The Duskwhales talk about their new album, Sorrowful Mysteries
All photos courtesy of The Duskwhales.
I’ve been a fan of The Duskwhales since their very first show. From the start, their strong melodies and lush, old-school vocal harmonies set them apart from most other contemporary rock and pop artists. Those virtues have only grown since they formed in 2010 (when most of the band were still in high school), and in that time the indie rock trio has built a deservedly large fanbase in the greater Washington, D.C. area, due equally to the energy they put into every live performance no matter how many people are in the room.
I’ve had the privilege of watching The Duskwhales grow as a band, as professional musicians, and as individual instrumentalists over the past seven years. Their recently-released fourth album, Sorrowful Mysteries, is a true milestone, and not just because they’ve now fully transitioned from being a quartet with bass to an organ-heavy trio. I’ve heard them playing many of these songs live for the past three years, but when I heard those same songs on the album, there were a great many surprises in store. Much of this is due to Sorrowful Mysteries being their first album recorded in a professional studio. The sound is bigger and warmer, the vocal harmonies are richer, and the instrumental arrangements are more intricate than ever before.
As the album title indicates, another thing setting The Duskwhales apart is their Catholicism—and more than that, that they wear their Catholic faith openly while playing primarily for secular audiences. As keyboardist Brian Majewski puts it, “We don’t play ‘Christian music’, we just play our music, but we happen to be influenced by this thing that’s most important in our life—that’s our faith.” On Holy Saturday, and in the early stages of their ongoing East Coast tour, the band found time to sit down with me over Skype to discuss their music and their faith.
Listen to the whole conversation here, or read some of the highlights below.
The entirety of Sorrowful Mysteries can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp.
Dates and tickets for The Duskwhales’ ongoing East Coast tour can be found at their website.
On their influences for the new album:
Seth Flynn (guitar, lead vocals): “To prep for the album each day, for vocal recording, Chris and I would drive in and sing through most of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. And then at that time, I was also and still am listening to a lot of Big Star, which is a really cool power-pop band from the 70s.”
Brian Majewski (keyboards): “When we started writing these songs was around the time that we started playing cover shows where we’d play a lot of Beatles, so we were learning a lot of Beatles songs, and so I think that was really influencing our songwriting. I was still listening to a lot of The Doors, but then I also started listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye, and then also Diana Ross. So the 70s soul organ was influencing a lot of the writing of the songs, at least for my parts in the songs.”
Chris Baker (drums): “I think certain tracks have very clear correlations to specific bands and eras. ‘Devil’s Daughter’ is very much a tribute to the New Wave sort of sound—Joy Division, and it has that sort of David Bowie rip-off at the beginning. Likewise, ‘In the Year of Jubilee’ is very much Queen-influenced in the guitar solo and the shape of the melody. ‘Friday the 13th’ is very reminiscent of Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon.”
On how they add new parts to their songs over time, and why many of their recent songs have whole new sections at the end rather than a more conventional verse-chorus structure:
Brian: “What’s really interesting about this album, as opposed to previous albums, is that we had been playing these songs for a really long time before we recorded them.”
Seth: “We pretty much toured our self-titled album playing these songs.”
Brian: “So some of these songs are kind of old, so I don’t know if it was just a mixture or we would come up with new ideas, or we would get bored with the old way of how the songs were… For ‘Devil’s Daughter’ for instance, for a long time that song didn’t have the last 30 seconds–”
Chris: “Or the first 30 seconds!”
Brian: “Something about it, we were just jamming, and we were just like, ‘you know what, it’d be fun if we just changed it up and threw this in there,’ and then it became part of the song. I think mostly because we had been playing the songs for so long we were able to keep adding to them.”
Chris: “We just kind of got tired of playing the songs the same way live.”
Seth: “But also we felt that they needed to develop. The songs’ structures changed, and with structures changing came new things that were often better.”
On the experience of being in a professional studio for the first time, and the influence of producer Mark Reiter:
Chris: “Mark had lots of ideas we would never have thought of in the mixing process, trying out difference sonic textures, using different amps or keyboards…”
Brian: “Harmonizing a guitar solo.”
Seth: “It’s very special because I don’t get to do that live… He bought a specific amp for me to use that I think I used only a few times on the album.”
Chris: “We used three different drum kits and maybe like eight or nine different ride cymbals. Every song we switched out elements of the drum kit so it had a different sound. Two different basses we used, and there’s a baritone guitar on one of them.”
Seth: “I’d track vocals on one mic for one part, and then he’d switch that mic out and use a different mic to get a different texture.”
Brian: “It was really nice to be able to be like, ‘OK, this would be really cool if we used that B3 organ you’ve got in the other room, with the Leslie speaker,’ and we were able to use a really nice Wurlitzer electric piano, and the grand piano, so it was really nice having all that stuff. At the same time, there’s also this strange pressure of being in a really nice studio where you feel like everything you do has to be the most important thing at that moment so you’re not wasting time in the studio.”
Chris: “There comes the point where you make the song have so many elements and layers that in order to compete with it the other songs have to have as much sonic thickness. So it can be cool because we’ve never really done something like that before, so we definitely wanted to have a big studio production, but because it took so long to finish the album [about three years], by the time it was done, I’d almost gotten to the point where I wasn’t as interested in pursuing that kind of a really intense studio sound. I think we definitely want to switch, strip things back, and do a really simple kind of a sound.”
