You may remember Steve McCabe as your barista and former owner of Toucan Café in Oshkosh. You may have heard him beat some rawhides or make some noise playing a private version of This Old House. You may have heard his poetry, read his award-winning fiction and listened to him sing some thoughts. Maybe you were a student in his literature or creative writing class at UW-Oshkosh. Until having a beer with Steve, I only knew him as an intense keyboardist, talented multi-instrumentalist and creative storytelling musician. As it turns out, this isn’t how most people know him now, but our paths have only crossed on late-night occasions in my recent years in town. If I had known I was writing about an English professor and published writer, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered to put this together. But Steve’s music has always struck a chord inside me, long before I knew him.
One of my first live music experiences in Oshkosh was the short-lived Shebang Music Festival in 1996 where Steve’s band Cookie Bug was one of the headlining acts. Steve started writing music in 7th grade when he got the neighborhood kids together to jam. The neighborhood band didn’t pan out, but some of his later ventures did.
Steve has been playing in the Oshkosh music scene for years with an array of bands and local indie-rock all-stars, including Cookie Bug, Congratulations on your Decision to Become a Pilot, the Willis, and a dozen others – all between dropping out of college and a stint in entrepreneurship, then re-enrolling in college, earning a few degrees, teaching English, and entering fatherhood. He’s been reviewed by indie rock’s mainstream media machine, played on a late-night TV show and penned a few record deals. But, you know… above that garbage, Steve’s a pretty good dude.
When anyone needs a drummer and they don’t know anyone better, they ask me.
Steve began his music career as a drummer and has stepped in front of the kit as an abnormal front man. His modest leadership and writing capabilities have led him to build songs solo and with friends. It’s clearly not about the fame, the stage or the performance. Steve has an intrinsic drive that pushes him to keep writing, keep evolving and keep innovating as a musician. Like a true artist, his passion is in the creative process. I get the feeling Steve would be happy to create, record and produce music without having to play in shows. But in his wise old years, he feels the need to pay back his family for each musical investment. My guess is that onus comes from within, but even if his wife, Beth, pressures him to play shows – it’s for the benefit of the local and regional music scene.
After the Willis went on hiatus, Steve continued writing for a new album but the band couldn’t pull it together. He began Quebecois Wheelchair Assassins and then released those writings as a solo album under Attack Octopus in 2008.
Redshift Headlights is a slower, more grown-up musical shift for me.
In 2015, Steve kicked himself out of the band in order to replace himself with a series of other voices and started a new band, Redshift Headlights. He explained, “Redshift Headlights is a slower, more grown-up musical shift for me.”
This past year, Redshift Headlights recorded its debut album, Inside Voices, with Marc Golde of Rock Garden Studios. The new album began as another solo adventure, recorded and produced with Golde. Though Steve is a professional writer, his songwriting process is somewhat abstract. His recording process began with an idea of short stories from different perspectives and different voices, but the lyrics didn’t take shape until the end. Marc and Steve laid the groundwork for the album: layering drums, electric guitar, keyboards, marimba and more. Steve played 22 different parts on the album originally designed as a looping record.
I can write stories much faster than I can write lyrics, and then mine those stories for lyrics.
Each story comes from a different voice, yet each with a common narrative. Inside Voices is a collection of stories about isolationism, each from a different perspective and each based on a different flash-fiction story of America’s united history. The album’s 10 songs are an evolution of voices beginning in the present with a lost two-year-old and ending with a housewife on her deathbed during the Depression. With each song the voice grows older and steps back in time, collectively creating a deep conceptual album of individuals within their own respective, internal seclusion. The voice of each song reveals themselves in ways they normally wouldn’t, discussing their encounters with isolationism.
As the depth of the lyrics grew, so did the musicians. Steve opened the studio and invited friends to join the album. What began as a one-man album about isolationism, finished as a six-piece band. “Music has always been a friendship thing. I’ve been part of this music community for 25 years,” Steve said. “Making music is about being with my friends.”
Redshift Headlights is currently performing both solo and full-band shows that include veteran local indie rockers Dean Hoffman on guitar, Todd Farber on drums, Jay Spanbauer on guitar, Justin Mitchell on synthesizer and Fender Rhodes piano, and Paul VanAuken on vibraphone and trumpet. Redshift Headlights debuted the album this past summer with an orchestral ensemble at Rock Garden studios that featured 20 musicians in varying roles for a single performance.
The album will be officially released Saturday, March 4 and can be purchased at Eroding Winds or Exclusive Company, or online at iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and more. Also on Saturday, Steve has compiled a lineup of indie bands for a performance that is guaranteed to pack the Reptile Palace in downtown Oshkosh (and keep Beth and Clint working double time). You can get in for $5 and catch talented, local musicians doing their thing, including Nicholas the Transparent (Oshkosh), Jeff Mitchell (Milwaukee), Moss Folk (Milwaukee), Steve Trier Band (Oshkosh), Catastrophe (Oshkosh), self-evident (Minneapolis), Redhawks (Appleton), Redshift Headlights (Oshkosh), Dallas Orbiter (Minneapolis), Haunted Heads (Oshkosh), and Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot (Oshkosh). Saturday’s show starts at 3 p.m. and will run the course of the night. Find more info on the Redshift Headlights’ Facebook page. If you can’t make it to Oshkosh this Saturday, you can find Redshift Headlights at a series of other release shows throughout the next few months, including a Wisconsin Public Television recording and tour in late-March.
Text: Drew Mueske
Photos: Adam Loper