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Sarah Tomlinson

Criteria finds a home with eclectic Saddle Creek

Most up-and-coming indie rock bands would be thrilled just to land on revered Omaha-based label Saddle Creek, which grew up around longtime friends turned breakout acts Bright Eyes and the Faint. But it was a particularly sweet homecoming for Stephen Pedersen in August when Saddle Creek released ”When We Break,” the sophomore album by his band Criteria.

See, Pedersen had played in the Omaha bands Slowdown Virginia and March Hares, both of which influenced the local music scene, including a young Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. And up until 1998, Pedersen had also played guitar for Cursive, a cornerstone of the label’s roster.

But Pedersen took what might be considered a poorly timed break to attend law school in Durham, N.C., in the late ’90s, just as the Omaha music scene was about to gain national prominence. Although playing with the band the White Octave somewhat salved the sting, he had mixed feelings about watching the maelstrom from so far away.

”To see it explode the way it did was really exciting, because I knew how much everyone in this little collective had worked,” Pedersen says by phone from Omaha. ”So I was really excited for them. And, definitely, there was a part of me that felt like I was missing out.”

When Pedersen returned to Omaha in 2001 to become an intellectual property lawyer, he began writing songs that would become Criteria’s debut album, ”En Garde,” originally released on Initial Records and re-released by Saddle Creek last fall. But initially it was far from a given that his old comrades’ label would embrace his music.

”As good a friend as I was, and am, with these people, I never had an expectation that they would release my music,” he said. ”And they didn’t for many years. . . . I had given them previous records when I was in North Carolina, and they were just not interested. They were not feeling it.”

But Saddle Creek loved the kinetic, guitar-driven indie rock Pedersen was playing backed by Beep Beep drummer Mike Sweeney, guitarist Aaron Druery, and bassist AJ Mogis, who produced many of the label’s releases with his brother, Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, at their Presto! Studios.

While Criteria’s stripped-down rock is far from the sounds usually associated with Saddle Creek — including the Faint’s electro punk and Bright Eyes’ lyrical, highly orchestrated indie rock — such eclecticism is at the very heart of the collective’s philosophy.

”Granted, Saddle Creek is known for somewhat more introspective music at times,” says Cursive bassist Matt Maginn, who helps run Saddle Creek. ”But we all grew up liking a wide variety of those sounds. And Criteria is a perfect fit for sort of just that rocking, fun, you want to blare it type of music. And so, in that way, he actually becomes a good complement, I think, to the label, at least to its diversity.”

While Pedersen may have influenced many of his labelmates early on, he also credits them with helping him to find his own place in the scene.

”There’s definitely a Midwestern, Irish Catholic sense of work ethic behind it,” he says.

”The talent end of it isimportant, and having the creativity and whether it’s some sort of genetic disposition to being a good songwriter, or whatever. But a lot of it really is just hard work.”