In the olden days of rock music, say, circa 1973, bands spent years culling a repertoire, carefully choosing a presentation style and crafting a sound that stretched the musicians to their very limits. In the ensuing indie-rock years, skill and textures were replaced by emotion and a do-it-yourself philosophy. A lot of times that worked (as in the case of Guided By Voices), but all too often it didn’t.
Now, as rock is poised to return to its roots, the time may be ripe for the Chicago band Pedal Steel Transmission.
The group has plans to release its third full-length album, as yet untitled, in the latter part of spring or early summer. Recorded in Chicago at a studio nestled just outside one of the city’s most notorious housing projects, it is a calculated affair, a statement of purpose rather than a collection of songs.
“I think what we’re creating is a story record,” says guitarist/singer Dan Schneider, taking a break in the studio from tracking. “I think we’re taking a little extra time with this album to figure out exactly the feel we want a listener to have, wanting to aspire to one day making a Dark Side of the Moon. It’s about finding out how a record works from beginning to end.”
As it was in Pink Floyd’s epic, pacing is important to Pedal Steel Transmission, as most of the group’s slow- to mid-tempo songs depend heavily on texture and mood. Songs such as “Sorted,” off the band’s 2002 release In the Winter, It Makes the Dead Grass Look Green, concentrate on noise and droning loops – the kind of song you’d probably find on Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s bedstand record player. Just when it gets too freaky and you want to skip to the next track, it segues into a jazzy, funky jam, complete with shuffling drums and an easy-to-follow melody.
Pedal Steel Transmission’s beginnings go back to Champaign, Ill., in 1997, a collaboration between then-college students Bryan d’Ouville (bass) and Gary Pyskacek (vocals/pedal steel). After the two relocated to Chicago, Schneider was added to the mix. A series of drummers (“We went through eight drummers,” Pyskacek says.) finally led the group to Don Ogilvie.
During the next few years, the band alternated between periods of intense performance schedules and creative hibernation, during which Pyskacek and Schneider would jam on old songs by the likes of Gram Parsons, Keith Richards and Tom Waits for inspiration. Those experiences formed the basis for what would eventually come to be known as the Pedal Steel sound.
“Now, the songs are a little cleaner. There are parts that are really stark, and there are parts that are a lot heavier,” Pyskacek says. “Also, I think as we’ve grown as a band, Dan’s lyrics have gotten even better.”
Pedal Steel’s hybrid of psychedelic rock has found it a fairly sizable following in Chicago and with critics. Though to this point the band has chosen to independently release its albums on its own label, Cardboard Sangria, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually signing to a larger label.
“I think there are two ways (getting signed) happens,” Ogilve says. “One, you get really lucky, where someone picks a band up on a gamble and takes a chance. The other way is that you just kind of be around – where you keep playing, and people will start noticing.”
The group has also left behind the majority of its country roots, save for the use of the pedal steel, which gives PST its sorrowful tones, imbued with the legacy of the Midwest’s Appalachian heritage. Gorgeously woven melodies and layers dense with sound and feeling highlight an underlying tension similar to that of Yo La Tengo or Pavement, albeit more raw and passionate. This sound serves as a fitting canvas for the new album, as its main themes revolve around issues of abandonment and heartbreak.
“For me, the main issue is realizing your life is not going to be what you want it to be,” Schneider says. “So the album is an attempt to recreate your life fictionally, (to say) ideally what you would like to have happen.”