floor just before the four-and-a-half minute mark!) – all coincide to make ‘Cosmo’ an unusual Steinbecks song.
The worldweariness evaporates for the album’s closer,‘Listen to my Heart’. The music was written by Ripe (and Moondriven) frontman Mark Murphy who gave it to the Meadows brothers saying the infectious tune “suits you more than us”. Josh’s sincere lyric came following his visit to Irian Jaya (West Papua) in late 1993, a trip that also inspired ‘Settlement’ and later ‘All that is ahead is the future’. Bianca beats the tablas again, this time with special bongo sticks. Joel and AD provide the backing vocals. The call of “last time” comes from Joel, unable to make eye contact with the other band members from the acoustic booth at the back of studio 2.
‘Which part of no?’ and ‘Same Light’ were ready and would have been recorded at Metropolis, but for Mat Thomas’s prior commitment to fly to Kuala Lumpur to spend a month recording an album with a Malaysian cock rock band. The Steinbecks were itching to finish the recording of their album and chose not to wait for Thomas, but to return to another old Sugargliders stamping ground – and one of Melbourne’s best studios – SingSing in Richmond. Engineer for the session was Kaj Dahlstrom, who also produced the last Sugargliders single in July 1993.
‘Which part of no don’t you understand?’ is probably the most ambitious song on the first album. It is a song of many parts and was difficult to rehearse, necessarily getting pieced together in the studio. It combines drum machine (Joel) with real drums (Bianca), wahwah guitar (Josh) with a groovy bass line (Robert), true acoustic guitar licks (Joel) with proud Spanish horns (AD) and features a fun middle 8 with Mariachi-style guitar and trumpet which dissolves into three-and-a-half bars of weirdo timing (put through a Suckwirth phaser by Mat Thomas at mixdown). The lyrics attempt to equate Indonesia’s rule over East Timor and Irian Jaya with unwelcome sexual advances after a suburban party. Ambitious indeed.
‘Same Light’ was well rehearsed before the Sing Sing sessions. AD, who wrote the music, had recorded a slower 4-track demo that the rest of the band worked from. The Dahlstrom recording captures the ’becks’ live sound arguably better than any other track on the album. It certainly showcases Lew’s drumming at its wild, frenetic best.
The tapes from the C’est Ça, Metropolis and Sing Sing sessions were brought together and mixed by Mat Thomas and the band in Metrop’s dedicated mixing studio on Thomas’ return from Malaysia. By this stage (August 1994) Summershine supremo Jason Reynolds had pencilled in At Home and Abroad with The Steinbecks for an October release. Josh flew to Sydney with the tapes and oversaw the mastering process with William Bowden on the old Euri machine at Festival studios in Pyrmont. The album was released in Australia on 17 October 1994.
With the album recorded, mixed and mastered, the Steinbecks started playing live gigs back in Melbourne. At Home and Abroad was launched on 11 November 1994 at the Carlton Moviehouse, where patrons were treated to a 40-minute Steinbecks set, followed by a screening of the Monkees’ psychedelic celluloid trip, Head. The band enhanced their live reputation with a string of gigs through the summer months, including shows in Sydney and Newcastle with Summershine labelmates the Earthmen.
A new song, ‘All that is ahead is the future’, was recorded on 4-track at the Drawingroom on a warm evening in March 1995. The five band members squeezed into AD’s tiny spare room studio and recorded the song live to tape. Josh strummed and sang, Robert gently plucked the bass guitar, Joel played the spine-tingling acoustic guitar solo, Bianca added two perfectly struck notes on a bell and AD twiddled the knobs. The song was complete. This simple, stark recording had a general release five years later when it was included on the compilation fundraiser, Indie Aid Abroad: A Little Help for East Timor (drive42/shhh10).
The next Steinbecks recording session was on 9 April 1995, when the band recorded their contribution to a Go-Betweens tribute album, Right Here, a project masterminded by Melbourne cult figure Cousin Creep (christened Craig Barnes). The album features cover versions of Go-Betweens songs by a range of Australian groups, including Frente, the Earthmen, Snout, Tender Engines and the Blackeyed Susans. The Steinbecks offered a faithful rendition of ‘Draining the Pool for You’, which departs significantly from the original only towards the end, with the introduction of trumpets and a swinging carnival atmosphere. The track was recorded and mixed in a day at Richmond’s Stable Sound studios.
Throughout this time the Steinbecks rehearsed regularly, often at their favourite space – over the water in shed 11 at Victoria Docks (since subsumed by Docklands high-rise apartments). New songs emerged: ‘Dustbin Boutique’, ‘Mr Mutual Respect’ and the jangling, spangling pop punch, ‘Apollo’. Andrew Withycombe (friend of the band, regular live sound engineer and pop star in his own bands the Cat’s Miaow, Hydroplane and Huon) recorded live demos of the three songs down at the docks on 13 April 1995.
Summershine’s US operations were just beginning and label boss Reynolds wanted to release At Home and Abroad to the American market with an extra track. ‘Apollo’ was an obvious single, so the band returned to Metropolis in May 1995 to record the track, with Mat Gearing Thomas again behind the desk. At the same session they recorded live favourite ‘Mr Mutual Respect’.
