There are a lot of artists out there who work
very hard on their music, but very rarely do you run into one that's
the personification of music itself, someone so deep into the love of
song that his very presence reminds you why you became an artist in the
first place. Steve Ison is the best example of that I can think of. His
music, one song after another, eminates the kind of vibe of the best
songs you ever heard in your life. His quiet influence on all of
Indieland is vast, most artists who have encountered him have been
touched in some way or another. My own experience is that I had all
these opinions about the current state of music and I would rant about
them, feeling like I might be alone on a lot of these issues but then I
noticed Steve was tackling the same beast himself in other ends of
cyberspace. Such a true lover of indie music I have never known. I went
to one music site and saw the literally overwhelming amount of rockin'
stations he had put together and I thought to myself that music must be
like his heartbeat or something. He's turned me on to so many of my
favorite indie bands, my life is considerably better having known him.
But to single that stuff out, though, would be to shortchange his great
songwriting gift. Songs like If I Met You Again and Step In My
Direction, Girl on the Train and I Know a Good Thing are the kind of
songs that you like the first time and you never get tired of. Steve
Ison has taken the music he loves and created something totally his
own, he's capable of making a CD that sounds like some greatest hits
record at any given point. Anyway, I had a chance to learn more about
this trailblazin' dude, and he had a lot of rockin' things to say..
Scott: ok, let me start here, when did rock music become an important part of your life ? and then, when did you start writing songs ?
Steve Ison: The earliest
i can remember being conscious of Pop n Rock music was when i was about
10 i think.It was instantly romance,excitement,freedom and a new world
of limitless imagination.....I used to make up songs in my head and
give them titles then make them all into imaginary albums in my
diary.I'd make up reviews for these albums too. A proper junior
rock'n'roll Walter Mitty i was..Actually i still am come to think of
it,just not 'junior' .... By the time i was 15 and started to learn
guitar,i'd already completed 5 fantasy albums of songs i couldn't
remember or play....Or didn't have lyrics or anything..That was when
the long road to bridging the gap between imaginative possibilities in
my head and what i could technically acheive began..The first songs i
wrote on the guitar definitely didn't sound like the ones that played
in my head tho, thats for sure..
Scott: Your song Scenes from Palacio, is that based on a real life experience ? Where is Palacio ? :)
Steve Ison: It's not
based on anywhere, it's all just fantasy. My friend Harper Stephens had
the riff and i added some moody chord changes and they suggested the
sort of sinister plutonic underworld feel and cinematc lyric. It's 3
characters in a plush Spanish/Mexican hotel, i reckon and the dark
secrets beneath their painted smiles. 'Palacio's Spanish for palace
btw. I had the title 'Scenes From Palacio' first and thought it was so
cool, i had to write some decent lyrics for it to do it justice..
Scott: ok, you've got to be one of the greatest champions of indie music I've ever run into, can you describe to us your path from just wanting to put your music online to getting so deep into the indies ?
Steve Ison: Thanks for that, tho i think there's people like Steve from Loadpuller/Hidden Radio and Mark from Backboneshiver/Planet Of Sound) who do far more than me promoting others in a practical sense with their websites. I think i'm given way too much credit as an indie promoter if i'm honest.
I was always mad on indie music as soon as i got online...Searching, exploring, listening. Hungry for new music to feed me. Doing reviews, making posts and putting people on stations etc is just from my natural enthusiasm and wanting to try and give something back to the artist mainly for creating something that's inspired me.I'm genuinely very grateful for music that turns me on, it's like receiving a gift. It annoys me too that so many magical songs by unknown great artists just slip thru the net, totally ignored, like they're common trash or something, just seems really unfair.
People are asleep and
their tastes have become dulled by commercial radio pap..MacDonalds for
your ears..I can't sit and listen passively to crap songs on the
radio..If they come on i have to turn it off or switch channels..
Scott: You got a pretty level headed temperment, as far as I've seen. Did anybody ever truly piss you off in online music ? If so, care to tell us about it ?
I guess you mean around
the various OMD messageboards..There have been certain people
occasionally, but really its more to do with general attitudes. The
kinda neanderthal American gung-ho jingoism and extreme conservatism
that's pretty rampant definitely bugs me.I kinda naively thought
international musicians were basically liberal minded and creative when
i first came online, so i was in for a shock! The mindless banality and
fake sincerity of places like Funender used to irritate me too. I
invented a character called 'SPI' to satirise it on the BBs there-and
went around undetected amusing myself immensely...It just needed to be
done.Its the only time i've ever taken an 'Anon' name.It was
laugh-till-i-cried fun. I wish there was a bit more intelligence,
thought and creativity around if i'm honest, but i can understand why
people don't bother. You need to put out so much energy.I've wasted
hours n hours of time posting endlessly on BBs - and it often left me
feeling abit empty and 'whats the point?' if i'm honest..
