Artist Interview: Dylan Balliett of Spirit Night

Posted: by The Editor

I never thought I’d be sad so long / I never thought it’d be bad so long,” Dylan Balliett sings on the chorus of “So Long,” the second track on his new record as Spirit Night, before finishing that thought in typically wry fashion: “But I guess I was wrong.” It’s a sentiment that can be found throughout Bury the Dead, a record largely about digging up the past and tracing the ways life has changed–or, in some cases, hasn’t. Balliett dresses up these thoughts in catchy, breezy indie rock; while it can be a heavy listen with lyrics in hand, these songs are immediate enough that Bury the Dead never feels like a chore through its 36 minutes. We sat down with Balliett to discuss the narrative arc of the album, its years-long writing and recording process, and what the future holds for Spirit Night.

The record is about returning to where you grew up and seeing it from a different vantage point, being older, correct?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s what the album is about, but it definitely describes the experience of creating it–that’s what it means to me now even if it didn’t then. The brunt of the album was recorded one weekend in early 2022 in the basement of Jordan Hudkins’ house in West Virginia right down the road from my childhood home, where I slept on the couch during recording (my parents sold the house a few months later so this was unknowingly my last time there). Our friends Ryan Hizer and Trey Curtis, fellow West Virginians who I first met nearly twenty years ago at WVU and who have both also since left the state, met up with us there to engineer the recording using gear they hauled from their own basements. I’m in regular contact with all of those guys so seeing them shouldn’t have really dredged up any weird feelings on its own, but the context of us all being back in West Virginia doing the same thing we’d always done but slightly older and with a backdrop of pandemic anxiety made my own words hit me differently. The best and most obvious example of this would be the song “Country Roads” which seemed to soundtrack its own creation despite being written maybe five years earlier. The separate processes of writing and recording the album became entwined in my memory, so when it came time to make the cover art I decided to use a picture I’d taken of a mountain near Harpers Ferry years earlier to frame the whole project. It’s my West Virginia album, not because of the lyrical content, but because of the memories I have of making it with my friends there. It’s somewhat autobiographical now, and it felt right to honor that.

How long have you been piecing together what would become Bury the Dead?

Shame came out in 2015, the month before my first tour with The World Is…, I think. I’ve been working on this since that was done. In 2016, probably, I started working with Chris Teti on Spirit Night songs–we started with “Different Bodies” and “Gone”–but when I left the band we had a falling out. I didn’t know, because Chris records in such a particular way, if I should try to salvage them, or work with someone else. I didn’t know what to do. Music was my life, and I had no idea what to do. I got a job at a warehouse. I kept trying to put a band together, but I could never schedule with people. Everyone in Brooklyn’s in, like, six bands. It was just all these setbacks combining. In my head, I wanted “Different Bodies” as the centerpiece with “Memorial Day” as the closer and “Left Behind” as the opener, and I had to fill it all out in between. I could never figure out the tracklist. I’d write songs, but they wouldn’t feel like they’d fit, and I needed Bury the Dead to be the follow-up to Shame. During the pandemic I decided to resolve this creative issue in my life. I learned how to record at home better and sat down to actually complete this. The name of the album I came up with right after Shame.

That’s interesting, the piecemeal nature of the writing and recording, because there’s a lot of lyrical continuity here. Even just looking at the track titles you can see themes emerge.

Yeah, I didn’t realize. I use the word “home” a lot, and in the chorus of “Country Roads” I say, “I’m finally gone,” and then the next song is “Gone.”

You use Saddle Creek releases and Dischord releases as touchpoint for this—what albums did you have in mind writing this?

