Band To Watch: Glass Beach
For the sake of technical accuracy on their Bandcamp tags, Glass Beach identifies as a Los Angeles “post-emo” group. But ask the infectiously gleeful quartet where they live spiritually, sonically, and socially, it’s all the same answer: “online.” “Us, and people who are online as us, get information about the outside world from our Twitter feed or Facebook and there’s no structure or narrative to it,” frontperson J. McClendon explains. “‘Oh, here’s a video of a cute puppy,’ and then a mass shooting and, ‘That band sucks.’ The whiplash is something I feel and, intentionally or not, our music and other recent ‘post-internet’ musicians embody.”
Glass Beach’s mindblowing first album — appropriately titled The First Glass Beach Album — is quite intentionally designed to make good on J.’s claim. In Stereogum’s Best New Bands Of 2019 feature, Chris DeVille compared it to “peak-eccentricity of Montreal reimagined as peak-audacity fourth-wave emo and then remixed by peak-accessibility PC Music. Or maybe if the Unicorns wrote a post-rock symphony about a jazz band that goes to war with a synth-pop band.” And even that might have been underselling it — the shapeshifting seven minutes of “Glass Beach” imagines a seapunk reshoot of Through Being Cool. Meanwhile, the shapeshifting seven minutes of “Dallas” could pass for a remix EP where Boards of Canada and Blanck Mass take turns on the same song. “Glass Beach” and “Dallas” are separated only by a minute or so Stars Of The Lid-style ambient drone. “It’s a lot,” DeVille helpfully clarified.
In our conversation, Glass Beach consider how they fit alongside the more prominent examples of “very online” artists like JPEGMAFIA, 100 gecs, or Death Grips. “Artists like that are reflecting a lot of the stress that is a result of how we perceive and interact with people,” bassist Jonas Newhouse adds. Thrilling as that music tends to be, it often has the chaotic quality of mash-ups, an indiscriminate soundclash that replicates the internet’s information overload at that very moment in a way that’s both exhilarating and ultimately ephemeral. I have trouble taking those acts in more than 10 minutes at a time.
By comparison, the album-oriented approach of Glass Beach is downright quaint. The First Glass Beach Album is a painstakingly sequenced hour of prog-like song suites, hypercolored pop-punk bursts, and glitchy interludes unified by the band’s staggering virtuosity — they’re like a jam band that can cover their own songs in a dozen different styles because that’s how their songs are actually written. As J. describes it, “OK, let’s do this as a jazz song all the way through, let’s do this as a punk song, let’s do this as a funk song.”
The First Glass Beach Album was created through this process over the span of three years by the core trio of J., Jonas, and drummer William White, with some of the songs dating back even further. Online as they are, Glass Beach are a quintessential Los Angeles band, or at least the quintessential band of Los Angeles transplants. J. and recently inducted guitarist Layne Smith moved from Texas, while Jonas and William met as college students in Minnesota, middle American states they hated while living there and now feel an odd obligation to defend.
“When people in Texas say, ‘Texas sucks,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’,” J. offers. “But when people in LA say it, I’m like…” — “Fuck you!” the others shout in unison, replicating the gang vocals that occasionally punctuate The First Glass Beach Album. Each of them also juggle a number of paid and unpaid gigs in the entertainment industry — film, music, graphic design, and the occasional 60-hour weeks in a warehouse that allow them to pursue said unpaid gigs. And like so many people in their early 20s getting their start in “the industry,” they first got apartments in North Hollywood; only after Glass Beach was formed did Layne and his bandmates realize they had been living on the same NoHo street the entire time.
Appropriately, Glass Beach owes its existence to bonding over music through social media. Prior to Glass Beach, J. made a handful of releases as Casio Dad, a chiptune project that was fostered in the tight-knit 8BitLA scene. “[Casio Dad] was just something I was doing for myself. I had recorded a lot of solo music before that I didn’t put out, because i was just recording it for the sake of recording it,” J. recalls. “I made a few songs I was proud of and put it on an album and didn’t expect anyone to listen to it, but my friends really liked it and showed it to their friends.”
Among them were Jonas and William, who played Casio Dad songs on their college radio station in Minnesota. William can’t quite remember how the initial relationship developed from there, and he was deeply confused when J.’s Facebook posts started popping up more often than those of his actual friends and family. “I just messaged them and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know who you are, do you know how we’re friends, because I don’t know how this happened. Also, that’s a cool pic you have with Jeff Rosenstock.'” Jonas and William were already planning on moving to Los Angeles, and several months later, they ended up moving in with J.
