THE STEPKIDS' self-titled debut is a masterstroke of silky soul that sounds like it tumbled out of an alternate future passed. You'd have to melt down your favorite records—from Philly's classic era, Motown's orchestral-pop peak, Funkadelic's maggot-strut, and Sly and the Family Stone's hothouse-commune shakedown—all into one hot, sticky heap of vinyl to match the diversity and weirdness found on The Stepkids. And this platter of funka-psychedeli-soul was made by... three guys from Connecticut?
It's true. Dan Edinberg and Jeff Gitelman met as teenagers playing a jazz gig in the Nutmeg State. "We met at this Mexican place in New Haven," says Edinberg, "and the first thing we ever said to each other was, 'Hey, how's it going, one-two, onetwothreefour!' And basically Jeff just counted off the fastest bebop I had ever played."
They remained friends over the years, with Gitelman going on to play guitar for Alicia Keys and Edinberg touring with the band Zox. Gitelman kept telling Edinberg about this drummer he'd met, another Connecticuter named Tim Walsh, who was skilled in the studio and could sing and play a bunch of different instruments. The idea was that "the three of us could really do a lot of damage," says Edinberg. "Jeff was a little wary of doing something that was heavily R&B- and soul-inflected, because he'd overdosed on that, and I was wary of doing something that was too rock or indie or punk, because I'd overdosed on that. It was cool, we were able to meet in the middle." In 2008, the three got together, envisioning the collaboration as a recording project first and foremost. They recorded a tentative first album, but scrapped the whole thing after coming up with a track called "Brain Ninja."
"Jeff found his old four-track cassette recorder in his parents' closet, and he brought that into the studio," says Edinberg. "He was really influenced by people like Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore who were doing more 'lo-fi' recordings—and how having a sound like that will actually affect what you write in the first place. We experimented and recorded some stuff on that, and then hearing it back, it sounds like it's from some forgotten era, wholly because we tracked onto this little piece-of-junk thing that just splotches the sound. But it just somehow sounded warm and really cool. If we played what would normally be a quote-unquote standard soul groove into that, it just sounded much more excellent coming out of the tape than it did even in the room."
The recording project quickly evolved into a band, with all three members singing; Stones Throw Records added the Stepkids to their roster of hiphop artists, a connection that makes sense when you hear how sample-ready the grooves are: They're thick, syrupy, and cosmic, gilded with baroque ornaments and deep-space echo, mirroring the most inventive pop productions of the analog era. The Stepkids have since put together a striking, visual live show and are deep into recording their second album, which Edinberg suggests will show a more varied approach and an even greater range.
"It really just brings back all of the influences that we really hold near and dear to our lives," says Edinberg of the band. "We were all primarily jazz musicians—and R&B, funk, soul, gospel—and we've all branched off and done various things. So it's nice to get it back but still make it our own, and still make it sound the level of raw that we want it to."