Stepping Into the Museum of Slaughter Beach, Dog
Jake Ewald talks all things Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling—the fifth and latest album from the beloved Philadelphia bandPhoto by Ashley Gellman Music Features Slaughter Beach, Dog
Jake Ewald did not know who Labi Siffre was before titling the newest Slaughter Beach, Dog record Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, but it makes sense that you might have thought that. In 1972, the Hammersmith songwriter released his own album called Crying Laughing Loving Lying, and it endures as a best-kept-secret folk-pop record 51 years later. “I remember, as soon as I thought of the title, I googled it and read the first few pages and was like, ‘Okay, we’re clear. It’s all good.’ And then I didn’t do any more digging after that,” Ewald explains. “And then, we start getting the assets together and I go on Pitchfork one day and they put up a Sunday review of Crying Laughing Loving Lying and I go, ‘Ah, fuck!’—because I didn’t realize it was a Sunday review. I thought it was an album that just came out three months before ours that was called that.”
Though it might seem like an improbable coincidence for the rest of us, for Ewald it was a missive from the universe. He and his manager went on to listen to Siffre’s songs together, and they were both awestruck over how sublime and familiar the record was in such an immediate way. “I hadn’t heard of it, but I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard of it—because it was such a beautiful meeting of all these different things that I was into, that I am into, and I fell in love with it right away,” Ewald adds. “It reminded me of Paul Simon, honestly, but even more poetic and even more romantic. And some of the arrangements were so lush and beautiful. It makes me wonder how many records I love were made after listening to that record. I was like, ‘This must just be in the bones of so much stuff that I love, because it’s hitting all of these notes that are so satisfying to me.’”
There’s a Siffre quote that has long stood out to me, from his interview with the BBC in 1972 where he talks about the “mathematics of songwriting.” “There are things you can say in a song that you would be too embarrassed to say in conversation. If you were in bed, you wouldn’t say it—because you spend all of your time thinking, ‘Good heavens, I remember this. It was straight out of a B-movie.’ ‘Gloria, how could you do this to me?’ and all of that. In a song, you can say it and it sounds correct. It’s a cowardly way of saying things that you would never say,” he concluded. I feel wholeheartedly the opposite about Ewald’s work, as he generally opts for taking the conversational moments one might think are too ordinary for a song and turning them into these accessible feats of language that can be worn in by any listener. “I’d like to write a song in which there was no rhyme whatsoever. Just take a conversation, record a conversation, and then put it to music,” Siffre added. Both songwriters took—and take—great pride in employing an intimacy across their work. For Siffre, that came through his glowing guitar work and impressionable singing; for Ewald, that warmth comes in droves across the mass of his prose-inspired, captivating lyricism.
That desire that Siffre had—to throw out the conventionality of poetry and its limitations in favor of something more organic, something real and intimate and unkempt—is something that Ewald distills into every Slaughter Beach, Dog record. “It used to feel like I was collecting these actual, almost tangible, artifacts of a specific type of person or a specific thing that a person said, or the way that somebody looked at somebody else,” Ewald explains. “But now, it feels more like I’m logging these complicated emotions and nuanced feelings that I bump up against in daily life—whether they’re my own or my partner’s or my family’s or my neighbors or, even, somebody I’ve seen in movies.”
Instead of hearing a line in a conversation and using it as a vaulting point in a song, Ewald is more interested in the idea that any type of art is an attempt to express a specific human experience or human emotion. He recognizes how painfully obvious that idea might sound on its face, but is quick to remark the complexity that such an understood truth can arrive with. “The more I think about it, the more it’s this endless task. If, a zillion years from now, when aliens come to Earth and everything is on fire, some of the only things they’re gonna have—to see what was up with us—are the pictures that we drew and the songs that we wrote and the journalism that we have,” Ewald adds. “All of this stuff is just an attempt to document the insane bullshit narrative inside each of our individual brains that we’re dealing with everyday that make us cry and want to die but also want to hug somebody or get drunk or do whatever. I find myself less of trying to assemble an exhibit of artifacts and more of hearing a certain conversation and being like, ‘Oh must that person feel, to be saying that to the other person right now? What kind of relationship must they have?’—really diving into the idea that everyone is a whole world.”
