Slaughter Beach, Dog: Truly At Home
How Jake Ewald embraced isolation and freedom from restraints to make his finest work to date
“Are you there?”
Jake Ewald addresses the audience in the room.
There isn’t anyone there. Jake Ewald is alone. That’s the irony of the opening track on his new album under the Slaughter Beach, Dog moniker – At The Moonbase. That bit continues throughout the album, where he regularly breaks that fourth wall, coming into the room you’re sitting in to check on you, thank you for listening, or crack a joke.
“I appreciate a good laugh, and I like to laugh a lot of the time,” Ewald tells me over the phone from his Philadelphia home. “When I thought of the idea of just staging this performance at a time when nobody is seeing any performance and it’s literally impossible – not just not seeing performances, but also miserable and alone.”
It’s a brutally poignant bit of gallows humor to get through a difficult period, like we’ve all relied on at one point or another over the last year.
“I just thought it was funny.”
It is funny, because Ewald himself was alone for these songs. But that wasn’t the original plan for this album.
At the Moonbase is Ewald’s fourth full-length release as Slaughter Beach, Dog, the project he started at the end of his beloved pop punk band Modern Baseball, which hung up their cleats in 2017. It’s probably the band’s best, too. It’s at least the one that feels the most sure-footed.
Ewald, as the leader of the whole thing, is still using tools he’s relied on in the past – slide guitar of 2017’s Birdie; the long, meditative, dark room spoken-word verses that return safely to refrain hooks of 2019’s Safe and Also No Fear. They’re the kind of hooks he made a name for himself with years prior when he only had a few minutes to sing over louder guitars.
Like everyone’s plans for 2020, Ewald’s involved other people being around him. Usually he’d write and record with the group he’s assembled – fellow MoBo bro Ian Farmer and Zack Robbins.
We all can guess the next part.
“We just finished a tour, me, Zack and Ian, and we had dates on the calendar to go into our studio in Philly and start recording a handful of songs that I had been writing for the last two years, maybe even three years,” Ewald says. “And COVID happened. We stopped hanging out. And, originally, we were just kind of playing it by ear, back when everybody had even less of a fucking idea what was going on, and we were saying, ‘You know, maybe part of the way through the summer we’ll be able to get together, so let’s just kind of hold off until then.’ But the thing was that these songs were already two or three years old, and we had not even jammed on them together. Our plan was to go into the studio and kind of start writing them from scratch and then record them. Maybe quarantine was kind of my kick in the butt, but I was getting these jitters that these songs are pretty old already … but I like them. They’re old, but I like them, and I want them to get out. So I’d kind of just rather record them on my own really quickly and put out a record that I’m proud of. And then hopefully around the time that I finish that record, it’ll be safe for us to jam again, and we can dive right back into making another record as a band. So, yeah, I just called Zack and Ian, and I was like, ‘You guys, I don’t want to wait. Is it cool if I just go for it?’ And they were totally cool with it, as I have many times in the history of the band warned of my … I don’t know … randomly wanting to do everything by myself at unpredictable times.”
Holing up in his Kensington studio, the world shut down around him and traditional record/release/tour patterns out the window, Ewald had time like he never had before. With that time and isolation came patience he hadn’t had before in his creative process. His first plan was to take the demos he’d already assembled and just spruce them up a little. Tighten the screws.
Over four months, he found himself playing around with arrangements (including multiple extremely welcome sax solos), and all of the details and ideas that come with a clear creative headspace, freedom and vision.
So, in December, with an end-product he was happy with, the band started teasing something, posting cryptic videos throughout the month on social media, culminating in a surprise announcement – a full album dropping on Christmas Eve, long after every major publication had put out their Best Of 2020 lists and everyone sort of stopped thinking about new releases for the year.
Inspired by Jeff Rosenstock’s surprise No Dream release earlier this year, and preferring a whole-album experience rather than sending out singles first, the Slaughter Beach camp said fuck it. Why not?
It’s an unorthodox approach, but it was an unorthodox year.
“I was pretty nervous about it, honestly,” he says of the release plan. “It’s funny, because it was totally not conducive to a normal press cycle kind of release. But, on the other hand, I feel like people really latched onto it in a way that they don’t normally latch onto our records, because it came out all at once and it was a complete surprise. I feel like it’s the first time we put out a record, and a whole bunch of people just sat down and listened to the whole thing right away, which for me is like my dream.”
My first thought while listening to the album was that it did feel like a live performance, but not a normal one. Maybe it’s that I was also listening to it during the Least Normal Year, but it felt like a live album coming from a sort of Lynchian fever dream nightclub where the seats are empty, and Ewald is the leader of the house band, using a studio album to communicate directly to me, the listener.
