Slaughter Beach, Dog: Well, I Guess This Is Growing Up
When I arrive at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston - the tiny basement venue where Slaughter Beach, Dog plays the second of its two debut UK shows - Jake Ewald is asleep. Slumped on an armchair in the dimmest corner of the upstairs bar, with a book splayed open on his chest, it’s the kind of scene that a million earnest artist types would spend hours engineering for a ‘candid’ Instagram shot. And here’s one of the dudes from scrappy Philadelphia punks Modern Baseball pulling it off by accident.
The idea that a member of an unapologetically goofy pop punk band could effortlessly transition into a Serious Musician is a bit of a weird one, but weirder still is how well Ewald wears this new skin. When he awakens from his much-needed nap - “The show actually ended at a reasonable time,” Ewald says, mock-defensively, “but we went to a friend’s house after and ended up talking for like four hours and went to bed at five in the morning. Then we had to get up at nine to do a couple of things around town, ate together and had a couple of drinks…” - and we step outside to talk, Ewald cuts a relaxed figure. Maybe it’s just the benefit of a good nap, but the man before me is a completely different person from the awkward, slightly perturbed kid that stood on stage at The Forum the last time he was on British soil.
That night, back in February, was Modern Baseball’s biggest ever UK show. Earmarked as one of the crowning moments of the campaign for Holy Ghost - the band’s much-loved 2016 album - but it didn’t quite work out that way. Right before the band set off for tour, MoBo’s other vocalist and bassist Brendan Lukens let the band know that he wouldn’t be joining them, citing poor mental health. Lukens, of course, made the call that was right for him and no one, neither fan nor bandmate, could hold his decision against him. But that, and a subsequent US tour cancellation, meant that Modern Baseball had to take a long-overdue step back to assess their situation.
Modern Baseball inviting two fans to sing on stage at their O2 Forum Kentish Town show.
“That was when we realised we had way too much on our plate.” Ewald says. They ceased all thoughts about following up Holy Ghost. Pulling away from Modern Baseball wasn’t easy, especially with the publicly accepted story being that the decision wasn’t Jake’s to make.
“It was and it wasn’t.” Jake reveals. “We all got to a point where we couldn’t communicate with each other. We were all really burnt out and just tired of everything. We just dug this hole and we didn’t want to do it anymore. We were stressed and anxious and, at the same time, too afraid to talk about it. It sucked.”
There didn’t seem to be any disharmony in the MoBo ranks. There were mental health struggles spoken about openly, and it felt a little like everyone was doing their best to keep positive in spite of those, but never signs of any tension between members.
It would seem that Modern Baseball is the ideal, but the time just isn’t right. Jake Ewald had to turn to this new project to continue his path in music.
There is a community square behind the venue, where Jake and I end up talking. When we get there, a group of teenagers are setting up PA speakers and, halfway through our conversation, those same speakers begin to blast with the horns that open House Of Pain’s Jump Around. Banger though it may be, it’s a bit of a fucker to do an interview over, so we traipse around the corner and post up on some barely lit church steps. Poetic visuals, it would seem, really do just fall into Ewald’s lap.
Ewald can’t hide his relief at that fact that we’re done - well, mostly - talking about Modern Baseball’s situation. His posture straightens, his chest puffs out, and he allows himself to become a more animated speaker. It reinforces the safe assumption that a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Slaughter Beach, Dog is the focus now, and that’s an incredibly exciting thing.
“Slaughter Beach originally started,” he tells me, as we trace back to the start of the project, “cause I was in a big writer’s block with Modern Baseball stuff, and I wanted to try a different kind of songwriting. I started writing fictional scenario stuff where I just made up these narratives and wrote songs about them, and that was a fun exercise and it ended up getting me excited about all of my songwriting all over again.
“Now I can pull from all these different techniques that I’ve tried. So yeah, it was cool. The EP that [Philly DIY label] Lame-O first put out was all fictional stuff, and the EP that’s just come out and Birdie is a lot of stuff from me being younger and stuff I’ve never really written songs about before.”
Ewald kept Slaughter Beach, Dog super low key for a while. The project didn’t have a Facebook page and it was only sort of publicly known that SB,D was Jake From Modern Baseball’s New Band. But, as he spent more time on it, it became a more fulfilling endeavour.
“Part of it was being in the studio, recording those songs.” Ewald says. “It’s such a calming experience to be able to work like that and have full freedom to just do anything. And it’s really fun to just build a song myself from the ground up, so that part was appealing again. I really missed doing that, but I didn’t realise until I was doing it again.
“Also there were a few important people in Philly who, as I was putting out the songs and playing some shows quietly, would come to all the shows. We weren’t playing to many people at all, but there were a few people that would come and would say, ‘hey, I know this is just a side thing for you but I really like these songs’, so that kinda pushed me a little to taking it a little bit more seriously.”
The people that were at those shows, and any SB,D show since, noticed a huge difference in demeanour between Modern Baseball and this.
“It’s funny, we played in Philadelphia and my sister and my parents came to see me. They were like, ‘It’s funny, you guys up there, you look like… like, uh..-
A real band?