J. bristles at Glass Beach being called “chiptune,” even if it’s somewhat warranted — this is what happens when you have a song called “Yoshi’s Island.” But Casio Dad tipped its hand to Glass Beach’s boundless sonic future with their i wasn’t born rejected covers EP, which included takes on Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” the short-lived, absolutely batshit emo revival heroes Brave Little Abacus, and Rosenstock’s revered ska-punk outfit Bomb the Music Industry!. The latter two serve as good comparisons for Glass Beach’s post-everything genre exploration, while Radiohead are J.’s inspiration for pacing and formulating a coherent album-length experience. As to the origin of “Classic J.,” referenced on the opening track of The First Glass Beach Album, “The reason why I go by ‘Classic J’ sometimes is because Facebook wouldn’t let me set my name to just ‘J.’ It’s the first thing I thought of.”
Today’s new music video for “classic j. dies and goes to hell part 1,” directed by J. and William, is the first product in their new partnership with Run For Cover, who’ll release The First Glass Beach Album on vinyl for the first time early next year. The label is home to Glass Beach faves Modern Baseball and dozens of bands who built their reputation through tireless touring and local hustle. This is not how things worked for Glass Beach, as it’s especially difficult to create a lasting emo scene in Los Angeles — too spread out, too unfriendly towards DIY spaces, too expensive. “I told him, ‘J., people are gonna love this and the people who already know your music are gonna dig it and share it,'” William says. “I had confidence in the music, so I wasn’t worried about the rest of it — if it was gonna happen, it would organically.”
They worked on this album for years and J…basically just tweeted it out. As William remembers it, “J. was wrapping up production and all of sudden, we get a message saying, ‘Yeah I think we’re gonna release it next week.'” The First Glass Beach Album quietly accrued whispers on Twitter and emo-adjacent message boards until it all of a sudden became a thing that people were talking about in August — there was no Pitchfork review, no mention on the Needle Drop, no viral live footage or whatever things are necessary for a band to take off in 2019. The band can’t really explain themselves how The First Glass Beach Album became an overnight sensation three years and three months in the making before they got scooped up by Run For Cover. “We didn’t do anything except make a great fucking album and the right people saw it,” William guesses.
Of course, now Glass Beach are beholden to the expectations of being an actual IRL band — figuring out how to make this music translate live and also integrate their various artistic interests into the Glass Beach expanded universe. “At one point, I want to direct a big theatrical stage show, starring Glass Beach,” Jonas boasts. But, if Glass Beach’s moment is as fleeting as it tends to be for the most “very online,” they see the upside of that as well. “I think one thing that remains true for most artists is that some of the most powerful, remembered art are things that were extremely crucial and important at the time, but aren’t as relevant anymore — art that talks about a culture that is very in this moment,” Layne clarifies. “We don’t know what the internet is going to look like 30 years from now, so people can look back on music very entrenched in internet communities and be like, ‘Wow, that’s what it was like.'”
STEREOGUM: When you classify Glass Beach as being part of an “online scene,” what defines the parameters of it?
J.: This is a totally informal thing — there’s bands we know that have the same interests that you could loosely define it as a scene. There’s no meetings or organization, it’s mostly Twitter and Discord.
LAYNE: Ever since posting music online became a thing, there’s been this mentality of “now it doesn’t matter if you live in a small town.” That’s a mentality that works to Glass Beach’s advantage and, really, a lot of bands. My last band was pretty straight post-hardcore emo that was trying to do the whole, “Build a local scene in LA,” even though we were from Texas and that’s mostly where our draw was. Online, you can get together with people who have similar interests and care enough to create a community that builds each other up. The problem I’ve found with trying to create a local scene is that there’s usually some contingency, where it’s, “I don’t want to work with this person.” It can be in disagreement of how business is done, but when any culture based on one person who has most of the leverage, do I want to adhere to that person’s leverage? Or do I want to find a community where everyone understands that we’re all trying to lift each other up?
STEREOGUM: My interpretation of “Bedroom Community” is that it sees the human cost in trying to build an online scene in that manner — the influencer who’s emboldened to “monetize her suffering.”
J.: The concept it’s getting at is the idea of relationships with a person being sort of a commodity, the idea of people themselves being commodities.
JONAS: It’s been a concept for a long time, but “what it means to be online” is always evolving.
J.: Now you have influencers, and that’s a full realization of that idea.
LAYNE: It’s funny, because you look at people who are social media gurus talking about, “You need to have in-depth interactions with your followers, you need to like their comment and have a short comment saying ‘thank you.'”
WILLIAM: People can see through that bullshit now. There’s no way you can curate exactly how you’re gonna interact with your fans. Nobody knows how to fucking push anything. We have people in our lives, personal friends, who say, “You’re getting a little bit of attention and you should be doing this, this, and this.” But we didn’t do anything the first time for things to happen. And now we gotta fall into this pile of what everyone else is doing? I agree that there are things that you can do to push the percentages in your favor, but it’s so chaotic, there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen. If you don’t have a million dollars out of the gate to spend on a bunch of ads, you just have to hope and believe that people are gonna find your shit and enjoy it.
STEREOGUM: Usually, a fledgling indie rock band starts to generate interest by releasing singles or EPs and just gigging constantly. What kind of expectations did you have by dropping a 60-minute debut album without any of that prelude?
