With a new CD out and a full U.S. tour pending, Stephen Pedersen seemed as enthusiastic as any human could possibly be.
As the creative force behind Omaha “rock-anthem” band Criteria, he recently celebrated the release of the band’s second album, “When We Break,” which hit store shelves Aug. 23.
One week later, Pedersen had no idea if the album was selling, but with an upbeat attitude uncharacteristic of most rock musicians, he made his prediction.
“Expectations are low,” he said in an ironically optimistic manner. “At least in the immediate, they are. No one really knows who we are.”
It’s a fair assessment, but it won’t be true much longer. The changes start Wednesday, when Criteria makes its “full-frontal rock and roll” known to Lincoln with a show at Knickerbockers, 901 O St., before embarking on a national tour with acclaimed band Minus the Bear.
A lifelong musician, Pedersen first gained attention in Nebraska as an original member of the indie rock group Cursive.
He left Cursive in 1998 to pursue a law degree at Duke University. There he formed the White Octave, which played in North Carolina for three years before he returned to Omaha, law degree in hand, to find a day job.
Pedersen landed that job with the law firm Kutak Rock. Even with a blossoming law career, he continued to write, and in 2003 he released a new album, “En Garde,” under the moniker Criteria.
Despite its positive, straight-forward melodies, Criteria debuted to little fanfare, but after bringing together bassist A.J. Mogis, drummer Mike Sweeney and guitarist Aaron Druery to form a full-time band, Pedersen began playing his material live.
Slowly but surely, Criteria found a cult following in Nebraska. But even as the band gained popularity, its label, Initial Records, dissolved in 2004, leaving Criteria with no one to release its next album.
“I pretty much knew it was going to happen,” Pedersen said. “It had been creeping up for about a year. During that time, we had flown out to play a couple different shows, and a few A&R people came to them. So we were considering going with maybe a major label.”
RCA and Universal Records both showed interest in Criteria, but Pedersen declined their offers because he wanted to keep control over Criteria’s direction.
“They’re all the same,” he said, referring to major labels. “They basically all fell through because of the demands I made. I wanted to make sure they had no control over what they band did creatively. Majors like to get their hands in that and I was not interested in their opinion.”
But one label offered Criteria as much freedom as they wanted.
Within months of Initial’s collapse, Criteria heard from Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records, which had previously rejected “En Garde” and all of the White Octave’s albums.
“I always thought that if we were lucky enough to get on Saddle Creek, that would be enough to justify me leaving my job and going on tour,” Pederson said.
In short, Criteria was, so Pedersen did. The label agreed to release “When We Break” and will also re-release “En Garde” later this month.
“For me, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “If I could be on any label in the world, I’d be on Saddle Creek. They’re my friend, they have a great reputation and they know how to push records.”
After joining indie rock’s hottest label, Pedersen became one of the few people in the world who could say his backup plan was a lucrative law career.
“I’ve got a good plan B,” Pedersen said, laughing.
With its new Omaha label, fans and critics stopped calling Criteria “the best Omaha rock group not on Saddle Creek” and started praising it as one of Omaha’s best groups — period.
Thanks to Pedersen’s attitude, Criteria’s catchy singalongs and Saddle Creek’s industry prowess, people will soon know who Criteria is and Pedersen might have to eat his words.
But for now, he remains humble about his band and his music.
“I try not to be too deliberate about albums,” he said. “When I sit down to play the guitar, it’s just these really big rock jams that come out. I didn’t set out to write a bunch of anthems, but that’s kind of what I do. I’m just a positive, over-the-top kind of guy.”
Reach Joel Gehringer at 473-7254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Criteria, Bright Calm Blue
Where: Knickerbockers, 901 O St.
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday