Steel Cranes, an undeniably catchy duo from Oakland, has been busy.
Almost three years removed from their debut release Ouroboros in 2013, the rock duo featuring Amanda Schukle on drums and Tracy Shapiro on vocals and guitar have released Tango.
At only nine songs, the album appears light on first notice. At just under 40 minutes, all but one song is over four minutes and none are longer than five minutes — “Take Me Down” is only about three and a half minutes.
You should probably do yourself a favor and make sure the ‘repeat all’ setting is engaged, because you won’t be ready for the end when it comes. Take a listen and continue reading!
That same infectiousness plays out in the duo’s ability to book nearly 40 dates across the United States in seven weeks. Although the tour started last week in Tuscon, AZ, the have been making their way up and hit the Bay Area early. They pick up Santa Cruz-based band The Redlight District to support a pair of shows: tonight at The Crepe Place in Santa Cruz and tomorrow night at the Golden Bull in Oakland before they head as far east as Bloomington, IN.
I had an opportunity to catch up with Tracy and Amanda where they elaborated on the tour, the tons of hats an independent band needs to wear to pull off a tour like this, and their future in Oakland.
TBB: This is a pretty long tour, but not the first right? Are there any cities that you are especially excited to hit?
Tracy Shapiro: We’ve been touring since 2013. This tour is nearly 40 dates and spans seven weeks. At this point, we have wonderful people scattered throughout our route, music and non-music friends alike. It’s a treat to be able to reconnect with them whenever we travel. We’ve got hubs of people in Seattle, Madison, Chicago, Phoenix, and San Diego, so those cities are always especially fun.
Amanda Schukle: I’m especially excited to play in Salt Lake City because I’ve never been to Utah and I just met someone who told me about a bunch of hikes as well as great breweries and beer bars there.
TBB: What kind of things have you guys been doing to prepare for this tour? Is there a certain routine you try to keep on?
AS: After spending a year arranging, recording, and mixing Tango, I’d been playing a lot more guitar and bass than I’d played drums. Our live show finds me behind the drums 80% of the time though. It’s so physical that I literally need to get in shape for it, so I instituted a 3-4 day/week practice regimen to make sure I wouldn’t collapse on stage. I alternated practice days with super-boring tasks like packaging and mailing CDs to radio stations and press outlets and finding bands to play with us in random cities on tour. We have a lot of spreadsheets.
TS: You mean other than sitting in front of my computer pulling my hair out for the last four months sending out a never-ending stream of emails? There are definitely times where I think, “Am I even a musician anymore?” We released this album on our own label, Mister White Tights Records, and the amount of work it takes to release an album and book a long tour, at least in the way we wanted to do it, tends to put me behind my computer more than behind my guitar.
Fortunately as the tour approached, we shifted back into music mode. I headed to Phoenix, where Amanda lives, a few weeks before kicking off our tour to get our live show dialed. Ultimately, we want to tour with additional musicians, but for now our goal was to find the most effective way for two people to bring these songs to life live. We worked backwards from the album, and landed on arrangements that have both of us getting behind guitar, bass, and drums at different points throughout our show.
AS: Oh! I also built us a pedal board. I’m very proud of that. Those things are like 150 bucks at Guitar Center!
TBB: You guys wrote most of Tango in Big Sur, right? Can you elaborate on what made that time so inspiring?
AS: We actually didn’t write any of Tango in Big Sur, but we knew we had the right material for a new album. We had been wracking our brains trying to figure out where we could do the initial tracking when friends of Tracy’s offered their cabin. The first day started with me freaking out because the cabin was so small and the ceilings were so low that I was convinced there was no way we would get usable recordings there. Tracy talked me off the ledge and got out of my way while I devised a plan for drum, amp, and microphone placement while it poured rain outside. In fact, it poured rain for four days straight. I’m still shocked the rain didn’t find its way into the recordings. Once we got down to doing some recording, I was pleasantly surprised to find that things were actually sounding pretty good and I was able to keep the guitar from bleeding into the drum mics. We spent the next three days in the routine of a leisurely breakfast, six to seven hours of recording, then Tracy driving us a mile down the road amid sheets of rain (in her car that hasn’t had the windshield wiper blades changed in about 12 years) to the Big Sur Taphouse, where we’d have a celebratory pint or two (and be able to see some faces other than our own) before heading back to the cabin for dinner. On day five, the rain stopped and we were able to finally spend a little time outside again. We finished up over the next few days and headed back to our respective homes with a solid foundation for the album. A couple days later, we learned that the Big Sur neighbors weren’t terribly pleased with the noise they’d endured for those eight days and they’d been on the verge of a revolt just as we finished up.
TS: I changed my windshield wiper blades two years ago. They consistently do not perform as well as I would like them to. I have several theories about what is holding them back and high hopes for their future. As for Big Sur, Amanda and I thrive on being close to nature and we both do well with having down time to recharge. So a cabin retreat nestled into a hilltop overlooking a stunning coastline on the outskirts of a tiny town where we knew nobody was dreamy, especially for the kind of focus we wanted to have.
TBB: How does Tango compare to your first album, Ouroboros, which was released in 2013?
