Hey! Manchester presents Stephen Steinbrink
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After more than ten years of touring and secluded home recording, Stephen Steinbrink has catalogued several albums worth of gorgeous melody, quotidian dread and desert blight in his stark, minimal pop. Yet the songs on his latest record Anagrams, beautiful yet unflinching portraits of addiction and mental illness are captured in his most meticulous and high-fidelity production to date. While one might expect the record to be a final destination, a tidy hi-res culmination of all this journeying, the album’s particularly varied styles and sincere lyrical uncertainty portray a search that still continues.
‘While making Anagrams I felt like I was losing it,’ Stephen says. ‘Lately writing songs almost makes the world seem more chaotic, like I keep digging up re-burying the same old bone. For this album I tried to continue unpacking these forgotten images and memories, except this time without placing any subjective meaning on them, or any expectation of personal growth to occur after. Maybe it’s silly to expect the process of making art to be a clarifying act.’
Stephen’s artistic trajectory can be considered nomadic in the obvious sense: when not incessantly touring Europe and the US in the last two years, he spent his stationary moments on his beloved, spaced-out west coast, writing in Olympia, Washington; Oakland, California and Phoenix, Arizona. But as a self-taught producer, audio fidelity itself proves to be an equally accurate gauge of his craft. Like many songwriters, he cut his teeth in the tape hiss and bedroom hum of lo-fi four-track endeavours. Then in 2014, he released an unabashedly digital tableaux of subdued, heartbreaking pop, aptly titled Arranged Waves. Now, Anagrams finds him chasing melodies in the polished largesse of a proper studio.
Stephen spent numerous scattered sessions over 18 months at UNKNOWN, a retrofitted studio in a lofty de-sanctified catholic church in Anacortes, Washington, intensely tracking and arranging on a wealth of analogue gear. ‘The reverb in there is huge, inescapable,’ Stephen says. ‘Having this expansive palette to work with was so thrilling, especially after working in my home studio for so many years, with its ‘charmingly’ dysfunctional gear and rats living in the walls.’
The result plays at times with the reverberating joy of The Sundays (like the elliptical psych-pop of Building Machines) and the jangly, sonorous warmth of 1980s REM found on the album’s title track. With the help of engineer Nicholas Wilbur (Mount Eerie, Hungry Cloud Darkening) and a backing band featuring members of Mt. Eerie, LAKE, Hungry Cloud Darkening and Avi Buffalo, Anagrams’ breadth contains Pacific Northwest grunge lurches (Canopy) and a lush country meandering dissecting chaotic personality disorders (Dissociative Blues). A post-psychedelic nightmare slithers through the heart of this record, haunting the spaces between songs. ‘I can see the blood behind your eyes a million times / like the finger is tracing the crown / I’m turning inside out,’ he sings on I’m Turning Inside Out while Allyson Foster and Paul Benson whisper-chant the outro in unison, ‘Am I lost between here or there?’.
Outside the studio, Stephen often reached for writers like Lorrie Moore (whose story collection Anagrams is a partial inspiration) who usher readers into the minds of fragmented characters with unseemly but ultimately endearing shortcomings. This is best seen on the steadfast block-rock of Psychic Daydream, where the narrator, only after many years, can gain perspective and console a splintered self. Stephen sings: You left reality, 2002 / thought that everyone was hating you / it’s only now that you see it clear / you had a lot to fear.’
The most ambitious of Stephen’s pop songcraft, Anagrams is ultimately an unpacking of identity. ‘I don’t care about continuing in a tradition of songwriters, and I rarely intentionally self-identify as one. I always wonder if my most recent song is the last one I’ll ever write. I try to be more concerned with being open, to imagine myself as a rock or a wrapper or nothing at all. Whenever I can get close to that state of mind the songs come easy, but it seems arbitrary, almost like they would’ve existed with or without me. I think it’s a noble pursuit, to try to be nothing.’
An effort, ongoing.
‘Polished and fastidiously-crafted… the type of gleaming pop sound that takes real skill and precision’ – The Guardian
Support comes from Douga, a band based in Manchester. They have grown from wide-eyed, exploratory experimentalists to become a BBC 6 Music-featured act who have now created a record gripped with a gentle but firm sense of cohesion and clarity. The group have built their debut album, 2014’s The Silent Well, on the foundations of their love of kosmische music, through rhythmic repetition and psychedelic drones.