John Stepp of Abdullah and Erase The Grey took some time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with me. He currently juggles being a father to two wonderful children and a silent observer of the local social outcast in whatever place his travels take him.
What is one of your fondest memories centered around music?
Watching my Dad doing guitar session work in local recording studios as a kid.
What kind of music were you exposed to regularly being around your Dad in that kind of environment?
Actually, mostly traditional country and blues. I grew up in rural Appalachia and the music there is grounded in "roots" music--basically, anything that has a history of strife, religion, or moonshine.
Could you describe the defining moment in your life where you finally decided to pick up a guitar and start learning how to play?
I would have to say, and this is totally unoriginal, the moment I really heard and understood Jimi Hendrix's "Red House". My Dad played me that track on vinyl one day after he left a woman. I want to say that that's the day I learned what it means to be alone, but it's not.
I must say that that's anything but a typical response. I want to cycle back to the music you were raised with. What are some of your most prominent influences growing up?
I was raised listening to musicians like: Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Hendrix, Cream, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson. I was a total MJ kid. The guitar solo in "Beat It" is amazing and I would rewind and listen and repeat all day. Also, I went through 3 cassettes and one LP of Thriller before age 8.
I was an MJ kid too. So it seems like the evolution was logical from there for you. When did you decide to go out and look for people to jam with?
After about 6 months of serious guitar playing I decided to start jamming with classmates. I was listening to a lot of Seattle music by then. I was trying my best to be a disaffected youth and I finally succeeded at being disaffected once an adult :)
Mission successful at least.
Yes, at least. I guess grunge is to blame for my dive into more aggressive music. I don't even like saying grunge.
Yeah, as I know it, it's kinda of a joke label for Seattle music or am I wrong in that?
You're right. Every generation has it's music, or scene, and that just happens to be mine. It was just raw, and ugly, and flannel. That was quite a relief from the lame hairbands.
I can imagine. Jamming with your friends, did that eventually go anywhere? Form a band with them and, if not, when did you join your first serious band?
No, my friends all became a standard variety of Appalachian people. I didn't really start jamming with like-minded people until I met Josh Adkins in the late 90s. He and I moved to Cleveland from West Virginia and that's where we really started playing in bands that were doing something.
How many bands did you and Josh go through before reaching Abdullah?
We were in a band called Apparatus in WV. We joined Erase the Grey in Cleveland. I Went to see Chevelle (not on my own accord) and Abdullah just happened to be on the bill. I lost my mind for that band. I bought their record and brought it home. Josh loved it as well. Jeff and I started emailing here and there. Jeff, Ed, Josh, and myself jammed and decided to start a project. A few years later we finally got that project together and did Iris. Abdullah lost their drummer and Josh started filling in. Then Abdullah decided to add another guitarist and that was me.
Must have been exciting joining a band you fell in love with on first sight. What was it like playing live for the first time? If not with Abdullah, when and where did it take place?
My first Abdullah show was at dive bar in downtown Cleveland. We played on the floor in the corner of this amazing hole in the wall. We had a great crowd and I played so hard it hurt. But my first live performance was backing my high school choir doing their best "Love Can Build A Bridge" by The Judds.
Which would you say is your favorite experience, playing live or recording an album in a studio?
That's a tough one. I would say recording an album. I had the pleasure of working in some great studios and with some amazing producers and engineers.
I'm sure you have some interesting stories tell about your experiences with recording in studios. Which would you say is one of your most memorable and fondest?
I would say working with and hearing all of Jeff Tomei's stories in Atlanta. Just look at some of his shit: http://homepage.mac.com/jefftomei/PhotoAlbum1.html
What playing style did you become fond of the most as time progressed and you started to get more experience in a band that you synced well with?
None, ha! I like it all. I think we should all strive to make and be involved with music from the heart. The style/genre means nothing. It's all about heart. I forget where I heard this quote, but here it goes: "Music should be less like the mall and more like a garage sale".
Agreed. Play like you mean it. I know playing with your Dad is one of your fondest memories, but what stirred that passion for music the most in you? Was it The Jimi track, seeing how passionate your Dad was, or just the ability to connect with music on a deeper level?
I would say all three. I saw it, I heard it, I lived it.
And after living it with Abdullah, what caused the band to dissolve?
The band just ran it's course, I guess. Jeff is Abdullah. He and Alan were team Abdullah from the start. I suppose being a responsible adult caused the band to dissolve. People had obligations. People had responsibilities. Abdullah never made a penny from the records. We only had money from merch to get from show to show.
Understood, so where did that leave you musically? Any personal projects that you undertook to fill the gap?
I've done some instrumental songs. The songs were all based on improvisational bedroom takes or on pieces I wrote while in transition and staying here and there. [You can read more about that project here.]
Do you have any other passions or hobbies to pass the time when you're not focusing on music?
Yes! I'm a practicing cynic :) I like to write, but really, I just talk about writing more than I write. Same with reading.
Sometimes that's just as good as doing the actual thing. When you actually do write, what kind of things do you produce? Short stories, poetry, novels, etc.
Usually short stories about writing poetry in a novella format. Sometimes I like to write screenplays. Writing a screenplay just seems more conducive for writing dialogue.
So you enjoy writing dialogue more than anything? What topics do you usually like to explore in your writings?
I would say that I like writing characters more than anything. I'm always looking out for weird people. I love it.
So you would rather explore different types of personalities in your writings than a central topic or theme? I like that. Ever try to get something of yours published and what do you use as inspiration to write about the characters in your stories?
I've never tried to get published. I think exploring personalities paves the way for dialogue. Most of the characters I write about are real life folks. I have met some amazingly individual individuals, ha!
I don't doubt that myself :) Are you currently in the process of doing any writing or joining another band?
I'm jamming with some people and hopefully it will turn into something substantial. Which is potentially good...cynicism in practice.
You have it down to an art. That sounds promising, at least you're doing music again which is good. Any final thoughts you would like to share with the readers of the zine or anything to share about your plans for the future?
I would like to leave your fine readers with one lasting impression. And, it is this: Jeff Shirilla.
I hope they check him out too. Thank you for finding time to do this with me, I really appreciate it.