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Thursday, May 30, 2019: First Day of Tour.
The Slow Pulp crew’s sprawled inside a burgundy van with a Yakima topper, soon to soak in abundant sunshine as a Midwestern summer inches closer. In Madison, Wisconsin — the four-piece’s big little city of origin — the people shed their threads as summer baits its presence, layers disappearing as the final bitter breaths of a violent cold continue to whip between the lakes. These 77 degrees, however they sleight us, suit everyone well: These are comfortably dressed rockstars, unassuming and unpretentious. It’s the time before the Big Time: for every conversation about sustainability and health, there’s an untangling of romantic prospects to match.
This High Noon Saloon date is the first of 28 more over 36 days for Slow Pulp’s direct support of the Minnesotan pop-punk darlings Remo Drive. It’s the umpteenth time the folks in Slow Pulp have played the High Noon — a downtown Madison venue that caps at about 300 — be it this project or between the 10+ projects they’ve played in since childhood. Tonight will hit different, a Big Time in the Hometown moment, another major milestone in the 18-month whirlwind that’s lifted Slow Pulp from DIY obscurity to the Indie Darling fast-track. Streams on the skyrocket, record deals on the table, and new $40 blue hoodies in the Yakima atop the van. They’re unconsumed by the hype, but bewilderment lurks underneath the whole thing; give it another year, the basements they started in may truly be behind them.
“I just had not really thought of [Slow Pulp] outside of the context in which we were doing it for a long time… it was just something we did,” says Henry Stoehr, guitarist. “I never even thought about doing anything in terms of moving forward, outside of posting about shows on Facebook. It was a lot more casual and local in nature. There was a tone shift for sure, partially because we got noticed from anything outside of people we knew for the first time ever, and it felt really different.”
In the winter of 2017, the group’s members were working across Midwestern cities and speculating on their diverging paths toward the uncertainty of adulthood. The Algorithm had other plans: After the release of 2017’s EP2, the song “Preoccupied” — which didn’t make EP2’s tracklist until release day — caught a mini-viral burst via the indie rock YouTube channel Lazylazyme. Motivated by the outside validation, the band released the “Preoccupied” video in January 2018 via the same channel; it currently sits at over 130,000 views. Since that drop, Slow Pulp’s partnered with breakout manager Andrew Baker, toured with Post Animal and Vundabar, and ran a hellacious SXSW gamut this past March off the strength of EP2 and two new singles that fell into the graces of curation: “At Home” and “Steel Birds,” the latter record crossing a million streams on Spotify.
For the men in the group — Stoehr, bassist Alex Leeds, and drummer Teddy Mathews — the newfound success symbolizes a new plateau in the trio’s lifelong collaborative relationship as players and friends. For singer/guitarist Emily Massey, who spent her early musical years between projects and situations that weren’t optimal or equitable to her efforts, the Slow Pulp dynamic’s the healthiest and most fun she’s ever had in a band.
“I think playing with you guys was the first time I felt… trusted, musically,” Massey says, turning to her bandmates with a grateful warmth. “I feel like you guys maybe even trusted me — or have continued to trust me — more than I trust myself when it comes to making stuff. I had encountered other situations where I’d tried to write with other people and it hadn’t gone well, or my ideas had [gotten] shot down very quickly. And that was my kind of entrance into creating music, which might relate to difficulties I continue to have creating music, but I felt like my ideas were accepted. There’s always gonna be issues with communication with any group of people, and you’ve learned how to communicate as you spend time together and encounter different issues and conflicts, but… I guess I felt respected like I hadn’t before, either… which is pretty tight!”
Madison is a city where one can press against the glass ceiling of artistic potential by raising your finger directly in the air. Under even prime conditions, it’s a low-stress incubation space where fantastic art can emerge, but that art rarely travels outward. It’s the same place where Nirvana, Fall Out Boy, and Death Cab for Cutie have all recorded seminal works — all at the now-defunct Smart Studios — but most of Madison’s hometown heroes have to bid the isthmus adieu to grow and go anywhere else (Zola Jesus, Peaking Lights, and on and on and on). Slow Pulp made the collective leap to Chicago last fall, save for Mathews, who finished undergrad and joined them in January. The following process involved a winter Massey describes as “traumatic!” From fleshing out demos in a cabin, to the literal cabin fever of being five deep in a three-bedroom apartment in Logan Square with seasonal depression and a deadline, the Big Day EP was released in May 2019, born from the very pressure that pushed its creators to their limits.