Birdie, the first Slaughter Beach, Dog album Ewald released after the dissolution of his longtime band Modern Baseball in 2017, greatly evoked what he is saying about spinning a singular moment into a whole story. That’s not to say that Birdie was a fictitious album; far from it. The stories behind songs like “Gold and Green” and “Acolyte” and “Shapes I Know” were lived by somebody, somewhere—and, often, you can catch glimpses of Ewald’s own life trickling in through the cracks, especially in the Delaware references on “Fish Fry.” But when you sit down and make an attempt to map out someone else’s lifetime, you fill in the gaps with what you know best—what you recognize and can crystalize from your own history. This is not a writing crux; it is what gives our most treasured stories vivid color, why it’s hard to blur lines between an author and their work. There’s a piece of us in all things we write, whether we want to admit it or not. And that is why Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling is such a strange and rare and curious and affectionate album.
“One of the things that I’ve found really exciting about this type of writing is that it’s a machine that sustains itself on its own energy,” Ewald concludes. “I’ll have one of those moments where I notice an emotion in someone, real or fake, and my first reaction will be to try to compare it to something that I’ve felt before—or something that I think I’ve registered in someone that I love, who was close enough to feel it—so that I can place it and start picking it apart. Once I get my feet on the ground, in that sense, I’ll do the best I can to completely throw myself into that other person’s shoes and try to explore that emotion or that feeling from where they are. And then as I’m doing that, of course, I’ll start bumping up against things that feel familiar to me, as I’m trying to inhabit this other person. It just keeps getting kicked back and forth, and it’s really such a useful exercise—because it makes me look at things from a lot of different angles, and it’s striking how it simplifies and complicates humanity at the same time. I keep being reminded of how similar so many experiences are but, then, also how endlessly varied the possibilities are at any moment between any two people.”
If a Slaughter Beach, Dog record aims to make any grand statement, it’s that there’s nuance everywhere, that human capacity is life’s most evergreen subject. The work on Crying, Laughing, Waving Smiling is not a project built on the act of reporting; it’s an investigative text. Instead of just saying what he’s seeing, Ewald is digging into what exists beyond the immediacy of all of that. “Anytime I’m in some insane personal experience where I come up against something I’ve never dealt with before—and either end up feeling really emotionally hurt or really hurting somebody else or being confused by something that someone does—it’s obviously difficult to deal with that in the moment but, at the same time, it feeds into this constant search for everything,” he adds. Siffre said something in that BBC interview about the conflation of poetry and music, that poets should write poetry and lyricists should write songs. Maybe he’s right, if you land on the side of the coin that believes that music and poetry are not the same song. I think, in regards to Ewald, though, there’s something particularly visceral about how he merges those two mediums into one brilliant and bold exercise of thematic accent—and, when his bandmates Zack Robbins, Adam Meisterhans, Ian Farmer and Logan Roth file in behind him with some of the richest instrumentation they’ve ever constructed together, everything boils into a zenith.
There’s a song on the new record called “Bobcat Club,” which Ewald wrote about a Philly spot he loved for a long time. He sings about two lovers sitting at the end of a bar, inspired by an actual couple who would watch TV and drink together in silence all night and, mythically, never leave. “Bobcat Club” is a striking presence on Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, most zealously because of its plainspoken attempt at examining just how a love language can exist through acts of kindness and quiet chemistry. There’s a compassionate idealism in there somewhere, in this idea that simplicity can exist on the other edge of brutality and violence. The simplicity that exists in the four minutes of “Bobcat Club” feels like a dream worth latching onto, one that can exist within the margins of helpless hope and cloudy futures.
“Sometimes it feels overly optimistic,” Ewald admits, after I ask him if the kind of world he wants his loved ones to find safety and wonder in changes the stakes of how he articulates what’s around him on a record. “I think if I can be empathetic enough in song—if I can inhabit enough different perspectives and inspire enough nuanced understanding for myself and for the listeners—maybe, one day, everybody will stop being dicks to each other. It’s such a curious place to be at, such an optimistic place to be at. But I have to draw a line before stepping into trying to actually create that world and turning it into some sort of manifesto of connection and perfect harmony—because that always feels like dangerous territory. I think I would love it if that was a byproduct of what I do—and I find a lot of comfort in the idea that that might be a byproduct of what I do—but I do actively try not to intellectualize it, because I only ever ruin things by intellectualizing them. I love the process, and it makes me see the world a certain way, and I try to just stop there.”
