We’re really pleased to introduce the multi-talented Cardiff based musician Stephen Wheel who very kindly took some time out to answer our questions. Make sure you check out his website (link is at the bottom of the interview) and listen to tracks from the rather spectacular ‘Snow Angels’…
Cat On The Wall: It seems you’re quite an international man of mystery (there is very little known about you on the net) but one thing is clear that in 2007 you met Woody Allen in New York! How did you come to meet Mr Allen?
Stephen Wheel: Woody Allen has probably had more of an influence on me than any other artist. In my teens, I watched a lot of his films from the seventies and early eighties, and I found that his comments on life made more sense to me, on relationships and women and the bigger questions in life. I’ve always wanted to meet him and go and see him playing jazz in New York, and the dream came true in 2007 when we went on holiday there, and we managed to get in to see him play.
COTW: ‘Snow Angels’ is your first album and from the sleeve notes you’re cited as being songwriter, producer and performer. When did you first discover your passion for music? Can you tell us about your musical background?
SW: My first real kind of epiphany moment came when my Dad bought an Alfa Romeo in 1985 and Dire Straits ‘Brothers in Arms’ was in the cassette player. That great guitar riff in ‘Money for Nothing’ – I just loved it.
The same person we bought the car off gave me my first guitar in 1989. It just clicked, and I devoured music ever since. So from going from Dire Straits I got into more rock orientated stuff, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Def Leppard and other metal bands, and it grew out from there. Radiohead, The Police, Neil Young, David Bowie. Kraftwerk, Classical music, it just all exploded from this guitar sound that I discovered when I was younger.
I first started being in bands in 1991. I think what brought me on musically was I that I was in a band, a good band. It was a steep learning curve because I went from playing in bedrooms with my mates to being offered to play guitar in this band, and I started writing music. When that band broke up I just kept going, played in a lot of rock bands in Swansea until I went to Uni.
COTW: How did drummer Gareth Dylan Smith get involved with the recording of ‘Snow Angels’?
SW: Gareth & I have been playing since 1998 when we were in Music College in Cardiff together. He’s my best friend, and we’ve continued to play together ever since. We’ve recorded a lot of music over the years, and Snow Angels just seemed to come together and worked. Gareth’s brilliant, he really makes the songs.
COTW: Do you have a process when composing songs?
SW: It’s done very subconsciously. The gem, the initial idea of a song, or the riff starts small. A lot is written on the guitar I was given at 13, I tend to strum in front of the TV, my ear tends to pick up on a musical fragment and I expand from there. Some songs are instantaneous and some you have to mould them like clay and shape them, but never too hard. The times I’ve been overly conscious writing songs, they don’t work. I can come up with new material relatively quickly if I’m in that headspace, or time will go past and nothing will come. I don’t put too much pressure on it.
COTW: How did you put together the arrangements for tracks like ‘A Sitting With The Pope’ and ‘Snow Angels’ where there are brass and string sections?
SW: That comes from the sound of a symphony orchestra. I like colours. Originally before I got into music I did a lot of art. But I got bored of it because I found it quite static; I was confined by the size of the canvas. Whereas I find music is more ambiguous and intangible, I found I wasn’t confined by space, and I could be colourful. So I think a combination of doing art and having an interest in the sounds of other instruments really helped.
There’s a classical influence there, but I think more than any classical composer is John Barry. The combination of film soundtracks with a symphonic orchestra: I find his music extremely interesting, colourful and emotive.
COTW: What or who inspires you lyrically and musically?
SW: I’m going through a renaissance of David Bowie at the moment. I was really into his music about 10 years ago, and I’ve come back to him recently, really enjoying stuff like Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and especially Low. I’ve really enjoyed playing his songs too.
There’s tons! Film soundtracks stir stuff in me when I see them, Neil Young…I‘ve really enjoyed listening to a bit of Wilco at the moment, and the guy from Wilco’s other band Loose Fur…MGMT, Steve Malkmus and Pavement.
COTW: You’ve already performed around Cardiff and have a gig coming up on 13th August supporting Spencer McGarry Season at Buffalo Bar. Is performing live important to you?
SW: If I had to choose between playing live and recording I prefer recording because I enjoy realising the songs and building up tracks and mixing them, I get very excited about that, but what I have enjoyed about playing live again is just having different groups of musicians at each gig, like string quartet, double bass, drums and vocals which I launched Snow Angels with, to a gig with just guitar, vocals and melodica, and I’ve really enjoyed arranging the songs for different forces. And I enjoy the social aspect of playing with other musicians and having a drink afterwards.
COTW: What can fans expect in August?
SW: I’m planning for the gig on the 13th August to play with a string quartet, double bass, drums, two vocalists plus trumpet, and I’ll perform a couple more songs that I haven’t done live yet.
I think it’ll be a great gig on the 13th, Spencer has really good material and a great band, and the night before will be good (Spencer will be playing Episode 1, with support from Sweet Baboo), so I’m looking forward to doing it, and it’s a good place to be performing too.
I’m also playing at Buffalo Bar on 1 August – at the Free Garden Stage put on by the Miniature Music Press, which Richard James is playing at too.
COTW: Finally, what are your plans for the near future?
SW: At the moment I’m completing my second album, called ‘Out of the City I Can’t Sink’. It’s been what I’ve been calling my frivolous album, where it came together really really quick, whereas Snow Angels took me a long time to make and is kind of my kitchen sink album where I chucked everything in there! ‘Out of the City’ just came together a lot quicker and I really like how vibey it is. So I’m mixing that at the moment and I hope that’ll be out at the end of the year.