Double Ewes build a new brain
An update on the Madison/Janesville band's in-the-works recordings and evolving live setup.
The Madison/Janesville trio Double Ewes pulled off subtle feats of multi-textured production on their 2014 self-titled debut album, building songs around Whilden Hughes’ looped guitar parts, and Max Jewer’s electronic drum programming, and Jeremy Nealis’ synth work. It’s not that this mix of sounds was unprecedented—especially on a song like “Deck Echoes,” Double Ewes reminds one of a pretty good Califone record—but the songwriting made the elements flow together with an unlikely grace. The band might be combining disparate elements—electronic production, folky (if delay-soaked) vocal melodies, post-rock guitar swells—but there’s never a distracting sense of incongruity here.
The band has been laying pretty low since 2014, playing the occasional show and making a new album that still doesn’t have a title yet. Hughes works on a farm near Janesville, Jewer balances Double Ewes with garage-punk trio The Minotaurs and oddball hip-hop project SPKRS, and Nealis was until recently busy finishing up school, so progress has been gradual. But they’ll be playing almost entirely new material at a March 3 show at Mickey’s Tavern, and showcasing a new setup that attempts to straddle the structural benefits of electronic gear with the freedom of live experimentation.
Hughes, Jewer, and Nealis met with me at their North Side practice space this week to talk about where the band is going and play me a few in-the-works tracks from the upcoming album. I can’t claim to sum up what the new record will be like based on just that, of course, but what I heard from Jewer’s monitor speakers suggested that Double Ewes are making good on their goal for this album—expanding the band’s sound, putting it in a space that just feels sonically bigger, and incorporating a lot of elements that wouldn’t have fit within the first album. Here’s a part of our conversation, covering some of the new material and the importance of the new setup Double Ewes have been creating over the past couple of years.
Tone Madison: Last year, you mentioned that your new record would be more collaborative. Who all have you been working with outside of the band?
Max Jewer: We were using some live drums. Jeremy's friend Eric Simmons did some live drums on a track. We've been playing a little bit trying to find somebody to do percussion stuff and try to work that into the setup without sacrificing what we do, I guess, because we use a lot of electronic drums and stuff. We want that to kind of stay the backbone.
Whilden Hughes: But other than that, we haven't done too much collaboration.
Max Jewer: Yeah, I think we had plans to do it and it kind of just ended up working within ourselves again for the most part.
Tone Madison: You played me a new track, "You're The Only One I Can See," and it's an interesting track because it basically just takes one theme and progression over and over again and finds a bunch of ways to layer it.
Max Jewer: Yeah, it's a very hypnotic kind of—it's got kind of a Sigur Ros feel to me with the electronic drums, so a little more in-your-face.
Whilden Hughes: I guess it's sort of a meditation that if you can only see one thing, you can only say one thing. [Laughs] Like, you're it, that's it. I guess I really do sort of consider it an instrumental.
Max Jewer: [Whilden's vocal part] is like a vocal sample.
Tone Madison: The organ sound on this track is really warm and buzzing. It's not something I would have expected to hear on the first Double Ewes album.
Max Jewer: Yeah. The first one is more a lot of vocal samples and things were built around those, or kind of found sounds reimagine, and this one is a little more guitar-based, loop-based, and more layered, definitely.
Tone Madison: How have you been changing in the way that you play together and write together?
Max Jewer: It's partly equipment. We got some '80s MIDI gear that locks everything together. I'm looping bass parts, Jeremy's got some cool new equipment too. We're just kind of locking everything together into this giant brain. That's changed the way that we jam a little bit, for sure.
Whilden Hughes: It really has been probably a three-year process of building this. It's a rig that I've never seen or heard of. It's kind of this dream we had and we've slowly been putting pieces towards it, and now we're just getting to the point where we've built this ship and we're finally ready to steer it. There was a lot of trial and error—a lot of just error. We really had nothing to go by.
Max Jewer: We kind of just hooked things together until we figured out how to make them do what we wanted.
Whilden Hughes: And now we're really comfortable with it and sort of finally found our element a little bit with that stuff. And now we're just—
Max Jewer: Trying to take that process and turn it into an album, basically. Yeah, it's been different than the first time around. The first time, some of the songs were just built around vocal loops and drum patterns, and we took those into the studio and kind of arranged things out. This time around, it's more collaborative between us, I guess. A lot of the stuff [on the last album], Willie had been playing since Double Ewes was a solo project and we were kind of adapting that. This time around, it's been more of a full-band process.