AS: With Ouroboros, we went in with the goal of replicating our raw, loud live sound. Guitars, drums, vocals. Bashing people over the head. Simple. We spent five days recording us playing live in a room together and five days mixing. With Tango, we’d been playing some of these songs live for a while and we heard more in them. Less bashing. More texture. More nuance. More melody. More guitar tones. Definitely bass. Hopefully cello. The foundation of Tango is similar to Ouroboros in the sense that in Big Sur, we recorded me on drums and Tracy on guitar, playing together in a room. But we diverged drastically from there, and spent thousands of hours over the following year in our home studios writing arrangements, recording additional guitars, bass, drums, keys, and cello, and mixing until, without realizing it at the time, we ended up agreeing that we had landed on our final mixes exactly one year to the day after our first day in Big Sur.
TS: Tango is our second album but I like to think of it as our debut comedy album. That said, I don’t foresee Steel Cranes getting filed next to Steve Martin anytime soon. The songs are largely heavy and emotional. The presence of tears on my face and sometime even shuddering crying were often my indications of being on the right track while writing, and yet, once Amanda and I began working on arrangements, humor was largely my barometer. Amanda would play bass or guitar or keyboard parts until something made me snort and fall over laughing. That would then be what we used. It wasn’t any sort of agreed-upon method. It was just what we found ourselves doing. That said, we treated each song like a special snowflake. For instance, the song “Ebb” carries very little if any humor. It’s an expression of being flatlined. I wrote it at a time when I had all but lost my capacity to feel funny, happy, sad, or really anything other than disconnected and tired all the time. So “Ebb” reflects that with its haunting, solemn, and sparse sonic landscape. But for many of the other songs, it felt compelling to bring to life the vulgarity of the heavier emotions, which often landed us, as I experience it, in comedic territory.
TBB: Did you guys play all of the additional parts on the album or did you bring in anyone to help out?
TS: Amanda plays everything except cello, including additional guitar parts. She cut her teeth playing guitar in post-punk and math rock bands for years before heading to drums and bass and keys and is at least 17 times the guitarist I am, so I was happy to step aside for a bit. Amanda wasn’t as convinced that we needed as many guitar parts as I wanted. So we would go into the studio and listen to a song and she’d say, “I don’t know…I don’t really hear another guitar.” And I’d pick up a guitar and start playing around with ideas and EVERY SINGLE TIME she’d grab the guitar out of my hands and within minutes bust out these wild and wonderful riffs. So for about two weeks straight, I was her guitar fluffer. Greatest two weeks of my life. Our friend Devon McClive (of Devon McClive and Sons, and The Sam Chase) was the last piece of the recording puzzle and we had a glorious day recording her on cello for four of the songs.
AS: She’s right about the guitar fluffer thing. I wasn’t so sure, but I’m glad she pushed me. I’d written and recorded most of the bass tracks without her sitting there staring at me and I’d just upload updates for her approval or disapproval as I went. I was reluctant to try things out with her there, as I’ve always wanted to get things reasonably “good” or done before letting anyone else hear them. But she wouldn’t let me, and we ended up coming up with better and weirder stuff because of it.
The Bay Bridged: Who are some contemporary artists that you can’t get enough of? New, revitalized, unknown or popular, what’s on your most recently played?
AS: David Bowie’s new/final album is ridiculously brilliant. I have definitely listened to it more than anything else since it came out. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. I bought the new album and tried really hard to like it and understand why all the critics are drooling over it, but ultimately I just find it painfully boring. There’s a new Afghan Whigs album in the works. I’ve been a big fan for a long time and I loved their last record so I have high hopes for the new one. I listen to a ton of The National. They have my heart. We listened to a lot of Fleet Foxes while we were recording in Big Sur, and I was excited to hear recently that they are working on new music. I also listen to a lot of meditation music. Chinmaya Dunster’s Ragas Relax is my jam.
TS: I hardly ever think to put on music, in all honesty, which leaves me quite oblivious to what’s what in the current era. I’m a huge podcast listener and have been a longtime fan of WTF and The Mental Illness Happy Hour. There’s a lot of psychology and sociology stuff I move through. Amanda recently turned me on to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Elections, which I’ve now brought into the fold. I’m currently in an audio book memoir phase and recently blew threw Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl and Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person.
TBB: Does Steel Cranes plan on remaining an Oakland-based band?
TS: Only I am currently based in Oakland. We met and began playing in Oakland nearly five years ago but for the last few years Amanda has lived elsewhere, first San Diego, and now Phoenix. It’s been remarkably workable thus far with the main changes being that we rarely play any Oakland shows unless we are touring and that we write, record, and rehearse in short intense chunks of time as opposed to getting together a handful of times a week.
I honestly have no idea if I’ll stay in Oakland or not. I have a great rent-controlled apartment, very close friends, and wonderful communities that I’m a part of in the Bay Area. I don’t take any of those things lightly. Steel Cranes is a high priority for both Amanda and me so continuing to make music together will, for the foreseeable future, be a big factor in any decisions either of us make. Fortunately, thus far we’ve proven ourselves pretty resourceful and flexible in finding ways to make things work. That said, Oakland will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Steel Cranes, The Redlight District
The Crepe Place
August 12, 2016
9pm, $8 (21+)