Artist Interview: Closer Discusses ‘Within One Stem’
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After speaking with the tri-city post-hardcore band Closer, I felt myself ruminating on the phrase “emotional power,” and the relationship that those words have with Within One Stem, the band’s recently released second LP. The songs on this record emit a kind of intensity, but it’s not like they embody a sheer emotional force. Instead, Within One Stem feels cavernous, Ryann Slauson’s shouts cascading across these restless and dynamic punk songs. A song like “New Refused” is subtly shapeshifting all the time, never repeating itself, at one point entering a phase of quiet, methodical build up. But Closer never forsake that emotional power, not for one second.
It was bassist Griffin Irvine who invoked that phrase toward the end of our conversation, speaking about his personal experience of hearing the songs come together for the first time—“when Ryann went to record the vocals, we had never heard or seen the lyrics for some of the songs, and our jaws dropped. We looked at each other in the control room like, holy shit.” It’s easy to imagine this kind of scene when listening to Within One Stem, which feels like a communal but intimate experience, made all the more visceral by Slauson’s potent lyrics.
Closer’s new music sounds perfect for the intense and gratifying shows that the band was known for before the pandemic hit—Slauson describes a show in Austria during which the small crowd joined them in a huddle on stage. “It was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about how fucking great it was.” This is the kind of closeness it feels like this band was built for.
It may be a while before that kind of experience is possible, but the record stands on its own as a sharp refinement of their first album, 2018’s All This Will Be. “When we started the band, we said, “let’s have a band that sounds like this,” said guitarist Matthew Van Asselt. “For the next record, we already had square one and so we had to go somewhere else.” Here, the band stretches their screamo-esque songs into new and distinct shapes. The staccato bursts of opener “Ruins in Reverse” fall apart and reappear more forcefully. The miniature epic of “Angry Flood” finds the band eschewing easy catharsis in favor of a simmering build. These songs evolve in surprising ways, taking the template created on that first record and finding new ways to deliver that emotional power.
Read our conversation with Closer below, and be sure to listen to their incredible new record Within One Stem, which is out right now.
It’s been about three years since your first record All This Will Be. How have things changed for the band since then?
Griffin Irvine: When we were working on the first record, we all lived close together. Ryann and I were roommates in New York City and Matt lived like ten minutes away from us. We’d practice every week, if not twice a week. The big difference is that we’re all in different cities now.
Matthew Van Asselt: I think as a result, that first record, those songs felt very spontaneous and intuitive. They just kind of wrote themselves in a way. On this newer record—some of these songs we’ve written and rewritten and rewritten for like two full years. Maybe they have like one element in common from the original demo but a lot more workshopping and rewriting has happened. I think maybe because we’ve had more time between practices. I’d like to think that means these new songs are stronger. But I think there’s something to be said for a song that just breathes itself into the world.
Ryann Slauson: I would say the songs are stronger but also just different from what we imagined in the beginning, which I think can lead to more interesting end results. Sometimes the first time we do something is the best, and to deviate from that is maybe a mistake. But also in other instances like Matt said—we had this one song that started off on this riff and the song revolved around the riff. But then the riff really went into the background into a much smaller part within the whole. And that made the song I think way stronger. We spent time digging at it.
Matthew: I would also say that when we started the band, we said, “let’s have a band that sounds like this.” We had an idea in mind about the realm that the songs should be in. Not that we knew exactly how to do it—we still kind of just did it our way—but for the next record we already had square one and so we had to go somewhere else.
How would you describe the sound you were trying to make on that first record?
Griffin: It was like screamo revival revival, essentially. Not like straight carbon copy—I think that we have a little bit of a different take on it. But that was more of the blueprint that we worked from.
Matthew: We had all been playing in a kind of pop-punky band, indie rock band.
Griffin: It was more like Matt’s project and we all played in the live band, Real Life Buildings.
Ryann: We all played in it at one point or another.
Matthew: And the three of us were like “let’s start like a heavy band.” So it was my first time really trying to write that kind of music.
Griffin: I had been in a heavy band before, but it wasn’t totally what I was trying to do. It was like a beat-down hardcore band. So I was trying to get back more in the screamo direction.
Ryann: I had sung in like a no-wave, really Sonic Youth-y weirdo band in Florida, so I had experience with that. So I kind of tried to revisit how I was doing vocals in that band. But more in the vein of like a post-hardcore kind of delivery, with some screaming. This is the most that I’ve screamed in a band.
Matthew: It was just a genre that we all really liked.
Griffin: We all liked it, but we were coming to it from all different places. I think that kind of explains some of the weirdness of the sound. Maybe not in the first record but maybe what eventually fermented into the second record.
How would you describe the sound that you landed on with this new record?
