by Mia Hughes
photo: Jess Flynn
Safe and Also No Fear, the title of Jake Ewald’s third record as Slaughter Beach, Dog, is something of a misnomer. As a record that sees him pushing his songwriting into darker, broader territories than he has before, it’s anything but safe, and it didn’t come without fear either. “I didn’t fully comprehend the differences until it was done and ready to come out,” Ewald says. “I feel like when we were writing these songs we really just tried to create a space in the studio where we could be totally uninhibited and try anything that we wanted to try. It wasn’t until it was about to come out that I thought, oh my gosh, I hope that some people like this.
Slaughter Beach, Dog was conceived in 2014 as an outlet for Ewald, firstly, to exercise some of the creative control that he felt was missing in his main band at the time, Modern Baseball; and secondly, for him to combat writer’s block, since he found himself struggling to write the heavier, rock-focused stuff that was required of him there. Slaughter Beach, Dog was somewhere he could be unrestrained and unselfconscious, a project with absolutely no preconceived expectations. “I think that’s why that first record ended up being pretty weird compared to Modern Baseball, and even kind of weird compared to the band now,” he explains. “When I listen back to it, I can kinda hear myself trying a hundred different things to see if they work.” That record, Welcome, saw Ewald writing fiction for the first time, focusing lyrically on people and stories that weren’t real; though yet to be refined, his approach was promising in how well it drew you into its invented world.
The project continued, then, on the side, as somewhere he could go to when he had a spare moment and some ideas that he couldn’t bring to his primary band. When Modern Baseball ground to a halt and was put on indefinite hiatus in 2017 – largely due to exhaustion and mental health battles amongst its members – Ewald’s first thought wasn’t Slaughter Beach, Dog, but to get a job. “I was like, ‘okay, I have to make some money. And in the meantime, when I’m not working, I can have some extra time to work on Slaughter Beach, Dog stuff, won’t that be nice?’” It wasn’t until just before he released Safe and Also No Fear that he took the plunge, quit his job and made the band his priority.
He brought in the lineup with which he had been playing live to write and record this album with him: Ian Farmer of Modern Baseball on bass, Nick Harris of All Dogs on guitar and Zack Robbins of Superheaven on bass (essentially, a Philly DIY supergroup). So now Safe and Also No Fear was a fresh approach in two ways: Slaughter Beach, Dog as a full-time project, and Slaughter Beach, Dog as a full band rather than a solo project.
The progression to Safe and Also No Fear from previous records isn’t exactly a left turn. Nothing is drastically different, and while there are a few songs with noticeable stylistic departures – for example, ‘Black Oak’, a dark psych-folk song with an extended jam band outro, or ‘One Day’, all pulsing and angular and anxious – the majority of them seem to be written under the familiar Slaughter Beach, Dog paradigm, at least initially. What makes Safe and Also No Fear sound and feel different, though, is that we’re hearing the band really push themselves creatively. It’s reminiscent of how Ewald developed his songwriting from Modern Baseball’s You’re Gonna Miss It All to Holy Ghost; how you can hear that he dug deep inside himself emotionally and creatively to make for a massive, yet not necessarily glaring, artistic step up. That he’s made the same leap here with Slaughter Beach, Dog stands to prove that he’s never content to stand still as a songwriter.
“I think in the last five years or so, around the time that Slaughter Beach, Dog has been becoming more of a band, it’s been becoming very clear which bands are sticking with me over time, and which bands that I like are falling behind and losing my interest over time,” Ewald says. “And the ones that are sticking with me are the ones that try something different on every record.” He names artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Wilco as among those that have stuck with him in how they’ve evolved and pushed themselves, and predicts more current favourites Kurt Vile and Big Thief as ones that will do the same. “I’ve tried to apply that to Slaughter Beach, Dog, as much as I can – as much as we can. We’re all growing as musicians over time and we’re growing as writers over time, and it would just feel so weird to try to stick with one thing because people liked it once.”
One way in which Ewald pushed himself out of his comfort zone is how he wrote lyrics for Safe and Also No Fear. Inspired by books he was reading – chiefly Cormac McCarthy (“he has the ability to draw you into this other world”) – he decided to “paint in broader strokes,” he says. “I tried to not give away as much and focus more on sketching a feeling, as opposed to sketching a scene. I was trying to see if I could trick people into kind of an alternate space where they could feel like they were escaping for a minute, and see how convincing I could be.” It’s a fascinating way for him to build on that skill he’s always demonstrated with Slaughter Beach, Dog, of sweeping you up and into whatever world he has invented for this three minutes, where now he leaves gaps that somehow make that world even more immersive. It works to its greatest effect on ‘Petersburg’ and ‘One Day’; they each make you feel a specific, concentrated emotion that you just can’t name. It’s almost impressionistic – the whole is clear, but the brushstrokes that comprise it a little less defined. (Using more minimal lyrics, Ewald adds, also pushed him to pay closer attention to his melodies, something he found deceptively difficult once he wasn’t cramming in as many words as he could.)
It’s also easy to hear how the new-found collaborative spirit of the band made for, musically, more wholly thought out songs with more deeply embedded ideas than the whimsical, offbeat songwriting on his earlier records. “The whole process of me writing it, and then bringing it to the band and jamming it the first time, and then taking a few days off and coming back when we’re all a little more familiar with it and then jamming again – that gives me a lot of time to make sure that the lyrics are really where I want them to be, and it also gives everybody a lot of time to fine-tune their own musical parts,” he says. “That was something that definitely never happened when I used to make records by myself – I would never spend that much time on something on my own and go back and forth because I just didn’t have the attention span for it. But having everybody around and having a constant back and forth discussion allowed us to get all the songs to where we really wanted them, and not just settle for what felt like the easiest arrangement.”
Taking the record on tour has been the final step in presenting this new chapter of Slaughter Beach, Dog to the world. As soon as he stepped on stage, Ewald was reminded of how intimate things were at early Modern Baseball shows before they graduated onto bigger stages: he had forgotten how you could see every individual face. “Human people with personalities and lives,” as he describes it. “Some nights that really throws me off if I read into it too far. But also other nights, it can take me to a whole other level.” A safer record would likely have meant that Ewald could look into that sea of faces without fear, to feel perfectly comfortable and provide comfort too. But Ewald is in constant forward motion. He proved it when he wrote each consecutive Modern Baseball record, better and more daring than the last; when he created a completely different project in Slaughter Beach, Dog and threw every weird musical idea he had into it; when Modern Baseball ended and he dove into Slaughter Beach, Dog full time; and now, when creating his boldest record in Safe and Also No Fear. Facing the unknown is never safe and never comes without fear, but Jake Ewald is the kind of invaluable artist who knows that it’s worth it.