Oakland’s Steel Cranes are about to start making some serious waves. Riding the strength of two massively heavy singles (“Boat Song” and “Moving On”), the duo – comprised of drummer Amanda Schukle and singer/guitarist Tracy Shapiro – will self-release their debut LP Ouroboros tomorrow, and they’ve begun spreading the good news of their blistering rock sound to masses on a US tour that kicked off last Friday night with a record release party at The Night Light near Jack London Square.
I had a chance to catch up with Schukle and Shapiro via email on the the eve of their release show at The Night Light, discussing the pair’s happenstance meeting at an Oakland bar, the recording of Ouroboros, the roots of the album’s title, their brutally heavy sound, and their affinity for all things East Bay, and more specifically Oakland. Below, stream Ouroboros exclusively here on The Bay Bridged, and then check out my full interview with Steel Cranes. After the interview, find out how you can win a copy of the record on your choice of vinyl or CD.
The Bay Bridged: How exactly did you two meet, how long have you been making music together, and when did that morph into Steel Cranes?
Amanda Schukle: We both moved to Oakland in the fall of 2011 and met randomly a few months later when I went to grab a late dinner at my neighborhood joint where Tracy was working. I sat at the bar and we started chatting and discovered we both make music. She said she was looking for a drummer and I said, “I play the drums,” so we started playing together in my apartment about three days later. After a couple of months, noise complaints from my neighbors necessitated us moving to a rehearsal space where we could be as loud as we needed to be and we haven’t looked back.
Tracy Shapiro: Yeah, I moved here with the intent to start a band and for some reason I had it stuck in my head that I specifically needed a female drummer to do it. So when Amanda said, “I play the drums,” all those little inner “ding ding dings” in me went off. I played it relatively cool though…I didn’t want to freak Amanda out or anything.
TBB: What previous musical projects, bands, etc. were you each involved in, pre-Steel Cranes?
AS: I was a guitar player first, so I played guitar in all but one of my previous bands. I played in various post-punk and math rock bands in Santa Barbara and San Diego before swearing off bands as too much trouble and teaching myself to play the drums so I could just write and record on my own. I wasn’t looking for a band when I met Tracy, but she was definitely looking for me. We both have “solo projects” [Editor: Shapiro's eponymous project and Schukle's A Humanoid] that we are working on simultaneously and they couldn’t be more different from one another!
TS: My solo stuff had been my primary focus until I met Amanda. Within that, I’ve had different outlets, but the main one falls mostly under the blanket of musical comedy and it has evolved to include songs, stand up bits, and random theatrics. The comedy tunes themselves are all over the place genre-wise, though I probably do more rap songs than anything else when I perform these days. I LOVE writing country songs too. Not funny country songs. Well actually, both funny and not funny country songs.
Steel Cranes is only the second band I’ve ever been in. The first one was a short lived rock trio that I played in with two women in 2010 when I lived in Brooklyn. I had only ever played an electric guitar a handful of times at that point, and so one of my bandmates let me borrow her Dean for the duration of the project. She ended up gifting it to me when we parted ways. It’s the red beaut that I play now with Steel Cranes. Ha, I think she saw how much it would break my fragile little heart if she tried to take that thing out of my embrace.
TBB: It’s my understanding that the name Steel Cranes was inspired by the enormous cranes at the Port of Oakland. Why did you choose that for your band’s name?
AS: I’ve been kind of obsessed with those cranes since I moved to Oakland. I’d been walking my dog along the waterfront near Jack London Square almost every day and I’d taken so many pictures of the cranes from different angles. When it came time to choose a band name, I suggested Steel Cranes. We tossed around a few other ideas, but this one stuck. It’s easy to remember, representative of Oakland (which we love), and doesn’t suggest a particular genre. And I kind of love that when you watch our videos on YouTube, the suggestions for what to watch next are all about machinery, rather than music.
TBB: When and where was Ouroboros recorded, and with whom did you work in terms of engineers, producers, etc.?
AS: We recorded Ouroboros at New, Improved Recording in Oakland, CA in March 2013. We produced the album and Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs, Deerhoof) engineered and mixed it. We were adamant about recording to tape and capturing the sound of us playing live in a room with minimal overdubs. The album was mastered by John Golden at Golden Mastering in Ventura, CA.
TS: Eli is a sonic genius and a gem of a human being. We couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
TBB: Who created the album cover art for Ouroboros?
AS: We are so thrilled that our friend Alberto Ybarra agreed to do the artwork for our album cover and our “Boat Song” 7-inch cover. We burned him a disc of the rough tracks, told him the name of the album and some of our thoughts about the music and he returned with this amazing piece of art that is the perfect visual representation of our music. I think I may have freaked him out a little when I told him I love it so much I want to squeeze it so hard it almost suffocates.
TBB: The ouroboros is an ancient symbol of recreation that has persisted through the ages, and is no stranger to the world of rock and roll, most recently being used as the logo for Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records. Why did you choose this symbol as the primary image for this record?
