Steve Hartlett is vulnerable. “Don’t know who I am,” goes the opening track of Is Stupider, his debut release as Stove. “So I act like who I’m with.” That song gives way to the pummeling “Stupid”. It’s like Hartlett’s trying to burn something into his own brain, one heavy, chaotic melody at a time. The album reflects a search for identity. At 26, Hartlett is revered thanks to his tenure in the cult band Ovlov, which effectively broke up earlier this year. As Stove, Hartlett ascribes specific names to himself, which may or may not apply: “Ex-Punk,” “Dumboy,” “Stupidest.” And yet, Stove is a great leap forward; a mature, exploratory effort that doesn’t have it all figured out, but doesn’t have to.
Steve Hartlett is also drunk. At least, he is during our interview, for which we meet at Exploding in Sound label operator Dan Goldin’s Brooklyn apartment and guzzle beer between questions. From his quasi-prophetic birth to his resurgence as Stove, we chronicle the myriad myths of Steve Hartlett. At no point are we sober.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he tells me, repeatedly. Practically everyone around him disagrees.
Tell me about the day you were born.
The day I was born… well, yeah. I don’t have any memories of my own, but I know that I was the third of five children, born on the third floor, in room 308, at 3:08 PM.
I swear. I was the third child born on the 27th. Nine times three is twenty-seven, and the square root of nine is three. My older brother was born on December 27th, my older sister was born September 27th, and I was born June 27th in Stanford, Connecticut.
How would you describe your childhood? Do you have a cool story to share about a scar or something?
You’re asking all the right questions! It was a good childhood. But I do have this giant scar right here on my arm… it goes all the way down… a lot of people think this is a self-inflicted suicide wound, but it’s not, so I have to explain…
When I was in third grade I was trying to impress a girl by rollerblading backwards, and I fell on a rabbit cage and cut my arm open. It’s really embarrassing.
What was the girl’s name?
Maria Cinquengrana. I was friends with her brother, Mark.
Was she your girlfriend after that?
I don’t know.
When did you first show early musical promise?
I don’t know if I’ve ever shown promise… but in fourth grade, I got my first guitar. I always wanted to [play music]… both my father and grandfather did throughout their lives, and I always looked up to them. They always didn’t want me to pursue it too seriously, because I would end up like this [laughs].
What was your first favorite band?
I was raised very religious. My entire life I was not allowed to watch or listen to almost anything. Unless it was something that I could get at this Christian bookstore, I wasn’t allowed to listen to it or see it. So everything I listened to up to middle school was basically just Christian rock, which is kind of funny to think about.
But then I did love the Backstreet Boys and Hanson and *NSYNC and stuff, because that was okay, they weren’t saying any swear words or anything.
My actual first favorite band though were called PFR, “Pray For Rain.”
Oh man, they were a Christian rock band?
That’s so good. What was the first band you really hated?
This is rough to say, because now I obviously don’t feel this way, but when I first heard them and everything being said about them… I didn’t understand it until probably a few years ago… Nirvana. I hated Nirvana.
I hated Nirvana, too!
Oh, good. Well, not good that you did, but good.
I just hated the flannel.
And I hated all the dumb dudes in my class who thought they were cool because they listened to Nirvana.
But then you grow up and you just go, “Oh, shit.”
Exactly. I was very embarrassed of all the things I had said in the past, once I understood them.
And of course that’s so ironic now, considering how people have compared your music to Nirvana and those types of bands.
Of course. Obviously now I love them, and they’re a huge part of what I’m… you know… trying to do…
A huge influence?
Yeah, that’s the word. That’s the one.
I think it was probably because of how long I was not allowed to listen to them; it had something to do with that. Like I made myself be prideful about what I had already known or something…
I don’t know.
What were other bands that made you want to create similar music?
Some of the first bands I heard that weren’t Christian rock were from my next-door neighbor, who was in a straightedge hardcore band…
[Hands him a beer.]
Oh, thank you. How’d you know?
I came prepared.
