Jake Ewald wrote just three songs for Modern Baseball’s debut record, Sports. Two of these songs, “Tears Over Beers” and “Cooke,” respectively categorize the record’s dueling themes: dorky, humorous complacency in male adolescence, and the introspection and self-examination that accompanies it. In “Tears Over Beers,” Ewald decries an unrequited love interest who is more interested in a “meathead” named Brad than his “awkwardly long limbs and bones.” In “Cooke,” he wonders “how good it all could be, and how well it could end” as he examines the ends and means of this particularly eventful year away at college. As the record plays, Ewald and fellow co-frontman Brendan Lukens struggle to accept themselves and how they’re viewed by others, culminating in Ewald’s final contribution to the record, closer “Coals.” “There’s no way that I’ll end in the black for this term. / I guess I’ve got a lot to learn,” Ewald gently sings over a quiet acoustic guitar track that’s more tape hiss than melody.
The sentiment of “Coals” is important to the story of Modern Baseball. As the group of wonderfully endearing Drexel kids rose from the basement DIY scene of Philadelphia into the national indie rock conversation throughout 2013 and 2014, it was hard not to root for their message of self-improvement. No matter how sad the boys seemed as they sang about unrequited love and their millennial college kid woes, their beaming smiles, obvious authenticity, and goofy lyrics told audiences that everything would be okay. Modern Baseball’s discography is proof that it’s possible to move past the tough times and well enough to write about them. Things, assuredly, get better.
“I don’t want to say ‘tumultuous,’ because that sounds really negative,” Jake Ewald tells me over the phone, pausing between his words. “Even though it was kind of tumultuous.” He pauses again. It’s October 8, 2017, one week before Modern Baseball will play their last shows during a weekend-long residency at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. Ewald is talking about the time period he spent writing his new record, Birdie, which will release today under his solo moniker, Slaughter Beach, Dog. “I guess there was kind of a general upheaval of things in my life over the course of six months or so last year. Everything started changing for me, personally. Everything ended up totally fine and I’m really happy now, but while things were changing and I was settling into it, I was writing a lot of songs. Six months later, I looked back and thought ‘Oh, wow, cool, I figured out all my stuff and I have like, fifteen songs I wrote. I’m gonna put out all this music.’”
Last September, Ewald released a full-length Slaughter Beach, Dog record titled Welcome, which follows a fictional narrator struggling to find rewarding, domestic love despite their dysfunctional family and difficult social circle. This summer, Ewald released an EP titled Motorcycle.jpg, every track of which features the narrator navigating dreams and nightmares as they dissect their desires, always landing on a longing for simple and rewarding domesticity. Birdie seems to pick up where the recurrent images of Motorcycle leave off, with the narrator daydreaming and sipping a cup of coffee in “Phoenix,” recalling fond memories of a family still together in “Gold and Green,” and some loss of familial protection with the introduction of the troubled Lewis in “Pretty OK.” The record ends with “Acolyte,” a love song which directly answers the longing for “dull domestication” present in previous releases. There’s a connective tissue here, if not a linear plot. Everything is part of a bigger picture, and Birdie is the strongest glimpse into Ewald’s world thus far.
“When I was writing all those songs, I was just so not grounded in anything in my life,” he said. “I was between tours, I wasn’t in school anymore, on my own with nothing to do. I had a job, technically, because I was playing in a band, but my day to day was so much…looking back on it, kind of like an actual dream, because I didn’t have to do anything and I didn’t really have any responsibilities.”
I asked Jake about the motif of dreams present in Motorcycle.jpg while trying to unpack the larger narrative of Slaughter Beach, Dog, and he admitted it was unintentional, if understandable. Still, it became clear that the fictional project is heavily colored by Jake’s own experience. On Birdie, “Gold and Green” features a lyric about making records in a bedroom, while “Bad Beer” laments the t-shirt sales economy that accompanies the indie musician’s touring life.
“I definitely won’t spoil it, because I hate spoiling it,” Jake says of the project’s story. I can hear him smiling through the phone. “But I guess if I had to pick a theme, the one thing I kept coming back to when I was writing these songs was that my life had kind of slowed down. I was thinking a lot about experiences I had when I was younger that I had never written about. When you’re only 23 or 24 years old, it feels like you have so much further to go, and that there are only so many things you’ve done, like you haven’t done anything that interesting. But when you look back on the last 22 or 23 years of your life, you realize, wow, you have 23 years worth of material that you can write about.”
