Words by Art Jipson
On his sixth solo studio album, Suicide Commandos and Beat Rodeo founder Steve Almaas continues to explore the introspective elements of a musical life. In the genre expansive ‘Everywhere You’ve Been’ he explores a vast canvas of sound yet continues an appreciation for rock and roll that provides a foundation for his meditations on time, self and connection.
Almaas has gathered some amazing musicians and guests such as the Jayhawk’s Gary Louris and Tony Garnier who plays bass for Bob Dylan. The incredible Mitch Easter, who helped Almaas craft a fresh approach to alt country and Americana, mixed the record. Almaas’ patient yet evocative voice and skill at writing melodies, regardless of style and genre, together with several great musicians and guest artists make ‘Everywhere You’ve Been’ a record that should be experienced.
Off Shelf: Thank you for doing this.
Steve Almaas: My pleasure. You know this record is a mom and pop operation at this point, but I’m grateful to still be making new music and I’m excited about this record. We made a Suicide Commandos album a few years ago. But other than that – this is my first vinyl since the ‘80s so I’m really pleased to be pressing the vinyl of this and I probably got more excited than I should have just about the idea of the side one, side two idea where you have to physically flip the vinyl.
It has all been CDs since the ‘80s and even though it was always CDs in my mind, I would sequence these albums and there would always be a side one and a side two. But of course, people don’t listen to music like that anymore. Unless it’s a physical record you just don’t hear it like that – To flip it over and the like. You remember how the first song on side one of a physical record was the start of the listening experience. I always found that pleasurable. This record has a clear side one-side two approach.
OS: I am thinking what is interesting about this record is how many genres that you cut across. You have songs that feel like country music, alt country, introspective singer songwriter, and couple of songs that feel more as if they were taken out of a distant past. But then also some songs that sound remarkably present and fresh today. I’m just curious if that was intentional, as you were working on the music or did that just evolve over time.
SA: I don’t think it’s intentional to this specific album, but I would like to think that has always been one of my deals was trying to not have the songs all sound the same. I sometimes feel like maybe that has hurt me, in a way I think. You know bands that people like such as The Smith’s or R.E.M. or something like there is a kind of a continuity to those songs that is definitely not my approach. In a broad sense, every time I write a song I feel like I’m starting from scratch, in a way.
The song ‘Everywhere You’ve Been’ is a bit of a statement of purpose. For the record, in that song. I kind of feel like I managed to get in a little bit everything I know on this one. What I have learned about making music that I’ve just picked up along the way, and it is like you know it’s a record of somebody that’s been doing it a while.
OS: I am also curious about how ‘Everywhere You’ve Been’ implies the influence of place. Is that something that is clear throughout the record in your mind?
SA: That song is kind of about the passage of time, and that it’s built around the idea of a letter to someone that’s just says that isn’t the case. I think of it this way: You know how you can feel so sure you know everything and everywhere you’ve been? That you remember everything. That you understand everything. That you think you know this year, you are your whole life, not just what is going on in this minute and I guess that’s what I was writing about.
I guess I’ve reached the time in life where you think about stuff in a different way. It is alright to want to say something important in a quiet way. In the beginning of my career I felt differently but now thanks to the passing of time and experience, I understand that some of the most import ideas can be shared in a whisper.
OS: How did you approach the recording?
SA: Well, you know that is something that is great about recording today as opposed to 30 years ago. You can really make a pretty good hi-fi record for less money than it used to cost. I’ve been producing a few records for another guitar player/songwriter named Karen Haglof and we did a barter on the last record I produced. I produced it in exchange for studio time so she is the executive producer on this project and we worked in the same studio that I’ve been working with her for the “meat and potatoes” of the album. It’s a good exchange.
Do you know Eric Ambel? Eric has a studio in Green Point in Brooklyn called Cowboy Technical Services. It is a great little studio and we did the majority of the basic tracks there. The bass and drums, some of my guitars and a lot of that background vocals were done there. I actually did most of my lead vocals in my home studio up in the country, because I like singing alone. There’s a thing about some of them that I did them at Cowboy Technical and then some singing was done at home. Again, you know another thing about the modern age is that you can record at home.
