I first met Steve Schiltz in the early 2000s when I was selling t-shirts for Nada Surf at The Middle East in Cambridge. I pestered him with questions about his band, Longwave, having recently signed to RCA Records alongside their friends, The Strokes. Some years later in 2010, I recognized Steve at an event in which OK Go premiered the now-legendary music video for “This Too Shall Pass”…and this time pestered him with questions about Longwave. But within this talking, I learned of Steve’s somewhat-secret affinity for guitar-shredding and 1980s-oriented metal, and my pestering has continued about a variety of topics ever since.
Originally from Rochester, Longwave was actually Steve’s second band as a New York City resident. The first band was the Ashen Keilyn-fronted Scout, which he played guitar in. Steve’s work with Ashen resumed post-Longwave with Hurricane Bells, whose song “Monsters” was featured prominently in Twilight: New Moon. Steve and Ashen’s work together continued further with Scout’s excellent 2012 album All Those Relays. While all of that band activity was going on, Steve was still able to find time to work with artists like The Pierces, The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr., Teddy Thompson, and Blue October.
That work with Blue October led to the formation of Harvard Of The South, a band comprised of Steve and three members of Blue October. The quartet’s debut EP, Miracle, came out in October 2014 and its first full-length album is slated for a 2016 release. Aside from his work with Harvard Of The South, Steve is in the studio almost every day of the week as a writer and producer of music for film, TV and commercials.
Steve kindly took the time to answer a batch of questions for the “Really Busy People” column. I did not have the chance to ask about how Rochester’s House Of Guitars store shaped his upbringing. However, I do know about his encounters with Winger guitarist Reb Beach and future Poison guitarist Blues Saraceno at guitar clinics as a teen; feel free to ask Steve about that directly if you spot him in Brooklyn. Ultimately, Steve provided the great responses I expected, and he remains one of my favorite songwriters.
A lot of people first learned about you through your old band Longwave. Some people knew you from Scout before that. Hurricane Bells had its own fanbase. Harvard Of The South has a great following now. And now you do a lot of composing and sideman work. When someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you usually reply?
Steve Schiltz: I usually just say that I’m a musician, but it kind of depends on who is asking! If it’s someone who isn’t really in the music business, I might say that I write TV and movie music, because that seems easy enough. Sometimes bands don’t seem…”respectable!”
What was your first credit as a musician that you were really proud of and are still proud of?
S: It would be the Scout record I played guitar on, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. After that chronologically, it would be Longwave. The Hurricane Bells song in the Twilight movie and soundtrack was another one that registered for my “non-music” friends and family.
When was it that you knew you wanted to be a musician as a career path? Was there a particular album or artist that inspired that?
S: I guess I never thought it was possible until maybe my last year of high school. My band from high school, we were coming down here to play for music people at clubs around town. We ended up doing some touring and it really made me think, “I want to try to do this.” When the band broke up, I had some songs and I could play guitar, so I moved here to make a go of it. I moved here a week before my 20th birthday.
A lot of songwriters take gigs as sidemen. In your case, I’m aware of you playing with Albert Hammond Jr., The Pierces, Teddy Thompson, James Iha, Blue October and Dan Wilson at various points. How do you enjoy that part of work versus working on your own projects?
S: There’s that Yogi Berra quote, “you can observe a lot by just watching.” It’s like that. The best cases for me have been situations like playing with Albert, where I’m kind of allowed a little freedom and the music is very strong. I came off some of those Albert tours just bursting with energy, lots of ideas. It’s cool. Something like Blue October is a little different — those are really friends of mine, and I just go down to Texas sometimes to record music with them and eat BBQ.
I guess it’s the best when it’s super low pressure for me. Like, I don’t have to worry about how many t-shirts the show sold, or how much the hotels cost. And if you can see how other people are doing things, sometimes it helps organize it in your mind when you go back to your thing.
How did you find your way into the co-writing world?
S: Someone asks, “Hey, what do you think of this song? It’s not done yet, I need a verse.” Or more often now, it’s through a publisher. I’ve had a publisher since early Longwave days. They like to get you together with people, to see what happens. It’s like two animals in the wild…”WHOA! Let’s see what happens when we put THEM in a room and close the door.”