Both songs were mixed at Metropolis by Thomas and The Steinbecks on 4 June 1995. On the day of the mixdown, Nick Cave was recording in an adjoining studio and sat in on The Steinbecks session for a while as the band and the engineer placed layer upon layer of jangling guitar to fashion the poptastic‘Apollo’ soundscape. Whether the song left any impression at all on Mr Cave is unclear. Summershine put out the US version of the album with ‘Apollo’ as the first track. The song was also issued as a 7” single with ‘Mr Mutual Respect’ on the flip.
The ‘Apollo’/’Mr Mutual’mixdown was to be the last time the 5-piece Steinbecks would be together in the studio. On 20 July 1995, Cooper and Lew announced to a stunned Meadows, Meadows and Dennis that they were leaving the band. After some consideration, the Meadows brothers decided to continue the Steinbecks story on their own.
For the remainder of 1995 Josh and Joel concentrated on songwriting. ‘Boy’s a Dancer’ was one of the songs to emerge from this time. It was a very different sort of song from anything on the first album and the brothers knew it would need a very different recording approach. Simon Grounds was part of colourful 1980s shock merchants Shower Scene From Psycho. In the late eighties and early nineties he quietly carved out a reputation for raw and creative analogue production through his work with the likes of the Meanies, Underground Lovers, Tim Best (Girl of the World, Hispana Tim) and Snout. Best, a friend of the Steinbecks, suggested Grounds’ 16-track Abbotsford studio as a good place for the ’becks to get the sounds they were after on ‘Boy’s a Dancer’.
The recording process started with Joel laying down the main guitar track on 23 November 1995. Later that week he added the electric guitar solo and Josh sang the lead vocal. Then summer intervened. It was 2 March 1996 (a bleak day in Australian history, with John Howard winning the federal election) before the brothers resumed work on ‘Boy’s a Dancer’. They called on an old friend, Darren Seltmann, to play the all-important drum track for the song. Seltmann knew the Meadows boys from his days as Ripe’s drummer and had recorded with The Sugargliders on ‘90 Days of Moths & Rust’ and ‘Top 40 Sculpture’. He shot to international fame in 2000/01 as a member of the Avalanches. Seltmann’s heavily accented drumming on ‘Boy’s a Dancer’ responds to cues from the guitars and vocals, rather than laying down a conventional rhythm for the other instruments to follow. The violin and cello were added on 16 March by Amy Bennett and Sally Giljohann. Earthman Nick Batterham helped with the string arrangement and joined J&J on backing vocals. The song was mixed on 25 March.
‘Colour o’ the Harbour’ and ‘Sleepyheart’ were recorded and mixed over three sessions with Simon Grounds in April and May. The bulk of ‘Colour o’ the Harbour’ was recorded live to tape with Joel playing acoustic guitar, Josh on electric bass and friend Andy Gosden squeezing the squeezebox (for the maritime feel). The whirring sound throughout the song was achieved by running Joel’s Super 8 film projector in the room while they played. Vocals and toy piano (from the S Grounds toy piano collection) were overdubbed. The spooky bit in the middle is a 4-track recording made by Josh and Joel, played backwards.
‘Sleepyheart’ is essentially a simple song, complicated slightly by its unusual timing. Joel played the acoustic, Josh sang the main vocal and both sang backing. Gosden and Meadows Jr cooperated on the drums to get the 7/8 rhythm right.
The band imagined ‘Boy’s a Dancer’ as the A-side of a 7” single with ‘Sleepyheart’ and ‘Colour o’ the Harbour’ on the B-side, but Jason Reynolds from Summershine was lukewarm about the proposal. He urged the band to record more songs and work towards a mini LP.
JR would get his mini LP. But in May 1996 neither band nor label had any idea it would be nearly two years before From The Wrestling Chair to the Sea (shine US23) would see the light of day.
As winter closed in, other projects beckoned. Mono-appellated Melbourne pop figure Bart (Cat’s Miaow, Hydroplane) was putting together the first Bart & Friends CD, 10 Songs About Cars & Girls (drive 24). The CD comprised collaborations and co-compositions between Bart and a range of friends (natch), plus 21 bonus Cat’s Miaow rarities, outtakes and live recordings. Bart asked Josh to pen some words to go with a snappy unnamed guitar tune. Josh’s lyric was untutored backyard philosophy (“Life’s a maze / It’s just a series of days / A winter-summer haze”) – with an evangelical touch – (“Ah there are so many ways / Of singing songs of praise / Oh what songs we’ll raise!”).
Josh, Joel and Bart recorded the song at Josh’s rented lodgings on 6 July 1996, with Andrew Withycombe manning the 4-track. At one stage, as they were singing the backing harmonies for the middle 8, Withycombe stopped the tape and asked the brothers the rather personal question: ‘Are you guys into Wings?’ The song had its title. The “think it over” coda needed some accompanying ambient sounds, so they dragged a microphone out the front and taped the cars swishing past on rainy Barkers Road.
