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Interview: Slow Pulp

When quarantine swept the world last spring, everybody’s routines were thrown into question. Chicago-based quartet Slow Pulp were in the process of recording their debut album Moveys, following a successful tour with Alex G. Already the band were in the midst of difficulties; just before, singer/guitarist Emily Massey had to return to Madison, Wisconsin to take care of her parents, who were recovering from a severe car accident. The pandemic only compounded the difficulties of making their album.

Nevertheless, they completed Moveys and it sees release today via Winspear. I spoke to the members of Slow Pulp — Massey, Alexander Leeds (bass), Theodore Mathews (drums), and Henry Stoehr (guitar) — via a phone call, on a particularly rainy day in Seattle, about the making of their album under unprecedented circumstances.

How’s everyone feeling about the album coming out?

Teddy: I’m personally really excited. It feels like it was finished so long ago now, and it’s cool to have it resurface in my life again and hear it in a different season. Both in terms of the state of the world and coming into fall makes it feel pretty different, but I’m excited.

Emily: Yeah, totally. I think it fits really well with fall.

Henry: It was still a little cold when we were working on it, so I feel like it feels closer to the environment that we made it in.

Speaking of that, after listening to your EPs and some of your earlier work, there seems to be a more pristine production to Moveys. It just seems to glisten, which I really appreciate. And it seems to be more mature as well, especially from a lyrical standpoint.

Henry: I feel like with this album we had a little more time than we had before to work on a project. So we were able to experiment a little more. I think also just that, in-between doing our last EP and then this album, I’ve just been practicing mixing stuff a lot, and just been thinking about it a little more concretely. We just got to try a bunch of new things.

Alex: We should also say that Henry mixed and produced the album.

Emily: He killed it. [Laughs]

Teddy: We also got some new microphones and new recording gear and I feel like it improved the quality of some of the guitars and definitely the drums. Emily’s vocals were recorded on a bit of a higher-end mic which helps a lot. Yes, definitely a lot of it was Henry being able to flush out the production.

Alex: Yeah. On that note, Henry, you’ve been practicing piano a lot and we’ve started to incorporate keys into our live set a little bit more. I feel like keyboards, in general, were a bigger part of the sound of this record than previously.

Speaking of keyboards and pianos, one song that particularly stuck out to me was the instrumental “Whispers (In The Outfield)”. From my understanding, Michael was the one playing on that track?

Alex: Michael is here in spirit. [Laughs]

Emily: Yeah, Michael is my dad. I finished recording the album and most of the vocals at my parents’ house in Madison, Wisconsin. My dad is a musician and he engineered my vocals for the recording part of it. Henry had written “Whispers (In The Outfield)” on piano and had the idea of my dad, who is a pianist, playing it. Henry sent over the parts of the song and then my dad took it and made it his own. I love that song. I think it’s perfectly placed on the album.

I know you were in Wisconsin taking care of your parents, and then the pandemic hit. What it was like working on vocals and having to do everything remotely?

Emily: It was definitely strange. I think during that time I sort of blacked out and just got everything done and don’t remember a whole lot of it. I think working on the record was nice, it was a nice distraction from being at the hospital a lot and having to be in communication with a lot of different people. “Whispers” was a nice thing, a healing process, for my dad and I to work on together. We hadn’t worked together quite like this before, in such a close capacity, so it was really nice to know we could do that. It had moments of stress, for sure, but overall it was a surprisingly pleasant experience despite all the other stuff that was happening.

I remember our first day that we had consciously figured out ‘okay, we’re gonna finish this record.’ I think the boys were like ‘we don’t have to finish this record given all the things going on right now, that takes priority.’ But, I really wanted to finish it, really wanted to make it happen. When we decided we wanted to move forward with it, I looked at such a long list of things that had to be done and I did have kind of a moment of panic, of ‘oh no! This is not gonna happen, what did I get myself into? Why did I say yes?’ My dad was actually really helpful in managing my stress, and we did it.

“At It Again” was entirely written in quarantine. Henry had written a song and then sent it over to me and I finished the lyrics – “Falling Apart”’s lyrics were also written then. I think those words and probably the takes that I got vocally — the emotion that I was able to bring out — are pretty telling of the time.

Something that everybody’s kind of alluded to: it seems that some of these tracks were originally written on tour last year. You guys were on tour with Alex G — we’re back to calling him Alex G – it seems like there were songwriting habits developed on the road and that completely had to change once quarantine happened. I’d like to hear more about how the songwriting process changed, or just comparing and contrasting them.

Alex: It did seem like after touring we did develop a new process for writing, but I don’t know if it had to do so much with the way we were writing on tour. It’s more to do with cracking the code on a flow that worked a lot better for us, where we focused on chord progressions and melodies first, instead of our previous approach of writing almost complete instrumentals and then trying to put a melody over that.

Teddy: I feel like the tour was when the seed ideas of the songs that we ended up using for the album, some of them took shape on the road, which is not something we’d really done before. I think the majority of the writing and the arranging and the figuring out together, that all happened when we got home, probably in November.

Emily: Yeah, I definitely like to work on the vocal melody and the lyrics by myself. I usually want nobody around for that part. Even if I’m at my home and my roommates are home I feel self-conscious about working on a melody. So that aspect had been consistent throughout this, in terms of writing when we were apart, that was pretty easy. Even when we were living together, that kind of stayed consistent. I would work on the songs in my room by myself with Henry trying to send me something over email from their room probably ten feet away. [Laughter]

What was it like touring with Alex G? I’ve been a big fan of his for years and I’ve seen him twice.

