Named for the famed BBC DJ John Peel, Peel Dream Magazine is a new shoegaze drone noise project out of Brooklyn from the mind of Joe Stevens. Now a four piece, their latest album, Agitprop Alterna, was just released last week and was recorded in a freezing practice space near his home. It's an album that intends to challenge norms of rock music, while acknowlelding those that came before, like Stereolab, the Velvet Underground, etc. KEXP's Owen Murphy caught up with Joe at his home in Brooklyn as he, like so many of us, isolates with his wife to protect against the coronavirus.
KEXP: Well, why don't we set the scene here, first and foremost, if you don't mind... Where are you right now?
Joe Stevens: I'm in my living room.
And where is your living room?
In Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
So, what is Greenpoint, Brooklyn like right now amidst the coronavirus crisis, for lack of a better term?
It's really quiet... I guess I can't really compare to what other places look like because I haven't been out much. But yeah, it's really quiet. People are wearing masks and stuff. It's pretty trippy.
How does that feel?
You know, I don't know. I can't. I'm still processing it all; on the one hand, it's just novel. I'm just like, "Whoa, this is crazy!" But it's also just upsetting. I'm still picking apart the fact that I am not working right now and, you know, all that kind of stuff. I want to think about what I'm going to have to do soon. And the thought just kind of overwhelms me. So, I just listen to more podcasts or watch more dumb TV or something. Keep myself stupid.
Tell me where you grew up, what childhood was like for you.
I grew up in White Plains, which is a suburb of New York. Pretty normal, kind of suburban upbringing. I grew up close to New York City, close enough that I was exposed to more cosmopolitan stuff than some other suburban people. But at the end of the day, it was pretty suburban.
How does a kid growing up in White Plains get attracted to music like the stuff you're making now?
So, my brother is a musician as well. And he's significantly older than me; he's 10 years older than me. And he was always playing music. Like, really cool stuff. When I was a kid, he would be playing Alice in Chains and Nirvana and stuff like that, and I don't think I so much thought that that was great music, even though I did. It was more just the fact that he liked it. I had this worship of my brother. Anything he wore, or said, or listened to, or did, or anything, I was obsessed with, and I think I figured out that if I could latch on to his music, it could get me closer to him. I would sit outside of his room when he would have the door closed and listen to him listening to music. It was... one of my main activities. Just sit outside of his room and listen to the songs. I liked R.E.M. and Led Zeppelin a lot. I just wanted to be like a songwriter when I was a kid, which is funny, I guess, but that's true. It felt like this alluring, sexy, cool, fun, adventurous counterpoint to... my life, which was pretty boring.
Do you recall the first song you heard, the kind of exploded your mind and thought, "Wow, this is just so amazing, I must make things like this"?
Yeah, there were, like, a million. I was a huge fan of "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M. I was obsessed with that song. I loved "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I remember I had this really intense reaction to "All Star" by Smash Mouth... I remember, as a kid, thinking that the chorus to that song was amazing and I was like, "I want to make something that channels how amazing this is." Yeah, lots of things. I mean, every time I heard a good song, I had this feeling like, "Oh, I want to do that." Like, "I want to make that." I always had little bands, like me and my friend Andy, his dad played in a band in the '70s — which, just the fact that I knew someone whose dad was in a band once, felt like this crazy thing. He had all this old equipment in his basement... so, me and Andy would go into his basement as kids and tinker around with stuff. And his dad actually even jerry-rigged a really old school recording mechanism out of a karaoke machine. It was like a retail karaoke machine that he hooked up to a VHS recording. So, our earliest recordings would be — nowadays, this would be so hip, like if Ariel Pink did this, it would be all over like, "Oh, my God, the coolest thing," you know. But it was basically VHS recordings done through a karaoke machine that we would then watch on his TV. Sounds like some East Berlin '80s shit. We would watch just the scramble[d signal]. There would be no visual, it would just be only audio. But yeah, so we would do that and we were really into it.
Let's jump forward. How did you discover the sound you've created as your own now? How'd you get here?
