How does a band from Yorba Linda, where Richard Nixon was born and nightlife peaks with bowling alley karaoke nights, wind up with a residency at one of the most esteemed hubs of L.A. independent music? Releasing an excellent EP, Shallow on the Draft—which showcases a broad range of vocal styles and sounds in just seven songs, from the infectious ‘El Capitan’ to the moody ‘Boxes’—helps, as does regular gigs in both their home turf of Orange County and across California. We caught up with the Steelwells (singer/guitarist Joey Winter, guitarist Andrew Eapen, ‘multi-instrumentalist’ Billy Kim, bassist Robbie Gullage and drummer Brian Manchester, in absentia) at their Anaheim rehearsal space, preparing for their January Silverlake Lounge gigs. This interview by Albert Ching.
It’s not a secret that a lot of people in L.A. still look down at Orange County, bands included. For an Orange County band to get a Silverlake Lounge residency, it’s kind of an achievement.
Andrew Eapen (guitar): We were really excited when we found out that we got it. That’s one of our favorite venues.
Joey Winter (vocals/guitar): ‘What if we got a residency at the Silverlake Lounge?’ That was one of the things that we talked about early on. So getting it is like, OK, we hit a little milestone here. We accomplished one of our goals. It’s all relative, it’s weird. Each step you take, you kind of expect something else, you’re working towards something else, you expect more of yourself.
How difficult is it for an O.C. band to creep up north into the L.A. scene?
Joey Winter: I think networking had a lot to do with it. When we do play, even if it’s a room of ten people, one person at least usually comes up to us and there’s some kind of contact there. They’re a photographer, they’re a writer, they’re in another band and want to play with us. We had fifteen people at Bootleg, and the drummer for Flogging Molly was there. And he was way into it.
There’s a bit of an age gap between some of you guys.
Joey Winter: Just one of us. [laughs] These guys really are a little older than my younger brother’s age. It’s a different generation, really.
How old are you?
Joey Winter: I’m 30. [The rest of the band are 22 to 24.] I have never been in an official band—I played in little bands through high school and stuff like that—I’ve never actually been with a drummer consistently, and worked on music this consistently. I always just sat in my room and wrote little songs, little two-and-a-half, three minute songs, with a wife at the time that would get annoyed with it. It wasn’t ever something that I would pursue or take seriously. So when all of a sudden it was time to make a decision on taking it seriously, my thing was, well, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ve only got things to gain right now, and I want to learn how this works. So getting into this, I had no aspirations of making it big whatsoever—in fact, that worried Andrew at the time.
Andrew Eapen: Not making it big, but working hard.
Joey Winter: I was kind of more like, ‘Guys, this is just for fun.’ For some of the other guys, it was like, ‘No, we really want to work hard and make sure we come up with a good product.’ I was on board, too. We definitely worked hard. Early on, it was more like, their stuff with my stuff kind of added in. It was not really gelled together.
So at what point did you guys get on the same page, goals-wise?
Andrew Eapen: Silverlake Lounge. [Fall 2008.] We had a slew of shows that were not very good—we just weren’t very happy with them. We played Glass House twice right when we started. Worst idea ever.
Joey Winter: Bear in mind, though, while these shows they’re talking about wasn’t successful to them, for me, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I never, ever in my life thought I’d be doing this—ever, ever, ever.
Andrew Eapen: That’s how it’s always been. He’s always been like, ‘Aw dude, it’s great!’ and we’re like, ‘Dude, no. We need to do this, we need to do that.’
Joey Winter: Which is good, because it keeps me in check, and I don’t just get lazy, but at the same time, every single thing we do, I’m like, ‘Holy crap! This is taking another step—I can’t believe it.’
Joey, is it ever weird for you being six years older than the next-oldest band member?
Joey Winter: It wasn’t that big of a deal to me until they started pointing it out to me fairly regularly. We’ve always joked about it. It isn’t really a problem at all. I treat people the way they act—I don’t care about your age. These guys act mature. They work really hard and I have a lot of respect for them and their music.
Billy Kim (multi-instrumentalist): Shouldn’t you be asking it the other way around? Sometimes his walker takes a lot of room in the practice space.
All of his cans of Ensure.
Joey Winter: Sitting at home and knitting.
Shallow on the Draft was recorded at ArtiSans Label in Fullerton. Was that your first choice?
Andrew Eapen: It was definitely our first choice to record. We had to scrounge up money, really have to make it work. [Producer] Barrett [Slagle]‘s the main producer out of there anyways—he knows the place back-and-front. We know the staff really well. It’s in our hometown—it’s right down the street from us.
And your EP release show at the House of Blues Anaheim was obviously a pretty huge success.
Andrew Eapen: The best show we’ve ever played.
Joey Winter: Interaction with crowd, everything all together, best show.
You guys drew the biggest crowd that night for sure.
Andrew Eapen: We were so kind of like—I don’t know if I want to say starstruck? Not starstruck. Amazed at how crazy it was. Before, the crowd wasn’t even that big.
Billy Kim: We didn’t know what to expect. It seemed like everyone that came for us just came while we were on stage, all at once.
Joey Winter: I realized, ‘I have a lot of friends and family.’