Ryann: I’d say we’ve settled further into maybe the emo corner of what screamo can be. The harshness in my vocals is a lot toned down. I played the record for my sister—she had heard the first one and she liked it, but it’s not really her kind of music. But for this record, she said “Ryann, it sounds like you. I can hear you in this music. That’s you in there.” And that’s something that I wasn’t really consciously thinking about, but I like that I feel less constricted by what I think I’m supposed to sound like. I think that was the attitude about this whole record—let’s just fucking do whatever and not really think about what screamo “is” or what people want to hear in this “revival” world.
Matthew: I really like being the odd one out at shows too.
Griffin: We end up on these shows that can sometimes be very heavy. We did like a little weekend thing with Infant Island and ostraca and it was funny to play with them both. We don’t have very big speaker cabinets.
Ryann: [Laughs] Ours are so small!
Griffin: So we’re just not as loud. We’re loud, but we have quiet parts and we just have different dynamics. It was just funny to play with them because I felt like we were coming from a very different sonic place. But it’s cool because people are into all three bands.
What was the timeline like for writing and recording?
Matthew: We started working on some of the songs in our old rehearsal space in Brooklyn. That would have been in 2017. We started writing songs then. And then one of them we wrote last minute right before we recorded. Over two years, mostly from a distance, we’d record demos and send them to each other, and get together like once a month. We recorded them in December, just over a year ago. We had a long time to work on some of them. A lot of them were playing live consistently. It took a while for all these songs to come out, I guess partly because of the distance.
Ryann: When I hear that, that we had been working on these songs for basically two years, I’m thinking, “that’s so much time!” But honestly, it ends up just not really being that much, especially when you all live away from each other. The time just doesn’t feel like enough and it’s hard. It’s very hard being a long-distance band. It’s very tricky.
Matthew: And we’re not prone to digital practices or stuff like that. I’m sure we could get better at that if we really wanted to. But we don’t have our technology game down.
Ryann: I feel like a lot of the “magic” happens when we’re all together. We could practice and learn the parts and bring it together, but when we’re all in the same room, confronting the parts themselves, I think sometimes that’s the only time when we can really make the real progress beyond familiarity with the parts and structure.
Griffin: We recorded the record in Pittsburgh in 2019 with the intention of releasing it in 2020 but then covid happened.
Ryann: We really pushed it back. That allowed us to spend more time on the mix.
These songs have taken a long journey—how do you feel now that they’re finally going to be out in the world?
Griffin: I’m excited about it. The two singles have had a lot of positive attention on them. I guess it’s hard to tell. The only thing I ever saw that was truthfully negative about the first record was on like ratemymusic.com, where one person wrote, “this is derivative crap.”
Matthew: I’m excited to start performing it for people, that’s my favorite.
Ryann: I’m gonna say that I was extremely anxious. Mostly because I have been listening to it so much since the final mix and the masters were done and I was really kind of regretting some of the choices I had made. I think it’s a common thing when you’re making something is to ruminate and second guess yourself. I was just being extra critical and being very unsure. Plus, this record is I think more vulnerable than the first one.
Matthew: It definitely feels way more personal.
Ryann: Yeah, even though the first record is literally all about heartbreak and just weird pain. I think all of that was really hidden under these layers of weird poetic cryptical shit. I think this one is more exposed. I had gone through a severe breakup slash big moment in my life when I was writing lyrics for this record as well. And that impacted what I was writing about, my desire to process everything. I don’t think all of that would be legible to someone who is not me, but it’s there. So I was really anxious, especially with “Angry Flood.” That song is very different from our first record I think, especially that whole second half. I was so petrified. But I’m also very proud and excited.
You were most nervous about “Angry Flood” but that’s the first one that you put out. What was your thinking behind that?
Matthew: It’s a good song!
Griffin: To be fair, Ryann did not tell me or Matt that they were so terrified of that song. We all agreed that it would be a great first single just based on the strength of the song.
Ryann: I think that song got a good response live, especially when we played in Europe. I think it was a rip-the-bandaid-off thing. I think that song is such a funny first single choice because it’s so long for this type of music. It feels very expansive in my opinion, it has a big journey. It’s kind of a weird choice, which I like.
Matthew: Singles are weird.
Ryann: It’s like picking apart a painting and choosing this corner and covering up the rest.
Griffin: I also think the record’s strength is in its totality. Especially because it’s so concise. Our rule that was kind of a joke was that it had to be shorter than Slayer’s Reign in Blood. I know it’s not even the same sound really, but when I first heard Reign in Blood in high school, I thought there was no slack in the whole record and I was very impressed with that.
I love how different your reference points are from each other.
Griffin: On the first mix, some of our reference albums were pretty disparate.
Ryann: Third Eye Blind’s self-titled and AFI’s Decemberunderground were some of them—we were doing kind of a more polished pop sound for the first mix. But I think it felt a little more fitting to roughen the edges a bit and boost the heavy side.
Griffin: The bass is a lot nastier on the second mix. Decemberunderground was the reference point on that first mix as far as that really clean studio sound and giving the vocals a lot of room and not super bass heavy. Very clean.
