“I might get kicked off the (online) steel guitar forum next week,” Spencer Cullum Jr. tells Rolling Stone Country. The British steel-guitar wiz is sitting in the tracking room of Nashville go-to indie-rock studio Battle Tapes, puffing on an e-cig and joking about the backlash that might come when his Music City session pro peers hear Ism, the second full-length from Steelism, the mostly instrumental space-country duo led by Cullum – best known for his work with Miranda Lambert – and ace guitarist Jeremy Fetzer. “Steel players are very. . . I’ve gotta be careful of what I say,” Cullum continues, before Fetzer finishes the thought.
“They’re very conservative with their musicianship,” says Fetzer.
“If it ain’t country, it ain’t shit,” Cullum, doing his best exaggerated Southern accent, chimes back in, before explaining how the steel guitar allows him to move chords through other chords like butter, offering him a symphony at his fingertips. “It’s an experimental instrument, it can be used [that way].”
On Ism, Steelism sets out to remind Nashville traditionalists that, traditionally, country music has had its share of experimentalism. On songs like the Kraut-rock tinged, whimsically groovy sound collage “Eno Nothing” – a song they say has a “[Serge] Gainsbourg section,” a prog-rock section and a Thelonious Monk melody as the main hook – the duo taps into the oft-overlooked era of psychedelic country, when, in the Sixties and Seventies, session musicians like Pete Drake discovered Jimi Hendrix and started getting away with using fuzz pedals and talk boxes to color outside the lines. “We try to incorporate all these random parts of our record collection in the song,” Fetzer says, noting influences like Gainsbourg, Red-era King Crimson, Ennio Morricone and, of course, Brian Eno as muses for the duo’s wide-screened second LP, which is basically a film soundtrack in search of a film.
Shaking up the formula from their fully instrumental, cult-favorite 2014 debut 615 to Fame, this time around Fetzer and Cullum called upon four of their favorite Nashville singers – Ruby Amanfu, Jessie Baylin, Andrew Combs and Tristen – for vocal contributions.
“For us, making instrumental music is very easy, so this was like definitely [us] getting out of our comfort zone, which is good,” Fetzer explains. “It was all about making an album that felt like a cohesive piece, that flowed like a [film] soundtrack, so it was important to us that we would have vocals but never feel like it was a detour from the instrumental band. It wasn’t necessarily about the singer; they just became another member of the band. Like, in my head, Spencer and I were still in the center of the stage and the singer is on the side. There were definitely moments where the singers wanted their vocals to be turned up, but we didn’t do it.”
Mixing decisions aside, the duo did give their guests creative control of what they were singing. Cullum, who had heretofore never written lyrics, let Tristen redline his couplets on Ism art-funk rave-up “Shake Your Heel.” “She was like, ‘That’s not how it goes. You don’t say, ‘but but,'” Cullum recalls with a laugh. For “Roulette,” a ghostly, James Bond-theme-ready rocker showcasing Amanfu’s seductive rasp, the trio sat in a circle and wrote the song together. Combs penned the lyrics for “Lonely Game” – his duet with Baylin – himself. “We wanted him to be our Bernie Taupin,” Fetzer half-jokes, of the breezy ballad Cullum says is Steelism’s take on a Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duet.
They also note that, unlike 615 to Fame, which was recorded between sessions in Nashville and Florence, Alabama’s legendary FAME Studios, Ism is, by design, 100 percent Nashville – recorded exclusively at Battle Tapes Recording, the home studio of its producer Jeremy Ferguson, exclusively with Nashville cats. “We wanted to show, this is all we need, is right here,” Fetzer says, recalling how the duo wasn’t in the same community-minded headspace during the 615 sessions, a time when he was questioning his place in Nashville and Cullum was considering a move to L.A.
The duo also tapped Charlie McCoy – a legendary multi-instrumentalist session vet whose credits read like a who’s who of country, rock and rockabilly royalty – to contribute vibraphone and harmonica for the record. “He was sort of like our final Nashville touch to the project,” Fetzer says of McCoy, whose short-lived, late-Sixties, early-Seventies group Area Code 615 is a cardinal inspiration for Steelism. “I can see you guys aren’t striving for country radio,” Cullum recalls McCoy telling the duo, cheering them up at a crucial time.
The Ism sessions started on November 9th of last year, the day after the 2016 presidential election. Fetzer was still in bed, his head buried under the covers, with Cullum banging on his door, picking him up to go to the studio. “It was some really bad vibes,” Fetzer says of the first day. “Everything just sounded slower,” Cullum recalls. “For the first four hours it was like, ‘This is difficult. … It was like, “Am I going to have to go home tomorrow?'”
Fetzer says the studio ultimately offered respite from such worries of the world. “Usually with creativity, you want it to be a positive environment you go into, but we depended on this to be our escape – just close the door and trap ourselves in here for a week.”