Do you find that there are any misconceptions about writing for other artists?
S: That it’s easy, maybe? It’s only really ever worked out for me if I’ve been asked by the other person writing, to help. Meaning, I’ve never had it happen where I wrote something for a stranger, for their record, and it worked out. That’s just me. If you flip the situation, I can’t imagine using someone else’s song in Longwave, so I can understand.
What sort of role does your publisher play in the way that you make a living? Do they bring you a lot of work, or are they there more to negotiate deals and collect?
S: My current publisher, Songs, is a little different from my old publisher with Longwave and Hurricane Bells. Songs wants to pitch things for synch, which if you don’t know means, that they want you to give them music that will work in a TV or movie situation. That’s a big part of their business, and it’s a bigger part of the music business now that it was when I was 20. So they will tell me specific things that they think they could use, and I am free to listen or not! But for any band that I’ve been in, getting a song into a movie or TV commercial has always helped out. So anyway, that is a big part of what they do.
When taking a gig, do you have specific criteria? Or are you more the type who just likes to work and keep your mind active?
S: Depends on the gig! I am a freelance guy, and although I do make some money through royalties and old things I’ve done, most of my living comes through doing TV commercials and movie stuff. For that stuff, I will honestly do almost anything, because those jobs are super-fast, and I get paid something even if it doesn’t end up getting used. If it DOES get used, there is sometimes a good deal of money. So since it doesn’t usually take long, I don’t mind doing a cover of a dumb song, or something silly, you know? Who cares? I’m done by 5 p.m.
If it’s a more meaningful gig, like a band or a tour? Really, I’ve never been able to really stand it if I didn’t like the music. And I can’t go for too long without making a living, so money is important. And the people involved can’t be jerks, or that’ll kill it, too. So some winning combo of those things needs to happen.
Now, however, I have a family, and that’s the main reason I have to turn down touring things and even some hometown sideman gigs now. But that’s okay.
New York, as everybody knows, is an expensive place to live. What is it that keeps you here when considering that a lot of your work is done remotely?
S: My wife needs to be here for her job, so that kind of settles it. I used to think I couldn’t live anywhere else, but now I could see it. But New York is still great, isn’t it? Even though it’s kind of a hustle, like you say.
Are there any tools or apps you especially rely on to stay productive?
S: Hmm, nothing too out of the ordinary, I guess. I record ideas into my iPhone voice memos, and I email them to myself and they become my to-do list. As far as nuts and bolts music recording goes, I’m a Pro Tools guy, and I use a lot of “live” instruments, like real pianos and drums. So that is actually one thing I need, for my job — I need to have a room where everything is mic’ed up, and ready to play at all times. That’s how i can work fast. It’s kind of a luxury maybe for someone else, but if I don’t have that it’s very hard for me to do things like the TV stuff. That’s how I have it, in my studio in DUMBO.
Is there a career path or part of the music world you haven’t yet worked in which you’d one day like to try?
S: I can’t think of any, although I would love to do even more movie things, or film-like things where you have a conversation with someone and develop a vocabulary and sound for a longer project than just 30 seconds. When I can do that, I love it.
Do you have any projects in the works that you can talk about?
S: There are a couple unreleased Hurricane Bells things that I love, that I hope to get out soon. And there is a Harvard Of The South full-length that will probably come out in the spring.
Might there ever be a Longwave reunion?
S: I want to! We all want to. Our guitar player Shannon has just moved to California, so that is going to make it tough. It’s not as easy as it was years ago, with everyone’s lives. Things happen and it gets pushed into the future again, but I want to, I’m thinking about it. We had a couple rehearsals last year just to mess around and it sounded so good.
Since music is your field of work, are you still able to listen to music for fun?
S: Yes! But not so much to TV commercials. Those feel like work when they’re on. I am listening to how they scored the kid riding his bike or something…he stops HERE! Right, that STOP is on the beat…
Music aside, when you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?
S: Well, I told you that I have a little family now, so that’s really great. I take my kids to the playground, we go for walks, I try to show them how to run the Pro Tools…
Finally, Steve, any last words for the kids?
-by Darren Paltrowitz