Jeff Massey brings the same energy and enthusiasm to a friendly conversation that he brings to the stage. Engaging, reflexive and honest, the same qualities that make Steepwater Band music so exciting came through in this discussion. It was a privilege to speak with him about The Steepwater Band and his role in it -- touching on all aspects of their career (songwriting, recording and performing) -- in advance of their show at Brixie's on June 19th.
The Barn: I recently caught your solo acoustic show at Harlem Avenue Lounge and really enjoyed the set. Let me start with some questions about the contrast between this type of performance a full band show. Any things you’ll try solo don’t attempt with the band? Do you write songs with one or the other in mind?
Jeff Massey: When I’m playing an acoustic show, it’s a lot different than playing with the band because there is nothing to hide behind. Tod and Joe are so great to play with that if I fall apart at a show, I know they’re going to cover it and vice versa. We kind of support each other in that regard.
When you’re just playing acoustic it’s just bare bones. I have a tendency to go off more into improv tangents when I’m by myself. I like to go out there and see where I’m going to land. I take chances and I play the songs a little different when I don’t have to worry about anybody following me or if there is some sort of mistake, I know I can only blame myself [laughs].
Is the repertoire much different in a solo show than a Steepwater show?
I do a lot of songs that we do in the band -- a good chunk of it. But I throw in a lot of blues… like really old blues songs that I like and some things that maybe wouldn’t work with the band. Sometimes, stuff that I haven’t had a chance to bring to the band. Stuff from out in left field or more strummy type of stuff that I wouldn’t usually play with the group. But, a lot of it’s the same, too, you know? I like both. I can’t say I like one better than the other.
Jeff Massey Solo - Live at Harlem Avenue Lounge, "Black Mountain Side"
Most of the Steepwater songs, even the heavier electric ones, are originally written on an acoustic because I play a lot more acoustic around the house than I do electric.
You work it out acoustic then and bring it to the band?
Not every song but a lot of them. Some of our songs are just the three of us jamming in a room. There’s a good chunk of them that I do write on my own that come from an acoustic guitar originally. Even the tunes that end up being raunchy electric songs start out on acoustic. I don’t think about what Tod and Joe are gonna do, I just leave it up to them. I’m always looking forward to see what they’re going to do; that’s half the fun of it for me. They always come up with different parts and their own arrangement ideas.
Can you detect differences stylistically in The Steepwater albums? Were they created with different approaches or intentions? How do you characterize each?
The last two albums, for example, we did completely different from each other. Revelation Sunday was pretty much self produced and mostly a group of songs that we had been playing live for a while, with a few exceptions… there were a couple that popped up in the studio. That was mostly stamp of what we had been doing live in the year prior. Grace & Melody was a totally different situation because there was a producer involved. Marc Ford produced the record so when he is involved you have his outside opinions and input. That’s why when you hire a producer, you have to hire somebody you think you’re gonna be on the same page with. Grace & Melody was us going into the studio with more blueprints of songs than complete songs and then they got turned upside down when we got to the studio and started working with Marc. We took them and tried them with different keys and tempos. We messed around with a lot of trial and error and Marc had a lot of input on the record. That was a little different approach from some of our past records for sure.
The Steepwater Band -- Grace & Melody "All The Way To Nowhere"
I heard “The Stars Look Good Tonight” on XRT and it did not feel out of place at all on commercial radio. It had a real pop sensibility and “radio-friendliness” to it, but still sounded like you. What this something that you aspired to or did it just come naturally?
Believe it or not, when I wrote the song I wasn’t really thinking about it. I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to write a poppy, hooky, catchy song”. We just write songs and how they come out, they come out.
The Steepwater Band -- Live at Harlem Avenue Lounge "The Stars Look Good Tonight"
I definitely noticed that as we were putting it together, I thought “hey… this is kind of catchy, and more hooky than some of our other stuff” but that doesn’t bother us.
So you’re a fan of pop music? That’s not something you’re trying to shy away from?
No, we’ve got songs with hooky choruses and we’re not scared to do that because to me it still sounds like us. We don’t shy away from its but not something we go out of our way to do either. It’s just how a particular song comes out.
What type of music is in heavy rotation for you these days? What’s influencing the way that you make music?
I don’t know… I listen to so much different stuff. It’s usually whatever is in my car [chuckles]. I’m probably influenced directly and indirectly by a lot of things. I usually have old Bob Dylan records in my car; I’m a Dylan fanatic. I have a Luther Allision record… a Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie record and probably The Black Keys. But that could change tomorrow.
That latest Black Keys is in heavy rotation on my iPod, for sure.
I love the Black Keys. Everything they do, I’m really, really into. I love all kinds of music so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes us sound like we do. We're probably consciously and subconsciously being influenced by a lot of things.
The band spent some time in Europe early this year. Any particular insight into what the differences are between your European and stateside audiences?
