Todd Steed has made a lot of music in his life.
Over the past 29 years, he's played as a member of seven different Knoxville bands, not to mention solo under such nom de plumes as Todzilla and Johnny Stank. He has released 10 albums, three cassettes, and one single. He's driven thousands upon thousands of miles to perform over 600 dates in at least 100 cities, and has played abroad in five other countries. He typically permits himself only one beer per set; thus, at a minimum of, say, two sets per show, that's at least 1,200 beers consumed in the line of duty playing rock 'n' roll onstage.
And, after three decades, he's finally made a record he likes.
Or, to be more precise, he is still currently happy with Eskimo Hair, his latest CD with the Suns of Phere (primarily Bob Deck, Ed Richardson, Dave Nichols, and Jeff Bills), released last summer. As is the case with all the records he's worked on, his satisfaction with the final product fluctuates over time, from like to dislike and back again. But Eskimo Hair (named after a Chinese shop pictured on the CD cover) is undoubtedly his most carefully recorded and produced album, bristling with exotic instruments, guest artists, and interstitial voice-overs offering soothing listening instructions.
Assembled on and off over two years—the longest Steed's ever worked on a record—Eskimo Hair indirectly owes its production values to his new job managing the career of singer/songwriter Abigail Washburn and her band (which includes Bela Fleck) at AC Entertainment.
"I've seen them about 20 times, and I've learned so much just from watching them and their standard of excellence, which is also something I've never pursued—I never really pushed it that hard," Steed says. "But watching them, I actually worked harder on the last record we did than any record I've done—in part because I thought one of them might listen to it and then I would be ashamed: ‘Why didn't you tune your guitars?'"
Unlike his previous releases with earlier bands like Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes or Opposable Thumbs, Eskimo Hair's songs were not finished after one or two takes. This time, Steed allowed himself to pursue what he heard in his head, whether it meant enlisting someone (Elodie Lafont) to really sing in French in "The French Girl and a Redneck" or finding a flute player (Nastaisa Mousouli) to underscore the guitar and gamelan drum sound in "Is It Time?" Not having to rent studio space like in the days of yore certainly helped.
"Now I have the tools at my disposal where I don't have to say, ‘Well, that's as good as we can do it. The clock on the wall says we're finished. This record is done!'" Steed says. "But having your own recording studio is kind of a curse, too—you never really finish, you just abandon the record. On this one, it was fun and rewarding to take the time to say, ‘I do want a gospel group on this song.' Before we would go, ‘We oughta get a gospel group!' ‘Yeah. Let's go get some beer.'"
Eskimo Hair also marks a departure from one of his ongoing songwriting subjects; there is a decided lack of Knoxvilleness on the record. Instead, the songs are about places and situations far away, with an underlying theme of escape running throughout the album, as in "Preservation Roof" (with characters atop a New Orleans building during Katrina) or "5 O'clock" (an office drone yearning for freedom). It's as if Steed subconsciously decided to take a break from being Knoxville's semi-official music scene godfather, his muse taking off for different destinations. So what's Steed really trying to get away from himself?
"Routine. Routine is really dangerous and really threatening to your soul," he says. "It's something I've always written about even though I didn't realize it until recently. I think the word ‘stuck' is on that record several times. Even ‘John 3:16' which goes back to Huh? or ‘Déjà VooDooDoo' which goes back to Too Many Years in the Circus—those are songs about being stuck in the party scene, which is just as dangerous as being stuck in an office, or more dangerous because there are more things to destroy yourself with in those places. But I guess I've always had that fear of just being stuck somewhere or in some situation that's not good."
And sometimes, even when your job or relationship or creative output is going well, things may suddenly change. And that became an unexpected part of Eskimo Hair as well.
"Everything seems to be in place… and then about when I started the record, my mom got cancer. So it's never perfect. That was something I was going through—and obviously something she was going through—the whole time I was making the record. It was rough. There are a lot of emotions in that record that are maybe not as ‘hidden' as they are in the other ones. I just sort of let them out."