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Taste Profile: Slaughter Beach, Dog’s Jake Ewald
The Pennsylvania-based songwriter talks about growing up in church, John Lennon, and the power of the Delaware River.
Welcome to a bonus edition of No Expectations. The regular weekly newsletter will still hit your inboxes at 9am cst Thursday. This week, the extra blog is a Taste Profile interview with Slaughter Beach, Dog bandleader Jake Ewald.
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Slaughter Beach, Dog’s excellent new album Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling is so warm and inviting it feels like you’re having an intimate conversation with songwriter Jake Ewald. Across 10 tracks, the Pennsylvania artist finds resonance in quiet observations, long drives, and moments of patient reflection. These personal tunes are wrapped in sly, unselfconscious storytelling and a blanket of muted, gentle Americana. It’s one of the best full-lengths of 2023 and one that I revisit often enough that it now feels emotionally centering.
This is the fifth Slaughter Beach, Dog LP, not counting the three other albums Ewald made with his former band Modern Baseball. It’s my favorite thing he’s done and features incredible guest vocals from Erin Rae. Tomorrow, the band will embark on tour with Bonny Doon, another No Expectations favorite. In anticipation of the run which includes a Sunday, Nov. 5 stop at Chicago’s Thalia Hall, I logged on Zoom to chat with Ewald about three formative things in his life and three things he’s into now.
Read on for Ewald’s Taste Profile and click here to buy tickets to their upcoming shows.
Formative activity: Skateboarding
When did you first start skateboarding and what was your kind of gateway into it?
When you're a kid, you have your first skateboard and then you have your first real skateboard. You have the skateboard from Walmart or the thrift store and then the new Complete that Mom and Dad buy you for Christmas. My first skateboard from the thrift store or whatever, I was was probably six or seven. I remember we moved around when I was 10 or 11 and that was when I got an actual new skateboard. That went hand in hand with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on the GameCube.
I was so shy as a kid that I totally missed the community aspect of skateboarding for a solid six or seven years, which is kind of the whole point. It's kind of a bummer. I got to the end of high school and started making some genuine friends where we would go skateboarding and talk about life while we were skateboarding. I was pretty young. I put it on the list because I think it was kind of the first thing that I independently got into just across the board.
Was it just the activity of it? Or was it the iconography, the fashion, and the music that's associated with skateboarding?
I don't know if skateboarding was the first subculture that I was exposed to, but it was definitely the first one where I recognized that if I chose it, it could be immediately accessible to me. It was really appealing that there was this thing that was totally independent of everything that my parents were involved in and knew about that could be my own. I could manifest it into reality. Maybe where I was misguided is that I thought I could just manifest the entire skateboarding subculture, and bring it into my existence by just getting a skateboard in my hand. I would go out by myself in the driveway and think, “When is it all gonna start? When are all the people going to appear? When are the video cameras gonna come out and catch me doing a kickflip?” It did something for me internally.
Do you still skateboard?
I did last summer. I didn't do it this year, because we had a lot going on. But for the last couple of years, I picked it up again. I would go to parks, which I didn't used to do very often. As an older person who never got that good at skating flat ground, and also was afraid to break my wrists, I really enjoy scooting around the bowl and transition stuff. I started going to parks by myself. The other cool thing about being an adult is that I would actually talk to other people who were there. Do you skateboard?
No. I am probably even more afraid of breaking my wrists than you are. I just played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
There we go. It's the window into the world. Butwhen I was a kid, and I would go to skate parks, I was so afraid of everybody. Some kids were not that good and were also shy. And then some kids were fucking amazing at skateboarding but were really intimidating.
The last thing you’d want was to be called a poser by one of those kids.
Yes, it’s game over if you get called that. It would ruin the entire experience. You’d look at all your clothes and think, “Where did it all go wrong?” But as an adult, it’s way easier. I'm 30 now so around that age I feel like it's really cool because you have people who are 30, who still aren't that good. So you both have no defense because you're kind of in a vulnerable position. Then you have people who are 30, who are kind of good but because you're 30 it’s kind of like, “What are you doing at a skate park? Shouldn't you be at work?” So your defenses are down in that sense too. I don't know. It's just a much less intimidating setting. It's way easier to talk to people now. I really like talking to strangers.
