A Modern Lay: A Conversation with Slaughter Beach, Dog

Slaughter Beach Dog © J. Flynn
On their fourth album, ‘At the Moonbase’, Slaughter Beach, Dog embrace classic rock and sentimental storytelling.
Stream: ‘At the Moonbase’ – Slaughter Beach, Dog

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It’s hard to sing while I’m holding my breath,’ Jake Ewald sings at the start of “Notes From a Brief Engagement (at the Boot & Saddle),” the closing track from his band Slaughter Beach, Dog’s latest record At the Moonbase, which was surprise released on Christmas eve last year.

At the Moonbase - Slaughter Beach Dog
At the Moonbase – Slaughter Beach, Dog

Now four albums into the band’s career, At the Moonbase embraces a different side of the band, where Ewald harkens to various classic rock greats (The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Van Morrison) with fresh wit and lyricism that create both sentimental yet engaging small universes for listeners to occupy. Whether it’s being onstage at a rock show (“Notes from a Brief Engagement”) or a sweet exploration of domestic life (“My Girl”), Ewald’s lyrics transport listeners to simpler and sweeter moments.

Initially written with the intention of recording the album with the whole band, which includes bassist Ian Farmer who also played with Ewald in Modern Baseball, guitarist Nick Harris of All Dogs, and drummer Zack Robbins of Superheaven, Ewald opted to record At the Moonbase on his own (with some additional recordings by Wil Schade, Robbins, Lucy Stone, and his wife Jessica Flynn) as it became clear that safely recording in a studio with the full band wouldn’t be feasible in a pandemic. Recording without a deadline helped Ewald create the record that he felt he wanted to hear. He spoke to Atwood about recording on his own, books, and Van Morrison.

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At the Moonbase - Slaughter Beach Dog

Atwood Magazine: I saw in the Reddit AMA that you were planning a full band record before lockdown, but you ended up recording this on your own due to circumstance. Were any of these originally full band songs? Can fans expect a new album relatively soon?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: The songs were all written something like a year and a half to two years ago, in that general timeframe. We had actually scheduled studio time with me and the guys. We had dates on the calendar to go in and record. And then, obviously, everything happened. At that point, the songs were already old, like over a year old. I had pretty dense demos of everything and I still liked the songs: I really wanted them to get released. So I called the guys, and I was like, “Is it okay if I just record these by myself, and get this album out so that we can just start working on something else after?”

My plan was that I’ll probably finish recording at around the time that lockdown ends so we can at least hang out and then at that point these songs will be done and we can get together and start working on brand new songs. We had originally planned to do it together, but we didn’t have any sort of timeline either. So we weren’t feeling any pressure figure out some way to safely get us all in the studio and do everything. I just did it. It was a little easier, and it’s a lot safer.

Do you feel that that affected how these songs came out? Doing them on your own versus doing them with the band.

Slaughter Beach, Dog: I’m better at it now, but I am historically not good with any sort of confrontation. Even down to the level of before you would call it confrontation, you might even just call it communication. Generally working in groups, I have a hard time valuing my own ideas and putting enough emotional energy in to put in the work with multiple people to get through everyone’s ideas and come out with a single product at the end. Even now with Zack [Robbins] and Ian [Farmer], we’ve been writing together-with Zack for a couple of years and with Ian for many years. It’s a dream writing with them but I still have a little thing in my brain: the anxious guy in my brain that still has a hard time working naturally, and with ease in a group setting.

This was the first time ever in a band setting or alone that I actually tried to be really really patient. And also, I was kind of hard on myself in a way. I re-did it a lot of things. And normally I’m very much just like: we get an idea down and I’m like, “Right, great, next thing.” Being by myself and having no timeline, I was like, “Why don’t I just really dig into this? Because I have all the time in the world, and I don’t have to worry about anybody else being in the room.” I found a good pace to go at and I ended up trying, a lot of stuff that I’ve never tried before, because I kept going?