“If there’s anything that I’ve gotten more used to the more I hang out in Philly, and the more I go on tour and play music, the age range of the people I’m friends with has gotten so much bigger,” Ewald continues. “Now I’m friends with people who are 30 and 40 and 43 even, but when I talk to them and realize we’re part of the same community, it’s inspiring for me. I can see people who are older than I am and who are still involved in music, and who have found ways to make a living out of it. It’s really inspiring to see these people who are still grounded and friendly and nice.”
With promising young acts like Harmony Woods and The Obsessives popping up in the Philadelphia scene where he cut his teeth, Jake Ewald is no longer the young person in the room. Still, with three full-length Modern Baseball records, two Slaughter Beach, Dog LPs, a handful of EPs, a few splits, and even more production credits under his belt, Ewald is just 24 years old. No longer the lanky-armed teenager who wrote “Coals,” hoping optimistically for the future, Birdie represents the moment when the young songwriter begins to look backward in life for inspiration.
“I guess it’s kind of weird,” he says. “When I look back on the stuff I’ve been involved in, it doesn’t feel like I was really churning stuff out at a really fast pace or anything. But with Modern Baseball, we got started so early, and it went well so early, that I had free time from an earlier age to dedicate myself to music and not have to balance it with something else. So that’s part of it. But it’s been really cool to realize that and then be here now and be 24 and be able to completely devote myself to playing music and recording music for myself or for other bands. That’s not something I thought I’d be doing full time, so that’s a really cool feeling.”
Despite the large amount of Slaughter Beach, Dog output this year, don’t feel pressured to understand the full story on the first try. Jake would prefer you didn’t. “I guess it’s my hope that you wouldn’t need any [context],” he says as well return to story’s overarching plot. “My favorite experience to have with bands is to be rewarded by repeated listens and figure out these things as you go along. When I was first getting into the Weakerthans records and I’d listen to one, I’d hear all the stories and hear all the minutiae that John [K. Samson, Weakerthans frontman] would talk about. And I would be like, ‘This is so interesting, this is grabbing me, how could it get better than this? I love it.’ And then I’d find another record by Weakerthans, either earlier or later in the discography, and get sucked into all the petty details, then realize that this connects to this other thing, but if you listen to each one on their own, they’re self sustaining and don’t require the other ones. But whenever you take the time to be that person who knows every word of every record, you can see the connections and it’s the coolest feeling in the universe. I can only hope to be something like that some day.”
On Birdie, you’ll find connections back to previous releases, a cast of fleshed-out characters, and a storyline worth picking at over the course of several listens. While wildly different from Modern Baseball’s upbeat college rock, and more relaxed and quieter still from past Slaughter Beach, Dog records, Birdie is undeniably Jake Ewald’s music; his penchant for writing about the small details of a large world are proudly on display here, and stronger than ever.
“When I’m going through my day, when I’m doing the stay at home dad things that I do every day, I’ll just keep a running list of notes in my phone, just little specific things that I think are interesting or would sound cool in a song,” says Jake of his detail-oriented lyricism. “Even if I just hear a phrase that sounds pleasant coming out of your mouth, then I’ll write it down. and then whenever a certain time comes that I’m feeling creative or inspired, then I’ll take one of those ideas and start working off of it. When I did it before, I realized that was what I really liked about music in the music I listen to. Over time it’s been me trying to get better at doing that, because that’s my favorite style of description.”
In that regard, Birdie, which is out today, is perfect accoutrement to an impressive discography. Ewald is quickly becoming one of emo music’s most accomplished songwriters, with his own suite of skills and fingerprints that litter Slaughter Beach, Dog’s songs, but despite the sheer storytelling skill on display, the real pull of the project comes from the sound of familiar sincerity in Jake’s voice. “Man, it cuts like a dull knife / When you’re young and you’re told / “Makes sense when you’re older” / Darling, let’s get old,” Jake sings on closer, “Acolyte.” His character warmly admits the difficulty of being a young person trying to find happiness in the world. It shares a sentiment with those lines from “Coals,” sung by Jake what feels like a lifetime ago. Whether Jake drew that comparison purposefully or not, we may never know, but it hammers a fact: Jake is alright, and always getting better.