Doug Dulgarian has lived in Philadelphia for less than a year, and that’s long enough for him to embrace the duality of the Philly thing: proud of the glory in its national caricature and kinda proud of the shame too. After the Eagles won their first-ever Super Bowl in a most dramatic and schadenfreude-satisfying fashion, America was given no shortage of opportunities to watch the Philly phaithful celebrate in the most give-no-fucks Philly ways imaginable — mobbing a Wawa, a public marriage proposal consecrated with a 40-oz. of malt liquor, um…eating horse shit.
“There are a couple of things that happened that are pretty reckless, but the thing I need to tell you as someone who lives here is that it’s blown out of proportion,” Dulgarian laughs during our phone conversation (although maybe his tune would’ve changed if we’d talked a day later, after the actual parade). Nonetheless, he sees this type of behavior not as a bug of Philadelphia living, but a feature. “I walked down to Center City and it was remarkable to see that amount of people be so stoked on something. But the next day, you wouldn’t even be able to tell anything happened.”
This kind of flashmob enthusiasm evokes another Philadelphia stereotype Dulgarian will be more than happy to admit as truth: that something like 85% of the 20-something population in Philadelphia are indie rock musicians and they’re all in five separate bands they’re equally stoked on. “There are five or six [shows] in a night,” Dulgarian says. “And every other place I’ve ever been or city I’ve played in, people are angry at shows that are being hosted on the same night. There’s so much going on here that no one’s ever upset.”
The result is something even more unexpected to longtime residents than “Nick Foles Super Bowl MVP”: Philadelphia has supplanted New York as the destination for upstart indie rock bands. “[New York is] amazing,” says Dulgarian. “Dope city and I’ve got a lot of friends there, but it just seems harder to get people out to shows in New York.”
His lyrics typically have a distinct antisocial streak, though outside of the context of Jouska, he’s effluent and drawn to community. While growing up about 75 miles from New York City, Dulgarian found himself “getting into trouble,” the kind that usually results from substance abuse and a general lack of opportunity in places like Middletown, NY — here’s a key lyric from “Marcel,” the opening track from Jouska’s vast, impressive 2016 debut Topiary — “the world is shit/ my hometown sucks.” After a court-mandated stint in rehab, Dulgarian “cleaned up” and, despite the proximity of New York City — or maybe because of it — he headed to Albany: better job market, maybe a chance to try out playing live music without as much expectation or pressure.
He picked the most serendipitous time to make such a move. Prior to, say, 2015, the most prominent contribution to pop culture in the past two decades from the Empire State’s capital was its role in the endlessly meme-able “Steamed Hams” bit from The Simpsons. But in the past several years, it’s proven to be yet another college-adjacent enclave where indie rock and emo have been able to flourish into a scene worthy of national attention. If you had to choose a breakout act, Prince Daddy & The Hyena are one of the foremost practitioners of the extremely dubious and popular “sparklepunk” subgenre virtually ignored by mainstream media. Meanwhile, Topiary drew on the lo-fi Bandcamp aesthetics of Orchid Tapes and the post-emo expanse of the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Foxing, and Cymbals Eat Guitars, a confounding and shapeshifting treasure that was soon reissued by Tiny Engines, the Carolina-based label that’s advanced beyond their “emo revival” roots to amass one of the most impressive and diverse rosters of talent in indie rock.
It’s completely understandable that Dulgarian would uproot his life in Albany for Jouska’s new EP, From Elson To Emmett, their first release since signing to Tiny Engines (drummer Jevan Dollard, guitarist John Mongonia and Eric Lloyd remain in Albany, though Dulgarian admits he’s trying to get them to follow suit). A fledgling indie band looking to prove that they mean business is probably going to head to Philadelphia. Conversely, Dulgarian is aware that Jouska is, in a sense, starting over — perhaps they could have continued to be local heroes, have their unheralded homebase threaded into their narrative and achieve just as much notoriety. In 2018, he admits the reaction in Philadelphia might be more close to, “oh, cool — here’s another person playing music.”