Another interesting offer came from Mike Babb, founder of fledgling Grand Rapids label, Drive-In Records. Babb proposed a twin 7”, split between two bands – the Steinbecks and Buddha on the Moon. The double 7” vinyl package would feature one original from each band and a cover version of the same song by the other band. HK from Buddha on the Moon had already recorded the Steinbecks’‘2-Star Motel’, so Babb suggested the ’becks tackle BOTM’s ‘How Near or How Far’. Josh and Joel liked the idea and set about reconfiguring HK’s poem to a “dear distant friend”. They chose the more conventional pop 4/4 time signature over the original’s 3/4 tempo and emphasised the song’s latent harmonies. Josh and Joel recorded ‘How Near’ with AD at the Drawingroom over three sessions in August 1996. They mixed the track with Simon Grounds in early September. The double 7” (drive02) was issued as a joint release between Drive-In and Melbourne’s Season Records. Production for the Steinbecks’ version of ‘2-Star Motel’ is attributed to Mat Thomas and his alter ego Hugh Jorgen.
Other enjoyable extra-curricular activities prevented the brothers from taking the proposed mini LP much further during 1996. Josh was playing bass with Tim Best’s well-dressed combo Hispana Tim and contributing to recordings that would appear on Best’s solo LP Promising Boyfriend (parasol CD042). Joel was working with iron and steel, creating a collection of innovative lamps that received critical acclaim when exhibited at Hybridzo Gallery in Hawthorn in May 1997. And Josh devoted a lot of time to following the fortunes of the North Melbourne Football Club as the Kangaroos carved their way through stiff opposition to take out the AFL premiership in September 1996, the club’s first flag since 1977.
In May-June 1997 the Meadows brothers started rehearsing new songs with Matthew Sigley playing bass and Darren Seltmann on drums. Three songs stood out as the best of the new material and these were developed to a point where they could be recorded for inclusion on the proposed mini LP. The ’becks booked three days at Seed recording studios in South Melbourne and once again called on Mat Gearing Thomas to engineer the sessions.
The first song they tackled was the weird and wonderful ‘Obstreperous’. A trademark Joel Meadows acoustic guitar line opens the track, atop a funereally slow bass and drum rhythm delivered by Sigley and Seltmann. The words tell the story of a near death experience and subsequent road-to-Damascus realisation that life is indeed precious. Soothing verses dissolve into discordant choruses featuring energetic drum action from Seltmann and droning, phased vocals from Sigley and the brothers. Not long before this session Sigley’s beloved Rickenbacker 4003 bass guitar had been stolen and he had just replaced it with a Vox semi-acoustic bass, the sound of which is prominent. Steve Lane, another friend of the band, played the ‘drunken trombone’ solo in the middle.
‘The Lighthouse Act, 1911’ starts off sounding quite C&W, with a rimshot snare and country bassline. Then Seltmann’s garage drums gatecrash the pastoral scene and Sigley’s whirring Vox Continental electric organ sets the lighthouse swinging. Trainspotting Sugargliders fans are given cause to smile with the reference to “the Wrestling Chair”, first coined by Meadows+Meadows in ‘Aloha Street’ (sarah67) back in 1992. Thomas’ production leaves plenty of space in the mix, allowing each instrument room to shine.
‘Lucky Star’ also borrows a line or two from an old ’gliders song, the pre-Sarah live favourite ‘Never could stand authority’. Steve Lane takes care of bass duties, leaving Sigley free to get the best from his Vox Continental organ. Seltmann beats the pagan skins. Joel runs his Maton electric through a Fender guitar amp and a Lesley speaker for the main guitar line’s ‘Beast of Burden’ sound. Thomas again coaxes a fine performance out of Josh on the lead vocal.
It was a happy and creative session that yielded three strong pop songs for the mini LP. Sigley and Seltmann joined Thomas and the brothers for the mixdown on 29 October, across the road from Seed, in the dedicated mixing studio at Metropolis.
Summershine released From the Wrestling Chair to the Sea (shine US23) on compact disc and 10” vinyl in July 1998 to a favourable, if somewhat low-key, response. The band played a smattering of Melbourne gigs to support the release, culminating with a record launch at the Empress of India on Friday 7 August. Line-up for these shows was Meadows, Meadows, Sigley and Seltmann, with Lane also playing at the launch.
The seeds for the next album were being sown back in 1997 during the recording of From the Wrestling Chair to the Sea. ‘Imperial’, ‘Rare Blood Group’, ‘Precious Burden’ and ‘The Long Walk’ were early compositions that had to go on ice while new songs emerged to join them. In December 1998 and January 1999 Josh went back to Irian Jaya (West Papua) and Papua New Guinea, delaying plans for recording, but returning with lyrics for the forthcoming album’s opener, ‘No Strings, No Money, No Worries’, and closer, ‘(85 k’s from) Vanimo’. Hopes to record the new album with the old firm of Sigley and Seltmann were dashed when Sigley left for London on a one-way ticket in April 1999 and The Avalanches’ increasingly demanding schedule prohibited Seltmann from committing to the next ’becks sesh.
By May 1999 the brothers had finally assembled the requisite resources and personnel to hit the studio. They chose Rangemaster studio and audio engineer David Carr.
The session started on 21 May with the drum track for ‘Precious Burden’. Rod Wilson, who collaborated with Joel in summer holiday band the Big Friendly Giants, played the drums at a lively tempo with brushes. Then they turned down the tape speed to give the drums the slow, deliberate shuffle they have on the album. Joel plays the faraway Twin Peaks guitar and delivers the close, confessional vocal (“All my life I have seen that which was far beyond me / With no great clarity but clear enough just to see / Such a burden brings such joy”). Josh plays the bass on this track.
