Duke Chevalier’s eclectic embrace
With his new project, Sam Eliot Stern finds creative freedom
A weird, profound thing happened when Sam Eliot Stern briefly moved from Sacramento to Seattle a couple of years ago.
A band asked Stern to play guitar for a while and, eventually, to help produce its next record. Stern found himself relishing in complete freedom and unbridled creativity—something that was lost on his last solo album, Monte Sereno. Without his name attached, his vanity and precociousness no longer got in the way.
“With Monte Sereno, I was really into making a Fleetwood Mac record—like really well-produced, beautiful; what I thought a classic record sounded like,” he says. “And now, that just seems so stupid.”
When Stern got back to Sacramento in 2014, he launched a new project, Duke Chevalier. Even though it’s still just Stern—for the most part—he’s found that the dissociation in name helps him challenge his songwriting, his production and even his own concept of what sounds good. He pushed himself to feel self-conscious, deconstruct his taste and embrace humor in everything.
The result is the five-song EP Ace of Swords, which drops Saturday, April 16. Stern calls it a murky nighttime record, “like stoned driving through the Delta.” Heap on a slew of influences—soul, glam, Afro-Caribbean and West African folk music, Tropicalismo—and throw in some horns, synthesizer and normally cheesy effect pedals. Wrap it all up into one cohesive package and tie it with a bow of poetic, imagery-heavy lyricism.
“I’ve been very conscious of not fetishizing any genre, and getting into this sort of futuristic, fusion, eclectic melange of stuff—almost in this post-apocalyptic, Blade Runner kind of way,” Stern says.
Yeah, what he said.
The release show takes place on Saturday, April 30, at the Panama Pottery warehouse. Some guest musicians will round out the sound and ramp up the fun.
And even though Duke Chevalier is more or less a solo project, Ace of Swords features a slew of Sacramento musicians, including Buddy Lamorey (keys, synth), Zack Kampf (drums) and Christopher Fairman (percussion, vocals). Robert Cheek (Band of Horses, Life in 24 Frames) engineered while Scott McShane (Sister Crayon, Exquisite Corps) mixed and mastered.
Writing and recording took about two years. For Stern, it was a process akin to recipe tinkering, solving a puzzle or sculpting.
“You make this big block and chip away at it, then stand there and look at it for a while, then do more things,” Stern says. “It took me a long time to like the songs.”
The album name comes from the tarot card. Not that Stern is super into tarot cards—he thinks they look cool. Anyway, the Ace of Swords card basically means absolute success or failure, which symbolizes Stern’s current outlook on his music career.
“Sometimes I’m like, ’Why the fuck am I still doing music?’ I see friends my own age having kids and doing very different things with their lives,” he says. “Am I wasting my life pursuing the things that I love? I was getting sick of being on the fence and not really going hard with music, being very safe.
“This record is like, everything I do from here on out, no fucks. Full swole. No holding back.”