- Ben Province
A Track-by-Track Guide to Steeples' Mixtape #4
"People who have followed any of our musical projects before Steeples know that, sonically, this band is a huge departure from anything else we’ve made," Eric Phillips, guitarist, notes, in an email, about Steeples' pop sound. The style was likely a surprise to some, as members Ryan Cheney, singer, and Derrick Huskey, drummer, were previously in the alternative rock band Fivefold. Along with Derrick's brother, Nathan Huskey, typically on keys, the four-piece knew they were taking a risk in genre-selection, but they have no regrets.
"The privilege of stepping onto a stage and seeing hundreds of people dancing and singing along shows that this gamble we made and the hard work we’ve put in has already started [paying] off," Phillips added in the email.
During concerts, the band offers its latest mixape for free on a DIY-style CD, simply stamped by the band with their logo. Instead of charging for a traditionally-packaged album or EP, the group was inspired by rap artists who give away mixtapes for free to generate buzz.
The first, "MI," was released in 2017, followed by 2018's "XT" and "AP," and the newest, "ES," was released this March. (For those keeping score at home, the proper titles of Mixtapes #1-4 spell out "MIXTAPES.") And the latest, "ES," is the last in the series.
Each song was produced and mixed by Phillips, recorded at Steeples HQ (Derrick's House); Matt Amelung did the mastering. And every song is written as a collaborative effort by the band, with Cheney as the main lyricist.
Bandmembers shared their thoughts on each song via email, individually, and the
following – presented in an oral-history-of format – is the result.
Track One: "Older"
Ryan Cheney: "Older" is about a fact that most of us struggle with. Getting older sucks, right? We start developing these bad habits when we're young. Whether it's being lazy, too opinionated, drinking too much, stopping hanging out with friends, etc. Whatever it is, we all have these things that start to define us. I came to a point in my life where I wanted to be defined by the great qualities I have, rather than the negative qualities. It's sort of a personal awakening for myself, right? It's saying that I, Ryan Cheney, am going to start working on myself and become a better version of myself. Because I'm getting older, and if that's happening, then I want it to be freaking awesome.
Derrick Huskey: I tend to gravitate to lyrics. Almost at all times, I can relate to what Ryan is saying. This song is definitely one of those times. It’s really about growing up and focusing on those things, but not forgetting what you need to hold on to from being younger.
Eric Phillips: "Older" was definitely the most involved song I’ve ever produced. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I think by the end of the recording process, there was something like 130 tracks or so. Layers of vocals, guitars, synths, real and sampled drums, horns and so on. So for me, the biggest challenge was taking all of those and making them feel impactful, yet balanced. It was a big task, but so much fun to see it come together.
Nathan Huskey: Writing this song was simultaneous with the recording process. I would say this song came together the most seamlessly. No fuss, we all had a clear vision for where we wanted it to end up. Of course, that's only after we scrapped the whole song. Once we did that, we knew where it would end up.
Track Two: "Shine Brighter"
RC: Man, this song was a doozy. Being a songwriter can be a little scary. Especially when you're writing about something so personal. "Shine Brighter," in my opinion, is the best love song I've ever been a part of. It's about the journey of a relationship. In the lyrics and music, you can find the sadness, pain, hope and overall victory that a true love can have. The first lyrics written were of a low, a struggle that I was having personally in my relationship. The ending of the song is of the inevitable victory that me and the love of my life have had in this journey!
DH: I’ve known Ryan for a long time, and have seen his relationships change. Whenever he writes about specific things that have happened in those moments, I feel like I was there.
EP: "Shine Brighter" was a unique process, because we decided to dedicate a whole weekend to it. We called it “Steepover,” and it was basically a full weekend around Christmas where we slept at Steeples HQ and wrote and recorded the song. We left with it almost completely finished, and honestly, it sounds like nothing else we’ve made.