‘Monochrome’ is part Smiths, part Monochrome Set, part Young Socialist polemic. Wilson plays drums, Lane plays bass, Josh sings and Joel takes on a variety of guitar identities.
The third song Rod Wilson played drums on was ‘Storm Boy’, RMS’s Single That Never Was. It is one of the few songs from the album that had been performed live before the recording sessions. Josh and Joel wanted to capture the simplicity of a guitar/bass/drums live performance, but once recorded they felt it needed more. The slightly dirty Hofner guitar added by Joel made the difference. The ba-da d-da d-da-daa vocals at the end were sung by the Meadows brothers and friend Joel Sprake.
Ever since they recorded the original ‘Are you guys into Wings?’ with Bart and Andrew Withycombe in July 1996, Josh and Joel had harboured the idea of expanding on the song’s brief “think it over” coda. At Rangemaster they did so, enlisting friends Brad Welsh, Phil Lawson and Joel Sprake to help them out on a voices-only extension. It appears on the album as ‘Are you guys into Wings? reprise’.
‘Are you guys into Wings? part 2’ bears a similar title, but little other resemblance to ‘Wings’ part 1 or the reprise. Quite obviously a summer song, it began life as a 4-track recorded at Joel’s place the previous year. For the Rangemaster recording Joel’s lone electric guitar is joined by a chugging bassline and carefully chosen drum loop.
Joel Sprake played the remaining drum tracks for the album. A long-time confidant of the brothers, Sprake was a singer and guitarist in another band, the Sunbeams (known in an earlier incarnation as Just). Sprake’s enthusiasm for the music of Pavement, Cardinal and the Beach Boys and his instinctive feel for the pagan skins convinced Josh and Joel they had the right man for the job.
On ‘The Long Walk’ Sprake captures the requisite carefree vibe with borrowed sticks and Slengaland kit. This is the first Steinbecks recording to feature the Rhodes Seventy Three Mark 2 electric piano the brothers purchased through Trading Post for A$300. Meadows, Meadows and Sprake had recorded a much rougher 4-track version of the song – then called ‘Autumn Walk’ and with a substantially different set of lyrics – back in January 1997. By May 1999 the song’s Friday afternoon, jingle-in-your-pocket mood had firmed and the accompanying sounds came naturally. D Carr plays the solid ’60s bassline, Lawson, Welsh and Sprake contribute backing vocals and a breezy Sesame Street harmonica solo from Joel completes the scene.
‘Rare Blood Group’ also started as a 4-track recording. The chorus/verse parts of the song turn on Joel’s big octave chords on the Rhodes. Steve Lane plays a seamless weaving bassline and Sprake delivers an impassioned performance on the drums, miked simply to emphasise the whole-kit sound. The song lifts off in the middle 8 with Josh mourning the passing of a more graceful era (“But that spirit is gone”) and the swooping backing vocals of the two Joels confirming the same (“It’s not here now”).
Josh was still working on the lyrics for ‘Anna Karenina’ while Joel was recording the fierce guitar track with Lane (bass) and Sprake (drums). Carr pulls off an almost Steve Albini-like engineering job on what must be the hardest rocking Steinbecks recording to date.
‘Imperial’ was played live by the band during their Wresting Chair shows of July-August 1998. The recording features the sound of a Univox keyboard, a very early Jennings organ. Josh sings, Joel plays guitar, Steve Lane plays bass and Joel Sprake beats the skins.
The album’s short, anthemic introduction was written with parts for violin and cello, but time and monetary constraints made their inclusion impossible. The ’becks went ahead and recorded without the missing elements. Hence the title, ‘No Strings, No Money, No Worries’. Adam Dennis contributes the song’s magnificent signature fanfare on trumpet, saving it from also being No Brass. Joel plays around on Rhodes, Moog and shortwave radio, Lane again takes care of the bass, Sprake is on drums and Josh delivers the vocal. Although the song clocks in at just one minute twenty, it took longer in the recording process than any other track on the record.
In contrast, the album’s closer, ‘Vanimo’, a hopelessly utopian separatist campfire singalong performed by 20 young people from Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, was recorded very quickly. Josh and Joel were the only ones to have heard the song before it was recorded. They didn’t want to polish it too much, so recorded straight to tape (with no option for mixing sounds individually). Two microphones were set up in the Rangemaster kitchenette, Josh wrote the lyrics up on a piece of butchers paper, they practiced it through once, then ran the tape. Joel Meadows strums the acoustic, Joel Sprake plays a bassline he has only just heard, Josh Meadows leads the singalong. Phil Lawson sat behind the desk.
The last song recorded was Joel’s delicate gem, ‘Karma’. He had been playing with the music and words for some time, but only completed the lyrics on the morning of recording. Straight acoustic guitar and single voice tell a tale of the regenerative power of forgiveness (“You know I’ve felt it / The winter sun on the coldest day / You know I’ve seen it / A touch of grace in the deepest way”).
In July 1999 Josh left Australia to work in Papua New Guinea for two years as an Australian volunteer. Joel Meadows and Joel Sprake mixed the album at Rangemaster with David Carr in August.
Some time between the release of From the Wresting Chair and the recording of RMS, label supremo Jason Reynolds put Summershine Records into voluntary indefinite hibernation. The Steinbecks found themselves without a home base. Fortunately, Michigan’s own “global leader in recorded sound” was ready to come to the party. And armed with balloons, streamers, fresh doughnuts and a bottle of pink champagne. Recorded Music Salon (drive 40) was released by Drive-In Records early in 2000 on CD and top quality 220 gram black vinyl.
