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Watch Steve Poltz discuss his stroke, newfound affinity for the Grateful Dead and more with Jarrett Bellini on ‘Apparently This Matters.’
The San Francisco five-piece is throwing their own festival for the first time.
About Steve Poltz
He trick-or-treated at Liberace’s house, planned a two-day stay in Amsterdam that ended a month later with him escaping the city under the cover of darkness, and was Bob Hope’s favorite altar boy. Alone, these anecdotes go well with a fistful of peanuts at a cocktail party. But on top of these add that this person also co-wrote the longest-running song on the Billboard Top 100, had a debut solo album that earned three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and was awarded the title of “San Diego’s Most Influential Artist of the Decade” at the San Diego Music Awards. What you end up with is one of the most engaging, twisted, and prolific songwriters of our time – Steve Poltz.
“Paying dues” is certainly not a foreign concept to most successful musicians, but Steve seems to have single handedly redefined what that phrase means. Born among the hearty, seafaring folk of Halifax, Nova Scotia, his parents up and moved him to Palm Springs, where he was raised. After a rather liberal approach to the liberal arts at the University of San Diego, Poltz began his colorful musical career selling pipe nipples. Let us forego the fact that pipe nipples exist, let alone the fact that an entire industry seems to be devoted to their commerce. No, we need to confront how it is that a pipe nipple guy from Palm Springs ended up flying around the world in a private jet, playing songs like “SkyfuckinglineofToronto” to stadiums full of rabid, screaming fans.
OK, here’s the thing- like the question of what Richard Nixon ever saw in Pat, there are no easy answers. What we do know is that at some point, Steve decided to bid the pipe nipple industry sweet adieu, and became a full time musician. He started out playing bars and coffee houses around San Diego, eventually forming the college radio favorite band, The Rugburns. The Rugburns are well-known and appreciated by DJs all over the country, due in no small part to the fact that the anthemic “Dick’s Automotive” was long enough to afford them the opportunity to relieve themselves and then some during their shows. The Rugburns blended punk, pop, folk, and if you listen close enough, you might just hear the slightest hint of a whisper of the possibility of Swedish Christian Death Metal. They were so freaking good that they found themselves in a crappy old van 300+ days a year, playing packed and sold out clubs and bars all over the country. The weird thing is that with a catalogue of literally hundreds of songs and three albums behind them, they developed a fan base that put the “U” in cult-like. Steve would write a song onstage in one city, and two nights and two time zones later, there would be people screaming for that very song at another show.
So there he is, more prolific than two rabbits on E, traveling the country playing songs about truckers feeding strychnine-laced granola to deer, and he starts writing songs like “Lockjaw,” an achingly sweet and sincere love song. What do you do with that? What happens when you’re in this wildly popular band, rocking your mojo coast to coast, and you find yourself coming out with gorgeous heartbreaking acoustic tapestries? You go with it.
Hey- here’s a good time to mention that Steve Poltz is the guy who stumbled upon Jewel. Yes, Jewel Kilcher. By “stumbled upon” we’re saying that he beckoned this plucky Alaskan waitress in a San Diego coffee house- “hey, come up on stage with me and sing a song.” A few months later, there are limos pulling up in front of said coffee house, ferrying in record company moguls who have come to hear the babe in swaddling tube tops. Around that time, Poltz thought it a capital idea if he and Jewel absconded to the Yucatan peninsula for a bit of creative R&R, as they say. Whilst on a beach in Mexico, the two of them sat over a guitar and wrote “You Were Meant For Me,” which, as referenced earlier, ambled its way on to becoming the longest running song on the Billboard Top 100.
It is entirely appropriate to ask oneself at this point how it is that someone who wrote the catchy, goofy, infectious “YWMFM” could also write a song like “I Killed Walter Matthau.” The creative contrasts run deep, wide, and sometimes they call each other in the middle of the night, and Steve wakes up with a beautiful piece like “10 Chances” (on his new album; we’ll get to that soon).
YWMFM took Poltz farther than any pipe nipple ever could. He soon found himself touring the world with Jewel, pulling double duty as her opening act, and then playing as a member of her band. Ever hear of a folk musician play a stadium show solo, armed only with his acoustic guitar? Indeed, the list is short. But he pulled it off, and ended up with a fervent, near-maniacal fan base stretching all over the world. Want proof? Check out his web site (http://www.poltz.com), where you’ll not only read the pained applications of American fans, clamoring for the next tour and the next album, but Australians, French, English, and Irish people posting for information on when they can get their next fix.
This all landed Poltz a deal with Mercury Records, for whom he recorded his first solo effort, “One Left Shoe.” Rolling Stone gave it high marks for its clever lyrics and contagious melodies, and the single “Silver Lining,” saw considerable airplay. Songs like “Kicking Distance From Your Heart,” and “I Thought I Saw You Last Night” showcase the depth of his songwriting talent, and particularly his knack for layering lyrics of vivid images between his inimitable acoustic melodies. He then found himself trapped in his obligation with Mercury, where they found themselves utterly incapable of finding their own direction, let alone nurturing the talent of the man who won San Diego’s “Most Influential Artist of the Decade.”
So in typical Steve Poltz fashion, he recorded an album on his own. But of course, not any measure of a normal album. He followed up his major label debut with “Answering Machine,” which is an album of 56 songs (plus several hidden tracks to afford the proverbial buck a bit more bang), all of which were outgoing messages on his answering machine while he was out on the road. So each song is 45 seconds long, with titles like “Sugar Boogers,” “Ken Follett Stole My Wallet,” and “Dog Doo Blues #48.” It was later reported to him that Neil Young was quite an enthusiastic fan of “Answering Machine.” Poltz did meet Young sometime thereafter at a wedding reception, but rather than engage Neil in a musical discussion, he chose to approach the legend thusly, when they met at the buffet table: “[w]ow, these quesadillas are great. The tortillas taste real homemadey.” Young allegedly arched a confused and alarmed eyebrow and beat a hasty retreat.