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The Steel Wheels Get Wild With New Album, Tour

Sandlin Gaither

Trent Wagler and his bandmates in the Virginia-based outfit The Steel Wheels have earned a reputation as a band steeped in folk music tradition. But the group’s new album, Wild As We Came Here, departs from that tradition in places and even from the group’s own established sound.

“Living in this time means we’re very tethered and very tied and sometimes enslaved by our own technology,” Wagler says. “That sense, I think, is what in part inspired this notion of wildness. Are we even capable of it ourselves? I think some of those questions really informed the songs that ended up making the record.”

There is a restlessness in the larger world that's reflected in the band's music and in the lyrics Wagler sings on this new effort. Producer Sam Kassirer, Wagler says, was especially helpful in finding new sounds for The Steel Wheels.

“This record is a bit of a departure. We do have more effects and more sounds that aren’t immediately obvious as to what the instruments are. That was partly Sam’s production. He’s an amazing keyboard player and he’s done a lot of records,” Wagler says. “He was able to add some of these nuances that really make you get your ear a little closer to the speaker and say, ‘What is that sound?’ I love that too. There’s really something cool about the mysteries of the sounds that you’re hearing.”

Among the elements that Kassirer encouraged the band to explore?

“We had some percussion that was slightly inspired by Tom Waits,” Wagler says. “Some other sources of inspiration than Doc Watson and other acoustic greats. I think part of that, for me, is not wanting to get complacent and saying, ‘We’ve created this thing and we’re going to keep riding this thing out,’ but having the courage to create something new and that means, at times, shaking it up a little bit.”

Though the band members knew that adding new elements to their sound might stir mixed emotions in their fans, they also knew that it was a necessary move for artistic survival.

“If you’re a guitar player and you’re playing in a jam it’s easy to ride certain licks that you learned along the way. You might have a whole bag of tricks that make it seem like you are an improvising genius in the moment,” Wagler says. “But you yourself know that you’re just pulling from something else that you’ve played or that you learned from some other solo. That’s something that everybody does but there’s a difference between that and truly going out on a limb and playing notes where you’re not quite sure where you’re going to land. You’re not even sure if it’s going to sound great but you’re willing to take a leap and really go out there and possibly fall flat for a moment to discover something new.

"As an artist?" he adds. "You’ve always got to check yourself and figure out if you’re playing it safe and continuing to ride on some past experience or if you’re really putting something out that’s right now. For me, right now, in The Steel Wheels? That’s what this album represents: a gut check. In the studio and in the production of it and every piece of it for us was not just playing it safe, doing another record of the way that we’ve done it before.”

This new record represents a new way of operating, Wagler adds. The band now has a touring drummer who adds some keyboards as well.

“We’re pushing ourselves. I’m excited about that and I’m excited about where we’re at right now,” he says. “Any musician is only as good as their last show or their last recording. There’s a constant self-assessment going on that can continue to help inspire.”

The Steel Wheels will perform at Wichita's Orpheum Theatre Saturday evening. The band's new release, Wild As We Came Here, is out May 5.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

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