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Downhaul on 'Welcome,' Squall and coming back home

Members of Downhaul laugh together in green lawn chairs.

Gordon Phillips and Andrew Seymour discuss the Richmond indie-rock band's new releases and directions.

Richmond's Downhaul has only been around for a few years, but they’re constantly evolving. Just after the May release of their EP Squall, they put out another new track on Tuesday called “Welcome,” returning to the theme of "home" that they’ve been grappling with throughout their career.

Ahead of the recording sessions for their next album, VPM Music caught up with members Gordon Phillips and Andrew Seymour to learn more about these new releases and new directions.

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Parnell: Downhaul has a new single out called “Welcome,” which you recently described as a "good song to punctuate the end of the summer." Tell us a little more about it.

Gordon Phillips: That song was part of a session that we did over a year ago, where we recorded all of Squall, “The Riverboat” and “Welcome” together. We did six songs. There’s that four-piece suite, Squall, and then “The Riverboat” and “Welcome” are both stand-alone singles. Andrew, how would you describe “Welcome?”

Andrew Seymour: I don't know. I think it's definitely, out of that whole session, the poppiest.

GP: It definitely has less reverb than we normally do. The guitars are bigger and chunkier than we usually do. I don't know if either of those were on purpose — it was just a song that I had written, and when everybody came to put their parts on it, that's how the arrangement came out. I think it's cool. I think it's different for us. I think it's pretty approachable, and not as dense or requiring commitment as some of our music can be.

I was going to ask about the relationship to Squall. It definitely seems like there's a sonic shift.

GP: I think we were working in the same headspace that we were for Proof, which is the last full-length we did. We had more ideas that we wanted to do there, with really spacey drum machines and keyboards and a lot of atmosphere. But then we also had these two songs that were poppy that we wanted to just have out and record and play when we could.

AS: In the studio, we made some minor changes so they’d sound different from Squall. I used brighter cymbals, we use some different guitars and whatnot. I think I used a different snare, too, if I remember correctly. It's been so long, though.

GP: Yeah, that was June of last year, like the longest we've ever had to sit and wait for music to come out. We're recording our third album in October — we’re working pretty hard on that now. And it's definitely different, so it was good to get these out of the system. 

“Welcome” has such a particular headspace attached to it. It feels very much like a hometown song.

GP: Definitely. A lot of people, their first time leaving home is going to college or moving out after high school otherwise. From that point on, when you go back and revisit your childhood home or one of your childhood homes, it feels like a yardstick. You come in, and you can feel how different it is since the last time. The first time I came home from college on Thanksgiving break, I remember being like, “Oh my gosh, what did I do when I lived here?”

You come back to a place where you spent a lot of time after encountering the world and growing and changing, and you look at it, and it’s just, “I don’t know if I know how to do this anymore.” It’s that stretch of your college years and your postgrad years where returning to places you used to be is such a weird feeling.

AS: I know in my experience, my family moved away from where I grew up when I was growing up — they moved after I was pretty much done with college. And so when I do go back to visit, because I still have family there and some friends, the separation feels even more different because the connections I did have are gone. That's what I think about when I hear [“Welcome”] is those moments in time, like holidays and special occasions, that all change because the people who were there aren't there anymore.

Speaking of changing relationships with home — I recently read an interview that you guys did a few years ago around [the 2019 release] Tornado Season that also dealt with this theme. How would you say your relationship with that subject has changed?

GP: We thought about calling Squall "Tornado Season 2." That was another one where we were between albums, and we wanted to experiment with some stuff. There's two new songs on Tornado Season: one is “Leverage." "That's kind of where Proof came from. But the other song is “Walking Distance,” and if I really think about it, I think that's where our next album might be headed.

Tornado Season was definitely also about South Stafford. Things have happened in my personal life that have endeared the area to me more since then, so I would say my relationship has improved, at least in my own head. I'm much more willing to go there and hang out than I was five years ago. But I think those two things are definitely thematically connected. Maybe I should do some soul searching: Between our two biggest swings, I go back to this same headspace.

AS: I didn't join the band until right when we were working on Proof, but I was a little bit of a fan prior to that. But in my experience with seeing those paths of home, it's very much for me on the “Leverage” end, talking about “the fact is, you don't fit this place anymore.”

