Interview – Caleb Stull of Vancouver’s Parlour Steps
– interview by Jenn Laidlaw
It’s a good year for Parlour Steps.
Following the release of their fifth album The Hidden Names late in 2009, the Parlour Steps single “As The World Turned Out” was selected as iTunes Canada Free Download of the Week, they played at South By Southwest in Texas, and they landed in the top 20 of the 2010 PEAK Performance Project. Next up –Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual music and arts festival.
Having been around for a decade in some form or another, the band is not new to the music scene. Lead singer Caleb Stull is the only original member to have weathered the years under the Parlour Steps name. Bassist/vocalist Julie Bavalis, guitarist Rees Haynes and drummer Robert Linton have been around for a couple of albums, with newest member Alison Maira joining the crew for the latest. The current chemistry is obviously the winning formula.
The Hidden Names is the right combination of snappy-yet-simple rhythms, sorrowful harmonies and catchy choruses. Songs like “Little Pieces” and “Sleeping City” have been haunting me for weeks and my only relief has been to crank the band’s MySpace in my cubicle and hum along repeatedly, probably to my coworkers’ dismay. The pop-esque “As the World Turned Out” is a bit typical of the indie-gone-mainstream fair. It sounds like it should be in the next iPod ad, but as I bop down the sidewalk pretending I am in said ad, I can hardly complain.
It might be The Hidden Names that has brought Parlour Steps into the mainstream spotlight, but their 2008 album Ambiguoso garnered a pretty solid base of fans who swear the album is actually their best. “Thieves of Memory”, with its saucy beat and boldly drawn out “yeeeeah heh’s”, makes for a great listen, as does “Only Mystery” and “World as Large”.
I managed to catch up with Parlour Steps’ Stull as the band was embarking on an intensive one-week Peak Performance Boot Camp (part of the deal with becoming a top 20 finalist). Working with some of the industry’s top professionals and performers, the finalists are getting tips on the music business, live performance, song writing, marketing and promotion.
Jenn Laidlaw: What was it like being a part of Peak Performance and what is the band hoping to get out of the boot camp?
Caleb Stull: Well, we’ve just started – it’s the first day. We hope to make some friends, maybe collaborate with some of these amazing and diverse musicians here, relax in this beautiful spot. The project itself has been illuminating – challenging and inspiring.
JL: You will be playing at Bumbershoot in Seattle on the Labour Day long weekend, what are you most looking forward to?
CS: We are thrilled to be invited to play the preeminent rock music festival in this region – we’ve been knocking on their door for a while. I’m stoked to see Plants and Animals, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, Ra Ra Riot, and of course Mr. [Billy] Bragg and Mr. [Bob] Dylan.
JL: Where did the name Parlour Steps come from?
CS: The name is purely for its tactile appeal: soft lighting, exchange of ideas and humour.
JL: Is there a brief story about how the band came to be/how you all met?
CS: The band is basically built out of an uneducated indie punk rocker (that’s me) leading a ragtag crew of jazz school grads.
JL: What is your favourite venue in Vancouver?
CS: Richard’s on Richards was great. In regards to the existing places, the Biltmore has become a great room.
JL: How about outside of Vancouver?
CS: Phog Lounge in Windsor, Horseshoe in Toronto (for the history – some of those decrepit ceiling fans in there look like they’re gonna decapitate someone!), La Divan Orange in Montreal is also a cool room.
JL: What is your overall opinion of Vancouver’s music scene?
CS: More, more!! This city has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to the arts. The vibrancy of live music is constantly butting up against a wall of liquor license nightmares, sound bylaws, zoning that doesn’t allow dancing (nowhere on Commercial Drive is actually zoned for dancing except Federico’s – that seems ridiculous to me). In such a new city, the balance between homeowner (condo-owner) rights and the need for cultural vibrancy has not yet been found.
JL: Do you have a favourite anecdote from touring?
CS: We played for a gang of guerrilla show makers in Waterloo, who held shows in a house called The Trepid House. After our show they got us kinda drunk, had us put on pirate costumes, and we spent the evening singing our songs with pirate accents playing a ukulele and an out-of-tune piano. It was fun.
JL: You pen the lyrics for the band’s songs. Where does your inspiration come from?
CS: I’m inspired by ideas about love and existence and technology versus the natural world, the questions that come up – the usual: bodily and animalistic desires versus the purity of the soul. You know, light fare. Lately I’ve been writing a lot about unplugging, getting back to real face-to-face communication, discarding what of this modern world makes us sacrifice meaningful interaction and learning for convenience and speed. Hmm, maybe I’ve spent a little too much time on my computer.
JL: Everyone tends to comment on the dance-ability of your tunes, which I tend to agree with, yet I find a lot of the harmonies charmingly sorrowful.
CS: We’re drawn to the more mournful chord movements – so much beauty can be squeezed from that stuff. Plus we like shaking our ass, and seeing others shake their ass to our songs.
JL: Names some musical influences of the band and/or current listens.
CS: The Shins, Pixies (still!), Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Sufjan Stevens, plus I’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin lately.
JL: Have things changed with the addition of your fifth member, keyboardist Alison Maira?
CS: We’ve been forced to make more musical room, which has tightened up our ears, and helped tighten up our intentions in regards to the songs – what we’re adding has to be worth it and cohesive. We’re playing less, which is more.
JL: In a few words, describe yourself and your bandmates.
CS: This is my pass. Sorry, these would only be my judgments and I don’t trust them. There’s a great line from The Philadelphia Story that goes something like “The time to have figured someone out is never.”
JL: Parlour Steps has broken in America. What does this mean to you guys?
CS: Border issues. Seriously, much bigger ponds, some amazing fans and band connections and sights seen. It is also amazing at making us appreciate our home of Canada.
Bumbershoot Music and Arts Festival runs from Saturday, September 4 to Monday, September 6 in downtown Seattle. Parlour Steps are playing on Saturday from 3:30 to 4:30 pm at the EMP Sky Church Venue.