A Many Splendored Thing; An interview with Chris Slusarenko and John Moen of Eyelids

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There is a trend in romantic comedies where the protagonist goes through the gauntlet of dating scenarious, soliciting advice from a best friend who is waiting in the wings along the way. Then some catalyst brings about an epiphany that causes the protagonist to realize they were in love with the best friend all along. That’s not exactly what happened to Eyelids, but it is probably close.

For years, John Moen and Chris Slusarenko played and wrote in the company of some of the most legendary songwriters of indie rock including Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement/Jicks), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) and Elliott Smith. Friends for over two decades, songwriters John Moen and Chris Slusarenko had long desired to get together to write songs, “sweet melodies” paired with “bummer vibes,” which would fuse Big Star’s jangle to XTC’s melodicism, connecting the dots between the dream pop sounds of the ‘80s Paisley Underground to the homespun post-punk of the legendary Flying Nun label. In 2014 they decided that it was time to finally start writing and recording together and issued their debut album, 854.

With a growing desire to continue to play the songs live, Eyelids wasted no time enlisting Paul Pulvirenti (No. 2, Elliott Smith) and Jim Talstra (The Minus 5, Dharma Bums) as their rhythm section. The band’s live action led directly to the band’s new album, or, which will be released May 5 via Jealous Butcher Records. With or, the band’s second full-length LP, Eyelids has created their most emotional record yet. Produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. and mixed by Thom Monahan (Peter, Bjorn and John, Devandra Banhart, Fruit Bats), or is liberally sprinkled with the hooks, melodies, and charming wordplay that make a certain kind of rock and roll fan fall madly in love with an LP.

The record demonstrates what happens when a group of old friends get into a room and truly collaborate. With friendships stretching back to their teens, Slusarenko and Moen bring out the best in each other as writers, resulting in a creative tension between their respective lyrical outlooks. With or, collaboration was key. Simply, or is the sound of a band realizing its potential, of old friends connecting creatively and sonically, creating exuberant, nuanced, pop music; better than a match made in romcom heaven.

Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Chris Slusarenko and John Moen, who shared the premiere of the or version of the “Slow It Goes” video (below) and discussed how the match came to be, their chemistry, and working with Peter Buck. This is what they told us.

You guys have played music with some real heavies. What is the best thing about being a side player and what is the worst?

Chris Slusarenko: The best thing is just getting to be in the atmosphere of someone else’s songwriting.  There’s no way you can’t be influenced by the way someone works but it’s also really rewarding to put your own stamp onto someone else’s vision.  Some people we’ve worked hold the strings a little tighter than others while some were more like “just have at it.”  Sometimes it’s just fun to play the part live that someone else had already previously written but sometimes you wished you had been in the band at that point of creation or recording.  And again some of the songwriters want you to stick the script without deviation and others want it to have a new spirit.  I get both but ultimately it’s more fun to deviate and put your own personality into it.

Did you always know that you were wanting to do your own thing?

C: Throughout the years both John and myself both had bands that were our own thing but they were all pretty short lived.  But once Boston Spaceships’ Let It Beard was finished John and myself revisited some demos we made before I joined Guided By Voices and before he joined The Decemberists and the elements of Eyelids were already all there.

Jonathan Drews, who produced the Boston Spaceships records, was with us and kinda chimed in to want to be part of it.   So the three of us made a plan to meet in a couple weeks and spend a weekend together writing and that’s when we wrote all the material for our first LP, 854.  Jim Talstra and Paulie Pulvirenti joined us shortly once we started playing out live.

How did you and John get into each others’ orbits? How did you realize that you had the same passion and affinity for pop music?

C: We’ve known each other since the late ‘80s when John and Jim were in Dharma Bums, who had records out on the indie label Frontier Records, and I was in Death Midget, who were on stickers and cassettes status plus one Mystic Records comp track.  Our bands were so different but that was back in the days when there wasn’t enough bands to go around so often the bills were incredibly diverse:  Industrial followed by power pop followed by some comedy glam thingy.

We’ve just been friends forever and although most my bands were pretty aggressive musically I always shared an affinity for R.E.M., the Paisley Underground and Flying Nun—things John’s bands were more in line with.  We always wanted to write together and after our time with Robert Pollard in Boston Spaceships we knew we worked really well together so decided to take a stab at it for real.

What is unique about the chemistry of Eyelids that makes it so rewarding?