Formative experience: the United Methodist Church
Let's talk about the United Methodist Church. You're from Maryland and you come from a family of ministers. How was growing up in the church?
It was both of my grandfathers and my mom who were ministers in my family. My sister is one now too funnily enough. So there was a lot in my family. Growing up in the church was.... It's funny when I think back on it because so much of what I retained from it is not so much spiritual, but just sociological. I was so shy and introverted as a kid and here we were, in this situation where I just had to be around these huge rooms of strange adults all because my mom was a minister. Everybody knew who me and my sister were. It was almost like a weird, alternate universe where you're the child of a politician or something. Everybody in the church knows you and they all know what's going on with you but you don't know any of them. It was just a lot to handle as a kid who was really uncomfortable being around large groups of people.
And it happened every week!
Not just every week. Because my mom was the minister, it was church every Sunday, youth group on Wednesday, and you go to the potluck thing on Tuesday. There were so many activities and that was on top of going to school. It was a lot for me to handle. But there was so much human data just getting dumped into the bank, the memory banks like all the time, which I really appreciated as I got older. Eventually, I did realize that the actual religious part, the narrative, and all the stories, and the emotional significance that it's holding for all these people, they're here for a reason. All that kind of cropped up later. This is such an interesting thing and I just mine it like all the time, whenever I'm writing.
I grew up around a lot of kids who were raised in very religious and conservative environments and weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. What I know about the United Methodist Church is a little different from more hardline conservative protestant churches. Was there a sense that the music that you were getting into as a young person was verboten in that environment?
It was pretty permissive. There were certain things that my parents were skeptical about. I remember the first big deal thing was when American Idiot came out. I was into Green Day and there were some swear words in the singles. It wasn't really based on religion. It was more parents being not totally cool with swear words, I guess. My grandpa and grandma grew up in the Nazarene Church, which meant that they couldn't go to the movies. They didn't go to dances or any of that stuff. When they converted to Methodism, there was this general sense in the family that we're not going to be so hung up on a lot of these things, because there was this kind of decisive moment where these grandparents made this decision. Everybody gets to let their hair down a little bit, which is cool. It was more about the whole social experience for me.
I’m not religious but there is a ton of value in having a community of like-minded people who are your neighbors and seeing them multiple times a week. The world is pretty isolating right now and if you're not religious, it's a little harder to foster that community.
Yes, it's so weird. When we first moved out to the Poconos, I remember passing three churches in a row on our first drive through the main road here. One of them was Methodist. And for the first time in my adult life, as an independent person, I passed the church and was like, “Oh, moving out here, to a place where we don't know anybody and don't really have a network, I now understand why you would go here.” I have a personal version of why somebody would do this. It was an interesting moment.
Formative radio station: WAMU
So this is a talk radio station, right?
Yeah, it's the NPR station that operates out of American University in DC.
A lot of people choose radio stations for this interview but they’re usually music programming. What was it about this radio station?
It was my parents' local NPR station, and it was just on all the time. Did you grow up in Chicago?
I grew up in Michigan but I've been living in Chicago for almost 15 years.
I grew up in Maryland. We had mainstream rock radio stations that we would listen to if I got to pick the radio station. But the NPR station was way more dependable not just on in the car, but on when dinner was getting made and on in the morning, when my mom was making breakfast, and on in my parents' room at night. It was just on all the fucking time. I remember being so bored by so much of the news and people talking with no music in the background. But I remember very clearly listening to programs like—I feel like this is making me out to be a liberal, corporate, millennial, manufactured human being—but I have so many memories of listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and This American Life with Ira Glass. Just hearing people talk on the radio about personal experiences, you could hear people investigating the life of kind of a normal person. Even on Fresh Air, where some of them could be qualified as celebrity interviews, it's still a super intimate setting. I just got so accustomed to this environment.
