BOSTON/NE BANDS, Interview

Leah Wellbaum Talks to Boston Hassle About Parallel Timeline, Growing Up in Boston’s DIY Punk Scene, and What it’s Like to be Turned Into a Cake

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Photo credit: Adam Stone & Michelle Kwong
When I asked Leah Wellbaum, singer-songwriter and bandleader of Slothrust, what she meant when she recently posted on Instagram that she sometimes likes to spell the word “neck” with a silent k, our conversation took an unexpected turn. “I think it’s because the word knot has a k at the beginning,” she said. “The more I think about it, the more it feels kind of morbid, like it could connect to a noose or something, but that wasn’t what I was consciously thinking about until this exact moment.” Less an articulation of Leah’s dark side, the comment feels like an illustration of her whimsical flair for language-play, an example of her instinctive, ludic approach to art-making. 

With Slothrust poised to release a new full-length, Parallel Timeline, in September, the band has released three stunning singles: the brooding, angular “Cranium,” the hopeful, tender love ballad about conflicting star signs “Strange Astrology,” and the anthemic, propulsive ode to the ocean “Once More for the Ocean.” The latter likely bears the most in common with Slothrust’s earlier material, which was inspired in part by Leah’s involvement with the Boston punk and hardcore scene growing up, but each demonstrates a band pushing its sound into new sonic and conceptual spaces. 

Like Slothrust’s intimate, engaging music, talking with Leah is like catching up with a friend you see at shows. Unguarded and unflappable, she invites you into her world, a vibrant paracosm replete with rainbow portals, crystal orbs, and whimsical moth-like creatures. 

EM: I’ve listened to all three of the new songs from Parallel Timeline, and from what I can tell, these songs present more of a refined or focused articulation of Slothrust’s sound. I wondered what you could tell us about Parallel Timeline and the band’s artistic goals in making the record.

LW: This is our fifth full-length, and by the time we were in pre-production for this album, we were on the road on a regular basis, so our demo process became a bit different. We used to test our material by playing it live and touring it; we would work through the songs that way. For Parallel Timeline, we didn’t have the opportunity to do that, partially because of COVID and partially because we were too busy touring other material. Which is interesting, because then you have to make some bold choices in demoing and try a lot of different things and kind of see what feels like the best representation of the song.

EM: Do you have a set songwriting process or set of processes that you use? Or do you approach things spontaneously and see what comes out when you sit down at the piano or with your guitar?

LW: I’m the kind of person who likes to be creating all the time and keeping track of my ideas. That’s not to say that I’m always making complete work, but I’ve found certain methods of keeping track of all of my ideas as I go. So I end up with a pretty large pool of things that I can pull from at any given moment. Ideally, what happens is inspiration strikes, and you write a bunch of material from that state, but at times where it might not be striking, I have a well that I can draw from if I’m trying to create something in particular. 

How that comes about definitely varies, but I tend to write and demo the songs by myself. Once they feel formed enough in my mind, I’ll bring them to the band, and we’ll discuss arrangements and try a bunch of different things.

EM: When I listen to a song like “Cranium,” I recall a song like “Crockpot” from your second album Of Course You Do. I wondered if you ever revisit older material to see how you interpret the perspective of your past self.

LW: I don’t really look back. I’m more of a forward thinker and try to be a present thinker when it comes to art. I try to be as present as I can in creating it and simply zoom in on whatever the vision is. I don’t worry as much about what I’ve done in the past and how it compares. 

However recently I did go back and listen to the entirety of our first record. I haven’t listened to that album in years. What I found was that I was quite fond of my lyrics and I was surprised at what some of the lyrics were. I was like, “Wow. I was really going for it on that.” 

 

Photo credit: Charlotte Canler


Each of Slothrust’s new singles is accompanied by a thought-provoking visual. In exploring the band’s back-catalog, you’ll find that this is nothing new. Slothrust has consistently demonstrated a knack for conceptual, effective DIY visuals. For instance, the video for “7:30 AM,” a song that served as the theme song for FX’s You’re the Worst, features the band subtly terrorizing a young couple like a poltergeist. Things eventually boil over in a spaghetti fight that descends into a cathartic make-out session. The video ends with the band staring intently at the couple as they sleep peacefully. With the couple’s tension temporarily resolved, it transfers back to the band, reversing the power-dynamic. 

Leah plays a major role in the creation of the band’s videos, being credited for writing, choreographing, directing, and co-directing roles many of them. While Leah’s theater background and professed childhood love for show-tunes and musicals comes across in the campy humor of the band’s early videos, the videos for the Parallel Timeline, like the  music itself, seem to represent a more refined undertaking. Packed with visual cues that tie each video together in subtle ways, they’re more abstract and surreal than the band’s early visual work.

EM: You just released a video for “Once More for the Ocean” that has a surreal quality to it. The mirror motif reminds me of something you might see in a novel by Murakami. And then for “Cranium,” the video is very tactile, like a weird kind of ASMR. In general, your band has always had striking visuals, and you’re credited as a major creative force behind those visuals, so I wondered what goes into making a Slothrust music video?

