How Cows Grazing and Youtube Videos Shaped Madison's Slow Pulp
Written by Emily Fender
Photographed by Rachel Cabitt
Last September, Emily Massey, Alex Leeds, Henry Stoehr, and Teddy Matthews made their way to Chicago to start a new chapter with their dream punk group, Slow Pulp. Filing into a studio on a snowy day in Brooklyn, we sat around on floor pillows and fell into a discussion of describing the world in colors and what it means to have people in your life who you are so deeply connected to.
“Our dynamics are really intertwined” Teddy describes. The four play off each other so easily and before you know it they’re jokingly posing with random equipment from around the studio, balancing a wonderful rhythm between each other. Being with each other seems like the most natural thing in the world to them. And it makes complete sense when you hear Slow Pulp’s backstory.
The group all grew up in Madison, Wisconsin on classic rock with very creative childhoods, from ballet to guitar lessons together. Emily is the most recent addition to the family, and the other three grew up with each other with Henry and Teddy having known each other since kindergarten—“We used to play in the ball pit at McDonalds” Henry laughingly recounts. Alex brings up how Henry and Teddy were “on the bleeding edge of YouTube” in fourth grade before Alex really met them. Henry explains this was their first creative endeavor, with Teddy adding that they would spend a week or more on each video. Unfortunately they inform us these videos are on “major lockdown”, even Emily has only seen about thirty seconds of one.
This creative energy certainly lives on from childhood. Alex explains how their language for communication about music has taken on a synesthesia-level artistic language, especially early on with some of their earliest songs being named after colors. This type of experience is something other musicians have explored, with artists like Lorde describing to the New York Times how from the moment she starts a song she can picture its colors in the distance, and when Mary J. Blige talked about her synesthesia to LA Confidential she said “I see music in colors.”
For Slow Pulp, the group visualization has evolved further. “For example, when we started naming things with colors, there was just a color, but that kind of grew into more of a palette of colors for each song. As the music got more complex, the way we started to describe it got more complex, and I guess it was just about using visual metaphors to describe the relationships of sounds.” You can get a sense of this in their single covers—Henry painted both At Home and Steel Birds. At Home, released in June, features a number of primary colors on the cover combined with earthier tones to create a reflective mood. Steel Birds, a more melancholic, yet still dreamy single released in November features a blend of pinks and yellows that you can picture melding together as the song slides from the melting verses to the guitar-heavy chorus.
Emily talks about how they paint scenes with their words and “a guitar tone ends up being a whole statement” to communicate what’s going on in their heads. More specifically, Henry and Teddy talk about how a few days prior they had described a low E chord as cows grazing on a farm, with Henry acting it out and saying “it’s very cow face” as he drops the corners of his mouth and playfully mimes a guitar. It’s a painterly language that echoes early and late synesthetic painter Wassily Kandinsky—sometimes they can make out cows and people but other times it’s a wonderfully emotive mix of colors. The group has explored this for a few years now as it seems to be a natural mode for them to communicate, but what’s more remarkable is how in sync they are. Teddy remembers how when they were still on the single-color strategy “we would test this theory by like, ‘This song, on the count of three say the color,’ and then we’d more often than not all align.”
A language like this, so deeply in sync, can only be the product of their close bond and years spent together. But despite this connection, the four only recently decided to take Slow Pulp more seriously rather than go separate ways. “It became a lot more intentional in the past couple months, since September,” Teddy remarks to which Alex admits that “this time last year we were thinking we weren’t going to continue being a band.” This was largely in part due to college, where they majored in everything from computer science to new media, and casually involved in other bands. Teddy continues, “post-college, figuring out what things were going to look like… I didn’t think this band was going to fit into it.”
While reminiscent of a break up, Henry states that they were still “abstractly committed” to each other even though changes like college sent them in different directions for a bit. They always seem to find each other again: “Everything we’ve been doing forever, has been leading towards continuing to do something together,” Teddy adds.
They seem all tied together, and despite Emily’s relatively recent entry into their lives, the four of them have something special. But this ebb and flow, of understanding life may pull you apart for a little while but ultimately you’ll find each other again, speaks to something much deeper. Slow Pulp in many ways is a product of their bond, an organic result of their time spent together, rather than a friendship found through coming together for a band (which can at times be equally magical). It’s the kind of magical idea that 1+1=3 when they’re together, and they have the ability to share this through their music.
The process seems to be very relaxed for them—their most popular song off Ep2 was a last minute addition (their first EP is locked away in the same vault as Henry and Teddy’s fourth grade YouTube videos and features just the three boys; it was recorded prior to meeting Emily). Emily recounted how Preoccupied was a fun song they had written a few years prior to the rest of the material on their 2017 EP, and Alex said that on the day of the release they thought “I guess that one’s dope” and just threw it on. Emily admitted that “We never expected people other than [those in] Madison really to hear it”, but then YouTube music curator TheLazylazyme picked it up. With just shy of 400,000 subscribers, the channel shares music and found the last-minute addition of Preoccupied, shared it and generated lots of buzz for the then, tiny and very informal, Slow Pulp. The band also decided to release their music video for Preoccupied through the channel, a beautiful and carefully colored video directed by Damien Blue with now over 115,000 views. Slow Pulp’s journey has seemed to be a true exploration of hard work and going with the flow, a kind of patient dedication to each other that was tested by having an informal band set up they first had.
Their decision to commit to Slow Pulp in many ways is a decision to commit themselves to each other. To take this band more seriously, they needed to be able to work under the same roof regularly, which wasn’t happening with them spread out. Now out of school and with their new manager Andrew, they moved to Chicago and now all live together with Emily’s cat (that all of the boys are unfortunately allergic to, but enjoy nonetheless). It’s a shift to get used to and also certainly has its growing pains, but they admit they’re definitely enjoying it. “It’s the kind of thing where we’re around each other so much… we do start feeling like there’s tensions.” But “when we go out and see other people I’m always like ‘Oh no I still want to be chilling with them,’” Alex explains. They have the kind of bond where they can hop in a car from Illinois to Brooklyn and show up mellow and happy instead of at each other’s throats. During photos, they all bob their heads along while singing Golden Hour by Kasey Musgraves, a recent staple on their long drives.
Their new home in Chicago has certainly been kind to them. “It feels good. Chicago is an inspiring place, and there’s a lot of really good shows happening all the time, it’s invigorating...” Henry adds. They bring an electric but dreamy energy to the scene that is quickly at home. Joining the ranks of Lala Lala, OHMME, Grapetooth, and many others, Slow Pulp brings to the table their exploration of dreamy psychedelic punk. And they seem to be taking to it well too—they played their first headlining show in Chicago on January 4th and are in the studio working on a new EP. They’re breaking in ground with their first project in this new chapter of their lives, and until then (and probably long for after) they’ll be dancing across the country with their songs, colors, and each other.