Where I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley — Broadway, Virginia, to be exact — now that I've grown up, and the friends that I still have have either moved here to Richmond with me or they've moved elsewhere, the times I do have to go back to see family or friends, it's very much like, “OK, this isn't for me anymore. It's not what I fit in.” So I resonate with that component of Gordon's writing.

What does that writing process look like?

GP: I think I am a little more of a control freak than I would like to be. I usually will write a full song, then demo it out and then add digital instruments to it. And then I’ll send that to the band, and I'll be like, “This is what I want. You guys can all do whatever you want with it, but as I was writing it, this is how I heard it fleshing out.”

And there's like some things that I will think to myself, “No, this has to be there.” But Andrew is so good at part writing and dynamics and things like that, that he'll put all the stuff I want in there, and then he'll still do his own little flair.

In the second verse of “Welcome,” I had a pretty straight backbeat through the second verse, and Andrew added this little tom accent. It sounds so good in there, and I didn't think of it, but he still preserved the feel that I had. That's one of the things that makes them really good as a bandmate.

AS: To come to Gordon's defense about him feeling that he's too much of a control freak, he was gracious enough to let me write a vocal part on “Sink” where I was hearing a counter-melody. He let me go in and do that, and I just kind of cranked it out. So it is it is a little more democratic than he would like to let on.

GP: Yeah. But with that in mind, on this new album we're working on, I left some totally blank parts for Andrew to write vocal parts and add his own thing. That's a cool dimension that we had not done before.

You almost called it "Tornado Season 2," but Squall is also a storm term. It seems like there are a lot of storms throughout this EP — is that another symbol you’re fond of?

GP: My two big ones are weather events and bodies of water. When either of those two things happen, you’re outside your routine. A number of the songs on Proof were body of water–inspired, written when I was at the beach, or a river or a lake house or something like that. When I'm in those situations, I feel very creative and energized; creatively stimulated. It just gets you thinking outside of your normal routine and your normal thought processes.

I think weather events are similar, because I just love when it rains and love when there's a big storm. “Eyesight” is a weather event and body of water song; “Lately” is a beach house song. I'm sure there are more — all of Squall is about weather events, basically.

It's a blending of the emotional and physical as well — the songs have such a heavy emotional weight, and then there's a literal storm happening in the background. There's a literal, physical injury that's being tracked.

GP: The storm [on Squall] was a happy accident. There was a big storm the last day of that session, and we realized that the studio we were working in was picking up the storm outside. I think in some situations, that can ruin somebody's session, because if you're trying to do vocals or acoustic guitar or something like that, it's not good. But we were in a good place in terms of progress, and we just put all the microphones on and pushed record for a while, and then used that in two or three parts on Squall.

You mentioned working on a new album. What can you tell me about it?

GP: It is all written, all demoed. I was listening to the demos this morning. I think it’s going to be our most natural-sounding album. We’ve played something like 200 shows, and we have gotten pretty comfortable playing with each other. We have a new bassist and he's an amazing musician, and he slid right in and didn't lose any momentum with how good our live show is, which I was really excited about. A big touchstone for me is capturing how the band sounds.

A lot of Proof and Squall, there's a whole bunch of sound engineering going on and layering and little effects and feedback and reverb. And I love all that stuff — I think that really showcases our strengths as composers and arrangers. But I think that it sold us short a little bit on how good we are as just a band. So what I really want to prioritize with this next album is capturing what our band sounds like.

It's really short. It's 10 songs, but right now it's, like, 25 minutes long. The shortest songs we've ever done. And a lot of it is because sometimes when I go see Andrew’s other band Cyber Twin, they do short songs, and I find myself really enjoying the short songs and really enjoying the energy. You can play a lot more songs live if your songs are short. I think that's really cool.

Cyber Twin can set up and play nine songs in the same set length where Downhaul would play five. I think people are going to call it more country than our other stuff, which is what I meant by saying that “Walking Distance” is the path. Andrew’s singing more on it. Chandler is going to be singing some on it, hopefully.

AS: I don't know what it's going to be like when we track, but Cyber Twin just finished tracking an EP a little while back, and we did it all pretty much live and then just overdubbed on top of it. I feel like it’s probably going to be a similar route. It doesn’t necessarily have to be live, but seeing each other in the room, playing together, I think is a powerful component.

GP: And we're recording it with an engineer we haven't tried before, a local guy. So that's going to be a new dimension. We're super excited, and hopefully it won't take us as long to get it out. [Laughs.]

“Welcome” and Squall by Downhaul are available now.

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