TS: Amanda and I had been tossing around album names for a few weeks but nothing was landing. Then there was this night where I woke up at 4am. There was a full moon shining through my window onto my bed. I had a strong thought while I laid there that the moon is the key to the album name. For a while I ran through different names in my head that had some affiliation to the moon, and then I remembered that I had an old lunar calendar somewhere buried in my dresser. I dug it out and opened right to a page with a big drawing of a dragon eating its own tail and a quote by Carl Jung about the ouroboros. I was like a little kid at the end of a little treasure hunt. It felt perfect. I got so excited, and then sent Amanda a text saying “Ouroboros?” with a link to some online explanations and passed out. I awoke later to a “Yup, perfect!” text. The album itself felt like a life cycle to us. We had talked about it in that way when discussing names up to that point, so the symbology of the ouroboros was very congruent to the aspects of the album that we hoped to encapsulate in a name.
TBB: Your music is, well – as I’ve described it before – loud as hell, pulling sounds from blues, rock, garage, metal, and more. What draws you two toward the heavier side of rock, and who are some of your biggest musical influences?
AS: Funny enough, we didn’t set out to make the loudest music we could make…it just happened. I’ve always said our sound is just the sound of Tracy and Amanda colliding…and it is. Tracy and I actually have very little in common in terms of influences. I always give her a hard time because she never listens to anything as heavy as our music. Yet, she keeps coming up with these dissonant, brutal riffs. Go figure. However, I was drawn to heavy rock music early in life when Appetite for Destruction came out (yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit that I loved Guns n’ Roses). I was into metal when I started playing guitar, but at this point, I’d say my biggest musical influences on the heavier side are Black Sabbath and At the Drive-In and my less heavy influences are Radiohead, David Bowie, Gang of Four, Joy Division, and Afghan Whigs.
TS: Yeah, I don’t listen to much music. I grew up in a house with more Broadway musical soundtracks than rock albums and went through a stream of ephemeral phases from there. I’m sure that plenty of music has worked its way through me but, for whatever reason, I rarely think to put music on and most band and musical references fall completely flat against me. I love old country and blues stuff but I rarely know who is who or what is what. Honestly I mostly listen to my relaxing meditation type CDs (to help quell the lovely beast of anxiety), top 40 pop radio in my car (a pure pleasure, not a guilty pleasure), and my two favorite podcasts; Marc Maron’s WTF, and Paul Gilmartin’s The Mental Illness Happy Hour.
TBB: “Boat Song” is in the running for my favorite track of 2013. Where did that gorgeous riff come from, and can you tell me a little about the story behind the song, with its lyrics about parting ways and difficulties letting go – themes that are prevalent on Ouroboros?
TS: Oh man, thank you. I think that riff may be luck meets instinct. The guitar baffles the shit out of me. It always has. I land on most of what I play just by trying not to think and letting my fingers dance around until they land on something that makes me feel something. I played that riff over and over on my acoustic while laying on my back on the floor of my apartment. I had ended a rather complex relationship a few months prior and I couldn’t get this person out of my head. Intellectually I felt like I should have moved on by that point and, as often is the case, that didn’t match up with my emotional experience. The riff is so meaty and droning and it felt really cathartic to play it repetitively, incessantly even, to accompany the lyric, “Everything I do reminds me of you.” Eventually I moved my epic floor wallowing session into a shell of a song and, as always, Amanda brought it all home with her drumming.
TBB: The album’s closer, “Farewell”, has a bit of a softer side, while still exhibiting some rather anthemic guitars during the chorus. The track differs quite a bit from the sound of the rest of the record, providing a soaring yet almost delicate denouement to the album. Aside from the track’s name, why did you choose to include it, and more particularly, why did you choose to include it as the last song on Ouroboros?
AS: When Tracy first played me this song, she wasn’t sure it was a Steel Cranes song, but I loved it and started calling it “Song 12.” I knew right away it was a Steel Cranes song and should be the final track on our first album (though we edited ourselves down to 10 tracks on Ouroboros). Many of my favorite albums wind down to a track that is a little more subdued…a nice “farewell,” if you will. Initially I tried some drum parts that didn’t really work so I decided to try guitar instead and eventually landed on the electric parts I play while Tracy plays the acoustic part. We tend to end most of our live shows with this track too.
TBB: You’re celebrating the release of Ouroboros with a show at The Night Light in Oakland. Any reason in particular that you picked that venue?
AS: Well, the Night Light is awesome. And Steel Cranes started in Oakland and we recorded Ouroboros in Oakland. It’s only right that we celebrate our album release and fall tour kick-off in Oakland.
TS: I second that! We’re pretty damn smitten with Oakland.
To enter for your chance to a copy of Steel Cranes’ debut LP ‘Ouroboros’, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Steel Cranes” in the subject line and your full name, email address, and whether you want the album on vinyl or as a CD in the body of the email. A winner will be selected at random and notified via email.Tags: Steel Cranes