Rocky Steps joins the Half-Lights mix series for this month and brings with him his thoughts around the creative processes of his new album 'End Zone' which is being released in June on Static Caravan. I have followed Steve's music for a number of years now and what I have always respected about him is his gentle approach and demeanour when you meet him, his character traits decode into his music which when heard is affecting, emotive and inward-looking.
In the interview, he shares about his inspirations from old and new alternative electronic artists he loves, new age music and surprisingly, his love of the band Genesis. We also talk about how he records and gigs, and the things the music that can move emotionally, as well as, how he also overcome illness recently and the cathartic healing process that is referenced in his music with 'End Zone'. Like Rocky said to his spectators in 1976, it's time for this Cannock lad to also say in his own way 'I did it'.
Long may he continue.
- Tangerine Dream - Movements Of A Visionary
- Jaco Pistorious - Continuum
- The Deacon - Fuji
- Ben Benjamin - Toothlike Tokens
- Beverly Glenn-Copeland - Sunset Village
- Tornado Wallace - Voices
- CFCF - Nightmusic
- $layron - Bling
- Todd Terje ft Bryan Ferry - Johnny and Mary
- Klaus Schulze - Melange
- Genesis - Carpet Crawlers
- James Yorkston - Woozy With Cider (John Hopkins Remix)
- Ricardo Villalobos - Recat
- Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamot - Moon
- Dinah Washington & Max Richter - This Bitter Earth
- Manuel Göttsching - Die Mulde
- Moonface - Barbarian
- John Coltrane - Alabama
- Nina Simone - Four Women
- Keith Jarrett - Danny Boy
- The Mamas & The Papas - Safe In My Garden
- Rocky Steps - Hard Count
Firstly, what have you been up to lately?
My debut album is coming out on Static Caravan in June so there’s been lots of preparation for the release. I’ve been to see Hannah Peel in London, Nils Frahm in Bristol, Alex Cameron, Surgeon, A Hawk & A Hacksaw, Coventry City versus Luton Town, the Snooker World Championships, dinner at The Reliance in Leeds, watched my beloved Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl and been to the Flatpack Film Festival. Also, I’ve had chronic sinusitis and dislocated my jaw 5 times in 2 months. So, you know, a mixed bag.
What is your first memory of music in your life and what was the first record you bought?
I remember my Mom & Dad letting me play Beatles 7”s which, despite them probably not being rare versions, was pretty generous. I then repaid that faith by getting in to Status Quo, whose Rocking All Over The Years double tape was my first purchase. I haven’t looked back since, I daren’t.
Where does the name 'Rocky Steps' come from? My first initial thoughts are of a Sylvester Stallone training montage.
Yeah it’s a Philly reference, specifically the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art which Rocky runs up. I fell in love with the city back in 2014. It’s just about enigmatic enough to not be too reverential (or so I thought!). Coming up with good band names is so hard. Free School was a great name, a reaction to previously being in a tightly managed, stifling indie band, a suggestion of wildness, but then the Tories came out with their free school policy and we quickly fell out of love with it. So I wanted something I could enjoy the sound of, something I could bear to see on a poster/record sleeve etc.
With your impending release of your new album 'End Zone' how has the recording process been for you?
All the hard work is in the early stages. I record everything on my own in my home studio. I then take everything to Simon Weaver’s studio in Hockley and let him work his magic (Si engineered and co-produced the Free School albums).
The tracks on End Zone were all borne out of improvisations that are usually 10 minutes plus. I set up a drone or looped sample and then start improvising on top of that. Over and over. I used some field recordings from Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Flakes’ fish & chip shop in Moseley. The tracks start to reveal themselves and the tortuous process of whittling them down then begins.
Once the tracks were progressing, I started working with vocalist Lucy Graham who lent her speaking/shouting voice for 4 tracks, including Play Action where Lucy penned a letter to her Nan in the spirit of Dolly Parton’s The Letter.