John Moen: I have never been in a band that split the writing duties 50/50 before; Chris writes half, and I write half. We help each other sew up loose ends. The songs then get sent to the band, and final arrangements are made. I’m not actually sure how unique this process is, but I find it to be a particularly rewarding one. Neither Chris nor myself are completely responsible for the entire outcome which eases one’s creative mind, and since you aren’t having to provide all the content yourself, I think you work a bit harder to come up with your half.

Also, Chris and I don’t necessarily write the same type of songs, but we have to go through each others sense of aesthetics to come up with an albums worth of material. We are also pretty good at coming to an agreement and editing fairly mercilessly. Not all bands can do that. We are nimble and can go for hours in the desert without even a drop of water.

You recently completed a tour overseas with Drive By Truckers and I know you’ve done dates with Charlatans UK there too. What were your favorite experiences during those treks?

J: My favorite experience was being asked to go! It’s no walk in the park trying to get your band heard these days. There are many deserving bands and only so much bandwidth. It’s really a boost for us to get these kind of invitations from great bands that we respect so much. We were able to play really nice venues, and to amazing audiences that wouldn’t have known anything about us otherwise. I also really like eating English breakfast on the ferry from Ireland to England.

Do you feel like UK/European music buffs are more in tune with what Eyelids is doing, or is the U.S. appreciating the band to its full potential too?

C: I think it’s been pretty supportive all around wherever we’ve played.  I mean, most people coming out to see us know what’s going on sonically and emotionally with us.   They want to hear some damn songs ya know!   They understand the musical language we’re using—buoyant but kinda melancholy too.

I think some people are surprised that live it can be pretty loud at times since on the first LP it was a bit more subdued.  But we kinda like freaking out with guitars and we had some apocalyptic moments on our latest U.K./Euro tour while we were out with the Drive-By Truckers.  Just a chance to feel some sounds push again you from the amp.  Also we tend to joke around quite a bit between songs which we can’t help.  We’re kinda of goofballs.

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Album Art by Jo Hamilton

This is your second LP with Peter Buck. What is it like working with him?

J: Peter is fantastic. He is deeply enthusiastic about many forms of music, has what I consider to be great taste, and has also been extremely generous with us along the way. We are certainly elevated by his willingness to lend a hand. His approach in the studio is very laid back, but he is always quick with a solution when the need arises.

Buck as well as a few others guest on the record too, right? What did they bring to the table?

J: Well, it seems strange that we didn’t plaster him all over everything, but in the end he really only played mandolin on one track. The song “Ghost,Ghost,Ghost” features one of his signature lines. It seems to me that he is always equal parts creativity and restraint.

Also Jay Gonazlez from Drive-By Truckers played organ and piano on Camelot and Jonathan Segel from Camper Van Beethoven played strings on “(I Will) Leave With You.”  They brought the kind of performance that within hearing the song for a few seconds you’re like, “that’s got to the be the guy form Camper on that right?”  They were so distinctive in their performance.  It was an honor.

Did you do any writing in the studio?

C: There were a few songs like “Ghost, Ghost, Ghost” and “You Know I Gotta A Reason” that were a little more fully realized once we were in the studio.  They had a more experimental approach to them and we would lean on Peter about helping us get some of these ideas out of our heads and onto tape.  Most of these songs hadn’t been played out live yet so there was excitement in hearing all the parts come together rather than them slamming the walls of our practice space.    There was more than one moment where we would look at someone and say “that part is so cool…I had no idea you were playing that!”  Let’s just say our practice space is on the smaller side…!

What are your proudest moments on the record?

J: I am most proud of the singing. I have been challenging myself, and Chris, to record vocals that we like enough to turn them up loud in the mix. I came up in an “indie-rock” that may have de-emphasized strong vocals at times, but I really like a pop music confidence about the final mix these days. All that said, the interweaving three guitar attack is also a strong draw for me; keeping the six-string arrangements interesting is one of our best features.

You guys have done some pretty stellar videos in the past. Which of the songs on this record will receive video treatment and how involved are you guys in the concept for those?

C: We have two finished already—“Slow It Goes,” which has synchronized dancers from the troupe The Dead Lead Set Society, and “Falling Eyes,” which was a staged birthday party for Peter Buck that never really gets off the ground.

We’re going to do two more—one for Camelot and one for Furthest Blue.  I used to make films and music videos way, way back before music kinda took over my life.   So it’s been really cool to be back into it and we all enjoy making them.  It’s nice to be in a band where I will be like “…so then you’ll be playing a guard on stage in some leotard” and they’ll be like “…ok.  Where do you want me to stand?”   Most of the Eyelids videos have been pretty ambitious, so it helps having everyone trust in the concept and be all in.

(Band Photo: John Clark)