A conversation with Stephen Steinbrink

 

    We spoke with Stephen Steinbrink about intense chlorination, why certain properties of life deserve reverence, feeling emotional about Windows XP wallpapers and meditating on the history of his spatula model.

    It’s always been important to me that I use a pretty simple musical language, to try not to get too hung up on how the songs are dressed.

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    Morgan Enos

    Your mission has always seemed pretty traditional – to sing something worth singing, with a nice melody in the background. My musical views have gotten a little less extreme with time, but I always kind of stubbornly held on to that ideal for a song, that it should be melody and lyrics first. Is this something goes through your mind when you make records, or am I totally overthinking it?

    Stephen Steinbrink

    Yes, definitely. It’s always been important to me that I use a pretty simple musical language, to try not to get too hung up on how the songs are dressed. So many of them evolve from me just sitting with my synthesizer or guitar, playing a drone or progression and being receptive to a melody popping up organically with no specific ideas about what exactly I’ll be singing about. I don’t try to force anything, and usually the emotional content of the song will determine arrangements and the general vibe of the recording. I’ve always been interested in playing with genre and pastiche, but that comes from an interest in exploring record production as a hobby-like craft and not so much as a pure expressive tool.

    2

    Before we continue with this topic, can you grab the nearest book in your proximity and open it up? What’s the first line you see? Can you map it onto your own psychology or daily life in any way?

    “He was the manager of an apartment complex in a part of town where the palm trees were sick. They were infested by a parasite that made them soft like bendy straws, and so they arched over the roads, buckling under the weight of their own heads, fronds skimming the concrete surfaces of buildings, poking in through open windows. And when the wind blew, they clattered and sagged and you could hear them creaking. “Someone needs to cut these trees down,” my boyfriend said one morning. He said it like he was really sad about it, like it really pained him, like someone, I don’t know who, had really let him down. “It’s just not right.” —“The Weirdos” from Homesick For Another World by Otessa Moshfegh.

    This story reminds me of all the apartment complexes in the neighborhood in Phoenix where I grew up. Stucco cubes with courtyards of yellow grass and intensely chlorinated swimming pools with nobody swimming in them. I liked reading this book for how she described the lives of these frantic, desperate people that most folks would categorize as pathetic and hopeless. But she portrays them with so much compassion and empathy, never gawking.

    I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to be mystified or dominated by an awesome-ass power. After that, it comes down to the particulars.

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    Speaking of compassion, I’d like to touch on spiritual thoughts for a second. I was just listening to a speech by David Foster Wallace where he kind of echoed something from the Bible, about how all kinds of things in our lives are “gods,” even to an atheist or unbeliever. The point was you have to learn to select what it is. What do you think about all that?

     

    I find that’s mostly true, how the things that directly control our material existence or mental disposition could be considered godly. Maybe you don’t exalt them the same way, but certain things in your life deserve reverence. I abandoned the religion I was born into but I reject the fedora’d atheist stance: I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to be mystified or dominated by an awesome-ass power. After that, it comes down to the particulars.

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    Have you ever come up with a fictional story of how the stars, galaxies and overall universe came to be? How do you process vast, cosmic enormity?

    This is maybe not a fictional story nor my own personal origin myth, but I do spend a good deal of energy thinking about how has consciousness evolved and what happens to the energy that is our “soul” or whatever when we die. Three years ago, I was dosed an insanely large amount of LSD without being aware that I had been given an insanely large amount of LSD, and I’m getting deeply woo online, but that experience really opened me up to the idea that there’s a lot more behind the consensus reality most of us exist in. Magic is cool and very real, in my opinion.

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    I personally feel a deep nostalgia for early computer technology. I would like to exist in a sort of static, comforting Windows 95 wallpaper sometimes. Do you feel any emotional or spiritual satisfaction from looking at digital images of seascapes, forest scenes or mountain ranges?

    I was driving from Oakland to LA every few weeks last spring, and there’s this stretch of the I-5 just southeast of the Bay that looks exactly like the old Windows XP desktop wallpaper. It felt so funny to be driving through these majestic rolling hills of deep green contrasted against the perfect clean blue Northern California sky, and the first thing I thought of was the default desktop wallpaper from an obsolete operating system from the early 2000s. Makes me feel something for sure.

