Introducing Steve J Allen new album ‘Contrast’ out 3/9/21 on Studio III recordings
Steve J. Allen is working on his music in his own uncompromising way and he has no intention of being tied down or held back by anyone else’s expectations of him.
He grew up in Peterborough, toured with punk bands from a young age and musically came of age in Sheffield, where he worked and lived for over 10 years before moving temporarily to South East Asia.
“To me, this album is organic, imperfect and open to suggestion. I enjoy it, and that’s all I really care about.’
Introduce yourself in less than 10 words…
Someone who does what they can with what they’ve got
What made you want to get into music?
I don’t really know what got me into playing music, it just seemed to happen. I always enjoyed listening to music, but none of my family as i know have any background of music and performance either. I can’t think of anything special or profound to say about what got me into music, i just know when i picked it up i was hooked.
What’s the writing process?
I always find it interesting when people ask about the writing process with music, and I wonder if anyone truly has one way of doing it. Sometimes its relatively straight forward and easy, and sometimes it drives me nuts, but it’s usually writing the lyrics parts that slows me down, the music is far more natural to me.
I write based on feeling, I have next to no knowledge of how to write music, I don’t read music or know any scales or theory so far so there is no logical thinking that goes into it. If I feel irritated or angry when I’m writing it then i know it is not right, if it feels good and light it usually means I’m on the right track, that is my guidance.
I began this singer songwriter thing, or whatever you want to call it, because I wanted to just sing with an acoustic guitar and keep it simple, just like some musicians I really enjoyed, but I found I could not hold the stage with the same voice and presence as they could, my voice never seemed to have the impact that I wanted, and so I found that I couldn’t escape from creating layers of sound, I always had done and even where I tried to simplify, I apparently couldn’t.
But I found that, actually that is my favourite part of music making, it is the whole song, every single element of it, that’s what makes me enjoy it.
In the grand scheme of things, usually it’s like decorating a new room in a new house. Start with a basic room with a couch and table, the guitar and vocals. But that gets a little boring, soyou wanna paint it up a bit and add some more cool furniture to make it more homely, that’s the other instruments and layers.. then you paint the walls, change the lighting, move things around and mess it up a bit. And then you get to the point where it feels like home. When you’re ready, you invite everyone around and have a housewarming party.. Or play a gig.
How do you transfer that onstage energy to the studio?
Play it, record it, listen. If it sounds boring and half arsed when you hear it back, do it again.
Music isn’t just a passive sound that comes out the speakers that you just hear with your ears and then tour brain decides whether it is cool or not, it is a full on force of the intent, energy and emotions that goes into it when it is recorded and when it comes out of the speakers it should permeate the listener completely and hopefully make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
What come first, lyrics or music?
A common question that any songwriter always gets is what comes first, lyrics or music? Does anyone have one simple answer to this? I have thought about it a lot, for me it’s both, it’s never one or the other.
But then I think there’s another element that should be added to that question. What comes first, lyrics, music or the rhythm?
Sometimes I’m walking down the street and a line of lyrics comes to me and I write it down. Sometimes im playing guitar and a cool part of a riff comes to me and I record it. Sometimes I get a sense of a beat and I want to find what’s going to work with that beat. Sometimes I get a line of words and a sense of a melody and try to replicate it when I get to a musical instrument. Sometimes I write a whole song of music with no lyrics and know it needs lyrics on it, so I work on writing lyrics to it.. Sometimes I write a whole page of words like a poem or stream of thoughts and play random chords over the top and see what lands. It seems a totally random process.
What has been the best gig you’ve ever played and why?
I have played so many fun gigs, that it’s so hard to pin point, but the one that comes instantly to mind definitely had an impact on me. I had a solo gig to play one evening by the canal in Sheffield. I had just had a difficult relationship situation that came up just a few hours before I was meant to play. I was caught off guard with all the wild emotions, from anger, sadness, betrayal, pity, hurt, blah blah blah, the list goes on. I didn’t want to go to the gig, talk to, or be around anyone at all. but i don’t like cancelling, so I had to make a decision, to wallow in the shitty feelings and radiate that to the crowd which would be rubbish and not fun for anyone, or use these feelings as the fuel and just not give a fuck. So I cut the awkward situation short and got a taxi to the venue. When it was time, I played and sang straight from those raw emotions. It was like being in an altered state. It was somehow one of the best solo performances I’d played. It’s funny how you can transform a shitty situation.
What was the last track you played on Spotify?
I rarely use Spotify but i opened it for fun, for the purpose of answering this question. The first thing I saw was a Bouncing Souls playlist so i tapped on that and while I had a shower iI listened to True Believers by Bouncing Souls and Ruby Soho By Rancid.
But the last thing I listened to because i felt like it was Better Oblivion Community Center live on KEXP on youtube.
What would be on your rider?
Mangoes, Pineapple, avocado, soda water, good ale, Whiskey, and probably lots of green stuff and curry. Give me more time, and i would get more specific, because otherwise, when you’re on the road and playing gigs all the time, if you’re not careful it’s usually hummus, bread and crisps.
What other talents do you have?
It’s been a while but i can draw and paint. I love Wing Chun Kung Fu and Jeet Kune Do, I play many instruments.
If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes and Better Oblivion Community Center, including all the musicians and the producers. I just love what they create, and it’s the kind of style I resonate with from a writers perspective.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
I spent a month with renowned Music producer James Sanger in the west of France. He was working with a new band, there was writing, recording and creating everyday in the studio.
There was one moment, I’ll never forget. He was in the control room, adjusting the EQ and Compression channels with one of the new songs, and i was sat on his right, out of curiosity, I asked him, how do you know what settings to choose to make it sound good? … he replied, ‘I have no idea, i just mess about with it until it fits’.
