Stolen Sheep strike a balance between rock ’n’ roll and ambient music
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Like a lot of young men inspired to take up guitar in the early 1990s, George Middlebrooks got his start penning “stupid angry teenage songs” and indulging the growing infection of rock ’n’ roll.
Unlike most of those same young men, Middlebrooks has found a later-in-life treatment for that bug, and when it doesn’t involve rocking out on local stages as the three-man band Stolen Sheep, it has a lot to do with experimental soundscapes produced in a local coffee shop.
On the surface, it appears to be a bunch of guys with guitars plugged into bizarre-looking gadgets, creating music that sounds nothing like traditional guitar and often bearing little resemblance to traditional music. Known as ambient — or in the parlance of those East Tennesseans who have embraced the craft, “ampient” — it’s about evoking and sustaining a mood through exotic sounds conjured from an otherwise mundane instrument.
Ambient music may not be for everyone, but it’s made him a better rock ’n’ roller, Middlebrooks told The Daily Times this week.
“The ambient stuff is something that all of us who play have, kind of on the side, played around with as musical exercise — loop-based stuff and ambient noise and anything that goes along with that,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always down since I first got an EBow and a delay pedal but I’d never really shared. As it turns out, a lot of my friends were doing the same thing. During the first Big Ears Festival (in 2009), Todd Steed had an idea of playing a little bit between shows down at Old City Java.
“And then we just kind of made a habit out of it. We talked to the people at Java about doing regular shows there, and they’ve been gracious enough to let us do that for almost two years now. Just the act of playing like that, it’s a lot more contemplative and there’s a lot more value in the slowness of it. I’ve really forced to listen and feed back off of the person I’m playing with, and it’s really taught me to get into the heads of the guys I’m playing with, even more than just a band.”
And since the art of creation is the whole goal of any musical project, finding new ways to do that has opened doors for Stolen Sheep that might not have been cracked otherwise without the help of guys like Steed and John T. Baker, a local indie-pop guitar maestro who plays drums for Stolen Sheep.
“I guess about 1998 or ’99, I met Todd Steed, and we became friends quickly,” Middlebrooks said. “He knew I was getting into graphic design, so I guess to kind of toss me a bone, he asked me to design the Opposable Thumbs (Steed’s band at the time) album cover for ‘Chicks Ahoy!’ That was my first design job, and I’ve done all of his artwork since then. And sort of through him, music-wise and also design work, I’ve met a lot of other people.”
He met Baker at a mountain bike race; the two are avid cyclists, and they struck up a conversation about music. He was familiar with Baker’s work with local band The French Broads, and Middlebrooks sent Baker some of his bedroom demos. A couple of weeks later, Baker called up Middlebrooks and invited him to play guitar in a new project, Econopop.
“I’d gotten discouraged and put down the guitar for six months, so that was a wake-up call for me,” he said. “I think it was the fact that I didn’t have enough confidence in my own stuff to put it out there. I wasn’t playing with anybody, and I didn’t have the confidence to ask anybody to play with me, so it was just a matter of working through that.
“Songwriting is an exercise. You’ve got to work at it to keep it going and keep it fresh, but on the other side of the coin, you have to realize it can’t always happen. I hadn’t written anything in about a year and was really bummed about that, but now it’s OK if I go for a while without writing. And when John called, that really encouraged me to get back into my own stuff.”
Stolen Sheep isn’t a band that’s been around for years, but from the sounds of what Middlebrooks and his two bandmates — Baker on drums and Jesse Wagner on bass — there’s a great deal of promise. The fascinating thing about Stolen Sheep is the diversity. On the one hand, there’s the straightforward rock of songs like “Moving Slowly,” a stomper that sounds like something that would emerge from a collaboration of Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam with Crazy Horse, and “Nod + Lean,” a bittersweet rocker that starts off acoustic and jangly and builds into a sonic swirl of Foo Fighters and Sebadoh.
And then there are songs like “Simple Machines” with its Radiohead experimentalism, or the purely ambient sounds of “Re[dis]covery Loops,” a series of solo improvisations using only guitar and a selection of real-time delay/looping effects.
“Stolen Sheep started out as me recording on my own,” he said. “I had a bunch of stuff to release and didn’t want to go to the expense of making CDs or make too big a deal about it, but I wanted to give it a name other than just me just in case in the future people ended up wanting to play with me. I guess it was four or five years ago when I put the name on it, and just last year, something kind of snapped, and I thought, ‘There’s no reason I shouldn’t be playing this stuff out and playing with people.’”
He enlisted Baker to play drums and Wagner on bass, appropriate choices that put everyone on equal footing as far as experience goes. And ever since, even more doors have opened — during the aforementioned Big Ears ambient sessions, guitarist Adrian Belew, one of Middlebrooks’ guitar idols, sat in on the set he played. And for one of Stolen Sheep’s first shows, the band opened for the Tim Lee 3 and Mitch Easter, a college rock icon from the band Let’s Active and a collaborator with R.E.M. — whose guitarist, Peter Buck, is also one of Middlebrooks’ heroes.
“Jesse hadn’t touched a bass in three years, and John hadn’t ever played drums in a band, and I hadn’t played these songs in front of people, ever,” he said. “We were all coming into it fresh, which is nice because I’m not some sort of creative monster dictating how the songs should be. I like to step back and let them put their voice on things and let it all happen.”