In my opinion, this album sounds very different than anything you’ve ever done before. I saw you list influences like Neil Young and the Stones for it. Do you you think that played a part in trying different things?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: Ever since the end of Modern Baseball, my music taste has been gravitating more towards that kind of stuff. It’s been this very slow movement of those kind of things seeping into the music that I make myself. The more it takes over my listening, the more it actually comes out naturally whenever I start working on a song, which was really cool especially on this record because this is the first time where I’ve gotten to the end of the record and listened back to it. And really genuinely felt like the thing that I made feels like the kind of stuff that I enjoy listening to 100% from top to bottom. For a long time I’ve gone back and forth with this feeling of trying to incorporate my influences without being too heavy handed and not trying to jump the shark with myself and do stuff that I’m not ready to do. There was just something that came really naturally about this. Maybe it was because I did it myself; so, I could go at my own pace and make a lot of mistakes but there was there was something about this one where I got to the end it felt like a lot of those things that I’ve been listening to for the last few years finally started seeping in a little more naturally.

This is your first album since getting married. Has that affected the way you write or your perspective in anyway?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: [laughs] I think the honest answer is no. I do remember listening to a couple of demos on our honeymoon. I think it was a couple of the songs were written just before getting married and then a handful, a lot of them are written more in the first year of us being married. 

Maybe one of the things that could be playing into that is a lot of the songs on the record and a lot of the songs I write now are less from things that are actively happening to me in the moment and more about prominent memories that I have.

We got married like a year and a half ago, but we dated for like five years before that. So a lot of the memories that I have that jump to mind that are pleasant are memories of us spending time together. We’ve been on tour together, and we’ve done so many. The good memories come to mind much quicker than bad memories. So with this record when I was writing a lot and trying to find memories as jumping off points. It’s funny that a lot of those jumping off points ended up being pleasant memories as opposed to horrible things happening to me in a specific moment that inspired me to write a song, which I feel like I used to do a lot. Now, it’s more looking back and appreciating things.

Do you think that helps you have a positive outlook on things?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: Maybe. Yeah, I think, at least a little bit. Anytime I can manage to sit down and write for a respectable amount of time, I feel better afterwards. But if that time spent writing is me writing about a positive memory, then I definitely feel great after doing it. At the very least, it makes me just appreciative of my own life. I do feel lucky, a lot, which is nice and probably has something to do with just doing a lot of thinking back and remembering that I have a lot to be grateful for.

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Some of the songs are fictional or contain fictional elements. About how much is true life and how much is made up?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: I don’t know if I could say, and also I don’t really want to say. I think the main goal with most of these songs, and a lot of the songs that I write now is to create an environment that is interesting enough to get lost in. I love reading, and I really can’t write a book. This is the closest I get. It usually starts with one of my own memories, or a twisted version of one of my own memories. Then I’ll do whatever I can to turn that memory into something.

Funny that you mention reading and books because I saw in your Reddit AMA that reading helps you with character development. What were some books you read while writing these songs or that may have inspired these songs?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: I know what I read near the end of making the record, but I’m trying to think of what I would have been reading when I was actually writing some of the earlier lyrics. I read Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller for the first time, and that had an effect on me and my writing-I think-far greater than most things that I’ve read in the last three or four years. That was a big one. Definitely as far as characters go. As far as the practice of writing, one of my writers that I really like is named Lydia Davis, and she put out a collection of essays in the beginning of this year. It must have been a while ago, because I bought it in a bookstore in person. It’s just a huge book of essays about writing, and the way that she writes and the practices that she has. I’ve read books about writing before that are very schoolbook-ish, like a teacher giving you exercises or things to do. The way that she writes about writing is: Somehow she does it in a way that sounds like your friend talking to you about writing and just the way that they do things. That was really really good for me like figuring out a writing routine, which ended up being really conducive to writing songs or anything. So that was a big one too. It’s called Essays One.

I feel like when Welcome came out-and this could just be a dumb fan theory, for lack of a better word. To me, it felt like a concept album, where all these songs are based around characters set in a fictional town called “Slaughter Beach.” Was I on the right track with that? As you’ve written more songs for Slaughter Beach, Dog, do you keep in mind a Slaughter Beach extended universe per se?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: [laughs] I love the idea of extended universes. That is correct. When I wrote the songs on Welcome, it was definitely an exercise in creating a universe and inhabiting that universe. It was kind of like a challenge that I set for myself, specifically because I had never done that before. I think at that point, I had literally only ever written songs about things that had happened to me. Specifically things that had happened to me recently. Maybe I started listening to some other music where it was more obvious that that was not what was happening but I was like, “I want to try mixing this up.” 

