It’s coming up to fourteen years since his death, and yet John Peel still looms large as a bastion of experimentation, taste, and creativity. Many of us still get misty-eyed when we hark back to the glorious days spent listening to our own particular era of Peel. For Joe Stevens, the man behind New York band Peel Dream Magazine, it is a particular strain of English indie, from the late eighties and early nineties, that to him represents so much of his musical education.
The debut Peel Dream Magazine album, Modern Meta Physic, out next month on Slumberland, could, in some ways, be interpreted as a slightly retro-gazing record. Alternatively you could call it timeless; it’s the sound of 2018, interpreting the sound of 1990, interpreting the sound of the 1960’s. It’s The Velvet Underground, re-imagined by Stereolab and Belle & Sebastian, then re-imagined again by someone with a very New York-state of mind. It’s a world of lush, rich synthesisers buzzing in the distance, vocals just about audible above a wall of fuzzy guitars and steady, drifting drum beats. There’s a subtlety and an economy to Joe’s songwriting; the way Art Today drifts by in a beautiful haze, Qi Velocity’s more urgent, guitar driven energy, Due To Advance’s In Modern Tourism’s almost Ryley Walker-like guitar line and Beatles-like harmonies, they’re all beautifully judged to maximise their impact. Modern Meta Physic is a record of slowly unfurling charms, what on first listen can seem to fade into the background with repetition leaps out and demands your attention.
Lyrically, much of the record seems to be distinctly American; whether it’s vocal clips of generic late night television in the 1980’s or lyrical dissections of the privileged lifestyle of bohemian expats in the New Age environment of the Catskills region of New York. You’re never quite sure if Joe’s mocking these city slickers turned upstate dwellers, or if he can relate to them, that feeling of fleeing modern life for something simpler, yet still wanting all the fancy restaurants and urban opportunities. Take the vocal clip in Don’t Pickup Slackers, featuring someone explaining the joys of upstate New York, with its fruit diets and escapism from the daily grind. Yet even in his own wavering explanation, he sounds unsure, harking back as so many suburbanites do, to the easy access to the city their new pad still provides.
Ahead of the album’s release next month, Joe took some time out to answer our questions, discussing John Peel, playing marimbas at warehouse shows and following his nose into the music industry.
FTR: For those who don’t know, who are Peel Dream Magazine?
Peel Dream Magazine is a band. I write little pop songs, and I play with my friends, Kirill, Jo-Anne, and Brian. I think we fall into a milieu of old school indie pop, whatever that may mean to readers.
FTR: You’re about to release your debut album, Modern Meta Physic, what can you tell us about recording the record?
I recorded the album in my bedroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn . . . I was too broke to do anything in a studio. I wanted to see what would happen if I made something completely on my own. I used fake drum samples and tried to mix them so they would sound realistic. It was very chill, very pleasant. There was zero bullshit. I think the only thing stressful about the process was worrying that I would wake up my Polish landlord upstairs while I tracked guitars.
FTR: Your name obviously nods to John Peel, what did John Peel’s show mean to you?
I wouldn’t profess to be a huge John Peel expert or anything. I just love what he represents, I love looking up Peel Sessions on youtube. I wanted to look beyond Brooklyn and connect myself to something bigger. To me, the UK is the mecca of indie rock from the 80s and 90s, and that’s just kind of my wheelhouse. Peel pioneered this idea that the radio curation could be it’s own art form. He used it as a tool to promote some bands that other radio stations wouldn’t touch. He played records backwards. He was a punk, even before punk. He cared more about the bands and the music than he did about his advertisers. I feel like KEXP and all of the modern day “live sessions” are indebted to him.
FTR: Who are your influences as a songwriter? What were you listening to when you wrote Modern Meta Physic?
