Stephen Pedersen pursued law school and watched with mixed feelings as his close friends in the Omaha music scene gained prominence and acclaim. Now, with an admirable new album and band in tow, he’s trading legal briefings for basement rocking, hoping to put CRITERIA on the map.

Story: Kyle Ryan

In one sense, Criteria frontman Stephen Pedersen really missed the boat. He co-founded Cursive in 1995 with his friends Tim Kasher, Clint Schnase and Matt Maginn. The urge to write music seemed embedded in Pedersen’s DNA, but after Cursive called it quits in 1998, he decided to move to North Carolina to attend law school. Cursive reformed the following year without him, and proceeded to blow the doors off of the indie world with 2000’s Domestica.

Pedersen kept himself busy in North Carolina with noise-rockers the White Octave, who released two albums before disbanding in late 2001. When he returned to Omaha that winter, Cursive had become critically acclaimed and immensely popular; his friend Conor Oberst was on his way to celebrity status; and his friends’ label, Saddle Creek, gained international exposure as the voice of the increasingly hyped Omaha music scene.

Locking himself in his basement (next door to Oberst’s house), Pedersen turned his prodigal-son feelings into what became Criteria’s 2003 debut, En Garde. On the song “It Happens,” Pedersen yells, “I know I’m second-string in this town/and I’m fine with it/I’m down in the basement trying to make shit up.”

“I’m fine with it,” Pedersen reiterates, “because I understand how incredibly gifted and talented those other bands are. I went to law school and spent a lot of time and energy in other things, so it kind of makes sense that I’m not doing what they’re doing because I made different decisions.” He pauses. “And also, because I’m just a defiant young man,” he adds, laughing.

But with the release of When We Break this August, Pedersen and his bandmates-guitarist Aaron Druery, bassist AJ Mogis and drummer Mike Sweeney-may no longer be mere benchwarmers in Omaha. Saddle Creek-who Pedersen says not only declined White Octave albums but also En Garde-will release When We Break and re-release En Garde, since the closing of Initial Records [see sidebar]. It all seemingly validates Pedersen’s songwriting prowess: Both En Garde and When We Break are excellent rock albums, fueled by hooky post-punk riffs and lots of power. But Pedersen doesn’t think he’s finally getting his due from a scene he helped build.

“I have low expectations, but high hopes,” he says. “I don’t expect anything. The fact that [Saddle Creek] were willing to put it out is gift enough to me, and now I get to travel the country and travel the world, and those are things that I never expected to do, so I’m feeling pretty good about the situation already. So, any additional stuff to this is gravy. That’s not to say I’m not going to work extremely hard to get the word out, but I’m a lucky boy.”

For the rest of the story, pick up AP 207 below…

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