Analogue Music | Steven Dayvid McKellar

Steven Dayvid McKellar

By Matt Conner

These past few years have been all about health for Steven Dayvid McKellar.

McKellar, the former front man for The Civil Twilight, has issued a string of solo works since the South African rock band decided to call it quits back in 2016. Carried by the same beautiful, emotional melodic approach as before, the music is more intimate and synthetic. The good news is that the cost is slightly less than before.

Years of touring brought about destructive decisions, and as McKellar tells us, it wasn't difficult for the members of Civil Twilight to walk away when they did. What was difficult was differentiating who he was as a person from the performer role he'd been playing since he was a teenager.

We recently caught up with McKellar to hear more about his journey from band life to solo work and how he's come back around to desiring more collaboration in the future.

Analogue: I want to get the timeline right before anything else here. If I’m reading it right, Civil Twilight goes on hiatus or breaks up in 2016, is that right?

Steven Dayvid McKellar: Yeah, the end of ’16 I think it was.

Analogue: Did you know then that you’d be moving on to making music under your own name?

McKellar: No, I didn’t actually. I’d always had a desire to explore that, but when the band split up, everything happened in a span of like two weeks. We got off the road from a pretty hectic tour, and I was a very heavy drinker and had an alcohol problem at the time. I’d known that for years but I got off the road and had two seizures back to back from alcohol withdrawal. I was hospitalized and got a wake-up call. When I got home from that, I was feeling like polystyrene for two weeks. I didn’t really know what I was going to do.

In that span, the label we were on imploded. It was bought by another company, so we decided just to call it. We had a band meeting and everyone was in agreement that we’d burnt ourselves out.

Analogue: Were those discussions ever had before? That seems a major decision to just suddenly all agree on?

McKellar: I think it was lingering for a while. Both my brother and I were pretty heavy drinkers, and I was trying to escape a lot of things. When you drink hard enough, you can live in a weird form of denial for a long time. I think I was living in denial about where the band was actually going and how sustainable it really was. We’d been touring for 10 years at that point. The road was really hard after a while.

So it was a slow train coming and I think Rich [Wouters] called it. He said, ‘I think I’m done. I think I’m ready to move on.’ The rest of us were like, ‘Great!’ It was the best band meeting we’d had in a very long time, actually. Then we just sat there and had coffee and chatted about life. It was awesome. I felt terrified and invigorated.

After that, I did some other jobs and played for some other bands. I tried a bunch of stuff. My wife and I traveled a lot. Eventually I felt this desire to make my music and see what that would feel like, and this will be the third record coming out now. I’ve learned a lot. It’s great fun. [Laughs]

Analogue: Do you remember what it felt like to write those first songs?

McKellar: Well, I’d been writing songs on my own for a very long time on guitar and piano. So I knew what that felt like, just sitting there and strumming away and exploring—putting together a moment. That was always presented to the band, so that was the big difference here. There was no one to present it to. There was no democratic decision made, so I remember that point feeling weird. It was very liberating and terrifying.

I remember the first time I really explored that in a full production way was on a record called The Belleville Demos. My wife and I took a trip to Paris and we were there for three months just bumming around and seeing some friends. I wrote that record in all the little places that we stayed when traveling. It’s just been a slow journey from there learning how to simplify, how to get to the point quicker, how to enjoy the process.

I’m also discovering that I desperately crave collaboration. [Laughs] After being in a band for so long, it was extremely liberating to have a complete blank slate. What is it that I want to put down if it’s just me? After a while of that, you learn to get familiar with that and then you want to play with somebody again. I think that will be the next stage for me which will be forming some collaboration.

"After being in a band for so long, it was extremely liberating to have a complete blank slate. What is it that I want to put down if it’s just me?"

Analogue: If you’re picturing a potential band or collaborative outlet again, do you also think of ways to make sure it stays healthy?

McKellar: What I’m learning right now in a big way is how not to put your identity into something you do. Culturally, we’re so conditioned to desire an occupation that defines us and that we can pour ourselves into and sacrifice ourselves for. It’s something objective to us that we’ve created but we pour our identity into it.

I think we do that very naturally as human beings, but it’s extremely dangerous in the long run. It is okay to pursue that, but for me at a young age, I’d poured my identity into what I was doing and what I was creating rather than knowing that identity within itself, y’know? So the band was a clear example of that implosion happening. Now that I’m more aware of that, I don’t think there’s a threat of being consumed by a false identity anymore.

Analogue: Like it was hard to differentiate that before?

McKellar: Yeah, for me, from the age of 15 or 16, my entire rhythm of life, identity, decision-making, ambition—everything was poured into this idea of being a musician in a band, being a front man, being a performer and all of that. You can get completely lost in it, especially when people go crazy for it. It’s very easy.

Analogue: I love that you’ve found this freedom as a songwriter. I’m curious what that’s allowed you to do that you could not before.

McKellar: I feel like I’m just scraping the surface of that, actually.

Analogue: Can you define that?

McKellar: Yeah, the older I get, the more honest I become. I have to become more honest with how I really feel about myself, about the world, and it’s learning how to communicate that. It’s a long process to know yourself—to know where you are in the world and how to communicate with the world around you. We have several stages of evolution in our lives as human beings and it’s always changing. But any avenue of expression and the expression of your own everyday existence, those two things go hand-in-hand. I think they have to. For me at least, if I don’t walk with both things into every area of life, then I’m just making nice stuff to put in places. [Laughs]

We live in a very oversaturated world full of very beautiful things and very ugly things, but it’s easier to make pretty sounding things. We all need those in our lives and they have a role to play. But the role that creativity has played in my life is a teacher. It teaches me about the depths of myself and to embrace what I’m really feeling and to be honest and vulnerable. Those things go hand-in-hand for sure.

VISIT: Steven Dayvid McKellar

*Photo: Lauren Stocker