Did you enjoy speculating on glass beach’s artistic direction based on the prog/jazz fusion of “the CIA”? What about the In Rainbows-goes-gang vocal eruption of “rare animal”? Hell, are you pumped for glass beach to run through an exhaustive Q&A about the second glass beach album, which isn’t actually called the second glass beach album this time around? If so, would you have traded all of those things for a surprise drop of plastic death that could have happened eight months ago?
When I talk to the newly Tacoma-based quartet a few weeks before the actual release date of plastic death, the excitement and pride glass beach feel towards their highly anticipated sophomore LP is nearly matched by the novel frustration of having to carry out the campaign of a highly anticipated album. “If the record could have come out in 2023, there wouldn’t have been singles. I firmly believe that,” drummer William White states. “This is the last time we’re going to do an album rollout like this.”
Whether it arrived four or five years after the first glass beach album, plastic death justifies both the hype and the wait. It might seem like faint praise to call it one of the most adventurous, thrilling albums of 2024 when January is barely half over, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t hold true by the time we get to December. Though compositionally sophisticated as any record that falls within the scope of art-rock or post-punk, plastic death is mischievous and melodic in a way that escapes other artists who namecheck Philip Glass and black midi as primary influences, as glass beach do on the opening “coelacanth” (it was originally titled “Philip Beach”). Or, take the very next song; the lyrics of “motions” were inspired by Layne Smith’s more demoralizing, mercenary experiences as a sound engineer, and to make a joke about the monotony and interchangeability of creating art under capitalism, they pull a “same note, every string” trick shot from Guitar World icon Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big.
The result of lengthy jam sessions, painstaking editing, and passionate arguments about sequencing and the most minute sonic details, plastic death is a rare instance of an art-rock opus that’s as fun as it is challenging, playing out more like Tears Of The Kingdom or Super Mario Bros. Wonder than homework. But it’s also somewhat misleading to say it took five years to create. Though long opposed to releasing anything from plastic death in advance, frontperson J. McClendon found two reasons to settle on “the CIA” as the lead single; for one thing, they saw it as one of the least representative songs on the record and thus the most likely to confound listeners. They also claim that it dates back to before even the first glass beach album, originally a “Thundercat/disco” sketch that has undergone a Ship of Theseus transformation in the time since, retaining none of its original lyrics or instrumentation. Likewise, “Slip Under the Door” was literally raised from the dead multiple times before reaching its final state as a vampiric nü-metal suite and McClendon threatened to leave “Puppy,” the album’s catchiest pop song, off plastic death solely because it was catchy enough to be a standalone single.
With all the effort they put into the actual creation of plastic death, it’s understandable that they longed to repeat the release strategy of their debut. the first glass beach album was uploaded to Bandcamp in May 2019 with no fanfare, even amongst the people who made it. “J. was wrapping up production and all of sudden, we get a message saying, ‘Yeah I think we’re gonna release it next week,’” White recalled in a 2019 interview. This is the way J. had always done things. “I’ve been making music for exactly a full decade before glass beach and it was always, ‘I just want to make the music,’” they say. “I’ll put it up online, it’s pay what you want, and if people want to send me money, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool.”
In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the first glass beach album could’ve gotten lost amidst the countless Alex G and Prince Daddy ripoffs sharing the “emo” tag in Bandcamp throughout 2019. Toggling between ambient interludes and maximalist arrangements that threatened to crash McClendon’s Logic X software, it sounded like a lot of different things at various points – no other album had ever been accurately likened to Boards Of Canada, seapunk, Saves The Day, and musical theater before. For reasons that still escape them, glass beach somehow found its way to perpetually keyed-in advocates like Skylar Spence and Los Campesinos!, which sparked a word-of-mouth buzz that led to their signing with Run For Cover and assembling the kind of team who’d ultimately convince them to take a more traditional path towards the release of plastic death.