Alex: It was like summer camp [Laughter]. Super sweet people, really fun to be around and get to know.

Emily: And I think we all really loved the music, too.

Alex: Yeah, I didn’t get tired of the music.

Emily: Not at all. I think it was collectively our favorite tour we’ve been on.

Henry: I feel just from the first night we were playing with them, I think that there was a pretty quick connection and we had a lot of fun the whole time. Tours are normally always fun, but sometimes the connection isn’t quite as tangible.

Emily: Tomberlin was also on that tour.

Alex: Yeah, Tomberlin is awesome.

Emily: Sarah Beth is amazing.

Alex: We had a Halloween party at the hotel room, and they decorated it really well with cobwebs.

Henry: Orange string lights.

Emily: They kept icing us throughout the tour.

Alex: Something between a frat party and a DIY show.

Emily: And summer camp.

Sounds like a perfect trifecta there. I’m sure, for everybody, being grounded and not being on tour is a huge deal and a very big adjustment. Me on the other side, I was going to live shows all the time. When quarantine first hit I already had shows on the calendar, and just seeing them get canceled one after another. What do you all miss the most about touring and performing?

Alex: There’s so much.

Teddy: I just miss the quality of sound. Like our practice space, when I play my drums, it’s just so dead and kind of quiet and it’s just fun to be on a stage and be able to feel, like, Alex’s bass. You hear everything well and it’s helpful to hear the music in that context, and it kind of changes the way I see the songs. But like, literally, feeling the music is something I miss a lot.

Alex: I miss that physical aspect of performing; feeling the sound and then also the body and emotional response of people listening to music together. Something I was excited for with this album, these songs kind of take on a different life when we start performing them. It’s an extension of what I miss in quarantine in general, which is just human connection.

Emily: Meeting new people. I’ll tell you something I don’t miss though, is driving in the van for six hours a day. [Laughter] At the same time, I do miss it. The weird hotel rooms you end up in. Jumping off of what Alex was saying, that interaction with the crowd, I think you feel — sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t — but the nights that you feel that kind of exchange, is really special. I haven’t felt anything like that in any other setting that I’ve been in. I just love performing, I really miss performing.

Alex: Yeah I’d give anything to be in a room full of sweaty people right now.

Going back to Moveys, there are lyrics in particular I noticed — in songs like “At It Again” and “Montana” — that seem to be around self-doubt. Relationships I did see play a role, but it was more of that internalized self-doubt and self-examination stuck out to me.

Emily: I think before this record that self-doubt was my personality pretty much. Self-deprecation and really not trusting myself or believing in myself and thinking I wasn’t capable of writing or being a good songwriter. For us, in a way, there’s been this kind of accelerated path in terms of having to make projects and deadlines that we didn’t have before. I don’t think I knew how to write a song, really. I think I had just kind of accidentally written songs before and it just was songs that happened on their own and were easy. But now that everything’s moving, I think that was a big learning curve for me. I had also been really sick a lot and not mentally well, and sleeping all of the time.

Once spring of 2019 hit and things started to grow again and we were getting out of winter — winter is pretty intense in the Midwest, very dark and bad — I think I was just so sick of hating myself. I didn’t want to accept just being depressed all the time and who I was. I felt like that glimmer of ‘I can finally change this, what can I do to change this.’ That’s when “New Horse” was written — the first song that was pretty much finished on this record. For me, that was the first time in a long time that I had written something and felt really good about it, and it gave me the reassurance that ‘I can do this, I am capable.’

From my understanding as well, these songs were written after a previous batch of songs, an album’s worth of songs were scrapped, is that correct?

Emily: The truth had been stretched on that one in the press, haha. We hadn’t written an entire album. There were definitely some songs that were just not coming together. Songs that I think we started that just didn’t make sense anymore in the context of what this record had become. I think there was a conscious starting-over point in the fall of 2019 where we got into our groove and figured out our new songwriting process. Some of the songs that were written before then didn’t make it ‘cause they just didn’t seem to fit with what we were doing and what we felt good about.

Since the album has been finished, what has everybody been doing, or even just in quarantine, apart from music, what other hobbies or interests have everybody been taking up to get through this?

Emily: I teach ballet to little kids.

Alex: Doing some book clubs, or doing a book club.

What kind of books?

Alex: I just finished one called Occupied Territory. It’s about the Chicago police department and the structural racism within it.

Emily: I’m in the middle of Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. I’ve been reading a lot of Joan Didion. I love biographies. Also, Noname has a book club so I’ve read a few books from that list as well that are really good. I feel like I haven’t read in years.

Teddy: I’m reading this book called Behave right now, it’s about human decision making and behavior by Robert Sapolsky. 

I saw The New York Times included you in a roundup. Spotify featured you in one of their playlists. How does it feel now that these larger outlets are paying attention to you?

Teddy: I think it’s cool. I’m looking forward to seeing how the album is received as a whole. A lot of the other songs that haven’t been released yet contextualize the singles in a pretty different way. I’m excited for the whole project to come out, but the press on the pieces that have come out is really flattering.

Emily: It’s nice to be validated, obviously. Everybody wants that, right? I feel a little detached from the album since it’s been finished. I think this our first time making an album and going through this whole process. It almost feels like it isn’t ours, in a way? This is a personal thing, I know it is, but it feels like its own separate entity. And the press stuff is amazing. It’s a weird connection for me, it’s not like an obvious connection. Reading and writing about Moveys I’m like ‘oh yeah, this is a song that we worked on.’ I forgot, haha.

Slow Pulp’s album Moveys is out today through on Winspear

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