How Bottoming Out And Falling Through The Cracks Inspired Spirit Night’s Dylan Balliett To Rise Above
If you’ve done so much as read this website today, odds are you’ve experienced the emotional polarity of modern music consumption — the giddy thrill of having instantaneous access to virtually every note of popular recorded music, countered by the much more powerful dread of realizing just how much of it you’ll never get to hear.
Watching the likes of (Sandy) Alex G, Frankie Cosmos, and Car Seat Headrest turn massive vaults of self-released material into a stepping stone to festival stages has only made the issue more acute — what if those guys just happened to catch a lucky bounce to the right set of eyes and ears and there really is a shadow world of songwriters just as talented that none of us are hearing because we just haven’t spent enough time scouring Bandcamp links right at our fingertips? Time is a finite resource that demands a constant mental calculus of opportunity cost — do you listen to the 2018 redux of Twin Fantasy or look for the next Twin Fantasy?
If that sounds exhausting as a listener, imagine how an artist like Dylan Balliett must feel. In 2015, he released Shame, his third album as Spirit Night, on Broken World Media — a label run by Nicole Shanholtzer, a prominent member of the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, and an imprint that had enough juice to brand a festival in 2016 that featured indie crossover acts Into It. Over It. and Pinegrove, Prince Daddy & The Hyena, and Great Grandpa before the hype and defunct scene legends Weatherbox and Snowing.
TWIABP were also fans of Balliett’s previous work and they recruited him as a third guitarist for the tour promoting their sophomore masterpiece Harmlessness. Those aren’t major news pegs outside of the punk and emo realms, but they’re better than what 99.9% of all other artists are working with. Balliett firmly believed Shame was a profound leap over his past work on all levels — instead of a mere collection of concurrently written songs, it was a coherent narrative about his dead-end, depressed lifestyle of post-grad drinking in Morgantown, West Virginia and his ambition to leave it all behind. Yet, Balliett feels like Shame got lost within the immense shadow of Harmlessness and an overwhelmed record label. “Even my friends kinda forgot about it,” Balliett admits.
I consider myself a pretty avid consumer of TWIABP material and truth be told, I forgot about Shame as well — I vaguely recall giving it a few minutes of my time, thinking it was solid, mid-fi singer-songwriter material, but nothing that could’ve diverted my attention away from, say, Harmlessness. Balliett emailed me a few months ago with news that he was planning to re-release Shame and I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect to be immediately kneecapped by Shame’s opening track — and spending the next 30 minutes wondering how I, or really anyone, could’ve overlooked an album that would contain some of the most direct, tuneful, and affecting indie rock to be released in 2018.
It begged the question of whether I even really heard the original Shame three years ago; maybe the songs were seriously reworked or rewritten, maybe I had confused it with a different TWIABP offshoot. The 2015 version has disappeared from all streaming platforms, but I can assure you it’s basically the same exact album as the one you hear today on Stereogum — same songs, same structures, same lyrics, slightly remixed and with a dramatic shift in context that turns Balliett’s struggles with substance abuse, depression, and broken friendships into something far hotter to the touch.
In the introductory “Running Shoes,” Balliett sings, “maybe that’s why I had to abandon the old crew and go out on my own” — in 2015, it was in reference to his impending move to New York City, “after spending way too many years kicking around West Virginia with all my old college friends,” he sighs. “We were kinda becoming townies and we were drunks.” Later, he brays, “I’m planning a major comeback/ nobody will notice at all,” explaining to me, “I was coming back from nothing but a depression.” This time, Balliett was taken aback by its unintended prophecy: “Now, it’s the solo album after having a falling out with this band I’ve been with for two years.”
Trying to keep up with the intraband dynamics of the World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die can feel almost as daunting as keeping up with their discography, and when Balliett found out he wasn’t going to be joining TWIABP on their Always Foreign tour, the conflict got played out on Facebook and further speculated-upon on message boards — not all that dissimilar to when Shanholtzer was dismissed under disagreeable circumstances back in late 2016.
Balliett admits to being an ill fit with the band in the first place, on account of being older than the others and not as gung-ho on touring. “When I joined TWIABP, I was working a 9-5 and I was 28 or 29,” he explains. “It wasn’t super comfortable because of my age, there’s chronic pain, stuff that wouldn’t affect a 22-year-old. Sleeping on a floor felt completely different than it did at age 23.” He also concedes to trying to fill a power vacuum that existed after the strong-willed, super-extroverted, and super-divisive Shanholtzer left the band. “I would get really opinionated about things and almost bratty: ‘I’d rather quit the band than tour with them! That’s not good, we need to rewrite that whole verse!’ That felt creepy to me because I was the new guy.”
The situation with Shame became triply complicated, since the remix project was started with TWIABP guitarist/producer Chris Teti and was “99% done” once Balliett parted ways with the band. Plus, there was the whole matter of the original being released on Shanholtzer’s label. Fortunately for Balliett, he received no pushback on either end — he claims the arrangement with Broken World was a handshake agreement made out of mutual artistic respect and, “I paid for literally everything upfront including a pressing of the record, which I still have 450 copies of in the closet in my apartment in Brooklyn.” As for the new version of Shame, “Chris and I had always been friends and we fought, mostly on my end, over how upset I was,” Balliett says. “But ultimately, I asked, ‘would you mind finishing these?’ Even on his [side], when you’re mixing something, it would feel shitty to hand it off to someone at the end.”