Matthew: That record sounds phenomenal. But it doesn’t sound like humans made it.
When you released “Landslide,” you dedicated the song to Thursday’s Geoff Rickly.
Ryann: With the first record, there was this moment when I asked Steve Roche, the guy who was recording us, to give us the Thursday vocal treatment. And he’s not really into Thursday and I remember him being like, “nahh.” But this time, I was really trying to channel that sound. There are parts in a Thursday song when Geoff kind of steps away from the mic and the song sounds more like the room, and there’s a little more static in the treatment of the vocals. I wasn’t trying to emulate that sound but thought more like, what if me and Geoff were in the studio together? And there are parts in “Landslide” where I’m feeling that Thursday-ness in my heart.
Going back to what you said about second guessing the choices you made on Within One Stem, Geoff Rickly was another artist who was very critical of his work. I remember reading that he hated War All The Time when it was released.
Ryann: Totally, and I think sometimes something like that is going to be a false read. You’re so close to it and you just put everything into it and you obsessed over it. There’s no way that you can really see the strengths and accept those small mistakes. You just need that time and distance. In the end, I’m still regretting things, but it’s fine. I’ve accepted that stuff.
Matthew: I wonder if it’s possible to make a perfect record and then listen to it and think “that’s a perfect record.”
Ryann: Right, I don’t think it’s possible. Specifically with Thursday, I have a different relationship with that band than Griffin and Matt do. They were really important to me when I was younger. As I aged, I revisited that stuff and realized this was the music I wanted to make. With Thursday, from what I understand of their timeline, they were kind of the more marketable band from the early 2000s kind of screamo scene in New Jersey and New York. I kind of feel some kind of kinship there because their band was kind of an outlier. Not that our band is “marketable,” but I feel like Thursday was maybe a step outside of some of the harsher, more aggressive sounds. They were more just emo for real.
Do you have another artist you would want to dedicate one of your songs to?
Griffin: I would dedicate “Angry Flood” to Joanna Newsom. Her music is a touchstone for all of us. We were talking about doing a kind of post-hardcore/emo cover of “Peach, Plum, Pear” for a long time. We haven’t sat down and done it yet, but it might happen some day.
Has the lack of live shows changed the way you’ve thought about presenting your new music to the world?
Ryann: I don’t know, we’re like a live band—yeah the record exists, but the true appeal of our band is the live show. Here’s an example—we played a show outside of Vienna in Austria, this really cool DIY-run spot. There were not very many people there because we were just like this random USA band. Matt invited everyone to come up on stage and stand around us. And so we were kind of smushed in a tiny, tight circle and everyone stood around us like they were at one of our practices. And it was awesome. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about how fucking great it was.
Griffin: There were probably like fifteen people there.
Ryann: Yeah, it was just the best. That’s just where I think we shine. So it’s hard to market our record beyond like, “oh we’re selling our record at the show.” But we’re using our social media platforms a little bit smarter now and we’re engaging with people. But it feels really weird not preparing for our album release show. That was probably the best show I’ve ever played in my life, our first album release show.
Griffin: We really played our asses off at the first album release show.
Ryann: It was in New York, a packed show with bands that I love.
Griffin: And all our friends came out. I don’t think we made a single mistake.
Ryann: We just felt so full. And so it’s hard to think about how that’s not going to happen.
Matthew: It will happen one day. And it will be nice because people will have already heard it.
When a listener hears Within One Stem for the first time, what do you hope they’ll carry away from that experience?
Griffin: A quick anecdote—for some of the songs that we recorded for the new record, we didn’t have enough time to practice them as a full band with vocals. So when Ryann went to record the vocals, we had never heard or seen the lyrics for some of the songs, and our jaws dropped. We looked at each other in the control room like, holy shit, these lyrics are really hitting. It was an emotionally intense but edifying experience, to hear them for the first time without expecting it. That’s what I hope for this record—that the emotional power that we felt in the studio translates.
Ryann: I think we put a lot of heart into this record. It just feels very exposed and I hope that people can really hold this vulnerability and emotional kind of range and really feel something. I was hoping that this record would really touch people. Not didactically, but more like, here it is, you have your own experience with it. Whatever that is, I hope that it is meaningful.
Matthew: From a musical standpoint, I hope that they’ll see it within the context of the genre, but think that it’s unique and has something new to offer musically.
Do you have anything else that you want people to know about Within One Stem?
Ryann: I think it’s really cool that we all do everything ourselves. We make all of the art, we do all of the layout, all of the design. All of the merch designs and videos. Everything that is related to us, we do.
Matthew: I’m pointing to Ryann.
Ryann: I do handle a lot of that stuff but we all contribute to that stuff, even if it’s just an idea or a criticism. The band is like a machine to create and I think that’s really cool. I spend a lot of time making band-related shit. And right now it’s keeping me going.
Within One Stem is out now on Lauren Records.
Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh
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