The announcement came like everything else these days, on Twitter.
Amidst the endless stream of celebrity hot takes, memes and existential dread, Josh Eustis typed, “I’m beyond relieved to be able to share this news, finally.” The news in question was for Dreams Are Not Enough, the first Telefon Tel Aviv album in a decade and the first since the death of Charlie Cooper, who co-founded TTA with Eustis in 1999.
Back then, TTA was a duo comprised of Eustis and Charlie Cooper, formed in New Orleans in 1999 before moving north to Chicago to be in the midst of the city’s fecund independent music community. In 2001, they released Fahrenheit Fair Enough on Hefty Records, a label run by John Hughes III, descendant of the ‘80s teen movie legend. The music, a melancholic blend of glitchy forward-moving rhythms and satisfying synth and guitar melodies, announced TTA as part of the broader musical conversation happening between local bands like Tortoise on post rock institution Thrill Jockey Records and a like-minded U.K. scene anchored by Warp Records and newer artists including Four Tet and M83.
Thus began a steady ascent that saw two more critically acclaimed and audience adored albums, 2004’s A Map of What Is Effortless and 2009’s Immolate Yourself. The latter album signified a shift in sound from the delicate laptop electronica of the first two records to a more emotive song-driven style buoyed by large washes of shimmering polyphonic synths. It was released on German techno powerhouse BPitch Control and promised a new level of popularity for Eustis and Cooper. But the promise was short-lived. A mere two days after Immolate’s release, Cooper died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.
Ten years later, Eustis is still coming to terms with Cooper’s death, but issuing the first Telefon Tel Aviv album since the tragedy, Dreams Are Not Enough, marks a watershed moment for the unintentional solo act returning to the project that most had assumed was permanently defunct. First, there’s the theme of the album, out today (Sept. 27) via Ghostly International, based on a dream that haunted Eustis in childhood and reappeared in his psyche following Cooper’s passing.
“I’ve known the song titles for almost a decade now. Since a year or two after Charlie died,” Eustis reveals before attempting to explain the source of a cycle of song named “i dream of it often;,” “a younger version of myself,” “standing at the bottom of the ocean;” “arms aloft,” “mouth agape,” “eyes glaring,” “not seeing,” not breathing,” and finally, “still as stone in a watery fane.” Listed top to bottom on the front of the record sleeve, these titles form a harrowing poem for listeners to digest before they even press play. Once they do, the music is as doleful and unnerving as the stanzas suggest.
Unpacking the poetic lifeblood of Dreams requires some explanation. To start, there’s an actual incident. A childhood vacation on the Gulf Coast when 8-year-old Eustis swam too far from shore — in pursuit of a pod of dolphins, as he recalls — and came to the shelf where the floor of the ocean suddenly drops off.
“I just saw blackness as far as the eye can see, all the way down. You’re looking into the void,” he recounts. “I freaked out and swam back to shore and wouldn’t get back in the water.”
That terrifying event led to the recurring nightmare where Eustis would see himself submerged under the waves, “It’s me again, the little red bathing suit, little boy Joshie looking down over the shelf, and I can see that version of myself standing on the bottom of the ocean.” One hardly needs a degree in psychology to understand how the loss of his friend might have stirred up other traumas from Eustis’ past.
Fortunately, when the dream revisited the now-adult musician, he jotted down his impressions after awakening from the nightmare. “So many of my ideas come from being in this liminal state between sleep and wakefulness,” Eustis explains. “My dream journal is essential for me to function as an artist.”
Yet inspiration is only one ingredient for making a record like Dreams. Others include technical innovation, which Eustis pursued for more than two years by learning Max MSP, a software system that allows for the creation of entirely new musical tools deployed on Dreams.
Then there is time and money, both of which come in short supply for an independent artist making his way in the current music business climate. In the years following Cooper’s death, Eustis moved to Los Angeles and established himself as an able sideman, doing time on tour with industrial rock legends Nine Inch Nails and appearing on records by Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s A Perfect Circle and Puscifer projects.
More recently, Eustis has leveled up his studio hustle, at various times mixing, mastering and engineering music for goth-loving techno producers Vatican Shadow and Silent Servant, as well as industrial sensations Drab Majesty and Orphx. There has also been multiple albums as Sons of Magdalene (a solo endeavor), Second Woman (a collaboration with Turk Dietrich) and The Black Queen (a trio including former Dillenger Escape Plan frontman Greg Puciato and NIN technician Steven Alexander Ryan). Through it all, new Telefon Tel Aviv was still in the back of Eustis’ mind.
“I had been iterating on Telefon stuff the whole time, even though I thought I wasn’t ever going to do it again,” Eustis says. “I’d get three or four things kind of finished and later think ‘This is all terrible!’ and just scrap it and start over.”
A dozen shows opening for Moderat in 2016 reactivated TTA as a touring concern, slowly acclimating Eustis to the idea of a new record. But it was an intervention by Sam Valenti, the owner of the Ghostly International label that is putting out Dreams as part of its 20th Anniversary year, that forced his hand. “Sam was like, ‘We’ve been talking about this for five years. Are you going to do this? Are you not going to do this? Do you need an advance to block out time so that you can not worry about other people’s music and just work on your own?’”
Ghostly bought Eustis the month or so he needed this spring to finish the album. He’s happy to report that it came together both quickly and painlessly once all of the obstacles were removed, but can’t help but reveal that a severe depression followed its completion. “With Charlie, we were usually both despondent while working on a record,” he chuckles. “So this was different.”
Nevertheless, Eustis is excited to have Dreams out in the world and is preparing to tour behind the record. He speaks fondly of the small but dedicated fanbase he can count on to attend his shows and purchase Ghostly’s gorgeous, gold-splattered vinyl pressing. But mostly, Eustis is left to wonder what might have happened had Cooper lived. Where might their career have taken them in an alternate reality where the lives of promising young people aren’t cut short, leaving others to pick up the pieces?
“That’s the thing that sticks in my craw the most,” he admits before accepting the situation for what must be the thousandth time. “Then again, the music I’m making is weird and challenging and probably would never have found a much wider audience. And I’m fine with that.”
Telefon Tel Aviv Tour Dates
09.27 – San Francisco, CA @ Midway – Ghostly 20
10.16 – Brooklyn, NY @ National Sawdust
10.17 – Nashville, TN @ Exit/In
10.19 – Miami, FL @ Floyd
11.09 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Masonic Lodge
11.02 – St.Petersburg, Russia @ Zal
11.29 – Moscow, Russia @ Teatr
11.30 – Ekaterinburg, Russia @ Dom Pechati