It’s not immediately clear who you’re supposed to pay attention to at a Steelism show. A side project of sidemen, the two-piece (with various touring additions) doesn’t have a lead singer — it’s all instrumental — and the closest thing it has to a frontman is a gangly, good-natured guy with a cockney accent sitting behind a pedal steel.
“Me being a frontman is a bit… i don’t know. I’m still a little insecure with it,” says Spencer Cullum, Jr., who plays pedal steel and makes one-half of the band with guitarist Jeremy Fetzer. “I’m still trying to come out of my shell a little bit.”
The Rolling Stones’ “Torn and Frayed” is what initially drew Cullum to the steel guitar as a kid before he went out to purchase a “really shitty” instrument of his own for practice. His hyper-focused interest in the instrument world ultimately lead him to renowned player B.J. Cole, whose work can be found on iconic tracks like “Tiny Dancer.”
“I researched him and found out he was in London,” says Cullum. “I searched him out, and I was like, ‘Will you teach me steel guitar — help me find my way in it?'”
Now Cullum joins Fetzer as a house band of sorts that supports half of Nashville, but it was London where the duo that now operates as Steelism began to play together. Cullum sat in on pedal steel for a Caitlin Rose show and essentially never got up, touring as a member of her band for the next three years. Despite Cullum calling Detroit home and heading back to London for a bit before settling down in Music City, it’s hard not to associate Cullum and Steelism with Nashville and its emerging talent. Having cut tracks with Rose and backed Andrew Combs on this year’s acclaimed All These Dreams as Steelism, Cullum also moonlights as a member of Miranda Lambert’s touring band.
“[Lambert] likes her band to have character live — she’s really into the Rolling Stones and rock-n-roll music — so she’s open to what you put on the table. With my pedal steel guitar playing, she’s lets my character come out,” says Cullum. “I was really lucky there. I guess I’ve been lucky with every artist I’ve worked for: They’ve always been wanting to let my character, my style of steel playing, influence the set. They’ve all been encouraging of my sound.”
At some point, being “really lucky” starts to look more like being really consistent. As Nashville continues to gain as much of a reputation for up-and-coming rock and alternative bands as it’s long held for the country and Americana set, Steelism’s not so much straddling two genres as they are jumping back and forth between all of them. Their debut full length 615 To Fame hops from Western film on opener “Cat’s Eye Ring” to surf rock on “Landlocked Surfer” and seems to land on several decades and cultures in between.
“With instrumental music you can get away with playing every style of music — every genre,” says Cullum. “There’s no vocals, so we can do like a Cuban song or a surf-rock song. You can jump genres really easily.”
Their latest effort, self-released EP The Drawing Room, Vol. 1, is less schizophrenic, with synthier sounds throughout and a power-pop anthem of sorts. Brendan Benson cowrite “The Surge” still lend the record a far-out feel. “I love the sound of pedal steel with synthesizer,” says Cullum. “Or making a pedal steel sound like a synthesizer. ”
Cullum is clear that the studio is where he and Fetzer have the most fun, but you wouldn’t know it by seeing the two of them on a stage: it’s not the stereotypical energy of a wild frontman, but rather a quiet smirk gives the room more attention than they seem to expect to get as performers. Even so, their dreams for Steelism are geared more toward film scores than record stores.
“To work with a director or a writer who’s got a vision — that would be nice,” says Cullum of the idea of creating a score for a film. “We love playing live, but really we’re studio nerds. It keeps our brains motivated.”
Their long-term dreams may be rooted in bringing to life the visions of filmmakers and directors, but they’re doing just fine writing the score for Nashville’s mushrooming music scene.
“We’re huge fans of songwriters and songwriting, but whenever you listen to that, you’re almost being told what to do,” says Cullum. “An image is almost being forced on you by the lyrics. With instrumental music, it’s kind of like you make your own picture and you make your own scenery. I guess we enjoy that part of it. It’s very fluid — it almost reminds me of long desert landscapes and automotive sounds. You make your own picture, you do.”
Steelism play City Winery’s Hudson Square music festival on August 25.