Photo by John Clark
Chris Slusarenko is passionate about music. After years working in and around Robert Pollard in the "final" version of GBV, the Takeovers and heralded power-trio Boston Spaceships, Slusarenko is back with his new psych-pop outfit, Eyelids. Chris was kind enough to respond via email from snowy Portland, OR to talk about the new band, his influences, and why John Moen is his go-to guy.
Your recently debuted your new project, Eyelids, and the single you've released is fantastic! How did that come about?
It's kind of funny...it was a project that we wanted to start years ago but then I joined Guided By Voices and John joined the Decemberists so weren't in town a lot at the same time. We had even tracked a few songs in his basement (I guess this would be around 2002 or so). Every year we kept saying that we should make that record and then very quickly a year would pass. So at the end of a messy night at my house one night I played John the early demos and was like “do you remember this at all?” He barely did but was so into it that he said we should try to make it happen for real this time.
We got together over a weekend with Jonathan Drews and just shared our ideas and songs. It came together pretty quickly—we knew what we wanted to create. Shortly after the three of us went into the studio and just started cranking it out. Later we thought that these songs would sound pretty powerful live and we asked Jim Talstra and Paulie Pulverinte to join. The b-side to our debut single is the first recording of the five of us together rather than the original three. They've added a very powerful element to the band—it kicks ass when it needs to.
You have worked with John Moen previously in Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships – what about that relationship (other than him being a Portland guy!) has been so fruitful to the music you make?
I've known John since 1988 when he was in Dharma Bums and I was in Death Midget. Even though our bands were wildly different we always supported each other. We really didn't get to know each other well until we both played in the Cavemanish Boys (with Eyelids/Dharma Bums bass player Jim Talstra & The Miracle Workers’ Gerry Mohr). John's personality and sense of humor really came through his performing and I'd really never played with anyone like that up to that point. He would say things like “I'm going to be the acid casualty of the band, so tonight I'm dressing like that.” He'd show up in a muumuu and a scarf and then just play in character. You can really hear it all over those Stephen Malkmus/Jicks records he did—he has fun.
And when it came to working on the Takeovers and Boston Spaceships songs John was just fearless. For those records I wanted to record the drums the same way Bob did his Guided By Voices stuff: Here's the song, it goes like this, let's get it down, now here's the next one (and repeat). The idea was to keep things super loose and inspired. Don't get too comfortable with the song. For a lot of the songs I would imagine the whole band being different characters. Like for “The Vicelords” off of Let It Beard I thought: Kim Gordon bass player fronted by Superchunk with Keith Moon on drums. And I could articulate that to John easily and he'd just go for it. And once again he put stops in to make me laugh or do a crazy fill and I just loved it and would perform later around his energy.
Speaking of Pollard, you have spent a lot of your creative life the past decade working on “Bob-related” projects. What influence (if any) has he had on your songwriting process?
I think getting to learn his songs and crack them open was quite an honor. His songs are just fun to play—where you fingers end up on the guitar in any given song shows how playful he is in his approach and I think that's why his songs still sound so full of life. Writing songs to entertain yourself rather than thinking about how many people are going to buy it, what's the video going to be...all that stuff. It's just about making cool music that if you were walking by a record store and someone what playing it your ears would perk up.
What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band again? Was it challenging to shift gears?
The rate of material we were putting out with Bob--whether it was Takeovers or Boston Spaceships or Carbon Whales—it was quick, fierce and fast. Bob would send a cassette of songs and we would just work as fast as we could because there was already another cassette with another 19 songs getting ready to be sent to us. John still says he doesn't remember much about those records because he would come in for 2 days or so and I would do the rest with Jonathan Drews (producer/voice of reason) and by the time he heard them he had forgotten what had he had even done since it was powering through 16 songs on drums that he had never heard before in 2 days. So the three of us had worked so tightly and kind of had that unspoken musical language going on where we could just raise an eyebrow and we'd knew what that meant in the recording and performance.
So the songwriting came together really quickly. We got together over a weekend and just shared songs and bits and pieces with each other. Jonathan picked the best 13 of the bunch and we were like “well there's the record.” It kind of surprised us how cohesive it was out of the gate—it really had that lop-sided pop/rock sound that we were hoping for.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
I really like our single “Seagulls Into Submission” and one of our upcoming full length called “Forget About Tomorrow”. It's been a while since I had to write songs for others as well—probably since Carbon Whales & The Takeovers. And even then those were written with Bob's voice in mind. It was quite different to just surprise myself with a song that I felt “nah... I couldn't have written that.”
Outside of Eyelids my favorite Boston Spaceships song: “You Satisfy Me”; my favorite Takeovers song: “Father's Favorite Temperature”; and from my way past I like “Shrunken Head” from Svelt.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
Well my early years were The Beatles to Kiss to Devo to The Residents/Tuxedomoon. I obviously liked theatrical and imaginative music when I was younger. But in 1983 right before Murmur came out I wrote a fan letter to R.E.M. (who at that point hadn't even played the NW yet) and Peter Buck sent me a list of bands to check out: Mission of Burma, The Replacements, Minutemen, The Feelies. That was it... I was off to devour. There was so much to absorb and so many great labels (SST, Homestead, Frontier, Touch and Go). Also I got really into the weirder side of punk stuff: Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, Die Kreuzen; industrial music: Nurse With Wound, Coil, Non; and 80's psych like Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate, Three O' Clock. Those 80's psych band were the real touchstones for Eyelids along with our love for New Zealand rock of that time.
The first Eyelids single definitely has a Flying Nun feel to it! You’ve been given one “musical wish” – to work with any musician/songwriter/producer – who would you choose and why?
That's tough... I think I've narrowed it to two though: First would to have been in The Moles (or at least a fly on the wall)—Richard Davies' first band from Australia. Their album Untune The Sky hits a nerve in me every time. It's so varied, simple and brilliant. The second would be John Cale. One of my biggest modern day heroes and a songwriter of such relentlessly emotive music. That he is not on the shoulders of all modern day music lovers is a shame—he's still pretty much loved by music geeks like myself. The last show he did in Portland in 2012 there were only about 50 people there and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life. He didn't care that the turnout was slim. He just sang loud and fierce with that amazing voice of his and he just transported you.
You've been a part of almost every facet of the record industry – playing in bands, running a label, directing music videos, producing albums– what keeps you going?
I guess you do the things that give you joy until they don't. I've been lucky to have worked on so many varied projects. I mean I wanted to hear a concept album so I just thought why not make it with some of your musical and artistic heroes (Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel). And then all of the sudden Off Records existed. Meeting and working with Paddy Considine just was meant to be—we think alike and it's like we're long lost brothers. Obviously being in GBV was a dream of mine too and that final tour we played together was just insanely great. And even with the occasional headaches that come with being involved in something as personal as musical expression—it's still the most fun I could imagine. I still love to collaborate and right now Eyelids is such a perfect meeting of minds.
What’s on tap for you next?
Well our first Eyelids 7” is out Feb. 18th (www.offrecords.com) and while we finish up our full length we have a couple split 7”s coming out this spring as well (including one with The Woolen Men). I'm also looking forward to producing the next Riding The Low record with Paddy Considine later this year. And then we'll start working on material for the next Eyelids record. Hit repeat.