Track by Track is a recurring new music feature in which we task artists with dissecting each song on their latest record.
There’s something not quite right about describing a ballad as “sad” or a peppy cut as “happy.” Emotions are more complicated, yeah? Happy and sad are just umbrella terms for the interlocking maelstrom of emotions constituting them. Laughs give way to sobs, sighs slip through smiles, and screams are sonic arms grasping in every direction. Chicago’s Slow Mass reflect this complexity, setting squalls of distortion and tender, melancholic vocals against melodies that pair modern-day emo with the knotty, whirling strains of math-rock. For every shout there’s a sigh.
Their debut LP, On Watch, was recorded with producer Neil Strauch (Joan of Arc, Owen, Bonnie “Prince” Billy) at Minbal Studios, and its 13 tracks are urgent, intricate, and often meditative, with loops and vocal refrains emerging to spin songs in striking, surprising directions. They feel carefully crafted, the result of a band that’s as interested in form as it is catharsis. There’s a journey here, whether it be from the moody turmoil of “Suburban Yellow” that dissolves in the sparkling calm of “My Violent Years” or the garbled shrieks of “Dead Skin” that set a tone of unease for troubled closer “G’s End”. To traverse On Watch is to navigate a house of hallways, some cast in shadow, some bathed in lamplight.
“The motto, quite simply, is that there are no shortcuts,” says drummer Dave Maruzzella in a press release. “Your first instinct about what you want to do? Don’t do that one. Your second one? Don’t do that one either. That’s the easy way, that’s the common sense way, that’s what anyone else would put there. So our way is to do the tenth one, so you’re ten moves away from your initial instinct.”
Ahead of the release, you can listen to all of On Watch below.
Pre-order On Watch here, and read on as Slow Mass’ core trio moves Track By Track through each song’s creation, influences, and in-jokes.
“On Watch I”:
Dave Collis: This is an iPhone recording I made at our practice space in 2015 with no specific plans of turning it into a song. While we were sequencing this record, I thought about a passage I had read in one of Unwound’s Numero Group box sets. In one of the booklets, they discussed having each vinyl side of an album feel purposeful rather than ignoring the medium limitations in a modern age. Using this recording as a motif seemed like the perfect way to give form to this intention.
DC: Shortly after finishing recording our EP, we scheduled a weekend block to be in our practice for six-seven hours, three days straight. With this block, the intent was to create a semi-getaway to write and develop new material, without the financial strain of traveling out of town and renting a cabin. While there’s a fair amount of distractions by staying in the city, this writing block and others became very fruitful in helping us crank out pieces for the album. This song was the first to be created that weekend and every time we play it live, that memory comes back. I also had the flu that weekend, which somehow didn’t ruin the good time for me.
Mercedes Webb: This one was really cool to work on in its beginning stages. I remember the first time we started toying with the first verse and general vocal ideas. I knew we could create a structure to mess with our dynamic capabilities. It was my favorite to see flourish.
Josh Parks: I had a lot to say here but to be honest as I began typing in our shared doc, I see DC jokingly typing “^where the keg slaps,” and this is where the conversation should turn. This isn’t a conversation about writing a record. This is about the greatest song of all time. This is about “Duality” by Slipknot. This was the conversation all along.
DC: This song probably had the biggest metamorphosis from the original concept to the final arrangement. The main guitar riff was originally slower to lend to a sparser arrangement, but once we started fleshing it out as a group, the minimal origin started to make way for the drums and bass to create a newfound density. The guitars soon followed suit once Parks developed his leads and I wanted to develop my part to compliment his. This shift towards a triumphant arrangement gave the perfect vehicle for the lyrical content, which is about a friend who beat cancer last year.
JP: This is a great example of the song transforming from Dave’s original riff idea into something completely different. Sparks’ drums drive the verse and chorus, leading me to not want to add new elements until the second verse. The melodic choice over Sparks’ fill coming back into the second verse as well as the simple counter melody under Mercedes vocals in the second verse helped me understand how the song could progress melodically.
