PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

The 'Heavy Age' Is Here: An Interview with Unwed Sailor

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: Terrorbird Media

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford discusses the history and evolution of his beloved band. "I've always focused more on a verse-chorus-bridge kind of structure. To my brain, it's like a New Order song without vocals."

Heavy Age
Unwed Sailor

3 May 2019

Heavy Age is the latest release from instrumental rock outfit Unwed Sailor. Founding member, bassist Johnathon Ford, continues the adventure he started more than 20 years ago, a desire to make instrumental music that was just as hook-intensive as any pop song. Of course, Unwed Sailor's music is often darker, more mysterious and expansive than an average pop song.

Heavy Age provides a new chapter in Unwed Sailor's evolution. Conceived as a snapshot of a live show, Ford leads guitarist David Swatzell and drummers Matt Putman and Colin Blanton through new classics such as "Indian Paintbrush", "ACAXAO", and "Nova".

Speaking from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ford reflected on the ten years that have passed since 2008's Little Wars and a particularly fertile creative period he's currently found himself in. The bassist says that he and the rest of the band are already hard at work on a follow-up to Heavy Age.

* * *

It's been a decade since the last Unwed Sailor full-length. When did you know you wanted to go in and make another full-on album?

We wanted to make another one sooner than this. We did the Take a Minute EP in 2017. The songs on Heavy Age were ones that we'd been playing for a long time live, and they were intended for another record, but I didn't have the time or the focus to do it.

I would imagine that having that amount of time and playing the material live in that window allowed you to refine things.

For sure. Playing the songs live cleaned them up and made them sound exactly how we wanted them to sound. We got a new guitarist, David Swatzell, a few years ago. He has a distinct guitar sound and style. Some of the songs on Heavy Age were already written, and he transformed them with his guitar style. They became what they are on the record just through Dave playing them.

I'm happy that the record didn't come out eight years ago. I think this album turned out to be a massive-sounding record compared to what we've done in the past. I think it needed time to germinate and become what it was. It's almost an hour long, which is something I never thought I would do. I'm usually not a fan of records that are that long. I felt like this one needed that. It needed to make up for the ten years in some way. I also feel like the songs needed that time to become what they are.

There were a few songs written at the last minute, a month or two before we recorded the record. One of them, "When You Want Me There", is actually one of the longest songs on the record.

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the sequencing of an album?

Sequencing is very important to me. It's part of the art of the record. Starting with "Indian Paintbrush" definitely had a purpose. If you listen to that song, it has a lot of the same melodies from "Take a Minute" from the Take a Minute EP. "Indian Paintbrush" was an introduction to Heavy Age, something for the listener to hear before it goes into this journey that gets a little dark. It's like the EP was passing the torch.

"When You Want Me There" seemed like the perfect ending. The title came to me when I was out running one day. I was listening to a Jesus Lizard record, I can't remember which one, I think it was Shot. There's a song where two people are having a conversation over the phone. One of the people in the conversation is having a nervous breakdown and, as the conversation goes on, you realize that the person having the break down does this a lot and wants the other person to come and help them. [The friend] says something like, "I can't just be there when you want me there." That was the greatest line to me. It just hit me.

I'm honored that the Jesus Lizard would have some kind of influence on an Unwed Sailor record.

[Laughs.]

I want to tell some kind of story through the record. I want things to flow correctly and into another the right way. It's like a movie. A movie has an ebb and flow. I want our records to have that.

When you're writing and stumble upon a riff, a progression, is there something that immediately distinguishes it as an Unwed Sailor song?

If I'm sitting down, just me and bass, it's always Unwed Sailor. Even if I start to come up with something that I question if it could be Unwed, I'll go in the studio and start layering stuff on it. [Pretty soon], I know it's Unwed Sailor. But if I'm collaborating with another band or another musician, I'll think of it differently melody-wise or structurally.

When you started Unwed Sailor, were there a lot of bands around you that were doing something similar?

There were bands, but they were in a different world than the post-rock scene. A big gamechanger for me was when I was on tour with Pedro the Lion [in 1998], and we played in San Diego. There was this band called Physics, and I can't remember if we played with them, or we stumbled into their show, but I do remember seeing them play. They were all instrumental, and I'd already been thinking about Unwed Sailor, and when I saw them, it was the green flag.

The early Tortoise records were an influence, as was this band Pullman, which had guys from Tortoise. A huge influence. Then there were bands that were bigger influences: New Order, the Smiths, even White Lion. I wasn't waiting for instrumental bands to pop up so I could be inspired by them. It was just something I wanted to do. I also grew up listening to classical music and movie soundtracks.

So, I think this was always in my blood to do, musically. I think I just needed a little nudge.

When did you have a sense that you were influencing other bands?

I don't know that I've seen it. I know that, on tour, bands will come up and express that. That's always super rad to hear. But I don't know that I've heard a band and said, "Oh, that sounds like Unwed Sailor." There's a foundational, base instrumental sound that's happened over the last 20 years. It's more jam-y. There's not necessarily a verse or a chorus. It's more, "We're going to take this little melody and go with it, make it loud and soft and loud and soft and add on to that."

To my ears, that's what instrumental music has become. I've always focused more on a verse-chorus-bridge kind of structure. It's like a pop song. You don't have vocals, but the trick is to have people hear it and not need vocals. That's always been my goal. To my brain, it's like a New Order song without vocals.

Unwed Sailor has been a band over 20 years now. What's kept you going? Is it a matter of, "What am I going to do if I don't do this?"

Definitely. I know that if I'm not playing music, I kind of lose who I am and lose my focus. I think I feel even more lost if I don't have Unwed Sailor in my life. Since Heavy Age something has clicked in my brain to where I'm able to write way more than I used to. The songs come together more easily than they used to. I'll pick up my bass, move it across the room and then, 45 minutes later, I've got something I'm pretty happy with. I don't why it's taken all these years for that to happen, but I'm super thankful for it.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.