In the Wake of Tragedy, Stephen Steinbrink Is Flailing for Meaning

After the tragic Ghost Ship fire in December 2016, Oakland musician Stephen Steinbrink secreted himself away in a storage unit to make ‘Utopia Teased,’ an album length exposition of his “fried” headspace.

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Oct 4 2018, 6:06pm

Photo by Monica Colver

When faced with the unimaginable, it is tempting to retreat, to insulate yourself from the mundane burdens of day-to-day existence and allow yourself the space to process in quiet. That’s what Stephen Steinbrink, the Oakland-based songwriter and musician, chose to do when tragedy visited his community. In December 2016, a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse took the lives of 36 people many of whom were intimately involved in the city’s DIY scene. Coupled with the recent election, Steinbrink says via email, this overwhelming sense of loss he felt made the world feel like “a hideous joke.” So in the early months of 2017, he shut himself off.

“So exhausted, so many memorials, so many protests,” the 30-year-old songwriter writes of his mindset at the time. “I was overwhelmed and I wanted out. I became really obsessed with the idea of this chaotic music/life project and ended up making some decisions that weren’t, uh... rooted in what a person in a sound state of mind would consider healthy in the long-term.”

Steinbrink quit a minimum wage job that was allowing him to make rent and started recording obsessively, first in his bedroom and then in a makeshift studio in an East Oakland storage unit. He wasn’t sleeping much, and press materials suggest he was taking LSD virtually every day, and the songs poured out of him—this torrent of material about, as he puts it, “familial estrangement, depressed mining communities in the southwest, general disappointment.” The songs focuses are disparate (“it’s no concept album,” he jokes. But they come together on his new record Utopia Teased, due November 9 on Western Vinyl and Melodic Records, a document of that period trying to cope with the harshness of the world. “I tried to squirm my way out of sitting with the grief of that winter by creating these temporary psychedelic realities for myself,” he says. “It didn’t work. I didn’t find the portal.”

Ultimately, after two months of near-manic writing and recording—and what Steinbrink calls “lysergic wakefulness”—the pace became unsustainable. He ended up in the hospital for a few days after falling sick, and decided that his body’s rebellion meant it was time to take it a little slower, and finish the record at a more sustainable pace. Still, the bulk of Utopia Teased was recorded in those two months, and you can sense that period on this record in ways both explicit and implicit.

Ever since he first started putting out records under his own name back when he still lived in Arizona in the early part of this decade, Steinbrink has had a contrast at the heart of his work. He grapples with existential questions and self-doubt, and grief and loss, but often makes music that sounds bright, and full of hope. It’s always struck me as this desperate optimism, clinging on by his fingertips to hope in spite of a world that does its best to beat such ideas out of you. He says his last two records— Arranged Waves and Anagrams—were attempts to make sounds as hi-fi as possible, which to me seems like an extension of that sonic positivity. If you’re going to make records about questioning your place in the world and the way you fit into the network of people and places you hold dear, why not make them sound incredibly pretty and detailed?

Utopia Teased, by contrast, takes Steinbrink’s production, and his songs to a more gnarled place. “It was refreshing and freeing to let go of my perfectionist impulses and embrace distortion and mistakes,” he says. The record is still composed of strung together moments of fragile beauty, but there’s something a little more tenuous about it, a sense that if you lean on it too hard it’ll all come crumbling down. This feels fitting both of what Steinbrink calls his “fried” headspace upon making these songs and the album’s title, which suggests a hope that’s hidden away, an optimism that’s just out of reach.

“Songwriting usually comes into play for me when I get really burned out on humanity,” he says. “When talking loses its expressive utility. I don’t know what it is still, but making this record changed me on a deep level. It made me respect creative energy as you would a huge sleeping animal or something. Now when I write a new song, I feel like I’m gently welcoming it into the room, not pushing it through the door.”

The slowly fingerpicked “Mom”—a Big Star-esque ballad premiering here today, featuring guest vocals from Jay Som's Melina Duterte—are reflective of the complicated spirit at the heart of this record. As the title implies, Steinbrink wrote the song for his mother, but it’s a document of a hard time “a one-sided reenactment of a conversation we actually had outside of a Starbucks in suburban Phoenix.” In his plainspoken way, Steinbrink refuses to recount his trauma again, but also finds it tough to talk about mundane plans for coming holidays, shutting himself off, like he did when he retreated to that storage container. He seems to cocoon himself from responsibility and interaction, which could come off as kinda dark at, but he explains that there’s an upshot to it. “I’m imploring us to take responsibility for the pain we’ve caused each other,” he says.

The record is full of these sorts of moments, quiet recognizances of the place he holds in the lives of others, and in the place he holds in the world writ large. There’s grit in the production, a sense that there’s a frayedness to the proceedings, but at the center, Steinbrink always sings in this quiet, assured way, as if, in spite of everything, utopia might someday be in reach after all. When I asked him if he thought peace was possible, his response felt telling. At once resigned and positive, you could almost sense a smirk and a shrug through the email: “I gotta be.”

Stephen Steinbrink Tour Dates:
December 1 - Seattle, WA @ Woodland Theater
December 2 - Olympia, WA @ Hobbit Hole *
December 4 - Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater #
December 6 - Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge %
December 11 - San Francsico, CA @ Hotel Utah ^

# w/ Lomelda, Musical Tracing & Wizard Apprentice
* w/ Wolfgang Strutz
% w/ Sean Bonnette (of AJJ)
^ w/ Advance Base & Lisa/Liza