There’s always a lot of traveling, and rarely any particular destination, going into a Slaughter Beach, Dog song. But the way the journey unfolds, the weight of everything that gathers around it, is never quite the same. Jake Ewald formed Slaughter Beach, Dog in 2015 as a means of fighting writer’s block while writing songs for his main band at the time, Modern Baseball, and the project – now featuring his former Modern Baseball bandmate Ian Farmer on bass, Adam Meisterhans on guitar, Logan Roth on keyboard, and Zack Robbins on drums – has since released four LPs as well as multiple EPs and live albums. At the beginning of the pandemic, Ewald relocated from his longtime home of Philadelphia to a house in the Poconos, filling his time with long walks, surrounded by nature, and listening to classic songwriters like Neil Young, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits. In July 2022, he brought these inspirations to the band’s longtime studio in Philly, the Metal Shop, where they tracked the songs he had written on an acoustic guitar over the past two years.
The influences Ewald was absorbing around the making of Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling – out Friday – weren’t just musical. He was particularly fascinated by artists who have managed to whittle down a life’s worth of memory and experience to an emotionally resonant piece of work, one of whose simplicity often belies just how enormous of a task it is. Ewald’s own writing feels instinctual, generous, and nuanced, and though it’s delivered with growing awareness, he admits he didn’t immediately realize when his attempts tended towards something similarly wide-encompassing, if still ambiguous, like on the 9-minute single ‘Engine’. The album floats beautifully from one song to the next, giving each character and story the space to exist and reasons to hold onto them. They’re never the same for everyone, but no matter where it hits you, it’s a kind of featherlight marvel.
We caught up with Jake Ewald to talk about the inspirations behind Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’, his wife Jess Flynn, the Delaware Water Gap, Joe Pera Talks With You, and more.
They’ve been putting out some great, radical records over the past few years, mostly but not exclusively jazz. Were you listening to a lot of them around the making of Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling?
I think the big ones for me at that time were Jeff Parker’s super stripped-down Forfolks and Alabaster DePlume’s Instrumentals album from a few years ago. Shortly after those, I started plugging into the most recent Makaya McCraven one [In These Times]. I really found the label at the right time, because this switch had flipped in my head that was like, You like jazz. You do like it. But now it’s just a matter of finding a comfortable place inside of it to get my bearings a little bit, because when I think about it as a whole construct, it’s fucking enormous. But the reason that happened was because I was getting so exhausted by music with lyrics, especially as, maybe even because, I had been writing so much and it had become a huge part of my life. I was like, on one hand, I can’t always be bombarding myself with that kind of information, because it becomes kind of oppressive at a certain point. But also, I was becoming keenly aware that, with the type of writing that I was aspiring to do, it was really just the work of trying to pin down complex emotions. At a certain point, I realized that if I am drawing inspiration from music that already has lyrics, a lot of those emotions are already being defined for me before I receive them.
I used to think if I ever get into that kind of music, it’s going to be specifically for melodic inspiration, or playing around with different chord progressions, that kind of thing. But that stuff really served as a jumping-off point for me for emotional investigation, because it would flip these switches in my head that are like: This makes me feel a certain way, but I have to really think about why I feel this way, and what are the experiences that I’ve had that come close to this, and are there any threads between them? Finding International Anthem was such a perfect opportunity to have a little home base as I was figuring out what that type of inspiration could be and what that type of writing could be. It’s probably the most I’ve followed a label in my life, which is inspiring, and it made me turn around and try to find other labels I could have the same relationship with. It did a lot for me for my interior relationship with music.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
The last time this series of memoirs was brought up in one of these interviews, I was talking to Ela Minus and DJ Python. From the things they were saying, I’m curious how The Copenhagen Trilogy made you reflect on what it means to live and grow as an artist.
That’s interesting, I feel like I was so affected by it in a particular way that I didn’t even consider the idea that I should be able to relate to the story as an artist [laughs]. I feel like that happens to me all the time, though, I latch onto one particular thing. But for me, the story is just so striking. It’s technically three books, but it’s 200 pages long or something, it’s so short, and it’s the story of her whole life, basically. The narrative is so concise and so clear and so bursting with emotion and significance, but it’s an entire life in 200 pages. So for me, as a lyricist who’s constantly trying to consolidate a complex emotion into three and a half minutes, it just floored me. It was like, holy shit, not only have you managed to do this express such huge, heavy, complex things in such a short amount of time and with such precision, but you’ve managed to do it with your own life. You were able to sift through the full depth and emotional range of these insanely heavy experiences that you’ve been through since you’re a kid and pinpoint which moments really just got to the heart of what you were feeling. It just blew me away, I read it in probably two or three sittings. I was like, I can’t believe that’s possible. I can’t believe that you can express that much complexity and compassion and nuance with such simplicity, with such clarity, with such brevity. Did I also put Bob Dylan on this list?