DC: I remember Parks coming up with the initial verse riff and everything else sorta fell into place around it. We were rather obsessed with Grievances by Kowloon Walled City around that time, so a lot of the heavier dynamics definitely tip the hat their way. Sparks kept trying to come up with a busier/less obvious drum part, but eventually we realized that what the song needed was most important, and sometimes that ends up being the simplest backbone possible.
MW: Hearing the end theme made it intimidating when I began to attempt vocal ideas for the rest of the song. It was so catchy. It surprised me how easy everything came to me once we played through it a while. Dave sent me lyrical ideas and the part that stuck out to me the most was the pre-chorus. It’s still a relatively difficult part to sing, but I can’t imagine it any other way.
JP: This was a riff I had been messing around with that Dave took to and wrote a cool counter melody, which allowed me to rethink it and settle into what it became. With the vocal melody taking the driver’s seat, I ultimately decided on density rather than adding more melodically and played with oscillating my signal to add a different texture. The piano melody is something I developed while recording demos and am happy how Neil incorporated it at the end.
“My Violent Years”:
DC: “MVY” has one of the few weird tunings used on the album, inspired by Preoccupations’ “Death” (written while I was attempting to learn that song and failing at it…). The saxophone layers are provided by Sen Morimoto and upright bass from Al Costis (Monobody). Lyrically, the song is about some traumatic experiences from my youth and the better choices I wish everyone around me and myself took. It’s about regret for not standing up to those who cause harm.
DC: I love how different the writing process for this song was from the rest of the album. Sparks came up with the drum pattern separate of the melody, allowing the drums to dictate the flow and movement of the first half. Middle section was inspired by the Tortoise song “Glass Museum”, which flows in-and-out of the main melody with beautiful ambient sections. Mercedes’ lyrics and vocal melody are great and truly help unite the whole song.
MW: This was a song I was very interested to see in full form. The drum part was so different from what we had done. I had written a poem not too long before, about an experience I had at practice about my deep appreciation for what I was doing and who I was doing it with. That’s what I used for lyrical ideas. I’m really excited with how it turned out, especially the end.
JP: I had a lot of fun playing with long reverbs and string noise on this. Neil ending up taking this further by his mixing choices and adding gates to it, creating a really cool effect. This was my favorite song to put together and to see how everyone felt Sparks’ part in different ways.
“On Watch II”:
DC: Same iPhone demo as “On Watch I”, but with an unused Anthony Braxton inspired sax intro to “My Violent Years” and a collection of drum edits chopped up from “The Author”. There’s also a hidden sample from our EP buried in there. Our producer Neil did an incredible job putting these dense puzzle pieces together.
DC: E.D. stands for Exploded Drawing, which is a Polvo album I’ve been on-and-off obsessed with for a long time. There’s a lyric in their song “High-Wire Moves”, “why I should care when you think that the voice I chase Is nothing special in the first place?”, that would often get stuck in my head and inspired the opening lyric in “E.D.”: “If I chase this exploded drawing down the street…” Mercedes came up with the weird chord progression at the end of the song that took me a couple weeks to understand.
MW: This was a fun one to work on. My favorite part of the writing process for this one was the ending. I had this idea that I in no way was able to verbalize to everyone. I remember I tried explaining on my fingers. Eventually we were on the same page and I think it led to a pretty awesome finish.
JP: I made my melodic and tonal choices based on pushing myself to not make the obvious choices but also making sure it was still hits hard. I still don’t understand the end and Mercedes still has to explain it with her fingers.
DC: We started working on this song with Sparks prior to him leaving the band, but never got too far in developing it as a group. With the time crunch leading up to recording while practicing old material with David for prior show commitments, this song unfortunately wasn’t developed enough for David to record it (Schemes became the main priority). What you hear is a semi-recreation of the initial demo I made. However, this song wouldn’t be anywhere close to finished without Josh’s leads, Mercedes’ beautiful harmonies, and the vibraphone contributions from our old friend Ryan Packard (who also contributed vibes to our EP).
