I had the opportunity to sit down with singer/guitarist Jeff Massey prior to The Steepwater Band show at Shank Hall in Milwaukee, WI. We talked about their new label and working with producer Jim Wirt along with the ins and outs of writing, recording and sound of the new album. We discussed touring and their plans to travel overseas. I asked about his early musical influences and found out he used to play in heavy metal band prior to discovering the Blues. He talked about what draws him to a song and the benefit of playing solo acoustic shows. He schooled me on why Joe Walsh is an important part of rock history and much more.
Listen to the entire Jeff Massey interview below:
Today I’m joined by Jeff Massey from The Steepwater Band. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
There’s been a lot of great things happening for you guys including being signed to Sun Pedal Recordings. What made them a good fit for you?
Well, the producer mainly. (laughs) We met the producer that they were working with and they wanted to release this Best Of record and they wanted to put one new track on it and kind of feel out the producer, Jim Wirt, and we went and recorded a tune with him and hit if off like we were old friends and instantly loved working with him so that inspired us even more to carry on working with the label, so that was one of the main reasons. At the time the Buffalo Killers were one of the bands we’re fans of and done some shows with and they were on the label and we thought, “Oh, this might be a good thing.” That’s pretty much it.
Well cool. The Best Of collection, Diamond Days, new song, a bunch of old remastered songs, but you guys also redid Hard As Stone. Whose decision was that?
We decided that we wanted to get, because we had been playing it live with Eric doing the lap steel, decided we wanted to get a version with Eric on it. The old version had different band members singing on it and different label had a piece of it (laughs) so to say, so re-recording it was kind of a no-brainer and it had to go on the Best Of because that’s one of our, kind of a staple tune that we play every night.
Now, other than the new song, you said you worked with Jim Wirt for actually the new album, right? So what was that experience in general like?
Positive, like we thought it was going to be. After that first session we knew we were a good fit together. We brought in a bunch of songs that we had not been playing live. Some of them were just blue prints of songs and some of them didn’t change too much, a couple of them, Jim had some great ideas and added some parts and some ear candy, some organ parts and some vocal harmonies and we did it quick. We did it in two weeks, we were in there rockin’ and rollin’ the first week. We got right through it. Joe actually got sick during the session so missed a day but we already had like four or five songs done so I just went in and did the vocals and he bounced back, came back and we recorded for four more days and then mixed it in a week. Like I said, it was like an old friend. We got along great with him. He’s a really talented guy, too.
Did you have guest musicians or is it literally all you guys?
No, just Jim. We basically played, for the most part, live in a room together and went back and added some ear candy, like I said, some piano parts here and there, and some vocal harmonies. But no outside guests besides Jim playing on some tracks.
Now is he the kind of person to push you out of your comfort zone or did he kind of let you do what you wanted to?
Not so much. I think he liked what we brought in so much that he didn’t really turn anything purposely upside down. Which we’ve dealt with that in the past too and that can be a cool thing too. I mean, he pulled the best performance out of us but he liked our ideas so much that it wasn’t like, “No, you gotta completely do this different.” Nothing like that and anything he added to it made it for the better. There’s a couple of songs we left kind of incomplete hoping that he would do that. (laughs)
Alright, so based on your previous albums did you experiment maybe with new guitar sounds or amps or pedals? Did you try anything different?
We’re always big on bringing a bunch of guitars, a bunch of basses, different snare drums, different amplifiers, so we’re always doing that, but oddly enough you should ask that because this time I used the same amp on mostly everything, which I never do (laughs) and same with Eric too. But there were some, no, Eric used a Marshall on some stuff, he used a Super so there was some amp switching but not as crazy as it’s been in the past. A lot of different pedals and effects. In the past, when we did the record with Marc Ford, I used a ton of different amps and guitars, a lot of different guitars, five or six different guitars, but I was kind of surprised that I used the same amp on so much stuff but it just sounded so good we just left it plugged in, for me anyway. (laughs)
So you mentioned Eric [Saylors], and this is actually the first studio album he’s done with you guys.
He’s on the live record [Live and Humble] that we put out, but yeah, this is the first full length.
How was it working with a four piece vs the three piece that you guys know?