In the ensuing years, tfgba would retroactively be deemed a formative document of “fifth wave emo,” a movement defined by wild stylistic leaps and an often queer and highly online lyrical perspective. But after the passage of a half decade, bassist Jonas Newhouse reflects that “we’re all orbiting around the 30s threshold and had a lot of enforced personal growth through the pandemic.”
“There were a good six-ish months where we literally hadn’t seen each other,” White recalls and while remotely-composed, one-off singles “1015” and “Running” were well-received, each felt like placeholders until glass beach could return to their previous, communal creative process. But even as they generated momentum on plastic death in their NoHo home studio, the band questioned their willingness to ever tour again after contracting COVID in 2022, despite taking the utmost safety precautions. They’ve donated their time and air purifiers to kickstart a Seattle-area chapter of the Clean Air Club to ensure COVID-safe events at a time when new strains keep emerging despite assurances that the pandemic is long over.
Still, even with this ongoing risk, glass beach are far more stoked to finally tour and perform plastic death than promote it. “I don’t give a shit about advertising, honestly. I have faith that the people who would like it will find it from word-of-mouth at this point,” J. flatly states. “I guess that’s a very funny thing to say in an interview.”
Before we talk about plastic death, I wanted to get into what happened with “Running” – it’s now official “glass beach lore” that the song was submitted for Bill & Ted Face The Music, but ultimately rejected. How did they let you know it was a pass?
Jonas Newhouse: Hold on, let me find the email [checks phone].
J. McClendon: From what I understand, the music supervisor really liked it. They requested a couple of changes that we made, but the version we released was the unmodified one. I think it was ultimately the director that vetoed it.
William White: There were a couple of others that were still…I was going to say “in the running,” on accident. And we were definitely the music supervisor’s maybe-favorite. I hesitate to say that only because you could probably look up who the music supervisor is and I don’t want to put words in their mouth.
Jonas: All I know is the music supervisor didn’t decide we weren’t in it. They made that clear.
J.: And there were definitely discussions we weren’t privy to.
William: They also said that they liked the song but they wanted a different vocalist and they were gonna redo the instrumentation.
Jonas: I swear there’s a version where Rivers [Cuomo] did a test track.
J.: I think the Weezer song ended up taking the spot, but yeah I still haven’t seen that movie.
William: I’ve only seen the scene with the Weezer song.
J.: I think I would have seen it if our song was in it, but I don’t know that I ever believed that the movie was gonna be good.
I didn’t think it was going to be very good and it was not very good, but I remember seeing it because we were just so desperate for a traditional movie experience during the early pandemic. I’m dying to know what changes they recommended, did they want you to write lyrics that summarize the plot…
J.: Totally, like Space Jam. William, you wrote a lot of the lyrics, because straight up, that was so out of my ballpark. I can’t write something positive.
William: I wrote the chorus, which is funny because that kind of just proves that it’s not really a glass beach song. No offense to the glass beach fans that really like it. Because there were people who said, “if this is the direction glass beach is going, I’m so excited!” And I was like, oh no!
J.: It was us doing a Queen impression or “God Gave Rock and Roll To You” by KISS, they wanted something like that. And Layne did such a good solo for that song, it does rip.
What struck me about the first time we talked was how much glass beach, the band, was a byproduct of friendship, that the four of you would likely still be hanging out together if you weren’t making music. In the time since, there’s been touring and signing to a label and all of these other things that test relationships in a way you can’t anticipate. How have these things impacted the way you collaborate as both friends and musicians?
William: I think my friendship with the people in the band wanes as it becomes more like a business. Being in a band is not hard for a friendship, it introduces a heightened version of what friendship is, it forces a greater form of communication. And then having a business based around that band based on this friendship, it starts getting into a zone where you need to bring people in to save your friendship, basically.
J.: I don’t know if I’m speaking for everybody here, but I feel like if it didn’t have to be a business, then we wouldn’t care about trying to sell the music. You know, if this weren’t the best career prospect we all have right now. We’re kind of in this position where treating it as a commercial enterprise is kind of the best way forward for us, for the sake of enabling us to continue doing this, you know?
