Early in the summer of 2014, a tune titled “35mm” from Slow And Steady started making the rounds online to rave write-ups. With little background information to accompany it — aside from the fact that Slow And Steady was actually native South Carolina resident Jacob Lawter, and that he was working on a full-length for Brooklyn label Broken Circles — it was a refreshingly jarring example of how a killer song can still make an impression in the modern age without assistance from a wordy backstory, an “ex-members” point of reference or even a blanket of mysterious social media pandering. The track even made it to Modern Vinyl’s Best of 2014. Mastered by longtime Pedro The Lion contributor TW Walsh, “35mm” is as much an ode to the sound of prime-era Barsuk and Jade Tree releases as it is to the lovelorn detachment that fueled those same records lyrically.
Over a year later, it’s clear that the buzz around “35mm” was no fluke and that it laid the groundwork for a stellar complete album, “In Time We Belong,” released this past August. Recently, Lawter spoke with Modern Vinyl about working with Walsh, his relocation to both Austin and Nashville, and the importance of the full-length album in a single-download society.
Modern Vinyl: How long did you live in South Carolina before moving to Austin? Did you make music or play in bands in South Carolina?
Jacob Lawter: I lived in South Carolina my entire life before moving to Austin. I’ve played music since I was around six or seven and I’ve been in bands since 2004. Once I started writing music, there was really no turning back. I don’t think I can play more than 10 songs from memory that I didn’t write. In almost 26 years, I haven’t found anything that comes close to making me feel like I do when I’m writing songs, recording them, and playing them for people. My most recent band prior to accidentally forming Slow And Steady, which ended its several year long run when I moved to Austin, was called Transient. What started out as a one-off EP studio project among five close friends, ended up being one of the more significant experiences of my semi-adult life. We played a ton of shows and made three EPs over three-plus years of playing together. The evolution of my songwriting through being in that band is what led me to writing this Slow And Steady record.
MV: Any reasons, other than the obvious music scene, that you moved to Austin? Were there any other cities you were potentially thinking of moving to?
JL: I actually moved to Austin to take a new/better position for my longtime day job, with the intentions of scaling back my music endeavors significantly. (It was) a somewhat hasty decision, born out of a desperation to remove myself from years worth of awful situations and a strange impulse to “grow up.” Earlier in that year, I was playing tour guitar with Better Off and was seriously considering a move to Nashville to take that full-time. In the following months, I hadn’t come any closer to a final decision and they luckily found a much better fit in my extremely talented friend Hunter Walls. As irony would have it, I’ve recently made the move to Nashville and now live with Hunter. Such a small, strange world.
MV: Was there any learning curve or adjustment period to playing music in Austin when you first arrived? I’ve spoken to musicians that have a wide-range of experiences, from being very welcomed to basically being ignored.
JL: When I first moved to Austin, I had absolutely nothing going on musically and no real plans to change that. The isolation from all forms of familiarity and my vast amount of alone time is what inevitably led to the reflection that produced “35mm.” What I found to be most difficult about the assimilation process was just finding the local bands. There seemed to be no real network of bands and promoters that ran in the same circles I was used to running in. I eventually ended up enlisting Jordan (Welker) from Pswingset as a band member, and making some great friends in the music community through him, but aside from that and a few small victories, it was a largely fruitless effort.
Usually the first thing anyone says when I mention living in Austin is “Oh, that must have been great for you since you’re a musician” and honestly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Austin is a great place to see music but not the best place to set up camp if you want to build any sort of successful enterprise in the music industry. Extremely high cost of living for the south, a clique-y and impenetrable DIY community, and [there’s a] lack of organization within the scene in the year 2015, when the internet exists and makes that stupidly simple to do it right.MV:
I first heard “35mm” back in June of last year, and it made our list of the best tracks of 2014. Since the album was recently released this summer, I’m curious if that track was the first written and finished for the album, or if there was a delay of any sort in the rest of the record coming to fruition. It’s rare that the first taste of an album makes the rounds a full year or more before the rest of it.
JL: I had a completely finished version of “35mm” before I agreed to put out an LP with Broken Circles. I sent the song to Brent (Lakes, owner of Broken Circles) as soon as I got it back from TW, only because he and I are big fans of TW’s work, and I figured he’d dig the song based on our common taste. Slow And Steady was non-existent at that time.
After he proposed that we do a record together, I set out to write the rest of the record, and I tracked the majority of it back in September/October of 2014. We went in with nine songs, making 10 with “35mm,” but I ended up scrapping the ninth song shortly before tracking began. We weren’t able to get back in the studio for the final track (“From This Side Of Time”) until December of 2014. Living in Austin and tracking the record in South Carolina proved to be a huge hindrance to getting it done in a timely manner, but I had no connections for a good studio or producer in Austin. The record was completely done in March, but with vinyl manufacturing lead times at an all-time high right now, August was the soonest we could set the release, and we still don’t have the final LPs in hand.
MV: The record has the clarity and crunch that could put it easily on the same shelf as stuff from Jade Tree or Barsuk in their best eras. Do you see those labels or bands as influences on your songwriting? Or who would you count as major heroes to you, musically?
JL: 2000s Jade Tree/Barsuk will always hold a special place in my heart. David Bazan, Pedro the Lion, Headphones, The Promise Ring, Rilo Kiley and Death Cab are all long-time favorites, and I have been listening to a lot of Nada Surf lately. This album was definitely a product of those influences, along with my eternal love for the first two Weezer records, my newfound love in the huge soaring choruses of Manchester Orchestra’s Cope, the quiet beauty and profound sadness of Copeland’s You Are My Sunshine and Ixora, and the vulnerability found in the confessional nature of the songs on Dig Up The Dead by Mansions.
