Steel Cranes is an unstoppable power force that is tearing their way across the country – and into the hearts of others – in support of their latest album, Tango. And we can’t blame their fanbase for being so enthralled by their music. Tracy Shapiro’s vocals are absolutely stunning, and the instrumentals provided by both her and Amanda Schukle cut through you like a knife.
Take their latest music video for “Ebb”, for example. It’s beautifully shot, has an infinitely captivating subject matter, and shows the strength and power of human creation.
In honor of their video release, we got to chat with the ladies. Their inspiration, sense of humor, and the humbleness with which they live their lives is palpable. Without further ado, Steel Cranes.
If you could introduce yourself to our audience in any way – like a grand entrance – how would you do so?
AMANDA: I’ve never quite thought about making a grand entrance, but the first thing that comes to mind is that I would love to make a winding film with Tango as the soundtrack. Though the music world has become increasingly single-driven, I’m still a big fan of albums, and I think film is such a captivating way to tie a group of songs to each other. We have loved being able to make several music videos, but I think it would be really fun to make something more epic that is, at times, super abstract, at other times, direct and piercing, but also hilarious.
TRACY: I’m envisioning a series of mic drops… Hello my name is Tracy. Mic drop. Pick up mic. And this is Amanda. Mic drop. Pick up mic. And we are… Pause. Steel Cranes. Mic drop. Lights off. Lights on. Pick up mic. Then maybe ask the audience if anyone has anything to say? I often prefer listening to talking.
Do you remember the first album/song you heard and who introduced it to you?
AMANDA: Ha! My very first memory of music is “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow. I have no idea how old I was, but my parents had a record player when I was a kid and I remember just absolutely rocking out dancing around the living room to that song over and over and over.
TRACY: I remember being obsessed with The Who’s Tommy as a pretty young kid, but the broadway version. I knew every word to every song and played the album on repeat constantly. I definitely had no idea that I was running around joyously spouting out lyrics about molestation.
What is the origin story of Steel Cranes?
AMANDA: We both moved to Oakland in the fall of 2011. I lived near Jack London Square and Tracy worked at a restaurant in the neighborhood. In January 2012, I wandered over with a friend for a late-night snack and a beer one night. We sat at the bar and Tracy was so friendly that my friend thought she was flirting with me and started trying to play wingman. We got to talking and discovered we were both musicians and she’d been looking for a drummer. Within a week, we were practicing in my apartment. We played our first show about three months later.
TRACY: I’m from Wisconsin. They make us different out there, don’t ya know. It was quite a fruitful miscommunication.
How would you describe your sound? (Be as specific as you possibly can.)
AMANDA: I would say that we aspire to make pop songs with interesting rock arrangements. We treat the songs as individuals and try to do what’s best for them in terms of instrumentation. The result is that some songs are quite restrained and other songs will absolutely bash you over the head. Genre-wise, I’d put us somewhere in the post-punkish category, with elements of classic rock, riot grrl, and grunge. Sometimes (usually after playing a particularly loud show where the vocals aren’t as audible as we’d like them to be) people ask us if we consider ourselves a metal band. Yeah, there’s a little bit of metal in there too. I’ve always said Steel Cranes is the sound of Tracy and Amanda colliding, which sort of leaves things open. As we change, our music will change too. And that makes me really excited to keep going.
TRACY: I leave all the music lingo to Amanda. If I were to try to describe our music it would be a nonsensical stream of colors, grunts, and hand gesticulations.
“Ebb”. What inspired the song?
TRACY: “Ebb” came out of a pretty bleak stretch of time. There was some intense darkness in there, but it was mostly a whole lot of feeling nothing with these occasional swells of a really deep aching sadness. It was unlike anything I had moved through before and it lasted almost a year. Every interaction became commodified because I had so little energy, and to engage, even in ways that had traditionally been enjoyable, took up that precious energy. I ended up retreating from most everything I could retreat from. One of the repeating lines in the song is “I have changed. I have so little to say.” That was a constant feeling. I had very little of my personality at my disposal and felt thoroughly quieted.
As for the video, it’s gorgeous. What was the creative process on that?
TRACY: Thank you so much. We were really lucky to work with two amazingly talented women. Adrienne Calo directed and edited the video and Vanessa Carr was the cinematographer. The two of them bring a mountain of experience on both the technical and creative sides of visually telling a story. From the start we knew we wanted the video to be beautiful and texturally oriented. The song is solemn and sparse and we sought the visual representation of that. During the period of time from which the song was born, I often had the sensation of being pounded down into the earth. Being in nature has always been very healing for me but this was somewhat different, it felt like I was being pounded out of myself and overtaken by the elements, cocooned in a way. Adrienne, I learned, is a master at listening to me babble about what I think and how I feel for a while and turning that into a tangible idea with a game plan. She initially brought in the idea of using branches and we expounded from there. Vanessa was instrumental in the evolution of the vision. She shoots beautiful footage and has a deep understanding of lighting and lines and gear and storytelling. It was a pure joy to work on this with the two of them.
