Courtesy of the artist
Steve Marion, who calls his band Delicate Steve, at work.
Steve Marion, who calls his band Delicate Steve, at work. Courtesy of the artist
Here at NPR, we get hundreds of press releases every day – pleas from publicists imploring us to cover their client's most excellent music. They're sort of like commercials to the media trying to convince us to buy something. We're used to them being full of hyperbole, but recently we got one that seemed kind of ... different. When I started asking around about it, the story just got weirder.
I got this email from a publicist, and started to look through it because I'd heard some of the band's music. It's all instrumental. But I didn't know anything more than that about Delicate Steve. At the top of the email was a sentence that didn't make a whole lot of sense: "The critics unilaterally concur: Delicate Steve is a band who creates music." What? I kept going, and then I get to, "Like a hydro-electric Mothra rising from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs." THEN there's this line about Delicate Steve sounding like the band My Bloody Valentine, but without the guitars. This is what My Bloody Valentine sounds like.
That is a lot of guitars. Then I hit a name I recognized. The press release says the band was discovered by Luaka Bop's A&R man, Wills Glasspiegel. I know that guy, and he is not Luaka Bop's A&R man.
When I asked Wills what was going on, he told me the whole bio is fake, that it was concocted by music writer Chuck Klosterman. The same Chuck Klosterman who worked at Spin magazine in the 1990s, and who wrote a memoir about loving hair metal, and a book about driving across the country to see the sites of rock n roll's most famous deaths.
So I emailed Klosterman, and then went to talk with him about what happened. "I describe Steve as sort of this really intense perfectionist," Klosterman told me, "who has dedicated entire swaths of time to working on, like, one chord he heard on a Jandek record."
The bio also describes Steve as "a polymath who plays over 40 instruments." I called Steve Marion, who's on tour right now. We spoke while he was standing in front of Bruce Lee's grave, in Seattle. I asked him how many instruments he plays.
"Probably not 40. I couldn't even name 40 musical instruments," he says. "I don't even know if there are 40 musical instruments."
It turns out this whole thing wasn't Klosterman's idea, or Marion's, but actually the brainchild of one Yale Evelev, who runs the label Luaka Bop.
He says he hired Klosterman because Delicate Steve is a brand new band that makes music without lyrics, and he wanted music writers to pay attention ("Can Delicate Steve become the wordless New Jersey U2?" writes Klosterman in the release). "I've watched how writers write about things," Evelev says. "[With instrumental music] they are left with just kind of describing a sound. We thought it would be interesting if we kind of came up with something that they could grab onto a little bit more."
"And I thought, since I'm really tired of bios for bands," he says, "wouldn't it be great just to tell Chuck to write whatever the hell he wanted as a bio for the band? So I wrote him an email and I said, 'Chuck, would you do a bio for Delicate Steve? You don't have to talk to the band and you don't even have to hear the record.' He wrote me back: 'I don't do bios.' And then, 2 minutes later, he wrote back again: 'Wait a minute. Do you mean I don't have to talk to the band or listen to the record? That's AWESOME! OK, I'll do it!'"
A few music writers thought it was awesome too. They wrote about how funny the bio is. A lot of music writers ignored it – as they do most press releases. But many of the rock clubs and venues that booked Delicate Steve published the release – in full – on their web sites, no questions asked. And some people that cover music got taken, including NPR. We fell for the 40 instruments line. So were we all just lazy?
Kinda. The regurgitation of facts and stories from press releases doesn't only happen in music writing — WNYC's On The Media aired a story in March about a British web site called Churnalism where you can track the percentage of any given reported story that's lifted from a press release. To get attention for their site, the group behind Churnalism sent out a release about a garter belt for women that texts her significant other when it measures certain biological signs that she's about to cheat. The story was picked up all over the world.
"The whole idea of public relations is to stop journalism," says Klosterman. "It's to basically give journalists an opportunity to write something without really asking any critical questions or investigating at all. It's really antithetical to journalism. So that's why doing this ... I mean, I wouldn't say it's really a media hoax or something because no one in the media really cared."
I care. And I bet all of the other writers and people who buy music and tickets to shows out there who fell for this fiction care too.
Klosterman continues: "One person asked me, 'Will you feel bad if someone goes to this show or buys this record based on the fact that you wrote this fictional piece? And then you're kind of ripping them off in a way.' I'll be honest — I don't feel bad. Because to me, I've probably helped that person to learn that you should not make consumer decisions based on some random media message that someone just fabricated for no reason. And I'm just not talking about my press release, I'm kind of talking about all press releases."
Right. But one of the reasons Klosterman was able to pull this off in the first place is that we NEED stories about music, and those stories really do change how we hear the music.
