Making music, fixing bicycles, chilling with bums, moving forward and living life with Stephen Paul Smoker.
By Alyssa Meza
Sun-drenched and psychedelic, Violent Sun/Violent Fun is a dog-days of summer EP, when the air is heavy and the blinding sun bathes everything in an orange glow. Recording in the living room of a hot attic apartment last summer with a cloud of smoke hanging overhead created an atmosphere that Stephen Paul Smoker imbued into the album. Smoker has an organic process to making music and well, living. After working in musical projects that he did not really believe in and fixing bicycles for his day job, Smoker was “discovered” by Kilo Records. Now a resident of Pilsen, he makes music with his band Ripe Fruit and soaks up the vibrancy of the South Side hidden gem neighborhood, happy to hang out on the street corners. Stephen Paul Smoker is a man about making music and living life on his own terms. Finally he gets to do both.
Alyssa Meza for UR Chicago: What were you trying to accomplish with your EP Violent Sun/Violent Fun?
Stephen Paul Smoker: It started with two songs. It was an accident. I was not really trying to accomplish anything. Kilo Records heard the two songs and asked me to do a full record so that’s where Violent Sun/Violent Fun came from. It was really a surprise when they asked me to sign and put a band together and start working towards doing music full time.
UR: What do you mean it was an accident?
SPS: I’ve been playing music for many years and the two songs that I wrote I was not intending for anybody to hear. I was at a Kilo Records industry party or whatever, networking party or something, and Kilo was putting together different projects that the studio was working on, and my project was one of those. It got a lot of attention from industry people and Kilo took notice to that and signed me to do this record and another record. That is how it was accidental. I was not really trying to put the songs out there, but they made their way out there anyways.
UR: What were you doing before you were making music?
SPS: I’ve always been making music, but I was a bicycle mechanic at the time and working towards opening my own shop, which in hindsight would not have been the right direction for me. I really like working on bicycles, but I don’t think I would be a very good shop owner. I still work on bicycles and things like that, but the whole project came together so quickly and so smoothly as far as the band coming together. The record that is out now is something that we released pretty quickly, and I like it. It’s a good record, but the goal with this release was to create a band that could move forward and create some things that were bigger than what I was doing. Violent Sun/Violent Fun is me playing everything, which is fine. And really the focus now is on what we are going to do next. And the band that is together now is more than I could ask for, it’s the best band I have played in, in my 16-year career, if you want to call it a career.
UR: So what are you working on right now?
SPS: The band just solidified two or three weeks ago. The actual writing, style of each player, how everybody works together, all of that really solidified itself a few weeks ago, so yeah, we are writing a lot right now. We are focusing on the live show. We are bringing in a trumpet player to do some shows with us, so we are really starting to get to know each other and more forward as a band. We are going forward as Stephen Paul Smoker and the Ripe Fruit, which is a very solid band backing myself up. Hopefully in the future we can continue as a band, instead of five people playing with Stephen Paul Smoker.
UR: Are you excited to be playing such a large festival as North Coast this weekend?
SPS: It is a large festival and I am just a small fish in a large pond. Like everything else, I have no expectations for the festival. I am really happy doing this interview, and I will be doing another interview there. This is just another step. You know I have played several other festivals before in different projects. I really love the festival vibe. I don’t really like so much going to a festival or listening to a band at a festival because I feel like the sound gets sort of lost in the open space. But I love playing them, so I am really excited. I am not so excited about playing during Flying Lotus and that I will not be able to see them, so that’s a little upsetting, but other than that I am really excited.
UR: There is so much energy. Everyone wants to be there.
SPS: Yeah, that is totally true. As opposed to a club where half the people there take advantage of the drink special. People are there to see what you are all about so as far as exposure and moving forward it’s great. For this festival my mom is going to be there and she is a musician and a teacher so she is probably my greatest musical influence. So this particular festival is going to be very exciting for me to play.
UR: You previously played in bands like Mewithoutyou and The Mint and in a press release you were quoted as saying, “I felt like a traveling salesman in those bands, selling a product and image I didn’t really believe in.” Could you elaborate on that? Was it because of the Christian themes of those projects?
SPS: I would say that the traveling salesmen aspect of it is a necessity, but it seems a little too crooked for me. It was not the faith aspect of it. The Christian market from the inside is just like any other business. It was just hard for me to take something that people believe in fervently and sort of exploit that for material gain. And this does not speak to Mewithoutyou, who I believe is very genuine in their faith and I love those guys. Some of the other bands I have played in and observed within that scene were just people like anybody else, but they sort of had this crooked mentality towards making money. It is an easy market. It is easy to put together a band and to write easy songs to follow this outline and then throw it out there and make a quick buck on it. So it just seemed like something where I didn’t believe in the songs we were doing. The message we were sending out seemed so blasé and insincere. And when I write music I write music to satisfy myself, and if people really can latch on to that then they should go ahead and buy the record. But I want them to buy the record because they want to, to support you because they want to.
UR: What were you trying to convey with Violent Sun/Violent Fun? Were you trying to convey a certain feeling?
SPS: With this record, the acoustic song, "Don’t Let Me Down" was twenty minutes old when I recorded it and was a direct result of something personal that was going on in my life. All the songs on the record are like that, but it doesn’t convey an overall feeling. There is not a theme to the record. I like to serve each song appropriately.
UR: Where did you record the EP?
SPS: Most of it was recorded in my living room and then we went in and overdubbed some things in the studio. Very lo-fi. Recorded on an 8-track digital recorder throughout last summer. I guess if you could put a theme on Violent Sun/Violent Fun — the record was recorded in an apartment with these three very large skylights in my living room so it was like sitting under three magnifying glasses. It was the hottest apartment I have ever lived in. It was sort of a direct explanation for the title. It was me not having a job, not really needing a job, being able to focus on music, waking up every morning at 8 am and recording till midnight throughout the summer. Just having a hell of a time in my living room smoking a lot of pot and recording. And that’s what I did.
UR: I read on your Facebook page that you are a resident of Pilsen. What do you enjoy about living there?
SPS: Oh goodness, I think Pilsen is the best neighborhood in Chicago. It’s cheap first of all. It’s a great place for an artist to live. There are a lot of spots that are not really known outside of Pilsen. It’s a great community to be a part of because everybody knows each other so it’s a really great place to network. There are a lot of artists that have been living there a long time. A lot of families so it’s quiet. A lot of great food on the street. I work at Honkey Tonk Barbeque; it’s a really great atmosphere.
UR: Pilsen is definitely a neighborhood where the people that live there know why it’s great, but to everyone else is just some Mexican neighborhood on the South Side.
SPS: Thank god, those people can stay away. That’s the way we like it. I think Pilsen is on the way to becoming a more trendy neighborhood. There is a strong community that has been doing what they are doing for a long time and not going anywhere. It’s a place where you can get your hands dirty. You can spend all your time in the alleys and have a great time. Eat cheap, go to house parties, drink with the bums in the alley, whatever you want to do. It’s my perfect scene. It’s not a place that a lot of people really want to come to and I like it that way.
UR: Now that everything is starting to come together with your band and North Coast, where do you want to go from here or are you just taking everything as it comes?
SPS: Right now, I would love to go on the road. I can’t afford to go right now. I would love to solidify myself in Chicago. My goal is to write a record that sets us up for some successful tours and some better things coming our way. So that’s my goal — write the record that I have wanted to write for my whole life. For the first time I feel like it’s starting to come together that way.
UR: Any last words?
SPS: If you have room, be sure to let people know that they should go see Loyal Divide; they are great friends of mine and I dig their music. Other than that, that’s all I have.