Heavy Times: An Interview With Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford

For the past 20 years, Unwed Sailor has been one of the longest-running and varied instrumental post-rock bands around. Led by bassist Jonathon Ford, their latest album, Heavy Age, is one of their… well… heaviest sounding records to date. Ford told me that despite the title and the overall feel of the record being connected, it wasn’t something he specifically planned on happening. “With Unwed Sailor nothing is really planned. It’s really what just comes out or reveals itself in the moment when I pick up my bass and start playing. I try to be true to that and not force anything. I think that kind of honesty creates what becomes the end result. I wasn’t thinking ‘I’ve got to make this type of a record because I’ve gone through things that have challenged me.’ The things that challenged me came out through the music on their own. And it just came out with anger, hopefulness, peacefulness and frustration that formed this musical ball that became Heavy Age. It’s a title that I’ve had for a while. There seems to be a pattern where I’ll write a song and then there will be a certain title that I thought up four years ago that for some reason it just connects to that song. I feel like the title of this record really does reflect the music in a major way. The production is much bigger and the guitars have all this distortion in them. But the title also reflects my life. The past few years for me have been great. But there was this recent span of about four years that was really difficult. Different friendships fell apart, my mother passed away. And it happened all at once. I think that really shaped the feeling of the record and the title. It really was a heavy time for me. And there’s also just the aspect of getting older. I turned 45 in February so thinking about that in the context of continuing the Unwed Sailor journey, which has been going on for the past 20 something years. It’s a bit odd to think that I’m 45 and I’m still doing this band that I started in my early 20s. But I love it so much. It’s like my child. So I feel like this record is my 21-year-old child.”

Ford told me he was excited once he realized that this was the direction that Heavy Age was taking. Especially when conveying those emotions about life events can sometimes be challenging for an instrumental band. “I always try to be very honest with the music that Unwed Sailor makes. I’m always confident that the music that comes out is honest and true to who I am. So, just creating that is exciting for me. It’s interesting that this is the heaviest Unwed Sailor record and I’ve gone through some of the heaviest times of my life in the recent past. It felt good that the music reflected that. Being an instrumental band I can’t really sing about that stuff. I’m not singing about my mother passing away or broken relationships. Those circumstances come out through the melodies or time signatures. I have thrown vocals into individual songs on past records. Honestly though it felt a bit awkward. I don’t feel like writing lyrics is my strong suit. Vocal melodies I can handle a little more because I write bass melodies, so I could turn that into a vocal melody. But at the same, I like the challenge of writing lyrics and coming up with a vocal line. I’m pretty sure that Unwed Sailor will always be an instrumental band, unless I have some kind of epiphany of becoming a singer in my band. There’s no direction that I’m going to put a wall in front of.”

Even though Ford is the focal point of Unwed Sailor as the music revolves heavily around his bass playing. The supporting musicians have always had an impact on the music as well. For Heavy Age, he was joined by David Swatzell on guitar, along with Matt Putnam and Colin Blanton both on drums. “We recorded the foundational tracks live, so both drums were recorded live simultaneously. Colin and Matt are two of the best drummers I know. And they had never played together before recording this record. So they set up in the room and they just killed it from the start. Matt Putnam has been playing with Unwed Sailor since 2001. He’s unable to tour so he just plays on the records. And Swatzell has been with the band for three or four years. And I’m such a huge fan of his guitar playing. They were absolutely crucial to the sound of the record. It wouldn’t be the same record without them.”

When a band has been around as long as Unwed Sailor, the tendency to look back is almost involuntary. In my conversation with Ford, I mentioned that I had seen them live when they were first starting. And it’s been amazing to see the band last as long as it has and evolve as much as it has. He feels the same way. “It’s funny, I’ve been going back and listening to those old records and then listening to this new one and I keep thinking: How did we get here? I mean it’s still Unwed Sailor and has always been Unwed Sailor, but it’s progressed in a way that I’m really proud of. The things that have shaped it are all of these musical influences. I’ve been really fortunate to run into people in my life that have introduced me to new music that I never knew existed. And that keeps shaping my musical vocabulary. So, from Firecracker to Heavy Age, it wouldn’t be what it is without the random people telling me ‘check out The Blue Nile’ or ‘listen to this particular New Order song.’ And then the life experiences as well, the good and the bad. That has shaped both me and the music. I love where we’re at but I don’t know how we got here.”

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