How does a band return to indie pop when the world is crumbling around them? How does a lyricist who previously related their thoughts in abstract, poetic observations turn to addressing urgent issues and emotions that are impossible to cloud in mystery?
That was the challenge for Roanoke, Virginia power trio Eternal Summers when working on their new album, Every Day It Feels Like I’m Dying…, which comes out May 4th on Nevado Music. The band’s new single, “Contenders” — which we’re thrilled to give you a first listen to today — addresses feelings of power versus powerlessness through searing guitar tones and urgent rhythms, with frontwoman Nicole Yun crafting lyrical images of competitions and precipices that leave no doubt where the anxiety is coming from.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Yun delves into the importance of embracing your vulnerabilities; shares the outside-the-box influences seeping into Eternal Summers’ music as she approaches her second decade working with bandmates Daniel Cundiff (drums) and Jonathan Woods (bass); ponders the role music should play in confronting societal troubles; and discusses the solo album she hopes to release later this year.
Read on for more, and give a listen to “Contenders” while you’re at it.
The Key: First, let’s talk about the new song. Its title comes from the lyric “Just because we’re fine contenders doesn’t mean we’ll win.” It seems like a bit of a self-own, putting yourself in check, admitting you can be a mess, not losing perspective of where you are at and what you’re working against in life. Is that an accurate read, and why did you decide to tackle that state of mind here?
Nicole Yun: I would definitely say that’s accurate. It was actually the first song we wrote for the album, so we’ve had it for about two and a half years. We’d written it about the time Gold and Stone was done. Basically, it’s for myself as a musician, and also like…I mean, I don’t want to be all “oh, in these troubled times,” because that’s already implied, everyone knows this. But it’s okay to own your weaknesses. I think that’s personally something I’m being more of a champion for. Accepting that “Okay, I don’t have all the answers, nor do I have to pretend that I do.”
I think, in general, people are connected more through shared blunders and shared imperfections, personal crises and personal vises and all that stuff. That’s a real connecting thing. But with that song, I think that with Eternal Summers, we’ve journeyed from being really cryptic in lyrics to being more specific as time goes on. I’m not trying to hit people over the head here, but everything is out of control and now I think people more comfortable admitting it. There’s a lyric on the bridge: “Case of denial, is it over now? / Cold precipice, release me somehow.” The idea is we pretend to be emotionally and psychologically well. Especially here in the south, that’s a real part of social graces. “How are you? I’m fine.” You cannot not be fine. Without telling people what to do or how to be, this song is more of a bit of a self-talk. It’s very much addressed to myself. “Hey, you may not be in this spot you thought you were going to be, and that’s okay. Because everything’s got their own bag of disappointments.”
TK: The last time I interviewed you, you talked about how there was a drive on your last record to really challenge yourselves and next-level what the band had been doing for the previous eight years. And with Gold and Stone, it totally worked. On the tail end of that, how do you step from that mindset into a subsequent project? “We’re going to next level the next level?” Or was this record approached from some place completely different?
NY: First of all, I think we as a band have all very much admitted that the three of us are complete spazzes and completely kind of the type of people who, if somebody dares us to do something, all three of us are all “oh yeah?” None of us are passive in that way. Some of us are introverted about it, but personality-wise, all three members are driven this way. I think with this record, it’s the first time we’ve had such a long break from writing. Every album so far has had a year or less to write the album, even if the album came out later, everything was at that clip.
With this one, it wasn’t like we need to best ourselves or whatever. I do think it was like if we’re going to take time to live life, be influenced by different types of art and music, let’s let those things sink in and not let ourselves be ashamed and afraid of what comes out next. It’s not an album where we’re going to do this or that; we’re still very much an instinctual band, whatever comes out is what we’re into.
But I do think the approach was more about letting ourselves be influenced by new things, or things we’ve always loved, and bring that into the band. We’re not trying to get away from being a “post punk” or “dream pop” band – that’s always going to be there be in our DNA because of the three of us. But we were also listening to a lot of non-rock and roll, listening to a lot of jazz, all three of us. And thing like Stereolab, Sea and Cake, a lot of Japanese pop bands. Things within the realm of pop, not totally pop either.
TK: It’s funny you mention Stereolab, I definitely hear that in the previous single, “Forever Mine.” I love how suave and off-kilter it is. It reminds me in some ways of the Eternal Summers of 2011, when it was totally unpredictable how songs would sound from one to the next, but applying that spirit to the sonic growth you’ve experienced as a band over the last seven years. How much of that can we expect on the rest of the album?
