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Nicky Crewe talks to Steve J Allen about his new album 'Contrast', his influences and approaches to life and music and moving from Sheffield to the other side of the world,
Originally from Peterborough, formerly based in Sheffield, and now living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Steve J Allen has worked with Thomas Lebioda of Studio III Recordings in Sheffield to produce this new collection of songs. The first track to be released, Old Friend, came out on streaming platforms on August 6, and the album will be released on September 3.
This interview was conducted during one of the UK’s coronavirus lockdowns. At a time when many of us were reassessing our lives, it’s a real insight into one man’s development both as a musician and as an individual. Our long conversation covered his influences and approaches to life and music as he has moved to live and work on the other side of the world.
The pandemic has opened up new ways of working through technology, though 'Contrast' predates those restrictions. It has meant that he has been able to work with a producer and musicians he knew and trusted in spite of the geographical distance between them.
PB: How would you describe your music? What label would you choose?
SJA: That question has been the bane of my life! I always have a difficulty with labels of any kind and that kind of sums up me in a nutshell. I don't personally know what label my music has, but I know that it has been influenced by the energy of punk music, and often it’s easiest to just say it's kind of folk-punk, which is fine but it never really sits well with me, because to be honest I know that I have already and will continue to make completely different music which does not fall under that category. Then what do you say?
It actually used to bother me in a way, and I had a bit of an identity crisis and went through so many different names for my projects to try and differentiate them. But really deep down I think I just wanted to be me and play whatever. After all it’s just a bunch of ideas that has come to me depending on where I was in that moment.
I don't have a problem with folk punk, but I don't think it represents this music. Part of the reason it was even punk-esque in the vocal in the first place was simply because I couldn't sing for shit and I had to force and shout in order hit the notes I was aiming for. I have gotten better over the years at controlling my voice and that naturally makes an organic impact on the music. I know the third album (''Contrast' follows Steve’s 2014 debut 'Wreck the Place') is going to be very different.
Taking that further, though, the funny thing is that the reason I began singing in the first place was basically to be able to make a complete package. Before that, I made instrumental music under the name Dr Robeatnik, and would play with other singers as the backing or lead musician. So singing was a necessity in order for me to realise an idea and a dream to release a full length album, and I knew I would get bored of it if it was purely instrumental.
My biggest passion with all this really lies in the weaving of all the sounds, using whatever I've got to use at the time. The vocals and lyrics are just another part of it.
Punk acoustic and punk/folk was always the easiest way to explain it to someone without going into semantics but it feels too boxed in for me, I like such a huge range of music, that I play what comes to me, it just so happens to have the energy of punk a lot of the time, which I really love, and the fact that it is largely led by an acoustic guitar.
Some of my favourite bands range from Radiohead, Bright Eyes, Bouncing Souls and Dillinger Four, all of which have been hugely influential to me because of the genius in the musicianship and the diversity. Most of the bands I’m most drawn to have been the type you simply can't put a label on because they cover so much ground that all you know them by is actually their band name as the label.
They don’t have a genre. they are recognised by their band name. Then you find that other people say that a certain band or song sounds like Pink Floyd or whatever. That fascinates me, because to me that is real expression by a group of people, and as life always changes their music changes with it. I get so bored of bands when they stay the same.
PB: I notice 'Wreck the Place' is on Righteous Anger Records. Your music demands to be listened to, and 'Contrast' lives up to the title. There's a different set of emotions, a wider range, in the lyrics and style, but it is of course still very recognisably you.
SJA: This is a huge part of the title for me too actually, everything has a meaning in what I do and when I was trying to bridge the gap and share what this album was about in the simplest way possible the word ‘contrast’ summed it up perfectly for me.
This album has been a collection of songs ranging from some of the earliest I wrote as a singer – “No Time” and “Slap in the Face”, for example – and then songs which were half-written around the time of recording “Wreck the Place”, plus newer songs after that album which started to reflect more of where I was at in my life then.
But the thing was that even though this is a newly released album, I am a different person, and even more so now that it is being released. It signifies the contrast in life that made me who I am today. It doesn't represent who I am, but it represents the journey of me learning about who I am.
I used to be more angry at the state of the world and the injustice, but not fully understanding it, wishing for more unity and peace and not knowing how to be or do that, but I began taking a new look at myself which started around the time I had just finished recording 'Wreck the Place', and since then in 2013, I became more aware of my beliefs, and patterns and that what I was angry about on the outside was a reflection of what was inside of me, so I got heavily into the way the mind works and how to transform my life from bouts of depression and feelings of anger to learning how to choose what I really wanted out of life regardless of what the outside world seemed to dictate before.
Some of the newer songs started to reflect a level of newer awareness that I was in charge of creating my life. And it developed more from being averse to governments and people’s actions for example, to having a new sense of self-responsibility. Just as a rough insight into some of the meanings behind the songs,
'Old Friend' is about reconnecting with that childlike trust of my intuition. 'Indistinct Chatter' is like a break up song but with the negative media or the news, and how change, breaking patterns and things people get so addicted to is kind of like that process
PB: Why did you choose Thomas Lebioda and Studio III for this album?