2000 and 2001 were, predictably, unproductive years for The Steinbecks with the brothers living in different countries. Joel did a solo performance, playing many of the RMS songs live for the first time, at the launch of the Indie Aid Abroad: A Little Help for East Timor CD in March 2000. He also performed ‘Karma’ and ‘Precious Burden’ (with Brad Welsh) on Channel 31’s live-to-air local music program New! Here! Now! Live!
The Steinbecks started playing gigs again in November 2001, with Andy ‘Gizo’ Gosden (bass/guitar) and Joel Sprake (drums). They did the backyard barbecue circuit in January 2002 and began work on new songs.
One of the first to be fully formed was ‘Arafura Sea’. It is another Steinbecks song inspired by the West Papuan struggle for self-determination. ‘Arafura’ was prompted particularly by the brutal murder of Chief Theys Eluay in November 2001. Eluay was a former supporter of the Indonesian regime who had a complete about face and, by the late ’90s, became a prominent advocate for independence. The Steinbecks performed the song live at all of their gigs in 2002. In November of that year the band had an opportunity to record the song for a compilation album, West Papua: Songs of the Morning Star, being put together by David Bridie (Not Drowning Waving and My Friend the Chocolate Cake). They returned to Metropolis in South Melbourne and recorded the song with trusty engineer Mat Gearing Thomas. Earlier in the year the band had purchased a black 1960s Premier drum kit, in superb condition, and its sound is a feature of the recording. Perennial ’becks contributor Matthew Sigley was enlisted for the husky whirring organ in the choruses. When it came to compiling the songs he had gathered, Bridie opted to make the Morning Star CD a collection of soundscapes, and the unashamedly pop format ‘Arafura Sea’ no longer fit the bill. It became the first track recorded for the next ’becks release.
It was May 2003 before the band was studio-bound again. Meadows, Meadows, Gosden and Sprake (who was by this time going under the pseudonym Jerry Rinse) returned to Metropolis with Gearing Thomas again behind the desk.
Joel Meadows’ plucked acoustic lays the foundation for ‘Guilty Spring’, a tale of the useful promptings of conscience. The rhythm section is solid as a rock, with Rinse’s drums a giant presence in the refrain. Josh plays the slow, overdriven lead break. The third verse is in Melanesian Pidgin-as-a-second-language and tells of the regret that often follows promises of keeping in touch with friends overseas. The Steinbecks, once more, at home and abroad.
‘Morell Bridge’ was probably the most complex recording of the session. It required a tight drums/bass/guitar take before the overlay of several more guitar tracks and Joel’s lead vocal. That initial take took some time, but the eventual result was a sparkling, Stuart Copeland-esque drum track from Rinse and a wonderfully fluid and athletic performance from bassist Gosden. The band had been playing the song’s chorus quite differently at gigs – fuller and more anthemic – before settling on the haunting, bass-driven version that made it to tape. Rinse swapped instruments to contribute the “80s guitar” line in the chorus. Joel’s guitar solo is a highlight, and he delivers possibly his most passionate vocal take to date in the middle 8.
‘Song for today’ is delivered at breakneck speed. Rinse and Gosden give the impression they are auditioning for a Rhythm Section vacancy in a power pop trio. Joel’s electric is taut as a tightrope and Josh’s vocal walks the rope like an apprentice acrobat on opening night at the circus. Nick Batterham, who let the band borrow an amp and a guitar for the session, later wrote to the brothers saying he was pleased to see the amplifier returned to him “with the volume knob on 7. Good work.”
The brothers’ Rhodes Seventy-Three mark 2 electric piano (see ‘The Long Walk’) honks and clunks through ‘Mens Suit Hire’, with Joel at the keys. Brassman Adam “First Take” Dennis weighs in with pitch-perfect trumpet lines. Josh tries hard at being George Benson on single coil electric guitar. Kirsty Burn and Tess Hildebrand, from local late night TV news connoisseurs Surrogate Turnip, provide the essential, context-setting girl vocals towards the end of the song, before it all wraps up with an in-studio party.
When Josh and Joel wrote ‘Trying too hard’ they envisaged it as a short, organ-driven cautionary folk tale; the sort of song they imagined Flying Nun-reared university students on New Zealand’s south island must sing softly to each other in front of roaring log fires on those cold cold winter nights they have down there. The brothers wanted to capture something of the small town innocence lost that is so vividly conveyed in E.L. Doctorow’s beautiful and disturbing 1979 novel, Loon Lake. Combine these hopes and motivations with a slow burning passion for the long, mesmeric songs of Unrest, Yo La Tengo, Felt and the High Llamas, and you start to see how the song ended up like it did. At nearly eight minutes, ‘Trying too hard’ is the ’becks longest recorded song to date. Meadows, Meadows, Gosden and Rinse had rehearsed the body of the song thoroughly before taking it to the studio. Two guitars, bass and drums were recorded together before they called on the services of multi-instrumentalist Matt Sigley and his Korg Mono/Poly. Matt emblazoned the track with the “Sigley signature”, adding his Hideaway in the Country autochord and Persian Marketplace themes.