“We actually started fresh at the cabin rather than finishing what we’d already started,” Leeds recalls. “I think that was kind of inevitable in hindsight because we hadn’t really started together on [the demos.] The rest of the process was tracking instruments at home, reworking and refining them… the recording process was, essentially, the writing process all at the same time, which created a lot of anxiety. Personally, I think it’s reflected in the way it sounds; while it wasn’t the best process, the production of it is like another instrument, and I think that really comes through.”
And it shows: the four records on Big Day embrace brevity to embody Slow Pulp’s odd, fluid amalgamation of many core tenets of rock-and-roll: mounting tensions, anthemic quality, and high drama slathered onto the simplest observations. Given their youthfulness, Big Day distills the challenges of youth to interrogate the familiar terrain of uncertainty with a more inquisitive, flexible intuition. Memory and ego lend a thematic heartbeat, lifted by Mathews’ razor-sharp precision and the playful dialogue between Stoehr and Leeds’ agility on their guitars. Massey often leans into the wistful qualities of her voice, dissecting the fallout of failures and self-image from their joyous inception to their frustrating demise, then repeat. When one thinks they’ve pinned her, Massey wails and howls, indulging the grit in her gut.
As fate would have it, the transitions in Massey’s life mirrored Big Day rather closely: as “New Media” puts succinctly, she was “running on the same mistakes” of unproductive habits and personality traits that no longer served her growth. In turn, she realized the childhood memories depicted in the work don’t differ too drastically from anything else in life. She tells the kids in her dance class that she’s a rockstar when she’s not their teacher. Watching them fail, then recover, only gave confirmation to her assertion.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve only recently learned is letting yourself fail,” Massey says. “I’ve been really struggling with putting myself out there. I create all these preconceptions: ‘This isn’t gonna work, this isn’t gonna be good enough, people aren’t gonna like this or be receptive to this…’ which just cripples you from making any real movement in any direction, and that failure is still moving in a direction.”
Just as one thought the childhood metaphor couldn’t extend any further: the “Do You Feel It” video (directed by Leeds) features viral star Caucasian James running and stripping on the street, and dancing around Chicago in a windbreaker. Unbeknownst to many of the viewers — many of whom met the piece with some variation of “tight, but how did James end up here?” — James is an elementary school classmate of Teddy and Henry. (They used to play NERF in his basement as kids.) Neither bandmate had seen James since the sixth grade; they all reunited at Lincoln Hall last year when Slow Pulp opened for Clairo at the first date of her first headline tour. James and Clairo were already connected, but he saw Teddy and Henry in the band picture and made sure he’d show up.
“He’s an internet star: He’s used to performing in front of a huge audience, it’s just not a present audience,” Leeds says about James’ presence on the shoot. “When we showed up at The Bean to dance, there was a moment where he’s like, ‘Shit, I’ve never danced in front of people before like this.’ There was a real process happening with him in that moment that’s connected to the song in a real way. It’s not ironic: It’s funny, but there’s something real happening.”
Contrasted with the song’s thrilling montage quality, the absurdity of James’ dancing registers strikingly on-brand; a humor lingers through the serious, seasoned technicality of how Slow Pulp functions. The humor easily articulates itself when hanging around the group in-person: They often riff amongst themselves, swapping vocal personalities and reviving inside jokes to run into the ground. This energy becomes even more obvious when seeing Slow Pulp live: the four subtly dialogue and laugh among themselves over riffs, mistakes, retuning instruments, or Henry losing his glasses again. Once they step outside of themselves, the act of playing proves humorous, but the fun never undercuts the earnest weight of their messaging.
