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Stendek leads the country in looping - the digital one-man band

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2010 - If you ask Phil Stendek to define the term "looping," he's got a ready answer.

"I usually tell people that I use foot-operated recording equipment to record myself on stage, and the technology enables me to record on top of what I've already recorded, so that I can create the illusion of a full band," he says. "That usually explains it pretty well. And I've told it so many times, that I have it down."

His definition, literal as it may be, certainly does the trick. But what it doesn't say is that Stendek, a resident of Maplewood, is as good as anyone in the country at the art-and-craft of looping. In fact, he's officially the national champion of looping, after a victory at an October competition sponsored by the music technology-maker Boss. In little more than a month, he'll attend the international finals, held at Anaheim's House of Blues from Jan. 13-16, where he'll be battling contenders from Canada, South America, Japan and a host of European countries.

While he's not personally familiar with the musicians he's squaring off against, he has repeatedly watched them perform through the internet. And while no two take the same approach to making music, it's safe to say that no one has Stendek's exact methodology, either, in terms of technical angles, as well as the spirit he brings to a show.

"I've noticed that most of the time, especially when I'm playing to a crowd that hasn't seen me before, I tend toward a lighthearted, humorous, almost-standup comedy style of performance," he says. "I try to break the whole 'serious business' kinda thing. It's more like 'Hey, everybody, let's have a party, let's have fun.' The looping is almost an accessory to that.

"I know a lot of guys who take looping very seriously; they create these sonic landscapes. It's all about the looping for them. But I use it as a vehicle for songs, a tool for getting songs across.

"I used to make sonic landscapes, too," he says. "I tried to create these mini-symphonies. But there really is a small audience for that. It works well in coffeeshops, but when I wanted to make money and play in bars, I had to punch it up a bit. Not make it middle-of-the-road, but simplify it. I wouldn't just walk into a place and say 'This is a Brian Eno song.' I had to show them some stuff familiar to them. So I play the Police and Sublime, a lot of hip-hop. That's the kind of icebreaker that gets them on my side. By doing so much of that, it's permeated my original stuff. My originals are aimed at getting a groove going so the people get into it. And playing the drums, my main instrument, is a lot more fun for me when they're having a good time."

Drums are only part of the Stendek experience. Watching him set-up for a gig is a study in patience and precision, as he needs a full hour to prepare his gear, if there's a PA system in place. If there's not, he's in for 90 minutes of unloading and staging a full band's worth of gear for just himself. Sitting in the midst of his instruments, Stendek's typically behind a full keyboard, with a dual guitar/bass to his left. On his right's a trap drum kit, which the amiable Stendek plays with abandon.

"It's all pretty intensive," he says of his pre-show routine. "I've tried to make it more streamlined, but it's tough. Whenever I drop something, there's something I add onto it."

There's a bit of a mad scientist quality to the arrangement, which is only heightened as he begins to piece together a track.

When starting a song on all that gear, he may craft a quick melodic line on his guitar or the keys, or, most often, he'll lay down a groove on the bass. With the flip of a couple foot pedals, he has a basic pattern going and then he gets down to laying in a solid groove on his drum kit. If satisfied with the combination of beat-and-melody, he can even loop the drum pattern he's created, allowing him to roam free on the microphone, which he'll do at shows that have, let's say, a certain, youthful, partying vibe.

Fans of his come from other acts, too. Recently, he performed a set with the hard-rock LucaBrasi. That group's drummer, Mike Jost, says that "There seem to be a lot of people doing the 'one man band' thing these days, but no one does it better than Phil Stendek. He has a great presence about him and also great taste."

Adds vocalist Matt McInerney, "The fact that he is genuinely having a good time doing what he is doing is infectious. Phil knows the score."

As someone who grew into the local music scene as the frontman of a couple hard-working and hard-rocking bands in Celery and ResistAll, Stendek enjoys beingable to create a mood with both the uniqueness of his craft and the high-energy show that's all his own.

"It's the bane of my existence as a solo artist," he muses. "I got to enjoy being in a band all my life. Probably the number one thing I miss in playing solo is that there's no spontaneous, jam-session thing going on. You don't have the heavy decibels of a live band; that's always the security blanket. But I have the secret weapon of the drums, that allows me to get a leg up on other looping artists. The others tend to loop pre-made beats. On a nice system, that sounds OK, but if your PA is not solid, it sounds weak. I learned very early on that looping real drums is the best way to do it. When you hit a kick drum, people feel it in their bones. That's my bridge between being a solo act and being in a band."

"I don't have to be bolted to the drum stool or have a guitar strapped to me," he adds. "I can break out a wireless mic and just mess with people, jump out into the crowd and sing with them and get that interaction. I'll loop a basic little funky sound, just a groove and a key, like B-flat. And then I'll jump out there and sing every song I can in B-flat and I'll jump around and get them moving. It kind of feels, right then, like being in a live band, but I don't have to pay three other people. I just keep the money for myself."

Stendek's among a core of local musicians who make a full-time living creating his art, though it's a tough balancing act. His weekly gig in Columbia, Mo., for example, recently ended when that town's Tin Can Tavern closed; he's chasing a couple leads there to keep that town's job going. And he's constantly looking for opportunities to expand his audience in St. Louis, and beyond, "road dogging" through major and minor towns in Missouri and Illinois.

If he wins the international title, Stendek has said he'd love to tour for Boss, taking the loop station technology that the company produces out on the road, while mixing in the talent and panache that's uniquely his own. Even if he doesn't win, he gives the impression of someone who's in this for the long haul.

"I'd love to play out every night of the week," he says. "I pretty much take it where I can get it."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer. 

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