From left to right: Seth Flynn, Chris Baker, Brian Majewski.
On the inspiration for the album title, Sorrowful Mysteries:
Brian: “We’ve grown a devotion to the Sorrowful Mysteries primarily because we had started getting into the habit of, when we would drive a long distance, to pray the rosary together as a band, and it usually ended up being on a Friday night, when we’d have a gig that was far away…so we always ended up praying the Sorrowful Mysteries together. [Naming the album that] was actually Seth’s idea...
It really fits with the theme we were going for, too. First of all, you have to point out that there are ten tracks, so it’s like a decade already. But the theme of the album was kind of a coming-of-age thing, where each song we’re talking about different trials that you experience as a youth coming into adulthood, and in that is sort of a sorrowful mystery of itself. There’s a lot of sorrows in growing up, and it’s a very confusing time, very mysterious time.”
Seth: “Giving it the name Sorrowful Mysteries, I feel like our lives got so much heavier, like God was like, ‘Oh, you want to call the album Sorrowful Mysteries? Here, let me drop some sorrow on you…. And, like, tons of mysteries.’”
Brian: “I had kind of the opposite experience. I experienced it as, we are now giving this as a gift to Mary, and then it started to affect every aspect of my life in that I need to just start giving everything to Mary. And things got a lot more joyful for me, actually, than sorrowful.”
Seth: “I’m not saying the sorrow is bad!”
Brian: “Sorrow pushes you forward, rather than despair, which grounds you in one spot.”
Chris: “Even though it’s called Sorrowful Mysteries, most of the songs are very upbeat. It starts with ‘Good Times’ and ends with ‘I Know Where My Good Luck Is’, so the juxtaposition of it being called Sorrowful Mysteries and then being bookended by these really happy songs… The album is about figuring out what it’s like to experience extreme sorrow, but also definitely addresses how you can cope with that sorrow, which we said is just to start a band, do what you love.
We definitely dedicated this one to Mary, and specifically Our Lady of Sorrows.”
Brian: “We’ve got at the bottom [of the inside cover] Mater dolorosa, ora pro nobis, and this line from ‘Whirl’ is actually really cool:
Smoke rings blow over me
Singing your rosary
Mary go round and round
Which kind of perfectly explains your life being a sorrowful mystery with dedication to Mary. ‘Mary go round and round’ is a perfect way to describe the Rosary, because you’re just going around these beads saying the Hail Mary, and it also kind of feels like it’s going on forever, and sometimes you don’t know where it’s going, and you’re just stuck in the whirl, which is the name of the song.”
Chris: “The idea of singing the rosary, and getting stuck in that cycle of just going on and on and the mystery of it all, and not being able to figure out what it’s all about, but you just kinda have to keep doing it, which I think is a big part of prayer in general, just… faith.”
Note the corresponding shapes on the front and inside cover of Sorrowful Mysteries.
On playing music with Catholic imagery and themes for a secular audience, and being a Catholic band on the road:
Brian: “Every once in a while someone will ask us, ‘Are you guys a Christian band?’ And our response to that is, by definition, no, we’re not, because we don’t play ‘Christian music’, we just play our music, but we happen to be influenced by this thing that’s most important in our life—that’s our faith.
You really have to practice the presence of God when you’re at these rock’n’roll shows, ‘cause sometimes you almost forget that you’re there with Jesus. I don’t know if it’s because of all the noise, or just all of the secularism, but you have to almost mentally prepare before you walk in there, that I’m walking in with Jesus. It’s really easy, though, to be in a band with the three of us being Catholic, because we’re all supporting each other and holding each other accountable, so there’s no chance of us doing any risqué behavior that is often promoted. We all trust each other and know that nothing like that’s ever going to happen.”
Chris: “Especially this past week, we started our tour—it wasn’t necessarily planned this way—during Holy Week…so it was kind of cool promoting the Sorrowful Mysteries during this time…. We played a show last night on Good Friday, and ended up playing a set around three o’clock or four.”
Brian: “We started at four P.M., Good Friday, and I was pretty happy about that because I kinda feel uncomfortable playing this music at three. That’s what we were supposed to do, but they ended up pushing it back so we didn’t start until four o’clock. I had mentioned during the show that an hour ago Christ died, and a couple people in the audience laughed, and it was like… I really liked that I made them uncomfortable.”
Chris: “Another thing about being on the road and experiencing stuff is that you really get a sense of the extreme generosity and kindness of random strangers and the bands that you meet and the people that you meet…who’ve just offered us places to stay and food and everything. We’ve made really great friendships, so I think that’s been a really big part of the Catholic experience of being on the road… You definitely see Christ in others in a very special way.”
On ending the album with the lines Start a band with your friends/It’s not hard to begin again:
Brian: “We’ve always been of the opinion that everybody, at some point, should be in a band. Particularly in high school, you should learn an instrument and you should join a band, because you learn so much about being in a relationship, and a whole slew of things… you could go on forever about all the things you learn being in a band, but particularly the relationship skills, how to put other people before yourself… That’s really something crucial to be sane in a band, is that you have to constantly be reminding yourself that you are there to serve the other people in the band rather than them be there to serve you. And that really helps you expound creatively.”
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