Slaughter Beach, Dog Or: How Jake Ewald Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Wilco
Stream the former Modern Baseball side project's great new 'Safe And Also No Fear'
Over the past year, Jake Ewald’s tastes have evolved, man. The Slaughter Beach, Dog mastermind has found himself drawn towards music with nuance and a little more space to breathe — things the 26-year-old can respect “now that my attention span’s gotten slightly longer.” His newfound appreciation for the slow build shows in the way he bides his time before detonating a truth bomb about himself and his new LP Safe And Also No Fear that will obliterate whatever hope diehard Modern Baseball fans have of Ewald returning to the flippant, hormonal emo-pop of his dearly departed former band: “I like Wilco now and I used to think Wilco was so boring!”
Slaughter Beach, Dog had already been plenty rootsy since Ewald started the project as an outlet for songs that didn’t fit within the MoBo sphere of post-collegiate anxiety, dating follies, and social media etiquette. This usually meant acoustic guitars, slower tempos, making someone other than himself the main character in his lyrics. Yet no matter how much he intended to subvert expectations as a writer of fiction on Welcome and Birdie, “There [was] still this overarching, ‘Oh, this is something that Jake made and he’s singing in an annoying way and I know what’s happening here.'”
The third and most impressive of his Slaughter Beach albums, Safe And Also No Fear expands on his previously modest singer-songwriterisms with signifiers that do indeed recall the challenging, avant-folk of Wilco post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — pedal steels and other “organic” instruments used sparingly to unsettling effect, an undercurrent of violence in the lyrics, and also a potentially alienating personnel decision. Whereas Slaughter Beach, Dog was solely Ewald’s vision fleshed out by a rotating cast of players, it’s now a firmly established band, which includes Nick Harris on guitar, Zack Robbins on drums, and former MoBo bassist Ian Farmer. “Instead of me trying to emulate things I was actually into, there were three other people who actually know how to make everything sound a certain way,” Ewald notes, the obvious beneficiary being the seven-minute centerpiece “Black Oak.”
The collaborative sessions of Safe And Also No Fear were lent a gravity that doesn’t come naturally to Ewald, who considers himself averse to horror movies or really any kind of morbidity or conflict in his personal life. “If it’s a lighter song, it came from my own experience, and if it’s darker, it’s usually more fictional,” he explains. Inspired by his recent dive into the gothic Americana of Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy, Ewald began “Black Oak” with an image of a guy eating household objects on a dare and throwing them up. “I was just being so creeped out by it, but also wanting to know what else happened,” so Ewald took his notebook into the city and finished the lyrics in a day. It’s not a huge shift from the darker character sketches of Birdie, but the extended coda, a mesmerizing repetition of a spindly, Modest Mouse-esque acoustic riff, provides Safe And Also No Fear’s most noticeable growth spurt. “We’re all the kind of people that if there’s a four-minute groove, we all like that now,” Ewald says. “That was something I used to think was dumb three years ago.”
Throughout our conversation during a Saturday afternoon in the “very hot and very gentrified” Kensington section of Philadelphia, Ewald ruminates on the many ways his process has changed since Modern Baseball’s 2016 swan song Holy Ghost — a making-of documentary captured the splintering of the band in brutal detail and the album itself was given an unorthodox Side A/Side B split between Ewald and co-songwriter Brendan Lukens. Holy Ghost was an artistic triumph for the band that promised them even more success and all of the physical and emotional demands that come along with it. Which is exactly why they called it quits — in 2017, they cancelled tours and even did shows without Lukens to focus on their mental health before shutting down the operation for good. For now.
In response, Ewald made it clear that his band would need take communication more seriously if they wanted the Safe And Also No Fear sessions to actually be fun. “When we’d go into the live room, we joke around a little bit, but we would turn down the lights, light some candles, burn some palo santo,” and he acknowledges just how ridiculous that would sound to his younger self. As a result, the only time he put his foot down as the true leader of Slaughter Beach, Dog was to reiterate its new democracy: No matter how weird or off-base the suggestion, it needs to be met with open ears. More important: “Not mak[ing] fun of anyone for suggesting something weird.”
