Unwed Sailor
Photo: Charles Elmore via Terrorbird

Instrumental Rock Kingpins Unwed Sailor Know How to ‘Charm’

Unwed Sailor rule the instrumental rock landscape, but in order to keep their 18-month album release cycle, their new record had to be re-tracked from scratch.

Mute the Charm
Unwed Sailor
10 February 2023

This year marks Unwed Sailor‘s quarter century as a band, and, in partial celebration, they have released another masterful work of hook-laden instrumental rock via Mute the Charm. Yet, according to bassist and founding member Johnathon Ford, the record wasn’t intended to arrive at this moment in the band’s history. By his calendar, it could have come out before the trio’s 2021 effort, Truth or Consequences, but something didn’t quite sit right. Part of the problem rested with Ford’s dissatisfaction with the drums. The album was placed on hold, and Truth or Consequences entered the world to the acclaim they have come to appreciate, especially on a string of albums from 2017’s Take a Minute. 

Drummer Matthew Putman re-tracked his parts, and, listening to the album now, one marvels at the performances as well as Putman’s percussive touches throughout. Ford, too, is effusive in his praise for his bandmate and the work heard throughout, whether on “Windy City Dreams”, “Let Me Be the Way”, or “London Fog”, which not only features some of guitarist David Swatzell’s best work to date but easily stands as one of the best tracks in Unwed Sailor’s considerable discography. 

Speaking about Putman, Ford notes, “I feel like anything’s possible with Matt. He’s just blown my mind with the stuff he comes up with, especially with the percussion. It’s weird because I’ve never considered Unwed Sailor to be a percussion band. I’ve never considered Unwed Sailor as a band that would have strong percussion elements on a record. But I feel like we’re turning into that because of Matt. Over the past two or three records, that has become a really important part of the recording process. We have percussion time. We’ll spend a full three days on percussion. It’s become a real focus because of how great Matt is and how creative he gets.”

Chatting from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ford is game for various topics, whether the impact that bands such as New Order and the Sundays have had on him, the unlikely marriage of Unwed Sailor and heavy rock, or his childhood appreciation of classical music. 

As for the band’s future, Ford intends to keep pace with new music (each Unwed Sailor LP of late has been separated by roughly 18 months) and live performances, especially in light of the trio’s arrival at the 25-year mark. 

“I’d love to play four-hour shows if we could,” says Ford. Unwed Sailor fans, no doubt, would like it too. 

Where and when did Mute The Charm start? 

Mute the Charm and Truth or Consequences were happening at the same time. Sometimes I get confused about when I was working on one and when I was working on the other because they were both being created at the same time and being prepared for release at the same time. The original idea was that Mute the Charm was supposed to come out before Truth or Consequences. 

But I had a lot of issues with Mute the Charm. We had to re-track the drums. At one point, I had mixed it twice. We probably did ten or 12 different masters. There were a lot of sonic issues we were having with the way it was recorded, having to re-record the drums. So, it took a lot longer than a normal record that I would do. 

So, both of those records were being recorded at the same time, but it just ended up that Truth or Consequences was done before Mute the Charm. 

When you talk about re-recording the drums, is it that the vibe wasn’t quite right, or was it a matter of technical issues? Things that maybe you didn’t hear at first but that emerged later? 

The early drum takes? I didn’t feel they were right for the record, so we just wanted to do it again. The second time ended up being great. I love the album. But there was a point where I didn’t know if it was ever going to get done just because of all the issues I had to weed through. That’s odd because I don’t usually have those experiences with records. They usually flow out and work. 

You might obsess over a mix in a certain song or the way the bass sounds on a particular song; maybe I’ll tweak it a lot. But it’s never been a whole record that I’m wrestling with. But it’s done, and I love it now. It turned out really well. It was just a lot more work than I’m used to usually. 

At one point, did it become apparent that Truth or Consequences would be the album that got out into the world first? 

I was up in Cottage Grove, Oregon, with Chris Colbert, working on Mute the Charm, and I just realized, while I was up there mixing, that it would take longer to finish. Truth was ready to go. I called John [Frazier] at Spartan [Records] and said, “Let’s just put Truth out first.” It just seemed like the best thing to do. 

I’m glad I did that because otherwise, I would have been. My goal is to release a record every year and a half, so I was thinking about that, too. I wanted to keep within that time frame, so if I hadn’t decided to release Truth first, there might have been a couple of year break or something. Maybe a three-year break or something. 

I found it interesting that you said you wanted to re-record the drums. One of the first things I fell in love with on this record was the drumming and the percussive touches. 

Matt is the ultimate percussion player. He amazes me every time he picks up some object and shakes it or hits it on something. He’s always perfectly in time. He always has the best rhythms. He’ll surprise me. A typical shaker might be in this 4/4 time thing, but he’ll make an alternate pattern that fits the song better than a typical shaker would. He’s incredible. One of my favorite things is just watching him do percussion. It brings an entirely new life to [the music]. Matt just nailed it that second time around. He’s just the best ever. 

When you’re writing a song, are you demoing it with a drum machine and suggesting drum parts to him, or do you turn it over to him and say, “It’s all yours”? 