Jonas: Which also is rough because when we’re done with the music, we’re kind of done thinking about it outside of listening to it and reflecting on it. We don’t want to be thinking about the fucking publishing and all the production stuff.
J.: We were asked to do a thing for Spotify where it’s like, “Hey, to all our Spotify fans, thank you for listening. Make sure to stream our new album in the next year!,” and all that kind of shit. It just feels so deeply fake to me and I feel like anybody else would be able to see through that too.
Layne Smith: Make sure to smash that “like!”
J.: People going on TikTok and being like, “Oh, did I just make the song of the summer?” I would rather die.
I’ve talked to a lot of bands in the indie/punk/emo/etc. sphere about their experience during the pandemic and whether they felt like it represented a missed opportunity to finally do things differently in the music industry, rather than just continuing the same old three-year, “release an album, tour, tour again, release the next album” cycle. Were there any conversations like that within the band?
Layne: We all shared the sentiment of doing things in a better way and at almost every turn, William for sure has been like, “Why do we have to do that?” And then we talk about it for a little bit, and it’s like, “Oh, well, because it’s expected of us.” Okay, well, can we just not do that?
Jonas: We ended up doing two singles which is fairly normal for an album cycle. But that was after hours and hours of deliberating on it because we didn’t want to do it just because.
J.: What it came down to is that I would like people to hear some of the music before 2023 is over. Or, at the very least, know that we’ve done something because we finished the album so long before the release date. That was the whole other thing too – we want it out now. Next time, we’re just going to try to have it drop with no singles or anything because we really never thought of it as an album to be picked apart into pieces like that. The album is the work that we’re making.
Layne: Whenever we have these industry-talk conversations like, “This is how things are done,” there’s part of my brain that always asks that question, “Do we have to do that?” But there’s also a part of my brain that’s like, “I’ve never made it this far.”
J.: There’s people that we trust to defer to about certain things. I think there’s also a lot of bullshit because – I’m not going to say success is totally random – there is a big part of success that is random. I think a lot of people find some kind of success and then just tell everybody to do things exactly how they did. Which is from a completely different time, different context, maybe even different genre. I look at how our first album took off and I would never tell anybody [to do it like us]. I think any older people established in the industry would not have told us to do things the way we do. I guess if there’s any point to be made here, don’t take advice from anybody you wouldn’t trade places with. And nobody knows how to succeed in the music industry. Even people who have done it don’t know how they did it.
Layne: It’s a lot like when YouTubers get asked “How do we make it?” and say, “I got popular like seven years ago, you think that you think things are the same as they were seven years ago?” Anybody who has ever had any success bases everything off of the moment where things change for them, rather than accepting the idea that the music industry is constantly changing.
J.: Yeah, people say singles are better than albums. First of all, that’s not true. And second of all, if it was, then focusing on an album instead would be the way to stand out. Do what nobody else would do.
William: Not even yourself. And then if it’s good and the right people find it, then something might happen. But then there’ll be a risk scenario that you made something awesome that people didn’t find.
J.: And then maybe like 30 years down the line, people are like, “How did this get forgotten?” It’s like, well, I was poor when I put it out.
William: Yeah, I was poor and alive when I put it out, so nobody paid attention.
In 2019, you suggested that the first glass beach album would be a good way for people in the future to remember what being online was like at that time. Do you feel like that prediction has held up?
William: I mean, it’s only gotten more like that. A core idea of [the first glass beach album] was the idea of seeing something horrifying and then something beautiful and something hilarious and then something tragic. That’s the space that we all live in now and it’s worse, because TikTok wasn’t really a thing back then? You swipe up and you see like, “Oh, someone’s singing a pretty song and here’s something about the Palestinian genocide” that’s so much more inescapable.