They let the recording settle for a few weeks before mixing the songs, over three sessions, at Casbah (the Port Melbourne studio owned by Mike Brady, of ‘Up There Cazaly’ fame) in late June and early July with Gearing Thomas again at the controls. Song order for the coming mini-LP was hotly disputed, ‘Guilty Spring’ eventually snaring the coveted track one position.
In August, Melbourne label Low Transit Industries, “home of the world weary balladeer”, expressed interest in releasing the record. Arrangements were quickly made between band and record company. The band remained loyal to Drive-In for their American releases, but changes were afoot at Drive-In’s Grand Rapids headquarters. Label founder Mike Babb was about to launch another imprint, Microindie Records, and asked the band to consider making the mini-LP the first release on the new label. They said yes.
Branches and Fronds Brushing the Windows (microcd1/ltid010), was issued in November 2003 as a joint release between Microindie and Low Transit Industries. The band supported the new record with a flurry of shows in hometown Melbourne, including a launch on a Friday night in early November at the Rob Roy Hotel. The launch was a lavish affair with branches and fronds literally adorning the stage, guest musicians aplenty (keys, two trumpeters and real live girl backing vocalists), and an exhibition of historic Steinbecks posters and flyers. The night reached a climax with band and guests performing a stirring rendition of the Love classic, ‘Alone Again Or’.
As the Australian summer approached – often a creative season for the brothers – the group started developing new songs.
Live performances were sporadic throughout 2004, with the ’becks spending more time in the rehearsal room than on the sticky carpets of Melbourne’s live venues. As the year progressed, a number of new tunes muscled their way in to the live set.
In February 2005 the band recorded demo versions of 11 new songs: ‘1987’, ‘Every empire must fall’, ‘Sutton Grange’, ‘Sellowiana’, ‘Blank pages (are starting to fill)’, ‘Moon and stars’, ‘Shin’s journey’, ‘Bye bye baby’, ‘Sweepstakes and cheapskates’ and two songs co-written with Tali White (Lucksmiths, Guild League), ‘The Doppler effect’ and ‘Have you ever looked after a song?’ The basis of the tracks – drums, bass and one guitar – were recorded in a single session at Revolver in Prahran. Vocals, keys and more guitar parts were added a week later at the home studio of long-time ’becks collaborator Matt Sigley.
In June 2005 Joel went digital, purchasing Protools, the computer program that had revolutionised recording the world over. The ’becks soon became well acquainted with the blessing (no longer entirely dependent on expensive studios to make release-quality recordings = unbridled creativity) and the curse (no studio deadlines = projects that drag on endlessly) that is Protools.
The recordings that were to become Far From the Madding Crowd (microcd11/PB037) started to be crafted in September 2005. The backbone tracks were laid down in two Saturday sessions, on 8 and 15 October 2005. This was followed by a series of (mostly) Wednesday night sessions that continued for the next 12 months.
The band had played ‘1987 + 1994 = 2007’ fast and thrashy a number of times in their live set. It was similar in feel to their previous effort, ‘Song for today’. Their first attempt at recording ‘1987’ was in this vein. But it wasn’t quite right. Towards the end of one full-band session, drummer Rinse felt inspired to slow the beat right down. After just a couple of run throughs, they hit record and captured the magic of the final take. Joel and Andy play the two electric guitars: captured with two mikes on each of the amps and two more mikes in the room, to pick up the ambience of the St David’s chapel. The old green Maton struggled to stay in tune, but the take had so much feel, they kept it. Sigley’s chopped up piano solo duels with Joel’s guitar solo, somehow managing to blend the sensibility of the Pet Shop Boys with the sensuality of Pavement. Josh’s primal howls over the closing minute of the song were recorded sans electronic reverb; the chapel’s natural reverb was plenty.
In contrast, ‘Shin’s journey’ started life as a slow, Neil Young inspired jam… and got faster. The words tell an almost biographical story relating to a friend of the band, artist Shannon “Shin” Smiley, whose work adorns the album’s sleeve. It’s a “love conquers all” tale that takes the listener from the Victorian College of the Arts to the Highland Moors of Scotland and back again. Joel worked the many layers of guitars over a series of sessions at St David’s and at home. Late one night when he had an idea for a slide guitar part, but didn’t have a slide, he used a glass. It worked just as well and the track stayed. The horns (trumpet and French horn) are played by Adam Dennis and Rowan Austin. The Human Leaguesque analogue synth sounds (the ‘drone’ and the ‘squiggle’) were added by Matt Sigley at his country house. The falsetto vocal part (“I can see them out on the moors tonight”) seemed like a crazy idea when Josh conceived it, but once it was recorded the whole band knew it was right. They worried they might have added a touch of Judas Priest to the record, but when it sounds this good, what can you do?
In ‘Sweepstakes and cheapskates’ Josh plays the steady heartbeat bassline that anchors the song, Joel the close insistent acoustic guitar, Matt Sigley the underlying keys and gorgeous unbridled piano solo. The “sweepstakes, cheapskates” vocals at the end are Joel and Jerry, with more than a nod to Richard Davies (the Moles).
‘Bye bye baby’ is all fragile vocals (Josh) and stark acoustic (Joel) until Gizo’s‘It’s heavy in here’ bass and Jerry’s crashing kit tear apart the introspective idyll. The song was one of the first recorded, but by the end of the album’s sessions the band knew they could do it a whole lot better and completely re-recorded it.
