An Interview with Steve Eggers of The Nines
Steve Eggers and his band, The Nines, have emerged from six-year hiatus with their first studio album since 2007’s Gran Jukle’s Field. The self-titled album is what we’ve come to love and expect from Eggers: Insanely catchy hooks, gorgeous chord progressions, and homages to previous pop music geniuses sprinkled throughout the production.
Eggers has a knack for writing memorable, sweeping compositions that seem to emanate from him almost effortlessly. And like most artists covered on this blog, he’s relatively unknown. Is that fair? I had a chance to ask Steve about this, his new album, and his approach to songwriting.
Okay let’s get this out of the way first. It makes me mad to hear such perfectly created music that’s not even approaching the Hot 100. Does that matter to you? Why is that?
Well, I would love to be on the Hot 100, or approaching to Hot 500 even. Having said this, I’m actually lucky to have people put down money and take time to buy my music. Would I like more people to love the Nines? I would most definitely. I think some music that becomes massively popular can be musically great. Obviously there is some top 40 that is horrible, but you find that with indie music as well. People like music for different reasons, and it is very subjective.
Tell me about the new album. What’s different from your previous releases?
I actually write a lot of songs, and a lot of songs I just lose interest in because I think I have ADD, or ADHD … my attention span is very brief and fleeting. The album is the result of the songs that I like the best. With this album I tended to gravitate to more rock numbers or uptempo numbers as opposed to ballads.
The new album sounds like a cross between Wings-era McCartney and some of the AM radio staples from the late 70s. I even hear some Frampton Comes Alive in “Backseat”. The 70s sometimes gets a bad rap, but there was a lot to appreciate there.
Yes, I added the crowd sounds to “Backseat” because it felt very stadium-like and was recorded almost live off the floor with the band. The 70s was great because it was BIG and BRIGHT and it was fragmented. You had huge acts like Elton John, but then you had KC and the Sunshine Band and Abba, right next to Led Zeppelin. I liked all of those outfits. I liked Billy Joel and David Gates as well as Gary Numan and Bowie. If 70s music was a movie it would be a movie of extreme mood changes.
I’ve heard several of the album tracks over the past few years from demos and outtakes where you’re basically just humming where the words go. How did these songs evolve?
That’s the way I write most of my songs. I think a lot of writers do that. Paul Simon has said that it’s the sounds of words as opposed to just the meaning that is important. The sound conveys a meaning almost. I believe that. If the music is strong enough, you can convey a lot of emotion that is impossible to articulate in words.
Paul Simon has said that it’s the sounds of words as opposed to just the meaning that is important. The sound conveys a meaning almost. I believe that. If the music is strong enough, you can convey a lot of emotion that is impossible to articulate in words.
Sometimes words get in the way and can interfere with the musical emotion. I write music first and then build a story around some of the words that sound “right” in the song. Having said this, I wrote a song “Virginia” as a nonsense song, called “Government Plan” and got rid of all the words and recrafted the lyrics from scratch. So there really isn’t a formula to how I approach songs, which I like, because if there was a formula it would make it feel like I was actually working as opposed to playing.
I’ve previously written about “I Would Never” and its perfection – major to minor chords, the sweeping falsettos, and some chord progressions that just bring a smile to one’s face. What’s the background to the writing of that song?
Thanks. “I Would Never” I wrote on the piano and the chorus of that song I had written as a ballad. When we started as a band one thing we thought was unique was that I would write rock songs with “piano” structured chords and translate them to guitar – i.e., write a piano ballad and make it a rock song. That translation from piano to guitar created unique phrasing that would not sound like typical guitar chord structures. “I Would Never” was one of those piano to guitar songs. There is the melancholy of a piano ballad built into the DNA of that rock song.
How have you evolved as a songwriter since your first album, 1998’s Wonderworld of Colourful?
I think I’m less inhibited and more confident in my approach. When we did Wonderworld of Colourful, my goal was to stay away from piano because grunge was big and I always grew up digging the Police and three-piece bands that were guitar based. I liked Nirvana as well at the time and the punk thing…and as a live outfit we were a heavier band live. I didn’t feel confident enough to be a piano-based live outfit. On recordings we kept the guitar-based thing but built layers on it; layers we could not recreate live.