He was in a band called Self-Defense, not Self-Defense Family. It’s a totally different thing. He showed me a bunch of local hardcore punk bands at the time…
What was the question again?
Other bands that influenced you?
Oh, yeah. I’m sorry. I couldn’t remember why I was telling you about these bands!
This is so good!
This is awful!
Sorry. Anyway, Self-Defense was one of them. Another band was called XFilesX. Most importantly was this band called New Reagans. This dude had given me a cassette, and it was very reminiscent of all the things I liked about music, but from a new perspective and intention.
The album was called Taliban Jovi. It’s on YouTube. Link it.
I will link it!
That EP is more important to me than anything I can remember. Just being at that point where I was finally listening to things, not because my parents told me I could. It was the first thing I actually found on my own.
And those are all Connecticut bands?
Yes. I think XFilesX are from Massachusetts. I’m actually not sure. I first started listening to all these bands when I was in, like, 5th grade, and that was well before the internet was part of it.
What was the Connecticut scene like when you first discovered it?
Well, I can’t say that I ever really did discover the Connecticut scene. Either I was too young to be part of it, or like, I don’t know.
It’s hard to say what it is. It’s always changed and it’s always been different. It’s not really an “everybody knows everybody” kind of group.
The people that I always looked up to, everyone was much older than me. It was kind of a hot minute when all these bands from my town, and other towns.
Am I making any sense at all? I feel like I’ve been just rambling about nothing for the past minute!
Ovlov gets a premiere on whatever big music site, and then I get fucking ten requests on Facebook from people I’ve known for years, and tried to play shows with forever, and now suddenly it’s worth their time.
You’re doing great!
Okay. So if there was a scene, I was too young for it. I was looking at it from a little boy’s perspective. I was watching all my friends’ older brothers’ bands at house parties and stuff. There was a teen center in my town that always hosted a shit load of shows. I can’t remember the name of it. Danbury [Connecticut] had that Empress Ballroom thing going for a while. I went to a lot of good shows there.
But if there was a Connecticut scene, they never liked me. I was always too drunk. I don’t know. I tried for a long time.
Let’s just say—no, I shouldn’t say that.
Okay. After I’d been playing in bands and trying to be part of stuff for years, and I’d been interacting with people who didn’t give a shit about me, I was like, whatever, I don’t give a shit about you. And then Ovlov gets a premiere on whatever big music site, and then I get fucking ten requests on Facebook from people I’ve known for years, and tried to play shows with forever, and now suddenly it’s worth their time.
So you felt like an outsider within that community.
Yeah. I always wanted to be part of it, but it was just like, ‘Okay, Steve.’ I don’t know. I don’t know why that was. There were a lot of people I looked up to forever, but then it was just like, for what?
What was the first band you ever played in? What was your first show?
My first show ever was at my church, with my band called Militia, in sixth grade. It was right after I heard all those punk and hardcore bands. I played guitar. It was not much different from what I do now, I guess, just the sixth grade version.
‘Militia’ sounds like kind of a badass band to play a church.
No, it was not badass at all. Before it was Militia, it was Christ’s Militia.
Oh, man. Were your songs Jesus-themed?
No, we were all just like church buddies. It was my brother John and I, and two friends I knew from school. And all of our parents were very religious, so we had to follow that whether or not we were singing about it.
We had one song called “Eskimo Bob” which was named after a video on Ebaumsworld. It was this stupid sketch comedy cartoon thing. Then another one was about someone we went to school with that we all didn’t like. It was basically the same lyrics as “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne.
The church would let our band practice there, but then at the end of the night, you’d have to sit down and talk about Jesus and God and stuff.
Do you want a shot?
[Takes whiskey shots.]
How and when did Ovlov begin?
Okay. That’s a big question. It’s not like there was a day or a moment. one of my greatest friends ever, Quentin, and I—wait, how did Ovlov begin, that’s the question?
Yes, the Ovlov origin story.
Okay. Well, I was playing in a band in high school called Home Movies for about four years, and it fizzled out because of people going to school and moving away. When that band ended, I started getting into Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, and Pavement, all the ‘90s classics. I started writing songs on my own within that vein.