It depends where you go. This was our fifth time in Spain and for some reason we have this overly enthusiastic audience there. It’s a little wilder there. I’m not saying we don’t’ have great shows here, but for some reason, even though a lot of them only speak Spanish, the fans are up there in the front row singing the words to the songs. Everybody’s got all the records and all the rooms we play are packed. I don’t want to say one place is better than the other, but it is definitely fun to go there since they are so in to what we are doing. It depends where you go. We went to France, Belgium and Germany on this last tour and some of those audiences just reminded me of anywhere else. Once you get inside a rock club and meet the people there, it similar to what’s going on in this country. Some of them might be a little more obsessive about it [laughs]. Really hard core into it like “sign this, sign that, I’ve got everything” and that’s cool… that’s great. A lot of similarities though, they’re all just people and music fans no matter where they’re from.
Your touring this summer is a good mix of club gigs and festivals. Do you take a different approach to the festival circuit with shorter sets and other bands on the bill?
We always do a different set every night to keep it interesting for us and for the people that come out. When we’re doing a festival and it’s a shorter set, we really lay heavy on our original music – especially from Grace & Melody and the EP. We’ve been playing those songs a lot. And then we get into a club or a situation where we’re playing longer, we might throw in a couple of oddball cover tunes or some things we’ve been working on. It’s most important for us just to mix it up. I can’t stand doing the same set two nights in a row. Festival, indoor, whatever – it’s just gotta be different! You might have some of the same staples in there but we approach it like we’re gonna go out and play as hard as we would anywhere.
What do you guys do on the road to keep you occupied?
There’s an iPod in the van. I’m a reader. I like to read a lot. How rock-n-roll is that?
You’d be surprised. I hear a lot about musicians on tour that like to curl up with a good book.
Sometimes there’s the occasional sip of Southern Comfort or some whiskey in the back as long as I’m not driving.
What’s on your bookshelf these days?
Christopher Moore. There’s this book called Lamb, which is about Jesus Christ and the years they didn’t write about in the Bible, as told by his friend Biff. I’ve been reading his stuff lately and its pretty comical. Everybody else has their modern iPhones that they can make toast with and everything else… and I’ve got my book.
That’s pretty lo-fi.
Yeah, I can also take naps. It doesn’t bother me in the least – I don’t mind being on the road. I like the feeling of moving.
You have recently had the opportunity to collaborate onstage and in the studio with some incredible musicians, some real heroes of mine like Warren Haynes and Marc Ford. I’ve always been curious… how does the process of a sit-in work? Do you just meet up backstage and ask? When do you decide on a tune to play?
It depends on the situation. We’ve shared the stage with some people that you never even see them backstage. They’re not interested to meet you or they’re tired or they’ve got something else going on. It totally depends on how they are as people. The Gov’t Mule thing... If I’m the opening band, I don’t ever approach the headliner about jamming. To me, it’s their show and it’s up to them and their call. The dudes in The Mule were so cool, the crew and everybody, we were all hanging around. We had played with them once in Europe so we had already met them. When Warren had me and Tod jam, he just asked us, “do you guys want to sit in?” and we were like “yeah…absolutely!” It was really really cool that someone like that who would take the time to not only watch our band every night, but also ask us to play with him. The thing with Marc. Marc had a band that he toured with a couple years ago. We were in Europe at a festival in Spain. We were actually headlining and Marc’s band went on before us, so no brainer… he still had his amp up there. I hadn’t even met him, I just went up to him and asked him to jam and he was all about it. His son Elijah was in the band too -- he plays with Ryan Bingham now -- and he sat in with us as well. In that case, we asked him because we were going on after him, but if it had been his show, I don’t see it as my place to say “hey man, let me jam”. I just leave it up to whoever is headlining.
Everybody’s different. Some people are all about it. Some people don’t care. Some people aren’t into the jamming thing. I’d say a good percentage of people we meet and share the stage with are usually pretty cool. Warren, especially, was super cool. He went out of his way to make that happen.
I kind of suspected that about Warren but this clinches it.
He’s beyond cool. Really down to earth guy who genuinely loves playing with other people.
You say you typically mix up the sets. Any songs that have been resonating with you lately? Do you make conscious effort to play all songs in The Steepwater catalog?
There are certain ones that, if we’re playing a big show, we know are good live songs that just feel right and excite audiences. We don’t have any songs that we don’t like. Basically, if we don’t like a song, we stop playing it. There’s definitely about four or five off the last record that we try and make sure we always play. But, then there’s other ones that disappear for year and the we’re like “oh yeah… let’s start playing that one again” and its almost as if they get a breath of new life. Sometimes you play a song too much and you’ve got to give it rest. You come back and revisit it again.
The Steepwater Band -- Live at House Of Blues "Indiana Line"
Its always important to have new material. Right now, we’re working on new material that we’ll probably record this fall. We keep things in and out of rotation and we’re always learning new cool cover tunes just to keep things fresh and keep us on our toes, so things don’t get stagnant. When you’re playing that many gigs… if you play the same thing every night its like a formula and then we get bored.
Thanks for the chat. Look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks.
For sure, see you soon.
Catch The Steepwater Band at Brixie's on June 19th. Discounted, pre-sale tickets available now.