It’s not often rock fans get to take a peek behind the curtain and see how the music is made when a band goes into the studio to do a recording, but a small group of listeners got just such a unique experience with Step Rockets at the storied Hideaway Studios in Northeast Minneapolis on Thursday night. The band sold just 30 tickets to their fans, invited their closest loved ones, and then added a film crew to capture the evening as they unveiled a set of new songs that will comprise their next EP, Never Die. “We thought it would be a really fun idea to have our fans come in and have a studio experience, like at a house party, and then have everybody experience what we experience coming into the studio and having a good time,” said Brady Lillie, the band’s guitarist.
With the alcohol flowing and the studio full, the three-piece outfit—made up of vocalist and front man Joshua Schmidt, guitarist Lillie, and drummer Johnny Syn—led the audience through their new three-song progression with three different takes, making sure their film crew got plenty of camera angles and good footage to be able to release online at a future date. Giving attendees a fun thrill, however, was only part of Minneapolis-based Step Rockets’ goal when showcasing their studio experience. In addition to performing their popular concert sets to audiences numbering in the hundreds, they want their listeners to know they can also play much smaller, more intimate settings, which show a different side.
“John [Syn] had the idea for the event,” Schmidt told me. “He was just like, ‘Let’s start doing more stripped-down house, acoustic shows.’ And then we were just like, ‘Well, we don’t have any videos of that. No one even knows we do it, so let’s show everybody we can do it. Let’s get a video, let’s get some audio, let’s get some of our friends and fans in and celebrate this new material, and then we can serve it up on YouTube.’” Bare bones and performed to a crowd of about 40 instead of several hundred, the group’s sound was as complex, charismatic, well rehearsed, and as musically tight as ever, somehow transporting their trademark psychedelic flair to an elegant acoustic show.
Discussing these new songs that very few people have had a chance to hear yet, Schmidt said, “It’s kind of a musical trilogy. It was about kind of transcending your body, and there’s a lot of stuff talking about love and how that lasts beyond your lifetime, and just thinking about life and love in a lot of different ways in this three-song set. They all kind of fit together in that respect.”
Schmidt detailed the progression of the material. “‘Never Die’ is a song based on a theme of how love lasts beyond your lifetime,” he explained. “Whether it’s children, or relationships that you have, or that kind of ripple effect that your choices and actions can make in the world. And then it goes into ‘Limbo,’ where it kind of takes a darker turn—where it’s kind of thinking and talking about getting out of a situation where you’re feeling trapped, because sometimes love or life can make you feel trapped. And then you go to ‘To My Grave,’ which is the third one, and that’s kind of the finale because once you go to your grave you’re done. And what happens after that?”
Choosing to seamlessly perform the new EP straight through seemed to fit the mood of the material well, and the audience was receptive to its overall nine-minute progression as it jelled with the band’s identity in a way that respects the sound they’re known for while also taking it someplace new, someplace a little more complex. “I think the band’s never sounded better. We are people in the band that always want to progress and make everything sound better, so there will never be a time when we’re not tweaking things and adding things or subtracting things,” Lillie said.
After the trilogy was performed three times, there was a brief intermission, and then the rockers treated attendees to an entire acoustic performance of their previously released EP, Future Nature, which features hits such as “Kisser” and “Turning Tides (By Your Side).” For those who weren’t at the Hideaway Studios on Thursday, the filmed experience should eventually make its way to YouTube, and Step Rockets will release the new trilogy EP utilizing their full-bodied, electric sound, too. For shows, Schmidt said, “We’re going to try this and see what happens in a live, electric set.” He and Brady also noted that they’re planning to keep the three tracks together with no breaks in between so that audiences get the opportunity to react to the material and experience how it flows together the way it was intended.
With only one live appearance left in 2017, which will be held at First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry next Friday, December 15, Step Rockets have lined up an ambitious slate of projects to pursue in 2018. Regardless of how far the three-piece will get in the next 12 months, it seems like a certainty that they’ll do it at a high level. “I’m really proud to be in the group because we are striving to be better as musicians, and stronger as a group—songwriting and performance—so I think that we just strive to be better musicians and that’s going to reflect in our live shows and recordings,” Lillie said.