Stelth Ulvang (photo by Norah Hoover)
Although the name Stelth Ulvang probably isn’t familiar, his performance with celebrated Denver, Colorado-based folk rockers The Lumineers probably is. The band’s self-title debut album, released in mid-2012 peaked at number two on the Billboard charts in early 2013 and has been certified platinum in the U.S. As a result they were nominated for both Billboard Music Awards and Grammy Awards.
Ulvang released his first proper solo album, and as always the in infinite cosmos, on February 19 and has a pair of Southwest Ohio tour dates where he’ll road test his skillful, multi-layered rock tunes. You Indie caught up with him to discuss the LP, and the delicate balance between songwriting and showmanship, and communicating with life on other planets.
The new LP is your second solo record?
It is actually my first. I put out a couple little EPs here and there. I was in another band called Dovekins and put out records with them, but this will be the first record that are solely my songs.
Your solo material is pretty piano centric.
This album is about 50/50 piano songs versus guitar songs.
What is it about writing on those instruments that lends itself to the stories you are telling?
A lot of the music I was listening to before was piano-inspired. I like the formalness and grandeur of pianos in a lot of music going back to Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis or Leon Russell. The transfer of physical energy that is being moved into an instrument is powerful. The same can be said about a guitar. I’ve always liked that about the piano – that everything you are playing is something you can feel as you are doing it.
There is also a 16-piece orchestra on half of the record, which felt fitting to the music as it was written in an older Quincy Jones kind of way. I’ve always liked those big, powerful Hollywood strings that supplement pop songs, although my songs aren’t as pop as they could be and the strings aren’t filling up the Hollywood Bowl…it was my small attempt while recording in a little studio in Portland.
Did you write the compositions for the orchestra?
I didn’t. I wrote the songs in New Zealand in 2012, and contacted a friend of mine who I’d met while I was living in Hawaii. I really wanted him to collaborate with me and he’d been going to school for composition. So I gave him a few of my ideas and he pulled the compositions together and wrote them for an orchestra that I could afford.
You were happy with those arrangements?
I loved a lot of it. It was interesting handing over that creative power. It is also interesting not having his name centered on the record seeing that he added so much to it. I am excited to play with him more and to support him as much as possible.
In your live shows you are communicating in an aggressive, almost Jerry Lee Lewis like kind of way. How important is it to be a showman as well as a songwriter?
I think it is pretty valuable. There are two-sides of the spectrum, maybe more. And ideally we’d like to be in the middle of the two, although I know a lot of musicians that just want to be songwriters. Touring makes them sick. I love travelling and I love touring. I love being on stage way more than I like being in the studio.
I value stage space as well. And movement. From an audience perspective, I like looking at a stage that doesn’t just sit two-dimensional on a grid or axis. There is movement upwards and forwards and into the crowd and behind the crowd. I love explosive movement within a band.
Can you recall a time when you were on stage and really noticed that connection that comes with showmanship, between performer and audience?
I grew up doing theater. There is the idea of breaking the fourth wall between the audience and the crowd. In theater, you don’t often do that, but as musicians we do when we engage or talk to the crowd. I think it is really incredible when musicians push that even further.
Two things stick out to me, the first is that made for TV, theater version of Peter Pan where they had her on the cables flying around. I’m also reminded of Imagine Dragons who do a very similar thing with cables. They can afford that kind of thing, where as a solo artist I can’t, but they are able to fly the singer over the crowd with a giant drum. It is jaw-dropping to see. That’s the kind of stuff that happens with Tommy Lee and Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. But that is a defining thing for them as entertainers and provides some incredibly entertaining moments.
Ideally, we’d all like to find that balance; where we can give someone that experience, but also have lyricism and songs and music that comes from the heart.
Is storytelling a part of your show?
Yes. I’m not yet as good at it as I’d like to be yet. I spend a lot of time in bands were I don’t speak. So in my shows it is up to me to do that. I don’t want to have a shtick that’s not me, but I would like to have an honest flow of the thoughts that I’m thinking on stage. Sometimes you see a band and just want them to shut up and play. Maybe I can figure out that balance on this tour. I have 30-some shows coming up to practice. By the time I’m in Dayton, perhaps my banter will be on lock.
