Steve Koester is an American songwriter, singer and guitarist. He is best known for his work with current bands Two Dark Birds and Maplewood. In the past, he has also fronted the bands Koester and Punchdrunk.
Koester formed Punchdrunk with high school friends Galen Polivka, Judd Counsell and Rick Donner in Milwaukee in 1992. The band moved to Minneapolis shortly thereafter and to New York City in 1998. They released three albums: From Dad (Zeus Records, 1994), A Message from the Cockpit (Veto Records, 1996), and Bird Bird (Veto Records, 1998). The band called their sound "hard-wave", a sort of Midwestern post-punk / hard-rock hybrid that managed to combine elements of Wire, Al Green, and The Stooges. Punchdrunk disbanded in 1999. Polivka and Counsell later formed the rhythm section for The Hold Steady.
After the dissolution of Punchdrunk, Koester recorded three albums with producer/engineer/guitarist Alan Weatherhead (Sparklehorse, The Hotel Lights) and members of the rock band Maki. The songs were cooler and darker, the lyrics more prominent and the sound more ethereal and experimental. Koester was signed to David Lowery's Pitch-a-Tent Records and the introspective Oh! Turpentine was released in 2001, receiving some heavy college radio play and strong reviews. The High Highs, The Low Lows, released by Pitch-a-tent Records in 2003, toyed with space rock, and continued to garner great reviews. A third album, Losers, Weepers, was recorded in 2005 but was never released due to money problems at the record label.
Koester teamed up with Mark Rozzo of Champale, Ira Elliot of Nada Surf and Craig Schoen to form the "canyon-rock" band Maplewood. Maplewood's self-titled debut (Tee Pee Records 2004) was an homage to 1970's harmony-heavy soft rock as practiced by America, Bread and Crosby, Stills and Nash. (In fact, America subsequently covered the Maplewood song "Indian Summer" and Gerry Beckley contributed some guitar playing to the second Maplewood album). In 2006, the album was released by Hamburg's Tapete Records and European tours followed. The album was picked as one of the top roots albums of the decade by Rhapsody. Maplewood's second album, Yeti Boombox, was released in the fall of 2009 on Tapete Records to much critical acclaim from American and British press. Magnet Magazine picked it as the #2 Americana record of the year. Popmatters called it "knockout gorgeous" and put it at #6. In 2012, the band recorded a reworking of the Bread classic "Everything I Own" for an Ikea commercial. The song was subsequently released as a single on Riot Bear Recording Co.
Two Dark Birds
In 2007, Koester formed Two Dark Birds with drummer Jason Mills and guitarist/singer/engineer Don Piper. The band's 2007 debut on Vfib Recordings is arguably Koester's strongest release to date. The band calls the music "American Soul" and with traces of Neil Young's On the Beach and the Band's Music from Big Pink, and echoes of Dylan, Bill Withers, and the Meat Puppets, that label certainly seems to fit. The record received some great reviews. The Big Takeover called it "one of this year's most subdued and moving releases." Men's Vogue called it "a masterful soundtrack to self-reflection." The album also featured contributions from members of The Wrens, Guster, Maplewood, and The Hold Steady. In 2009, Two Dark Birds recorded a song for an Esopus Magazine compilation based on the Guy Maddin film The Saddest Music in the World.
In 2011, the band released its sophomore album on Riot Bear Recording Co. Produced by Steve Koester and Jason Mills, and recorded by Don Piper, the album featured the addition of Jude Webre on bass and Ben Wildenhaus (formerly of Federation X) on keyboards. From Chronogram Magazine's review: ”Two Dark Birds embrace the rich Catskill Roots Music template; Songs for the New abounds with sonic nods to The Band, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and the epic gestures of Mercury Rev. Fuzzy keyboards and fingerpicked acoustics rub against violins and horns, and then it’s just Koester and Co. unplugged, offering a one-two punch of loss and exuberance over the metallic caress of a dobro. From barnburner to ballad, the full-grown men in Two Dark Birds execute these tunes with edgy intensity and hard-won grace.” In 2012, they released Black Blessed Night EP, a companion EP to the album, featuring alternate versions and alternate mixes of several of the songs from 'Songs for the New.'
In 2017, the band returned with Bow, its third album. Recorded in Woodstock, NY with producer/engineer Chris Maxwell, Bow was written and performed by Steve Koester with the assistance of a group of Catskill musicians, including Jeff Lipstein, Josh Roy Brown, Marco Benevento, Carrie Bradley, Sibel Finn, Don Piper and Jason Mills. Bow is a cycle of songs about openings and awakenings, about the spirit of nature and the nature of spirit. “Bow, the latest luminous and ambitious collection of poet-grade and quietly experimental folk music written by Steve Koester and performed by his loose assemblage of Catskill cronies... Spartan and more tense. With Maxwell, Koester has crafted a narrative and sonic environment in which anything can happen; but this time out, things are snakier and darker... one begins to see the outline of a new, progressive Catskill sound of sorts. All hail!” - HV1
Koester's songs have appeared in several movies, including the Sidney Lumet film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and the Golden-Globe nominated SherryBaby, as well as a number of indie releases. His songs have been featured in ads by Nike, Verizon South and others.
- Two Dark Birds, Bow (2017)
- Two Dark Birds, Black Blessed Night EP (2012)
- Two Dark Birds, Songs for the New (2011)
- Maplewood, Yeti Boombox (2009)
- Two Dark Birds, Two Dark Birds (2008)
- Maplewood, Maplewood (2005)
- Koester, The High Highs, The Low Lows (2003)
- Koester, Oh! Turpentine (2001)
- Punchdrunk, Bird Bird (1998)
- Punchdrunk, A Message from the Cockpit (1996)
- Punchdrunk, From Dad (1994)
- Burdick, John (October 20, 2017). "Review of 'Bow'" HV1.
- Warren, Robert Burke Warren (April 1, 2012). "CD Review: Two Dark Birds". Chronogram.
- "Two Dark Birds Make Magnet A Mix Tape". Magnet. November 17, 2011.
- Steen, Janet (September 20, 2011). "The Rumpus Interview with Steve Koester of Two Dark Birds". The Rumpus.
- Leftridge, Steve (December 16, 2009). "Maplewood: Yeti Boombox". PopMatters.
- Tanzilo, Bobby (April 4, 2008). "Koester returns with Two Dark Birds". OnMilwaukee.com
- Littlefield, Alex (March 24, 2008). "Two Dark Birds". Nylon.
- Tanzilo, Bobby (January 10, 2005). "Koester's Firefall jones leads to great Maplewood disc". OnMilwaukee.com.
- Goff, John (October 18, 2004). "Maplewood: self-titled". PopMatters.
- Crazy Horse, Kandia (April 16, 2003). "Maplewood". PopMatters.