So I tried that and it was really difficult and unnatural at first. Most of the songs on that record were kind of in that world and I ended up being really glad that I tried it because it did teach me how to write outside of myself. Once I had written the songs on Welcome, I felt like I had to finish the goal for Welcome as a specific project, but once I got beyond that, I stepped back and said, “Oh, this is really cool. I should just apply these concepts freely whenever it’s useful, and write about stuff that happened to me yesterday when I really want to write about what happened to me yesterday, but I don’t have to have rules necessarily about everything coming together.” The more I do it, the more I realize that things have a way of coming together on their own-especially when I read interviews and pick apart stuff from some of my favorite writers-it always shocks and comforts me so deeply to find out how much stuff that I think is so complex and interesting and labored over is actually made up of disparate parts that came together by chance. That just gives me this nice warm feeling every time I sit down to write. I can start with me, or I can start with somebody else, or I can start with somebody that’s completely imaginary, and I can just kind of follow the thread and throw in whatever I’m inspired to throw in, and the odds are that at the end. I’m going to be able to step back and look at it, and it’s going to hit me a certain way. So that’s kind of how most of the stuff has been since the first record.

You’ve got a song on this album named after Van Morrison. Was he an inspiration for this album? Has his questionable response to COVID affected the way you feel about him?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: [laughs] The song was totally written before COVID. Definitely before he made it clear that he has lost his mind, but influence-wise, I think that that’s probably an instance of an influence making its way, in a little bit under the radar, because I had a really big Van Morrison phase, a year and a half or two years ago, which I was passed by the time I was writing that song. Not passed in the sense that I didn’t like Van Morrison anymore, because I love Van Morrison, but the particular very intense phase was a little bit before.

It came from more the feeling of Van Morrison, like he just has this very big, warm blanket vibe. He’s just so good at singing, and he can be intense and rockin’ but he can also be so soulful and sweet. The arrangements on the records were always just so professional and beautiful. He’s one of those singers that you listen to, and it just immediately wraps you up, maybe only because it’s one of those things that’s so good that you just know you could never do it. That song came more from that feeling, that I wanted to be wrapped up in that feeling. I do love Van Morrison, but his politics are apparently very disappointing and strange.

My favorite track is “A Modern Lay.” Can you tell me a little more writing it?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: That one came from a batch of songs where I was getting into, waking up in the morning and going straight to the computer and writing something front to back, without any particular intention of it being a song or a poem or anything. And I wrote, “Modern Lay,” and as I was writing it, I was kind of hearing a melody in my head. So I was like, “Okay this will probably be a song.” After that the more I read it over and played it back in my head, I was hearing the grand theatrical big band kind of vibe. A day or two later I went to the studio and did a demo of it in like one hour, that had drums and acoustic guitar and bass. I think it was it, and it’s saying it, and I was kind of just like. And I thought it was really good, because I was imagining like 100 other instruments in my head as I listened back to it. I also really liked the words, hearing them back. I played this demo for Jess [his wife]. I forget if we were married or not, but we got in the car to go see my parents or something, and I was like, “I did this demo at the studio today. Could I play it for you?” She was like,”Uh I gotta be honest, this is like not good. I didn’t like that at all.” [Giggles] I was really bummed, because I had developed this very grand vision of the song, but I was obviously presenting it in this way that was very unimpressive and slapdash. Then, when I actually started recording, that was the song that took longer than any other song to actually figure out all the parts and find out how to make it sound like it did in my head, because I’ve never made a song sound like that before, and I was by myself. So it was a battle for sure, but once I got to the end, I was like, “Shit, dude. I feel like I figured it out. I think I did it.” It was a fun journey, but it actually took three months to make it sound that way.

In an AMA, you announced livestreamed shows over Valentine’s Day weekend. What can people tuning into those expect?

Slaughter Beach, Dog: The first show on Saturday is going to be me playing solo acoustic at my house on the mountain. It’s gonna be songs from all records: lots of new songs, lots of old songs, probably do some lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day covers. We really wanted to look very good and sound very good. We’re really doing our best to make it actually a worthwhile experience, and it is looking really good. I’m really excited about it. The first one will be from my house. The one the next day will be full band from the studio: old songs, new songs. They’ll both be an hour probably, but it’ll be a lot of stuff. It’ll be a lot of tunes, and we’ve been practicing our buns off, and it feels so good to play music together. You would not believe. We’re stoked. Hopefully this’ll be the beginning of doing it more often, but we’re really stoked to do it for the first time.

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