Will you be touring with a band?
I will. There will be four of us. Drums, bass, guitar and piano. The music will be a little different than the record. I think we have found some pretty good balances though on how to recreate those tunes.
You mentioned that you recorded the album in Portland. When did you record that and who is releasing the album?
I recorded the album on breaks with the Lumineers; bits and pieces on breaks between tours. It was almost two years of back and forth in the studio. When it became time to finish the record, I hadn’t spent any time at all publicizing it or sending it around. I was more focused on documenting the songs. Some I’m thinking of this as a little booster album that I can tour on while I try to find someone to help me about out another record that may be more representative of what I’m doing now as a four piece.
Can you identify a single song on the record that is your favorite, and if so, what is that song about?
Yeah, it has come to be “Carl Sagan.” It isn’t directly about Carl Sagan in the traditional sense. There is a really inspiring story about him and a woman that was working with him on the Voyager project. They sent a gold record into space with the Voyager and if it was ever discovered by intelligent life, there were instructions to but the record on a turntable that is also in the spacecraft. It is crazy that any funding went towards this, but it was the ‘70s so it was kind of a hippie idea that came to fruition.
Anyway, he worked with this lady Andrea throughout the bulk of the project picking the songs out and deciding what messages would be on this golden record for all alien life to hear. One of the last moments before they finished it, when it was just barely incomplete, he asks her to marry him and she is so elated that she says she wants to go to the lab right now. In the lab they hook up nodes to her temples and record the electromagnetic activity in her brain at that moment of excitement and feeling love. They put that on the record as well.
It is crazy, but it is a very cool idea. The song was written with the inspiration of that kind of collaboration in love and that kind of tension between two people dancing around this project and the release as the beauty is finally laid down and recorded.
Do you believe in love and/or alien life?
I’ve never heard those things spoke so closely together. Yes, I believe. The likelihood of aliens existing is so high considering how many other celestial bodies are out there. So yes, I believe that there are. And because I believe in that infinite amount of possibilities, I believe that love is among the things humans can come up with as well. If love is one of the planets out in the universe, I believe that it is spreading like wildfire. It is just one of those things that inhabits everybody.
I think about it more scientifically sometimes as well, but that is way too unromantic and disheartening…
Are there romantic moments on your record where you are sending a message to someone you are in love with?
I was writing these songs while I was in New Zealand and it was truly lonely. I was in love with somebody back in the states at the time. Similar to the gold record, I wasn’t sure if these messages were ever going to reach that person or to mean the same thing to them. But you still want to try. I recorded these songs much later after that relationship had come and passed. But it is a snapshot of that moment in time. It was sincere. It encompasses the same woman on a lot of the songs. She’s heard them and they’ve reached her. But it’s hard to tell. Like communicating with aliens, you never know what language the listener is going to speak.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson suggests that it is almost a waste of time trying to communicate with extraterrestrial life when we can’t communicate with 99.9 percent of the life on our planet. The idea is that there is a planet just like ours a million years ago and the spacecraft lands there, none of those creatures will understand what has landed there. The chances of finding a planet with a similar level of intelligent life is pretty slim. If you think about communication like that, it is really hard to catch someone on the perfect peak while confessing your feelings for them and communicating it in the way you intend. It already gets muddled up when you start using words, and it is even more muddled up when you use metaphors and song.
Maybe she missed the intent of them…
You are actually playing two shows in the area. Was there someone that encouraged you to visit Southwestern, Ohio?
I have a friend who has played violin with me that played at Taffy’s and swore by it. There is something really valuable about playing in communities where people are encouraged to come out to any music. Often littler towns get overlooked. That is inspiring.
Additionally, Ricky Terrell from Starving In the Belly of the Whale wrote me and said he’d help me set up a show in Dayton, which I didn’t originally have in mind. It was all the convincing I needed.
( For more information, visit www.stelthulvang.com.)