Trent Wagler: In our band, we’ve got a “Whitehorse,” “Armadillo,” “Black Bear,” and “Sasquatch,” but you have to figure out who is who. (Don’t get technical on Sasquatch, he’s totally an animal.)
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Wagler: It’s self-expression without boundaries. I love the ways music can evoke sadness with a lyric and warm you with the melody/harmony. It’s always been there for me, embracing me when I need that embrace, and I love wading in that creative pool to see what part I can play in the larger musical conversation.
B&L: How’d Steel Wheels come to be? Why’d Steel Wheels come to be?
Wagler: I was writing songs pretty heavily in the early 2000s and playing here and there as a solo artist. I’ve always enjoyed playing in a group of people, rather than solo, so I contacted Brian, Eric, and Jay, all of which were great musicians and great friends. We started playing, singing, and exploring for our own enjoyment. The enjoyment we found in living rooms turned to coffeehouses, bars, and further to clubs, theatres, and festivals. But at it’s core, we’re still trying to find new sounds and songs that speak to us and hope to share them with very little pretension or filters, just real songs from real people on real instruments.
B&L: What’s the state of rousing acoustic music in 2016? What do the Steel Wheels add to that soundtrack?
Wagler: I think there will always be a place for wood and strings, voices locked in harmonies, songs of old interspersed with a fresh perspective and new sound. I think there’s a cultural thirst to go back to “earlier times” in our modern day. Some of it is ironic hipster cynical nonsense, but some of it is an important and meaningful exercise. Not to throw off all technology and modern ways, but to recover some of the crafts, ancient ways, and maybe, deeper meaning within those crafts that our modern culture has unknowingly rushed us right on past. There’s nothing wrong with EDM, hip-hop, or other musical styles. But I think the idea that that is music of today is an misunderstanding of what time and culture has to offer us. I love this Utah Phillips quote: “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it? It’s right here, right now. I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn’t live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it, it would get them serious trouble.”
But I digress, it’s only packaging that makes something seem new or old, in reality acoustic music is very right now because it’s authentic and what you see is what you get. That’s refreshing in a culture of spin and marketing.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show? What do you look or hope for as the folks setting foot on that stage?
Wagler: Connection, variety, and flow.
We have to connect with the audience, have a conversation and make sure that both sides of that conversation are being listened to. If the songs we have on the setlist aren’t working tonight, we need to change them, there’s no such thing as forcing a good show.
Variety is important. Audiences have short attention spans. You can have fifty waltzes in the key of D that are incredible, but you can’t play more that two or three in a night before people start thinking they’ve heard it already.
A show is more than a collection of songs and stories. It’s one story with an arc, and the plot is communicated through song. All the elements of a good show are in the melodies, lyrics, and pacing of those songs.
B&L: You do a lot of traveling. What’s the importance of travel – of being in motion? What do you enjoy about moving from place to place?
Wagler: There’s always a new perspective to be had when you’re traveling a good deal. I love my home more for traveling. I see it new and different by seeing other parts of the world. I can sift through my own stress and hang-ups in relationship to my home and family and put them into a whole new perspective by seeing others in different situations than me.
On the other hand, it can be lonely, isolating, and listless. Traveling as a musician is not unlike being a truck driver for more than 80% of the job.
B&L: Speaking of travel, is it noisy traveling on steel wheels? Or have you embraced the technology of the tire?
Wagler: We have heard of these tires you are speaking of. We have our research department on the case, but as of now, we’ll stick with what works.
B&L: Tell us a little bit about your latest recorded work, “Leave Some Things Behind.” What’s it all about?
Wagler: It’s actually a little bit about travel. The title can be taken a few different ways. It can be about the need to move forward and leave some of the baggage the world has given you behind. Or it can be about the little pieces of ourselves we leave behind as we move through the world. It’s like viewing ourselves as little balls of energy that give a bit of ourselves to each other as we move through the universe, and so we’re collecting and giving ourselves as we go.
It’s an album about leaving and coming back again.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Wagler: “House of the Rising Sun,” “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen…
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform Birdseye Lounge on January 23rd?
Wagler: Snow. And a warm place to get away from it.
A show as close to what I described in an earlier question as we can perform. We’ll give you ballads, instrumentals, acapella songs, and a few stories. What else do you want from us? Geez.
B&L: There’s a young group of musicians calling themselves Twisted Pine opening up the show. What happens when Steel Wheels meet Twisted Pine?
Wagler: It’s all in the velocity of the wheel and the girth of the pine. I need more info. But there’s a good chance there will be sparks.
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Wagler: Guitars, no banjos, or how about a dozen (dozen of anything)s?
B&L: Speaking of leaving things behind, we just waved goodbye to 2015. What’s 2016 have in store for the Steels Wheels (I know you can see into the future…)
Wagler: It seems we’re hurling ourselves toward another monstrosity of an election in 2016. I can feel the Bern, but I hope the rest of the public can pull us out of the ridiculousness that has become our public discourse.
In our world, we’re feverishly writing new songs that we will hope to record this year for a 2017 release. It’s always the best time of being a musician, when a new song is being born. It gives me hope to see so many great musicians out there on the road making amazing music and we are proud to be among them.
We’ll make it back home in July for our 4th annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival (www.redwingroots.com) that we host and enjoy in Mt. Solon, VA each year.
The Steel Wheels make a stop at the Birdseye Lounge in Portsmouth on Saturday, January 23rd. For tickets: Click here…