by Kristin & Vince Cosentino
Musician Steve Carter has been a staple of the Fresno music scene for decades. He has performed both as a solo artist and in a number of bands over the years, including TX and the Ones, The Neptunes, and The House Rockers. He played all over Arizona with the band Cadillac Angels and even toured Europe with MoFo Party Band. His latest musical venture is The Trailer Park Tornadoes and he also hosts an open mic night every Friday at The Coffee Lounge in Fresno.
Steve was born in San Francisco, but he considers himself a Fresno native and has lived here all his life. “I despise her ‘cause she’s filthy, but I love her ‘cause she’s home,” he said recently, laughing. He started playing music when he was thirteen; his parents bought him an old Kay guitar which he learned to play on his own. Later, Steve’s mother won $300 in a church raffle and bought him a Fender Stratocaster. Then, he says, “That guitar was stolen from me right before I got drafted [to the army], so it was a tsunami of bad luck, that guitar missing and my draft notice at the same time.”
When he got back from his two years in Vietnam, he started playing open mic nights at the Olympic Tavern and that’s where he met local musicians, David Spencer and Pieter Moerdyk. “I played as a solo artist, Thunder Fingers,” he says. “I played solo, but I never got to be on stage with the bands I really enjoyed until I started playing bass guitar.”
Steve then joined Terril Cross in TX and the Ones. He made friends with drummer, John Shafer, who told singer-songwriter Glen Delpit about him and Steve then played bass for four years with The House Rockers to packed houses. Then followed his stints with Cadillac Angels and MoFo Party Band and at that point, he says, “I kind of put all my songwriting and guitar playing aside.” But Steve was dissatisfied with his role as a hired gun. “I don’t feel as good playing bass for a huge audience as I do playing guitar by myself in my living room,” he says. “I’m more of a guitar player.”
As a songwriter, Steve is always seeking that catchy phrase, finding inspiration in movies and in the world around him. He says, “I’m trying to write working man songs. I love working class tunes like [those of] Johnny Cash.” With The Trailer Park Tornadoes, he continues, “I’m the songwriter and the guitar player and singer, so I’m the lead guy, and I like it that way. I’m comfortable with that now.”
Steve’s tastes in music were shaped at an early age. He says, “…when I was a kid watching old Gene Autry westerns, [Autry] sang ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky.’ They had the cows running in the clouds and boy, it just blew my mind when I heard that.”
When he was a teenager in the ‘60s he got into rockabilly, mostly because of the cool kids at school, the Greasers, with their DA (duck’s ass) haircuts and cuffed blue jeans. He says, “I wasn’t a poor kid in the sense that I was worried about where the next meal was coming from, but I really related to those guys. They just looked cool…”
Much later, Steve became interested in playing instrumental surf music. “What really got me into playing surf music was Pulp Fiction, and listening to the spooky quality of those old ‘60s songs…those guys were like sixteen years old, and they were just putting their heart into that music.” It was around that time that Steve joined The Dirt Surfers with friends Vince Cosentino, Ted Cromwell and Todd Draper, and later he started his own surf band, The Neptunes with Tom Walzem and Eric DeGroot.
After his departure from The Neptunes, Steve focused more on his songwriting. He released a solo album called Mucho Romantico with longtime friend John Shafer, and featuring Grammy-award winning drummer Scott Abels on one track. After the release of Mucho Romantico, Steve reunited with former bandmate, Vince Cosentino–now playing bass–to form the band Shaken Stephen and The C(h)oral Dukes. They performed many of the songs from Mucho Romantico live and later released a CD of their own, featuring more of Steve’s original material.
Even though Steve is such a prolific songwriter, does he ever play cover songs? “I prefer singing my original songs above anything, but I try to choose cover songs that I would like to have written. There’s so much stuff out there and there are so many good songwriters, that I don’t see anything wrong with playing cover material, really.”
So what does it take to be a working musician? Most club owners want cover songs, but musicians like Steve prefer to play their own material. What then? “I won’t claim that the song is written by Johnny Cash,” he says, “I just won’t announce that it’s an original.” In his song, “$100 a Show,” from his latest CD Something for Everyone, he sings, “Someone says ‘play Freebird’ as I step to the stage. Man, I’m hopin’ it’s just a joke. But they don’t want my songs if they can’t sing along through the smell of stale beer and smoke.”
Steve Carter’s current project is the band, The Trailer Park Tornadoes, consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Joey Lupino (of Glen Delpit and The Subterraneans) on drums, and his brother-in-law, Stan Lum, on upright and electric bass. Steve also writes original material for the band, though they also play cover songs.
Alhough The Tornadoes formed several years ago, they performed live for the first time about two months ago at Frank’s Place, after being invited by Steve Ono and they have played several times at Sequoia Brewing Company. Steve would like to play even more, saying, “There’s a lot of clubs right now to play at, more than there has been in years, and I think we go over really well…it’s like the kind of music that’s in the back of their head.”
Steve has an interesting take on what makes the Tornadoes’ sound unique: “I’m old…and I was alive when I first heard these sounds…it’s guitar, it’s rock ‘n’ roll…and the young people can relate to rock ‘n’ roll…I mean, little kids listen to it and get really excited and when that happens, I know that I’m doing my job.”
Being a musician, like any profession, has its ups and downs. The best part of being in a band, at least for Steve, is “the shared thrill of being onstage with other people. You get up there and it’s like you’re standing up there naked…but when you start getting used to it, it’s just a thrill, it’s a body buzz that you can’t come down from after a gig.” The biggest challenge for Steve is reining in his constant desire to buy new musical equipment. “I have this addiction,” he admits, “to the chemical that’s secreted when I buy a musical instrument. That’s my drug addiction. It gets in the way of writing and being creative.”
All in all, Steve feels blessed that he’s been able to be in the music industry for so long. He says, “I’m grateful that I can be a musician because it’s something that I do that makes me feel that I’m a part of a larger picture of creativity.” He’s always had to work regular day jobs to support his musical ambitions, but he has made a certain peace with that. “I can’t think of a duller job than being a security guard,” he says. “It’s the pits…and yet I can still stand in the gutter and look up at the sky. I can still see the stars because I’ve got something that sets me apart and makes me feel good about myself, and that’s why I do it.”
Find Steve on Facebook, hear his music on Rhapsody or iTunes, or download Something for Everyone on cdbaby.