NH: The band gave me a lot of time to work out ideas I had for a mainly horn-based lead [played on the keyboard]. And in addition to that, we had a great time together trying to call out the proper emotion that the meaning and lyrics of the song demanded. It was very important that the song was realistic about our struggles and shortcomings as humans when it comes to love.
EP: Before, we’ve focused on a lot of songs about being in love and happy. This song is more about some of the less happy things that come from two imperfect humans beings in love. But I think the message, in my mind, is that those things are worth working through, because life is all about growth.
Track Three: "Sway"
RC: One of the funnest writing experiences I've ever had! So, we had this one practice where Derrick and I couldn't make it. That doesn't happen very often. So, Eric and Nathan still got together.
EP: [Nathan] was goofing around with his mandolin. He came up with that opening riff, and I recorded it to a voice memo and sent it out to the band. The other guys were down to work with it, and the next time we met together, we ended up structuring most of the song off of that riff.
RC: The next practice, Nathan and I went upstairs with an acoustic and wrote the whole thing in, like, 20 minutes. The song is literally about how far we've come as a band – how proud I am of these guys and how far they've come individually. This [band] was a pipe dream at the beginning, and to see everyone dancing on stage and living their best life? Well, I couldn't be happier with Steeples.
DH: It was a fun, positive song, which is really how we want people to feel when hearing a Steeples song. It just made sense to us that it be a single.
NH: We love making music with each other and for others. So, celebrating that makes sense for us fun-loving musicians. It just makes sense if you know us at all. We love to celebrate the things that we value.
Track Four: "Perspectives"
EP: "Perspectives" definitely became the most interesting and emotional song on the mixtape. We’ve made a lot of happy songs, but we wanted to pivot from that and instead make a song that discusses a sort of inner-turmoil that we don’t really resolve by tying a bow on it at the end of the track.
DH: This was the easiest to write. I feel like it was great timing for us. We have been really wanting [to] write a song like this. One that hits you straight in the feels. It was so natural for us.
RC: Nathan started playing a really cool riff on the acoustic, so I grabbed a note pad and got to work. Most of the time, I really have no idea what I'm about to write. I could best describe it as my subconscious taking over, and getting my deepest thoughts out on paper.
NH: I adore this song. I resonate the most with this track, because I spend a lot of my time in thought. Not just thinking about how I feel now, but reflecting back about how I felt and what I wish I had done better. I also think most often about how other people see my actions. I appreciate this song, because it captures the good and bad of that type of thinking.
RC: Back when I was younger, I would have sacrificed just about anything in the pursuit of my dreams. This has led to some amazing blessings in my life. I've seen and been a part of projects that most people never get the chance to be a part of. The sacrifice can be steep, though. I've left relationships, jobs, holidays, etc., all for the dream of making music. So in the end, "Perspectives" is about the blessing and curse of following your dreams.
EP: To me, "Perspectives" is kind of about not knowing if you’re on the right path or not. Things like social media tend [to] amplify that by making us feel like we’re missing out on something, and it’s easy to let the weight of those feelings make us question whether or not we’re on the right path.
DH: It really feels like almost all relationships – if it’s a friendly one or a girlfriend type – it’s just the fact that people can want two different things. Neither of them can be wrong, or both can be wrong. It really is about perspectives. You always have multiple perspectives whenever you have different people in a circle.
EP: One last thing I’ll mention is the part at the end when you hear this sort of whispering surrounding you as the music fades out. What we did there, was take what we consider one of our happiest love songs, "Lucky One," and one of our saddest, "Sticks and Stones," and have Ryan whisper lyrics from each of those as two different perspectives being played at once. Individual words aren’t easy to make out, but to me, it gives the impression of thoughts that might be circling in someone’s head while they lay awake at night.
RC: As a closer, these songs have changed my life. As a songwriter, I don't write my thoughts in a journal and put it away. I put my thoughts and life on a page and share it with the whole world. These are parts of me that I needed to get out, and I just hope they've had a positive effect on the world around me! Thanks to everyone who listens to Steeples!
Interviews have been edited. For more interviews, check out our podcast.