Michael Beckerman is the chair of the music department at NYU. He's done research on this very subject. Five years ago, he invited a group of people to listen to a piece of music in a church in Germany. He gave program notes to half of the audience that told them the piece they were about to hear was written in a concentration camp, by a composer who was sent to Auschwitz only days later, where he died. He told the other half nothing other than the composer's name.
"Afterwards," Beckerman says, "we interviewed everybody. And the people who didn't get program notes thought it was sort of a sweet, lovely, folksy, Eastern European piece. And the people who got program notes almost uniformly tended to understand it at as one of the great tragic statements of the century."
He offers another example.
"What role would it play if I told you the title [of a piece] was called 'Dark Blue World'? And what if I further told you that it was written by a Czech jazz pianist around 1929? And what if I told you that the jazz pianist himself was nearly blind? Could see only shadows, and that 'Dark Blue World' became his kind of personal anthem?" he asks. "You might listen to it differently, knowing that this was again a fraught story of a dark blue world all put together in this world of Czech jazz. That might give you kind of an edgy way of listening to this."
But what if the story behind the music just isn't that interesting? What if Steve is just a 23-year-old from northern New Jersey who made an album in his bedroom and recruited his best friends to play it live with him?
"I called it Delicate Steve because I had a recording studio that was called Delicate Studios," says Steve Marion himself. "That's Delicate Steve. Kind of a boring story, like every other band I guess."
So somebody came up with a better story, and a few more people listened to the music than maybe would have otherwise. Was it a good-natured prank? Or a lie?
Read the whole press release below.
THE CRITICS UNILATERALLY CONCUR: DELICATE STEVE IS A BAND WHO CREATES MUSIC
Newton, N.J. – Every 30 or 40 or 500 years, the DNA of culture itself emerges from the translucent blackness of the not-so-shallow underground. You hear a new band, and you think, "This is really something. This is like My Bloody Valentine, minus the guitars." But then you think, "No, that's not true. That's not what this is like at all. Plus, there are lots of guitars here. I'm a goddamn idiot." You want to walk away, but now it's too late; now, you start to wonder what makes this music so deeply arresting. You wonder why you are dancing against your will, and you wonder why every other sound you've ever heard suddenly sounds like the insignificant prologue to a moment you're experiencing in the present tense. You find yourself unable to perform the simplest of activities — a cigarette becomes impossible to light, a mewing kitten cannot be stroked, a liverish lover cannot be ignored. By the album's third track, there is nothing left in your life; everything is gone, crushed into a beatific sonic wasteland you never want to escape. This, more than anything else imaginable, is the manifestation of artistic truth ... a truer kind of truth ... the only kind of truth that cannot lie, even with the cold steel of a .357 revolver jammed inside its wet mouth, truculently demanding a random falsehood.
Welcome to the work-a-day world of Delicate Steve.
Like a hydro-electric Mothra rising from the ashes of an African village burned to the ground by post-rock minotaurs, the music of Delicate Steve will literally make you the happiest person who has never lived. Discovered firsthand by Luaka Bop A & R man Wills Glasspiegel in the parking lot of a Newton, N.J., strip mall, Delicate Steve was signed to the label before anyone at Luaka Bop heard even a moment of their music – all he needed to experience was a random conversation about what they hoped to achieve as a musical five-piece.
"They were just sitting around in lawn chairs, dressed like 19th century criminals, casually saying the most remarkable things," recalls Glasspiegel. "It was wild. It was obtuse. One fellow would say, `Oh, I like Led Zeppelin III, but it skews a little dumptruck.' Then another would say, `The problem with those early Prince albums is that he spent too much time shopping.' I really had no idea what they were talking about, but it all somehow made sense. `We'll be a different kind of group," they said. `We will introduce people to themselves. We'll inoculate them from discourse.' I was immediately intrigued. I asked them if they wanted to have dinner, so we walked to a Chinese restaurant that was right up the road. I suggested we all get different dishes and share everything family style. They agreed. But then they ordered five identical entrees! So we sat there and ate a mountain of General Tso's chicken for three straight hours, talking about music and literature and box kites and dystopias. Twenty-four later, they were signed to Luaka and inside a studio."
Those studio sessions led to Wondervisions, the indescribable 12-track instrumental debut that reconstructs influences as diverse as Yes, Vampire Weekend, The Fall, Ravi Shankur, 10 cc, The Orbital, Jann Hammer, the first half of OK Computer, the second act of The Wizard of Oz, and the final pages of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Originally conceived as a radio-friendly concept album about the early life of D.B. Cooper, de facto Delicate Steve leader Steve Marion decided to tear away the lyrics and move everything in a more experimental direction. "We don't need the middlebrow to dig our music," says the soft-spoken Marion. "We write for the fringes – the very, very rich and the very, very poor. That's the audience we relate to, and that's who these songs are about."