I actually won’t begrudge anyone who thinks one of the greatest American bands of the past century is boring — to each their own. But if you’ve ever engaged in critical discussion about Wilco, it’s often less about the music than it is about what liking Wilco says about you. For the most part, it means your contrarian punk days are over, that you’re probably on the path towards the dull demands of adulthood and … gasp, full-on “dad-rock.” Ewald is willing to embrace that — after all, No Fear drops about a month after his wedding day. The last Modern Baseball song ended with Ewald and Lukens singing “I’ll be with you the whole way,” to each other, to their fans, presumably so their fans could sing it back to them. At this point, Ewald wants to know — did they really mean it? “It’s just a basic thing where I wonder about people who like our band,” Ewald says. “Are they gonna think this is dumb or is this a perfect time because they’re just now starting to like Wilco? I dunno!”
Below, stream Safe And Also No Fear and read excerpts from my conversation with Ewald.
STEREOGUM: Has the prospect of getting married and possibly starting a family made the stakes higher for you on this record than previous ones?
EWALD: It really has, but not in the way I expected it to. Jess and I have been together for five years and we’ve talked about getting married and having kids eventually. I always assumed one day, I’d have this overwhelming sense of, “OK, I have to provide for my family by doing this.” I’ve accepted that this is how I’m going to make my living and I’m gonna have to put my nose to the grindstone and go on tour, make records, sell records, do what I have to do. The thing that started happening last year was weird — it was a similar “nose to the grindstone” feeling, but more in an artistic and not a financial sense. I just started having this overwhelming sense of purpose in relation to songwriting that I never really felt before this seriously. And it just hit me — this is the thing that I’ve been doing for most of my adult life, and the most responsible thing I can do for myself and my partner and my friends and the people in our band and the people who listen to our band is to just let that happen, fully let the process envelop me and write as much as I can and learn as much as I can and just be a student of songwriting, basically. Then I just started writing songs all the time and not really doing anything else.
STEREOGUM: Deciding to “study songwriting” kinda brings you full circle, since you and the other Modern Baseball guys went to Drexel to actually study music.
EWALD: Ian [Farmer] and I went for recording. In high school, I obviously liked playing music, but the idea of playing in a band as a career was offensively unrealistic. But when I discovered there were schools where you could study recording, I was like, “Oh, that’s so close to music and I’m sure it’s easier to make a living doing that and be able to have a family.” When [Modern Baseball] went on tour and people started coming to the shows and we realized people liked what we were doing, even then, it didn’t seem like something I could do. But I did start meeting actual human beings in bands as “the thing they do” as a career. It’s just been a slow process of realizing that the thing I actually wanted to do is write songs and play in a band. For the last 10 years, I thought no one could actually do that, so I didn’t even consider it.
STEREOGUM: Do you feel like you’re that kind of elder statesman to younger bands, the guy who gets asked how to make music “the thing they do as a career”?
EWALD: I’ve had a lot of bands asking that question whenever we go on tour but my answer has slowly changed over time. It just started with, “Yeah, be nice to everybody.” Nowadays, it’s become focused more on the actual writing and playing, and that’s become so much more gratifying. Usually when people ask, it comes from such a new, vulnerable place where they’re not really even asking about music, they’re asking, “How do I be a musician? How do I make enough money to do this? How do I get my foot in the door somewhere?” I never really knew how to answer; it just happens for people and you can’t really do anything in particular. Nowadays, I can only focus on the songs I write and that’s what I tell people now. That feels like a much more rewarding conversation to have with someone who’s just starting to write songs, rather than saying, “Write some songs but then make an Instagram profile, try to meet somebody who’s booking shows near you,” and that whole technical thing. Take some time to think about the music you’re writing and make sure it means a lot to you. Whatever happens will happen after that.
