Invisible Lines makes an apropos title for the solo debut from JM Stevens. The Austin-based songwriter who fueled Moonlight Towers through 15 years, four albums and thousands of miles criss-crossing the country on shoestring tours has a knack for tapping the intangible elements of pop songcraft that elevate the enduring from the ephemeral. When he’s not playing solo or recording artists at his studio EAR, you might find him playing guitar with Craig Finn on the Hold Steady frontman’s European tour, or filling in for his brother, Blind Melon guitarist Rogers Stevens, on some dates in South America.
The universal theme of longing provides a cohesive thread to Invisible Lines. Opener “Runaway Stare” summons upbeat resilience in the face of soul-crushing forces that “leave you nothing but dreams of a new life.” Steel guitarist Marty Muse from Robert Earl Keen’s touring band adds to the doleful indecision of “Further I Run,” while “Maybe I Love You” basks in the warmth of Springsteen-style horns arranged by saxophonist Russell Haight. The record was recorded quickly, so as to capture a “live” energy, and features bassist Andrew Duplantis (Son Volt, Bob Mould, Meat Puppets) and drummer George Duron (Roky Erickson, Jon Dee Graham, Dumptruck).
What Stevens leaves out of his songs is almost as important as what he puts in. There’s no instrumental derring-do or insular lyricism. He’s wise enough to know not to let musical ego get in the way of a good hook. Stevens would rather have you humming along and connecting with the songs on your own emotional terms.
“Where the complexity comes in is the texture you put on them and the feeling as opposed to the inner-workings and gears,” he says. “I want to create more of an overall picture in a song.”
Like many Eighties-era youth living in smaller towns, Stevens discovered life beyond MTV and commercial radio through skateboarding and a Thrasher magazine subscription. His musical lexicon went further afield bit by bit, first to gateway bands like the Cure, Violent Femmes and Metallica, then to SoCal punk titans like Black Flag, Descendents and the Dead Kennedys. “We had a tight-knit group of friends who felt like it was our own thing,” he recalls.
For Stevens, Moonlight Towers’ inactivity coincided with other seismic life changes. He went through a divorce and began unpacking the post-traumatic stress of his adolescence. Memories of his parents’ divorce and the train collision flooded back. “That stuff goes somewhere in you,” Stevens says.
The nine songs on Invisible Lines are a byproduct of this period. With Moonlight Towers stilled, Stevens bought a new acoustic guitar and started playing solo around town. He’d take the Tuesday night slots no one else wanted or go play for nervous fliers at the airport. The idea was simply to get the songs out there and see how they worked in front of an audience.
“Now I hear it and I think it’s got a different energy to it. It feels connected. Almost the entire album was recorded live—even the vocals. The lyrics feel connected to the band in a different way than if you overdub them. It just sounds more real to me. I’m proud of that. It fluctuates. It moves and grooves.”
Glide is thrilled to premiere “Runaway Stare” a spot on rocker combining late 70’s Petty and Seger wood paneling tavern tones and a courageous Drive-by Truckers anthemic mission.
“I was thinking back on shitty jobs I’ve had in the past and landed on a run of bakery gigs I had for a spell,” says Stevens. “Not sure how that happened as I’m a horrible cook. One that jumped out was at this cinnamon roll joint you’ve probably heard of. I had to be there at 5 every morning to make a giant vat of icing. Only thing that got me there that early was the thought of indulging in the product as I was usually hungover. I thought I was doing a good job but this one manager had it out for me for some reason and I could just feel that I was gonna get fired soon, and sure enough that eventually happened. So I’d say this song is about feeling undervalued in a situation and dreaming and scheming of ways to get out of it in order to hang onto some dignity. Easier said than done sometimes as being fired didn’t help in that department.”
“This was the first song we tracked for the album and it was recorded kind of early in the morning as we had a marathon tracking day on tap.” adds Stevens. “The intro guitar chunks were really just me goofing off keeping time but I ended up keeping it. Initial tracking was a trio of drums, bass, my guitar and singing. Later we added keys, some acoustic guitars, a second electric guitar and harmony vocals. By the time I had mixed the album my perspective was shot, but a trusted source told me they dug the spirit of the song and thought it would made a good opener, so to me that was as good a reason as any. Plus I was having a hard time making it fit anywhere else. Problem solved.
Top photo by Aaron Rimby and bottom photo by Sean Lane