May 11th, 2023
Now that we had a name and had performed an original song, it was time to record an EP (a short album which is typically 2-5 songs in length).
By this time, personal computers were becoming more common in homes; we got our first PC when I was in high school. I had a microphone, but we needed software.
Enter my friend, Kenny: his dad worked at the local radio station, so he burned me two CDs (look it up) with software that would radically change my life: Cool Edit Pro, to edit and produce audio, and FruityLoops, a drum programmer.
I used those two programs to produce every Next Step record.
Speaking of production: most of what you hear in a Next Step song was made by me, with notable exceptions. On Tangled Cords (if I remember correctly), Andy did play the bass on half of the four-song EP, specifically on Awake and Why. I played, programmed, and sang the rest.
How did Tangled Cords become the name? Why, it’s from a good page in Next Step lore. We had been playing in my attic one night and somebody pointed out that all our cords were tangled together, and maybe we should straighten them out.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “We’re in love.”
I set the release date for July 13th, 2003, which, not coincidentally, was the day of my high school graduation party; I had a captive audience and I knew it (and many of them would even leave me money).
We burned a bunch of copies (again, look it up) for distribution, created the iconic cover (seen above) using the CD software; we were also rascals, staging a risqué photoshoot and shooting a promotional poster au naturel. It was the photo where we imagined what the back of the poster looked like that became mildly scandalous (or, at the very least, memorable, as Next Step scholars such as Bil Hoff just can’t seem to scrub the image out of their minds).
Then we put on a barnburner of a show that day, with Andy on bass and Kenny on drums.
The best review came from my Grandma Vogen (may she rest in peace), who found me after the set to confirm with me that music was not the plan for my future after graduation. (Girl was mean but she was right, though.)
We did play several more shows over the summer, mostly on the Central Park stage, which many of you know holds a special place in my heart (and is the heart of my graphic novel series, Brushfire). Some of our cover songs included Swing Swing by The All-American Rejects, Hate To Say I Told You So by The Hives, Get Free by The Vines, and I created a mash-up of Justin Timberlake’s Like I Love You, set to the bassline of The White Stripe’s Seven Nation Army.
In the fall, I recorded another three-song EP, called No Fear Of Failure, which I released on November 30th, 2003.
Did I name it that because I was actually so bold, so unafraid of failing? Heck no!
That title is absolute fucking bravado. I was more scared of failure at the ages of 18-22 than any time in my life before or since. My entire existence coasted on my ability to “fake it”, and sometimes excellently; I woke up constantly afraid of being found out for the phony I am. (I still sometimes feel that way, tbh.)
The album itself is weird, probably the weirdest thing I ever made. I got experimental, I had fun, and I did not like how it turned out.
While I was recording it, though, I got a message that would light me up.
Through a music site where he heard our music, an engineer named Andre reached out to me and asked if I would like to book time at his studio to record. The studio? Pachyderm.
If you’ve never heard of this magical place hidden within Cannon Falls, you’ve certainly heard of some of the artists who have recorded there. Nirvana made their record In Utero in that studio. PJ Harvey, Trampled by Turtles, Live, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Hippo Campus, Babes in Toyland, Motion City Soundtrack, They Might Be Giants, Alkaline Trio, Mudvayne, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades… are just a few of the acts who have made music there.
And The Next Step?
Sure, why not? We signed a contract and recorded over two days (December 1st and 2nd, 2003) in the legendary space (and stayed overnight one time in the incredible and incredibly haunted mansion on the beautiful but isolated property).
I didn’t really have new material, so we re-recorded Tangled Cords, with two versions of Awake and a new song, Gold. Gold was inspired by the idea that I could write a song using just one note, one chord. I actually still love that tune.
There was no way I could foot the bill alone (and I was about to move out), so one of my best friends (and future roommate) Brian split the cost and brought some music of his own to record.
How to describe this time? I was barely a musician, I was barely a person, and I was getting a taste of what this life could be. It was bittersweet, and it was two days I’ll never forget.
Going through this old material, I found something I should probably mention: I tried putting on something called the Faribault Music Awards on December 31st, 2003, which was, easily, one of the most embarrassing missteps of my early career.
I really loved MTV’s VMAs, and award shows in general, so I thought it would be neat to think of some categories, have people listen and vote at the event, get all the local bands together and play a show.
When I say nobody showed up, I mean that near-literally; I think two or three people came by to say hi, but I don’t think we played a song, and the Elks felt so bad about it they didn’t even take my deposit. The legend of the first and final FMA’s (and FML).
At the end of 2003, I moved out of Faribault and up to Burnsville. This effectively ended the EP era of The Next Step, and I don’t think any of the original members would ever play in the band again.
I had done a lot in a year. But it was time to do something more.