Slow Pulp: Chicago group’s stunning debut navigates trauma and haunted studios

Slow Pulp's debut album 'Moveys' is the sound of a band overcoming setbacks, traumas, and even a haunted recording session, and emerging with a record of healing and beauty, says Patrick Clarke

If you look closely, the long, difficult story of Slow Pulp’s debut album ‘Moveys’ is told in the gorgeously animated visuals for their single ‘Falling Apart’. Atop a sweetly melancholy song we see frontwoman Emily Massey as a ballerina on a music box which falls to the ground and breaks, a reference to the back injury aged 17 that ended her lifelong dream of professional ballet. We see ticks crawl across the bottom of the screen, a reference to the serious bout of Lyme disease and chronic mono that had a debilitating effect on her mental and physical health last year.

We also see cars, traffic lights and what look like medical diagrams, recalling a serious road accident suffered by her parents just days before lockdown. With her mother requiring invasive surgery and facing a long recovery, Massey left the band’s Chicago base for their native Madison, Wisconsin in order to care for them.

“I think it did come to represent all the times my life in the past few years felt like it was crumbling to nothingness,” says frontwoman Emily Massey with considerable understatement, speaking on a Zoom call with her three bandmates Teddy Matthews, Henry Stoehr and Alex Leeds. “You have such a sense of feeling immortal when you’re a teenager or in your 20s. Then all of a sudden something happens to you that you just can’t control, and it puts you into a different mindset. But it looks beautiful, so there’s that!”

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There were, to put it lightly, a lot of obstacles between Slow Pulp and the release of their debut album, not least the COVID-19 pandemic which left Massey stranded in Wisconsin with her parents, away from the rest of the group, with the vast majority of work still to be completed. Nevertheless, they turned the situation to their advantage. “Having the record to work on during this period was very healing in a lot of ways, it helped me process a lot of the trauma I was experiencing,” she says. “It was a welcome distraction too, from all the other stuff.”

“She had gone back because of the car accident,” Leeds adds. “At this point we were like, this record is not the priority any more, but Emily just totally snapped and did it!”

Massey recorded all her vocals from her parents’ house. Meanwhile Stoehr, who heads up the band’s production, had just been laid off from his day job due to the virus and “all of a sudden had an unbelievable amount of time,” he recalls. “Most of the songs were pretty bare bones until lockdown started, but this was the first opportunity we’d ever had to just try a lot of different things and see what clicks. The game on this album was ‘how do we flesh this out and create a sonic environment that’s a little more complicated.’ So we figured out the essence of the recordings together, and then I spent a lot of time at home building the world that they exist in.”

The result is a record that is packed with a thousand deft little flourishes of texture which together add up to a deeply entrancing whole. The way the delicate arpeggios of opener ‘New Horse’ grow gracefully into something altogether more psychedelic as Massey’s vocals are looped and reversed around each other, or the thin but gorgeous violin melody that sweeps along in the background of ‘Falling Apart’. ‘Trade It’ begins as a charmingly low-key indie-rock track, until a jagged counter-melody suddenly injects its second half with transporting gothic drama.

Though they were physically far apart and facing personal crises, ‘Moveys’ brought Slow Pulp closer together. “We really found our sound with this record,” says Massey. Perhaps even more importantly, “something really clicked between us when we started working on it. Writing became a lot more natural and a lot more collaborative.” Its predecessor the ‘Big Day’ EP was her first as the leader, after first joining as an occasional vocalist, sessions for which were somewhat calamitous.

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Slow Pulp
Credit: Dallas Thompson

Firstly, the cabin they hired to work on it was haunted. “We all slept in sleeping bags next to each other on the living room floor even though there were four bedrooms upstairs,” Massey laughs. “We’d heard all the ghost stories about the bedrooms, so we really just stayed in one single room for five days. It was horrible. I remember at one point the guys went grocery shopping while I just sat in the bathroom and cried.

“We had set out to make a full-length album,” she continues, “but at that point writing just seemed like a strenuous process. A lot of things felt forced,  it wasn’t happening naturally. It wasn’t making me feel good. And it was also a time that I generally wasn’t feeling up to par, mentally or physically. We had a really strict timeline that we put on it and we were just not meeting the marks”

Afterwards, they again set out to make their debut album, but progress remained fragmented. Throughout last year, Massey found herself struggling with what would be diagnosed that September as Lyme disease. “I had been spending the year very tired and depressed and confused,” she recalls. “A big part of the reason we were scrapping songs was that I just couldn’t finish them. I was sleeping all day, every day. I know it was frustrating for everyone.”

The diagnosis of Lyme, however, would be a crucial turning point. Once the disease was identified Massey could take the appropriate steps to look after her health. Simultaneously, she found that “songwriting clicked in a whole new way. I suddenly had the energy to do it that I didn’t have before. It became a parallel journey of working on the record and working on my personal health, and the two influencing each other.”

That sense of revitalisation flowed through the rest of the band too. They began to trust each other more and write more collaboratively, leading to the sense of artfulness and craft that now defines them. “We’d build songs up more communally, sending each other chords and melody ideas to build up the song, as opposed to what we’d been doing before which was, to put it bluntly, making full songs then trying to paste a vocal on top,” says Stoehr.

‘Moveys’ is a record that bears the scars of the many traumas that Slow Pulp endured in its making, from car crashes to debilitating diseases, and it’s often melancholy and occasionally despairing. On ‘Falling Apart’, Massey sounds at war with herself. At one point she tells herself, ‘You have got to step up / Show that you can be enough.’ Moments later, she slips back into misery: ‘Why don’t you go back to falling apart? / You were so good at that.’

Above all however, that song, and the entirety of the album, represents the sound of healing, a process that, though prone to setbacks, finds Slow Pulp invigorated. “I think there’s a lot of really sad subject matter on the album, but I think for the first time I had a mentality of ‘things can change and things can get better,’ whereas before I felt stuck, like it’s gonna be like this forever and I have to accept it,” Massey concludes. “It was a shift in believing in myself that I hadn’t had in a really long time.”

Slow Pulp’s debut album ‘Moveys’ is out now

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