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Music Was Always There: Jake Ewald Talks Starting Again With Slaughter Beach, Dog

Friday, 04 May 2018 Written by Jennifer Geddes

Photo: Jess Flynn

Back in February of last year, Jake Ewald had to find a new job. After several years spent writing records and touring with Modern Baseball, the band went on indefinite hiatus. The statement they released referred to the fact that they had been “championing the importance of mental health” and that the band had become a source of anxiety that they could no longer ignore.

Many groups across history have probably disbanded for the same reason, whether they were conscious of it or not, but Modern Baseball were one of the first to vocalise it publicly. The decision was met with obvious disappointment, but also great understanding from fans who left messages of support on their social media pages. After all, their openness about such issues was the one of the reasons many loved them.

Ewald started working at a few venues around Philadelphia to pay the bills, but his desire to write music was never far away. Having released the first Slaughter Beach, Dog record, ‘Welcome’, while still in Modern Baseball, he was able to spend more time focusing on his own project. ‘Birdie’, his second album under the banner, was released in the UK by Big Scary Monsters last October.

“I guess it’s kind of my life now,” Ewald says, sitting outside the label’s pop-up shop at Cardiff’s Duke Street Arcade, where he’s about to play a solo acoustic set. “Music was always in there. I think the furthest I would have gone would be to buckle down at me and Ian’s [Farmer, Modern Baseball bassist] recording studio and really just make that my full time job recording other people’s bands.”

Behind him, the shop is filled with records and t-shirts from the independent label. Founded by Kevin Douch over 15 years ago, Big Scary Monsters has long supported the UK’s emo and math-rock bands, more recently expanding to release records from the US for the British market, including Modern Baseball’s ‘Holy Ghost’.

“We formed the relationship on different sides of the ocean but then as we started hanging out with them more it’s been really special to grow as friends,” Ewald says of the label. “They really, really care about the bands. Two days ago Kev sent me an email about seeing Tiny Moving Parts at the Dome in London. The two of us are technically just business partners but we were geeking out about the band. It feels like something special.”

Despite having been in one of the most talked about new bands of recent years, you’d probably be hard pressed to pick Ewald out of the crowd of young music fans at the in-store show. They are all dressed like him, in plaid shirts, band tees and hoodies, as they squeeze past Douch and into the small upstairs room to hear him play. “I’ve got nothing but positive words to say about him,” he remarks of Ewald. “You’ve met him - how could you not want to work with him?”

It’s true, Ewald is very easy to talk to. He possesses no clichéd rock star attitude, and he just seems like a regular guy. It’s not until he starts playing intricate, delicate patterns on his guitar, and singing in a soft, slightly cracked voice, that you notice there is something really special about him.

Still in his early 20s, he’s able to totally enthral the audience. It’s one of those performances where you forget how long you’ve been there, squashed up against a total stranger. There is also a strong sense of camaraderie in the room, with everyone moving to make space (despite the lack of it) for those late-comers stuck waiting on the stairs.

“A lot of it is the same crowd acting a little differently,” Ewald says, when asked about who comes to his solo shows. “It depends on what kind of show or tour we’re doing. On this tour [opening for Tigers Jaw] 99% know us from Modern Baseball, but we did a headline tour in the States last year and that was a mixture of people who knew us from Modern Baseball and other people who just found us.

"There are some people who are like, ‘I never really liked Modern Baseball but I really like this band’. There are people who get into the band, but they don’t realise I was in Modern Baseball until they go to the show. It’s a mix of everything.”

This is something that Douch echoes. “I think this project is just going to keep growing,” he says. “It’s taken some of the Modern Baseball fans. They had a fairly broad range of fans, but also I think it’s just connected to a whole bunch of new people. People more my age in their mid-30s.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Ewald’s music appeals to so many is that there seems to be a genuine drive to communicate authentically with people. “Having played so many shows, and having people come up to me and say ‘I like your band, I like your songs’, you build confidence,” Ewald says. “If I try something new, people who have been to the shows might like something different, because they like what I did before.”

You might be mistaken for thinking that Ewald lacks confidence, but really it’s an unwillingness to engage with any sort of pretence. Most musicians probably feel this way, but how many would so casually admit to it in an interview? He takes a sip from his cup of tea. “It’s really neat to be able to use that encouragement to try something new instead of using it to keep trying to do the same thing,” he says.

The music may be different, but the authenticity that attracted so many fans to Modern Baseball has carried over into Slaughter Beach, Dog. “Sometimes in the studio you’re layering a bunch of loud electronic guitars and loud drums and it’s really fun but it’s almost like in some ways you’re hiding behind it a little bit,” Ewald says. “It was neat to try not doing that and let myself be exposed a little more.

“When you first start recording, the biggest thing that feels weird is hearing the sound of your own voice. You’re like, ‘I sound like a lunatic’. Then the longer you go on it’s like, ‘OK, I don’t sound like a lunatic, but my guitar sounds stupid. I gotta put more distortion on my guitar.’

"It was like peeling back the layers, and being like, 'I like the way that soft guitar sounds, I’m confident in the way that my voice sounds when I’m singing this way, and I don’t need to layer a bunch of stuff on it.’ It’s being more confident in what you are doing musically.”

Hearing Ewald talk this way makes it easy to understand why so many artists pick up an acoustic guitar after having been in punk bands. Modern Baseball may have been the first chapter in his music career, but it isn’t the last. After the show, he hangs around to chat to people before blending into the crowd.

'Birdie' is out now on Big Scary Monsters/Lame-O.

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