“Yeah,” Ewald laughs. “It sounds silly saying that in regards to Modern Baseball, because we were a real band, but for some reason the four of us were together for Slaughter Beach and it was totally different. It happened totally naturally, too. Our natural energy with Modern Baseball was just excited about everything, and we didn’t care how anybody saw us and we did whatever we wanted.”
The change in persona was inevitable, though, given the music Slaughter Beach, Dog makes. While it’s not morose, necessarily, it’s certainly a more contemplative project than Modern Baseball. Modern Baseball laughed off their problems; Slaughter Beach faces them head on. Creatively, that seems to satisfy a different urge.
Tonight marks an important step in the true launch of Slaughter Beach, Dog. You don’t get to fly across the Atlantic for two sold out shows if your band hasn’t kicked off.
“I’m really excited about it, but I’m not, like, stressed about it.” Ewald sounds surprised. “It’s a beautiful combination. I’m really excited about the way the album turned out, after these shows we’re doing a full US tour in November, and it feels great.”
Ewald is 24 now and, having been in a band for all of his adult life from the moment he and his band dropped out of college, he’s grown up knowing nothing other than playing music and being on tour. That’s not typically an easy way to live, but he seems to have had just enough success to earn the freedom to freely pursue new creative endeavours, but not quite enough for his past to encumber him on his new journey.
“It’s really weird.” He says. “I talk to my parents about it a lot, because I have a twin sister who is the same age as me, but has had a totally different life experience. She went to college, did college stuff, and has a regular job now. I did this weird back and forth between tour and college, and somehow the band worked out well enough that I can support myself now and I can start this new project by myself and come over to England and have people show up. It’s insane.”
He pauses, and then reiterates.
“I just flew over with a backpack. If you told me that that was going to happen when I was eighteen, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Perched atop a stool on the floor-level stage later that night, Ewald is the exact same person I spoke to outside. He still speaks and sings with the underlying awkwardness that undeniably exists within him, but he looks entirely assured all the while.
Conversational cutaways during a Modern Baseball set would often descend into off-kilter goofiness, a way of Keeping It Real and trying to stay true to the regular kids that they regularly are - or, at least, were - despite the fact that they were living impossibly irregular lives. “Eventually, it got weird.” Ewald says. “We couldn’t be those regular kids, because we weren’t doing regular things anymore. We were always on tour.”
Sitting here on his own, however, surrounded exclusively by people who want to hear the songs he’s been putting his all into since MoBo’s apparent demise, is as real as it gets for Jake Ewald. He never intended to be a solo artist - Slaughter Beach isn’t technically that, but it’s close enough - but it suits him well.
Without wanting to sound disparaging to the genre, pop punk does seem to inflict a case of arrested development on band members. Perpetually playing youthfully spirited music comes with an expectation that you will perpetually remain spirited and youthful. Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, for example, is almost definitely sick of singing about staying eighteen forever, but nostalgia’s a hell of a drug and their long-past-eighteen fans need their fix.
Slaughter Beach, Dog is a project that exists outside of those expectations, allowing Jake Ewald to grow up at his own pace.
“It’s strange to think about,” he says, “but a lot of my favourite songwriters, John K Samson from The Weakerthans, David Bazan… with all my favourite bands, the main songwriter from that band is doing something on their own now. Those people have been in three bands before getting to this point, so it’s really weird that I’m already starting the next band. It makes me feel, I dunno, more like a real musician?
“With Modern Baseball, it never felt weird to tell people that we were in a pop punk band - though, actually, I guess we always said that we were in ‘a rock band’.” He admits. And there is a difference. “But it was cool to say that we had a show. We travelled around the country, played loud music, had a backdrop, and a light show, and all this stuff.
“Now I do this thing that’s quieter and more reserved. Both of them are just what I wanted to do at that time. I loved playing guitar super-loud, but now I want to play something that can be quiet sometimes. It feels great that now I can go on my own and do whatever I want.”
Before leaving, I apprehensively broach the subject of his appearance, having been caught so off guard by it earlier. I tell him he looks older than he did just seven months ago and he flashes a knowing smile in response. He’s well aware of this growth and, honestly, he’s damn proud of it.
“Since Modern Baseball cancelled that tour and I went home and settled into doing things that I’m more comfortable doing,” he says, “I feel much more centred and confident in what I want as a person. I know what speed I want to work at, and I know how I want to do things. I guess that makes me feel a little older.”
Slaughter Beach, Dog might have started out as little more than a writing exercise, but by the end of the show, it’s clear that it’s become something far bigger, with potential for much more still. Armed with both the performing experience of playing in a touring band, and, more importantly, the life experience that taught him (the hard way) exactly where his stress threshold lies, Ewald is absolutely right to be excited by the future. For the first time in his musical career, he’s entirely in control of his own destiny. And if it does ever end up going the way of Modern Baseball - who, after a few Philadelphia headline shows that serve as a ‘see you later’, are going away for a bit - it’s not like he has to worry about letting anyone else down.
“Me and the guys who make up the live band have agreed that the goal is to make this as fun as we can, for as long as we can.” Ewald concludes. “And when it’s not fun, we’ll do something else.”
Photos: Jess Flynn