When I first moved to New York City, coming on like 10 years ago now, I really wanted to start a band and stuff. I was not exposed to that much cool stuff and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And I basically knew I wanted to start a band and knew I wanted to go see shows and meet musicians and stuff like that. I, first of all, had no idea what was going on with UK indie stuff that I love now. I had no idea that stuff really — you know, going into when I moved to New York, I mean, I knew about My Bloody Valentine — surface level stuff a little bit, but I just started going to shows and basically met people that had really good taste and started learning a new vocabulary... learning about new bands and guitars and guitar pedals. I started seeing what people were wearing at shows and all these different things. It was like this cultural immersion that took place that I was really interested in. I really wanted to be a part of that and I did that for a long time, I would always go to shows, always talk to people, always go up front. I don't really think I made that many friends doing it, but I think I had a lot of good — whatever — immersion in that stuff. Yeah, I think I just built a life in New York meeting lots of different people, and always [being] open to listening to new stuff. I think the first time I got really into some of this this the Peel Dream-y stuff was when I [started listening to] 4AD stuff. I was really a huge fan of the Cocteau Twins forever. I wore that on my sleeve. I was like, "Cocteau Twins are the best band ever". And then from there, moved into a lot of indie-pop and fun kind of post-punk stuff, and I loved learning about it all. And who knew who and all that stuff and got into, I learned about who John Peel was and all that stuff. And yeah.
So, you've released an album before, in a normal period of time — this is not a normal period of time; how does it feel to release music right now?
You know... it's, it's crazy... we just have to keep canceling stuff. And it's pretty — it's pretty gut-wrenching, because when you go on tour after putting out a record, it's really exciting. You get to meet a lot of people and it's... that's why you do it.
Would you mind telling me about recording this album?
It started out the way anything for me does; I just had some songs I was working on. And I was recording at home the same way I was with [debut album] Modern Meta Physic, just making my demos and then I — at some point, when you're working on a bunch of songs it reaches a critical mass and you're like, "OK, well, I think now is the time when I want to make it a record," whatever. And sometimes you jump the gun, you're like, "Oh, I have seven amazing songs. I'm going to make a record." And then, "Oh, actually, only two of them are good," whatever. So, "F*ck that, I got to start over [and] wait a little while." Things like that kept happening. So, I was trying to think of a place that I could [record] within my budget, which was pretty much nothing. I had a friend [producer Kelly Winrich] who has a rehearsal space that has a ton of really great equipment and a drum kit and I was like, "Hey, can we turn my demos into recordings at your space?" And from there, it's just snowballed into him co-producing and co-mixing and co-engineering the record.
How does that work exactly? I mean, a practice space is one thing, but it's not a recording studio.
It's not; it's funny it was — it's not soundproofed. So, we had to stop every night at 10 PM because there's someone that lives on top of the place. It was also not heated, so we'd be recording in the winter [in] 10 degrees and we'd have to stop tracking because I'd have to put my hands under a space heater. But at the same time, he has great equipment, he knows what he's doing. And that's really, that's all you need, you know. You can go into a studio that has everything, and if you don't have good ideas or good people it's just not gonna work.
Boy, if you don't have the songs, you don't have anything. I mean, those early Velvet Underground recordings are terrible, and yet the songs are amazing.
So, it doesn't matter that the recordings are terrible.
Is there a moment on this album that you want to spotlight as like a really cool achievement as a songwriter or as someone, as a recording artist that maybe the average person wouldn't catch?
I love "Brief Intermission." I really love that song, the way that came out. And I really like where it falls on the record because you're just hit with so many — for Peel Dream Magazine — at least, these faster, heavier ones. And then there's this calm — it's very cosmic feeling. I love the moment after side two ends and you start with "Too Dumb," that downbeat just feels really fresh for me. I'm obsessed with that band Rocketship. Do you know them?
I don't actually.
Oh, you should check them out. They're amazing, they're — they're heroes of mine. I recently established contact with them on Instagram which is really exciting. I was chasing after their sound for a couple songs and I felt like I got that across with "Too Dumb." So, that was exciting, and then when I was talking with Rocketship on Instagram, they actually said that they liked the mix of "Too Dumb." And that was a full circle thing right there. But anyway, I like it all — I don't know, I have different moments, sometimes I listen through and I hear something I never heard before, or something.