Scott: I'm curious about your background, what was life like for the young Steve Ison ? :) Like were you a rogue in high school or a geek or what ? :) Any big life turning points that you recall ?
Steve Ison: Writing my own imaginary reviews to imaginary albums that didn't actually exist?..I think i was a geek. An escapistic geek. I've always preferred living in my imagination than in the 'real' world..I'm still (just about) getting away with it too..
Big Turning points...
Going travelling for the first time when i was 20 and living for a fewsummers on a beach in Greece (what the lyrics to 'If I Met You Again' are from).It was incredibly freeing to get away from the suffocating small-minded suburban mentality and meet amazing travelling bohemian world citizens..Being exposed to beautiful erotic Scandinavian women for the first time was definitely a big plus too lol
Meeting Harper Stephens
(The songs Destination and Scenes From Palacio are written/recorded
with him), a guy with so much strength of character, soul, integrity
and musical ability verging on genius. He's opened my eyes to so many
different musical approaches/attitudes and i've tried to learn as much
as i can off him.. He was definitely like a mentor or something..
Scott: I've seen you often sound off about how great music is being overlooked cause of production standards and the like, do you have a message for music biz suits with really bad taste ?
Steve Ison: I think they're a bit thick and have no imagination to tell you the truth..Production is the easiest thing in the world to fix with a little money. A bad songs still a bad song no matter how much cash you throw at it....So why value mediocre 'professionalism' so highly over something genuinely magical that might be a little scruffy round the edges? Doesn't make sense... I suppose they don't care tho, 'cos 'quality' music (at least the way i see it - as in great memorable songs) doesn't seem to have any more commercial value than non-quality music does, so there's really not much incentive for the 'suits' to try very hard. I can't believe how incredibly mediocre alot of modern teen pop, modern rock, n modern Nashville country is for instance. I dunno how they get away with it. Creative standards are so low and people still seem to buy it...I just don't get it.
Steve Ison: I wrote songs in my head for years before i learnt the guitar, so i always thought i'd be good at it. Its just other people needed alot more convincing lol. The 'hooks' part i guess is just 'cos i am (and always have been) a pop fan. I get bored very easily so don't have time or patience for 3 minute guitar solos or 2 minute 'ambient' openings to songs. I want inspiration, drama, movement, intensity, excitement, interest-all in under 3 minutes preferably..
writing/recording extremely lo-fi acoustic songs in a band called 'The
Davies Ison Project' and most of those are under 2 minutes long, so i'm
definitely getting faster, which i think is good..
Scott: How about a quick comparison between popular music of this era and 20 years ago ? Sure seems like there were so many more unforgettable bands and songs then. Anyway what's your take on that ?
Steve Ison: Well i'd say more like 30, 35, even 40 years (tho of course there's always some great songs from whatever era). The most creatively alive period for me was between 65-68. The absolute pinnacle of song-based music ever imho. The difference between then and now i feel, is that music was far more important to people then, artists thought it was gonna change the world! So there was a wider sense of meaning and purpose. More magic in the air to create from... There was more community spirit amongst bands too - and they were forced to create music fast - or be obsolete..None of this doing an album once every 4 years or something. I mean if you were in an environment competing for listeners with The Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Bacharach, all the Tamla Motown acts etc - you'd have to work really hard to raise your game-and write great songs...You just HAD to be good then to survive at the top...
The fact all my favourite indies (including me) could write a better song than an internationally successful band like The Stereophonics in 2 minutes means nothing nowadays..The 'song' dosn't seem to be what its about anymore, sadly...
Alot of creative energy now's been dissipated into computer games n DVDs and cell phones n cell phone covers etc..Music's no longer the #1 thing joining people's lives..There's just so many passive consumer distractions to steal your time everywhere you look now. Pop videos streaming from 200 different channels 24 hours a day on tap..All just a lazy thumb flick away from your armchair..We're all spoilt by so much choice everywhere, but underneath all the empty pleasures there's a nagging sense of meaninglessness, i feel..
Even with artists, the seductive musical fascism of dance culture and the fruity loopers has stifled songwriting creativity too..You just can't get the freedom/fluidity of writing on a guitar or piano by creating'n'looping on a machine..How can you write great songs if you don't even have the skill to change chords? lol