It’s clear that the worldwide pandemic has had a huge impact on our daily lives. There’s the obvious stuff: masks, social distancing and the fact that a large swath of the American workforce now telecommutes. And then there are the knock-on effects, the most significant one being crushing boredom. Without access to cultural outlets like restaurants, theaters and music venues, many people have found themselves with an uncomfortable amount of free time.
Ashland-based musicians Mitchell Winters and Brenton Clarke are no different. The duo, who make up the band Slow Corpse, spent 2020 battling isolation, following the stressful news cycle and, according to Clarke, drinking a fair amount of box wine. They also watched nervously as parts of their hometown were engulfed in flames during historic wildfires that rampaged throughout the state in September.
It’d be easy to forgive them for not focusing on their art. But astonishingly, the two musicians fought through the distractions and wrote and recorded a full-length record with the help of producer Cameron Spies (Radiation City, Night Heron). That album, a sophomore effort called “Bite Your Tongue”, is also shockingly fun. It’s a collection of slinky and off-kilter r&b-inspired pop songs that barely hints at the weird world we currently live in.
That being said, Winters and Clarke are clearly aware that this is not a normal time. The album is one of the few full-length releases to come out of Oregon so far this year. Many musicians, especially up-and-coming independent artists like Slow Corpse, are focusing on releasing singles and EPs or simply holding back new music altogether until the pandemic subsides. But the duo and Portland record label Tender Loving Empire are gambling, hoping that social media and word of mouth will help fill the gap left by conventional promotion.
Slow Corpse joined OPB to talk about their new album, the state of the Ashland arts community and how white boy reggae fueled their music career. Listen to the audio above or read the transcript of our conversation below.
Jerad Walker: Congratulations on releasing your sophomore record. It’s called “Bite Your Tongue” and it’s out via Portland label Tender Loving Empire this week. I don’t want to diminish that accomplishment because this is a strange time to be putting out new music.
Michell Winters: Yeah, for real. [Laughter]
Brenton Clarke: What do you mean?!
MW: It’s the perfect time!
BC: Elaborate! [Laughter]
JW: I’m curious, how have you adapted things for an album released during COVID-19 and social distancing? I mean, obviously, there are no release shows or tours or in-studio performances [to help promote it].
MW: I guess we’ve taken storm with our social media pretty much. That’s our main focus right now. Obviously, that’s all we have.
BC: It gave us a lot of time to do all the silly, fun things. We made a lot of music videos. It gave us a lot of time to hunker down and make the best record we could. So in a way, it was kind of a blessing to be able to just focus on this one thing we were able to do in our own little quarantine bubble.
JW: I understand part of the record was recorded after the pandemic began as well. What was that experience like in the studio?
MW: Well, Brenton and I— we kind of record pretty much wherever I’m living at the time or wherever Brenton is living at the time. We kind of just hunkered down….
BC: A lot of boxed wine.
MW: Yeah. [Laughter]
BC: You know, not being able to play the music live was super bizarre. Being completely isolated together, the only opinions we got on the project were our own.
JW: You worked with producer Cameron Spies, who some people might know from the now-defunct Portland band Radiation City. He’s an incredibly talented up and coming producer. You can hear his touch right off the bat with the first two songs, especially “Every little thing”. I love the textures that he adds to those tracks. How big of an impact did he have on the recording and the direction you took with this recording?
MW: A lot, actually. There was one song [on the record called “I’m Wasted”] that was [pretty fast] and he was like, ‘We should cut that in half and just do it at half time.’ …it’s funny listening to old recordings of that because it’s like a completely different song. But he was just like, ‘No, we gotta do something else with this’ and actually completely made the song way cooler and turned it into a single.
BC: That was super new for us. That was the first time we’ve had any outsider input on songwriting. The production definitely had some songwriting in it on. Usually, it’s just been myself and Mitchell.
JW: Over, the album is bright, and it’s filled with really slinky kind of offbeat r&b inspired pop sounds. But you mentioned “I’m Wasted”, it’s a big outlier. It has this brooding, dark, almost kind of Nine Inch Nails industrial quality to it. That really surprised me. Why did you take a sonic detour there?
MW: I don’t even really know, man. This whole album is kind of all over the place.
BC: I think this is going to be a classic case of when you find one song from a band that you love and then you check out their other music and it all sucks. This is that album. [Laughter]
MW: Hopefully not.
JW: One of my favorites on the album is the song “Slow Down”. It’s very sleek. Can you tell me about that song?
BC: Oh, can I? [Laughter]
MW: I don’t know, even know what to say. That song — I didn’t even think was going to make it on the album. But I know Brenton really liked that song and was pushing for it…
JW: Wait, Mitchell. Why were you not sure it was going to make it onto the record?
MW: I was not feeling it. So going into the studio with it, I was like, ‘There’s no way this song is going to make it. '
JW: And Brenton, you obviously feel differently.
BC: It’s actually kind of a running joke with the album. Any time that song gets brought up, I’m way aggressive about how much I like that song. I remember when we first listened to the demos of the record, we were driving around Portland and we were like ‘Wow, we’re really proud of this record.’ It’s some of the best, in my opinion, some of the best music we’ve ever made. And “Slow Down” came on] and it was 11 o’clock at night, a rainy night in Portland… It just made me feel really emotional. And for some reason, that moment sticks out in my head for recording this album.
JW: Well, I think that’s why I like it. It’s a mood piece. It feels like a rainy night in Portland.
I want to talk about Southern Oregon. You hail from Ashland. It’s a world class arts community, but it’s not necessarily associated with contemporary pop music. What does the music scene look like down there?
MW: I mean, back when I was in high school, it was like reggae. Everything was very kind of like white boy reggae, though not actual reggae eso That’s I remember growing up in like that’s all that there is here like That’s not I don’t listen to that, and I went toe listen, toe rock or pop.
JW: So making music for you is just a vehicle to change the music community?
MW: Kind of. And so we were able to try this whole indie scene or at least try to start an indie scene down here in southern Oregon. And it was going pretty good for a while. Then, obviously…
JW: Well, you hinted towards it, but arts communities around the country been dealing with COVID and social unrest. Southern Oregon was also ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires. Are you optimistic that things were going to recover?
MW: I’m optimistic. People are already kind of starting to move forward in the areas that got burnt down—two of our towns literally got burned down. But it’s starting to come back. Everyone’s starting to clean up. I think it’s more about the pandemic. No one could get together still. Even if nothing burned down, we still can’t go and play shows right now, unfortunately.
BC: I remember when we were first going through it all, we were like ‘Alright. Yeah, let’s play. Let’s practice anyway because we’ll be playing shows come August.’
MW: Yeah. ‘A couple of months from September, we’ll be playing shows.’
That didn’t happen.
JW: Well, I hope that optimism does not have a sell-by date.