Song Is King: Talking Songwriting With Slothrust
Song Is King: Talking Songwritihg With Slothrust
Slothrust definitely know how to make themselves stand-out, something Richmonders will find out for themselves tonight as the Boston trio comes to town for a performance at The Camel (with local alt-behemoths Doll Baby opening so make sure to get there early). Composed of singer/guitarist Leah Wellbaum, bassist Kyle Bann, and drummer Will Gorin, the three have made their name as a gritty rock band that calls back to the heyday of alt-rock in the ’90s, but in the more underground sense, that weird band you discovered on 120 Minutes that was not content to write the same song twice or ever relax into a three chord distorted groove.
At the center of their approach is a credo, an un-spoken mantra the band falls back on during the songwriting and recording process: song is king. And just like any classical monarchy, anything the song wants, dictates, or need, Slothrust are there to willingly serve, trying anything and everything to perfect their musical magnate.
You can feel this tenet come through throughout their career, perhaps most notably on their latest album, The Pact released this past September on Dangerbird records. The record is another bold step forward for the band, one that’s forceful in its approach and peculiar in execution. Though housed in a familiar rock structure, the band goes to great length to reshape and dismantle that structure in order to present the best song possible, one that’s completely different than the one that follows. This leads to striking moments like album opener “Double Down” with its sparse and hummable melody, or the standout track “On My Mind” that features, of all things, a blistering saxophone solo.
Before the show tonight, we talked with bassist Kyle Bann about this songwriting approach, as well life on the road during the last days before the fractious midterms and the band’s modular approach that they apply to not just their studio work, but their endlessly amusing live performances.
It’s kind of crazy because you’re obviously travelling around so you’re not at your home base talking to your normal friends. You do get to see a lot of different people with a lot of different viewpoints. It’s kind of cool to get exposed to the really diverse, cross-section of people that actually inhabit the country. If you’re a coastal city dweller, like I’ve been most of my life and many of us have always been, you kind of forget what the rest of the country looks like. Driving around and getting to see it for yourself is a unique experience.
Has it been comparable to your experience in 2016?
We were in 2016 when the election was happening and that was quite a time. I remember the day after the election, we were playing in western Massachusetts and it was a bit of a different experience than I was expecting out there. One of the things that I’ve definitely noticed in different parts of the country is the political ads that are on TV are pretty ridiculous. Especially in other states that might be more intense like New York, New Jersey, and California, some of the ads I’ve seen in the Midwest have been extraordinarily inflammatory. I don’t know if that might have something to do with the fact that I watch more normal cable TV when I’m on the road than when I’m the road. But it’s something I’ve definitely noticed.
Are you happy it’s over, or are you going to miss having something like it occupy your time on the road?
I mean, we got plenty of ways to occupy our time. There’s no shortage of distractions. We’ve got a pretty sick DVD collection and stuff like that. I’m not always focused on it. It’s definitely something that I try to pay attention to, but it’s not something I need to occupy my time by any means.
Shifting to your new record, I notice it really separates itself from the opening moment.
We’re always trying to be different, trying to do something other than we’ve done and something that’s different than what we hear everyone else doing. Part of it is we can’t help it. The music we make is what is. There’s no way for us to not sound like ourselves.
Experimental is a word I see get laid at your feet, though obviously not in a Captain Beefheart Brian Eno way.
I think we’re a band that in some sense that lives by the moral “the song is king.” Whatever the song is, play it the best that it can be for the song. If it’s a dreamy folk tune, we’ll make a sick dreamy, folk tune. If it’s a metal song, then make it tight and hard and all that stuff. We’re pretty impulsive and I think that’s really where the experimental quality comes in. We’re impulsive to the point where we’ll play any song we feel like playing and we’ll play it in the best way we think, regardless of whatever else is going on.
Did working with producer Billy Bush help you rein in that impulsive nature, or did he let you explore it more fully?
He definitely helped us push the boundaries a lot and helped open up the possibilities of what we thought we could do. Both in a really creative way that made us think about things differently and conceptualize things differently, but also helping us incorporating technological elements that we hadn’t used before. We would have an idea that maybe we didn’t necessarily know how to accomplish it, and he would just tell us to plug this into that and that would be it. But also, for a couple of the songs, Billy had a lot to do with this, we had severely different versions of them that we had worked out. Then when we came to record them, we stripped them down to their most basic chords and sort of re-built them from there, using all the other versions we’ve done as influences. Picking out the parts we liked and the parts we didn’t and finding some other cool stuff to throw in there along the way.