That’s such an open ended question, very hard to answer. Everything I’ve ever liked is stewing around in there. I’ve always loved straight-ahead pop music like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. I listen to a lot of UK stuff, post-punk, dream pop, shoegaze, twee, indie pop etc. When I was writing Modern Meta Physic, I was in a very earthy phase. Some albums I was crazy into at time were Friends by the Beach Boys, The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music by Stereolab, and Bryter Layter by Nick Drake. The Stereolab connection is probably the most obvious . . . they’re such heroes of mine. It’s not just the melodies and the chord progressions, it’s the ethos. The way they experiment with form, and most importantly, the political element. Pop music and art in general can be very political when you bend rules. Seeking out new territory and breaking violating old maxims is very exciting. Indie Pop needs that right now.
FTR: You’re based out of New York, how much do you think location influences your music?
NY has a lot of talented, smart, insane people who know lots of music and look at things differently. I’ve met people here that I wouldn’t have met anywhere else. People who were into weird shit. People in NY are very active with their tastes. They’re part of the conversation about what’s on the way in, and what’s on the way out. I’ve met people here who jolted the suburbia out of me and instilled in me this sense of control over my artistic destiny. Get weird, be real, grow up, make it happen. That’s NY.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not something else?
I think the short answer is that I just like it. I’ve always written songs, even when I was a little kid. My brother is a composer, and he sort of indoctrinated me with this leftist compositional mindset. Maybe it’s his fault. Writing music is a compulsion for me. I purposefully make no attempt at dissecting how and why I do it. I guess you could say I’m a hopeless idiot.
FTR: The album is coming out on Slumberland Records, how did you come to work with them?
Modern Meta Physic was passed along to Mike Schulman (Slumberland Records) by a dear friend and collaborator Shaun Durkan (Weekend/Tamaryn/Cruelty). Shaun and I met a few years back at a show his band Cruelty was playing with my old band, Cherry Coals. Shaun helped me demo and workshop ideas that would become Peel Dream Magazine songs, and was always an advocate for me. I was knocked off my feet when I found out Mike had actually listened to the record and might want to meet with me. Slumberand was always an important label for me. It was the epicenter of the musical universe that I wanted to be in, and a way for me to look beyond the confines of the NYC rat race. A few months later I was out in the Bay Area visiting family and we set up a meeting in Oakland. We got cheeseburgers, had a few beers, and talked about Felt. After about an hour and a half we were both like, “cool, let’s do this”.
FTR: What are your aspirations for this record? Do you see music as a viable career?
I made a decision several years back that I would make music full time no matter what. When making music is conditional on something else, whether it’s your youth, or financial success, the praise of others, or whatever, it isn’t truly art. I really live to write songs and I hope to make lots of records that other people can own and hear. I hope the record does well, partially because it would make the road that I’ve chosen a lot easier. I don’t know if music is a viable career. I’m just following my nose.
FTR: What can people expect from the Peel Dream Magazine live show?
Translating the record into a live show has been a crazy process. I recorded Modern Meta Physic before I even had a band, let alone was playing shows. We’ve been touring and playing around NYC for a few months now — I was pretty nervous at first but I think I’m growing into it. I’m not sure an esoteric organ and marimba number will always “work” at, say, a warehouse show, so there’s been some trial and error there. Some of the faster ones feel better in that kind of setting. I think if you know where we’re coming from — if you “get it” — you might find it as exciting as we do. My mom, for example, probably wouldn’t. I don’t like to tell stories or banter, or to promote sponsors. Half the time I don’t even look at the audience. I’m not trying to be anyone’s friend or an emcee. I’m so over that. In a lot of ways we’re an un-band. Maybe its a lot to digest for audiences. Who knows.
FTR: What’s next for Peel Dream Magazine?
Well we’re just a baby band and we’re waiting to see what happens once the record comes out. So far the response has been really heartening. We’re looking forward to touring and sharing the music with as many people as possible. Coming to the UK would be amazing. We’re working on a lot of new music. Hopefully we can share another album with the world in 2019.
Modern Meta Physic is out October 5th via Slumberland Records. Click HERE for more information on Peel Dream Magazine.