Somewhere between the end of World War II and the first term of President Eisenhower, guitars and drums eclipsed strings and horns as the dominant instrumentation in American pop music.
More than 50 years later, the pop paradigm is shifting in a way that's just as fundamental. The synthesizer is eclipsing the guitar as the primary voice in the most influential pop now being made. From the simple synth riffs that define MGMT songs like "Kids," to baroque compositions such as Animal Collective's "My Girls," the synthesizer is increasingly the heart and soul of 21st-century pop.
That trend is weaving its way into the fabric of Madison music. And that's why Creepfunk Crusade, the new CD by Steez, is a seminal local release.
For sure, Creepfunk Crusade is not the first Madison album to incorporate synth. What's significant is that Steez uses synth to reinvent the sound of the jam band, the funk band, the bar band, the Union Terrace band, the tailgate party band, the Bratfest band, indeed, all the band types that arguably constitute the mainstream Madison sound.
In a lot of ways, Steez is an extension of Madison folklore. Three of its five members met as students at UW and once lived together in a big house on Gorham Street.
Now that they've graduated, they still live a collegiate lifestyle. On the evening last week that I interviewed Steez vocalist and guitarist Steve Neary, two Steez members were frantically packing to beat their Aug. 15 apartment move-out deadlines.
It's been six years since the members of Steez first played together, but Creepfunk Crusade is the band's full-length debut. They've commenced a two-week CD-release tour. Then they return to Madison for a hometown party on Aug. 28 at the High Noon Saloon.
The five members of Steez are Matt Williams (keys, synth, accordion), Steve Neary (guitars, vocals), Rob Bessert (drums), Chris Sell (bass) and Andrzej Benkowski (sax, violin, oboe).
"Chris and Matt and I met as students at UW," says Neary. "Matt had an apartment on Doty Street, and the first time we ever jammed together was in his living room."
They soon formed a band, originally named the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
"Andrzej was always our honorary fifth member," says Neary. "He went to Northwestern and we knew him through friends." Now he's a regular member.
"When you say you're a jam band, a lot of people think that means you play Phish or Grateful Dead covers," says Neary. "Generally our songs are not longer than 10 minutes," he adds. "We'll do something live like do a Human League cover and bring a jazzy, funky side to it."
The recording process was new to Steez as they approached the making of Creepfunk Crusade. "We thought the layering we were able to do was so cool," says Neary. "You can overdub the same part two or three times and just let this crazy, full tone burst out at you."
In 2009, Neary says the band has become a bigger commitment for each of the members. "Chris and I planned this whole tour and booked the shows," says Neary.
The newfound responsibilities haven't taken the wind out of Steez's free spirit. Even so, the guys have traded in their van for an old bus that's equipped with a shower. "We sleep in that bus when we're on tour," says Neary. "You learn a lot about each other living in such close quarters. None of us has tried to use the shower yet."
Jamming has always been at the core of the Steez sound, but Neary notes this evolution: "We definitely have much more of an electronic feel now."
So goes pop music.