So, the first single was "Pill." It's a straightforward question, but do you want to tell us about a song, maybe what it's about, what it means to you? Is there a theme from it that's revealed itself over time?
In "Pill", I'm saying "tongue / pill / I chew; it's all I do, it's all I do." I think that people are spoonfed stuff from marketing companies that work for corporations and politics and stuff. And it's just about being independent and being critical of what you're given.
Why end the album with "Up and Up?"
Thematically, "Up and Up" is the most Agitprop Alterna song because it's about — it talks about [German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet] Bertolt Brecht and his feud philosophically with Aristotle over what theater is supposed to be about. So, it's a rock song about the teachings of Bertolt Brecht, and it sums up what some of the album is about.
For those who don't know, why don't you take us through the basic definition, and what it means to you, the title of the album.
"Agitprop" is a, I think, it's originally a Russian word. It means like agitation, propaganda. I think it's supposed to be an umbrella term for any work of art or theater or anything that is intended to spur audiences to some action. And "Alterna" is just... I thought "alterna" was a word and then, apparently it's not a word, I always thought it was a genre like "90s Alterna" or something like that. But, I think I might have made that up. So it could — you could just call it Agitprop Alternative, but I really like the cadence of it and I really like to get into all kinds of little details, like the original title, the cadence of it is Modern Meta Physic. Agitprop Alterna has the same exact cadence to it. And the album art is related and all that stuff. I think the two albums are pretty related. But anyway, as far as... As far as some of the concepts behind it, I'm really into the ideas of Bertolt Brecht as a voice about performance and stuff that. I want Peel Dream Magazine to be a band that doesn't pull on people's heartstrings the way that... like a quote unquote "rock band" is supposed to. I don't want people to go to a Peel Dream Magazine show, expecting it to be this thing where it's like, "Oh, I'm going to have so much fun, it's gonna be so great, he's gonna pour his heart out and I'm gonna really connect with him and have a great night." Because I don't want people to feel that way at my shows necessarily. If they do, that's cool, but I think it's annoying how boxed in rock bands are to this, corny, neatly-tied-up experience where you go on stage, you rock out, the fans love it, you thank them for coming, then you walk off stage and then, you know, someone throws you a towel at you, and you drink a glass of champagne. That's, that's so stupid, that's such a cartoon. That's Def Leppard or something like that.
That's a Loverboy video, is what that is.
Yeah, exactly. So, I wanted to have an album that was not, did not owe that experience to anyone. I wanted it to be something where the songs are really repetitive and that the times on the album where there are catharsis are few and far between and the lyrics are not that audible and they're pushed a little bit under. And there's usually no endings; everything fades out. There's little things about the songs and about the album that I wanted to disassociate people, a little bit, where they listen to it and they don't — it doesn't necessarily remind them. People say, everybody who listens to it they're like, "Oh, that sounds exactly like Stereolab," but whatever are the stylistic reference points, I don't want the recordings or the actual songs themselves to make people — to tell people what they're supposed to think about them, essentially. So I wanted to make a record that was kind of a musical version of a Brechtian play. So, Brechtian plays... were these plays where he tried to do things that would like break — and I'm talking out of my ass if anybody's a theater major; I'm going to butcher this. This is my poorly cobbled together synopsis of Bertolt Brecht, but he would do things that were basically intended to make audiences feel like that there was something kind of bizarre happening and not realistic, not typical. He would encourage the audience to doubt things about it or, come up with their own conclusions, doubt the voice of the narrator. And the reason that he wanted to do that was not only because he was sick of, overly romantic, overly cute theater. It was also because he wanted to promote critical thinking and individualism in audiences. And I think that that's something that's really relevant right now. That's my long winded answer about the title of Agitprop Alterna.
Well, and that is not the answer I expected; and it's a very enjoyable answer. And, you know, I think we got a lot of good stuff here, so thanks for taking time to chat with KEXP and with me and congratulations on a really cool record.
Thank you. Thanks for talking.
Agitprop Alterna is out now via Slumberland Records / Tough Love Records.