It was always a balancing act for Omaha musician Steve Pedersen to juggle his love for learning and being in a rock band. For a while, the two meshed “harmoniously,” he said, having taken a year off after completing his undergraduate degree at Creighton University to tour with his first band, Cursive. At that point, the indie rock mainstays were fledgling and on the verge of a late-’90s breakup, and Pedersen had left the band to study law at Duke University, but he still played in The White Octave while in school.
Upon returning to Omaha in 2003, he promptly formed a new project, Criteria, which dropped its debut “En Garde” that year. By the time Saddle Creek Records offered to release their follow-up “When We Break,” Pedersen already had a prestigious lawyer gig, but he soon left the job to tour full time.
That was 2005, the same year Saddle Creek released Bright Eyes’ now iconic indie folk opus “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” among others like the debut solo efforts from Azure Ray’s folk-inflected singer-songwriters Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor. Without doubt, Criteria was Saddle Creek’s early-2000s anomaly. While much of the label’s output sought to tug at heartstrings through wheatfield delicacy, Criteria roused crowds with pure, fist-pumping, gut-punch rock.
Pedersen left the road to get married in 2006, though, and Criteria has since become a one-or-two-shows-per-year band. One of those shows comes this month at Lincoln Calling. In anticipation of Criteria’s set, we chatted with Pedersen about his decision to leave Cursive, Criteria’s shift from a passion to a pet project and the band’s first new music in more than a decade.
What was it like being one of the more rocking bands on Saddle Creek in the early 2000s?
Being on Saddle Creek was great, because you had sort of a built-in audience that was at least willing to hear you out. But the challenge was that that audience, probably other than Cursive, was more interested in something like Bright Eyes or The Faint, and we were neither of those things. While we come from sort of the same primordial soup as Cursive, we’re still even more so like a straight-ahead rock band. That had its challenges. Maybe there were other labels that would have been more of a sonic fit for us, but Saddle Creek was always kind of our family, so it made sense.
On “Prevent the World,” Criteria’s biggest hit, you seem pretty discontented with your music’s reach, despite what you thought of as strong, accessible rock records. Who was that song directed at, and would you have always preferred the world to hear your songs than to go into law?
It’s probably as much directed to me as to anyone else. For most of my life, I was able to balance my interest in academics with being in a rock band, and they worked harmoniously together. Even through law school, I joined a band in North Carolina, and we put out two records and toured, and I was still able to have a very rich and rewarding academic experience and rock experience. For the first time in my life, when I got a job as a lawyer, it became really difficult to find that balance. Part of [the song] was probably singing to all of the lawyers and clients that I had to serve as a young lawyer, but also it was to myself in that I was the one who put myself in the position that I’m in.
It would have been absolutely wonderful to have become a huge, successful, accessible to all band. There’s nothing particularly precious or intimate about the music, and I’m a big fan of human beings and performing, so if I could have performed in front of 10,000 people a night, that would have been amazing — and still temporary. I mean, very, very few people spend their entire lives performing rock music for a living, so I always knew that I’d go into some sort of other career. And I always knew that some sort of law would be a part of it. It would have been great to become a huge band, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I’m not bummed out about it; we had an incredible experience, and we’re still having fun.
What was the shift like from touring constantly and putting all of your weight behind something to making it more of a pet project?
The main reason I kind of left the road was because I was getting married, so at the time, my focus was that I now have this human being that I’ve committed my life to, so it’s probably best that I be around. The way she put it was “I need two birds in the cage.” I wanted to be with her and spend time with her, and so it was pretty easy to do because I knew it wasn’t just me going back to a day job where I’d have to sit at a desk and talk to adults during the day, and I knew that it meant I could spend time with this woman that I really love. It was easy.
But there is such a huge difference between the work of a musician and the work of a law firm lawyer, and I would always tell my friend from the firm when I was on tour, “I work for about an hour a day, I work in about three-and-a-half minute bursts, and I get to take a break every three-and-a-half minutes or so. And when I get done with that three-and-a-half minutes of work, there’s like hundreds and maybe thousands of people applauding for the work product. They’re clapping for me and asking for more. And once that hour is up, I probably go to some party or something like that.” It’s a very self-selected audience — everyone there is happy to see me. And how different that is from the life of being a young lawyer, where you work in obscurity for countless hours, and no one ever says “thank you,” let alone applauds you for your work. It’s definitely a different working environment, but I really enjoy what I do during the day, so it’s all good.
I think they would probably call you a legacy act at this point, but how does it feel to be sought after to play festivals after all this time?
You know what, I almost get emotional just thinking about it because it just amazes me that anyone still cares outside of the four guys in the band, which is really cool and special. So we take it really seriously when we play. We want to be the best version of ourselves even 10, 15 years into the band. I think the songs still stand up. I think we still play them incredibly well. It’s still a really great show, so I’m excited to rock.
And we do have a new record called “Years” that’s pretty much done. It should be coming out in early 2019.
You’re making new music, so how does it sound compared to what you did back in the day?
We don’t stray too far from ourselves. If anything, it’s right in line. It makes complete sense next to the other two records. We’re not trying anything revolutionary on the new record. It is a Criteria album.
This article was originally published in the September 2018 edition of The DN.