Conversation w/ Deep Sea Diver
The following conversation was conducted on Tuesday, January 31 with Jessica Dobson (vocals, guitar) of Deep Sea Diver/The Shins.
Since we talked last in 2010, there’s been a lot of change in your life both personally and professionally. Biggest, I suppose, is the move from California to Seattle, WA. How has that been?
I don’t think about much because I love Seattle so much and California, in a way, felt like a bad relationship. Things are going well for us here both day-to-day and musically. Now there seems to be this great exodus for Long Beach bands whether it be to New York, Los Angeles, or here.
Another big addition is becoming a member of The Shins! How did that come about?
I think what happened… [pause] it’s funny because I don’t really understand it all [laughs]. I wasn’t pursuing playing with anyone else and more than ever I was focusing on Deep Sea Diver and getting the record finished. We had started it in July 2010 and a year later, we were trying to get the new tracks finished so I was pretty surprised when I got a call from The Shins camp. I think my name was brought up because of [playing] with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I think James picked up on that and I knew the others that are in the band as well. It was a very communal process.
Did you have any inclusion into The Shins’ new album at all?
Most of the record was finished when I came in. There was a new song he brought to us which we re-arranged but it didn’t end up making the record. Most of what we’ve done is re-working stuff for the live set, figuring out our strengths and how we can contribute to making these songs come alive.
Perhaps the biggest musically-related accomplishment though may be the completion and release of your debut full length History Speaks. Can you give us the details on the album?
Joining The Shins definitely sped up the process, for the best, of releasing this record. I knew I was leaving in March to go out with The Shins so it kind of forced us to have a January/February release which was great because I think we needed that push.
We’re self-releasing the record and I’m really interested to see where that goes. There is so much I’ve learned from having a plethora of amazing friends and contacts [in music]. We are going to get distribution for this record whether that is through a label or us pushing it ourselves; there’s no holding back on this record. It’s also not going to hurt being on the road with The Shins to get the word out. It’s going be a really busy year between both projects. I care so much about this record and plan on doing whatever it takes to get it out to the masses.
That was actually my first thought when I heard you had officially joined The Shins. It’s really great to see your name in popular music blogs, such as Pitchfork, as a byline to The Shins. I’m sure that will help cement the name in people’s minds.
I should probably start a Wikipedia; it’s about that time [laughs]. I’ll have a friend write it and make up a bunch of total lies about me.
Something like: “At the age of 3, she was a guitar virtuoso; playing strings with her teeth before she could walk!” [both laugh]
So you’ve been working as an artist under the Deep Sea Diver moniker, among others, for quite a while. How far back does the material on History Speaks go?
If I remember right, the oldest song was ‘Why Must A Man Change’ and the newest was ‘History Speaks’ written in October of 2011. So the span of [the material] is from early 2010 to late 2011. It’s interesting to note the timeline of these songs and hear the collaborative effort behind them. ‘Why Must A Man Change’ was just me sitting down with an acoustic guitar, writing everything in one sitting and then bringing it to Peter [Mansen] on drums and John [Raines] on bass. Then songs like ‘Ships’ and ‘History Speaks’ were more of a collaboration; just capturing the moment with no inhibitions. It’s interesting to see what formed from songs that were my babies, my projects. They weren’t ostensibly far from my [ideas] but uncomfortably so, for me.
It took a lot for me to hand over the reins collaboratively because for so long it was just me playing guitar, drums, bass… everything. Once I decided to work with other people, it was scary. For example, the song ‘You Go Running’ was a melody I had in my head for a long time. It was just that melody but then John and Peter started playing this Talking Heads-esque rhythm over it and I actually hated it at first. I didn’t trust it and wasn’t pushing myself to put a vocal line over it… continually second guessing that song. Now it ended up the single and I love it. I’m so happy we didn’t toss it.
You’ve had a stable cast with Peter and John around you since you began work on the album so does it finally feel like it’s a three-piece versus just you and a rotating cast as it was for so long?
Yeah, I do feel that way. It would usually start with just Peter and me in a room, very White Stripes kind of thing, on either piano and drums or guitar and drums then John would come in and throw his bass line on.
I used to be married to the idea that bass should be very simple, tasteful; the less notes the better. But he’s such an interesting bass player. He is so the opposite of that! His melody lines are as key as the chorus lines or my guitar lines. They’re integral to the song; without them they’re not the same. He adds such a unique color to the music
Yeah, I would definitely agree. I also recently noticed that you had a songwriting credit on Delta Spirit’s debut album…
Yeah, on ‘Strange Vine.’
So I was wondering if anyone outside the band helped out with this batch of songs?