A pedal steel player I’ve worked with a lot Jon Grayboff who’s played with Right Ends and The Cardinals among a lot of other projects, he has played with Iris Dement… he plays in a lot of really good stuff but he lives in New Mexico right now, but you know, such is our relationship that we have each other play on our records. Us having worked together so much that I could kind of just give him the most abstract instructions for the songs and he kind of just knows right what I’m talking about. So he did it a lot of the guitar and pedal steel out in New Mexico.
Then Kenny Vaughn from Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – he’s an old friend we played together and played gigs together a lot back in the old days – he was coming through Kingston, New York near where I live. Marty was opening for the Steve Miller Band so Marty was gracious enough to give Kenny, the afternoon off and he came over to a friend’s studio Woodstock and cut a couple of tracks, so there was a bit of that catching people when they are free to work on the songs.
And then I always, if at all possible, I always mix with Mitch Easter down in down in Connersville, North Carolina and I always asked Mitch to play on a couple of things too. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have mix a record than Mitch, and I wish I could gather all the personnel. I would love to record there, but that’s a little harder to get everybody else down in North Carolina.
OS: What is it that you think Mitch brings to the process? I mean not only you know the long career in music, but being so sought after as a producer and as a mixer.
SA: His taste, is just perfect. And again, I mean, I think the first record that we did together was in like 1980 or 81 – we go back so long and our shared history that he’s another person I can speak in the most abstract terms about things, and he immediately brings something is to it that’s totally in the same groove. It’s that way with everybody I worked with on this record.
That the drummer is a young guy who actually is my daughter’s fiancé. And he brought in Tony Garnier to play standup bass because Tony plays in it so well. Tony functions as Bob Dylan’s musical director and plays standup in a jazz trio so you know that he has incredible skill. That was a nice thing of this project that you have a mix of experience and approaches.
OS: Think about the music that you’re making today compared to the music that the Suicide Commandos made or that Beat Rodeo made. How do you think about the music you are making today given your career?
SA: I don’t really reflect on the past too much. I would love to have been doing what I’m doing now during the time of Beat Rodeo. But you know, that’s impossible. When I had those resources and those opportunities I wish I knew what I know now then. I believe I’m a late bloomer. I am a slow learner. I didn’t play rhythm guitar or lead a band till I was like 25 when I met the guys in Beat Rodeo.
I formed The Suicide Commandos with Chris and Dave from right after high school, they were like two years older than me, which was a lot in those days. And I learned so much from those guys in the same way I learned about music with the guys I gathered for Beat Rodeo. I’ve been blessed to play with some really, really good people over the years and yeah I think that it just means I know more now in a way.
OS: Well, it sounds like you are being a little hard on yourself.
SA: I hope not. No, I think I always had something to bring to the party but the projects you are in can feel different to you as time passes, you know? I don’t listen to it very often, but if it comes up it’ll usually remind me what I was doing. I am reminded about a few of those songs from time to time and yeah that is a pleasurable experience. Or if somebody covers them. You know Soul Asylum covered one of my songs Suicide Commando songs. A Swedish band years ago did a great cover of a Suicide Commandos song we never released in a studio version. I love hearing other people sing my songs.
OS: What is it about other people singing your songs that you find appealing?
SA: Well, they bring their take to it and it’ll sort of live beyond you. It’s really nice.
OS: I’m curious ‘Everywhere You’ve Been’ is like a statement of where you are now, almost like you are saying that “I’m looking back” or is it like just taking stock as you move forward?
SA: Yeah that song is about where you are now. It’s like a sort of a pep talk to somebody that ‘yes, you are great now and maybe things aren’t perfect, you don’t know if you’re not feeling so great, right now, but you are everything that you experienced.’ You are the combination of your life, not just the hard time you’re going through right at the moment.
OS: And you have that thought in your mind as you’re recording it – as you’re singing.
SA: Absolutely, yeah. You know, I am an elementary school teacher and something they taught us in school was about this psychologist Eric Erickson and his seven stages of life. The last stage of life is either contentment or despair, depending on how you have lived your life, and so I guess, I was kind of thinking about that of somebody trying to decide how they feel about their life. I am just trying to give a positive message to somebody that they are great and they’ve done a lot of great things in their life and their life, now is the is the sum total not just our time of struggle of what we are going through at the moment.
This album is positive, it was in the the summer that I did it, I was also falling in love and it was a really good time in my life. I think in general, you can hear it in the tracks and it’s really positive energy. Everybody’s feeling good and feeling good about what they’re doing.