J.: I was never really thinking, “How am I gonna make people listen to this?” to be honest. We’re doing this because we want to and we hope that the people who’d like it would hear it. We’re not trying to get famous or have this album blow up.
WILLIAM: I’d like to be famous.
J.: It was a passion project. If we had been thinking, “How do we sell this to people, how do we make something that people would like?” it would only have hindered us. “What can we do that nobody else would do?” — that was our process.
LAYNE: That’s why I joined. The last band and ones I’ve been in before, there was such a [careerist] mentality. The last album I made with that band, we had all these songs we fucking loved and we wanted to play all of them. And at a certain point, we said, “Let’s put these songs on the LP and…well, we could put this song and it’s a lot of fun, but for marketability, we need to put this song on…” It was really annoying because I just wanted to get music out there. I didn’t care if it was an EP or a single or an LP. Whenever people are like, “Now you should do this”…you’re telling us to do things other people did when it’s completely different than how we got here.
WILLIAM: Also, if you have all the information, where are you at?
STEREOGUM: Was The First Glass Beach Album conceptualized as an album from the start, or did you start to see a larger pattern after some of the songs were created?
J.: If you can find a story that the album tells, it is completely unintentional. A lot of the songs touch on the same concepts that were on my mind, and it was always conceptualized as an album — we just weren’t writing 15 songs. There are bands that do that really well but I’ve always just been more into the idea of listening to a whole album all the way through. That’s the way I prefer to listen to music, so that’s the kind of music I make.
STEREOGUM: Who are Glass Beach’s role models for the “album” format?
J.: Definitely Radiohead, I fucking love them. With the way that it’s sequenced and the tonal arc of it, I get a lot of inspiration from OK Computer and Kid A, especially from In Rainbows. Brave Little Abacus, I’m so happy you know who they are. Definitely another inspiration in that regard.
EVERYONE: Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, American Idiot… 21st Century Breakdown…
STEREOGUM: When you’re writing a song like “Glass Beach” or “Bedroom Community” that goes on for six or so minutes with multiple movements and tempo shifts, how do you know when it’s actually done?
J.: Usually I’m done with the song when LogicPro can’t run it anymore [laughs]. To be honest, I just have to force myself to stop sometimes. The reason the songs have so much in them, where you can hear parts switch suddenly into different genres…our process is rigorous demoing, the recording and writing are intertwined. Most of the songs would go through literally hundreds of versions. We try every possible angle, then go through all the versions, find the parts we like the most out each version and stitch them altogether. That’s why it’s like that.
STEREOGUM: Was there any consideration as to how this would translate live?
J.: Backing tracks are a big part of it — the parts that the four of us can’t play live, we do on my iPhone. As we play these songs more and more, we’re trying to turn these parts into live parts, and it’d be great if we could have 20 people on stage and have every part played live.
JONAS: Even just the horns.
WILLIAM: By the time we get to that point, we might not be playing these songs anymore. We could be on the next album!
J.: We just did not write these songs thinking about how we’ll play them live. If we did do that, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting, honestly.
WILLIAM: We were trying to play them live with just three of us at one point.
JONAS: The song “Glass Beach,” we learned it and played it just as a three-piece punk song and it worked. A common philosophy we’ve talked about is that the live version is going to be and should be a different version because people are going to see a show, a performance. Any differences are positive because it’s a different experience, that’s why you’re seeing it live.
STEREOGUM: Was there a point where you started to think, “this is actually starting to take off”?
EVERYONE: GLASS BEACH BAND.
J.: It’s not really even funny. Our Twitter has been @glassbeachband for a very long time, and I only recently made us an Instagram account. I feel like I’m 100 years old. I also set that as “glassbeachband.”
JONAS: Our website was glassbeach.band, so you tweeted that…
J.: The first time I was using Instagram, I just posted a bunch of pics and captioned it “glassbeachband.”
WILLIAM: It’s not hysterical, but it’s kinda funny. Then I saw a couple people tweeting it, then I retweet everyone doing that. We do that because everyone likes being retweeted. Just tweet your band name. Like Death Grips, they just literally retweeted everyone who said “Death Grips is online.”
STEREOGUM: Are there ever genres or sounds that are flat-out banned from making it into a Glass Beach song?
JONAS: I know we were careful about leaning too close to chiptune because J. didn’t want to. This is different than Casio Dad.
J.: People still call us chiptune. There was a time where I was really bitter about it, but I’ve gotten over it. I just got really tired of chiptune because I was so in it for so long. The only reason we wouldn’t do something is because it didn’t work with the song. It’s about what best conveys the feeling.
LAYNE: I do like writing hooky, heavy riffs but I will draw the line. There’s a point where a riff becomes butt-rock or dad-rock like Nickelback. This has crossed the “butt-rock line.”
STEREOGUM: There’s the second Glass Beach album title – Crossing The Butt-Rock Line.
Run For Cover’s vinyl release of The First Glass Beach Album is out 1/24. Pre-order it here.