When Jake Ewald was a kid, he used to forget the most basic things, like where he’d left his shoes or what he was supposed to do at school. It frustrated his parents, who wondered why their son couldn’t remember what time it was but seemed to have a near-photographic memory for less immediately important issues, like what color shirt his father was wearing on any given day, or a quote that his grandmother had given him weeks before, word for word.
“I guess it's been like that for a long time,” Ewald, now 26, says over beers on the patio of a French restaurant in Downtown Manhattan. He carried his attention to detail with him through three albums with emo-punks Modern Baseball and it’s keener than ever on his breakout project, Slaughter Beach, Dog. On the two full-length albums he’s released under that name — 2016’s scratchy but lyrically taught Welcome and 2017’s exquisite Birdie — Ewald has been consumed by minutiae. He’s built short stories out of vignettes that reveal more about their subjects through microscopic, moment-to-moment focus than they could through rushed grand narratives. Ewald’s lyrics often resemble a few unposed photographs arranged on a table, standing in for a lifetime of experiences.
Safe And Also No Fear is Ewald’s third album as Slaughter Beach, Dog, and it’s premiering in full below ahead of its release this Friday, August 2, via Lame-O Records. It’s Ewald’s most evocative record yet, although the narratives are rarely easy to discern. “They asked if I heard where they found you Tuesday night,” he sings at the end of “Tangerine,” letting on to a disaster out of nowhere. “I had the update come in via satellite / They blew the doors out / Tore the sheetrock off the studs / They were asking everyone / If we knew what year it was.”
The album’s first two singles, “One Down” and “Good Ones,” led some critics to write about the project plunging into darker territory. But today, in the blinding sunlight, Ewald laughs nervously at that idea. He suggests that the music is just catching up with the lyrics. Besides, he says, for the first time since its inception, Slaughter Beach, Dog is recognizable as a band and not just a solo project, with former Modern Baseball bassist Ian Farmer, All Dogs guitarist Nick Harris, and Superheaven drummer Zack Robbins all involved in building the infrastructure of the songs from the outset. “My natural instinct is to write a song that is bright and peppy and friendly or comforting,” he says, “but apparently that's not everyone's tendency.” Safe And Also No Fear hardly sounds fraught — Ewald’s own instincts are intact — but it’s sonically more troubled than its title would have you believe, especially on the solitary, crackling "Petersburg."
Lyrically, it's as quietly unsettling as ever. On the mostly spoken, seven-minute-long “Black Oak,” he tells a troubling story of drunk-driving — ”His belly warm with drink / He leaned into the freeway in the night” — from two sides, leading to a woman, presumably the man’s lover, “Planted in the cafe / Her bloodied saber drawn.” On “Tangerine,” the floaty closer, time sprawls out and into misery: “Crane your neck under the hood next to the highway / The journey’s over / You were five and you were 10 and you were 19 / One day you'll be 84 / With your sister you would talk about growing old / You're not talking anymore.”
Ewald started writing as Slaughter Beach, Dog (the “Dog” was tacked onto the end after Ewald discovered a Danish band who’d taken Slaughter Beach already) to cure a case of writer’s block, shortly before the dissolution of Modern Baseball in 2017. Welcome released in September, 2016, right around the time that Ewald suddenly realized that he was going to have to deal with acute anxiety issues. “I started having panic attacks on stage, which had never happened before,” he says. “I had never been nervous before a show; I had never felt nervous on stage. Then a switch flipped one day, and it became obvious.”
After the first onstage panic attack, nerves started “creeping into” his everyday life. “I became way more conscious of being in certain social situations and spending time in places that I wasn't familiar with,” he says, “and [there was] a lot of weird stuff related to food and how much I was eating. I just became really obsessive about it because I started to feel so uncomfortable all the time for some reason.” At the same time, Modern Baseball was beginning to unspool; a band that had set out to be fun suddenly felt like no fun at all for any of its members. “It was the biggest part of my life, so that was a terrifying realization to have.” He started going to therapy shortly after the band’s demise.
You can hear him getting to grips with his nerves on the four-song Motorcycle.jpg EP, written during Ewald’s “first anxious summer” in 2017. It’s not a candid record in the most obvious sense — it won’t tell you exactly what was happening in Ewald’s life at the time — but the quiet detail that now defines Slaughter Beach, Dog’s lyrics became clearer (“It is 104 degrees / She takes her coffee hot and black”). It was, he says, a direct result of anxiety. Partly, he was trying to organize something in his life, and writing alone, staring at a blank page, gave him that opportunity. He could “control that environment.”
But his senses were also heightened by his nervous discomfort. “When I get home from a tour, I have all of these vivid memories of seemingly mundane things, but I remember them because they were anxious or stressful to me at the time,” he says. That’s how Ewald ends up with the downcast imagery of Birdie’s “Phoenix” (“Your mother asked for a picture / She says ‘today's your birthday’ / In some strung out Western stutter / Making all the world her ashtray”) and the all-consuming romance of that album’s closer, “Acolyte”: “Man, it cuts like a dull knife / When you're young and you're told / ‘Makes sense when you're older’ / Darling, let's get old.”
And it’s the core of Safe And Also No Fear, where the songs often begin with a kernel of autobiography and sprawl out into lucid fiction. “If I start with a scenario that made me feel anxious and give a few details from that, then incorporate some things that are fictional, it has the potential to convey that emotion in an even more obvious way,” he says, pushing his shoulder-length hair back past his glasses. “I can tweak that fictional experience.”
The space between autobiography and fiction eventually turns into a blur anyway. Anyone might have been “Falling asleep on the stairs / Waking up angry and scared,” and anyone might have heard their lover say, “It's a good thing / We had to get hurt,” as Ewald sings on “Map of the Stars.” There are no names, no identifying marks that can be traced over reality, and there’s rarely any resolution. He deliberately pulled back from A-to-B storytelling on Safe…, instead starting the process by writing songs that would “convey an emotion” in the richest way possible. Rather than obsessing over what might happen to a character, he asked himself if he could introduce a “new and unfamiliar” character to offer a different angle, or even set a new scene that was “going to make this emotion even more vivid.”
In the end, the songs weren’t about him at all. He played some of the Safe And Also No Fear mixes for his parents, who live in Delaware, just past the namesake town of Slaughter Beach. He says calmly that he cried the first time he played them “More,” a song that didn’t make the final cut, comprised of four separate vignettes with a hook in the chorus to tie them together. “Because it wasn't about me,” he says. “I was able to empathize with these different characters that were all experiencing the same thing, as opposed to fine-tuning and trying to build one perfect narrative story that perfectly illustrates a feeling.”
He orders a second beer and tilts his head back into the sun, then leans forward again. He says he never thought that Slaughter Beach, Dog would be his full-time job — which is why he took a position working the door at a venue in Philadelphia after Modern Baseball split. Now he’s rushing back to the canon, he says, listening to Neil Young and reading classic novels, trying to absorb everything he thumbed his nose at as a teenager in the punk scene, thinking about songwriting as a trade as much as a craft. “This is a thing that I can do for the rest of my life, until I'm 99 years old and I'm about to die. I can be writing songs until then. And I'm probably going to write ones that don't make any sense and nobody likes, but I can write songs and try to write better songs until I die.”
Ewald, who was plunged into anxiety when the joy of playing music with his friends corroded, then considers a long life of near-constant work for a moment. He decides it’s “a really fun thing to think about.”