NY: I think you can expect a lot of that. I do think it’s the influences of jazz and more clean pop — which I generally think is un-American pop: Swedish pop, Japanese pop — those are much more delicate on the spectrum of our last three albums. The vulnerability and breeziness is more present, but at the same time the moments that I would call “the rockers” or whatever are still pretty much where they’ve been in the past two records.
So it’s kind of just broadened the records scope of how light and breezy and how heavy the songs are, and it’s pretty wide. But I do think at the same time, the songs on this album are all digestible pop nuggets, so I wouldn’t say it’s anything that’s taking it to some like experimental twelve-minute study. [laughs] It’s not like that at all. If I were to sum it up, it’s just Eternal Summers experimenting with what they view as pop music, whether that includes gnarly guitars or synth based sounds, and then with that, there are kind of some more sassy, tender and vulnerable moments than ever, maybe except for the first recordings, the stuff on Dawn of Eternal Summers. But the gnarliness is still there.
TK: Tell me more about the synths – I’m used to thinking of you as a guitar-bass-drums power trio. How new are they to the recording process and do you use them live?
NY: We’ve been sneaking in synths since as early as Correct Behavior, but in so minor a way. So on The Drop Beneath, the thing about our usage of synths was always to make things sound more dramatic. But it was never like “oh there’s that synth line.” It’s like “oh, this bass part sounds really low.” That was because of a synth following the bass melody; they were always used for color and textural things.
This time, we use keyboards in a way that’s very melodic and very intentional, in a “hey, you’re gonna hear this” sort of way. For the live show, though, I don’t know if that’s going to be a thing. I think we’re still very much in the three-piece power trio kind of mindset, and I think when you see us live, we will be using a little bit of synths, but it won’t be that much. The shows in New York and D.C. this weekend, will be the guitar version of “Forever Mine,” which is still sassy as can be, but it’s not going to be with a synth.
TK: How about that jazz influence you mentioned? Tell me what artists and albums you have in rotation.
NY Herbie Hancock has always been one. For me personally, I’m totally a Thelonious Monk kind of gal. I also like the really late Dizzy Gillespie stuff, it’s weird and funky. Daniel has been listening to John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Pat Metheny. Jonatan is into all the non-Charlie Brown Vince Guiaralidi, as well as Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann & Eddie Harris, and Marian McPartland.
I know everyone’s been listening to not a lot of rock music. Daniel’s been listening to a lot of Bossa Nova hardcore, stuff I’ve not heard of. If you listen to Correct Behavior or The Drop Beneath, and then this album, not that Daniel’s drumming is totally jazzy, but he’s definitely a different drummer. We’ve all developed over time with our instruments, but specifically him, he’s really jumped up and people will be able to tell.
TK: The title of the record, Every Day It Feels Like I’m Dying…, feels very much apt for a record released in the United States in 2018. How recently did you write these new songs? Had many had been around longer, and did you see the meanings of those songs change over time?
NY: A lot of the songs are really lyrically recent. I cannot write lyrics until there’s a deadline, and then they just come out. It helps me commit to lyrics, instead of going down a vortex of maybe this lyric is better, maybe this is. The bulk of the lyrics were written in 2017, which has been just as bad as 2018, if not more – just as shocking. It was one of those times I wish we had actually been on tour in 2017 and not just writing a record. I wanted to be in contact with other musicians, talk to them about how you write lyrics in the present time. “Do you find it a personal responsibility to comment on our problems? Or do you find it a personal responsibility to take people away from their cares and burdens?” Obviously music can do both, and I was juggling, “do I want to comment on what’s been happening in country and world?” Especially since I’ve always come from the school of cryptic lyrics, at least in the past. It’s hard to grapple with.
“Contenders” was the only one written pre-Trump. I think that’s one, it’s funny thinking about the lyrics now, there’s always a way to make it relate to now, but I do think the idea of people realizing that they need other people to make a difference, that individualism can be good but it’s also very flawed…I think people are realizing that more and more. I think the rise of anxiety and depression in the world, the correlation between that and time spent on phone and computer, virtually related to people but not really relating, all of that has been proving to be really flawed. I think about that in “Contenders,” you can admit your weakness. It’s hard to look back at 2015 and be like “remember then?” But I think about certain trends. I think the way people, especially women, tried to present themselves as more perfect, whereas now you can show your scars and freckles on your face. I totally relate that how people are able to talk more openly about mental health.
So I think a song like that, even though it was written in 2016, is still on same tip of being true to who you are. People owning that more and more. That’s one thing about society that I’m hopeful about, people feeling like they can be who they are as a person. The rest written all in the wake of all the crap, when you listen to the full album, you’ll be able to hear my own personal struggle about how angry I am about our government without having to say the T word. And then the other half is general lyrics about being a human being, and those kinds of lyrics always reached me, no matter what time period it was.