STEREOGUM: Slaughter Beach, Dog is usually likened to Jets To Brazil or the solo projects of John K. Sansom or David Bazan, a more mellow continuation of a band that skewed more emo or youthful. Do you see them as role models?
EWALD: As the whole transition to Slaughter Beach, Dog was happening, those specific people were very clear comfort in a way — “This is possible,” especially because Modern Baseball did well, which is something we totally didn’t expect to happen. You have this thought in the back of your mind like, “There’s no way this is gonna happen twice. There’s no way you’re gonna do two different things and have people like both.” But getting into new Bazan [and] Jets To Brazil made me realize, “Oh, artists and songwriters do change over time and there are people who actually follow them through that change.” Especially when I first started touring Birdie, it was so comforting and gratifying to have people talk to me after the show and say, “I really liked Modern Baseball and now I like this. My tastes are moving in the direction that you are and it’s a really crazy cool experience that we’re all connected in getting older together.”
EWALD: That’s another conversation!
STEREOGUM: In the past, Slaughter Beach, Dog would mostly do smaller runs or house shows, and it looks like you have a pretty extensive tour coming up. Given how the tour grind eventually led to the end of Modern Baseball, are there things now that are non-negotiable for you as a touring artist?
EWALD: When the process was going on of finalizing the lineup and getting everyone together to play shows, I was really upfront with everyone in the sense of, “Hey, I’m not gonna want to go on tour all the time, I can’t handle it. And also, we need to talk about everything. If anyone feels slightly uncomfortable with anything that’s going on, we need to talk about it immediately and not make anyone feel bad about it and stay open. And by doing that, keep this being something that we want to do.” It was so confusing with Modern Baseball because our whole motto was that “We’re only going to keep doing this as long as it’s fun,” but we didn’t have the skills to maintain that because we didn’t know what we were doing. With Slaughter Beach, Dog, everyone has been in a band before and been on tour for three months in a row and know what that feels like. And I would even say now, because of all of our collective experiences, if the time came and it made a lot of sense and it was gonna help us out a lot — maybe we would go on tour for three months in a row. But we would know exactly what we’re getting into. Like, “If we’re gonna do this, then we’re gonna take the next eight months off.” And we’d need to sleep somewhere real.
STEREOGUM: Do you see younger bands having learned from Modern Baseball and bands from that wave when it comes to touring or just operating as a partnership?
EWALD: When Modern Baseball stopped playing, I went on this low-key social rampage where anytime I met someone in a young band, they did not ask for it, but I would totally just launch into a grandpa talk about how you need to be really safe about this, and make sure it’s what you really want to do and don’t do what anybody tells you to do. Looking back on it now, it’s so embarrassing. In reality, it’s so obvious, especially when you’re in a place like Philly with so many bands and the scene, everyone knows everybody. It’s so clear when somebody starts a band, they’re having fun and maybe at some point they get a booking agent. Or they put out a record on a certain label and it takes off and they’re not around anymore. And it looks like they’re having fun but then you talk to them when they get home and they’re like … “Y’know, I haven’t really talked to anyone about this, but this sucks!” It’s so easy to start out with it being fun, but it’s so much work to develop the communication skills to keep it fun and to be able to say no to people on your team, or to tours or putting out certain records. It’s so difficult to get those opportunities in the first place, you don’t want to start saying no once you get a manager or booking agent. You want to be able to do this thing that you’ve been trying to do for years but the reality is, the moment you start saying yes, it’s so easy to get trapped. And the longer you’re in there, the harder it is to get out.
STEREOGUM: Has the conversation started to change about saying “no”?
EWALD: This morning, I was on YouTube, and I got an ad for a Spotify artist campaign, it had a bunch of little clips of people in the industry talking about how to stay healthy on tour and they were also literally talking about saying no to things. That’s crazy that this is a public thing! Talking to people who aren’t in that position yet but getting them ready to be able to say no and teaching them why it’s such an important skill to have. It would be awesome if more things like that start popping up.