It was great because we basically just went in a room and just played live like we would a show but Eric actually did some writing too, we all wrote. Eric had parts. He had ideas that he was adding to the rest of the band’s and there was one song where he pretty much had all the music and I wrote the lyrics on the spot just because we knew it was good and we didn’t want to ignore it. I wasn’t coming up with anything and wasn’t coming up with anything and it came down to the wire and I came up with a melody so we were writing kind of as a team. It was very natural, not forced at all. Eric fits right in.
I was going to say, it’s been since 2012.
Yeah, and you’re right, when you go in the studio you don’t know what’s going to happen or how another person’s writing is going to fit in but what he’s contributed fits right in with what we do and it’s great stuff. We’re excited about the record. It sounds great.
So are there any other key contributions from any of the other guys, Tod or…
Yeah, there always is. Tod writes a lot of music. A lot of times, even when I write a song I don’t tell Joe what to do. He’ll figure out the groove and it might be something different than I may have anticipated but that’s why we split all our writing credits. We don’t nitpick about that. Everybody contributes a lot. So I might write the whole song, melody, lyrics and everything and then I might have another one where Tod wrote a whole song and I’ve got to come up with lyrics, melody or it’s a jam that turned into a song.
Do you find it’s harder for you to write lyrics if you didn’t write the music?
Sometimes, but it’s fun. It’s almost like a game. (laughs)
Do you ask, where was your head to get kind of a…
No, not really. If Tod or Eric has a piece of music, they kind of just leave it up to me come up with the melody for it. It’s cool because it’s totally different than having a melody and a song come out all at once. It’s a different aspect. Maybe it’s harder, it’s a little more challenging, you don’t want it to be forced. It’s a fun challenge. I love it.
So you said you had a little struggle writing but then you also came up with lyrics on the spot, are you drawing from past experiences or just a situation, subject pops into your head and you go with it?
I mean, some tunes came together right away but the ones that I consider a struggle came together. Either way, I’ll think of past experiences or won’t think at all or be something somebody said. Like my girlfriend texted me something and I used it as a line. (laughs)
Does she know that?
Yes, she knows, She texted me this, she was telling me something and I looked at it and was like, “That’s the line I need,” and I texted her back, “Thanks,” and it fit right in the spot, but our lyrics don’t really, I’m not really good at exact storytelling like, this guy woke up this day and did this and this is what happened, it’s a lot of abstract things going on, room for interpretation. That’s the kind of lyrics that I’ve always liked. I mean, I like storytelling lyrics too but I don’t think I’m as good at that.
Alright, so Silver Lining is the new song. Is that a glimpse of what the rest of the album is like?
Maybe. Silver Lining doesn’t sound too far off from Roadblock to me, like a bluesier, there’s definitely some bluesier things on the record but there’s some other things that don’t sound anything like Silver Lining. There’s some really heavy tunes on the record…
Fuzzy, dirty, heavy, dark, and there’s other songs that are hooky, borderline poppy. There’s other songs that are blues. We’ve always kind of dabbled in all that but I still think it sounds like us. It think it sounds cohesive. We’re still playing around with the running order.
But it’s finished.
It’s finished. We haven’t mastered it yet. It’s probably not going to come out until way later in the year because the Best Of kind of came out later than we anticipated. We can’t really promote two records at once. You can, I suppose, but we’re not going to do that. (laughs)
Do you have album title figured out and artwork and…
I think so, but I hate to say anything because it’s all subject to change right now. Sorry. (laughs)
That’s okay. Can’t blame me for asking. Alright, so you guys have been doing this for 15+ years now. Long time. With the music industry getting easier for some bands and harder for others, has your definition of success changed?
Yeah, it’s changed. I think we’re just happy to be busy. That doesn’t mean we don’t have ambition to reach out to more people that we’ve already reached out to, but, well, I don’t know. Maybe I take that back. We never set out to be like, “Oh we’ve got to sell a million records and be this popular band and get on the radio,” and do all that, we just enjoy playing. But if you’re playing 150 shows a year and you’re making a living doing your art, I mean, that’s pretty good. So, I don’t know if I answered your question there. We still have goals, but it’s more about, let’s get a record out by this date and let’s do this and we’re not complacent but we’re totally grateful for being able to do this.