Any fun stories from the recording process of Tango?
TRACY: We recorded the drum tracks and primary guitar tracks during an eight day hermitage in Big Sur, on the California coast. Then we spent the next nine months or so fleshing out the arrangements. On our first album, we kept things simple. But on Tango, Amanda plays everything except cello — drums, bass, keys, and additional guitar parts. I thoroughly enjoyed a couple weeks where I donned the hat of Guitar Fluffer. I had never worked as a Guitar Fluffer before and I found myself to be quite proficient in the position. Amanda is an incredible guitarist. She’s got skills galore and makes really interesting, unpredictable choices. I heard a lot of guitar parts on the album, specifically Amanda-style guitar parts. She initially didn’t. So my technique was to pick up the guitar and start playing around with different ideas. It usually took about three minutes for Amanda to get frustrated with my attempts and grab the guitar out of my hand. More often than not, she’d bust out something wild and wonderful from there.
What’s your favorite part about performing live?
TRACY: It’s an Alice in Wonderland-esque shortcut for human connection. When I started playing guitar and writing, I remember wishing I could just go on stage and face away from the audience and sing my songs and then go home. I wanted to share my music but I had no reverence for performance. I couldn’t feel more the opposite now. I’ve grown into a place where walking on stage to perform is often the most free I ever feel. I sometimes work backwards from that place to help teach myself how to feel more alive in my day to day life, where, amidst all the hubbub, it’s not out of the ordinary to find myself thinking some version of, “I’d really love to just turn around and face this wall for a short while and then go home.”
AMANDA: I love that people often seem surprised by us. We are relatively quiet and polite people, but our show is loud and our music is not what people expect to hear when they see or meet us beforehand. Also, I get to hit things really hard.
Who is your favorite superhero and why?
AMANDA: David Bowie. He’s been my hero and biggest influence for ages, but… Blackstar …I don’t even have words to describe how I feel about this album. And I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve listened to it. Until David Bowie died, I had never cried about the death of someone I didn’t know. I’m sure there are millions of people who can say exactly the same thing. That’s how impactful his life was.
TRACY: Wow, I have no idea. Is there a superhero that transcends lower back pain?
What’s up next for Steel Cranes?
TRACY: Definitely more writing and recording. We’d love to be in a position where we could tour with additional musicians. The fact that we are not currently doing that is largely a financial consideration. We’ve got a bunch of notes and ideas about the weird, funny, frustrating, incredible, and banal encounters and experiences that we have while walking this particular path, and have long talked about turning that into a short comedic web series. I’ve recently gotten curious about trying to write a pilot script for a TV show based on our experiences. As far as the immediate future, we’ve got nearly six weeks left on our current tour. Leading up to the release of Tango, we were tethered to our computers dealing with all of the behind the scenes business elements of what we do so right now we are simply excited to be playing music again.
Upcoming Tour Dates
08/16 Medford, OR @ Bamboo Room at King Wah’s
08/17 Eugene, OR @ The Boreal
08/18 Portland, OR @ World Famous Kenton Club
08/19 Seattle, WA @ Blue Moon Tavern
08/20 Olympia, WA @ McCoy’s Tavern
08/21 Tacoma, WA @ Real Art Tacoma
08/24 Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
08/26 Denver, CO @ Lion’s Lair
08/27 Omaha, NE @ Barley Street Tavern
08/28 Lincoln, NE @ Vega
08/29 Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mews
08/30 Iowa City, IA @ Gabe’s
08/31 Minneapolis, MN @ Amsterdam Bar
09/02 La Crosse, WI @ Root Note
09/03 Madison, WI @ BOS Meadery
09/06 Milwaukee, WI @ Linneman’s
09/07 Chicago, IL @ Township
09/08 Bloomington, IN @ The Back Door
09/09 Evansville, IN @ PG
09/10 St. Louis, MO @ Schlafly’s Tap Room
09/11 Columbia, MO @ Cafe Berlin
09/12 Lawrence, KS @ Jackpot Saloon
09/14 Wichita, KS @ Kirby’s Beer Store
09/15 Norman, OK @ Red Brick Bar
09/16 Albuquerque, NM @ Burt’s Tiki Lounge
09/17 Santa Fe, NM @ Boxcar