MV: Most of the album was played by you, aside from drums and additional percussion. Is that out of necessity, or have you been accustomed to that method so much that it just seems natural? Who are you working with in a live setting for these songs when touring?
JL: To the first question, a little of both. I wrote and demoed most of the songs by myself, just on the guitar at my apartment. I flew to South Carolina on a Friday morning, and we were scheduled to start tracking the LP on Monday morning. So while I have an abundance of talented musician friends in the area, the time for them to learn the material was limited, as was my understanding of what these songs would actually sound like full band. My musical focus is on songwriting at its core; crafting a song in its simplest form that can stand on its own two feet without the backing of a band or the loving embrace of good production, so that when other elements are introduced, the song is still at the forefront.
With simplicity and raw emotion being the goal, I think it was both natural and necessary to track this record the way we did. My best friend and longtime collaborator Brannon Crumpton is the permanent drummer for Slow And Steady. We have some friends in the area lined up to handle the other responsibilities on a temporary basis, and while I definitely want to work towards a consistent band, it just needs to be the right people. Finding people who are really about the project and who aren’t already involved in 10 other bands is quite the task.
MV: In setting up this interview, you had expressed an interest to discuss the importance of the album format, and it seems our site is a better one than any on which to tackle that. How did your feelings about albums in general influence the writing of this record?
JL: Shortly before writing this record, I spent a lot of time pouring over some of my favorite albums and picking apart exactly why I hold them in such high regard. My objective was to write a record that holds up to my own standards. I tend to gravitate toward albums with a consistent sound and theme, deeply personal songwriting, beautifully simplistic instrumentation, a healthy dose of self-awareness and a flawless flow.
So, I bought a dry erase board and drew a horizontal line down the middle of it and numbered each section 1-5. I put “35mm” in its natural place at the track two position, and proceeded to stare at that board every day for the next few months.
First the beginning/prologue (“Watching Life Go By”), then the end/epilogue (“Lost At Sea”), then the middle/climax (“Out Of Touch,” “Disinterested”), then all of the very important details that bridge those gaps. Each song was written deliberately to fill a void in the timeline of the story. It was a really interesting process, essentially reliving and rehashing certain experiences to the point of emotional exhaustion in order to finally squeeze my actual conclusions, or lack thereof, out of them. Writing the songs this way means that when you listen to the album in one sitting and in order, you — hopefully — have a sense of reliving those moments and feelings with me. Whether it is four songs or 15 songs, I believe that music is at its best when it is a cohesive thoughtful work and not just a collection of songs.
MV: The album definitely plays as a complete piece versus just a collection of songs, and it almost seems as if the lyrics tie together as one gigantic experience rather than a series of separate stories. Without giving too much away, do you feel that to be true, or is each song truly about a different time in your life or different person?
JL: In a lot of ways, I do consider it one big story, but it takes place over a lot of years and involves a lot of different people and experiences. One thing I have come to love about this record is that while 99 percent of it is first-person narrative, the narrator often feels like a different character altogether. “Watching Life Go By” serves as the prologue to the record, written from the perspective of a character who has already experienced all of the events on the following tracks. It isn’t until Angela comes in on “Pendulum” that we are brought back outside of the timeline for a broader look at the overarching struggle with help from a different narrator who is removed from the events, but still sympathetic to them:
“Have we lost sight of the forest
From the safety of the treetops
In time, will we find ourselves?
In time, will we belong?”
There are also a few tracks which are further reflection on the same events mentioned in other songs. “From This Side Of Time” is a much later interpretation/reflection on the same event(s) that “35mm” is about, and “Lost At Sea” is a later reflection on the subject matter of “Out Of Touch”/”Disinterested.” So to answer your question, yes and no. For the most part the songs are about different people/events/situations/emotions, but they are also tied together in a very intentional way.
MV: The record was mastered by TW Walsh and his touch seems fitting for an album like this. Was it essential to you to have him involved, considering his work with Pedro the Lion and others?
JL: That decision was actually born out of my own curiosity. Around the time I recorded “35mm,” I looked into his rates for mastering and they seemed reasonable enough for the caliber of work I know he is capable of. He did a fantastic job on that song and we decided to use him for the record. He is a master of his craft and we see eye to eye on the issue of extreme loudness in modern mastering (it is terrible) so it was a natural fit and I couldn’t be happier with how it sounds.
MV: Do you have a record collection? Do you consider yourself a big vinyl enthusiast? And if so, are there any gems in your collection that you’re proudest of?
JL: This is somewhat of a sore subject. I have had a pretty expansive vinyl collection for a while now, but unfortunately the vast majority of it was a casualty of the clumsily publicized robbery I was a victim of a while back. With that being said, I definitely love the vinyl format. The sound is unique and unparalleled, its size provides a larger canvas for the album art, and somehow manages to carry more intrinsic value than any other physical audio media. Some of my favorites I have owned include first pressings of Pedro The Lion’s catalog including the /200 1997 Whole EP, a signed /50 variant of Mansions’ Dig Up The Dead, Ben Folds’ Songs For Silverman and Rocking The Suburbs first pressings, first pressings of the entire DCFC catalog, and a first pressing of Dog Problems by The Format.