I was thinking a lot about the albums that my friends and I used to drive around blasting in high school, which largely fell into the punk, emo, and indie rock genre categories. I wasn’t trying to emulate their style so much as capture a similar kind of energy—I wanted to make something forceful and direct but also catchy and fun that had the potential to unite the people who discover it. The Dischord records we were obsessed with at that time, other than Fugazi’s Instrument Soundtrack and The Argument, were Q and Not U’s No Kill No Beep Beep and the self-titled Black Eyes album. Spirit Night doesn’t really sound like any of those bands on the surface but I think you can probably hear the influence in my guitar playing. As for Saddle Creek, the influence on my songwriting is more apparent there. We adored Bright Eyes (Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted)–we’d drive for hours to catch them on tour–but we might have liked Cursive (Domestica, Burst & Bloom EP) even more. Other labels we liked: Polyvinyl, Jade Tree, Vagrant Records, Drive Thru Records, Fat Wreck Chords or any other label that made sampler compilations of punk songs. Other albums I remember loving in high school (among many more): The Get Up Kids – Something to Write Home About, Saves the Day – Through Being Cool, Jimmy Eat World – Clarity, Against Me! – Reinventing Axl Rose, Alkaline Trio – S/T, At the Drive-In – Relationship of Command, Blood Brothers – Burn Piano Island Burn, Death Cab for Cutie – The Photo Album, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to the Heavens, The Strokes – Is This It, The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good, City of Caterpillar – S/T, Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Modest Mouse – Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks, The Appleseed Cast – Low Level Owl Volumes 1 & 2. I think it’s worth mentioning that I was in The World Is… when I was writing a lot of this, and so we were playing with these emo revival bands, these guitar bands, and I think that seeped into it, wanting to write that kind of big guitar music.

If 17-year-old Dylan found this album at a FYE or whatever and gave it a listen, what would he think of it?

I’ve been thinking about that. He probably would have liked it a lot. Lyrics were especially important to us in high school, particularly stuff that was dark and personal with snappy, devastating one liners that we could quote on our AIM away messages. Bury the Dead is very lyric-focused, like all of my albums, and full of that kind of stuff. I’ve also always had a thing for sugary pop vocal melodies, probably stemming from my earliest musical obsessions being Blink-182 and Green Day, and I think this album contains some of my best earworms to date. I realize at this point I’m basically saying, “I would have liked the album because I made it,” but it probably is worth noting that I try to create the songs that I wish existed.

Why did you choose “Country Roads” as the leadoff?

It felt like the most obvious hit. We were trying to rip off Weezer if the chorus didn’t make it obvious. It felt like a fun pop song that still has my sad worldview. It was hard to pick which would best represent the album upfront.

What moments on here are you proudest of?

I don’t know if I’m proud of it, but my favorite part of the album is the ending of “Memorial Day.” Ryan had his multi-instrumentalist friend Dane Adelman replace a synth line I’d added to the song months earlier with a real trumpet at the last minute and it completely transformed it into what it is now. I love that it basically becomes a post-rock song. I also had a bunch of my friends sing the final lines with me, including my dog Bertie, who you can hear bark when I sing the word “us.”  I guess I would just say that part means a lot to me.

What do you want your ideal listener to take away from the album?

I hope they like it. I hope that people listen to the lyrics. I feel like they’re pretty good–not to say I’m a good lyricist, but I think they’re all subtly interconnected. It feels substantial to me, like I made something of substance, something people can dig into. I hope they want to.

Do you have any plans for shows in the future?

I’m not going to rule shows out entirely but I don’t have any plans to play them right now. Pretty much everything involved in planning and playing a show is extremely stressful to me and I have too many other things going on in my life right now to make that a focus. Namely, I’m really excited about recording now that I’ve finally figured out a way to do it at home and get results I’m satisfied with. I want to keep working on the follow-up to Bury the Dead, which is already about a third of the way finished at this point, and having to play shows in my free time would just get in the way of that.

You’re already working on a new record?

Well, I draw a lot from old songs. Say I have a melody in my head–I can put that in a voice memo, and I’ll have that forever. The first song on the new record comes from a pre-Shame voice memo! The song “Any Way I Am,” too, is an older demo I’ve just kept around for years. When I was making Bury the Dead, I was writing so much and scrapping so much. I started this new album, in earnest, when I set Bury the Dead aside thinking it just might never happen, so sometime last year. I wanted Jordan Hudkins to drum on the Bury the Dead songs, and for a while he wasn’t sure if he could, so I started recording the other songs for the new album while I was waiting. So I’ve been working on this one during the setback periods for this last one.

What’s the vibe for the new one?

It’s different. It’s got more bedroom pop vibes. All my stuff is recorded in a bedroom, or at least very DIY, even if it doesn’t sound like it. This one sounds like it, though, and it’s got a wider palette of weirder instruments and sounds. I’ve got more musicians contributing too, like my friend Miguel on bass–he’s adding a lot to it. On Bury the Dead, I told the bass player Ryan just to play the bass notes. I just wanted the bass to make the guitars sound big, but the new one is more musical, I’d say.

Bury the Dead is out tomorrow.

Zac Djamoos | @gr8whitebison

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