‘The Doppler Effect’ was co-written by Joel and cousin Tali White. Josh, Joel and Tali had long talked about writing songs together. It finally came to pass when Joel put two new tunes on a cassette and gave it to Tali to come up with some lyrics for. It was the worth the wait. ‘Doppler’ is a powerful pop punch that dissects the city/country relationship and makes you feel like you’ve got a jingle in yr pocket and the whole world is your friend. The ‘Doppler’ video was made by Daryl Munton and made available on the internet ahead of the album’s release.
When Josh & Joel recorded the demo version of ‘Have you ever looked after a song?’ at Matt Sigley’s place, they hadn’t yet heard the lyrics Tali had written for the song. Tali sang them over the phone to Josh, who sang them on the demo. Tali’s own voice appears on the final version, the vocals recorded at Joel’s place.
Joel’s insistent ‘Moon & stars’ is bitter and angry at the way the world is (“I have of late and where I do not know lost all my mirth with this insatiable greed” ), then jettisons angst for awe when reawakened to the renewing splendour of the natural world (“they cannot hold a candle to the moon and stars”). The song does not fit neatly into a particular style, combining elements from Head Injuries-era Midnight Oil with the mood of the Chills’‘Pink Frost’.
‘Sutton Grange’ was originally intended as an album track, but was bumped off when the superior ‘Dawning effect’ was written.
‘Every empire must fall’ had been played live by the band as early as 2004, but the song changed considerably during its development. Joel got sick during the recording process and completely lost his voice. He had to wait until he was speaking terms with himself before he could record his own vocals.
‘Sellowiana’ is the only song on Far From the Madding Crowd in which all elements were recorded in the one night. Everything was recorded live and au natural in the St David’s chapel in Abbotsford, with just three parts overdubbed (Joel’s vocal, the electric ‘swells’ and some acoustic guitar reinforcement).
‘Blank pages (are starting to fill)’ did not work as a recording until ‘Magic’ Matt Sigley added the marvellous Vox Continental organ played through a Lesley speaker. The band (and cousin Tali) had fun playing around with the backing vocals and it comes across on the recording.
The confessional ‘Dawning Effect’ was written on 30 May 2006 and recorded the following day. ‘Beacon’ was another that came together late in the piece and was not demoed first. Adam Dennis helped Josh and Joel with the backing vocals. The birdsong is silver eyes and a butcher bird.
The album was mixed with Craig Pilkington (Killjoys) at Audrey Studios from 11 to 14 October 2006. It was mastered by Simon Grounds on 22 November.
In early 2007 the band played at Pure Pop Records in St Kilda and a ‘bike gig’ at Brunswick velodrome, for which the whole show – the band, amps, guitars, drums, the PA and the audience – was transported to the venue on bicycles and bike trailers. It was BYO picnic and drinks. There was a free bike repair team and very dangerous cycle racing between sets. Scott from Popboomerang manned the record stall.
Far From the Madding Crowd was released by Microindie in the USA and Popboomerang in Australia in April. The album launch was at Northcote Social Club on 11 May with the Guild League and the Daytime Frequency supporting.
After this the Steinbecks entered a period of hibernation. Well, not really hibernation, because Josh and Joel continued to write songs and play music together, but they rarely played in public. They worked slowly towards a new album, writing songs together, demoing them at Joel’s place and occasionally getting together with Joel Sprake and Matt Sigley to flesh out the compositions as a full band. They played a couple of small gigs in 2011, both in country Victoria – the launch of Adam Dennis’ solo album F-35 at a winery near Seymour and a benefit gig for Cambodian communities at Lot 19 in Castlemaine.
Sometime in the first half of 2012 Josh and Joel decided maybe the time was right to put together a compilation album of songs recorded by their previous band, the Sugargliders. (The decision to do a Sugargliders compilation followed two years of gentle but persistent persuasion from Popboomerang supremo Scott Thurling!) The brothers dug out dusty DAT and reel-to-reel master tapes from the bottoms of wardrobes, selected the 20 songs they felt best represented the ‘gliders years and had them converted to a digital format, then remastered by Ross Cockle at Sing Sing. Josh and Joel made it clear to Scott they were not prepared to play gigs as The Sugargliders to promote the album, but they would do a couple of Steinbecks shows around the time the album was released, including a launch party Scott proposed for early November. The Empress Hotel, a venue the Sugargliders played at 13 times, was booked for the launch party. Special guests were invited to play short sets and to include a Sugargliders song in their set. Guests included Bart & Friends (Girl of the World, Cat’s Miaow, Lucksmiths, Earthmen, Zebras), Mark Murphy (Captain Cocoa, Ripe, Moondriven), Adam Dennis (Captain Cocoa, Jordans, Steinbecks), Matt Sigley (Daytime Frequency, Earthmen, Lovetones), Mark Narkowicz (Dunaways, Fish John West Reject) and Tim Best (Girl of the World, Hispana Tim, Serge & Destroy). The Steinbecks ended the night with a longer set and snuck in a few Sugargliders songs (‘Letter from a lifeboat’ and ‘Reinventing penicillin’, with ‘Yr jacket’ as an encore). A great night was had by all.