There's so much other stuff I'm consuming as a kid that's like fucking Spongebob and Rugrats and Green Day where it's hitting you over the head with intensity. And then there was this thing that I was getting dosed with five times a day that was human beings talking to each other about being a human being with no music in the background and very minimal editing. Now as an adult, that's what I write songs about. My ideal way to talk to anyone is to go in a room with nobody else around and one other person that I can just sit there and talk to in person.
When I was trying to think of my picks for this interview, I had never considered NPR before. But this actually shaped the way that feels most comfortable for me to internalize my environment, the people around me, and what I'm attracted to in the world. To me, it's all about two people talking to each other intentionally
Recent song: John Lennon, “Isolation”
This song is an alltimer.
I tried to go maximum current with these picks. I'm loosely familiar with John Lennon's solo stuff. When we were on this UK tour a week or two ago, I made a playlist of some more Lennon solo stuff to get familiar with, along with some Fleetwood Mac stuff from the same era, and some '70s stuff. It started because I had this thought about solo Lennon that when he started working on his own, he totally shed this weight of identity he had with The Beatles. He’d been doing so much posturing and he was so uncomfortable before in that role, but at the same time, he was a world-class songwriter. So obviously, it was still phenomenal work. But when it was just him, he had the vulnerability from getting out of the horrible situation and also having his world totally taken over by Yoko's art.
On top of that, having decades of practice in songwriting, he was able to tap into these vulnerable emotions for the first time. It's such a fucking stark, clear, simple music. There are so few words in that song but they hit like a ton of bricks. He also starts living inside this tempo, this very slow, very deliberate but reliable and strong zone. It's a slow song that hits right with the very few words that are like “Jesus, man, did you just say that?” And his voice is so fucking good.
You really feel for him here.
I've had this image of him and Yoko in the bed, or on the floor, or just those classic images of them being alone somewhere. For the longest time, I digested those images as like, “Oh, they're on a cloud. They're on an island. They are the super famous, wealthy people who are super talented.” But the more you listen to the music, get familiar with the situation, and the more you understand what it feels like to be an adult, you realize there are a lot more layers to this. There's a reason why they're alone in that room.
The song is really just “It’s me and my partner against the world.”
Literally. That’s a scary concept!
Recent essay: Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill”
What stuck out to you about this essay? I read this in college but haven’t revisited it since.
I was reading it for the first time last week. I had borrowed this book of Wendell Berry essays from my friend, Kelly. It's such an interesting voice, the way he talks about America. The thing that knocked me over in this one was when he talked about how the native people in what we now call the United States had such a deep understanding of the physical place, the geography, and the environment. Their relationship to the land came out of an understanding that took centuries to get to. Their current relationship is a product of that knowing. But when we came to America, we just implanted our identity in it. We're here and we're going to fuck up all these fields, kill all these people, and then we're going to find out later that we ruined these fields. We wiped out these entire communities. There's this line where he says something to the effect of, "We have yet to truly arrive in America in any meaningful way" which I just thought was insane in how true I thought that was.
He's talking about a hill on his property and is saying, “This hill has seen 1000s of years of stuff happening in front of this hill. This hill knows more than I will ever know and more than my grandfather knew, and everyone else.” I was struck by how much it resonated with my personal meditative practice. But the way that he talks about the land that he has a relationship with strikes so many of the same chords. But through these super physical things, he's talking about walking around on his property and looking out at a certain view of a certain landscape that he knows that his grandfather looked at. There's so much shit that we implant into reality with our minds and underneath all of that there's a whole universe that we haven't even bothered to think about most of the time.
Did this also resonate because you moved from a city to a more rural area in the last few years?
Yeah, it did. I received it with more of an open heart because I have had so many more experiences in the last couple of years of spending more time in nature, and realizing how fulfilling that is for so little effort. I always end up in this position where I'm trying to think my way out of unhappiness in a moment but then I go outside, and I just look around. All this is here and has been here forever and everything I'm thinking about is a total fabrication. It doesn't matter at all. It's hard to describe, but I was way more open to receiving it. On first read. I was going, "Oh man, I kind of wish I grew up in a place that had geographical significance for me that I could return to after sowing my wild oats somewhere and then just spend the rest of my life writing about it."
You don’t have a hill?
I don't think I have a hill.
