You don’t need to be familiar with N.Y.C. to understand Beach Fossils’ long-time-coming new album, Somersault. But it doesn’t hurt.
The rock band’s already-classic 2010 eponymous debut was hinged on a sleepy yearning for the pastoral, and their follow-up Clash The Truth channeled the jittery energy of a weird millennial house party. But Somersault, out June 2 on frontman Dustin Payseur’s own Bayonet Records, is the aural equivalent of riding across the East River in a rickety subway car at sunset. It just feels like life in New York.
Here, the band’s usually cloudy production is crisper, and the arrangements are bigger than ever. That’s at least partly because the typically overprotective Payseur, 31, found himself more receptive to collaboration: with his bandmates Jack Smith and Tommy Davidson; and with a slew of guest musicians, like a string trio and indie rapper Cities Aviv, whose presence gives the record a cool, cavernous feeling.
You could imagine many of these songs — the twangy “May 1st,” or weightless closer “That’s All For Now” — being played on a big stage in Central Park, at the kind of concert where you could buy a loose pre-rolled joint without having to try too hard. In mid-April, I sat with Payseur at his small studio in Brooklyn to talk about depression, non-romantic friendship songs, and what it’s like making softer-sounding punk in politically fraught times.
How is this record a continuation of the stories you told on earlier Beach Fossils releases?
I remember reading once that William S. Burroughs considered all of his books part of one universe, and one story. They work all together; they're not really separate. That's what the songs that I've written for Beach Fossils are like. A very consistent theme throughout is me being open and honest about my personal life. It's about my life, and about my friends
I think this one is me being more open about my own shortcomings and flaws. And kind of like, dealing with that. I'm not offering any sort of answer or solution — it's just me, how I'm living now. These are the things I'm dealing with, with people in my life right now. It's open and honest in a different way.
Friendship feels like a big theme, which I like. I feel like it's good to acknowledge how important and complicated and messy non-romantic relationships can be, too.
I don't like name names on the record, but a lot of it is about friends: certain people that are either coming into my life, or going out of it. Either I’m meeting someone who is incredible and a great person, or things are starting to fall apart, on both ends of the friendship, for various reasons. Everybody experiences that. I think that's something that can kind of transcend personal experience.
There's that line you sing on “This Year”: "By now/ told myself I’d be a better friend." That one resonated with me.
On Somersault, I'm seeing things that I could be doing better. Where I've failed. I'm seeing where I could be a better person. I think it's really important to admit that. Not even in art, but to yourself. Saying, These are the mistakes I've made. Critiquing yourself the same way you would another person. Friendships are just as important as any romantic relationship. The way that you choose certain people around you and who you're associating with on a regular basis and how you interact with each other … that's huge.
That makes me think about how in New York, it feels like people are sometimes more resistant to this act of “growing up” in conventional sense. And so these close bonds with friends — the kind you have as a teenager that feel like they’ll never end — remain important here, even into your 20s and 30s. Is that your experience?
I don't really get the "settling down" part. I haven't settled down in any way. I guess I take that as inspiration from my parents. Growing up in North Carolina, my parents were extremely social people. Whenever I go to town to visit them, they still have mad people over at the house. They had my sister and me very young, but they never let that put their social lives on hold, which is why I think they're so youthful. They don't let any of these life responsibilities get in the way of who they are and what they do.
Is "Down The Line" about a friendship?
It's a lot about myself, I guess. It's about me facing depression head on. I was trying to work on music and I was feeling so fucking low. Just like, in the dirt. I couldn't get anything to happen. My creativity was completely zapped. I was kind of breaking down. I hadn't really been sleeping. I started working on this song, and I really liked how it was feeling. I put lyrics down. I did the whole song really fast. It was one of the only songs on the record that I did in one or two sittings. I realized if I just kind of faced how I was feeling, I could use it to my advantage. I could let it out.
Have you always struggled with depressive feelings?
It was always one of those things that I would never really talk about. I would be embarrassed in a way. It was like, Why do I feel that way? It's not like things are necessarily going wrong. I think everyone feels it to a certain extent — obviously some people a lot more than others. I definitely go through harder patches. I do a lot of meditation, and try to relax in my own ways. Making music is the biggest thing, though. If I'm not writing songs or playing shows, it's easier for me to fall into that hole.
What’s it like making music that's not explicitly political-sounding in a very politically fraught period in history?
Before I got into music that was political I was listening to nu metal and stuff, because I was angry and I was young and I just wanted something to feel pissed off to. I transitioned immediately from that to ’80s punk, which is probably the most politically-charged music of all time. I think even more so than ’60s protest music; it's more explicit and angry and detailed. That was a huge inspiration for me because it was like, This music is angry, but it's also saying something. It's getting people amped up to make the world a better place.
I definitely have struggled with how to incorporate these ideas into my own music. I think a lot of the [underlying political] stuff on Somersault comes out of where I’m from, and knowing that a lot of people I grew up around [in North Carolina] voted for Trump. It's hard to not get emotional when that's the place you have to call home. If I'm writing a record that's just based on how I feel about things, that's definitely a big part of what I'm feeling right now. I should talk about it, but in my own way. I was still finishing up a few songs right after the election happened. And it was just so fresh — to not write about it would have been insane. Like, This is all I can think about, how can I not write about this?
There’s some big, baroque-sounding songs on the record. How did the string arrangements come together?
We wrote the string parts ourselves, in one session. It was completely insane and I can't believe we actually did that. We spent 17 hours writing the sheet music. None of us had written it before, and we had a very, very basic knowledge of sheet music. We only had a few hours to sleep before we went to the studio, and I couldn't really sleep be cause I kept thinking, Okay, I'm going to go into the studio, show these professional musicians this sheet music and they are gonna have no fucking idea what this is supposed to be. It's gonna be a mess. But then they started warming up, and they started playing the parts. I was like, Holy fuck, that's what I wrote. It was a very emotional moment for all of us. We were all just, like, in tears.