On “Henry,” Ewald writes of a Georgia kid who dreamed of hightailing to Europe and wearing pork-pie hats and playing jazz tunes like Charles Mingus. It’s a damning story, as Henry’s mom finds his stash of cigars and Mingus records and, instead of promoting her son’s creativity, she ships him off to military school and turns his bedroom into an office. “Henry got to marching, pushing up, pulling up, blowing on bugles all day,” Ewald sings. “He never heard no Charles Mingus again and, Lord knows, he lost more than weight.” I keep returning to the track—its arrangement delicate like a folk lullaby—for how it’s a life’s story that can mean one thing to me and another thing to you. Was Henry robbed of a passion, or spared an isolating life of making art for other people? It can be seen as an ugly and unpleasant conclusion, or it can be a misunderstood victory. Ewald doesn’t set out to answer the question for us or push us in either direction.
Slaughter Beach, Dog go to many places on Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling—not just musically, but directionally. The record is populated with nods to New Jersey, Philadelphia, West Virginia, Georgia, San Francisco and elsewhere, but it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to make the tracklist a road map—a stark departure from a Birdie song like “Phoenix,” which was, quite literally, Ewald standing on a street corner in Phoenix, Arizona and wanting to give that experience a lyrical treatment. “I think, between being a touring musician for long enough and also doing enough of that studious and exploratory reading and consuming of art and music, I feel like all of those references in this batch of songs just fell out without me realizing,” Ewald explains. “It was less of an artifact that I had found and filed away and more of a part of me. I feel like all of those places are a part of me at this point. I’ve been in San Francisco enough times to have multiple, distinct emotional memories from there.”
When Ewald pulls a “San Anton” out of his nearby Johnny Cash colloquial textbook in “Float Away,” it’s because he’s listened to enough old country songs—as a student—to have something like that filed away in the back of his mind. At this point, these references and moments are not so much anecdotal as they are everyday fixtures that have woven a tapestry within Ewald’s own singing dialect and his own musical vocabulary. Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling pulls from so much history, too. There’s an immense landscape of blues, cowboy chords and pure singer/songwriter folk rock here, and it came via Slaughter Beach, Dog making a band-in-the-room record—a trend that many artists in 2023 are following, a practice likely stemming from lockdown and the larger-than-life impact is had (and still has) on music-making for artists. Much of the album came together in a five-day session stretch in July 2022. Ewald would play a song solo and then, on the next take, the rest of the band would fall in and play what felt right. The band never talked about how they wanted the album to sound, only about how they wanted it to be mixed.
“We sat down at the beginning of the sessions and said that we were going to try to be as open as possible; we’re going to try to listen to each other as best as we can, musically, and really not stifle anything—just let ideas happen, be open to any ideas that happen and be curious and really, above all, listen to what each other are doing to really play off of each other and serve the songs. It was really striking how it ended up sounding,” Ewald says. “We love this record and we’re so proud of it, and it’s really humbling to know that we went into it relinquishing control from the beginning and really not saying we want to sound a particular way or play a certain way or do a certain thing. You kind of just have to let go. That seems like the secret, now that we’re all aged rockers.”
In the liner notes of the record, Ewald nabbed an engineering credit. He’s pretty nonchalant about it, claiming that he only “plugged in a few cables, as I will normally do just to be helpful at the studio” and that it was Farmer and Robbins who led the charge from the beginning on the production side. From the opening track “Surfin’ New Jersey,” it’s immediately obvious that Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling is the best-sounding record that Slaughter Beach, Dog have ever made. The two musicians have spent a long time collecting gear, and they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve weeded out everything except for the best tools. And, the further they get into those obsessions and education, the simpler every record gets.
Slaughter Beach, Dog make tunes in a low-ceiling room in an East Kensington studio called the Metal Shop; the space isn’t built to sound a certain way; treatments have been made, but much of the reason why songs like “Strange Weather” and “Summer Windows” sound so good is because they paint accurate, understandable pictures of the drums being played so well by Robbins. When Farmer mics up his bass, he’s doing so in a way he knows works best to suit the way he plays the instrument. Ewald’s singing comes through clear as day because the band has got mics set up all around them, catching each spark and imperfection. There’s so much care put into Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, and it’s taken such a long time to get to this point—and now Slaughter Beach, Dog are reaping the rewards of spending years investigating those kinds of elements and components.
“Recording bands and recording your own music, it’s just this fucking wormhole that can consume your whole life, you spend so much money on all of this stuff, there’s everything out there and everything is subjective with how you use different microphones and different preamps and where you put them in the room, and [Robbins and Farmer] have dedicated a vast chunk of their lives to investigating that,” Ewald says. “And, to Ian’s credit in particular, he’s spent the last years really zoning in on mastering. That’s the main work that he does for outside clients. And, as he did that, the more his ears are just—his head, at this point, is a finely tuned machine. The things that he picks out are incredible. I feel so lucky to be in this crew or people who have just put so much care and dedication into that journey for so many years. And, now, we just get to sit inside and play music and try to do the best we can.”
Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling is also the product of a band who no longer call the same place home anymore. A bit ago, Ewald moved north into an A-frame in the Poconos while, currently, Mesiterhans lives in Nashville and flies in for band sessions. It’s different now, as it’s not just a group of guys living in Fishtown and walking three blocks to the studio to have some beers and sketch out songs together. Ewald finds self-discipline in healthy compartmentalization. He’s not a studio rat—and, whenever he lived barely a stone’s throw from his own recording space, he wasn’t going there every single day—but he’s pretty transparent with me that he struggles to disconnect from something or someplace unless he can physically get separation. So, moving a few hours away from Philadelphia to the mountains was a helpful endeavor for him in that regard, and it’s how Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling got written.
“By the time we booked the [first Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling] session, I had 20 songs for us to sift through—and I had never done that before, I’d never written anywhere near that many songs for an album,” Ewald explains. “It was such a fruitful experience for me, writing out here. And, it didn’t take much. It didn’t really require anything. I had the ability to leave [Philadelphia], the ability to separate myself and take a break and actually feel removed and feel that kind of relief of not being plugged into something. I have a tendency to feel plugged into things when I’m not actually, and it just exhausts me.”
In turn, the colors become more vivid when Slaughter Beach, Dog reconvene for a session. The stakes are lower, and the band is able to lean on a decade’s worth of trust and chemistry. Making a record is not a high-pressure situation anymore; instead, it’s an enterprise infused with way more purpose than ever before. Sure, they’ve gotta plan things out much further in advance—aka get a flight for Meisterhans and make up the guest bed at Farmer’s house—but every chunk of recording becomes more punctuated and important, especially now that treks are being made just to put all of it into motion. There’s a sense that Slaughter Beach, Dog aren’t caught up so much in the ruthlessness of a grind and they’re thriving as a result.
“In Philly, there’s that feeling that, when you’re playing in a band, you’re just doing shit all the time. It’s inspiring in a lot of ways, but it’s also just kind of endless. You lose the checkpoints a little bit, because you’re always in it,” Ewald says. “To drive into the city on a particular day, to meet the band in the studio, to do our work that we live for that we have been working at for so long in each of our individual lives, to physically come together to do that on a certain day and the reason we woke up this morning is to make this music—it’s a pretty powerful feeling. There was a nice moment in those sessions last summer when I was staying at our old place in Philly, that we still had at the time, and Adam was crashing in a spare room there. I think, after the first day, Adam was asking me, ‘Do you feel like we’re getting enough done? Is this meeting your expectations? Are you nervous about getting to a certain level of productivity?’ I was like, ‘I’m really trying not to do that, and it feels really good—because it’s just happening.’”
Across Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, there’s a standout presence beyond the immediate band: Erin Rae. The Nashville singer/songwriter can be heard singing on every track, and her harmonies are the perfect companion to Ewald’s lead. Nearly every time she pops up on a song, what she’s doing is a product of the crew being floored by her instincts. “So often, the first thing she tried would be the thing that ended up on the song,” Ewald explains. “She understands songs in such a deep, visceral way. What felt natural for her was exactly what we had dreamed of for the songs. It’s fitting, because that’s the way that the arrangements with the band came about. It was like, ‘We trust everyone’s instincts in here and we just want to let those instincts come through.’ Really, [Erin’s singing] was just one more iteration of that.” Earlier this summer at Newport Folk Festival, Rae joined the band onstage and sang the whole set completely unrehearsed with no soundcheck. “She’s a pro,” Ewald adds.
When Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling was finished and Ewald started looking back at all of the songs and trying to find a throughline that he could then translate into the record’s visuals, he landed on the sentiments the playing that Slaughter Beach, Dog have been doing together as a band. That spirit of collaboration vaulted into an idea to do something in the realm of pastiche for the artwork. On the cover, there’s a fragmented photo of Farmer playing bass next to a sea of beige beneath green, scribbled text. Inside of the vinyl release, there’s a humungous, poster-sized collage of various snapshots of the entire band playing onstage.