Teti’s typically pristine and bold mix flatters the economy of Balliett’s songwriting, which many first heard on Always Foreign’s “The Future,” the punchiest pop TWIABP ever committed to tape. “Hospital Bed” is an unflinching account of visiting a college friend after a suicide attempt (“you did this all on your own/ or so the nurses had said/ before they left us alone”) and wondering how he avoided the same fate. But Shame is mostly concerned with the wreckage that accumulates in people’s lives when they can’t tell it like it is to themselves. Balliett nurses one of far too many hangovers on “The Last Hurrah,” rattling off a list of arbitrary dates for a surely short-lived sobriety, the kind that’s always imperiled by the poisonous romanticism of nostalgia detailed on “Tell That One Again.” “In Case You Come Back” hopelessly pines over a pile of an ex’s belongings, while “Crossing Atlantic Avenue” is a classic emo weeper, an attempt to honor the short-lived emotions of, ““how quickly your fantasies of various potential futures can be dashed by the discovery that the other person just isn’t that into you.”
Balliett is frequently self-deprecating about his hustle as a musician, and he points to how Shame is “backloaded…because I’m an idiot.” Indeed, after the run of “Tell That One Again” and “Crossing Atlantic Avenue,” Shame peaks with its closing title track, an unabashed anthem of resolve when uplift is scarce. “I’m trying to move on/ from you and everyone/ I’m trying to forget the past and accept that it’s gone,” Balliett cries. And here’s the thing: While watching all of this play out in public certainly gives Shame an unintended dramatic pull, it’s better to ignore all of that gossip.
“There’s this way of looking at it,” Balliett says. “One version [of Shame] is me going into this strange period of my life and the other one is coming out of it.” You could skip every paragraph above about Balliett’s time in TWIABP and even so, Shame would hit just as hard for anyone who’s just spent a few formative years in college, in a relationship, a job or a circle of friends and found themselves asking, what the fuck do I do now?
Stream Shame right now, and read our Q&A with Balliett below.
STEREOGUM: Seeing as how Spirit Night is essentially starting over and you’ve got a new record dropping in a week, do you feel like you should be hobnobbing at SXSW right now?
BALLIETT: I went to SXSW once, but it’s very foggy in my memory. I was traveling with this pre-Rozwell Kid band called the Demon Beat. They did a lot of DIY tours, and after I got out of college, they asked if I wanted to come along. This was 2010 — they always toured in a minivan with an extra seat, and I wasn’t doing much. It was a shitshow, in my opinion. I didn’t really enjoy it and that’s where Jordan [Hudkins, main songwriter in Rozwell Kid] wrote that song “Dylan, Don’t Do It,” about how drunk we got on that tour together. I think there are a couple of songs on the first Rozwell Kid record about that SXSW. I know they went back and their experience got better, but in TWIABP, we had an actual band rule that we would not do SXSW. Anyone I ever played music with just said, “stay away from there, it’s sad for a band.” It’s fun if you’re just going, I’m sure.
STEREOGUM: What had your touring experience been like otherwise before you joined TWIABP?
BALLIETT: I had done one short tour of West Virginia and Ohio with my one pre-Spirit Night band that was just a vehicle for my songs. It’s always fun to play a bunch of shows with your friends, but there is that misery of watching no one come to your show when you’ve driven halfway across the country, and that was my first experience of going beyond West Virginia and the surrounding states. I just remember [the Demon Beat] were in New Orleans and there was a band that was on a bigger label and we were all resentful even though we had no reason to be. Just, “we should be more popular than that, what gives!” They were on Underwater People or something…they were called Family Portrait and they were fine, I’m not talking shit, but we were, “wait, this band has a Pitchfork review!” or something like that. There’s always that weird jealousy and that was my first time experiencing that. It didn’t feel great, but [Rozwell Kid] ultimately did that to the point where now they’re opening for Jimmy Eat World.
STEREOGUM: After Shame got mostly ignored the first time around, how have you reacted to seeing basically the same exact album getting covered three years later?
BALLIETT: It’s surreal. Even though it’s something I’m pushing for, once it happens, I feel embarrassed, if that makes any sense. Essentially, [it’s] a form of stage fright — which I absolutely have! — that extends to the digital realm, or the realm of communicating directly and publicly with an audience that will scrutinize you. I’m in the public spotlight and I’m afraid I’ll read the comments and it’ll fuck up my week. In TWIABP, I recorded this cover of Blink-182’s “Built This Pool” and posted it on our Twitter. It obviously wasn’t TWIABP [as a band], it was just this shitty little recording, but it got picked up by a lot of sites. It made me kinda paranoid. I’m a shy person, which is at odds with trying to be a public person, but when that happened, I just realized that everything I tweeted [in TWIABP] was being read by a lot of people, it made me feel weird. And it’s kinda happening again.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel less anxiety about commentary surrounding your art or comics than Spirit Night?