    Geese were flying across power lines at dusk and I took a video of them on my phone. I imagined one of the birds was my friend. It got cold so I walked home.

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    I’d like to focus on the nature of home now. My significant other and I recently moved to our first home in New York sans roommates, and it reminded me how much random chemicals and plastic crap is necessary to maintain a house. Yet, I’m glad to have it all! Do you find any poetic inspiration from random, banal junk we all have to be surrounded by to make a life?

    That stuff is pretty crucial; it has to be understood as environmental. I like taking pictures of plastic tarps and scattered building materials in their natural habitat. On an object level, I do appreciate my spatula. It’s starts to get weird when I think about all the other spatulas, online spatula reviews, all the redundant design team hours dedicated to every spatula revamp. It doesn’t have to be this way. The world might be 6% percent better overall if there was just one fully-sustainable state-owned non-profit manufacturer of, say, window cleaner.

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    Finally, please describe the most tender and hidden part of your soul as extensively as you can. What reaches you, scares you, disturbs you or fascinates you? What is kept most deeply in the Book of Steinbrink?

    Sunday night I went to the Pacific Film Archive to see Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna with T. It was cold and gloomy but it felt correct. It was dark by 6pm and there was that good autumn mist in the air coming off the bay. As we walked from my van to the theater, I remember thinking to myself “I’m getting a cold, goddamn it,” and by the time the movie was out I was sniffling and red-eyed and deeply annoyed.

    We sat in front of an ancient couple that tested the limits of my concentration by verbally commenting on this or that thing that was happening on the screen. “That’s a factory,” the man said, as a train passed a factory. Or “That’s a taxi cab,” as Anna, the protagonist stepped into a cab. The woman laughed after almost every line of dialogue, but not in the way one does after one hears a joke. She laughed in order to communicate to the rest of the viewers in the theater that yes, she understood the line, and yes she’s engaged, fully grasping the significance to the plot.

    After several unnoticed aggravated glances, I leaned forward just out of earshot so I was not able to understand the words coming out of their mouths as language, but instead meaningless peripheral noise. I can tune out everything but words, maybe out of a subconscious hope that they’re meant for me.

    I was going through old videos on my old phone and I found one of P. and I lying on the couch at her old apartment. She has her index finger in my belly button. She sleepily talks for almost an entire minute about how she thinks my belly button is better than her belly button. She says that my belly button knows what it is, whereas hers is less sure. Then she puts my socked big toe between her teeth, bites, laughs, and then the video ends.

    I found another video that I took a day after the fire. It sent me spiraling and thinking, it’s almost been a year. Nothing really felt actual those weeks, and I could only only react to the future at a remove because the horror of everything was inescapably tying me to the present. The idea of doing laundry or driving across the bridge to San Francisco to work was too abstract, so I just didn’t do it. I hardly did anything. Two days after the fire I woke up, walked to P.’s porch and sat there for hours alone and cried without a jacket on until the sun started going down. Geese were flying across power lines at dusk and I took a video of them on my phone. I imagined one of the birds was my friend. It got cold so I walked home.

    Last night, right before I fell asleep, I sent C. an email asking him how to finish something. I’ve finished dozens of things, given up on dozens more, but I needed some encouragement to hit the render button on these new recordings on working on, and it seemed like a good excuse to write my verbose buddy who has lived the life of an insane person. He is so dependable. Within an hour, he wrote a lovely, rambling response. He said “Finishing the thing puts a limit around something that comes from an infinite well; this is uncomfortable.” True.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 85
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: December 8, 2017
    Total questions: 7
    Word count: 1625
    Reading time: Six minutes
    Hyperlinks: 5
    Imagery: 8

    Metadata


    Chlorination: Extreme
    Reverence: Accessible
    Consensus: Challenged
    Windows: Obsolete
    Spatula: Appreciated
    Revamp: Unnecessary
    Atheism: Fedora’d

    Relation


    About the subject


    Stephen Steinbrink is a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist living in Oakland, California.

    About the curator


    Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.


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