In September 2014, Nashville-based instrumental outfit, Steelism, were introduced to a national audience with the release of their debut full-length album, 615 to FAME. The record, featuring ten original instrumentals and one cover, became a calling card for the band’s versatile yet distinct sound, drawing influence from film score composers like Ennio Morricone and ’60s instrumental acts like Booker T. & the M.G.s, The Ventures and Pete Drake.
With their latest effort, ism, Steelism offers a more holistic listening experience, inspired by mid- century modern design, early Brian Eno productions and 70s film scores. They also introduce featured vocalists into their instrumental canon for the first time. The result is a refreshing sonic palette with an invigorating twist on the Intoxicating Sounds of Steelism. “We pieced together ism like a visual mid-century modern design - an array of vibrant colors and tones aligned together while constantly striving for minimalism, even as the production grew.”
ism, was co-produced by guitarist Jeremy Fetzer, pedal steel player Spencer Cullum (together known as Steelism) and Jeremy Ferguson (Lambchop, Tristen, Andrew Combs). Tracking began on November 9th, 2016, with the divisive results of the U.S. Presidential election just in. Respite was found through the creative process while holed up at Ferguson’s Battle Tapes Recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee. The usual Steelism rhythm section, Jon Radford (drums) & Jon Estes (bass), and Robbie Crowell (formerly of Deer Tick) on keys are heard throughout the record. Legendary “Nashville Cat” studio musician Charlie McCoy (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde) on vibraphone & harmonica and a lush string quartet provide the finishing instrumental touches.
“We began recording ism the day after the election results rolled in which created a tense atmosphere right from the get-go. We depended on Steelism to be our escape. The new rule for the sessions became that a musical part or performance was only successful if it made you laugh or feel cool! Which instantly helps filter a lot of ideas out.”
Steelism’s inception was motivated by Fetzer & Cullum’s desire to explore musically, taking chances with writing and performance that they otherwise couldn’t backing other artists. With ism they continue this exploration. Elements of David Axelrod, AIR, & Pink Floyd were noted in the production of the opening track, “Re-Member”. On “Eno Nothing”, Fetzer’s piano and fuzz steel melody were inspired by the melodic phrasing of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk while put to a driving rhythm. The work of film score composer Lalo Schifrin, Serge Gainsbourg circa Histoire de Melody Nelson and the 1970s German Krautrock movement also inform the sonically rich tone of the record.
Fetzer and Cullum say the vision for ism was to curate a listening experience similar to that of a film soundtrack. To bring this vision to realization, they wrote 3 songs with vocal melodies to compliment the instrumental compositions. Fellow Nashvillians Tristen, Ruby Amanfu, Andrew Combs & Jessie Baylin, who appear as featured vocalists on the album, were then brought in as collaborators. Tristen finished the lyrics that Cullum had started for “Shake Your Heel”, a song about overcoming modern anxieties. Amanfu provided the words for “Roulette”, a tune inspired by John Barry’s legendary James Bond scores and Fela Kuti recordings. Combs, a longtime friend and writing partner of Steelism, penned the lyrics for “Lonely Game”, which ultimately evolved into a duet with Baylin in the style of Lee Hazelwood’s LHI recordings.
"We wanted to keep the record 100% Nashville from the studio to the musicians and singers. We were even fortunate enough to enlist "Nashville Cat" Charlie McCoy who helped put the city musically on the map in the 1960s and had an instrumental group of his own known as Area Code 615. Nashville is currently evolving culturally and is going through some growing pains at the moment, but it continues to be a creative mecca and collaborative atmosphere for all us."
Steelism’s ability to combine a diverse assortment of sonic flavors in a way that feels fresh & cohesive has always been a staple of the band’s sound. It’s there with 615 to FAME as well as with their 2012 EP The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel & Guitar and 2015 EP, The Drawing Room Vol. I. ism casts an even wider net, yet the marriage of the various elements offers a more articulate listen than previous releases, presenting a more refined & mature Steelism sound. The implementation of vocals on the album flows seamlessly with the instrumentals and those components compliment each other rather than juxtapose. If ever Steelism provided a soundtrack to life, it is with ism.