BALLIETT: I feel more comfortable with the comics and the art. I put the same amount into it, but those are probably me making a fart joke. Spirit Night is almost like letting someone read my diary…not that I have one, but that’s where the feeling of discomfort comes from. I want to share this stuff with the world, but I realize everyone’s reading about my struggle with alcoholism. I feel like anything someone thinks about Spirit Night is how they think about me, whereas with TWIABP, I could kinda hide in the seven-person band and not take anything personally.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always found that there’s been a disconnect between the wave of bands that rose with TWIABP and the “New York City” indie rock scene, did you feel more of a connection since you were living in Brooklyn?
BALLIETT: I wish that I was connected. Spirit Night has played very few shows — I’ll play solo shows, Fred Thomas-style, just me and a guitar every now and then. One of the only ones I did was at Silent Barn in the upstairs apartment, where they have smaller solo acts play literally in their kitchen. That is such a important memory to me, it was super intimate, and I feel like I talked to everyone afterwards. I’d hear, “good set dude,” but it wasn’t just a pleasantry in passing, we actually talked about stuff. Someone told me that the song I played reminded them of Galaxie 500 and I was like, “what! That’s what I was going for!” all freaked out.
It definitely had a sense of community. I went to Silent Barn a couple other times, I saw Porches open up for Rozwell Kid, which is really funny. That was three or four years ago — it was before I ever heard of Frankie Cosmos, but Greta Kline was definitely there and they were just kind of this indie rock band. It’s funny how big and different they are now, and how I had to watch them to see my friend’s band. And another time, I was drinking out in Bushwick and my friend said, “hey Screaming Females are playing out in Silent Barn!” It’s one of the few times I randomly walked into a venue to catch a world-class band, they just fucking slayed and it wasn’t packed or anything, I didn’t have to buy tickets weeks in advance. It just felt really cool there. I don’t involve myself as much as I’d like to, I’m kinda trying to come out of my shell a little bit. I think my ambition in moving here was to get involved in stuff like that, but it’s kinda difficult to make friends unless you’re super-outgoing in NYC.
STEREOGUM: You had posted a recent New York Times article titled “Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?,” and many of the lyrics on Shame lead me to believe that’s a question you’ve explored yourself.
BALLIETT: It’s something that a lot of people go through, which is why that article stood out to me. When you spend your teenage years and 20s essentially looking up to people with very fucked-up lifestyles, it always makes being a fucking alcoholic seem really romantic — maybe when you’re 18, it’s Bukowski, and maybe when you’re older, it’s Faulkner. If you are a creative type who has idolized these people living the lifestyle that you’ve been living and you’re thinking about changing, there’s always this question — “is this change gonna take away something from me?” And so I did what the author of that article did and researched it. Now I know that you should do what you wanna do — if you have the thought that you want to quit drinking, you should just quit drinking, don’t worry about it. But at the time, I thought, “who were the authors who quit drinking and kept putting out good stuff?” Cause it’s like, Stephen King wrote all these sick novels while he was so fucked up that he doesn’t remember writing them and then he got clean…and I don’t really know these late novels, etc. But there are so many good examples, like Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy wrote his best work while sober, David Foster Wallace, just those three names in my opinion are giants of literature in our generation, at least for me.
STEREOGUM: Are you working on any new Spirit Night material?
BALLIETT: I was working on the follow-up to Shame with Chris Teti before I decided to do this remix project and so there is a follow-up coming at some point. It’s half finished — I kinda work in a sloppy manner, getting things done when I can. And I’m thinking about re-recording some songs from the past just to sound different with different mixes and performances. Which seems like a weird idea, but I just saw that the Car Seat Headrest re-recorded [Teen Fantasy] and when he did that, it was a validation. When I saw that, I was like, “that’s what I want to do, sort of.” There’s more interest in Spirit Night through that connection [to TWIABP], so I kinda equate that with him putting out an album he made in 2011 for his new audience. I’ve been considering doing different versions, like how Will Oldham re-recorded some of his Palace Brothers songs and Destroyer did different versions of Your Blues. There will be new Spirit Night stuff, even if it’s old stuff, but LP4 is in the works.
STEREOGUM: You’ve talked about your bad experiences in the past, but now that you’ve seen Shame getting coverage and renewed interest, are you at least tempted by the possibility of taking it on the road?
BALLIETT: I’m doing an unconventional tour for a band at least — I’m going this June with my friends, they have something called The Travelin’ Appalachians Revue. They essentially do a series of readings throughout Appalachia, it’s a tour through different cities in West Virginia, and then we’re going to Boone, NC and Lexington, KY. It’s my friends doing readings and then I play a couple songs but also have my comics and prints. It’s like a moving pop-up shop and that feels like something that would be fun and not stressful to do. And ultimately, I’ll see what the reaction is and how it feels. I don’t really like the big six-week long tours, I feel like a lot of people in bands really depend on it for money. But there isn’t a lot of money and it’s kind of a bummer.