“I was thinking a lot about folk art and finding a lot of inspiration in art from people who spent their whole lives making it—whether it was commercially viable or not,” Ewald says. “The fact that a lot of times, if you do something long enough, whether or not you’re recognized for it when you want to be, you end up getting recognized for it just because you did it long enough that that in itself became a spectacle and something to be appreciated. I was feeling that sentiment with the record and the fact that I’ve been writing these songs for so long, everybody in the band has been playing in bands for so long and we’ve been playing these shows for so long. When I looked at the songs, it felt like the Folk Art Museum of Slaughter Beach, Dog—just by digging through the songs and digging through all these photos we had from recent tours that Amanda [Fotes] and Jess [Flynn] had taken.”
Slaughter Beach, Dog have created their own mythology in that way, that their catalog is a living, breathing ecosystem. You could add an addendum at the end of every record just to further map out each character and each destination and each Easter egg and each reference. In the band’s museum lives a coterie of names without faces: Annie, Catherine, Jeff, Rosemary Robinson, Beau, Lewis, Jay, Emily, Aunt Julie, Ava, Jonathan, Jenny, Tommy, Margaret, Danny and Henry. Ewald performs a very Frank O’Hara-style of dramatization across his records, in that he tells us exactly who these people are under the assumption that we’ve known and loved them for our entire lives already. It’s an intimate approach, one that blurs the lines between memoir and story.
On Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, there’s a rootless, itinerant vibe of simply having been a band for so long. In turn, a lot of the characters Ewald writes about now are sympathetic to that truth, to the search that the band is on—now that they’re going around the country in circles over and over again. The one consistent presence across every Slaughter Beach, Dog record is someone who is looking for something—that, if a place like Toyko or West Virginia or, even, Philadelphia gets named, it’s because somebody has a reason to be going there and Ewald wants to find out what the reason is.
In that Labi Siffre interview from 51 years ago, he said something about the schematics and the construction of songwriting and syntax and language that has really stuck with me. “You get a word at the end of a line, and there are only so many words that will fit, will scan,” Siffre noted. “And you just have to hope that one of them, one of those words, will lead you onto something that means what you want to say.” That sort of idea pulls me into the cornerstone of Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, the nine-minute, mountainous opus of “Engine.” To put it plainly, the track is Ewald’s “Desolation Row,” in that it’s complex, methodical, peripatetic and orthodixical. As Craig Finn of the Hold Steady says in the liner notes, Ewald “finds the divine and sacred in the everyday”—and no track in Slaughter Beach, Dog’s canon is more pronounced and aglow with the spectaculars and the splendors of life’s commonality more so than “Engine.”
Ewald begins the song by recounting a story that is true: His van was stolen from the front of his house. But, the track quickly sprawls into him likening himself to the engine and the pain he might have put his own vehicle through during trips across the desert and around the country. It’s not so much a stream-of-conscious type of performance. Instead, Ewald is doing an unthinkable feat of writing an epic poem that is woven like a dense, stratified tapestry of titanic vignettes that try to make sense of connection and purpose. “Outside, the air weighs a hundred pounds, bridesmaids pour of the bar doors, everything black but the concrete,” he sings. “You take the front seat, I’ll try to drive. It’s hard enough singing when the hotel chokes on your memories. Maybe let’s watch The Sopranos, maybe let’s order Chinese. The laundry machine isn’t breathing.” The engine of his missing van led Ewald to finding what it was that he wanted to say, even if arrives rid of any true resolution.
Because “Engine” is deliriously baroque and seismic and devastating, as Ewald throws out lines like “Funny what makes you feel cared for, funny how well I remember. What a relief to be grateful” and ends on an answer unbound to any question: “The truth is, I live to roll over.” With a record like Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling—a project littered with God imagery and pastorals of an entire world well-traveled, searches for meaning and distillations of hope and novelty—Ewald’s storytelling falls somewhere along a spectrum populated by Prine and Berman, Carver and Faulkner. The doorways we enter on his records are gothic and limitless and specific, be it San Francisco in the nighttime or a 7-11 or a closet full of My Chemical Romance T-shirts or the cornfields in Ohio or Hawthorne Boulevard. There’s a continuum of Americana in the fabric of his band’s DNA; a deft and desirable sense of surrounding that populates each album like a series of vignettes tethered together by one prevailing, recurring theme: a search for meaning in each of our smallest orbits. On Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, those ideas arrive as souvenirs of human movement, in kindred curios of devotion and fits of prose built on a language that can only be penned by someone whose ear is constantly affixed onto the conversations and the empathy unfurling around him. That’s Jake Ewald, and that’s Slaughter Beach, Dog.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.