Yeah, ‘Murder Most Foul’.
So there were a few things where I was just so floored by an artist who can get that late in their life and manage to take everything that has moved through them in one way or another and present it with the skill of a life doing that work. With Ditlevsen in particular, to be a poet your entire life, to live everything through the eyes of a poet and to consume everything and to work on your craft the entire time, and then to sit down and say, “I’m going to write the poem of my life, and I’m going to do it with everything that I’ve learned to do,” I feel like it’s so rare that people actually do that and it works.
You said you hadn’t necessarily considered the narrative in relation to your own life, but do you feel like you tried to do a similar thing with the song ‘Engine’, even subconsciously?
That big gathering of all the experiences?
Specifically as an artist, what it means to have been doing this for such a long time, and to keep doing it.
Yeah, I think that may have been what happened. But it was fully subconscious, I think. I don’t normally remember writing songs, but I can remember almost everything that happened to ‘Engine’ between the first time I sat down to write anything and the finished mastered recording. When I sat down to write it, I had developed this practice of just sitting down at the computer and opening up a blank document and just writing. I knew in the back of my head that hopefully the things I wrote would become songs, but when I would sit down to do it, the only thing kind of songy about it that I would even consider is rhythm. As I started writing something, I would try to have a rhythm to the words, which is also just a poetic thing, but that was the only qualification. Maybe it’s funny, because when I was doing that I would always do it really early in the morning, but one time, I think nobody was home, and I did it at night. I just sat down and wrote the whole thing. I didn’t think about it really, it was just stream of consciousness. When I got to the end and felt like I was at a stopping place, I read back through it, and I liked it, but I didn’t really have an idea of how it would go into a song. I didn’t have a big idea of what it meant, I thought it was just pretty impressionistic.
The first hint that I had – I forget if I’ve shared this anywhere else, but I went to the studio to track a demo for it, and Ian showed up at the studio later that night when I had done most of the stuff. I was like, “Would you come play bass on this real quick? It’s kind of long, but it’s only four chords or something.” He said sure, and he came and played bass on it. He just did it in probably one pass and then punched in a couple of parts on the demo. We got done and we were getting ready to leave, and he just gave me a big hug and said that he loved me. And I was like, “Hmm, what was that about?” [laughs] It felt like it had more significance than was warranted. I went home, and I was listening back to the demo that I bounced for myself, and I was like, “I think this song’s about Ian. There’s a lot on this song that’s about Ian.” Because me and Ian have been playing music together for 10 years, and I didn’t even realize. That was the first revealing of anything, and from there it just kept happening every time I would go back to it. But yeah, I think it was something inside me trying to tell me that this is my life, whether I know it or not.
In what ways did it keep happening?
The guitar solo was kind of another iteration of it, where I’d hear the solo and start crying and be like, “Why am I crying?” I cry all the time, but like, it’s usually for a reason. And one day I picked up that there’s a certain moment in the solo where Adam hits a certain note, and it kind of sounded to me like a cry. It touched this part of me that – there’s this thing that happens sometimes, where we’ll be between tours and I’ll be trying to solve a problem, or something will hit me where I realize there is no guidebook for this thing, and nobody wants to reveal how they do this thing, and yet we’re trying to figure out how to do it all the time. You carry all of this shit inside you that you collect whenever you’re traveling, and you’re away from the people that you love, and you’re having these incredible out of body experiences, and it all just lives in there. And sometimes, I just want to fucking explode and just let all of that out and release it and be like, Can I just empty this out and start over so I can let some other stuff in? And I realized that there’s a moment in the solo where it felt like it was doing that. It was just letting fucking everything out from the last 10 years.
For the longest time, I thought it was only about being on tour. And then a year into the song, probably not until we were actually recording with the band, I realized that half of the verses were about me being a teenager and being in love for the first time. My memories of being in love before I knew what being in love was, when I just attached it to these particular physical events. And I was like, It’s not just about being on tour, this is about my fucking life and what it’s like to have feelings. I didn’t get any of it on the first pass.
Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams
Looking back at some of the reviews from the time, that record was perceived as a shift from his character-based writing to something that at least appeared autobiographical, whether it was or not. Was that part of the draw for you?
I definitely would feel that when I listened to the record; it felt more autobiographical. But I think it was just, in how intentionally obtuse he can be and say insane things a lot of times, I forget that he’s a human being with emotions and just see him as a really proficient songwriter. But that record hit a really special spot for me where I was able to see his incredible talent, but it was backed up by this really emotional imagery that spoke with a lot of intensity that was not necessarily on some of his other records. This is going to sound kind of clinical, but in reality, it made some of his songwriting devices a lot clearer for me and put them into focus, where I was like, he does this in a song to achieve this effect, or he does this thing with a line to make it come up as a surprise. I was so struck by some of those things. I remember I was on a walk in my neighborhood, and I listened to the first four songs on that record, and I had so many things just clicking in my head that I went home and I sat down and wrote two songs in like an hour because I was just so excited about it.
One thing in particular is his delivery is just so comfortable and practiced, and his phrasing is so natural, that when he sets up a couplet, you’re sure that he’s going to rhyme. When he ends the first line, he lands on the word with confidence that you know the next one’s going to rhyme, and then he says the next line and he lands on something that doesn’t rhyme. And sometimes, he’ll even land on something that doesn’t rhyme that ends earlier than you thought it would, and in doing that, the thing that he lands on hits you like a ton of bricks because it’s the opposite of what you thought he was going to do. You end up actually hearing it for what it is and not hearing it as just a piece of a fabricated narrative or something. It just lit up the board for me.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’
I remember Stereogum did an article around when the record came out where they asked a bunch of people what their favorite Bob Dylan song was, and I couldn’t believe how many artists said a song from that record that he put out when he was fucking 80. So many people said ‘Murder Most Foul’, and that just speaks volumes to what he has done. That really spoke to me as an artist, that it is possible to do this until you’re 80 and have it be worth it. You’re actually learning the whole time, you’re growing the whole time, you’re figuring out how to do it, and the world is better for it because you’ve invested your life in this thing. The reason that he can spout off, however long it is, 16 minutes of all those references and history and nuance is because he just let those things consume him for his entire life. The folk idea of America and music and the blues, all of the corny buzz words you can think of that are not corny in that context – he lived it, and now we get this because he dedicated his life to it. It’s incredible.
I didn’t know how to phrase it when I made my list, but I was actually specifically thinking of photography. She’s a professional photographer, and she’s been doing it the whole time that I’ve been playing music. I’m 30, and she’s 31. Just in the last few years, we’ve been on these similar journeys of getting to a breaking point with an old way of doing things and having to step back and be like, “What actually speaks to me here? What do I really want out of this?” The work that she does is so immediate. We’ll be at home, she’ll be talking about photos, she’ll be talking about these conceptual things that she wants to try. And then she’ll go shoot the thing, she’ll mail out the film to get it developed and she’ll get the film back and she’ll say, “Hey, I got my film back, will you come in here and look at this with me?” And it hits you right away. With photography – to her it’s less of a mystery, to me it’s so much of a mystery, because it’s not my thing. But when I look at a picture, it either doesn’t work at all, or it makes me feel everything. And I’ve just been so floored by how, over the last few years, she has has found so many ways to make me feel when I look at her pictures.
The thing that’s the most inspiring is that the things that she has done to start making the work that she’s making – it’s not additive, it’s subtractive. The longer she does it, she works with fewer cameras, she does less editing, she takes fewer jobs, she will spend less time on everything, and it’s really just whittling away at all of this shit to get down to the nut of the experience that’s happening in that fraction of a second. And the way that she approaches taking photos is so much the way that I have come to appreciate making music, which is where, even though you kind of set these intentions that you want to have and these ideas that you want to investigate before you get in the place where you’re taking the pictures or making music, when you go to the shoot, or when you go to the studio, you let go of everything. You’re just there doing what you’re there to do, and letting whatever energy is present move through you and getting out of the way of whatever is there? I feel like she really figured out how to do that in the last few years, and I feel like I learned to do that in music from her.
Do you feel like music is a mystery to her, like photography is to you, in a way that allows her to see the emotion in your songs more than you sometimes are able to?
