Column 271: Comfort Zone
The return of Criteria.
Criteria frontman Stephen Pedersen has a problem that most of us would die for: He’s completely content.
His search for contentment began in 2005 when Pedersen quit a posh job as a lawyer at Omaha’s most prestigious law firm — Kutak Rock — to hit the road with his band Criteria under the proud banner of Saddle Creek Records. But, as the story goes, things didn’t quite work out as planned. And Pedersen returned from the road, put his guitar away, pulled the business suit out of the closet and returned to his leather chair and desk and daily lawyer grind with full knowledge that at least he tried to make it as a rock star. How many of us can say we took an honest stab at following our dreams?
Now, almost four years later Pedersen has no regrets. In fact, he couldn’t be happier. And as any artist or musician can tell you, that can be problem when it comes time to draw from your creative well for new material. What is there to sing about when you’ve got everything? It’s a problem, especially when you’ve got a reunion show coming up — this Saturday to be exact, with pals Ladyfinger at The Waiting Room.
“There are new songs, and we’ll play some of them on Saturday,” Pedersen said from the comfort of his elegant midtown living room, a glass of dark red wine in hand, picking his words judiciously, thoughtfully, as any good lawyer would. “My context has always been based on some kind of frustration or latent aggravation in my life, whether it was politics or a relationship or my career getting in the way of my dream. Now I’m content, and it’s been harder to come up with lyrical content from that emotional place.”
He casts aside the idea that he simply is no longer inspired. “I’m inspired by my group of friends, my wife, things that are hard to articulate. It’s a context that doesn’t lend itself to this. You can only write so many thank you letters in song.”
And despite some precedent-setting tunes such as Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55,” and Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” there isn’t much to sing about when it comes to the legal profession. “My job is intellectually stimulating, but it doesn’t lend itself to songwriting,” Pedersen said.
So what’s left to sing about? “Right now, it’s about trying to be happy in the moment,” Pedersen said. “So much of my adult life is spent looking at the future at the next task to accomplish that I have a very difficult time being in the present.”
Maybe he’s not so content after all. And as much as he loves being around his bandmates — drummer Mike Sweeney, bassist A.J. Mogis and guitarist Aaron Druery — Pedersen said he hasn’t exactly pined for the stage. “This is the bizarre thing about being a musician at this stage of my life, I don’t miss it like I would have if I was 25. I have a very full life outside of rock music, but I’m looking forward to the show now that it’s booked, practiced and ready to play.”
He’ll probably only roll out three new songs Saturday in a set that will lean heavily on classics from his two Saddle Creek releases, En Garde (2003) and When We Break (2005). Pedersen said that those old songs have held up over time. “I still see it as modern rock,” he said. “The bands that journalists write about and friends talk about are not rock bands, certainly not in the style of Ladyfinger or Criteria, which play heavy but with a sense of melody based on a verse-chorus-bridge structure. Vampire Weekend is a rock band, but there’s not a lot of distortion in those guitars. There are no bands like Quicksand and Superchunk and Fugazi and Cursive (before the turn of the century) that were making very visceral, full-bodied rock music.”
He says all of this, however, while Thelonious Monk plays in the background from hidden speakers. Something tells me that Pedersen doesn’t listen to much rock music these days, and he never liked going to rock shows. “I treat rock music like sports — I’m not interested in watching it, I’m interested in playing it.”
And he certainly isn’t interested in taking another shot at making a living off of it. Pedersen agreed that the Internet has changed the rules so dramatically that it’s no longer possible to judge a band’s success based on record sales. On the flipside, technology has never made music more accessible. “I believe the positives outweigh what are pretty harsh negatives in that a really talented kid can make an album on his own on his computer and put it onto the Internet, and if it’s great, it’ll find its way into your life. That could not happen seven years ago.
“We are in such a transitional phase between the old system and what will be a new ecosystem rather than a system,” he added. “It’s going to float a lot more boats, but in some respects, it’s more challenging for artists to distinguish themselves from the pack.”
He also wouldn’t want to start a record label now, or be running one. “It’s a difficult business model with which to generate income,” Pedersen said. “The new business model is being the band. As the band, if you have your wits about you, you can manage the distribution and the booking and the recording in a way you couldn’t 10 years ago. Part of that began with Fugazi, but the advent of technology from a recording and distribution standpoint has made it so much easier to untether yourself from labels. If you’re savvy enough, you can find success without leaning on that old model.”
Whether that logic applies to Criteria, however, we’ll likely never know.
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Thursday: The Lepers