OS: I’m interested in the song “Way I Treated You.” That song which is almost confessional to me. Are you singing about a character, or are you singing more about yourself?
SA: I would say it’s more of a character. When I wrote that song I was trying to write a sort of Roger Miller type of song. But having said that I bet there’s probably one or two women think that song was about. It is not something to a specific person now.
OS: It does feel confessional. It seems like you are reflecting.
SA: Yeah it’s reflective. It’s reflective I like the description reflective for that song.
OS: What is it about making music that is still interesting and compelling to you today?
SA: Well, you know… I just think you’re blessed, you’re so lucky if you get to wake up and think about music every day. I mean it’s a passion. Talking to Mitch Easter we will always end up talking lead groups or something like that and sometimes we just start laughing that this is probably the same conversation I could have had with somebody when I was 12 years old. I am of that generation that the world went from one way to another when The Beatles appeared. From then on I got the bug there and it never left.
I think this is an interesting thing about my listening habits. I think most of the old music I listen to is made by guys and most of the new music I listen to is made by women. The songwriters that, for whatever reason I pick up on are all women now. And I really like Jenny Lewis and Haley Boner – a record called The Impossible Dream that came out a few years ago. Just love that record. My daughter got me into Phoebe Bridgers.
OS: What do you, what do you think is driving that interest?
SA: Maybe it’s just interesting. Maybe we’ve heard enough from the guys and it’s time to hear from the women. I don’t know. I mean, I certainly don’t listen to it because they’re women – it’s just as it’s happened, those are the records that have piqued my interest.
OS: Beyond the live situation how has the pandemic affected your music or your ability to make music?
SA: There’s a secret track and it was a personal statement. Well that’s kind of my response to the pandemic. My partner is a nurse practitioner, who was really on the front lines of the pandemic. If you know what she went through and April and May, I wouldn’t wish on anybody. And I couldn’t see her for 12 weeks and during that time I’d written a song for her. And I wanted to make her like a present, like a nice present.
So I went out to my home studio and I put down a beat and I played acoustic guitar and bass and saying. And then I sent it down to Mitch Easter down in North Carolina and he played drums and guitars and keyboards and mixed it. There’s no room for it on the vinyl, unfortunately but you can get a download if you buy online or buy the vinyl. Yes, that was that was a creative response to being stuck in the band in. That song two guys working long distance. And I think he came out pretty good.
OS: Another song that I really enjoyed was ‘Down by the lake’. It sounds current, but it also sounds like it could have been made 100 years ago.
SA: Well, the yeah the chord changes are old-fashioned. What happened was somebody gave me a ukulele and you know, give me a new instrument and mess around with it, and if I’m lucky a song will come out. I’m digging the new Jayhawks record. Did you notice Gary Louris sings on a song on my record?
OS: I could I could listen to Gary Louris sing the phone book. He has such a terrific voice.
SA: Yeah, he’s lovely. It was that was a a beautiful day. I was out in my trailer and I had sung the lead vocal for that song and I was sitting there trying to sing the harmony to it myself and it just just didn’t sound right to me and I thought, “This works – Gary Louris – singing this.” And I called him up, and I said “Gary I’m trying to sing this harmony in the sun is just not happening. Would you have a go ahead?” and he said sure. In a couple days, he sent it back and yeah – bingo, that was it. He nailed it.
OS: You mentioned you work as an Elementary School Teacher, do you find ways to bring music into the classroom?
SA: I sing to the kids every day. And you know, you know, a really nice moment was we were watching inauguration and J Lo comes out and she starts singing This Land is Your Land. My kids went berserk because we sing that every week! They knew the song and they’re going, is there a reason that they were so excited. Yes, I bring music into everything I can.
OS: So, of course I know we’re trying to get people to listen to this record, but what future projects or what future ideas are gestating in your mind right now?
SA: The next thing is to write another batch of songs. I’ve got a few but as soon as I have enough for an album I’ll try to do another. That just sort of is depends on the time and tide of human events, you know? I definitely plan on making another somewhere down the line and The Suicide Commandos have an idea for a project. Did you ever hear the album we made three or four years ago? It’s a good record, I thought. We did really well in Minneapolis and the PR people that we hired could not get arrested anywhere else with it.