It happens both ways. When I’m demoing bass stuff, sometimes I’ll have a very specific drum idea in mind. Usually, I get my phone and make a mouth drum pattern [imitates basic drum beats]. I’ll text that to Matt; he’ll program that, put it in with my bass demo, and send it back to me to hear it. There are other times when I send him the bass demo, and he sends me this drum thing that he’s written, and it’ll sound amazing. We collaborate with that pretty freely. I trust Matt 100 percent with his ideas and playing. There are times when I have no idea what to do with a song drum-wise. Matt will come to the rescue and create some amazing drum beats for it. 

I think Mute the Charm is a record that you must take the time to listen to on headphones to get the full scope of it. Were you aware of that as you were making it? “We’re going to put little bits of candy in here for the deep listener.” 

The candy’s really important to me. That’s where the percussion comes in. That’s very candy-like in the way it’s mixed. Chris Colbert up at National Freedom mixed the record, and I was there with him. Whenever mixing happens, I always reference my studio headphones. So I’m mixing with headphones exactly for that kind of thing. Sometimes I’ll call them characters. A certain little sound is like another character in the story, so it should be floating around up here [points]. This character should be floating over here [points]. Then it’s a matter of bringing that all together in the mix and creating this little world with lots of candy floating around. 

You’re so good at writing hooks. Was that something that you feel came naturally to you? 

That’s a huge compliment because that’s my ultimate goal with Unwed Sailor. It’s about two things: There’s a melody, and there’s a hook. The music I gravitate toward and that I grew up on mostly was stuff from the 1980s. And the 1980s are basically just one big hook. New Order is my favorite band; every song has a really catchy hook. That’s just been ingrained in me that a good melody and a good hook are what make a good song. My whole musical life, that’s what I’ve been drawn to and what I listen to. I feel like it’s become pretty easy for me to hear a hook when I’m writing. 

I’ll come up with the foundational bass line of the song, which, to me, there’s a melody there. Then, my favorite part is stacking the other bass parts on top of that. That’s when I start diving into the hook world, where I can write all these little hooks that go over the main melody. That’s my style of how I write—melodic hooks and then stacking those on top of each other. 

I also hear classical influences in Unwed Sailor’s music, and classical is often reliant, in its own way, on hooks. Was that also part of your musical development? 

Classical is probably more subconscious. Classical was part of my upbringing. I’ve always loved music, even when I was a tiny little guy. My dad had a lot of classical records, so I would go through his classical collection and listen to classical music all the time. We had one of those big 1970s [consoles] that was like a piece of furniture with the eight-track and turntable. I would lean against the speaker and listen to classical music. 

My mom and I would be in the car, and I’d always want to listen to classical. I would ask my mom, “When you hear this song, what’s the story in your mind? What do you see in your mind?” She would tell me, and then I would tell her, “Oh, I see a forest with a moon, and a falling star is on the horizon.” We would share back and forth these visions of what we saw when we heard the music. I think that, to this day, I am influenced by classical. 

Sometimes I feel like I need to listen to classical more, like going back to my childhood again. I’ve thought about that recently. I really loved Arvo Pärt. His music is just overflowing with emotion. And melody. And hooks at the same time. I’ve been listening to him here and there. But I think I will go back into classical and listen to that more often like I did when I was a little kid. 

I wanted to ask you about a few specific songs on the record, the first of which is “London Fog”. Talk about images, painting a picture for the listener. It’s also the epic of the album. 

That might be my favorite song on the album. [Publicist] George [Corona] has said that that’s his favorite Unwed Sailor song. Ever. I feel like we nailed it on that song. The initial bassline that I wrote for that song [was something that] I just started playing one day. I thought, “Dude, this is totally the Sundays.” They’re one of my favorite bands of all time. It had that rainy, foggy, London feel from the 1980s. It’s how I always pictured London growing up listening to the Sundays or the Smiths or Joy Division or New Order. I always pictured England. Manchester, London. 

There was this rainy, foggy, melancholy, reflective feeling. I felt that with “London Fog”, that was happening. Those were the feelings that I was feeling. We completed the song, and that song title was just perfect. That song felt like all the things that I felt when I was discovering bands like the Sundays, the Smiths, and Joy Division. I also wanted to give a little nod back to the 1980s London Fog jacket brand. I always loved those jackets. 

It’s probably one of my favorite Unwed Sailor songs that we’ve ever done. 

I also wanted to ask you about “Western Dime”. It’s like Unwed Sailor’s Led Zeppelin moment. 

You nailed it. I did not intentionally do that at all. Unwed Sailor surprises me sometimes. I don’t know where it comes from. That’s one of those things where I sat down with my bass, and all of a sudden, that bassline started coming out. That’s one of those basslines where, as I was initially playing it, I said, “No, this is dumb. This is not Unwed Sailor. This is not something I should pursue.” 

But I’ve made it a rule that if I ever think that [dismissing the idea] is the absolute wrong way to go. If I ever think something is dumb and isn’t Unwed Sailor, then I should embrace it and run with it like crazy. Those are the ideas that push my boundaries and push Unwed Sailor’s musical boundaries. That’s where you get “Western Dime”. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath meeting Unwed Sailor. That’s never happened before in the 25-year history of this band!