This is basically how I work with everything i do and so hearing it from a producer who has had great success and has worked with artists from Cardigans to Bryan Ferry, Dido, U2 and more, was a great reminder that you don’t always need the technical knowledge, you just play until it works for you.
So it’s not exactly advice, as you asked in the question, but this one passing comment was something huge that helped me have the confidence to continue and finish my first album, and obviously if i hadn’t have made a first it would have been impossible to have made a second.
If you could open for any one who would it be?
Apologies, in advance, I have to give more than one answer.
Dillinger Four – I love this band. Just awesome punk rock. Super unique, no other band like them, they bring an element of lightheartness and notgivignafuckness that I really respect. I would open for them just so I could watch them and dance to them afterwards. Actually a fun fact is my first album title Wreck the Place was inspired by one of their songs.
Bright Eyes – i never had favourite bands, but these days if someone asks me who is your favourite band, i usually say Bright Eyes. It’s their diversity, honesty and rawness that i like so much, and as i have not yet seen them live, i would get to watch them after my set.
Bouncing Souls – Just an amazing band with an amazing positive attitude, I love seeing them live so it would be ace to play to the crowd that goes to see them.
Queen – I mean, can you imagine the energy of the crowd?
What other bands do we need to be checking out right now?
In the last couple of years of have been really loving a couple of things. First of all, I discovered Better Oblivion Community center at the start of the lockdown and was enticed by their sound and love it and still listen to it often.
The other thing which is not a band, and is quite different to my music on the ‘Contrast’ album, is these Chillstep mixes some folks have created on youtube and other places. Its basically an hour mix of chillstep music, (a genre which i had never heard of) But these songs are mixes with clips of modern philosophers. My favourite ones are the Alan Watts mixes. I could listen to that guy all day, and coupled with some really cool music it is a lot of fun.
What’s in store for you when all this is over?
It’s not going to be over, as if there’s an ending point, but it will be something different, we just have to adapt to the constant changes. Whether we like it or not, the world is not going back to the old way of doing things.
What’s in store for me? I have no idea, but I intend to make it better than ever. I will definitely write and record more music, collaborate more, do more tours, and create more freedom in my life.
If there’s anything the world has learned in this situation is that our plans may not work out the way you want them to. If anyone wanted a lesson in letting go of attachment, this is it. so i’m being flexible and focus on doing more of what makes me feel good.
Footnote…. As I answered the last question, The song just came on the playlist on the the speakers… ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’’ by REM. I guess that sums that up nicely..
How did you cope with lockdown?
I am happy being on my own, I know how to adapt to different situations, so there was nothing really to cope with.
Originally when it first began, in my house in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, I began to learn the piano. It was over a hundred years old, out-of-tune and broken. But with the parts that worked, i wrote and learned some new things, and it was a lot of fun. I actually wrote a new song which since I recorded a demo for. I will release that sometime in the near future.
How lock down effect the music scene?
In Malaysia, Where is was living when the lockdown began, I was unaware of any music scene anyway, so maybe it improved, as more people started to get creative and learn instruments in their homes.
What do you miss most about live gigs?
I just love the whole idea that everyone is in the same place for the same general reason, you often meet-up with people you don’t see often, or meet new friends who you may never meet in person again. There’s just something really cool about people playing music live, it’s a momentary experience that is different every time depending on the personal state of the artists, and the states of the crowd, and it’s not just the fleeting 30 minutes or so of the live band playing, but it’s the conversations and connections before, during and after, with the other bands, the venue staff and the gig goers that makes up the whole time. It’s great, it’s a unifying experience, and i can’t wait to get back and play more concerts again.
What’s the scene like where you are from?
Currently where I live doesn’t have much in the way of a music scene, and that presented a very interesting contrast to my life. In the long run, I definitely want to be closer to more live music activity, and have more musicians to meet and play with.
That being said, Where I was is Peterborough and then Sheffield in the UK. Peterborough used to have a very vibrant scene and was amazing while was there, and was such a pinnacle part of me growing up playing music, however it quietened down for a while and I actually moved to Sheffield in around 2005 because I wanted to be around more music.
Sheffield for me is a very eclectic place, and that’s something i respect and like about it. It’s is quite renowned for having such a variety of styles coming from there and it played a big part for me too because I experimented with more people and styles and opened my mind even more.
Talk us through your new music
Old Friend – is the single that was released before the album launch, and that’s an introspective song about losing and rediscovering connection with myself, my happiness and my intuition. The words came to me whilst sitting in a park in Tokyo, and so many crazy and amazing things occurred for me leading up to going there, and then only increased while i was there, it was an amazing time of my life, and one of those flag in the ground moments in life where you know you’ve gone through some big change.
Other World – I have a very odd and interesting relationship with this song, and it represents more to me than i can ever explain. It was written and recorded with Matt Hardouin from [Fallan] while we went on a mini UK tour
In 2 days, we decided to make it a fun challenge to write and record as much as we could from scratch in 2 days. So what came out of that was Other World and The Anchor, which is track 2 on the album. We hung out together in my flat in Sheffield and created them on his laptop.
The song was originally written about an individual person, however, when lockdown started in 2020, I heard this song again after not hearing it for a long time, and I had a completely different experience. It felt like it had been written about the global situation that was unfolding.
My housemate heard it and she was all ‘ you should make a music video for it’ So we spoke about with some ideas, which didn’t come to fruit but was evidently the catalyst for actually making the video itself. When the video was made, i had contacted a couple of creative friends and we shared some rough ideas. Then i woke up at 3am with an idea of where to film it and the next weekend we went and recorded this video one day. It was perfect timing as i contacted the office manager, and the location was ready to be completely emptied, and all the contents to be put in storage. So we found whatever probs there were lying around just had fun and played. This song takes on a life of its own.