Well, like you said, if you can make a living doing what you love, that there could be seen as success and…
Yeah, and we never said, “We’re going to do this so we can make this amount of money or do this,” we’ve always kind of stuck to our guns and played the music we wanted and it wasn’t easy at first because we were playing in bars around Indiana and Chicago, places that wanted cover music. It’s so hard to get an original band going. A lot of people try to go to L.A. or New York and do it that way but you’ve got to hit the road with it and it’s really hard to make any money doing it, you just gotta stick to it and build it and believe in it. But the older we get the more we like playing. It’s really strange. (laughs)
That’s good though. Maybe there’s less pressure now? Because you have been doing it…
Yeah, there’s always a certain amount of pressure but, because once you’re in the business there’s always that business side that you have to deal with and watch certain things and make sure certain things are in order, but we never forget about why we do it. We love playing. You can tell we love playing and we get along well. We all have the same vision that this is what we want to do and it works for us.
Cool. So speaking of live shows, you guys do play an awful amount of shows a year, East coast to the West coast, any chance you’ll play some of those new songs before the release?
Well, probably. We recorded the album and went on the road and haven’t played any of those songs since. We’re kind of like doing the old school method of kind of saving them until the record comes out but I have a feeling a few are going to sneak out because they’re really good songs, we really want to play them Right now we’re holding out. We do Silver Lining but the other ones we’re saving for the moment. I think they’ll be creeping in here in the next few months. At least a couple of them.
Technically maybe you could play one and people may think it’s somebody else’s song because they don’t recognize it.
Well in the past, 80% of the record, the first few CDs we were already playing live before we recorded it but nowadays you do that and your whole record’s on YouTube before you get a chance to get it out it. (laughs) We’d like to save it a little bit.
You guys have a history of going overseas. Do you have any other plans to do that?
Yeah. I don’t know about this year. We’re definitely going to do a full tour. We always go to Spain. Spain is like our main hub and then we hit other countries around that. We went three times last year. Belgium and Ireland and Spain but we’re going to do a tour of Spain in February. Just because we don’t want to book the tour to Spain in October and then pressure ourselves about getting the record, because we have to have the record out first so it gives us plenty of time to get the record out this year and play a little bit and I’m guessing it will turn into a full year tour, were hoping.
Well that will be cool. Alright, so what is your earliest experience with discovering music?
My mom played piano around the house when I was, I remember that, being as young as four or five years old and I took piano lessons, it didn’t really go too far because karate kind of came in. Karate didn’t last either (laughs) before guitar.
(laughs ) I’m picturing you in a karate outfit.
Yeah, I wasn’t that tough. Anyway, my Mom would play piano around the house. I had older brothers and sisters that were listening to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. I begged my sister for a record, “Give me one of your records,” and she gave me Foreigner Hot Blooded, I guess that’s the one she felt she could spare. She wouldn’t give me her Aerosmith records, but (laughs), it’s kind of a musical household. My brothers and sisters didn’t play instruments but they were all listening to music. I have a lot of cousins and uncles and relatives that live down in Alabama and Tennessee, we’d go on family vacations and some of them played. I think I found a guitar at my grandma’s house and my Great Uncle Ed taught me C, D and G.
So are you self-taught for…
I started out self-taught, just playing, it felt really natural to me, probably because I throw righty and bat lefty maybe, but I was learning from magazines and people but eventually I took some lessons too. But I would learn the lesson as soon as I got home and then move on to something else. Then I ended up taking my teacher’s job when he left so I was absorbing it from anywhere. I was pretty, I’m sure other guitar players, I was pretty obsessive and weird, played eight or nine hours a day when I should be doing my homework. (laughs)
But now look where it’s gotten you.
Yeah. I don’t regret any of that, but I don’t play as obsessively. Now I enjoy playing. I play a lot but if I don’t play for a few days I don’t freak out like I did when I was 16. “I gotta play. Where’s my guitar?”
So, some of your early favorite bands, are those still your favorite bands today?
Some. I kind of went through a phase where I was really into metal. When I was 14 or 15 I played in some pretty heavy metal bands.
Like what style?
Like metal. Like borderline speed metal.