The name 'End Zone' has a title that feels like a sort of finale, where did the title come from?
The album and song titles are American Football references (did I mention the Eagles won the Super Bowl??!!). The object of the game is to make incremental progress down the field and make it to the End Zone and this seemed like a good metaphor for my physical and mental struggles. Following surgery and bouts of illness, I wanted the title to invoke both despair and accomplishment, a journey taken step-by- step to achieve progression. The album seeks a hunkering down, a safe space, somewhere warm to take refuge.
The lyrics to Delay Of Game are Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues. Benny F was a big figure in Philadelphia. He was also aligned to the Lunar Society and met with them at Soho House in Birmingham. The lyrics to Bubble Screen refer to the Lunar Society (who met when the moon was full, an image which we used for the first Free School album). So there’s a nice cohesion to everything on the album.
What first led you to making music?
I started out as a drummer in the infamous metal band Ranatunga (Cannock was a tough town) and then studied for a music degree from Barnsley College. As my course went on I developed a taste for composing. You’ve probably heard my college CD entitled ‘Steve Alcock – Composition’. Most people’s favourite being the 8-minute long West African polyrhythmic percussion instrumental, ‘Song For Western Sahara’. Again, I’ve not looked back since, I daren’t.
Talking about influences, who has influenced you and who inspires your productions?
What seemed to happen both with Free School and Rocky Steps is that we/I start aiming to produce something similar to whatever has inspired us recently (Lindstrom, Daft Punk etc) but then it ends up being something completely different.
At the time I started the sessions for this album I was listening to a lot of piano music (Moonface, Ben Lukas Boysen, Ryuichi Sakamoto) so I really wanted the piano to be at the forefront of the album. My favourite Lambchop album (and one of my faves of all time) is Is A Woman. I’ve always loved Kurt Wagner’s description of the production sounding like one huge piano. This was going to be my Nils Frahm/Keith Jarrett album but fortunately my rudimentary piano technique meant that I fell well short of those heights.
I was also listening to a lot of modern New Age music (CFCF, I Am The Center, Transcendence Orchestra, Masayoshi Fujita, Jan Jelinek) and that allowed me to go in a different direction and aim for a warm, comforting sound.
What have been your latest music purchases?
Rival Consoles, Carmen Villain, Saada Bonaire, The Egyptian Lover, Zimpel / Ziolek, Soft Regime, Hampshire & Foat, Jon Bap, Cuneyt Septetci and as much Pastor T.L. Barrett as I can find. Will be checking out the new Café Artum on Corporation St too see what they’ve got too.
You have remixed Birmingham bands Editors, Victories at Sea and Goodnight Lenin - what are you looking for when putting a remix together, do you have specific processes or is it a more freeform approach to recording?
I’d like to think I don’t have a generic approach to remixes but there is definitely a theme if you listen to them all. I really get off on honing in a chord progression or moment in the original track and then constantly developing it the point of a trance and finish with a crescendo.
The idea for the Editors remix was to focus on Rachel Goswell’s (Slowdive) vocals so that Tom’s voice had more impact when it came in. That seemed to draw another side out of the Editor’s sound. I hear Merriweather-era Animal Collective but who knows? They played it at the end of their shows for the In Dream tour so that was mega surreal hearing that at the O2 Academy.
Four Tet’s recent remixes have been a big touchpoint – the Eric Prydz & CHVRCHES remixes are masterpieces - as well as his Morning/Evening Side record. I love the idea of creating something completely new not just re-hashing the original with a hard kick drum. Working with the voices of Phil Oakey and Roots Manuva can be quite daunting but they didn’t get where they are by treading lightly so you just have to get stuck in.
It's interesting to hear the way you play live, rather than just play your records you are adding samples and editing your tracks, how do you find gigging as an electronic artist?
