Paul Steel Interview
Brighton boy Paul Steel is further proof, if it were needed, that 'pop' needn't be a dirty word. April & I, his first release, is a fine mini-album based around the relationship between protagonist and imaginary friend. Ambitious? Yup. It's also full of hooks, harmonies, and (sorry to break the alliteration) crackpipes. Before his gig in Wolverhampton, part of a UK tour celebrating this week's release of said album, I was lucky enough to chew the fat with the guy you can find next to 'Steely Dan' in your local HMV...
April & I is a concept album, telling the story of you and an imaginary friend. How much of this is based in reality or do you view songwriting as a storytelling medium?
The whole concept thing was a platform for it to be musically cohesive. I did have quite an active imagination when I was younger but I've got a really bad memory as well so I can't remember much from my childhood. There are probably elements [in the songs] that ring true but I always like to be larger than life and quite fantastical. I've got this whole group of songs that I've been doing up until April & I, which are probably going to be on the first full-length album, but I was already a bit fed up of doing the whole singer/songwriter thing with those. I quite like the idea of musical and melodic themes, and how instrumentation can be a thread through an album, and so the story of April really helped with that and made the album really easy to write. I did it in a linear way so I started off with the intro which ended up being April's Theme, a theme that comes up throughout the album. That song landed on a certain chord which led to the next song, and so on.
Repetition of theme is quite common within musical theatre. Would you ever consider going into musicals?
Definitely. It's not a musical but I'm a big fan of Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin, and I just love how it's a huge piece of music with so many melodic ideas that always come around in different ways. I really like that variation in theme so I'd love to do a musical. I always think too far ahead but I wanna do a weird alien invasion musical. That's an idea!
I like the way albums can take the listener on a journey like The Beach Boys' Smile album, for instance. That was apparently intended to take you from Plymouth Rock to Hawaai, each song being a progression in the journey. The Super Furries did it with Guerrilla, where they start off with these really fun and well-produced pop songs. Then, in the middle of that album, it gets really creepy with lots of weird instrumentation going on. As you come out of that, the album finishes with another 'pop' song. I like the idea of gradually getting people who are into pop music into really alternative and cool stuff, and then leaving them quite happy with a nice little pop song at the end.
You mentioned The Beach Boys. As well as Brian Wilson and the gang, you list a range of influences from ELO to Phil Spector. How did you discover these bands and artists?
I was brought up on a lot of them, and I never necessarily liked them straightaway. It's probably only in the last three or four years that I've been going through all this older stuff. Andy, my drummer, was really into this band called Jellyfish who I'd never heard of. They were an early 90's power-pop band, and he was saying I sounded like them. I ended up getting one of their albums and it was really good, I got really excited by it. It was kind of a reaction to something that sounded like myself, and so it's quite strange when you absorb those influences.
Who would you consider as contemporary influences?
To be honest, I'm not into that much modern stuff that's doing particularly well. I'm a huge Super Furry Animals fan. I really like Trains to Brazil by Guillemots, I think that's a brilliant song. There's a band called the High Llamas who aren't particularly new but I really like what they do - they're not so much a song's band as an arrangements/production band. Other than that, it's a case of me not necessarily not liking new music but not really understanding it.
When listening to April & I, the arrangements and production are quite intricate, e.g. lots of vocal parts, instrumentation, etc. How does the process of writing a song begin? Do you pick up a guitar first, for instance?
Usually, it's piano rather than guitar. I'll be playing chords and then the melody will come, and the chords and melody will work together. Lyrics occasionally come with the melody. Actually, that's how the imaginary friend thing came about because this idea of April perfectly fit with the chords and melody of the song April. After i have the basic structure of a song, the harmonies will come as I'm playing it. I'll play around with the ideas to make sure they work, and then I commit them to computer.
You wrote April & I soon after moving to Brighton. Although it may be somewhat of a stereotype, Brighton has a reputation for being a creative and free-thinking environment. Did that have any affect on your songwriting process?
I do think it's quite free-thinking but I also think it's quite pretentious! Everyone does everything, and everyone has a guitar on their back - including me, of course. There's always someone doing something but you're not really exposed to that side of things unless you look for it. It is a really good city, though, and really creative so I can see myself staying there for a long time.
Was education the reason you moved there, i.e. university?
I went to a music school in Brighton for about a year that was part of a music industry school. At that point, I just needed to meet some people to get me to the next stage. I was originally from Worthing, which isn't exactly the cultural centre of the universe. It was a bit difficult to meet the right people there, and to even get gigs. I was seventeen and in a band that wanted to play all the time but there were just no gigs. We ended up having one gig at this pub on the seafront, and they didn't think to ask us how old we were. They eventually found out we were under eighteen and so none of our friends could get in. They had these revolving doors, though, so it was like watching Wacky Races because all my mates would be sitting there and would get chased out one door, come round the outside, and go through the other door! In Brighton, I'm comfortable in knowing my friends aren't going to get thrown out.
Did you perform the same type of music with that band?
No, we were quite awful. I was really into Radiohead; I wasn't an angsty teenager but I liked angsty music! OK Computer and Kid A were albums from heaven. They're still great but they were my main influence at that time, as opposed to now.
You recorded April & I in your home studio. How long have you been working out of your bedroom, and what would you say are the advantages/disadvantages of this method?
I've acquired little bits of studio gear here and there, built it up slowly. I was sixteen so I was getting into computers big time, and I was new to songwriting and definitely new to production. I had to do probably hundreds and hundreds of really awful productions until I could get the songs sounding right. I tried to make April & I sound as professional as possible. Since doing that, the production side of things is getting better.
I think the only major disadvantage to doing it at home in your bedroom is you can't just get a live drum kit or an orchestra in there. There are ways around it, though - you can go to studios and take the recordings home. It's definitely advanced so much that it's becoming virtually the same recording at home as at a recording studio. Obviously, there are differences in sonic quality but, as far as getting a nice vibe with a recording, it's really easy.
When and what can we expect from your first major album?
I'm writing it at the moment - this tour's in the middle - and it's coming on good. It's more of a straight pop record and perhaps shows the progression in my songwriting. It will feature some of the songs I wrote before April & I so some of the songs are older with some being more recent. With regards to a release date, I wouldn't like to say but hopefully it will be ready by about August. As for April & I, it's nice to have a record that captures the naivety of my eighteen-year-old brain.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:54:59