She definitely interprets my music differently than I do a lot of the time. Sometimes she’ll have a very strong emotional connection to a song that kind of doesn’t speak to me at all; it just feels like another song to me. But that’s such an invaluable experience for me to have, because it’s a reminder that if I’m not having a certain emotional connection to a specific song, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve done a poor job. But it also speaks to the enormity of these creative processes and this art that we’re all making, because it can mean anything to anybody. It can mean can mean the world to somebody, it can completely change somebody’s perspective. And it’s been happening more recently, where, like, we put out this album a few years back called Safe and Also No Fear, and when we put it out, nothing happened. Nobody picked up on it, I felt really self-conscious about it. But in recent years, I’ve been seeing so many people online and at shows go to bat for that record and say it’s their favorite one. And it’s kind of the same thing – you just have to do the work because you have no idea what it’s going to mean to somebody. There’s a just a nobility and a huge importance to just dedicating yourself to the work, because if you put your whole self into it, it’s going to mean something to somebody, no matter what it means to you.
The Delaware Water Gap
We live in a town called Bushkill that butts right up against the Water Gap area. There’s a lot of trails and waterfalls, and you can walk along the river. I’ve never lived somewhere where I’m so surrounded by nature, and I think that did a lot for me, just to be reminded every day – I’m gonna start sounding crunchy, but to be reminded that humans are nature. We’re not the boss. The whole orchestra of Earth is happening no matter what we choose to do or what we choose to say is important or unimportant. The thing that struck me the most when I moved out here – it’s kind of mountainous, and we live like 30 minutes from a highway, so when it snows a lot, it’s kind of a bigger deal. We can get kind of stuck, and I’ve never lived somewhere where that was as much of a thing as it is here.
The first winter we were here, we got a lot of snow, and it was incredible to just be completely put in my place by snow. Like, it doesn’t matter what I want to do, doesn’t matter what I’m in the mood for, doesn’t matter what my aspirations or fears or dreams are, because this is more powerful than me, and it’s completely beyond my control. Anytime I’m reminded of that on a regular basis, I am happier and more productive and more sure of myself and more compassionate and more plugged into everything. It was so incredibly helpful to be reminded of that so often out here. I do think it helped the writing a lot, because I feel like I do my best whenever I’m just completely playing the role of either the observer or just letting something bigger than me pass through me and then go on its way. I really fuck up when I start trying to control and be clever and do all that stupid stuff.
I find so much joy and curiosity in what they do. For the longest time, I’ve had such a difficult time, anytime we have to have visual art for something, I’m like, “Oh shit.” I never think about visuals, and I don’t know what I like, and I don’t follow anyone contemporary, and it makes me feel like a dumbass. But the last couple of years, I’ve tried to be more intentional about finding current artists that actually make me feel something. I was reminded of Nathaniel Russell – I forget how he had been shown to me, but I had seen something about him in the past, and Anna Mills I think I just stumbled across on Instagram. He’s probably tired of people talking about these at this point, but Nathaniel Russell used to do this thing where he would make these posters, almost like wanted posters, but for absurd things, like “Missing Cloud” or something. And Anna, her portfolio is a lot bigger now, but she would do so much with text, but it was always hand-drawn text, animated text, doing these kinds of playful things. As a person who puts so much stock in words, a lot of times I get frustrated with visual art because I’m like, “Where are the words?” But both of them had that missing link for me, where Nathaniel would have these bizarre but also very curious and joyful statements that would go along his work that’s almost childlike in some ways, but it’s so practiced and striking. And Anna wouldn’t just find cool ways to present this typography, but she would always make these little hand-drawn animations that were quite literally bringing letters to life. It was just striking to me to feel so much joy and curiosity and inspiration by looking at something like that.
Also with Anna, anytime she posted something, she would post her finished product – which, she never really makes things hyper-clean or sterile, you can see the human element in it – but every time she posts something, she posts behind it her notebook pages of like the 10 different drawings that she did in her notebook to get to the final thing. And that was so inspiring, too, to be reminded that anytime anybody does one of these things, anytime I write anything, it doesn’t happen by accident. It starts by accident, but you have to invest in it and keep exploring it. Whether you see it or not, everything’s in the notebook; everyone has their version of the notebook always there that’s informing everything else. It’s a reminder of the mystery of that, which is really cool and enticing, but also the discipline in it that’s like: If you want to make something that speaks to somebody, you have to fucking get inside the notebook for a little while before you have something that you can put on a platter.
Has the way you have invested in that side of the process – the note-taking and jotting down ideas – changed over the past few years?