Meanwhile the next Steinbecks album slowly came together. By this stage both brothers had been living in Castlemaine, in central Victoria, for a few years. While this was conducive to getting together with Kyneton-based Matt Sigley, it wasn’t so good for rehearsing regularly with Melbourne-loyal Jerry Rinse. When the brothers made friends with young central Victorian multi-instrumentalist and ’60s pop encyclopaedia Joseph Bromley, they knew they had found a local drummer. They continued recording the album with Rinse drumming on some songs and Bromley on others. Sigley contributed bass and keys. When it came to mixing Gary Aspinall, who played bass on one of Josh and Joel’s favourite singles of all time – ‘Chimes’ by The Odolites – came along and gave invaluable advice.
The band played just three gigs in 2012 and three more in 2013.
Popboomerang (Australia) and Matinée (USA) expressed interest in releasing the forthcoming album, Kick to kick with The Steinbecks. Josh and Joel were keen for it to come out on both labels.
Matinée asked the band about releasing a single ahead of the album’s appearance. The band did a 4-minute “radio edit” of ‘At Arkaroo Rock’ for the A-side (a longer version would appear on album). Two exclusive tracks went on the B-side. ‘All Desires Known’ is arguably Josh and Joel’s most fragile, stripped back recorded moment since ‘Yr jacket’ (1994), the last song they recorded as The Sugargliders. In contrast ‘Cabin fever’ is an energetic ode to earthy love, reminiscent of the Monochrome Set, Tenpole Tudor and the Brilliant Corners. The single – the first Steinbecks single on 7″ vinyl since 1996! – was released in August 2013, limited to 500 copies.
Another song from the forthcoming album, ‘Through the curtain’, was included on a Matinée compilation album, A Sunday Matinée (matcd064) in November 2013.
The band played a storming set in Kyneton on the first day of summer and another on the second day of autumn, as part of the Kyneton Music Festival.
The new album Kick to kick with The Steinbecks was released in April 2014.
‘Homesickness’ is a blast of pure guitar pop, but it is at the same time unsettling, due to the odd timing and the lyrics, which chart the yearning for a place/moment/thing that cannot be recovered: “And we ask, why does this light seem wrong? And where’s the shiver in that song? And whence the soul for which mine longs?”
‘At Arkaroo Rock’ was released as a 7” single in mid-2013. Described by ‘In with these times, in spite of these times’ as “a song about how we all stand so small when we set ourselves against the long passage of time” and as displaying “a dizzying level of exquisiteness”, the lyrics link the layers of a landscape’s history with the layers of a relationship. The lushest track on the album.
Over a searing electric guitar riff that is the backbone of ‘We cannot hope to compete with such colours’ Joel contemplates the fabric of the universe as he examines a tiny grain of sand: “inside which is everything and nothing / inside which is the DNA of stars…”
‘Blow the limen’ has a touch of Abbey Road or Odessey & Oracle with its intricate bassline and whirring Vox Continental organ. Even the words could have come from the late ’60s, as the ’becks urge the listener to explore subliminal thoughts and re-connect with the natural world.
In ‘Semblance of hope’, the album’s most fragile three minutes, Joel breathes a sigh of relief over his narrow escape from suburbia (“you could have taken my best years”) and in falsetto begs his sweetheart to “stay with me and watch while the sun sets its gold at the hillside”. A slow, sparse, stunning ballad.
Part list song, part social commentary, part soapbox rant, ‘I, radio’ is ultimately a passionate love song to the wireless. Joel talks/sings/shouts about his childhood experiences of the radio, the thrill of Top 40, the discovery of underground radio and the bands that changed his life.
‘Cold little bones’ is all woody and organic – mandolin, double bass, melodica and unaffected vocals tread the twisted pathways the mind wanders while waiting too long from someone to come home.
‘Trying to be someone’, written by drummer Bromley, is a driving pop song that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Smith’s Meat is Murder. As electric guitars jangle, then riff, then nearly spiral out of control, Josh sings of isolation, rejection and the search for identity and authenticity.
On ‘Through the curtain’ Matt Sigley weaves an irresistible bassline and Joel has a go at Flamenco guitar playing, as he used to on occasion in The Sugargliders. The song’s message? When romance lets you down you can always fall back on the romance of music.
On ‘Burning holes in the sun’ Matt Sigley and Jerry Rinse lock into a bass and drum groove that nods to Neu!, but Joel’s guitar solo owes more to Ace Frehley than indie influences. Meanwhile Josh agonises over “watching Bathsheba and catching fear”. Somehow it all comes together in a tight, infectious, memorable track.
‘Burning holes (reprise)’ takes some of the same lyrics as the previous song, but sets them to a completely different piece of music. The listener is transported to an after-midnight ’60s club where the band has settled into a slow groove and a Spanish guitarist is lazily riffing from the stage.
The title track and album closer, ‘Kick to kick’, is the Meadows brothers’ tribute to a complicated, much-loved cousin, who died too young and left a lasting impression. Electric guitar pop in the vein of the Lemonheads, Blake Babies and Teenage Fanclub.
Joel worked with Castlemaine filmmaker Ben Harding to make a video clip for ‘I, radio’.
Album launches for Kick to kick with The Steinbecks were scheduled for 10 May 2014 (Workers’ Club, Melbourne) and 31 May (Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine).
Declan Weismuller and Kylie Stuyvesant