Jake Ewald of Modern Baseball Discusses Solo Project Slaughter Beach, Dog & Band's Final Shows Before Hiatus
Throughout their six years together, Modern Baseball created a community of fans who fervently supported the band and formed friendships through it, relating to their honest songs about finding your place in the world and surviving through mental health struggles.
Modern Baseball, affectionately referred to as MoBo by fans, played their final shows (for now) at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer to sold-out crowds on October 13-15. The young fans fervently shouted along to every word in a moment of catharsis, as they watched a band they love say their hopefully temporary goodbyes.
Modern Baseball may be on indefinite hiatus at the moment, but putting the band on halt allows its members to focus on other outlets they feel equally passionate about. For co-frontman Jake Ewald, it’s Slaughter Beach, Dog, a solo project he created in 2015, after Ewald struggled with writer’s block while writing songs for Modern Baseball. The new outfit allowed Ewald to explore a different side of his songwriting, shifting from the humorous, straightforward lyrics of Modern Baseball, to a folkier, more acoustic-heavy sound, with intricate songs that showcase his storytelling abilities and maturing artistry.
Ewald expertly shows this change in Birdie, Slaughter Beach, Dog's sophomore album, due out on October 27 via Lame-O Records, and produced by Modern Baseball bandmate Ian Farmer. Each song details a story that paints the mundane as beautiful, yet Ewald makes the listeners pay extra attention to fully grasp the details that make these songs remarkable.
Billboard spoke to Ewald to discuss Birdie, his evolving songwriting, the future of Modern Baseball, and more.
You mentioned in previous interviews that even though the songs you’ve written for Slaughter Beach, Dog started out fictional, they felt very personal while writing the EP Motorcycle.jpg. The new LP feels very personal, even within its fictionalized aspects. What were you trying to express in it that you couldn't express in the EP, and what parts of yourself did you think you revealed?
It definitely felt like a little bit of a different experience. I was listening to some different bands that I hadn't really listened to before, and I was reading a lot more than I usually do. But also I think a big part of it was the way that I was actually writing songs, because I was living in my friend's basement and I had just bought this really tiny acoustic guitar. Since I was trying to be quiet a lot of the time -- since I was writing songs in the basement -- I focused way more on my singing, because I would have to sing so quietly. So it was easier for me to write melodies and hit notes, because I'm not that great of a singer.
It was kind of neat because in doing that, I was able to just give the songs some more space from front to back, because I wasn't so worried about jamming a bunch of words in. I was more just thinking about the songs in the tiniest parts, like how each word feels and how each note in the melody feels. I think that was the biggest change, and the thing that had the biggest effect on how everything turned out in the end.
For this Slaughter Beach, Dog album, you had [MoBo bassist] Ian Farmer as producer. What was it like to work just with him one-on-one rather than as Modern Baseball?
It was really cool. Probably my favorite record-making experience that I've ever had, Modern Baseball or otherwise -- even when I'm making records for other people. But I think that's probably because I'm a pretty anxious person, and the times when I'm least anxious is when I'm with as few people as possible, and those people are friends that I'm really comfortable with. So making a whole record with only one other person, and having that person be one of my best friends who really understands me, was just such a perfect, peaceful, productive experience.
On top of that, we were doing it in our own recording studio that we've been building over the last two or three years. So it was just a really -- I don't want to call it easy, because that makes it feel weird. But it felt really, really comfortable.
Was there something that you experimented with that you hadn't thought of doing before in your previous work?
Whenever we did the last Modern Baseball record, Holy Ghost, that was the first time I had worked with a producer where I had to let go of some control, and trust somebody else's decision. That happened again with this record, because I kind of put it into Ian's hands, totally. I wrote the songs and I did the arrangements and I handed them over to him, and he basically guided all the production, which isn't totally foreign to me. But at the same time, it felt really special to be handing it over to such a close friend.
As you mentioned, you struggle with anxiety, and I’m sure that it can be difficult to work on an album with someone who doesn’t know you as well — especially when it’s a solo project that you feel so passionately about. Was being able to work with someone who has been a large part of your journey as a musician an asset in dealing with your anxiety?
It's not completely anxiety-free, I definitely still have my moments. I guess particularly towards the beginning of the project, where we hadn't really nailed down which direction it was going to go in... it's a little nerve-wracking, because when we started, we didn't really sit down and say, "Okay, this is what we want everything to sound like, this is how we want the recording to go, this is the theme we're going to pick." For the first few days of recording, we just kind of vibed off each other, and started realizing what we like and what we don't like.
And then by the second week, I think we had really nailed down how we wanted to sound. We wanted to be pretty spare, and have a lot of space and be kind of minimal, but also put a lot of emphasis on smaller things, like vocal melodies or guitar melodies. Once we got there, it was definitely anxiety-free.
But even with making those decisions in the beginning, it was so nice to do that with just one other person, as opposed to when you're working in a band setting and you're getting ideas from four different people. I know particularly for me it can be really nerve-wracking to try to please everyone and get everyone's ideas in, because a lot of times, someone else will have a better idea than you, so you have to play this game of, "Is my idea good, or is my idea not as good as the other one, and what should we go with?" It was definitely easier having only two people in the room, and two people who aren't afraid to tell each other when they're doing something silly, because we've been friends for so long. It was pretty special.