JP: When someone comes to you with a riff that starts with tuning the guitar down to A, you’re going to get excited. I wanted to accentuate this and add to the already strong choices Dave had made.
“Tunnel Vision Quest”:
DC: This song never really entered the practice space, just was written at my apartment with Sparks engineering/mixing the demo and Parks helping me add midi flute keys later on. This probably has the most instruments not featured in Slow Mass’ live setting (acoustic guitar, mandolin, midi keys, flute). Viv McConnell (Grandkids & V.V. Lightbody) contributed all of the flute layers. She rules.
DC: Probably the biggest outliner on the record, taking more influence from Touch & Go noise rock bands like Butthole Surfers, Big Black, and the Jesus Lizard. I love how dense and terrifying this song is, with three manipulated vocal tracks, multiple guitar feedback layers, and Parks’ buzz-saw synth line at the end.
MW: The bass part went through multiple phases before the one we landed on that was a lot more in line with the rest of the parts. We simplified it in a way, but one that adds a lot of texture to the song. There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment every time we finish playing this one.
JP: I love how this song turned out. The noise and the dissonance at the end was a blast to do. I first showed the synth part to my girlfriend who was completely insulted by it. I knew it was perfect.
DC: This was the last song we wrote for the record and first song we wrote with our new drummer David, as Sparks had left shortly before to join Minus the Bear. This song was probably the hardest to write for the album, especially with getting everything ready for recording while jumping head first into a new group dynamic. I feel the hard work paid off and this is probably my favorite song on the record. The combination of David’s intense drumming, Parks’ soaring guitar leads, and the melodic density of the song leave me finding new things to appreciate upon each revisited listen. Neil’s contribution of the blown-out guitars at the end is my favorite production liberty he took on the record.
MW: This is my favorite track on the record. It was such a treat to work with Maruzzella. The spoken part is such a cool dynamic effect. This is another one that feels accomplishing to finish, especially with the way the guitar and bass movement works with the vocal part for “tuned in and turned off.”
JP: This song came together in such a cool way. Mercedes first suggested the melody in this song and helped us build up the first half. David’s high hat fill into the second verse gets me every time. He came into this band with such a fire that truly shows in Schemes. I love how the song stays tight and percussive but builds into an epic release. I mirror Dave’s sentiment on Neil’s production choices on this song, I couldn’t be happier.
DC: This song was written for a dear friend while they were in a relationship with an emotionally manipulative partner. At the time, I didn’t know how to properly voice my concerns and be there for them, so this song is about hoping that one day they’d find the peace that they need. Since then, the friend has moved onto a healthier relationship and hopefully found that peace.
MW: Such a beautiful end to a beautiful record. The meaning behind the song resonated with me a lot, and is one I hope can touch a lot of people.
JP: These lyrics mean a lot to me, and I hope they can elicit the same feelings for everyone that listens.
Slow Mass is also hitting the road in June after a record release show in Chicago. Check out their full list of dates below.
Slow Mass 2018 Tour Dates:
05/18 – Chicago, IL @ Schubas (Record Release)
06/10 – Detroit, MI @ PJ’s Lager House $
06/11 – Toronto, ON @ Handlebar
06/12 – Montreal, QC @ L’Esco
06/13 – Boston, MA @ Elks Lodge #
06/14 – New York, NY @ Trans Pecos #^
06/15 – Philadelphia, PA @ First Unitarian Church # ^
06/16 – Washington, DC @ Hole in the Sky
06/17 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Gooski’s % *
06/18 – Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s Locker Room %
06/19 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Pyramid Scheme %
$ = w/ Bars of Gold
# = w/ Ovlov
^ = w/ Mannequin Pussy
% = w/ The Reptilian
* = w/ Edhochuli