Shows there are probably a lot easier to get people to come to. It’s all-ages, it’s in Downtown Disney, it’s right next to Build-a-Bear Workshop.
Joey Winter: L.A.’s going to be hard work for us.
Andrew Eapen: We’re still trying to get our foot in the door in L.A. still.
Joey Winter: We’ve got like, a small following in L.A. I feel like. Like small-small. But I think there’s some good word-of-mouth happening now.
Andrew Eapen: We want to make L.A. what it is here for us.
Joey Winter: Then on weekends bring what we have here to other cities—as far as you can get on a weekend.
Andrew Eapen: We just got the Aquabats’ old trailer.
Joey Winter: It’s 14’ by 7’.
Robbie Gullage (bass): You could probably put a horse in there.
No reason not to. Find some use for it during a show.
Joey Winter: Aside from like a horse trailer, this is the biggest size you can buy for an enclosed trailer.
Shallow on a Draft has kind of a loose nautical theme—well, not that loose. There’s a whale on the cover.
Joey Winter: The record can kind of be split into two categories. Each song has to do with my personal experiences in life. Every single thing relates to something specific that’s either happened to me that I’ve seen, that I’ve experienced, whatever. And the band. The other part of it is, the album is kind of a storyline. It takes a trip, and the trip happens to go out in the ocean. I would love someday to actually write a short story about this record. I don’t want to get into the rock opera, but that could happen. It could actually be that, like a 45-minute movie or something like that. There is kind of a story through it. I didn’t expect that to happen when I wrote the songs. All of the pieces started connecting.
Do you guys all live in Fullerton now?
Billy Kim: I’m technically the only one that lives in Fullerton right now.
Andrew Eapen: We all consider it the homebase now.
Joey Winter: For a couple of reasons. When you say you’re from Fullerton, people know that, when you say you’re from Yorba Linda, people say, ‘Oh, Richard Nixon.’
Yeah, your MySpace used to say Yorba Linda. For a band to be from there, it’s kind of a novelty.
Joey Winter: I actually liked that we were from Yorba Linda, too. I actually have sentimental feelings about the Nixon library, even though I’m not super-hardcore conservative as much as I used to be. I sang when it opened when I was a little kid. One time we sang for Richard Nixon over the phone, and he talked to us over the phone. When it actually opened and all the presidents came, I ditched school, and my friends and I skated all over that part of town and just got on every single news station we could possibly get on to say stupid things on the news. And I got on a couple, and my parents saw me, and saw that I was ditching school.
What type of stuff other than music influences your sound?
Andrew Eapen: Wes Anderson for me.
Joey Winter: Wes Anderson is an influence on all of us.
Andrew Eapen: He’s so kind of raw, and real, in a way. But funny.
Joey Winter: And that’s us! We’re so like that.
Andrew Eapen: We take life as seriously as he does.
Joey Winter: Where there’s humor in every nook and cranny, but it’s pretty straight. We love awkward moments in this band. For me, I do this thing where I take myself on ‘artist’s dates.’ I do this thing where at least once a week, I go to a random thing, sometimes a museum, sometimes LA for a show. I go by myself to these places—sometimes gardens, parks, whatever, and I indulge myself artistically in something. I’ve been doing that pretty regularly, off and on, for the past year and a half. Recently I went up to LA and watched Molly Jenson perform her last show before she moved to Nashville. She’s a sweetheart, and we’re friends with her, and was bummed to see her go. I did that, and walked down, and went through this museum that was all about a negative thing on psychology, and it was real dramatic.
That’s the Psychiatry: An Industry of Death museum in Hollywood. The Scientology thing.
Joey Winter: Yeah! The Scientology thing. I got scared. I walked in and was like, ‘Who sponsors this?’
Did you not know?
Joey Winter: I didn’t know. I just saw it! I have a fear of Scientology.
Billy Kim: A healthy fear.
Joey Winter: I really wanted to see Precious, the movie. That to me was important to see. I went through this thing pretty quickly, just rushed out. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that was very much propaganda. Really slanted.’ So then I walked down to the Arclight and watched Precious. On my way home I was thinking, ‘Man, this was a huge downer of a date with myself.’ What that stuff does create a deeper point-of-view so you can connect with the darker side of life, and understand horrible uses of propaganda, and saying goodbye to a friend that’s been really helpful to you, and then Precious is like, heartbreaking.
Andrew Eapen: It made me feel like shit.
Joey Winter: But that’s the point! I needed to be brought down at that point, and it worked. But then sometimes I go to the beach, and it’s like, ‘Happy days!’
THE STEELWELLS IN RESIDENCY EVERY MONDAY IN JANUARY AT THE SILVERLAKE LOUNGE, 2906 SUNSET BLVD., SILVERLAKE. 9 PM / FREE / 21+. FOLDSILVERLAKE.COM. TONIGHT’S RESIDENCY WITH THE COLOR TURNING, THE LIVING SUNS AND YEAH BROTHER. THE STEELWELLS SHALLOW ON THE DRAFT EP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM ARTISANS LABEL. VISIT THE STEELWELLS AT THESTEELWELLS.BLOGSPOT.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/THESTEELWELLS.