It's 2 o'clock in Omaha, Neb., and Ted Stevens has a lot of packing to do. Gear needs to be gathered, clothes need to be tucked away and friends need to be called or seen. This is the last day Stevens will spend at home in Omaha for a month, but he's not anxious about the preparations that need to happen over the next 16 hours.
"Oh, man, I've got to start packing right after this. Well, there's another interview, then packing," Stevens thinks aloud, as if for the first time. He learned that interviews in the early afternoon were taking one for the team when he was in Cursive. "It definitely was an expense that was hard to do sometimes then, but it's sorta exciting now with Mayday. I've never done a bunch of interviews for this band."
But if there's any justice in the indie music world, Stevens will be doing a slew of interviews from here on out behind Bushido Karaoke, his third disc with Mayday and second with Omaha label Saddle Creek. The album runs a twisted country lilt, packing twinges of bluegrass, rhythm 'n' blues, Drag City mope and South America into one sharp, something-like-country sweep. It's the best record Stevens--a veteran of Cursive and Lullaby for the Working Class--has ever made. Like Willie Nelson, he's able to reach outside of the country box without sounding precocious, and--like Neil Young and "Mr. Soul"-- Stevens can tell a story painted in open-ended impressions.
"I'm very inspired by the literary arts and poetry and such, and if the Mayday songs can be considered experimental at all, then that is the factor in the development of that," he reckons.
But he's not discounting the role Neil Young played, especially since Bushido Karaoke is a twisted, ironic concept record that, at turns, attempts to glorify the world's social pariahs.
"Tonight's the Night is all about this roadie and making this guy a hero. I like listening to those records, ones with a flow," he says before launching into the first verse of the Young album on his way to explaining the similarly romanticized bartender of his own "Standing in Line at the Gates of Hell." "I wanted to make a hero out of that guy, a strong figure that was a very sweet, understanding person that consorted with the lowlifes because of his life choices."
Karaoke marks the band's return to Saddle Creek and to the studio. Mayday's previous album, I Know Your Troubles Been Long--released on Bar None in 2002, and largely autobiographical and written in solitude--was recorded at home.
"The last one was consciously 'Let's make an album on an 8-track for as cheap as possible,'" Stevens remembers. "I don't want to say I regret releasing it, but, if I had a second chance to go back and rework some of it, I would."
But Karaoke is a tight collection in pristine hi-fi, running full of vivid ideas, lyrical and instrumental. And if the well-arranged quality of this album isn't convincing of Mayday's upped ante, maybe their banjo-and-mandolin cover of INXS's "Old World, New World" is.
"Yeah, it's such a coincidence that the album came out two weeks before that whole INXS show started, ya' know. Some friends in Omaha think maybe I should have tried out for it."
Maybe, for now, he should just start packing.
Mayday opens for the magnificent Neva Dinova--whose Jake Bellows sings on Bushido Karaoke--on Monday, July 25 at Local 506.