THE BAND AT A GLANCE:
Steve Marion, 23 (guitar): A polymath who plays over 40 instruments, Marion recorded his first "bedroom EP" on a four-track as a 12-year-old ("It was sort of a second-rate Slanted and Enchanted," he scoffs today, "and more than a little derivative."). Already a Jersey legendary for his worth-ethic and perfectionism (he once studied a single Jandek guitar riff for an entire summer), Marion's the piston behind Delicate Steve, and — somewhat paradoxically – the group's harshest critic. "I named the band Delicate Steve as a reminder that we've accomplished nothing," he says flatly. "We are as delicate as the wings of a butterfly with AIDS. Anything could crush us. And until we all decide that art is the only thing that makes life livable, we'll just be another instrumental five-piece from New Jersey. Emotionally and intellectually, I'm not sure if the rest of the band is there yet. But I am."
Steve's goal is to create music that lasts "substantially longer than forever."
Mickey Sanchez, 22 (keyboard): A freewheeling hoaxster (and Marion's best friend from Hebrew school), Sanchez provides Delicate Steve with off-kilter music flourishes and a necessary dose of common sense. "Steve can be difficult to work with," says Sanchez, "but I know how to handle that hoss. Sometimes he just needs to look into the mouth of the lion – and I'm the lion." An avid horseback rider and pastry chef, Sanchez also intends to pursue a second-career as a city planner.
Mickey's goal is to make people hate Bruce Springsteen.
Rob Scheuerman, 21 (guitar): Previously featured on axe in the teen-pop power-trio Yesterday's Airport of Tomorrow, Scheuerman is probably better known as the alleged one-time paramour of Gossip Girl star Blake Lively (a rumor he sheepishly denies: "I was too tired to make it. She was too tired to fight about it."). What he adds to the band musically is akin to what he adds personally: cobalt charisma and a hunger for flesh. "Do you remember that old song `I Know What Boys Like' by the Waitresses," he asks. "Well, let's just say the scythe slices both ways."
Rob's goal is to seduce every female journalist he encounters.
Adam Pumilla, 23 (bass): No member of Delicate Steve has taken a more circuitous path than Pumilla. A three-sport athlete who rushed for 1400 yards as a veer option quarterback in high school, Pumilla received scholarship offers from several Big East football powers before opting for a career as a bassist – despite the fact that he'd never played the instrument in his life. "There was always something about the bass," he says today. "Four strings, sublime heaviness, living inside the pocket, locking into the drums. It spoke to me in its own bass language, long before I ever possessed the object itself. I knew that bass guitar was something I could excel at. I am a bassist. I have a bassist's blood." After spending five exploratory years in rural Scotland ("I needed space to invent my bass style"), Pumilla returned to the U.S. and met Marion at Ed Westwick's Halloween party. "I knew he was the man for this band from the moment I met him," recalls Marion. "When he shook my hand to introduce himself, he didn't even say his name. He just said, `Bass.' Just that one word. Nothing else. He was a serious person."
Adam has no defined goal.
Mike Duncan, 21 (percussion): Don't let his boyish looks fool you – Duncan is no choirboy. Raised on a steady diet of Stewart Coupland, Neil Peart and economic desperation, Duncan views drumming as a way to turn his self-described "sociopathic inclinations" into something the world can appreciate. "I love to brawl," he says. "I'll fight anyone, for any reason. I'll fight a dog for no reason. I've seen the inside of juvenile hall. I've tasted blood in my mouth. I've stepped on throats and I've thrown bottles at strangers. But that was all in the past. It's still part of me, but – now – I use that intensity for good. I want to attack people with music the same way I used to attack them with my fists."
Mike's goal is the political liberation of Quebec.
This is a press release, and press releases are supposed to be wholly positive. That's the shared expectation, both from the writer and the reader. Typically, press releases hide a band's true reality. But not this one. We need to be straight with you, potential rock writer: It's hard to predict what will happen to Delicate Steve. Emotions run high in this band, and most of these songs are both too musical and too insane for the typically dim-witted American consumer. In all likelihood, even you won't understand it, because you're probably a fraud. This music doesn't directly threaten the status quo, but it certainly makes the status quo nervous. It's not on par with hearing the Velvet Underground in the summer of 1965, but it's probably like hearing the Velvet Underground in the winter of 1966. Can Delicate Steve become the wordless New Jersey U2? Sure, maybe. But maybe not. There might be too much at stake (and too many people in the way). Still, one listen to Wondervisions will irrefutably prove the only thing you really need to know: Delicate Steve makes music. And in today's awful world, that's almost all that matters. Right?