This topic comes up frequently in our discussion: The only thing more difficult than a straightforward, largely apolitical guitar band getting any notice in the current attention deficit is keeping it. And yet, From Elson To Emmett seems wholly unconcerned with all of that. From Elson To Emmett is an ambitious, hefty work for an EP — even at four songs, its 25 minutes aren’t all that far off from the runtime of a full-length album, and it comes with Daniel Clowes-style comic book/lyrics sheet illustrated by Dulgarian.
“The [songs] are about four real folks in my life that I either experienced something with — although it’s probably difficult to determine these things from the lyrical content,” he explains. Its first glimpse, “tummy/legs” — which we’re premiering today — is described by Dulgarian as, “a direct love song to Jouska itself. I’m speaking to the rest of the band in the first verse, and then the remainder of the song documents a car ride I had back from Albany to Philadelphia where somebody was driving at the same pace as me for miles as I thought about my future with this band. I began to liken the fellow driver on the trip as a guardian angel type; a phantom, like the future.”
The rest of From Elson To Emmett follows suit, a knottier, more exploratory affair that temporarily holds back on Topiary’s more conventional structures to draw on the prickly, twitchy, and mesmerizing instrumental stretches of Slint and early Modest Mouse, as well as the acerbic lyrical style of torchbearers like Pile — the slack drawls and tempos tend to scan rural even in Dulgarian’s lonesome, crowded West Philly. These are songs that take a few listens to unpack, and Dulgarian knows they could easily be written off by casual browsers. “But I think that’s the nature of Jouska in general, we have always been — ‘how do explore this further, how do we get weirder, how do we make it longer?'” Dulgarian notes. “Considering the ‘expectation’ of this EP in comparison to anything we’ve ever released, we were definitely ready for it, and I hope this boosts expectations for LP2, because our plans for that are real big too.”
STEREOGUM: How did the DIY scene in Albany start to evolve and flourish in your time there?
DULGARIAN: Everything kind of ebbs and flows, but Albany used to be strictly leather punk shows for quite a while. That was the scene. And then a couple of kids started doing house shows, they set the precedent, and really cool bands like Palm started coming through. When kids started witnessing that stuff, it was OK to start playing that kind of [indie] music — it doesn’t have to be leather punk, this is the kind of stuff we like anyway. Per capita, Albany kinda blew up two years ago, and it’s been doing really good ever since. There’s amazing talent.
STEREOGUM: I imagine it might be inspiring to be a part of this vast network of talent in Philadelphia, but does it feel overwhelming for Jouska at this stage, like you’re running the risk of getting lost in the shuffle?
DULGARIAN: It’s a little bit of both — something really cool can happen when you get lost in the shuffle, it’s kind of humbling and it doesn’t allow your head to get too big. And you’re kinda like, “oh, this is very much at a community level.” But as you slowly become a part of the community, it’s worth it. There are great, amazing bands that exist in that state where they’re not super huge, where I’m like, “Jesus, how the fuck are you not like touring Europe and all those cool things?”
STEREOGUM: Would you like to take the opportunity to give them some free PR?
DULGARIAN: I’m really into this band Cooking, I think they’re amazing. There’s the band called David Attias, Who Loves You, Corey Flood — they’re West Philly people too — Ther. If they were playing in a smaller city, I feel like they would be the band to go see.
STEREOGUM: Even with all of this young talent in the city, I often wonder what the ceiling is for an indie band that’s just getting started and whether that results in so many of them breaking up before they can really develop. I find that the current day is often compared to the boom period of Meet Me In The Bathroom.
DULGARIAN: For what it’s worth, I don’t think we truly discuss success in the same way. A lot of the people I know, the way we talk about success in Philly and in Albany too, it’s completely different. In our eyes, a band like Prince Daddy & The Hyena is incredibly successful, Kississippi is incredibly successful. But through other people’s eyes, they’re not killin’ it. Nobody’s out here making a lot of money, that’s for sure.
I recently read this article talking about how touring is kind of like the only thing that supplements a current musician and what they do — not just economically. To do anything at all, to get any type of attention, you have to be in people’s faces, you have to be an event where people are going to socialize in that city. I think that we’re so used to it here, but it’s how it is everywhere.
