Reviews

When We Break

Author: Tim McMahan
05/18/2005 | The Reader | www.thereader.com | Feature
Stephen Pedersen is trading one dream job for another.

Most people would be more than happy with how he's been living for the past few years, as an attorney at one of the country's top law firms, Kutak Rock. The position wasn't just handed to him; he earned it by putting up with Professor Kingsfield-type instructors for three years at the storied Duke University School of Law, while at the same time burying himself deep in tuition debt. With a 99 percent placement rate before graduation, Duke students earn a lifetime of payback shining in a courtroom spotlight. Pedersen would have been no exception.

But when Saddle Creek Records came a-callin', the choice to give up a life of business suits and attorney-client lunches was easy.

"The decision to leave Kutak Rock for Saddle Creek had already been made in my mind," Pedersen said. "My parents knew, my girlfriend knew that if Saddle Creek put out my record I would leave the firm."

In many ways, Pedersen has been working toward a music career substantially longer than his soon-to-be aborted law career. He says being on the label has been in the back of his mind years before Saddle Creek Records became a powerhouse indie-rock label. All the way back to his Creighton Prep days as a member of a little cover band called The March Hares with high school buddies Tim Kasher and Matt Maginn. The band would evolve into Slowdown Virginia, which would become Cursive, which would be his step-off band before Pedersen headed to Duke in 1998.

Even while studying at Chapel Hill, Pedersen couldn't get the rock out of his blood, forming The White Octave (Ironically, former White Octave members Finn Cohen and Robert Biggers are members of The Nein, the band opening for Criteria Saturday night). Friends and Kutak Rock called him back to Omaha in November 2001, where Pedersen landed a job as a commercial litigator.

Criteria came next. Pedersen recorded the band's first album before it was even a band, playing almost all the instruments on the soaring 2003 debut, En Garde, released on tiny Initial Records. Soon after, drummer Mike Sweeney (Bright Eyes, Beep, Beep), bassist A.J. Mogis (We'd Rather Be Flying, Lullaby for the Working Class), and guitarist Aaron Druery (Lincoln's Ghost Runners) joined Pedersen, and the band quickly made a name for itself playing small tours when Pedersen could get away from the office using his vacation days. Despite very little touring, En Garde moved 5,000 copies for Initial. Their biggest seller, it wasn't nearly enough to keep the label afloat and they closed their doors in the fall of 2004. To absolve debt with Pedersen, Initial gave back the rights to En Garde as well as The White Octave's last record, Menergy.

That left Criteria without a label, but by then a number of major labels had turned an eye to the band. Among them, RCA, who had flown Critera to New York for an audition-style gig. Pedersen's terms, however, were daunting -- the label would have to pay off his Duke law school debt. "RCA said 'no way,'" Pedersen said. "If I were RCA, I would have said no way, too. There were three majors interested in us, and I talked to two of them pretty extensively. At the end of the day, it wasn't worth it. I was happy with my lawyer/rocker existence."

By December 2004, Criteria had finished the follow-up to En Garde, recording most of the tracks in Pedersen's home-basement studio. Called When We Break, the 11-song LP is more tuneful, more confident that the debut, featuring the same raw, floating, angular, waltzy energy that Criteria has become known for.

"I gave Saddle Creek a copy before anyone else," Pedersen said. "(Label employee) Matt Maginn was my champion. He got the music to everyone and explained the situation with Initial and what the band was willing to do to get signed. I said if Saddle Creek puts it out, I'll support it." That meant extensive touring, and, of course, leaving Kutak Rock and a burgeoning law career.

The label took a sneaky approach to breaking the good news. Maginn told Pedersen he had set up a meeting to discuss how to present the deal to label managers Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel. "We headed down to Mr. Toads, and were met by all these other Creek employees. They said they loved the record and wanted to put it out. I asked if it was some kind of sick joke."

It wasn't. For many watching from the sidelines, signing Criteria was a no-brainer for Saddle Creek. Not so, Pedersen said. In addition to his career issues, Criteria isn't your run-of-the-mill Saddle Creek act. "We're not a songwriters' band," he said. "I don't have the lyrical abilities of Tim Kasher or Conor Oberst or a lot of the songwriters on the label. We're here to rock. We want to entertain you with our anthems. By no means do you have to study the lyrics."

Pedersen said telling his family and girlfriend about his career decision was merely passing on great news. But telling Kutak Rock, well, that was another thing altogether. In fact, Pedersen wasn't sure he could even talk about it for this story. Sure, his boss and his team at the firm knew all about the deal, but the rest of the Kutak Rock staff was still in the dark. There was concern about how others in the firm would view working with an attorney who was leaving in the late summer to pursue a rock and roll dream. The day after our interview, Pedersen touched base with his Kutak Rock family, and they gave him the nod about announcing the departure.

"Through it all, they've been nothing but supportive," he said.

Pedersen hopes to work at Kutak Rock right up to the tour. Plans call for touring the UK in July, followed by a couple weeks of touring in the states. That will be followed by a full European tour in August, then back to the states in time for CMJ in September, which will be followed by a full North American tour through December. When We Break is slated for release Aug. 23 and will be followed by the rerelease of En Garde on Saddle Creek a month later.
When We Break

When We Break

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