Quentin was in a death metal band, so I started showing him the songs I was writing, and he was writing parts over them. We made the first Ovlov EP [Crazy Motorcycle Jump] instrumentally, hoping to have our other friend, Dini, who is the craziest fucking dude—I swear to God, if you met him, anyone who’s ever met him has been like, “That’s the craziest person I’ve ever met,” no matter what. He had a Volvo, which he called “The Ovlov.”
He had always wanted to sing in a band, so we were like, “Write words to these songs we have!” We waited like, six months for him to write lyrics to the five songs we had, and he finally gave us like, two sentences. So we were like, “Alright, we’re just gonna write our own words to this and make a band.” So we did. And we still called it Ovlov because we couldn’t think of another name.
It’s a stupid band name.
My mom’s car when I was a kid was a Volvo. It was from the ‘80s and had tan leather interior.
It was really boxy?
Those are Ovlovs! I wouldn’t consider a Volvo now an Ovlov. The band was named after cars from that era. “The Boxy Era.”
How did the lineup become you, Boner and Theo?
At first it was just Quentin and I. Theo [Hartlett] and Boner [Mike Hammond, Jr] joined years later, which is why I have a hard time describing when Ovlov started, because there are so many versions. It almost feels like it was four different bands at times.
Theo was the first original drummer, but then he went to school. Mike Falcone, an old friend of mine from Connecticut, started playing drums. Then Quentin moved to Texas. I met Boner because he played in my old band, Home Movies.
Jesus, there’s so much to this fucking story.
So, here’s the question: will Ovlov play again?
So why did you put everyone through the torture of your ‘breakup?’
[Laughs]. Yeah, well, that’s tough to answer. I can’t really identify what exactly Ovlov was, so I can’t really say. There were so many people involved.
So Ovlov is an idea that could just live forever?
Kind of, yes. It’s like when a hermit crab gets a new shell. He’s not in the same shell, but he’s pretty much the same hermit crab.
Does that make sense?
Oh, yes. That’s a beautiful, deep metaphor.
It’s not deep at all. It’s shallow, if anything, because that’s how the hermit crab lives.
In second grade I murdered my hermit crab. I didn’t understand the permanence of death.
I’m sure it wasn’t your fault. I’m sure that’s why they gave you the hermit crab. So you could learn.
It was my fault. I was an eight-year-old dick and I stopped feeding it.
Okay, so you murdered it.
So now, you’re the new hermit crab, and you’re in the Stove era.
Oh, shit. Already? I feel like I’ve said nothing.
You couldn’t pinpoint why it was time to stop with Ovlov. Did you feel you needed to do something on your own?
There was a lot of focus on Ovlov being Steve Hartlett, when it was not at all. There were a lot of other people that had a lot to do with it, but didn’t get that same recognition. That made it hard and frustrating for me to want to pursue.
I figured if people were going to look at it that way, I might as well make it that way, and not take anything away from people who had helped me get there.
I feel like I’m taking this too seriously now. I’m all fucked up and I’m really… thinking about things.
Perfect! So how did Steve actually become Stove?
Ovlov fizzled out around February/March , and we had a lot of songs that were going to be our next… whatever. We broke up and I had to figure out what to do with the stuff I had been writing.
It was a moment of vulnerability, in many aspects of my life, not just the band. It was like, what do I do now? Where do I go?
I wanted to see what I could do with [the songs]. And that became Stove. It’s a nickname the guys from LVL UP gave me, because I couldn’t think of a name. Everything that had to do with Stove coming to be, was just like, whatever, I don’t know what else to do. So I guess I’ll do that.
Well, those were all my questions. Are we really done?
I feel like I haven’t said anything. If we were just hanging out, what would you want to talk about?
Did you know Ovlov was the first Exploding In Sound band I ever heard?
Yes. I read a review of AM and then decided to listen to it.
Yes! So I do feel very invested in your history and whatever’s next. Now I feel like I’m being interviewed.
Good! Enough about me.