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Criteria : A Sort of a Homecoming

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: June 11, 2003

Double CD Release show
Criteria and Statistics
w/ Tilly and the Wall
Saturday, June 14
Sokol Underground

13th and Martha


Who says you can't go home again?

Certainly not Stephen Pedersen. The Omaha native's new band, Criteria, is a reentry into a music scene that he helped create a decade ago, but walked away from just before it blew up nationally. En garde, Pedersen's tuneful, passionate new CD, weaves together musical influences that span his life from Omaha to Durham, North Carolina.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. From the quaint dining room of his mid-town Omaha home, Pedersen patiently walked me through his origins while at the same time laying out an early chapter in the history of Saddle Creek Records.

He was 16 when he joined his first band, a little cover outfit called The March Hares that included current-day-Cursive members Tim Kasher and Matt Maginn. He'd known the two from Creighton Prep ("They were both Pius kids, I went to St. Roberts"). Sorry About Dresden's Matt Oberst was the original Hare that Pedersen replaced. The band covered favorites by The Pixies, David Bowie, R.E.M. and The Cure before it began working originals into their set.

The March Hares lasted for about three or four years, Pedersen said, and then became Slowdown Virginia. "The distinction between the two bands was that we had removed the singer and Tim started singing his own songs. The line-up was me, Matt, Tim and Casey Caniglia on drums."



Though they never toured ("We made it as far as Council Bluffs"), Slowdown Virginia garnered a small but loyal following from '93 to '95, and was the first band Pedersen had been in that released a CD, on fledgling Lumberjack Records, which would eventually become Saddle Creek.

This is where the origin gets kind of confusing. While Slowdown was happening, Pedersen was also in another band called Smashmouth (no, not that Smashmouth) with bassist Bart Volkmer and drummer Clint Schnase. It was a trio that had grown out of a four-piece called Gravy Train that had originally included Ted Stevens, who had left the band when he moved to Lincoln to attend UNL (and form Pole Cat). Smashmouth was the first band to feature Pedersen's songwriting skills.

In 1995, Slowdown Virginia and Smashmouth disbanded and became Cursive, featuring Kasher, Maginn, Pedersen and Schnase. "A lot of Slowdown fans became Cursive fans," Pedersen said. "We started touring and spending more time making music. All of us were in college."

This is where the story takes a critical twist. After receiving his poli-sci degree, Pedersen decided to attend law school at Duke University. So in 1998, he packed up his things and left behind his friends, family and the girl he had planned to marry to start a new life in Durham, North Carolina.

Depressed by the notion that he had left everything he loved behind, Pedersen said he wrote an album's worth of songs within a week. "I don't buy the 'You have to be miserable to create art' theory," he said. "I'm known as someone who's annoyingly positive. As depressing as it was, it was also sort of an exciting time."

It only took a couple months before he had formed The White Octave, culling musicians from contacts from his friends in Chapel Hill band Sorry About Dresden. They played their first show at "the Dresden House" on Halloween 1998 and through the course of its three-year history released two records and toured extensively, staying together six months after Pedersen earned his Law degree, but eventually breaking up having "run its course creatively."

Without a band and with a huge school loan debt impending, Pedersen high-tailed it back to Omaha in November 2001 to find a job and be with his friends. He lived in Matt Maginn's basement for six months, eventually landing a job as a commercial litigator with the firm Kutak Rock. He also started writing songs again after a 9-month draught.

"The White Octave was painfully collaborative to the point of becoming destructive. This was part of healing from that -- making songs that were shamelessly sing-songy."




"I don't feel left out. Sometimes I do, but I made decisions to leave and separate myself from it."



Those new songs eventually became En garde. Recorded in his ProTools-powered home studio, Pedersen plays almost every note on the CD, with some drumming assistance by Mike Sweeney (ex-Bright Eyes touring band), and keyboards by Ian McElroy of Desaparecidos.

En garde is a perfect hybrid of hummable pop-rock and angular post-punk. It seamlessly melds the more approachable moments from Cursive with the White Octave's unforgiving precision without ever losing sight of the melody. Kasher's influence on Pedersen's songwriting is unmistakable. At times, even the vocals sound hauntingly like Kasher (or even Conor Oberst). The biggest difference, however, is Pedersen's unfailing dedication to the pop esthetic. Unlike Cursive albums that force listeners to endure some painfully dissonant, distorted patches amidst the angular punk, En Garde mines the tastiest part of every riff and pounds it home again and again.

Pedersen acknowledges the Cursive overtones. "I learned to write from Tim Kasher," he said. "He's my model for song writing -- he's amazing.

"This record is really a reaction to my time in North Carolina and being in the White Octave," he explained. "The White Octave was an angular, atonal band with little concern for the songs themselves. It was all about delivery and rhythm. I wanted to get back to basic songwriting. This project is the most selfish act I've ever committed in my life. It's the closest I've come to painting. The White Octave was painfully collaborative to the point of becoming destructive. This was part of healing from that -- making songs that were shamelessly sing-songy."

Pedersen said he never intended to play the music live, but after finishing the record knew that he had to form a band. Criteria consists of drummer Mike Sweeney, bassist AJ Mogis (We'd Rather Be Flying, Lullaby for the Working Class), and guitarist Aaron Druery (Lincoln's Ghost Runners).

"I wanted to work with people who really liked the songs and were willing to do my dirty work," Pedersen said, adding that the lineup is no mere backing band, but a permanent ensemble. "I want to write songs with this band."

With all the Saddle Creek connections, it may seem surprising that En garde wasn't released on Saddle Creek Records. Pedersen said the thought hadn't crossed his mind. "I don't think Saddle Creek had an interest," he said. "They're my friends, but I never had any expectations that they'd assist me. I approached them with The White Octave and they declined many times."

Instead, Louisville, Kentucky, label Initial Records, stepped up to the plate. The label had released The White Octave's last CD, Menergy. "They were passionate about my music," Pedersen said, adding that they had agreed to work with him immediately after The White Octave had broken up, even providing the seed money for his home studio along with next-door neighbor Conor Oberst.

Regardless, Pedersen's Creek connections remain fully intact. He said if and when Criteria heads out on the road, it will likely be as a supporting band for Cursive.

Throughout all his years in North Carolina, Pedersen watched from the sidelines while Omaha's music scene blossomed along with the careers of his best friends. "No one could have predicted how big it would get," he said.

"I don't feel left out. Sometimes I do, but I made decisions to leave and separate myself from it. That said, I'm content and lucky to be making the music that turned into this CD. I had no idea that I would be able to do this again."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader June 11, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photo by