I remember seeing Four Tet play the Medicine Bar in the early 00’s. He had Animal Collective supporting. It was just Panda Bear and Avey Tare and they were absolutely nuts, screamin’ and a’hollerin’ and jumping up on chairs. I know his current live show is a lot more involved nowadays but Four Tet came out and sat down on a chair with his laptop and no other gear and no interaction with the audience. I’ve always wanted to avoid that.
In Free School we really tried to leave as much off the backing track as possible and aim for a LCD Soundsystem-esque live experience. I ended up getting very stressed setting up the gear for shows, including my notorious percussion station so I was hoping to avoid that with my solo shows.
For the first couple of Rocky Steps shows, I ended up having even more gear than with Free School, with a Tony Banks-esque keyboard horseshoe around me: Roland Midi piano, Korg MS2000 synth, Roland Space Echo unit, Boss Loop Pedal, MacBook, Kaoss Pad Mk III, Roland SP555 sampler and a Yamaha mixer. And no fellow band members to help me set up agh! This set up allows for lots of improvisation and the chance to create a unique sound for the audience on that night but relies heavily on a backing track. This is pretty dull to watch despite the amazing visuals from Jack Adams that accompany my shows.
So for my last show, supporting Ulrich Schnauss, I decided to just play piano, had Greg Bird from Flamingo Flame on bass and Simon Weaver on electronic drums and it was probably the most enjoyable gig I’ve played. Felt like being in a jazz trio. There’s probably a middle ground between the two that I’m yet to achieve.
Where do you like to hang out in Birmingham to hear music, is there any particular parties, DJ's, venues, producers who you look for?
Fizzle is an Improv night which takes place at the Lamp Tavern (sometimes at the MAC). It’s been running for nearly 20 years. Every couple of years I try and get friends to come down with me but they hate it and so I don’t get down as often as I’d like but they’ve managed to put Steve Beresford, John Butcher and Ollie Brice on over the years and Mark Sanders, probably the finest improv drummer in the world is a regular.
You can guarantee anything put on by Leftfoot & This Is Tmrw (usually at the Hare & Hounds) will be great. As are Sam Redmore’s nights (check his Tropicalia night out if you can). I really don’t get out much though. I heard great music in Pho in Grand Central the other day, including Love Machine by Supermax which I first heard via James Murphy if that helps?
What is going to be happening over the rest of the year for you ?
Hopefully the album will get some traction. Been fortunate enough to get a lot of support from 6Music with Free School so hopefully they’ll dig my new stuff. Hopefully touring, and maybe some more DJ dates in the States.
Can you tell us a little about the mix, where it was recorded and what music is on it?
The mix was put together on Cubase on my MacBook. The brief referenced All Back To Mine, a post-club experience. So I wanted to be true to how I behave when I get home from a night out. SO GET READY TO CRY! I do tend to get emotional (am I ok hun? I don’t know anymore…) and listen to lots of Genesis so there is a poignancy to a lot of the tracks.
I devour new music and I’m desperate for new stuff all the time but I’m no crate-digger so I focussed more on the journey from track to track. There’s plenty of references to the state of the world at the moment and the personal retreat from all that is going on. The sound across the mix also reflects the sound of my new album. Speaking of which. there’s also an exclusive track off the album to close the mix.
Lastly, outside of music, what else are you interested in - films, books, TV shows?
TV - The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling (Sky Atlantic). Last Chance U and Flint Town (both Netflix) are both the epic, Shakespearean, existential shows you want to see since The Wire finished. Glow (Netflix).
Books - Currently reading Freedomland by Richard Price. Last book before that was Sid Lowe’s Fear & Loathing in La Liga, a depiction of the rivalry between Barcelona & Real Madrid. Next up is Dave Eggers’ The Monk of Mocha.
Films - As part of Flatpack Film Festival I’ve just seen Work Is A Four Letter Word, Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts, A Sicilian Ghost Story, Blue My Mind and Haxan. Which all sounds very arty but give me Black Panther any day of the week.