Analogue Music | The Steel Wheels

The Steel Wheels

By Matt Conner

There's a 'spiritual discipline' at work of the heart of The Steel Wheels.

According to front man Trent Wagler, The Steel Wheels have learned some vital things about longevity in the music industry and a primary lesson is about a band's posture. As Wagler notes, the band's ability to re-center itself on what matters most is what has gotten them this far—and will likely carry them for the next two decades.

The Steel Wheels' new album, Sideways, is rooted in this health. It's a band that's learned the importance of leaning into each other and not taking anything for granted. It's the joy of making music and the importance of channeling that creative work into a meaningful connection with the crowd.

With a new album on the way, Wagler sat down with us to talk about working with producer Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter) for the third time and what it means to focus on a band's internal work.

Analogue: You’re about 20 years in with The Steel Wheels. I want to discuss the new music, but first the longevity here. How does it feel to arrive at that sort of a moment?

Trent Wagler: It’s not a nice joke, but we’ve joked at times that when you see a band that got some quick success and then break up or they don’t keep going, we have joked said, ‘Well, at least we outlasted them! It’s the long game! Keep being there!’ [Laughs]

We’re coming up on twenty years in the next couple of years. We played our show with the core members of the band in 2005, so we’re more like an 18-year-old band. But yes, it’s a long time, no question.

For better or worse, I think part of it is a re-centering around what a successful band looks like and what a successful tour looks like. For a band to have longevity, in our experience, part of that needed to be that we didn’t have quick or unexpected success. [Laughs]

I’ve seen plenty of grizzled veterans talk about the need to pay your dues, and I get that and it is important to put in the time, but I don’t overly romanticize the dive bars or terrible sports bars with the TV above your head while you’re trying to play your set.

"The magic of communicating and connecting to people through a song, a moment, a night—the collection of those is what we have to center ourselves on."

At the same time, being able to center yourself around remembering that, around remembering the first time you saw somebody singing along with a song of yours, remembering that feeling that, ‘Wow, there are really people appreciating this. They’re taking their precious time to listen to music we’re creating.’ You have to realize that’s really the point of success.

Obviously, you want to see those numbers grow and you do take for granted the room that you filled up and you want to come to that city the next time and fill a bigger room. All of us hope for continued growth and success, I think. At the same time, the magic of communicating and connecting to people through a song, a moment, a night, the collection of those is what we have to center ourselves on.

I’d even call it a spiritual discipline because all of the other external stuff will come and go. It’s not going to last forever. You can’t expect it or predict it, so the best equation for us has been to appreciate when those moments happen while continuing to hone our abilities to assess our own success around the moments we create together musically in a room with other people.

Analogue: How cognizant of this were you when writing and recording this new album?

Trent: Well, it’s probably this way for most new albums that have come out in the last two years, but when we talk about that long career, a lot of it will be pre- and post-pandemic conversations. So it’s hard to talk about a new project and not think about it in the context.

This was the first project that we were able to record together in the same studio after the pandemic. So we hit the pandemic hard with lots of self-recording and we released a lot of that music out to our core fans through a subscriber page. Then we did release two albums just out of crowdsourced songs where we wrote to people’s stories, but all of that was in isolation from one another.

So this project was all about the enjoyment of getting back into the studio together and getting to play together. We tried to capture that. I’d say most of the record is us playing in real-time together—some of which was in the same room together. It’s getting to have that experience playing off of one another or feeling someone’s groove.

Analogue: That’s good fodder for the lyrical content as well.

Trent: The writing was definitely impacted by feeling isolated and thinking a lot about the passage of time and the changing of seasons. I’d say a lot of that is in the metaphors and symbolism of this record and what we do with adversity, how we grieve, just a lot of those themes that I think a lot of us reckoned with during and since the pandemic.

Analogue: You’ve worked with Sam Kassirer as producer once again on this. What keeps you coming back?

Trent: I think it’s something about when you find something that works, I feel nervous to upend it. And Sam as a producer has such a set of skills to be able to quickly change lenses. He’s detailed to keep things running in the studio from the technical end or how to get the best sound out of this instrument but then he can also change lenses to the macro to think about what a record still needs or how it’s all coming together and sounding. You can get so focused on one moment in one song and how it’s happening but 99 percent of people will never notice that particular moment. Sam can do that focus but then he can zoom out and ask, ‘What are we trying to say with this record?’

So he’s got those two lenses of micro-focused and macro-thinking, but he’s also a chummy bandmate. He becomes a part of the band in the process. He’s laughing and joking at nighttime dinners and morning coffees. He’s open to feedback and he’s also messing around on keyboards to add a few things that we ourselves don’t have.

Back in 2016 when we were first recording with him, we were looking for someone to knock us out of our ruts. We started very much from a stringed-band bassist. We loved figuring out our original voice through this stringed band sound that we loved, but we also love soul and funk and gospel. We were feeling like maybe we’d come to the end of our own creativity.

Sam plays the keyboard, so he doesn’t even come from that stringed background. We’d bump up against each other at first, but we needed that creativity to tell us where we could go. We needed to see how synthesizers could fit into our sound. It opened up all of the possibilities. Now we’re reaping the benefits of that on stage and in our recordings. The limitations we’d originally seen ourselves under, he helped us see a larger canvas that we could paint on to make our sound more exciting to us. We hope that translates to our audience also getting excited by the sound.

VISIT: The Steel Wheels