It’s been said that nostalgia moves in 20-year cycles. The kids of the ’90s were obsessed with the ’70s. In the ’00s, it was all about the ’80s, just as the ’10s reflected on the ’90s. Which means that we’re due for a generation that brings back the aughts. If this is true, then Slow Pulp has arrived just in time.
Formed back in 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin by childhood friends Henry Stoehr, Alex Leeds, and Teddy Matthews, who added singer/guitarist Emily Massey two years later, Slow Pulp seemed to have the opposite of good timing when they dropped their affecting debut LP Moveys at the height of the pandemic in 2020. But while they weren’t able to tour behind the record, the downtime allowed Moveys to become a slow-burn favorite online, insists Massey, who eventually relocated to Chicago with the rest of the band. Fans were drawn to Slow Pulp’s amalgam of downer lyrics and poppy guitar jams, which bear an obvious influence from a range of early ’00s mainstream rock — everything from Coldplay to Sum 41, whom they have covered — the band members consumed in their youth.
Massey also credits a cinematic touchstone from the era as an inspiration: Richard Linklater’s School Of Rock.
“That movie is why half of us learned to play an instrument when we were kids,” she said last month in advance of Slow Pulp’s just-released second record, Yard. “Especially for me, seeing another person who wasn’t a boy play bass or play guitar was a huge deal.”
In fact, every member of Slow Pulp participated in a School Of Rock-like music program as teenagers — Stoehr, Leeds, and Matthews took the class on one side of town, and Massey on the other — where the ultimate goal was to learn how to play a rock classic. (Hers was “Beverly Hills” by Weezer, theirs was “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses.) As grown-ups, they have applied those lessons very well on Yard, which elaborates upon the sticky melodies of Moveys with a broad set of stylistic turns that span from buzzy pop-punk to dark-hued country. It’s the kind of big-tent indie rock record that was more common in the — you guessed it — aughts. And I think it has the potential to position Slow Pulp as one of 2023’s breakout bands.
When I caught with Massey, we spent the first 10 minutes talking about the Green Bay Packers. (I am also from Wisconsin.) It was before the season started, so our conversation about Aaron Rodgers vs. Brett Favre — whom Slow Pulp has saluted in song — as well as the prospects for new Packers quarterback Jordan Love now seems out-of-date. (Thankfully for both of us, Love has fared better than Rodgers so far this season.) However, we did manage to also talk about Wisconsin more broadly as well as the making of Yard, early aughts rock, and how the video for “Scar Tissue” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers pulled Slow Pulp out of a creative impasse.
Do you feel that being from Wisconsin informs who the band is?
Oh yeah. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Wisconsin that feels true to our identity, but something about it just does. Maybe because we’re just around each other all the time and we have this shared cultural understanding of our upbringing. But I feel like we have a lot of pride for Wisconsin. It’s just a beautiful place. I feel lucky to have grown up there. Wisconsin also has a lot of political turmoil. There’s some issues that I’m not so proud of, in terms of the Supreme Court and whatnot. But I think there’s a lot of really lovely people there. Especially in rural Wisconsin, it has this energy for me that feels really like home, and I feel like I’m able to be really vulnerable there.
There’s different facets of Wisconsin music. One of our biggest influences is Garbage. Shirley Manson is from Scotland, but most of them are from Wisconsin. There’s also the Bon Iver route, and we love Bon Iver. I think those encapsulate certain energies that relate to Wisconsin to me. Bon Iver has got this more natural folk sense, and Garbage has a thing that’s a little bit more youthful or energetic to it. And that is what relates to our music. I know that they started in playing basements in Madison, and that’s what we did, too. And you just want kids to rage, so I feel like you make really distorted music.
You also did some work on Yard at a cabin in northern Wisconsin, which is very on-brand for a band from the region.
It’s funny to talk about working at the cabin because there’s the Bon Iver image of doing that. I feel like it’s a wood-burning stove and a little log cabin tucked in the woods, and my version is much more ping-pong table, scooters, lake, boogie boards.
It’s the summer cabin vibe vs. the winter cabin vibe.
Exactly. I think that’s maybe the way I should describe it, summer vs. winter. We have a weird way that we talk about music, especially how we want production to sound on a song. We’ll talk about like, “Oh, we want this song to sound like rolling hills and cows.” And that, to me, is very quintessential Wisconsin. Or wakeboarding on the lake.
