Photo by James Juarez

Cowboys have long sat at the center of the mythos of colonized America, serving simultaneously as a relic of the past and a potent symbol of self-reliance. In a chaotic time, it would seem that the collective consciousness has also sought refuge in the dusty past. Even five years ago, the general wisdom was that cowboys were a conservative symbol. But in recent years those judgements have softened, and with them the animosity towards country music. I spoke with Pete Kegler, the lead singer of Oakland’s Half Stack, who agrees that country music is having a moment right now. But Kegler’s affinity for the Americana tradition runs deeper than any passing fad.

“Wings of Love,” the first single off of Half Stack’s upcoming album of the same name, pulls faithfully from the traditions established in the canon of country music. Pedal steel guitar riffs float across the twangy, boisterous track as Kegler sings wistfully of leaving California behind for an unknown future. The track is bathed in the feeling of knowing a place too well, of recognizing its quirks, its drawbacks, and its beauty at the same time. Indeed, these themes of travel and escape persist throughout the album, establishing a vivid and loving portrait of harsh and uncomfortable circumstances.

Kegler wrote the majority of the tracks on Wings of Love during an extended stay at a 200-acre ranch north of Half Moon Bay. With no internet or cell service, and only brief forays back into society for band practice, Kegler was able to focus all of his energy on writing. Kegler spoke with The Bay Bridged last Saturday about his roots in country-bluegrass, other country artists who inspire him, and Half Stack's upcoming album Wings of Love, due out September 25 on Forged Artifacts.

The Bay Bridged: First of all, how have the past few weeks been for you and the band?

Pete Kegler: We cancelled our tour and had to postpone all our local gigs, which was a bummer. We’re just trying to look forward to the future and plan for things. I think that’s all you can do. We’ll try to set another one up when our album comes out in the fall, or whenever albums are able to be released again.

TBB: Speaking of the album, you’ve released the title track “Wings of Love” as the lead single. What made you pick that song in particular?

PK: We thought this one was the best representation of the album. We go through a few different styles on the album: Some of the songs are more country and some are more rockin’, electric songs. I think this is a nice middle ground to help you get your feet wet.

TBB: There’s a lot of discussion of location, transportation, and escape on the album. In this song you sing “Why don’t we leave California? Maybe we could live in Tennessee.”

PK: I think there’s always that desire in our music for a little bit of escape, or escape of current circumstances. That’s usually expressed through imagery of other places and other parts of the country that we might romanticize a little bit.

TBB: Did you grow up around California?

PK: Yeah, I grew up in the East Bay. Tennessee is like the romantic capital of Americana and country. I’m not all that familiar with it as a place, and that helps with that theme of romantic escape since my impression is that it’s culturally totally different from California, and all centered around country music. Digger’s parent’s actually just moved to Tennessee, so maybe we’ll have a bit more cred there [laughs].

TBB: Location clearly plays a big role in your songwriting. What was particularly inspiring about the ranch that you wrote most of these tracks on?

PK: It used to be a flower ranch and it was super remote. We had electricity and a well, but there was no internet or cell service, so I just had a ton of time to write music. It was basically all I did — just write music and take baths [laughs]. I guess the baths never made it into my songwriting.

TBB: What have you been listening to lately? Have your listening habits changed since the shelter-in-place order?

PK: I’m kind of a creature of habit. Quarantine has mostly made me want to listen to happy music that you can zone out to, so I’ve been listening to a lot of the Grateful Dead. I’ve also been listening to the same stuff I was listening to before — I’m a huge Silver Jews fan, so when David Berman put out Purple Mountains I was so excited. I had tickets to see both his Chapel shows and, anyway, you know what happened. So that’s stayed in my rotation. I’ve only been listening to a few different bands.

TBB: I’ve definitely felt less motivated to want to sit down and listen to music.

PK: I feel that, it’s really bizarre. That’s been true for me with playing music too, it doesn’t feel as normal. All our behavior right now isn’t normal, and I think that’s OK. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. I find it weird that I’m not dying to pick up my guitar, and that I’m thinking, 'Do I want to put music on right now?' when normally I wouldn’t think about it.

TBB: Shifting gears a bit, what was your introduction to the country scene?

PK: My dad’s a country-bluegrass singer and taught me how to play guitar, so that was a big part of my growing up. For a long time I didn’t like it, ‘cause not a lot of teens are stoked on bluegrass and country music, but it really shaped my ear for music. I played in a lot of other bands that were more surf or punk, but people would always say 'Your guitar leads are all like country guitar leads,' which was funny. This record was a concerted effort to play straight ahead country.

TBB: I’ve noticed the country stigma diminishing — there’s always been that 'I listen to everything but country' mentality which I haven’t seen as much lately as country starts to influence the emo and punk scenes. Were you trying to capture anything specific by working with an engineer who has worked on punk records in the past?

PK: Totally, that used to be like, a line. Greg Hartunian, who recorded our last album, really likes making loud, live-sounding records, and he definitely specializes in loud, heavier bands. I particularly like the live quality of a recording, over a super polished track with everything super isolated. It’s not a straight four-track sounding record, but it captures some of that feel.

TBB: Anything else you wanted to talk about regarding the upcoming record?

PK: I always have trouble talking about songs I write with any specificity. How do you say what you’re talking about in a song? And half the time writing a song is so subconscious that if you’re trying to say something it’ll come out some way else. It’s always hard as a songwriter to be comfortable laying that stuff out. I think it’s important to leave some mystery in it.

Follow Half Stack on Spotify, Instagram, and Facebook to stay up-to-date with their latest releases. The single "Wings of Love" drops April 17, 2020 and the full album of the same name will be available on vinyl via Forged Artifacts in the US, and on cassette via Breakfast Records in the UK/EU on September 25, 2020.

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