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When the members of Slow Pulp discuss Yard, their second full-length record and first for ANTI-, their vocabulary often defaults to synesthetic imagery and sensation.
“We have so many visual cues for how we talk about music,” singer and guitarist Emily Massey says as she stops herself in the middle of explaining how the album’s second song, “Doubt,” sounds like wakeboarding. “Doubt is quite dark lyrically, but it is found in this upbeat and almost campy environment.”
On Yard, the Wisconsin-bred, Chicago-based four-piece nestles comfortably into pockets of nuance, impressions, contradictions—sonics and lyrics finessed together to bottle the specific tension of a feeling you’ve never quite been able to find the right words for. In that regard, listening to Slow Pulp can feel like being in a room with someone who’s known you so long that they can read your every micro-expression and pinpoint exactly how you’re feeling before you can. Perhaps this spawns from the band’s own shared history and chemistry; in various ways, the four of them grew up—are still growing up—together.
Guitarist Henry Stoehr and drummer Teddy Mathews attended elementary school together in Madison. Not long after, they met bassist Alex Leeds at the west side location of the now-closed local music program called Good’nLoud Music. And while Massey didn’t enter the fold until later on in college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Mathews and Stoehr, it turns out she was in the same program on the other side of town at Good’nLoud’s east side location. In fact, the chords to Yard’s addictive track “Slugs” are from a song Stoehr wrote for his crush in the sixth grade. “Imagination,” Mathews immediately chimes in with the name of Stoehr’s original. The album’s iteration of the song is, fittingly, also about a crush: “You’re a summer hit, I’m singing it,” Massey swoons over a warm wave of guitar fuzz and syrupy background vocals.
With Leeds attending college in Minneapolis and the other members in Madison, the quartet started recording, playing shows around the Midwest, and eventually released their first EP as a four-piece, EP2, in 2017. It’s an intimate, restless, and decidedly lo-fi 17-minute debut by a band with an obvious knack for creating sticky hooks that tend to stay in the space behind your eyes long after the songs are finished playing. So obvious that, without much promotion on the band’s end, EP2 picked up traction across YouTube channels and blogs, and thanks to the power of the internet, Slow Pulp unexpectedly found themselves amid their first wave of buzz.
In September 2018, the band relocated to Chicago and moved in together, writing and recording most of their Big Day EP at a cabin in Michigan the following January. As they put in the hours on stage and in the studio, the buzz continued to grow, they kept refining their work, and by 2019, they were touring with Alex G and working on their debut full-length record, Moveys.
But the journey to Yard wasn’t linear: Massey was diagnosed with Lyme disease and chronic mono, leaving her to grapple with physical and mental health challenges amid a blossoming music career and the demands that come with it. Then, just days before the COVID-19 lockdown, her parents were involved in a serious car accident, and she moved away from Slow Pulp and back home to care for them. The band finished Moveys in isolation, with Emily recording her vocals with her dad, Michael, in his small home studio. It was their only option at the time, but the band opted to record the vocals with Michael again on Yard.
“This time, we decided to do it because it went so well the first time. My dad is a musician and a singer and has a lot of really insightful things to say, especially about delivery,” Massey explained. “Working together we can be very honest with each other in a way that I wouldn't be able to do with a stranger or a producer that's not my family. He already has so much context for what the songs are about, knowing my life so intimately. He is able to be very direct, saying things I often don't want to hear but need to hear. I think it often leads to getting the best takes out of me.”
You can feel Massey reaching new vocal heights across Yard, particularly on the weepy americana ballad “Broadview,” which features pedal steel (Peter Briggs), harmonica, and banjo (Willie Christianson), and on “MUD,” a pop-punk track seemingly designed in a lab to belt along to in the car. On the raw-to-the-bone piano ballad title track, emotion trickles out of each of her careful words, cresting into waves of sustained wails.
Massey’s dad wasn’t the only lesson from Slow Pulp’s pandemic-era album creation that the band brought to their next record; Yard first started taking shape in February 2022 when Massey was staying alone at a friend’s family cabin in northern Wisconsin.
“I feel like there’s an interesting interplay between the albums, where the isolation during Moveys was forced, it was something we used intentionally with Yard,” Leeds explained. Isolation was an important part of their process on Yard, but they were able to employ it strategically. “Part of what we discovered—or what Emily discovered—is taking that time to be intentionally isolated is really important, as is being more collaborative at other times. We've learned a lot about balancing and being intentional about that through this process.”
Themes of isolation and the subsequent process of learning to be comfortable with yourself sprout up throughout Yard, right alongside the importance of learning to trust, love, and lean on others. Within Slow Pulp, this trust between members is evident in the playful collaboration that remains core to Slow Pulp’s creative process. Take album opener “Gone 2:” the “2” was added when they decided to scrap the first version and record a new iteration of the track just before turning the record in. They saw the video for “Scar Tissue” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing (on mute) and immediately knew the visuals were exactly what they wanted the song to sound like.
“It was a silver song and we turned it into a brown and purple song,” Stoehr says matter-of-factly, the other three nodding in agreement. The chilling desert desolation mixed with road-trip listlessness of the “Scar Tissue” visuals are evident in the song’s final mix and double down on its lyrics.
“‘Gone’ is about searching for love in other people or searching for things and feeling like you're not doing a good enough job at it or feeling like you're coming too late to it,” Massey says. It’s followed by the taunting and upbeat “Doubt,” a track about begging someone to validate your insecurities. “I like that by the end of the album, you're finding the love within yourself, not searching for it within other people. It has that full circle moment, in that way.”
The lyrics to album closer “Fishes” were written while Massey was alone at the cabin, listening to Lucinda Williams (“Do you think Lucy understands?”) and watching the fish swim around in the lake. Yard leaves us with gentle strums, a stripped-back meditation on acceptance, and a reminder to show up for yourself: “Sink and swim and / Sink it all again / I’ve gotta catch myself this time / Like I know that I’m the prize / Like the fishes / And their winning size.”
Wednesday 29th November 2023
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