TK: Something I noticed about the music that came out last year – I think a lot of people expected that 2017 would be filled with all this intensely political music, but so much of what was standing out last year was very introspective, personal. Like you said, mental health has become a super important theme in indie rock. Where do you feel the new Eternal Summers record fits on the personal-to-political spectrum?
NY: Being a musician right now I do feel a little bit more of a responsibility. Whether you like it or not, there is more responsibility to connect with listener lyrically about issues very broad and big and maybe seemingly unchangeable, all the way to issues that are very personal, and that’s what’s interesting about right now. I would be surprised if people didn’t feel a bit of responsibility. If I’m going to put out a record that I know a handful of people are going to listen to, or pay attention to in any way, let me not just write a party album. Or if I’m going to do that, a party album in 2018 is going to be a different thing than a party album in 2014. It has a lot more weight and personal struggle, because everyone’s feeling it, and not because people are that much more introspective and more quote unquote politically active — which I do think they are. In general, if a musician doesn’t feel that responsibility these days, even if it’s just a little bit, I’d be surprised.
TK: You’re working on a solo album too, right? How is that progressing and what was it like kind of switching off those two hats of solo Nicole versus full band Eternal Summers?
NY: Yes! The solo album was kind of this a bit of a self-remedy, self-cure. Because with everything around Every Day, there were a ton of struggles to make this record for Eternal Summers. Finding a new label, and also just kind of being normal people, and having normal day-to-day lives for three years straight, and then dusting off the cobwebs, and trying to be a band again. Not that we weren’t doing music at all during that time, but really coming to grips with [making a new record].
So with my solo album, I really wanted a distraction. I wanted to do something different and maybe just collaborate with different people and also really not worry too much about the outcome of it. It’s about the process and not the outcome. But the outcome is pretty freakin’ sweet, and I’m psyched about it! [laugs] But that’s because I was able to choose my favorite players from New York and Philly to play on it. I think it was something to get my mind off the “are we going to get this record out on time?” stress. We had, all three of us, put a lot of pressure on ourselves, wondering if we can do this after what had felt like a long time in the current speed of things. Three years off doesn’t seem long, but it feels long.
So I just jumped on an Amtrak train, floated between New York and Philly and for ten days. I had a New York all-star cast, a Philly crew that was more minimal and badass. The New York crew includes Doug Gillard [of Guided By Voices and Nada Surf]. Like, Doug Gillard is on my album! The band Maximo Park from England, the guitarist and bassist are my buddies, they had finished tour and had a day off so they’re on my album. It was basically “who’s in New York and wants to do this?” The bassist of Pains of Being Pure at Heart are on the album; this guy Joey Sprinkles, the former lead guitarist from Cloud Nothings, he came out for this. The two people who engineered it are from Ava Luna.
And the Philly crew was me, Rob Garcia from Telepathic, and Pat Brier from Queen Jesus. The Philly crew was minimal and worked really hard, whereas the New York experience was expansive, extravagant, everybody came in, did their parts for an hour, and took an Uber home. And I’m really excited, I think the vibe is a wide spectrum of sounds of 1990 through 1993.
The Key: That’s totally my sweet spot.
NY: Right? At times it’s like girl-fronted Lemonheads, or The Stone Roses. It’s intercontinentally early 90s. Or me fronting Jeff Buckley’s band. It’s crazy, things I’ve never expected. We’ll see, it’s still getting mixed, I’m putting no pressure for it to get out in the world anytime soon but I’m hoping for it to come out before the end of this year. But it was a very therapeutic time for me to do something fun and different. Especially since I live and work Roanoke, getting to collaborate with incredible musicians in cities far away from me is such a fantasy made reality.
Eternal Summers plays Boot and Saddle in Philadelphia on Thursday, June 14th, and Little Amps in Harrisburg on Friday, June 8th; tickets and more information on these shows can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar; full tour dates can be found below.
3/30/2018 Washington, D.C. Comet Ping Pong
3/31/2018 Brooklyn, NY Alphaville
5/3/2018 St. Louis, MO Foam
5/4/2018 Cleveland, OH Happy Dog
5/5/2018 Chicago, IL Empty Bottle
6/6/2018 Richmond, VA The Broadberry *support for Japanese Breakfast
6/8/2018 Harrisburg, PA Little Amps
6/9/2018 Rochester, NY The Bugjar
6/10/2018 Kingston, NY BSP Lounge
6/11/2018 Boston, MA Great Scott
6/14/2018 Philadelphia, PA Boot & Saddle