STEREOGUM: One thing I’ve noticed recently, particularly with your labelmates on Tiny Engines, is that a lot of the bands that put out the bigger records in 2017 — Wild Pink, the Spirit Of The Beehive, and such — are already finished with their new ones. Even Strange Ranger followed up their 74-minute album from 2016 with another one last year and they just put out a 20-song demo collection. It didn’t seem too long ago where two years was the expected album cycle, but given that churn of attention you’ve mentioned, do you feel like there’s more pressure for a fledgling indie band to be prolific now?
DULGARIAN: To answer that, I think it’s really important to say that my generation has the attention span of a hummingbird. We grew up with Nickelodeon, fast-paced ridiculous media, and now there’s those six seconds of Vine and Instagram stories. For bands to be heard, you do get some kind of clout by being prolific, but oftentimes — and I’m not saying every time — that can affect the quality or the truth behind the work you’re putting out. And that’s just my personal opinion on it. But, there was a lot of personal changes in our lives throughout the past year and a half that caused this particular EP to be delayed. Now I feel like we’re in a position where we can continue to be prolific.
For a freakin’ EP, we put a lot of love into this. I ended up drawing and making this comic that comes with it and serves as an accompaniment and a lyrics sheet that comes with the cassette. Also, we had one of my favorite photographers to do the cover and she lives all the way in Poland. And also having different people come in to play instruments on the record, like the horns in one song. We just kept coming up with ideas, like, “yeah, let’s put this in! And let’s do this!” and John [Mongonia], the guitarist, he also really took his time mixing. He wanted to put all expectations to the side about when it needed to come out or when it needed to be finished and just do it on the right timeframe.
STEREOGUM: I always get the sense that EPs aren’t given as much attention as LPs, so was there ever a point where you thought, “let’s just keep going and make LP2?”
DULGARIAN: These songs are four songs for four separate people and we wanted to keep it at that. We do have new ones written for LP2 and we had to rein it in, like, “let’s just do this and then we’ll do LP2 correctly.” I feel like our attention span at that time was getting big and crazy. But those four songs are each like five minutes, so I don’t think any of them are quick burners. You need to sit down and hear them a couple of times before you’re like, “ooohhh, I get it.”
STEREOGUM: Thus far, Jouska have favored a lo-fi production style both as an aesthetic and an economic choice. But if money was no object, what kind of sound would you go for?
DULGARIAN: Yo, Elvis Depressedly over and over again — how did he achieve that sound? And I can’t determine whether it’s tape or not, because all my experience with tape is that you have to keep the fuck-ups in there. Like, “we got this take and if we go back in and fuck this up, there’s no coming back from this.” But I don’t hear fuck-ups in his stuff! That new Strange Ranger record — amazing, I thought the production was super cool. And those are slightly more, not amazing high-quality. The new Kississippi record is just so beautiful. But tape just gets me, there’s something about it that makes it so real. Like Galaxie 500 or something where you’re like, “it sounds like much more honest,” in a way? There is a point where you can get too much sheen where it sounds too perfect.
STEREOGUM: The people to whom each of these songs are dedicated — are they aware of this?
DULGARIAN: Not that I know of. One of the songs is about my mom and I told her. I haven’t sent the masters yet, she keeps talking to me about coming to a house show in Philly to see what’s up, so maybe when she comes out, I’ll sit her down and show her the song.
STEREOGUM: Are the other three gonna know it’s about them?
DULGARIAN: There is one in particular where I’m like, “damn”…it’s not attacking that person’s personality but what they represent to me at that point when I was using drugs. I don’t think they would appreciate the way that I’m talking about having gotten out of…just being a bad kid, does that make sense?
STEREOGUM: Judging by some of the lyrics on “Calico” — “I’ve been carrying knives for a lifetime of lies because of you,” “he was blowing coke while they wrote the Bible,” I’m assuming that’s the one.
DULGARIAN: “Calico” is interesting, that’s about a friend of mine and we would use together and he started kinda losing his mind. I was witnessing it happen, knowing that it could happen to me — the particular drug we were using, the user becomes very susceptible to that type of mental illness. And so it’s really weird, told from his point of view and my point of view as his friend and the personification of the mental illness itself talking to you, and that’s why a lot of it is nonsensical. But that one I’m not too worried about. There’s another one where I’d rather it be between me and me, I don’t really want them to figure it out.
From Elson To Emmett is out 3/16 via Tiny Engines.