LW: On this album, we considered hiring a proper creative director to help me brainstorm and execute the iconography I was interested in, and we did not find the right person. So in the end, I was the creative director, and it ended up being a really cool experience. I thought deeply and intentionally about the visuals attached to this record because we did have so much time because of COVID. So the visuals and the aesthetics behind this new material are dialed in in a way I haven’t been as acutely attentive to in the past. 

Also, on all three of these music videos, I partnered with a long time collaborator of ours, Adam Stone. He and I co-directed and wrote all these videos together, and it was really cool because we got to go into each one knowing there was another one coming after and really think about how we wanted to contour the record cycle and what types of things we wanted to serve with each video. Our goal was to create a rainbow realm world. 

EM: That makes sense given the cover art of Parallel Timeline. Are there different images that you’re using throughout the three videos? The crystal ball shows up both on the cover of the album, but also in the newest video.

LW: Absolutely. There’s a cast of characters on this record that you’ll notice recurring on the album art and in the single art, as well as in the videos and the live sessions and various other visuals associated with the album.

EM: Going back to one of your older videos, what was it like to be turned into a cake?

LW: The cake transformation was amazing and it took so long. It was one of those things that sounds like it’s going to be easier than it is. It was like a 17 hour shoot and we ended up in Miami. Surreal is definitely the word for it. I love that shot, though. It always makes me laugh. 

The centerpiece to Parallel Timeline’s lead-single “Cranium” is Leah’s lyrical, conversational guitar-playing. Whether it’s the post-hardcore inspired phrasings interspersed throughout the verse and chorus or the subtly explosive solo that concludes the song, listening to Leah play, one gets the feeling of a guitarist who has supreme mastery over their instrument. But Leah is not trying to wow you with technical theatrics. Rather, you get the sense from her playing that Leah has figured out how to make the instrument say exactly what she wants it to say. 

EM: What’s your approach when soloing? Do you always know which songs are going to feature solos? Or do they happen spontaneously? When you lay down a solo in the studio, do you have something mapped out? Or is it something you feel out through subsequent takes?

LW: My goal when I play guitar solos is to make them sing like the human voice. To create something that feels expansive and melodic and specific. I’m a big fan of improv and feel that you can get to some of those authentic, expressive ideas by not overthinking them, by simply doing a bunch of takes and seeing where you were called on the guitar. When you’re in the moment, you’re not thinking about what you’re playing at all. It’s as though the guitar is playing itself through you, and that’s often when I come up with the best stuff.

EM: It comes across that you’re very conscious of space when you solo, that you’re trying to leave room for the different melodies or phrasings to breathe. Is that a skill you developed over time? Or is that something that came naturally to you as a guitar player?

LW: I think over time I became more aware of what made music feel crowded and I’m in a place where I’m not drawn to music that feels crowded. I’m drawn to music that feels like it has definition, music where I feel like I can follow what each instrument is doing, as opposed to it being so active that you don’t have room for your own thoughts or processing within the listening experience. 

Growing up in Boston I went to a lot of punk and hardcore shows that were exactly that: crowded. And I love that. That was exactly the energy I was looking for at that time in my life. Now, what I’m looking for is a little more expansiveness, more room to process.

EM: I’ve noticed in the back catalog of the band that there’s more of that rawness or punk energy. Was that something that came out of playing or going to gigs around Boston? 

LW: I didn’t really play in bands in a serious way until after I was living in Boston, but growing up I would go to just about any live music event I could find and went to multiple shows every weekend. I just loved live music. It didn’t even have to be music that I liked. I just liked the experience of being around the people and seeing what that exchange was like. 

And I used to listen to music that is much heavier than what I listen to now. For sure. I still like that kind of music. I’m available for it. It’s just not the type of thing that I’m doing at this moment.

Photo credit: Michelle Kwong

In talking about the music that shaped Leah’s young-adulthood in Boston, one can see how the city was crucial in shaping her listening and playing, whether it was going to basement shows at local punk houses or taping 90’s jams onto cassettes from 94.5 FM. I couldn’t help but feel a certain vicarious nostalgia for the scene that was as she rattled off the names of the now defunct punk houses and DIY gig spaces she frequented as a teenager. 

EM: You moved away from Boston a while ago, but I wondered if you have any impressions of the current Boston music scene. What’s your relationship like with the city? With the venues here? Is there a venue that’s closed that you’ll miss? What was it about that venue that made it special to you?

LW: When I grew up in Boston, things were incredibly different than they are now. I’m under the impression that they changed only a couple years after I left. When I was growing up, we had shows everywhere. There were a lot of unconventional spaces that were hosting live music: the Elks Lodge in Cambridge, the Polish American Club in Dorchester, that basement in Brookline at the Kabbalah Center, the ICC in Allston, Jackson-Mann Elementary School. And there were a bunch of punk houses as well. There was the Butcher Shop, the Country Club, a bunch of others. Music was just everywhere, and there were no restrictions on it. People were doing some wild stuff. I definitely saw stuff that fits in that lane of music/performance art/noise and I don’t think that stuff is happening as frequently these days. Firstly, because it was not safe and it was happening illegally, but there was an alive music scene and people were really vibrant and inspired and trying creative stuff and having shows everywhere.