There wasn’t anything to that degree but Dustin from The Fling came in and sang some background vocals. There are a few little things like that. I love writing with Matt [Vasquez of Delta Spirit/Middle Brother] but he was really busy this past year. There’s nothing on this record like that but I’m not opposed to it at all. Actually, more than ever I want to collaborate with people outside of Deep Sea Diver. Bryan John Appleby, who I just got off tour with, and I plan on doing some stuff later this year. I really want these next few years to be saturated with new things like split EPs… it’s almost like I’m catching up to what I always wished I whould’ve done with our music. It’s funny to say that this is our first full length when it should be our third or something. I don’t regret anything though; I’d just like to catch up.
How did you decide on Matt [Wignall] as a producer and what influence did he play in the sound of the album?
He is a good friend of ours and is the craziest renaissance… [pause] guru… he’s such a weirdo and I love him [laughs]. We started recording at his studio and at first he would just hear what we were playing, peek his head in and add a few elements or opinions. It was a take-it-or-leave-it style and we’d just say “okay, thanks Matt!” But I think he was hungry to do something because the last thing I think he did was the Cold War Kids EP which we thought he did a really great job on. It was really just staring us in the face: we like what he does, all our gear is here; let’s press record! We did the record mostly to tape which was great. It was a co-production kind of thing.
One aspect I noticed about the track list and liked, among many others, is its succinctness. Maybe it’s the old man in me but over the past few years I’ve really grown to enjoy records albums that just get straight to the point. Did you set out with that in mind?
Once I finished the song ‘History Speaks,’ which was the last one, [the record] felt complete and not lacking at all. There was other material we could’ve worked on but it was so far down the process and I felt great about the state the record was in so I made that call to put out it [as is]. There’s such a great tension that runs through the record and it covers a lot of ground in 37-38 minutes. I didn’t think anything else needed to be added. I also wanted to leave more material to release later.
I was familiar with some of the material on the record already but of the new ones, ‘The Green Line’ really jumped out at me. Can you tell me about the formation/process of that song?
At the time, I was listening to a lot of Nick Cave’s [album] No More Shall We Part and a lot of other ballads. It was the last song I wrote in Long Beach before I moved [to Seattle] and at the time, there were a lot of things falling apart in my life. I sing “this is your harmony” in the chorus; that lyric wasn’t me necessarily trying to escape but instead trying to remember the most harmonious times in my life and trying to capture that. It was almost written as if I lived in the boonies of Brooklyn watching a train pass by… a very romantic but sad song.
Not to say your voice has ever been hidden behind the music but musically the song is so sparse that it left the vocals front-and-center… it emoted such a vulnerable mood.
It was hard for me. At times, it felt too bare. The live arrangement is much fuller but [on record] I second guessed if it was too minimalist or too honest… but I love, love how it came out. The strings are so lush when they enter and then just disappear. It’s a really special song.
Are there any other themes that run through the album?
It’s funny because Matt Wignall isn’t a full-blown conspiracy theorist but he listens to a lot of Alex Jones on libertarian talk radio. We could constantly get into conversation about new world order and where we’re heading in America; a lot of dystopian themes. I would go to bed dreaming about apocalyptic things [laughs]. ‘NWO’ came out of those [conversations].
I love the idea of being at peace in the midst of absolute chaos. Not to say the song is as good as but it’s comparable to The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ where he sings “London is burning and I live by the river.” I went with the theme of not getting caught up on [things] for some of these songs. It’s interesting to think about these things: where’s the United States is going to be in 20-30 years, who’s going to be the next world power, what does our freedom look like… or do we even have it, ya know?
No, I totally see where you’re coming from. Those are important things to think about especially for our generation. Forget 20 or 30 years; how about in 5 years?!
It’s kind of exciting and frightening.
Other than that there are also character themes. Like in the song ‘You Go Running’ there’s this kid that can’t live up to the people who he admires because he’s not growing up, not taking responsibility. There’s people he reads about and admires but can’t quite get there yet… I think there is a lot of that in the record as well.
I know you’re a big fan of Nick Cave… I think he comes up in every conversation we have at least once…
Yeah, well he’s one of my favs, I know. [both laugh]
Were there any new influences that crept into the writing of this album?
Yeah, definitely David Bowie’s [album] Scary Monsters had a huge impact on how we approached some of these songs; especially the upbeat ones. We love the way certain elements in that record just jump out at you. I would also say M83 influenced some of the synthesizers. This is the first time we’ve had synths on a record. Brian Eno influenced the warmer, atmospheric side of things. I’ve definitely gone away from the jangly pop of Echo & The Bunnymen, Kinks. I tried to have some broader strokes and different instrumentation than I was accustomed to. Sounds like horns, synths, strings; I even started playing guitar differently. I had to break out of the formula that I was used to.
I want to thank Jessica for the generous length of time she gave to this conversation. Thank you to the reader for taking the time out to delve into Jessica’s mind with me and I urge you to go pick up Deep Sea Diver’s new album HISTORY SPEAKS available both physically or digitally at Bandcamp.— Matt Zimmerman, 02/25/2012