On your new album, there’s a song called “Float Away,” which you’ve said is an ode to the Delaware River.
I do have a hill: it’s the Delaware River. Thank you, Josh.
What’s your history with the Delaware River?
When we lived when we lived in Philly, my partner and I most of the time lived in Fishtown and Kensington, which is near Penn Treaty and the Delaware River. But when we were in Philly, I never thought of it as the Delaware River. For some reason, I thought of it as the place where the big boats are and stuff smells a little worse. It's Fishtown. We moved up here to the Delaware Water Gap, which is the name of the National area that includes the Delaware River. We live probably the same distance from the river here that we also did in Philadelphia but two hours north, which I didn't realize until we already moved here. So a lot of times, if I'm on a drive back up here to come home from a tour or band practice or something, I'll drive to the little pull-off area by the river, just get out of the car, and go look at it for a minute. It's a powerful body of water, man. It's wide. People fucking die in it but it's gorgeous. I am right next to it. I've been right next to it for 10 years. So yeah, I guess I do have a hill.
Recent music: Gilles Peterson on BBC6
This is the pick I’m most excited about because Gilles has turned me on to more great music than most people. He’s also a huge supporter of International Anthem, a jazz label here in Chicago that I love.
I do love International Anthem. Recently I was looking for more sources of curated music. Because who doesn't if you like music? I had heard his name in conversation and I was intrigued because for me, the concept of the American radio DJ, who will turn you on to something underground that you haven't heard before, feels like an artifact. Gilles, who is of course European, has filled that role for me.
The BBC has this great app for the radio, where they have all the stations, and they have all their shows archived back a couple of weeks. They have the tracklist on them, and they link up Spotify and Apple Music and stuff. I got into International Anthem, which was getting me into more contemporary jazz stuff. I was also getting into more reissue, private press stuff, and lo and behold, there is this man in Britain, who is playing that shit on the radio for the good people of the world. I don't know who else is doing that to that wide of an audience
I could list a couple of NTS shows but none of them has the reach Gilles does.
Totally. When you listen to the show, you know he's not dashing this off. This is his whole life: finding this music and sharing it with people. If he finds something current, and he likes it, he will play it on the show, talk about it, and help you develop a relationship with this music. He will help you discover this thing that otherwise would not be reaching hardly anybody. I'm so excited that you're also a fan. How did you get into it and what else do you listen to?
He gave a lot of airtime to Resavoir, the project started by my friend Will Miller, and that got me into his radio show. I’ll also do a lot of Apple Music Radio, especially the artist-hosted stuff.
Oh yeah! I’m also an Apple Music guy too. Who are your favorites?
I do the Time Crisis Radio Show, which is hosted by Ezra Koenig and Jake Longstreth, a lot. It’s not really for music discovery but it’s hilarious and sounds like how my friends and I talk when we listen to music. I’ll also put on Dave Cobb’s Southern Accents Radio for country stuff.
Dave Cobb has a show? Holy shit! I've tried some of the indie shows and haven't clicked with anyone but I'm a religious Time Crisis listener too. I'm in a "TC Couple." We both listen to it all the time. I have a friend who is a producer on Time Crisis and before I got into Apple Music, he would always talk about it.
Is this Matt Baldwin? I love Matt.
It is. Hell yeah! Matt had been working there for a while and he told me what sets Apple Music apart is the radio.
I agree. Also, it just sounds better and it also has Neil Young’s catalog.
I can't even quantify how rich my music listening experiences are because Apple Music has album bios that are written by people who are invested in the album, who will be like, "They did this, this, and this, and it came out of this. You can really hear this on these two songs that are not the most popular songs on the album." Where else are you going to hear somebody tell you that on a streaming service? Apple Music will also highlight essential albums that are actually curated by a person rather than an algorithm.
That’s why Gilles is so great. You can easily understand how much he cares about showing you these tunes. It feels authentic and the opposite of algorithmic.
I used to consider curation as an egotistical kind of effort. But the deeper I get into these kinds of music channels, the more I realize this is not an egotistical thing. This is a way to develop significant, rich, intimate relationships with art. This is how music becomes your life.