SJA: Tommy Lebioda originally mastered 'Wreck the Place', and then supported it all with releasing it on Labelship. Everything always works out good with Tommy, we resonate well together, there's trust and I respect him as a musician and producer.
I decided I wanted to let go of control and record in a studio, and also work alongside someone else to bounce ideas with. It was a really great process and collaborative effort to bring it to life.
PB: You are originally from Peterborough. Were you involved in a music scene there? If so, are there still connections?
SJA: Peterborough was so important in everything I have done musically. I met an amazing community of people when I was 16 in the punk scene there. The main focus was about positivity and unity was huge. One band I played bass with on tour around Europe at 18 got me comfortable with touring and no doubt that opened the doors to tour more in the years to follow.
PB: What brought you to Sheffield?
SJA: I needed change, I felt bored and boxed in in Peterborough, and it was going through a really dry phase in the music scene too, so I wanted to go somewhere where there was a thriving music scene. It just so happened my good friend moved there, and I felt like, “why not go too?” I had visited a few times and I loved the place, so it was a very easy choice and I’m glad I did.
PB: What influence did your time based at the Cremorne (a Sheffield pub and venue) have on you – as legendary pizza chef as well as musician?
SJA: I only had a job like that so I could pay rent with the most freedom I could create, I could go away and tour and travel with ease and always come back to a job. I was always involved in the music too, and there were a lot of good people and musicians around.
Towards the end it became a real place of growth for me. As I was working on transforming myself I could sense the disconnect between where I was and where I wanted to go, so the next steps – moving to Malaysia – made sense.
PB: Where does your time as Dr Robeatnik fit in? Was it a band or you solo?
SJA: Dr Robeatnik was a gateway for me to get ideas out of my mind – it was looped, pedal-based, so it was multi-layers of guitar and percussiveness, almost all instrumental. I couldn't sing then nor had a desire to. And my favourite thing with all the music I create is how the music is layered and structured. I had freedom to experiment and do I what I wanted in my own time. As I don't know anything technical about music I play by ear and feeling. I used to find it tough to articulate my ideas to others to it was easier to do it this way.
PB: Kuala Lumpur sounds a world away from the Cremorne. Is that reflected in the music?
SJA: All the songs were written before I moved but it was a really cool time working on this with Tommy and Ally (Fraser) and the other musicians in the perfect time to wrap up a chapter of life. I have the basic rough workings of a third album practically ready to be developed now, and that will reflect more of the newer changes and my outlook on life even more.
PB: What took you to Malaysia? Was it an easy decision?
SJA: Totally easy situation – I felt pulled to this part of my life completely. In the years I was working on myself I learned how to change, and in turn I began working with people and groups to help them change their lives and be at peace and I always wanted to reach thousands if not millions of people with what helped me with what I learned and practised. Now I am part of a team of good people helping millions of others worldwide, so it was a natural move that all happened at the perfect time.
I made a big decision after recording 'Wreck the Place' practically on my own that I didn't want to do things like this any more, I wanted more collaboration and more trust and fun with others in the creation process. I could never articulate my ideas with others very well so I defaulted to doing it myself, but that was so draining and I wanted to work with others. I know that this decision led me to work with more people as a community manager for a transformational education company. And that's another reason why I had more musicians playing on this album.
PB: Who are your influences and who inspires you?
SJA: I’m inspired by anything from Radiohead to DJ Shadow to classical music, anything where there are layers of music.
PB: Which song are you most proud of?
SJA: Probably 'For Joe' – in one way I think it not only signifies a significant event and person in my life but it also signifies simplicity. Which is something I could never get my head around, growing up. I would always try to overcomplicate things and want to add more and more, and this song was pretty straightforward and to the point for me. I always enjoy playing it and it also has that element of collaboration and fun, especially with Tommy and me playing around with percussion and piano, glockenspiel and organ.
PB: Are there any stories behind the songs you'd like to share?
SJA: 'For Joe' was a turning point in my songwriting, first of all, but it is my personal homage to a kid in my school who died aged 14 during his music class, and I knew him but he wasn't necessarily close to me but we always got on well. Something I noticed was that to me he seemed different to many other kids of that age. He was kind of in the cool-kid crowd, but from what I saw of him he was also sound with the nerdy kids, and somehow when he died I had never experienced a sense of unity like that in my life. I never realised how impactful he and what happened to him was for me until I started unexpectedly writing this song about him.
What it meant for me that will stick with me forever is that, man, can you leave a real positive impact on people when you are nice to them, and if that can stop all conflicts even for just a brief moment then it really made me become more aware of who I was to others, and how I would treat them. I don’t know how many other people remember him in this way, but I'll never forget that.
PB: Finally, what do you hope for from this album?
SJA: I feel it'll most likely connect with people who are resonating with the energy and place I have lived in and am living in, and I hope people get their own meanings from the songs. Basically I hope they nod their head and enjoy. To me the album is organic, imperfect and open to suggestion. I enjoy it and that's really all I care about.
PB: Thank you.
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