Listening to Catching Fireflies and Other East Coast Memories, the new solo album by Reno guitarist Eric Stangeland, is a bit like flipping through a painter’s sketchbook. The music has an unpolished, unfinished quality—it’s like an artist drawing with pencil instead of painting oils on canvas. The songs are sonic miniatures—all instrumental, nothing but Stangeland’s guitar. There are overdubs—usually two or three different tracks, and sometimes as many as five or six, but all of the sounds on the album come from his guitar.
He wrote, performed, recorded, mixed and mastered the album himself, and it has the hushed, intimate appeal of good homemade music. The unfinished quality is a strength. There’s a lot of open space and silence in the songs, and listeners can imagine other instruments filling in those spaces or pick out imaginary vocal lines to complement Stangeland’s melodic playing. Leaving room for listeners to bring something to the album gives the music a poetic quality. Like with a verse that doesn’t quite tell the whole story, the reader has to fill in some of the gaps.
Stangeland has been a fixture in the Reno music scene for decades. He moved here from his native New Jersey in 1992. With just $300, a suitcase and a guitar, he came to Reno to attend college. He didn’t know anyone. But over the years, he’s played in a variety of bands from stoner metal groups like Dirt Communion to cover bands on the casino circuit.
Many of the songs on Catching Fireflies were born from Stangeland’s gigs performing solo—with just an acoustic guitar and looper pedal—at Wild River Grille, a downtown restaurant that often features live local music. Stangeland had been performing there with a vocalist, playing covers of Beatles songs and other popular tunes. One day, when the singer was sick, Stangeland performed solo and discovered he enjoyed the freedom of trying out original tunes on an audience that was only half paying attention while enjoying their meals.
Another big influence on Stangeland’s album is his career as a guitar teacher.
“In ’94, I started teaching,” he said. “And that’s really important. My passion became teaching.”
He taught for 20 years at Maytan Music Center—a flagship Reno store that closed down a few years ago.
“That’s where I got my start, and I’m forever grateful to that store for that,” he said. “That was a great place. There were so many great musicians that came through there. There were so many great things that store did that people don’t even realize.”
Nowadays, he teaches over 40 students every week out of a private office.
“When I started teaching, I learned theory better. And theory helps with this record—knowing what I can use,” he said. “I always tell students … you can use as little or as much theory as you want to. It’s really up to you—so don’t shy away from it. … Understand how to phrase more and better, and go for less-is-more. That definitely comes from students. I always tell students, don’t play so much, let it breathe more, don’t be afraid for there to be silence.”
Though Stangeland is clearly a skilled guitarist, the album never sounds like he’s showing off. There’s no virtuosic showboating, but the decisions are made carefully and tastefully. He ordered a run of 100 CDs, and Wild River Grille hosted his album release show a few weeks ago.
The CDs sold out in four days.