J.: I mean, it’s been said to death, but with the pandemic, everybody’s lives kind of got transplanted to almost exclusively being online, you know? And I think just I was so much more online than a lot of people for most of my life.
So you’re not less online these days, it’s just that the rest of the world caught up?
J.: I would say I’m less online now than I was then. I think all of us are less online, it feels so cynical and so bleak to me these days. The pandemic really accelerated this for me because in the first couple months of it, I was on Twitter nonstop and it just kind of fucking destroyed me. So I just had to go fully in the opposite direction and I was completely offline for a while. I’ve been trying to find the balance, you spend too much time online and you get worms in your brain, and you spend too much time offline and you don’t have anybody to talk to.
Layne: I think the record is still relevant now in its theme, because there’s a lot of people who may have had that balance at one time. I think that I had a pretty good balance in terms of using Twitter, for example, because I heavily handled my timeline. The things that would pop up were all news that I could find from individual journalists that were accredited. But with the way that Twitter has now gone – I’m never gonna call it the other name – you can’t escape that feeling, you can’t be there longer than 20 minutes and not have it just completely be, “Oh my god this sucks.” It feels like grinding on like an old, thousand-hour JRPG now just to get your timeline reasonable.
It did seem like most of the lyrics on the first album were very online, or at least about the experience of being very online. With plastic death, there seems to be a more surreal, less literal bent to the songwriting.
J.: With the first one, I felt like I had gotten so specific with my songwriting that I was putting details and the literal recounting of events and stuff over the emotionality of it. This was much more about trying to get straight at the emotion. And there is a lot that works on that level. You take a song like “Cul de Sac,” I think that’s a very direct song for me. And I think it’s a very online song too. Because that song, to me, was so much about the culture of nostalgia and how insidious that can be. And then also this idea of Silicon Valley tech people coming from this new age-y mentality of like, oh, “the internet will connect everybody” and then selling out that dream. There’s stuff in there that is very specific, but with this album, I’m trying to write more from the subconscious. That’s where the whole metaphor of the abyss, the deep sea comes from – the Jungian idea of the anima, the repressed part of the self and how there are beautiful things in there, even if there are things in there that are terrifying too.
Do you consider this album to be more hopeful in its view of the future?
J.: I think this album is more a rejection of a lot of the issues with the internet that we’ve talked about before. With the first album there was a sense of it being anti- to this whole mindset of “people are on their phones all the time, they don’t even talk to each other.” Well, people are talking to each other, but it’s on their phones. There was almost this defense of the internet along with the criticism, and a lot more irony in it. I think of this new album as significantly less ironic.
Jonas: If anything, I feel like the irony comes from musical jokes we make.
J.: Irony as a tool in the toolbox rather than as a sensibility.
I think of that aspect in light of a song like “The Killer,” which is the kind of spare, “serious,” mostly acoustic song that glass beach has never done before. Was that the point of making plastic death where you thought, “I’m really out of my comfort zone here”?
J.: I think that’s certainly a song that goes to kind of an uncomfortable place for me. There’s stuff where it was sort of difficult style-wise, like “Slip Under The Door.” There was the whole period of me learning how to scream and everything — not that I didn’t know how to scream before, but learning how to do it more safely and having more control over it. There’s a good bit of stuff that’s emotionally uncomfortable for me, but any time I record something that makes me kind of cringe a little bit, I’m like — okay, that’s right, that’s how it should be. Like the first part of “Abyss Angel,” I use so much restraint, no reverb, we’re not going to double anything, we’re not going to dress it up at all, just have it be as naked as possible. And it makes me uncomfortable to listen. That’s why I know it’s good.
I think we really tried hard to lean into the stuff that is uncomfortable for us because I think that trying to get too comfortable as an artist is dangerous. Like, I think that’s how bands become parodies of themselves. As poppy as we can get, I really try to take an avant-garde mindset to our art of just like, let’s try to do what we’ve never done before. Let’s try something that might fall flat on its face, you know, and whatever album we do next is probably going to sound nothing like this one.