I remember Bryan Potvin, the A & R guy at Polygram (he was also one of the chief songwriters in the Canadian pop band the Northern Pikes) who had signed us to a demo deal in the 90s, kept telling me, “Steve, you have to play piano live, and on your recordings, that’s what you’re about. You are a good piano player and a weak bass player.” I think I wanted to be a “guitar” punk/alternative or heavier band because I didn’t feel like a “singer songwriter” piano guy. Now I do whatever I want. So if I want to do a piano ballad, I do it. Or a reggae album, I just do it. I was going to do a dub reggae thing and still might. Stay tuned…
Lots of reviews of you and the record refer to you as “genius” when it comes to pop music. There seems to be some sort of synergy between you, Mike Viola, Andy Reed and Bleu when it comes to creating these irresistible catchy hooks. Where do they come from? Is it years of listening to XTC and the Beatles, and the chords are innate by now? Or is it still a struggle sometimes to find the right mix?
Well I am not a genius or particularly smart. My spouse is much smarter than I am. Genius is used for everything and seems to be misused more and more now. Having said this, I will take a quote like this and not stop myself from aggressively advertising it to everyone (laughs). When you look at the history of music, there really are only a few true geniuses, and most predate the 20th century, I’d argue.
Popular music has actually become simpler and simpler over the decades. I like listening to music I simply can not do. I listen to a lot of jazz (Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker) because it’s simply beyond my abilities or beyond my scope to truly take influence from it.
I think Mike, Bleu and Andy and myself grew up as kids listening to a pool of music that was based on album tracks and singles of the 60s, 70s and 80s and a lot of FM and AM pop radio, so while I know we all have over the years expanded our musical tastes into other genres, that pool is the commonality. I think our approach to music and composition differs based on our take of what we’ve listened to or what other elements outside of that pool we draw on… as well as life experience obviously. I also gravitate to composing on piano 95 percent of the time versus guitar because that is fundamentally the instrument I can play quite well, versus being somewhat of a hacker on the other instruments.
In your opinion (somewhat of an academic question), why do those chords elicit such happiness and reaction among pop fans? Why do we like George Harrison’s diminished chords, McCartney’s jumps in melodies and Queen’s multi-part harmonies? Why do I like every chord change in “Take What You Want?”
Well thanks again…I would be the last person to analyse why someone likes certain melodies and not others. I have my theories but again, some people just like music because of the drum beat or the sound of a synth or the words of a song resonate with them. I really like the cinematic elements of those bands you mentioned. They made albums (a lost art now with iTunes) which was a musical motion picture for the mind, really, and the goal of the song was to take the listener on an emotional ride. (Laughs) Well, that’s what it did for me even without dope. Each song was a concept. The Beatles did that cinematic thing not only within the album, but within the song. Queen did this too. Bowie did this as well.
I hear a lot of top 40 music and even music for Disney, as I have little kids, where I can hear that there is obviously someone who understands song craftsmanship very well. And I get hooked because they use those tricks (the “right” chords” here and few minor changes there). It’s like crack for me…I get hooked on even the cheap stuff. But what makes me get off that crack is it just feels uninspired and more like a pop song jigsaw puzzle. It feels like a song pitch winner or an ad campaign because that’s essentially what it is.
Having said this I’m likely not above doing it myself though as I’m not that pure. Bottom line is that music connects with people on a number of levels, and authenticity and inspiration I think is still very important.
Are you content with your place in the music world right now? You’ve released several acclaimed albums and have a small but fervent following who seem to GET your music. Would you like to see a return to the power pop/new wave era of the late 70s and 80s, or is this okay?
I’d love to make millions of dollars and have a lot of people love my work. To say, no I’m good with a cult following and mass appeal ain’t for me would be a lie. But the flip side to this is I am very fortunate to have the loyal following. In fact I actually loved a lot of bands that were “cult following” kinda bands. I loved XTC when they weren’t touring. I still love the Lilys which really is one guy and a bunch of musicians he works with. I think Kurt Heasley is great. I love Scritti Politti’s last album on Rough Trade. He’s got the soundscape thing in his head. So I’m in a band or project that is actually like a band I would like.
What’s next? Tour? StageIt shows?
Well, we’re looking at some additional distribution for this new album in Europe and Japan so we’ve got some stuff cooking there, so we’ll see. I have a batch of live recordings that were recorded by this guy, John DS Adams, for a show I did at the University of Toronto with the Hart House Chamber Orchestra, conducted by my bandmate Paul McCulloch, as well as some live recordings of some band gigs. So we’re looking at releasing a live album.
I also am finishing up Polarities 2 (not sure of the name) as I have a batch of demos and unreleased songs that I think are interesting. I’m also tracking a new album which I’m not sure will be out as Steve Eggers or the Nines, but the songs are piano based songs…so straight songs in the flavor of Joe Jackson, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Billy Joel. This project is just simple arrangements of songs that I think are some of the best songs I’ve written so far, so I’m excited about that.
I plan to do a few shows in the U.S. in 2014 and some joint shows with some artists that we work well with…so we’ll keep you posted.