Yeah, I was in a punk band. But when I started playing guitar I was into Doors and Zeppelin but then I got into Metallica so it was kind of all over the map. So I’d be playing in a metal band and then I’d be going home learning Eric Clapton songs. I was schizophrenic. Really didn’t have any direction. Which, now I’m glad because I learned from a lot, you know. But when I got to be 18, 19, 20, I really got more into Blues. I still liked the heavier stuff but that’s where my head got more into that. Classic Rock and the Blues, that was always my favorite.
I guess because I have seen you play that now answers the question, when I’ve seen you play super fast, if you have that history with playing that speed metal, that kind of registers with me.
Yeah, but it’s harder to play slow, believe it or not. Nowadays I’d probably be more into David Gilmore than Metallica, but whatever. I like it all. (laughs)
Variety is good.
Playing that kind of music, whether you like that kind of music or not, it does a lot for your chops and then I spent years trying to tone that down because you have to do that stuff sparingly to fit the song.
So, speaking of a song, what draws you to it first? Is it the music, the vocal or the lyrics?
Into a song I hear?
A song you end up liking.
Usually the melody. It could be anything. It could be a guitar part but if the guitar part is great and the melody, I really like lyrics a lot. I know a lot of people don’t listen to the lyrics but lyrics usually grab me first, but it could be anything, could be the melody, it could be the groove, but I think a good lyric could be anything from Bob Dylan to AC/DC. You know what I mean? It depends on the style. AC/DC were singing about partying and sex and drugs, but they did it well. (laughs) It’s convincing.
Do you think if you weren’t a songwriter, it would still be the lyric?
Probably not. Maybe not. That’s hard to say. That’s a good question. Maybe though, I don’t know. If your lyrics are reaching out to someone who’s not a musician, that’s the point. You don’t want to just direct your music at other musicians, so, I don’t know.
Because for me, it’s always been the music. If I get an emotion from it, then I’ll continue and hear the lyric.
Well, it could be the rhythm of a lyric too, I mean, if you’re not even digesting the content, it could be the rhythm, the melody, how it’s going. It’s a lot of ways. So many ways that a song can grab you.
But as long as it’s grabbing you. That’s good.
Yeah, and some of my favorite records are records I didn’t get the first four times I listened to them.
Like, what’s an example?
Just like, oh man, setting me up…
Sorry, you said it.
Like Led Zeppelin, Presence. I was a big Zeppelin fan, I still am, and when I was like 14 or 15, I was like, “This record’s weird. I don’t know about this record.” Whenever I’d put it on, “It’s weird,” and then the 7th or 8th, 9th time, I’m like, “Wow. This is my favorite Zeppelin record,” because it was so different than the other ones. It had this dark quality to it, compared to the other ones, it threw me off. And even like Black Crowes stuff, Amorica, the first time I heard Amorica, it didn’t grab me. About the fourth or fifth time I was like, “Oh yeah, this is good.” You know what I mean, it depends on the mood you’re in, how much you’re paying attention. Those are two examples I can think of off the top of my head.
Those are good ones. So, are there any new bands that you’re into?
I’m terrible at this. This is the part you want to bring Tod in. (laughs)
You can have a stand in. (laughs)
I like all kinds of bands, but I’m terrible at, these days I have a bad habit of putting the same record on my turntable and hitting play every day, the same record from 30 years ago or something. Yeah, there’s a lot of bands. I love the Buffalo Killers. A lot of bands that we play with, I like Miles Neilson a lot. What’s another newer band…
Have you heard the Temperance Movement yet?
Yeah, I watched one video of them playing in a hotel room doing the CCR cover. That was really good. Are they English?
Yes, they’re from the UK.
Yeah, I like what I’ve heard of them. As soon as you shut that thing off and we’re done I will think of 30 bands. That’s how it works. I don’t know. It’s kind of overwhelming how many bands there are. There’s some great ones.
Someone just turned me on to Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats.
I’ve not heard of them. Where are they from? Like around here?
I think they are from England. Heavy, heavy stoner rock. Really good. So there’s my answers for today. (laughs) And I don’t know how new they are. I’d have to see how long they’ve been around.
Well, if they’re new to you, they’re still new.
Alright so, from time to time you perform solo acoustic shows playing Steepwater songs and various covers. What is it about playing those songs stripped down that appeals to you?
