How the People of New Zealand Inspired Stelth Ulvang's New Album
Stelth Ulvang during a 2012 New Zealand tour, where he wrote the material on his new album.
The dumbest thing Stelth Ulvang ever did for his career as a musician was to quit the Lumineers in late 2011. In his defense, that was before “Ho Hey” started picking up a national audience, before the self-titled debut came out on Dualtone Records and went on to sell 1.3 million copies in the United States alone.
Ulvang had been playing bass with the band on tour, but he was also in the Dovekins — a Denver-based group of some renown itself — and he told the Lumineers he was going to stick with that instead of committing full-time.
So the Lumineers found a new bassist. The Dovekins didn’t have any pressing commitments, and Ulvang agreed to travel with songwriter Shenandoah Davis on a tour to New Zealand. While he was there, he got what he describes as “a pretty big, serious e-mail” from fellow Dovekin Griff Snyder. The band was breaking up.
“I felt pretty stupid,” says Ulvang. But he was in New Zealand, which he says is the most beautiful place he’s ever been. He was amazed at the landscape and the people, and he wrote a handful of songs. He played one or two each night to warm receptions before Davis’s sets.
And he stayed in touch with the Lumineers. “I was probably prodding,” he says. Guitarist and lead vocalist Wesley Schultz told Ulvang they were looking for a pianist. So when the New Zealand tour ended, Ulvang flew straight to Austin to play with the Lumineers, and that’s basically what he’s been doing ever since. “I feel pretty damn devoted to that band,” he says. “I’ve never not fought so much with a band in all my life. They’re so grounded.”
He’d shelved the songs he’d written in New Zealand, but between records and tours with the Lumineers, he recently had time to pick them back up. He recorded them in Portland at a studio called Destination Universe, and he’ll release them as the debut full-length of a self-titled project this weekend at the Bluebird.
Ulvang’s always been a restless artist. He’s already working on another album with Snyder, and he’s working with an old friend named Richie Greene to write a ballet for a New York-based group. And at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Lumineers will be back, and Ulvang will resume the never-ending tour.
The album release show is at the Bluebird Theater this Thursday, February 19, with Land Lines and Miss America by Wheary. We caught Ulvang in a rare moment in between it all to talk about tour vans and his love for water.
Kiernan Maletsky: How did New Zealand inspire the album?
Stelth Ulvang: I named it as always, the infinite cosmos, which is cheesy, but I was getting really into Carl Sagan at the time. New Zealand is a lot more...celestial. It feels like a different planet down there.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen glowworms. But if you don’t know any better and you’re walking through the woods, you can look at a dense forest wall, and it looks like suddenly you can now see through the trees and you can see constellations. It’s pretty magical.
What were the people you met there like?
There’s a song on the record called “Delicate Waxing Light.” We met this family, this power couple that was so creative. I’d never been able to see people be able to work that well together.
The suicide rate is really high in New Zealand, I’ve heard. People feel really stuck. But then, I think, the opposite of that is these couples, making partnerships and collaborations.
What was the space you were trying to explore with the music? Do you feel like you reached any conclusions, or was it just you describing what you saw?
My favorite song on the record, “Carl Sagan,” I wrote at this couple’s farmhouse. There’s a beautiful story about [Sagan] meeting his second wife, Ann Druyan. They were creating this gold record to send into space.
And as they’re working on this record, picking all these songs, he asks her to marry him. He calls her up on the phone and says, “I couldn’t wait any longer, I want to marry you.” And she says, “Yes! Yes! Meet me down at the lab!”
So they hook up these diodes to her brain, and basically she’s just thinking about and harnessing the intense love she was feeling for Carl Sagan at this point. They have all this brain activity, these clicks. And they put it on the record, in case that is the only thing that these extraterrestrial beings would be able to understand.
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But it’s so cool that they said, “Let’s record the feeling of me being totally in love with you.”
What was the connection between that and the couple you stayed with?
It seemed really similar to me – basically, that they were still popping and fizzing from this love and had said, “Let’s raise these horses.” That’s kind of what people do with kids: Let’s create this thing because we’re so into each other. But it doesn’t have to be kids. “Let’s create this barnhouse.” “Let’s brew beer.” “Let’s create these gardens.” Or “Let’s put music on a record.”
And I was really striving to do that with this music, I suppose. To embrace my love of being down there.
I’m trying to think of a way to quantify your touring experience. How many vans have you been on tour in?
Let’s see. Three for Dovekins, two for Lumineers. I have done maybe two solo — the Shenandoah Davis one, the Spirits of the Red City one. Probably a dozen.
I recount my life in these epochs of when I was dating certain people. But I think as a musician I could do that by tour vans. Almost every van — I think if you looked at it anthropologically, I bet you could pinpoint the type of music that almost any band plays.
What’s the thing that breaks down the most in vans, in your experience?
Always the transmission. All the vans seem to have automatic transmissions, and that sucks.
How many transmissions have you had to replace on tour?
There’s a point where, if the transmission goes, it could cost more than a new car. My last tour van, the transmission blew, and we were able to crawl it in second gear to a resting spot. My bandmate, Abe Abraham, has been living in it for the past year, year and a half, where it broke down. I’ve probably gone through four transmissions.
Describe the van you have for the upcoming tour with the Stelth Ulvang project.
I got a Sprinter, which is cool. It was a work vehicle. It’s got a Mercedes engine, and I got a hell of a deal on it.
Where’d you get it?
This van was from a couple. The guy was all inspired by traveling, and he was with his wife, and then suddenly they had kids and didn’t have time to travel. And his wife said, “You have to get rid of that. It’s just sitting in the driveway.”
They sold it to me for cheap: One hundred thousand miles on a diesel, and those things reach the million-mile club. So that’s pretty cool. I’m building it out, building some beds in the back and storage space. And the very important lock box that everyone I know seems to forget to do, but when they do, it’s the saving grace of their instruments on tour.
Are there any other touring lessons you’ve learned at this point?
We try to have a rule about swimming every day. Trying to find a body of water to swim in is sometimes taxing and unreasonable, but it’s a fun goal for each day, to find a river and jump in it.
I don’t know. I’m in love with the water. I really love how accessible swimming spots are in Colorado. For being a landlocked state, it’s way easier to swim here than a good amount of places. There are so many rivers.
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