Surely, tonight in Madison will be no game: It’s their first show after Big Day, meaning two records from the project will make their debut. The High Noon is teeming with energy, leaning more teenager than usual. The Madisonians — some lifelong, some begrudgingly bound by school or work — file in, buying blue hoodies and black t-shirts with pride. It’s also white as hell in this room. It’s not the writer’s first rodeo at the Midwestern rock show, but alas… do the white folks in these bands ever think about that? Does anyone ask? Upon posing this question to Slow Pulp, the members think, then hesitate, then think again. They’re not the main attraction yet, but they all acknowledge they come from, and are primarily exposed to, white-dominated markets. Massey recalls (and doesn’t equate) her experience as a frontwoman with all men in her band, and how often she’s asked that question. But while indie rock’s had many nonwhite, non-male, non-cis, and queer artists achieve visibility in recent memory, the playing field remains overwhelmingly white in a way that places a white Madison-to-Chicago four-piece at a premium.
“Being in a white band, you’re definitely allowed the privilege of not letting that shape your narrative,” Stoehr says. “People are always gonna focus on the content, or any narrative you choose to give them, which is a really specifically white thing. People aren’t like, ‘Hey, how’s it feel to be a white indie band?’ People don’t talk about it, it’s not questioned… if you’re Black or brown playing in the indie rock scene, it’s like ‘Hmm… what are you about?’ We’ve never gotten an article written about being The Next Big White Indie Band!”
The show they gave the High Noon on that gorgeous late-spring evening only supported such a case: They tore through just over a half-hour with a pristine focus that matched the palpable excitement of their friends, families, hometown early adopters. Their set truly highlights how their song structures bend to their own whims, every player gracefully enabling and indulging their unpredictability. A singular mood is rare, and a genre doesn’t fit: a pop song may thrash, a punk song may end gently. By the final crescendo of “New Media,” the crowd roared. When “High” dropped for the first time, the moshpit didn’t open all the way, but our necks were in danger of breaking. It’s like they’re sharing secrets with a friend in an arena of onlookers, writhing in confusion until it feels like a euphoric bliss. Or, they’ve hit the pen too hard. It’s deep, but they swear it’s not that deep, but it still means… something?
It’s clear hype doesn’t pay rent, which makes the members giggle amongst themselves at how folks perceive their position in the industry. They already feel like heroes to the town! But as they slide further inside the industry machinery, they’re quickly killing their assumptions off while finding folks more helpful than anticipated with the pieces that make everything work. Massey’s father, Mike, once courted attention from Atlantic Records in the ’70s era with his band Chaser. The deal fell through, and he passed his experiences down to Emily with no extra fluff; now, decades later, she may face similar prospects in a matter of months. While the ’70s had major labels as the surefire route to stardom, Slow Pulp’s elected to stay independent, crediting their manager Andrew Baker’s knowledge and passion to drive them toward focusing on sustainability and slow growth until it’s time to employ others to provide the resources they don’t have.
“We know what we’ve got behind it,” Leeds says, assured. “We’re not tryna play a hype game, but we also feel confident about what we do have. We know that hype fades, and when it does, we’ll have something we’ll be proud of.”
Teddy: My running shoes.
Alex: Yakima! Van! Jump rope!
Emily: I was gonna say running shoes, too… Hot water with lemon and honey has been my new thing that has been really doing something special for me.
Emily: He brought it here! We are a White Indie Band who drinks Soylent!
Henry: For the record, I don’t drink Soylent in public. I know it’s sketch! I know it’s weird!
Teddy: Tons of decaf. Decaf shoutout.
Alex: Teddy has influenced me: I only have one cup a day now, then I have orange juice or decaf for the rest of the day.
Teddy: Practicing moderation!
Emily: Ginger, in any form: shots, chews... Taco Bell!
Emily: A lotta socks and underwear!
Alex: Andrew Baker.
(ALL): ANDREW BAKER!
Emily: Haircuts. We’re choppin’ hair on this tour.
Henry: I’m not choppin’ any —
Michael: It seems like Slow Pulp doesn’t give a fuck about the image game, y’all don’t care about the image! Do you?
Alex: I think… as a White Indie Band, we spend a lotta effort lookin’ like we don’t care.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.