Photo by Matt Hono
It wasn’t until the warm, aimless days of summer 2020 that the indie rock band Slaughter Beach, Dog finally clicked with me. The band’s slow, calming acoustic sounds along with their narrative lyrics were the perfect background noise as I endlessly skated around my town, drifting from park to cafe to bookstore. The indie folk tones felt completely appropriate in the summer heat.
Frontman Jake Ewald’s half-sung, half-spoken lyrics communicate earnest sentiments and paint simplistic scenes, satisfying a need for familiarity in a turbulent time. The songs invite dialogue with the listener. When the music ends, I feel as if a reply is expected. The themes of love, disillusionment and coming-of-age resonate with me, always allowing me to feel that I could add some thought to the conversation.
I quickly became obsessed with the band’s 2017 Audiotree Live session, realizing that the live versions of songs like “104 Degrees” feature energy not present in the studio recordings. The track is a retelling of a whirlwind dream, and in the live recording, the bassline is louder and the acoustic strumming becomes frantic. At the end of the song, Ewald declares that “Heavy Metal Drummer plays us out” and a two-minute mix of loud drums and heavy riffs ensues until the song fizzles out, doubling its length and departing from the band’s usual calmness. This full band, live energy made me eagerly buy tickets to Slaughter Beach, Dog’s sold-out show at the Chelsea venue — Racket NYC. Racket is a new 650-capacity venue that opened its doors in early January, making the band’s Jan. 19 gig one of its first.
Going into the concert, I was content having no information about opener Whitmer Thomas, expecting a quiet and reflective indie folk rock experience similar to frequent Ewald collaborators Trace Mountains and Shannen Moser. I was ready to kick back with a $13 concert PBR in hand and relax, maybe get a little sentimental and re-familiarize myself with indie folk. However, as the lead singer walked onto the stage sporting a leather jacket and a drawn-tight hoodie, carrying a suspicious-looking soundboard, I started to realize that maybe this wasn’t what I expected. I learned later that Thomas’s HBO comedy special “The Golden One” was released in 2020 to critical acclaim.
Thomas immediately quipped that he and his band, two bearded-IPA-drinking-dudes, were all part-time comedians, asking if it was okay if they told some jokes; the Seinfeld theme song quickly followed his question, courtesy of the soundboard. Their set was an eclectic mix of sensitive indie rock and blunt, in-touch comedy about the woes of modern life, such as being broke, cynical, depressed, and so on. The songs were clearly from a youthful perspective, and they reflect Thomas’s roots in West Coast skate culture.
Thomas opened his set with “Everything That Feels Good is Bad,” a song that positions the lines “And all the things that make me happy make you feel sad/I only buy books for the cool, colorful cover” right next to each other.
This contrast was present throughout their performance. Air snorted out of my nose and a smile broadened across my face when I heard “listening to Rogan, microdosing with my buddies/That’d be the dream,” a line from their song “Trevor.” But soon after, I felt a bit of concern when Thomas prefaced a song by stating: “when I sing sad songs, just know I’m kidding.”
Throughout the night, the soundboard operator/guitarist produced rapacious artificial applause after every song and Thomas read “indie roasts” from his phone. My favorite roast of the night: “Snail Mail? Hasn’t anyone told her about email?” Thomas set the stage for a light, joyous night, complementing Slaughter Beach, Dog’s relaxed aura with the juxtaposition of humor and melancholy.
Now on PBR three of the night, I was ready for the main event. In the midst of sporadic conversations and laughter, I heard tuning and shuffling quietly coming from the stage.
Eventually, the venue music faded away, the lights dimmed, leaving only a blue hue on the stage; a silhouette sang, “Are you there?”
Quiet, steady guitar chords ensued. The lights brightened. A pause.
“Is there anyone in the audience currently living in vain?”
The band emerged from the shadows; drums and keyboard now filled my ears.
Ewald and the rest of the band displayed a calm atmosphere of experience and knowledge with precise movements and careful mannerisms. Despite a packed room, the performance was intimate. They were comfortable, playing as if it was an empty after-hours performance.
A rush of excitement went through me as the band played the first notes of “Bad Beer,” a song that rarely appears on their setlist. A sentimental, upbeat song that reads like a letter to the narrator’s lover. As I screamed “everything new is a little bit bad/and everything old turns you off,” Ewald looked in my direction with a slight smile on his face.
The band played a balanced mix of songs from their most recent record At the Moonbase, including “Are You There,” “Jonathan” and “A Modern Lay,” as well as songs from the band’s earlier releases, such as “Pretty O.K.,” “Your Cat” and “Acolyte.” The band has grown more comfortable with diverse instrumentation with each release, utilizing atmospheric synths, jaunty piano, tangy guitars and bluegrass saxophone. They have progressed further and further from the emo-infused Welcome LP, but they still hold on to their core of visual storytelling and strong emotionality. The influence of Jake Ewald’s and bassist Ian Farmer’s previous band, Modern Baseball, can be felt heavily in the band’s earlier releases. Now the band has matured to darker themes, stronger visuals and more complex arrangements, but one can still trace a line back to Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost LP.
An early release, “Acolyte,” brought a tremendous buzz to the crowd. The song drifts from thought to thought and image to image, shifting focus with every line, similar to a drunk memory. The lyrics emphasize many sweet sentiments focusing on “Annie” — a frequent character in the band’s discography. It’s a quiet, acoustic song that became loud with half the venue singing along.
However, the band’s shift to more mature storytelling and heavier themes was clear while hearing them play Safe and Also No Fear’s “Black Oak.” The song gradually builds tension by developing a Twin Peaks-esque story:
“They found him at the black oak/They dug him up last night”
Ewald sang while staring off beyond the audience — a look of grave seriousness across his face reminiscent of a seasoned campfire storyteller. The simple, repeating instrumentation allowed the audience to hold on to his every word. The repeated use of silence kept the audience holding their breath.
The band was also able to seamlessly transition to lighter songs, such as “A Modern Lay.” The song appears to have been written with the clear intention to be played live. The studio recording is framed by the sounds of conversation, along with the clattering of plates and glasses, making it seem as if the band recorded the song at a crowded restaurant.
The lyrics read similarly to a witty collection of romance stories, celebrating the sweetness and excitement of the moment a relationship begins. Although live, the song was missing the wind instruments, such as saxophone, that define Slaughter Beach, Dogs’s more recent work, hearing it in person seemed natural. It felt as if the song was never meant to be listened to alone, destined to be played in a room full of people where you can be reminded of how one can find love and community in a room full of strangers. Was music ever intended to be something that exists outside of social contexts?
The night closed with the song that originally sold me on their music, “104 Degrees.” The crowd pushed towards the stage. Fingers were pointed. Lyrics were yelled, and as a heavy metal drummer played us out, I was struck with the impression that the night was a special one.
Walking to the subway to get back home, I began to realize my head was swirling with images crafted from the visual descriptions common in their lyrics. I noticed myself looking at the streets a little more attentively, as if I were an artist looking for a scene to paint, forever trying to find beauty in the mundane. Similar to well-crafted literature, Slaughter Beach, Dog tells stories that capture your imagination, spark introspection, and remind you of defining moments of growth. The music pushes you to stay in tune with the surrounding world, helping you make sure warm, happy moments spent in concert halls aren’t forgotten.