Is your songwriting typically modular then? You take different pieces here and there to create a single song?
I mean, we always go through quite a bit of a changing process throughout the life of a tune. Well, it depends on the song because like I said, song is king. Certain songs that we’ve had on every record, this one included, we pretty much played it down the first time and that was it. Someone sent it to everyone, we all listened to it once, came into band practice one time, and basically played it. We made the parts and it was cool. That was it and that’s the version you hear on the record. Some of them went through a much longer process where they got recorded in different versions with different grooves. Maybe we took elements from one and threw it in there. It’s a whole mixed bag.
Do you find any drawbacks to living by the credo “song is king?”
Not really. I guess the answer would be no. Sometimes, you have an idea that you want to be cool and you listen back and you realize that idea isn’t as cool as you thought it was. We all speak the same musical language though. To a degree, there isn’t a ton of disagreement as to what is cool and what isn’t. When someone nails something down, all hands go up in the air. “That was dope. Let’s keep that.” So I feel like it’s pretty easy to agree with everyone and we all a have similar sense of knowing when something works.
Did Billy Bush speak the same language too?
Billy definitely brought us a different perspective than we had thought about. He’s got so much experience making so many different type of records, way more than any of us have, so he was able to help us think about things differently than we would have before. He would communicate in ways with us that we hadn’t before. He was a great extra voice in the room to help it all come together.
What stands out to you on this record?
“On My Mind” is one of the songs on the record that I’m particularly excited about. I was really psyched in the process of making that song. It was one of those where we cut it back to its basic chords and re-built it in the studio. It was a really fun process and I’m stoked about the way it came out. Our dude Ron [Dziubla] came in and played sax on it and that sax solo was burning. It just happened in two takes. He did it one take and was like, “Do you want me to do it again?” We were like, “yeah, dude do it again,” and then he did it a second time and took his headphones off. We just were like “Cool, I guess you’re done.” That was a really fun experience and we’ve been playing it out live with a little bit of a different version than is on the studio album. I think it’s working really well and it’s been very fun.
What else stands out – any moods or emotions?
It’s been a little while since I listened to it. I’m one of those people, when it’s in the process of being made, I listen obsessively. When we’re working on this, I wake up in the morning and listen to the mixes and make notes for two hours. Once the record is done, I just need a break for a second. Not that long after the final product can’t be changed anymore, I generally stop listening to it for a while. That being said, I did listen to some of it a week or two ago and I was a bit on the nostalgia trip because it was a blast to make. We spent the most time we’d ever spent making a record on this one so the process was super exciting for us. At this point, it’s too soon for me to listen to the record and not here the process and think about all that. Ask me again in five years.
You seemed like you tinkered around a lot with this one. Did you land on any new practices or methods you want to make sure to do next time around in the studio?
Probably. From each record you make, you learn things and find things that work or didn’t work the last time. Each time is a learning and growing process. It’s a little too early to say how it will affect the next one, but undoubtedly it will. There’s no way for it to not.
How has it been playing these songs on the road, especially for someone who needed a break from the music once you were doing recording?
There is something that every musician goes through. You make something and then you play it every night for the next several years at least. And you know, with certain songs, it’s impossible not to get tired of them, However, we’re a bit of a band, where if a song has been happening one way live for a long, long time, it doesn’t mean someday it might not suddenly change. It might happen in the middle of a show where one of us decides to play the second verse differently that night. Just to do it. Just for fun. That playful nature of our band is what I think helps us not get sick of our own music. You always have to be listening because somebody might do something tonight because you never know when it’s going to happen. We joke with each other. “Oh, that was cool. I’ll do it again in six months.” That way everyone stays on their toes and it’s a little more fun for us and the audience. When we’re all in a good mood and having fun, it’s good for everyone there.
Slothrust plays The Camel tonight alongside Mannequin Pussy and local alt-behemoths Doll Baby. For more information on the show, please click here.