Yeah, I actually write down very little now, which is surprising to me. I used to write down a lot, but I never edited. I would always be very deliberate about – I would overhear a conversation and I would go, “This is a song.” And then later on, I would put that down in a word processor and start building a song around it, try to invent something that I wanted to have happened. But now, when I sit down to write, I don’t know what I’m going to write about until it’s already happening. I’ll just start writing until something starts making sense, and then I’ll go from there. When I’m writing a lot, I’ll sit down and write like 8 verses, and then I’ll go back and realize that I need to cut out the first four because they’re completely irrelevant. But I wouldn’t have accessed those last four verses that become the song if I didn’t get through the first thing. I don’t write down that much anymore, but whatever I’m writing, I write down literally anything that comes into my mind, and then it’s a matter of just sorting through it. I think in that way, I end up pulling up more stuff that has more emotional weight to me, because it was hidden in there somewhere and it came out.
Joe Pera Talks With You and How to With John Wilson
In your mind, what’s the connection between these two, and why did you want to talk about them?
I put them together because I discovered both of them at the same time. I hate watching TV, so it was really striking for me to find two instances of television that really spoke to me at the same time. Both of them were just tapping into emotional information that I had not experienced in that medium before, and they were doing it with a tone and a pacing that I definitely had not experienced anytime recently. They both move pretty slowly in their work. Joe very literally in a comedic way talks really slow, and John – in some ways it’s not slow, because his show is this compilation of endless scenes from New York and things that he finds on the street, and he always ties them into these really poignant narratives. But the show is extremely slow in the sense that it’s kind of just unfolding in front of you at a snail’s pace, like you don’t really know what the point of the episode is – in the beginning, he’ll tell you what the point supposedly is, but it really won’t end up being that in the end. It’s one of those things where you get to the end, and with John Wilson in particular, I’ll watch an entire episode and I won’t really clock what it meant until 15 minutes later. I’ll have to go back and put all the pieces together in my head and be like, “Why did he leave me feeling this way?” I don’t want to sound like a grandpa, but everything is made so fast now to be hyper-stimulating and loud and exciting. I’m an avid user of Tiktok, I love Tiktok, but in terms of stimulation, it’s the fucking electric chair. And Joe Pera Talks With You is the opposite of that.
He also uses comedy to express these human sentiments that are so tender and so kind. There was one particular episode that I saw and then wrote him an emotional email about it [laughs]. It was this episode where Joe’s dating in the show, and he’s like a doomsday prepper. Something happens in the American economy, and she goes, “It’s time, we have to go to the woods and get out of here.” And Joe just goes with her. It’s not an action-packed episode. You’re seeing the reality of this doomsday prepper and this person that cares about them, and they are just in a moment together where they’re caring for each other. He is very much like, “This is not really my bag, but I love you, and I’m here with you while we do this.”
The thing that stuck out to me the most is, he does that with her, and there’s so much compassion and gentleness in the way that they come together. They go in the woods, and he starts making a fire. There’s this super close shot on him, I think he’s hitting two stones together, trying to do a Boy Scout fire over some very small kindling, and the shot is so tight, and it’s right there. You see his hands doing it and you see how gentle he’s being, and it kind of just speaks to the whole sentiment of the episode where it’s like, We’re just holding each other. If you can get yourself to just be that close to whatever’s happening and do these very small, caring, empathetic things, it feels incredible. The thing that happened was that episode just made me cry like a fucking baby. There’s no huge emotional moment that would make me break down, but it was the sentiment of the whole thing.
There’s no huge emotional moment, but there’s huge emotion in there. I understand it’s the kind of unspoken thing that’s hard to talk about. I don’t know if you wanted to.
I mean, that particular episode of Joe Pera Talks With You Made did make me kind of do a 180 on my relationship with Jess in some ways. It just completely pulled into focus the idea that, when you’re with somebody and when you care about somebody, when somebody means that much to you, there’s nothing more important than just having love for them; supporting them, showing up for them emotionally. There’s so much fucking ego and idealism and longing for shit that’s never going to happen that can come up in relationships, romantic and otherwise, and it’s so easy to get lost in all of that shit and be like, “I wish I could be this person for them, I wish I could make a million dollars, I wish they could act this way whenever they need this thing for me because then it would work great and we could communicate really well.” But at the end of the day, you just need to be there, and you need to be open, and you need to have love. You need to make space for this person. The most important thing you can do is make space for this person without judgment, without ego, and just be able to hold them there. And I got that from a fucking 23-minute comedy show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.