Musician Kenny Stiegele gets in tune with the pandemic
The Worn Flints singer and guitarist embraced the shutdown to learn the ins and outs of piano tuning, while also starting a new musical project with Joe Camerlengo
“We walked in the house and it was already there, and I played it and it was wildly out of tune but it sounded beautiful,” said Camerlengo, who reached out to Bummers guitarist Steven Sikes-Gilbert and learned that the piano had belonged to a former friend who had left it behind after moving to Portland, Oregon, and had subsequently died. “So Steven carried it with him to three different houses because there was this strong connection to the person who owned it, and after all of those moves this was its final resting spot. Steven was like, ‘I’ve seen you playing it all of the time on Instagram, and it makes me feel like you’re going to give this piano such a life.’ At that point, I almost felt indebted to the piano, like, OK, we’re tight now. This is a ghost piano.”
After accepting that the piano was going to become a permanent fixture in the home, Camerlengo realized that he’d need to have someone come in and tune the instrument, which had been neglected so long and fallen so far out of tune that when he hit a single key “it sounded like six bad notes on top of one another.”
“I was playing the piano like that for a few months and I was worried Courtney was going to reconsider the marriage,” Camerlengo said, and laughed. At that point, he started looking around for someone to give the piano a much-needed sonic refurbishing, stumbling across another local musician whom he knew by name but had never met: Kenny Stiegele, singer and guitarist of the Worn Flints.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, it obliterated summer concert plans for every band, including the Worn Flints, which had been scheduled to perform at a handful of festivals, including Sonic Temple, where Stiegele said the trio stood as the only unsigned band on the bill. In the immediate aftermath of these cancellations, Stiegele said he spent several dread-filled months pacing his apartment before turning his attention to the upright Baldwin piano left behind by a previous tenant.
“Having the time off in quarantine, I was like, ‘Man, I just need to learn a little bit more about something I spend a lot of time on,’” said Stiegele, who does most of his songwriting on piano, later translating the tunes to guitar. “And I thought I’d start with tuning my piano, so I loaded up a YouTube video to see what was going on, and you learn quickly it’s much more than that. … It was a little overwhelming.”
But Stiegele persevered, enrolling in an online tuning program with a piano academy, a course of study he completed in December, receiving his certification. The musician breezed through early lessons but hit a wall when he was introduced to the idea of equal temperament, a concept Stiegele introduced by saying, “We’ve gotta talk nerd here for a second.”
“Basically, tuning is very mathematical and scientific. Every note on the scale that we know of has a designated hertz number, which is essentially the rate at which it's vibrating. ... If you have a good ear, you can hear up to 15 [or] 16,000 hertz, roughly, and after that you’re into dog-whistle territory. But that’s the scale we base tuning on,” Stiegele said. “Now, in a perfect world, you would be like, ‘OK, let me go through the 250-odd strings on the piano and put them all to the perfect hertz.’ Unfortunately, stringed instruments are imperfect, so no matter what you do it’s always going to be off by a certain number of hertz. So what we do is use something called equal temperament, which is basically blending the piano when you tune it, like giving someone a fade haircut. You leave a little dissonance on the front end or the back end [of a string], and then do the same on the next one … so as you go up the piano you get that nice, crisp sound, even if it’s not scientifically in tune, which just hurts my head to think about.”
The intuitive nature of the tuning meant that some of Stiegele’s earliest house calls, including the visit to Camerlengo’s, could take upwards of five to six hours, a process he can now generally complete in around 90 minutes, aided by the iPad app TuneLab.
“[Kenny] came over and was like, ‘Hey, man,’ and then he spent five hours opening up the bottom of the piano, laying on his back, sweating on himself,” Camerlengo said. “Every time I walked through the room I’d ask, ‘Do you need anything?’ ‘Oh, no man. This is awesome! I love pianos! I love working on them! This is great!’ … He’s like a smiling little bumblebee. You can’t get him down.”
As Stiegele worked, Camerlengo would occasionally overhear him playing snippets of songs: a chorus from Elton John, a Nirvana deep cut or jazzy flourishes he couldn’t pin to a particular artist. “And every time I would hear it, I'd be like, ‘Oh, my God, you have a lot of soul, brother,’” Camerlengo said.
“There are a few songs that cover a lot of good intervals and ranges, so I’ll almost always sit down and play ‘November Rain’ because it’s in F-major and touches a lot of the intervals and goes through a lot of the standard chords. That’s a good way to see where your middle section is, just hit it with a little Axl Rose,” said Stiegele, who started playing piano at age 5, taking lessons at Firefly Music School in Akron, Ohio, through the age of 17. “Then I also play a lot of ‘Clair de Lune,’ which is obviously a classic, but it’s played in F-flat, so it touches on more of the black keys. … When you’re playing, and a piano sounds good, it can be easy to get lost in the sauce. It’s like, ‘No, wait. I’m here for a job. Let’s get back to tuning.’”
The tuning sessions served as a form of musical rehabilitation for Stiegele, who said his creativity cratered for much of the pandemic, which led to some frustration in the early days following the shutdown.
“You would think, ‘I have all this time now. Perfect. I’m going to write a frickin’ concept album in my living room,’” he said. “If you had told me a week before it all went down that I was going to have all this time, I’d have been like, ‘Bro, I’m going to write so much.’ And then it actually happens and you write nothing.”
Stiegele’s bandmates in Worn Flints were struck with a similar creative malaise, and the frontman said the group has only completed one song in the months since COVID hit, content to take the time to regroup and focus on digital hangouts and occasional livestream performances rather than forcing a creativity that wasn’t there.
“You really do have to write when you’re inspired … and dread has not been the right mood for me,” Stiegele said. “You can write good music when you’re up, and you can write good music when you’re down. But it’s hard to write good music when you’re gray. When you’re stuck in the middle and numb, it’s like there’s nothing there.”
On a more hopeful note, the Flints did recently land a song, “Burn,” off 2018 album Clementine, on an episode of the Netflix series “Tribes of Europa,” and the band will take a hesitant first step back to performing in the early spring with a distanced, attendance-limited show at Ace of Cups on April 24.
Additionally, Stiegele has recently uncovered a secondary outlet, playing piano alongside Camerlengo in a new musical project for which the two have already completed a half-dozen songs.
“I’d written a bunch of piano songs that kind of reminded me of Neil Young, just these simplistic, emotional little pieces,” said Camerlengo, who wrote the songs between December and January, which is when he approached Stiegele about working together. “But I’m not a very skilled piano player … so I asked [Kenny] if he’d be interested in collaborating on them.”
In those earliest January weeks, Camerlengo taught Stiegele the songs, to which Stiegele said he “added a little bit of that Kenny spice and flavor, some of that schmaltz Joe was looking for.”
The two have since teamed on a handful more tunes, added a rhythm section and picked a name for the burgeoning project, all of which are under wraps for the time being. One thing is certain, though: All of the new songs will heavily feature Camerlengo’s piano, which was given fresh life by the musician who will now play the instrument in the band.
“After Kenny tuned the piano, I posted a little video on Instagram of me playing it, and [the previous owner] Steven responded right away, like, ‘Holy shit, man. I’ve been living with that piano for years and I’ve never heard it sing like that,’” Camerlengo said. “So I thought it sounded like a world of difference, but what really proved it for me was that the guy who had been living with it for years had his mind blown.”