Well, playing with the band we all know each other musically enough we can kind of follow each other in any direction but on acoustic I like it because I can change my mind about something instantly and it’s not going to trip anybody up because there is nobody else there, you know what I mean? I can do a song mellower, faster, slower, I can play what I feel like playing. I never have a set list at the acoustic shows. I might have a list, but I don’t have a set list because I might be, “Oh, I feel like playing this song,” and you can really concentrate on the singing because you’re not trying to sing over loud Rock ‘n Roll, which I love too, don’t get me wrong, it’s just a different aspect and there’s nothing to hide behind so it’s great practice. It almost makes playing with a band even easier. “I just did this gig the other day by myself, this is so good, I have three of my friends to play it with me.”
Have you ever brought that different arrangement mindset to the band and be like, “Hey, I did this solo super slow or I changed up,” to get…
I would love to start doing that. Wilco was doing that for a while, that’s one example, or Dylan, they do the same song three or four different ways. We haven’t done much of that. I’d like to do more of that. We have an old song called Back to the Bottle, we have a Country version of that song that we used to do, well not Country, but slow and strumming, and that might be something we might do in the future. It’s just right now, we have so many songs, that we look forward to playing different songs not necessarily changing the ones we have. And we have two versions of Hard As Stone. So we haven’t done that so much but that would be something I’d definitely be interested in doing in the future. Especially when a song, that’s something the people come out and see, have heard, they like it but they’ve heard it million times, maybe throw a different spin on it.
Now are you changing up the set list from night to night or…
Oh yeah, we never play the same set. Like a lot of old tunes we’ll put them away for a year and bring them back. We just started playing A Lot of Love Around again out of the blue. It gives it new life when you let it rest for a while. There’s like three or four songs that we always play, Come on Down, High and Humble, Remember the Taker, usually and we revolve the sets around that. We rarely play the same set although you’ve seen us so many times you’ve probably seen everything. (laughs)
I don’t know about everything, but a lot.
When we get this new album out then it’s going to be even more of a head scratcher deciding what we’re going to play.
Can you tell me how many tracks there are?
Well, there’s 11 recorded. We’d like to get them all on CD but we want to do a vinyl but we’d have to do double vinyl which is double cost, so that depends on if that’s going to be feasible. We’re still talking about that. We did a double vinyl with the live record [Live and Humble]. We recorded a Jerry Garcia song too, Rhapsody in Red.
Which you guys have played.
Yeah, but I don’t know if that’s gonna go on the record. Which, I might have just have that away, that could have been a surprise for Record Store Day or something. We might have more than what we need. I don’t know, we’ll see.
Alright cool. So, I’m going to end with a random question. This may be hard for you.
I’m already having a hard enough time with the other. No, I’m just kidding. (laughs)
If you could borrow a guitar from any other musician, past or present, to play during your next live show, which artist and which guitar?
I would borrow Jimmy Page’s ’59 Les Paul that he bought off Joe Walsh, because I love Jimmy Page and I love Joe Walsh and I would love to feel and hear what that guitar would sound like through my rig. That wasn’t a hard question. (laughs)
Okay, not a hard question at all. (laughs)
You know he bought that off Joe Walsh.
I don’t think I had heard that. Recent?
No in like 1969.
Oh. Oh wow.
Yeah, and Joe Walsh also gave the first, sold a talk box to Peter Frampton, you know, Do You Feel Like We Do, he got that, so Joe Walsh is an important piece of rock history in many ways.
Wow. I learned something new today.
Jeff: We’re huge Joe Walsh fans. We went to see him in Long Island last time we were in New York. We’re all on big Joe Walsh kicks this whole year, aren’t we? (directed at Eric Saylors)
Eric: Yes. (laughs)
Are you doing any songs of his live?
No, we never tried to do any of this songs, I mean, I can fill around with some on the guitar but, we try to stay current, current bands like Joe Walsh. No I’m kidding. (laugh)
I was going to say, you play old blues songs. (laughs)
No, I’m just teasing.
That was a fun question. Yeah, that was easy.
Alright. Well cool. That’s all I have, so thanks again for talking to me.
I hope it was alright.
Best of luck with all you guys do.
Thank you. Thanks for the interview.
The Steepwater Band are currently on tour. Find all dates here.
Watch the video for Silver Lining below.