Tone Madison: With this new setup, is there an aspect of using the electronic components to tie everything together, but also leave room for experimentation?
Max Jewer: Yeah. It lets you be comfortable. For me on bass, it means I can play a simple bass line, and I can loop it, and everything is going to stay perfectly together forever, and I can do more drum programming or vocal stuff, or I can solo on top of that. All of us can take pieces out and put them back together without things getting weird.
Whilden Hughes: It's become almost really modular in a way. You can start a song with certain aspects and you can add and develop that idea, and by the end of it, you can take what was in the beginning and remove all of that, and what you created in the process is still this linear thing that all flows. And then if you want to incorporate stuff from the beginning back in again or mix and match or play the song in complete reverse, it's all there.
Max Jewer: And to be able to do that live, reliably, from show to show, without things being really chaotic, is hard. I see a lot of people—just on the road, I went to this house party after a show, and it was amazing what they were doing, they had a lot of loop pedals, and it was really cool, but two or three times everything just sort of drifted and got really weird and they had to stop and apologize and kind of fight with each other a little bit [laughs], and then they would get it back together.
Jeremy Nealis: And it gives us more freedom than just having a laptop or something with all our drum loops and pieces on it. We've got two drum machines and a sampler and some other stuff, and they can be played independent of each other, but when they're all together, they form one complete thought. It gives us all an opportunity to experiment and change it up, instead of just one person being in charge of the computer and we have to use set patterns that are going a certain way. We can experiment, but it's all tempo-synced.
Max Jewer: It would be really easy to do what we're doing on a laptop. Even one person could do it, but it would be so boring. It's like we're almost trying to do an Ableton Live DJ set, but with three people—
Whilden Hughes: With all hardware.
Max Jewer: With all hardware. [Everyone laughs]
Jeremy Nealis: Right, like I have an iPad, but that's not even—
Max Jewer: You're not even sequencing with that.
Jeremy Nealis: And I'm not even tempo-synced to you guys [with the iPad]. I just use it because I can get nice keyboard sounds on it.
Tone Madison: Whereas when you're using loop pedals and stuff, those are great, but you have to have really good timing to keep it from falling apart!
Max Jewer: Exactly. This lets us take the structures of what we have and play around with them, too.
Jeremy Nealis: It gives us a little wiggle room to improvise, too, live. Our songs are constantly changing and I feel like that might be another reason we've been working on this album for so long. We get so comfortable in one way, and then we play it a different way and go, "Oh, that sounds cool, maybe we should try that."
Tone Madison: You had a track on a Toothtaker compilation last year called "Easy." Where does that one fit in this whole evolution?
Max Jewer: That track is probably not going to end up on the album. Or if it does, it's already been modified pretty heavily. It's gonna be a much different version.
Whilden Hughes: We just really liked the Toothtaker stuff and wanted to be a part of it. That was kind of a throwaway track we had, and we didn't really think it was going to get accepted or if it was quite the sound they were looking for, but we played a show at Mickey's and then a few days later we heard that they were going to do it. I don't know if the show had anything to do with it or what.
Max Jewer: That song was kind of a funk experiment, almost. That one's a fun one to play.
Whilden Hughes: It's fun to play live. It has a nice energy to it.
Max Jewer: But as things have kind of congealed, we've been cutting old stuff out and just trying to get a more cohesive vibe.
Jeremy Nealis: I think that's part of the reason we gave it to them, because it's like, this is a fun track but we don't know if this fits the vibe we're going for with the album. So that was a fun way to release it.
Tone Madison: What are you going for as far as lyrical themes on this album?
Whilden Hughes: I think it comes to the theme of distillation, and coming out of the tunnel and looking back into it, and seeing where you were at a certain point, and writing from the perspective of, I've moved beyond certain themes or certain people or certain themes of my life and I've gained wisdom from it, but at the same time it was difficult. So, almost contemplation of sad times, with pride. That's kind of the overarching theme. Coming to a conclusion or a realization—sort of almost every song has that theme.