“Thinking back on it now … I was definitely listening to a lot of Tom Waits at the time,” Ewald says. “And he doesn’t always do that exactly, but he very much presents himself as an entertainer in the songs who is talking to you. And I think I just got such a kick out of the idea of doing that at a time in history whenever that is not physically possible.”
More than anything, like his previous work, it feels like a concept album in the sense. There’s not necessarily a plot thread throughout, but there’s a universe. It’s theatrical. There are characters—in some songs more than others.
I talked to Ewald for another publication right around when he put out the first Slaughter Beach record, 2016’s Welcome. At that time, he physically wrote out elaborate backstories for all of the characters, fleshing out their stories out in prose format as reference material. Looking back now, he calls that “a homework exercise that ended up being fun” and that honed his ability to churn out an entire story quickly. Instead of spending a whole song telling you a story, now he can make you feel like you understand the protagonist and supporting characters on such a deep level with just four lines.
There’s no better example of this than “A Modern Lay” on At the Moonbase – a veritable Love, Actually patchwork of narratives and a clever Sleater-Kinney reference, full of characters like Tommy and Fernando, who find love at their baseball glove factory job. Ewald’s narrator calls the tune “a humble escapade through the Great American Bedroom.”
“I think doing that exercise originally just helped me open my mind a little bit more to being in a place where, when I’m writing a song, I can kind of have less limitations,” Ewald says. “If I’m writing a verse about Tommy and Fernando, I don’t have to think of it in the context of how would this all be perfectly said within the confines of a three-and-a-half minute song? I think of it now as I’m going to mention Tommy and Fernando in a verse, and I’m basically going to treat it like I’m writing a whole story.”
Another thing that’s gotten his mind into a good place is the fact that he’s releasing this record with a group he feels truly comfortable with – that aforementioned camp of not just his band, but the business side, too.
After working with Run for Cover Records with MoBo, Slaughter Beach has been “back home” with their friends at Lame-O records, run by Ewald’s college pals Eric Osman and Emily Hake.
“We have this level of trust,” Ewald says. “I’m unafraid to share all of my ridiculous ideas, and it’s so nice to know that if Eric and Emily and [publicist] Talia [Miller] and whoever are on board, then we’re just going to go for it. And it’s not going to be awkward or weird. Everybody doesn’t have to be propping me up to make me feel like I did something fantastic, when in reality it’s insane.”
Having that support system made a decision like surprise-releasing an album you recorded on your own during a global pandemic, with no hope of touring or promoting the album in the traditional sense (aside from some livestream shows), feel less like, as he describes the music industry, being “in the middle of the fucking ocean.”
“For me, being in a band is … you’re putting so much of yourself into your art, it can really feel like it’s consuming your whole life,” Ewald says. “And when you let something consume your whole life, but then you put that art in the hands of larger corporations that are invested in a lot of different things and have a thousand other things going on, that’s a scary thing to do, and it’s a stressful thing to do, and it can often yield great results. But on a day-to-day basis, it kind of just weighs. At least it did on me. There are just so many moving pieces. But the fact that I can make records that people actually listen to, and we can do the whole process within the family of me and Eric and Emily and Ian, it feels so cool to be able to make records and have it just be in the family. And people listen to them! And I get to make my living being a musician who puts out records on my friends’ record label. I couldn’t write it any better than that. It’s perfect.”
People do listen to them. And, to Ewald, as long as they continue to listen, it’s going to continue to be perfect in the future.
I brought up to Jake a video I saw a while back, during the Modern Baseball days, where Amoeba Records asked the band to pick out some albums and describe why they bought them. Ewald, in his early 20s at the time, picked up Boxer by The National, with the qualifier that he “only ever heard about older people listening to this band.”
Now, four years later, having just put out an album that at least uses the same box of crayons that The National uses for a lot of their work, does he ever wonder if those damn kids will think of Slaughter Beach as a band “for older people?”
He laughs. And then he puts it all into perspective.
“Sometimes I worry about that now! When I get in a hole and I start searching our band name on Twitter. I think it would be, to be completely honest, if I’m still making music in ten years, considering the fact that five years ago I was making music when I was … how old am I? … when I was like 22, and it was really connecting with other 22-year-olds and 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, to think that I was able to do that, and then to imagine a future where I’m 35. And if I can be 35 and still making music that connects with 35-year-olds, that would just be, to me, that’s such a beautiful … I don’t know … it’s so hard to get real human connection, even pre-COVID. It’s this incredible, life-giving thing that just takes over your whole body when it happens, especially when it happens with your peers, people you can relate to who are in a similar position as you. If I could be 40 years old making music that 20-year-olds hate and 40-year-olds love, I would just be overjoyed. I’d be happy as a clam. That’d be sick.”
Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is Wild Pink.
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