I actually didn’t go to Great Scott or O’Brien’s growing up because that’s not where the DIY scene was taking place. The DIY scene was in people’s houses and at these clubs that were off the beaten path. Also Great Scott is a bar, so you had to be older to get in, and when I grew up, all these spaces were all ages. That’s what was so special about it. Anyone could go. We had some wild times. I miss Boston so much. I haven’t been back since COVID hit. I keep planning trips, but they keep getting messed up. 

EM: Are you guys playing any shows out here?

LW: We are playing in Boston this Fall. We haven’t announced the tour dates yet, but we’re opening for Manchester Orchestra. Boston is on there, but I don’t know what venue we’re gonna be playing.

I loved going to those basement shows, but I am happy that Slothrust plays more proper clubs now because it’s a lot easier to get a good sounding show. We’ve played the Sinclair the last four or five times we’ve played Boston. We love that room. It’s a comfortable place to perform and it’s a comfortable place for an audience member. 

That’s not something I thought about growing up, your audience being comfortable, because I was not super comfortable as an audience member but I didn’t care. That was in the spirit of what we were doing. We were in a basement with a bunch of exposed pipes. But I actually do care about offering a show experience where people of all types can come and feel like they can have some personal space if they want or they can get to a bathroom comfortably. That being said, I’m all for chaos moments when they come, but there’s been a bit of a shift in my perspective that way. 

EM: What’s an obscure artist or album that fans of Slothrust might be surprised to learn has inspired your sound or creative approach?

LW: Good question. I don’t feel like this album is obscure, but I haven’t talked about it that much before: Soviet Kitsch by Regina Spektor. She’s someone I used to listen to a lot and I kind of forgot about her. Something made me think of her, and I went back and was listening to that record, and she’s really amazing. Such a creative songwriter and player. I can feel the theater in what she’s doing in a way that’s very attractive to me.

EM: I read in an interview that you would put on a Papa Roach record from time to time when you were younger and I thought that was an interesting reference considering Slothrust’s sound.

LW: Did I say that? That’s funny. I believe it. I used to make mixtapes growing up listening to whatever radio station I was into in Boston at the time. And I would just tape whatever was on the radio. I have a lot of cassette tapes. My favorite station was JAM’N 94.5. I really liked hip-hop and R&B, so it’s a lot of 3LW, Destiny’s Child, Sisqo, 112, D12, Eminem, Aaliyah. I could go on.

EM: I’m not sure if it was you or Will who said this, but I read in an interview that you mentioned that the Pixies wrote one of the most iconic songs of your generation. Which Pixies song were you referring to? And if it was Will, do you agree? What song do you think he meant?

LW: I have no idea if it was me or Will, but if it was me, I’m sure I’m talking about “Where Is My Mind?”

EM: Oh, sure. I always think of “Monkey Gone to Heaven.”

LW: Interesting. I don’t even know if it’s the song that’s iconic or if it’s the scene in Fight Club that it was used in. That was just like the movie that everyone loved for a minute when I was 13 or 14. That’s an iconic scene in the movie. Maybe that’s where that was coming from.

Leah and I end our conversation by talking about her visual art and her side project ANMLPLNET, both of which seem to offer less-structured creative spaces for Leah to explore her artistic impulses.

EM: You’re a visual artist. You design clothing as well. My favorite is your Series of Sad Planets. I like Mars because I think you can see the reflection of the Earth burning in Mars’s eyes, which is a clever touch. 

LW: I’m loving your attention to detail on that. There is fire in the eyes of Mars, and Mars is actually, I think it might have been the first or second planet from that series. What I had in mind was that Mars was looking at something, be it Earth or another planet that was burning, and perhaps Mars had somehow lit it on fire or played some role in the destruction of whatever it was gazing upon.

EM: Like maybe Mars is sick of our shit and they see us coming and they’re like, “Let’s nip this in the bud?”

LW: More like Mars couldn’t help it, and it was just the characteristic of its nature to be fiery. More like an Edward Scissorhands situation.

EM: What’s the story behind your side-project ANMLPLNET?

LW: Anmlplnet is me and my friend Mickey Vershbow who’s actually from Newton, MA. And she’s there right the fuck now, but we haven’t played together in years because I’m in LA and she’s on the east coast. But I am going to be coming to Boston in the next couple of weeks, and we have plans to play, but ANMLPLNET hasn’t performed in a while.

We do have one full-length record. We’ll make another one, because a lot of our music is improvised, which makes making records quicker. You don’t have to be as precious about it as long as you’re in a flow-state while you’re playing.

EM: Was that the idea? To kind of have a project that was a little more free than your primary project?

LW: For sure. I love playing with Mickey. She has a particular touch on the drums that I find inspiring. She’s a very lyrical drummer. That’s why it works as a two-piece. 

Parallel Timeline is scheduled for release on September 10, 2021 and is available for pre-order through Slothrust’s website and Bandcamp. They’ll be announcing tour dates soon, but in the meantime, check out their Mind Your Mood astrology-based playlist generator and let Slothrust create a playlist just for you.

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