The thing that jumped out to me about Yard is how eclectic it is. It’s hard to pin Slow Pulp down to a specific sound.
There’s an element of that on the first record, but this one goes in different directions more. And, I think that is due to the process of how we wrote this album. Most of the songs started out in a lot more of a sparse space, just guitar chords. And then I’d take the chords and change up the structure and write a melody and lyrics over it. And then there are a couple songs that we wrote as a group, and we were being loud from the get-go. “Cramps,” for example, has that type of energy. But then “Broadview” started really sparse. So I feel like that’s how we get both ends of the spectrum of loud and quiet, for lack of a better term. But I think also Henry [Stoehr], who is our producer, he’s the guitar player in the band. I think he’s really good at hearing the base of the song, and understanding what world it needs to live in, and letting the song dictate that rather than trying to control what type of song it’s going to be.
“Broadview” is one of my favorite songs on Yard, and it’s a real curveball. It’s this beautiful alt-country song.
“Broadview” started as a guitar part. Just chords and a riff that Henry had made. We send things to each other through Google Drive. We work on a lot of things alone before we come together as a group. So I had those guitar chords and one day I was in my apartment and singing over it, just walking around my house and singing over it before I recorded anything, and I was doing this thing with my voice that I don’t normally do, and it was able to open up in this way I didn’t know I could. And, I was like, “I got to record this right now! This is crazy!” And once the vocals started to take shape, I was like, “This needs to be almost like a country ballad.”
When I wrote that song and “Fishes,” I was listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams, and I think it was just some sort of unconscious thing that came out in me from that.
Your first album Moveys came out during the pandemic, which seems like a hard time to launch a career. How do you feel like that affected Slow Pulp’s trajectory?
I think we got really lucky. Turned out people needed a sad album. We didn’t know that that was going to work out that way, but I think we learned some lessons about how to work together. There was a lot of things that needed to happen out of necessity during that time that felt really good, like writing alone and having that isolation. We thought, “Maybe this isn’t the worst way to work on stuff.” Like a “don’t fix what’s not broken”-type of situation. Another thing that came out of the pandemic that I think is really cool is I got to work with my dad. My dad is a musician and has a little home studio, and so I recorded all my vocals for the album with him during Covid. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go, but it went really well. I feel like he’s really good at bringing out a certain emotional quality in the delivery of the vocals, or he’ll have really great suggestions of things to try. So when we made this record, I was pretty adamant about wanting to try to do that again with him.
So you don’t feel like the pandemic hurt you?
I think having time with an album, or having an album represent a year for somebody — a lot of people have told me that that’s something that Moveys did for them, that it was a companion to loneliness. The type of music that we make just resonated, and the emotional quality that’s being touched on in those songs are so directly related to that time period, and just trying to get through it. Trying to do the best you can, and being vulnerable about mental health, and being sad, and going through hard times. I think that’s something that everyone can relate to.
A week before the record was due, when we were like, “We really have to turn the record,” we were re-listening to that song and felt like it wasn’t quite right. What we did was we took the song back to its acoustic roots. And somebody was like, “It reminds me of the desert.” And somebody else was like, “Oh, what’s that Red Hot Chili Peppers song with the music video where they’re all in the car?” We were also fairly delirious at this point. We had been working on the record every day, all day, just to get it done, so we were hopped up on Red Bull. That music video, we just kept it on silent while we tried to build out the new production of the song. And I feel like it evokes that desolate energy.
There is a palatable “early 2000s mainstream rock” element to Slow Pulp’s music. I know you have covered Sum 41 and mentioned Coldplay’s Parachutes as an influence. Do you feel like that era looms large for the band?
Absolutely. Growing up in the early 2000s, we all had this. That was all the music we loved. You hear Green Day for the first time when you’re 10, and you’re like, “Whoa, what is this?” It was an introduction to music that we all kind of experienced, that when we came together and made Slow Pulp, that was an evident thing that we all shared. I mean, we were still buying CDs, and going to big box stores. We weren’t necessarily going into record stores when we were little kids. It wasn’t until we were teenagers that we got into that stuff. So that’s what’s available to you — the radio and popular music that’s happening.
Shopping at Best Buy for American Idiot.
Or going to Target and seeing posters for No Doubt. It just ended up in our psyche. That’s what got us into music. And I think it’s just so deeply ingrained.