One song I was curious about was "Shapes I Know," which really caught my attention lyrically. Can you tell me what the song is about?
I'd rather not totally divulge what it's about. But I'll say that it's generally kind of under the theme of being familiar with your own way of life, and trying to open yourself to realizing that not everyone else is like you, and everyone has completely different experiences with really minute things, certain things you might imagine are the same for everyone. But in reality, they're not.
I guess specifically, the song's about -- it takes three different stories of people getting through their day-to-day around Christmas time. I was thinking about Christmas when I was younger and how it was such an easy-breezy, no problem, everything's wonderful time of the year. And then as you get older you realize that there are people who have a fucking terrible time at Christmas and it's the worst time of the year. So I tried to go down a few different paths and compare some different stories.
I think it's really interesting how when you were writing for Modern Baseball, it all felt extremely personal. There's no guessing there. But for Slaughter Beach, Dog, it feels like you're expressing this different side of you that maybe fans hadn't seen before. What has impacted this shift?
I guess I didn't realize it right away, but I do kind of feel it now. It feels good. It feels like I'm stepping outside of myself a little bit in trying to see myself in the world as opposed to just seeing myself alone in a room. More just thinking about relationships between me and other people, or just relationships between other people and other communities. It feels a lot more interesting, because you can only get so much depth out of writing only about yourself. It just feels kind of selfish after a while, and closed-off.
It's been really interesting to try and break down the details of different relationships in your life, because they're all so complex, which is what I've been realizing as I've been getting older. There's just so much to talk about whenever you put more than one person in the room. Everybody's so different.
In the liner notes, you mention Sofia Verbilla [a.k.a. solo artist Harmony Woods]. I thought that was really nice to see that you're acknowledging somebody who has been there for your music. And obviously fans have been such a huge part of Modern Baseball and your career in general. How much has that support from fans like her shaped the future of Slaughter Beach, Dog?
It’s funny because I was doing another interview recently where I was talking about certain people that were around while I wasn't taking Slaughter Beach, Dog very seriously, who would come to shows and be like, "This is really cool, I love this." I was talking about Sofia, I just didn't say her name. She was probably the original person who would come to all of our shows, and just made me feel really important in the songs that I was writing.
Her and her dad [Keith Verbilla] would come to shows and they would always stay after we played, wherever it was. They would come up to me and talk to me about the actual lyrics in the songs. And not only what they liked about them, but just saying, “Oh, I can relate to that because a similar thing happened to me,” which is such a special experience.
It happened with Modern Baseball, too, which is really cool. It felt so cool to have it happen with Sofia and her dad because, like I said, these were songs where I was trying to get outside of myself a little bit and I was trying to look farther into the world and kind of bring other elements into the songs. And then to have these people come up to me afterwards and say, “Hey, I really like this new thing that you're doing, I think that it's working” -- that just felt so cool, and it made me want to keep writing the songs and keep playing shows.
When we first met, she had this one song that she had demoed at home, and she hadn't really shown anybody. But her dad got my email address and he emailed it to me and was like, "I'm not telling her that I'm doing this but I really want you to listen to it." So I listened to it. It was awesome. One thing led to another, and we ended up making a whole record together of her songs that I recorded, and ended up singing the harmony on her record.
Her dad was so supportive the whole time... He had been coming to all my shows, and supporting me and pushing me to do Slaughter Beach, Dog. And then it turned around, and it was like me making her record, and me being like, "These songs that you've written are so good. Let's put these songs out. You should play some shows, you should go on tour." It was really neat to have it come full circle like that.
I know you said that you don't want to call it the end of Modern Baseball, but these are going to be the last shows for awhile. How do you feel about closing this chapter?
It's cool because I look back on everything that we did together, and I can confidently say that I've learned so much from the time that we spent together on the road. I made so many friends and I grew a lot as a musician, I got to grow a lot as a person in some really difficult ways. I went through a lot of difficult things. I think we all went through a lot of difficult things that we would not have experienced if the band had not been there. But we were able to grow from those things so much. I think if we hadn't done Modern Baseball the last four or five years or however long it was, we would be completely different people.
It feels good to be able to just... it seems that at the end we got really tired and we were like, "This is just too much." But at the same time, it feels so good to look back and see how much we learned from everything, and how much we were able to grow as people. And how much -- on a really corny level -- how much music we were able to share with people around the world, and learn from our fans, and have our fans learn from us simultaneously, and form these insane relationships literally all over the world, which we totally did not expect to happen. It feels cool to be able to look back and see everything and have it be kind of unbelievable.
Looking back at all these things that you've accomplished in the past few years, what is the main thing that feels so special to you about what you're doing for Slaughter Beach, Dog?
I guess this is a less exciting answer, but since we got so over our heads near the end of Modern Baseball, the main theme for me with Slaughter Beach, Dog so far has been keeping everything very under control and not agreeing to too much, and not overworking myself, so that it hopefully remains something that I really love doing and I can do for a while. That felt really good so far and I really hope that I can continue making decisions in that way and being able to enjoy it, and keep writing songs and learning from my experiences, and not run myself into the ground.
I think that was definitely the most valuable thing I took away from Modern Baseball -- it's important to respect your gut, I guess. If you're feeling like everything is too much, then everything is probably too much, and you should do something about it, even if it's a difficult thing to do. That's probably the biggest thing that I've been keeping in mind looking towards the future.