Here’s the thing: Bands hate labels. It doesn’t matter if they’re exact or flattering, musical acts almost universally loathe people talking about what type of music they play. It’s always taken as an affront to their personal creative originality. If years in music scenes have taught me anything, it’s that vague labels aren’t specific enough, specific ones are seen as pigeonholing, and there’s really no winning.
Sloucher appears to be the exception. The Seattle quartet’s first LP, Be True (out Nov. 16 on Swoon Records), sounds unarguably like a blast of ’90s guitar-driven indie rock. And you know what? Sloucher is cool with that. “I think that ’90s guitar rock is a good blanket term for the sounds that we’re creating,” says singer/guitarist Jay Clancy, “and we’re very happy to be compared to 90 percent of that bands that people compare us to. It’s an honor, in a way.”
After drumming in an array of local groups (Hibou, Makeup Monsters, Cayucas), Clancy started Sloucher as a solo outlet for his own songs in the acoustic/coffeehouse vein. It didn’t take long to realize that that vibe wasn’t rocking enough. He recorded almost everything himself for Sloucher’s 2016 debut EP, Certainty, but soon turned his project into a proper band, which now features lead guitarist Kyle Musselwhite, drummer Jack Hamrick, and bassist Lance Umble.
Be True melds an array of ’90s rock sounds without ever steering too far into a certain direction. The album-opening “Blurring the Line” is pure alt-rock with its chunky, plodding bass line leading guitar flourishes that play with intentional “sloppy” notes that refuse to cleanly resolve in the name of dissonance. “Be True” and “Up and Down” tap into the brand of buoyant and sunny power-pop instrumentation that could be found back when endearingly cheesy pop-rock songs could be radio hits (the lead indie-rock lick on “Cloverdale” is damn near goofy). Sloucher also grits its teeth and turns up the distortion pedals to tap into a darker, heavier side on tracks like “Perfect for You” and “Waiting to Start.”
While he didn’t love the vocal takes on previous releases, Clancy eases into his relatively new role as a singer on Be True, with a casual softer rock coo (similar to Dave Grohl’s timbre on the few aggression-free early Foo Fighters songs). When he sings, the lyrics paint a fairly unvarnished thematic arc of working through personal issues with depression and feeling lost in the world. But the words hold back from delving headfirst into the depressed Northwest singer/songwriter template thanks to sprinklings of optimism on tracks like “Complacent” (whose chorus starts “We’ll find a better way/Living day to day/Everything will be OK” before ending on the more bitter note of “We’ll be complacent in pain”).
“I always try to provide some type of glimmer of hope somewhere within the song,” says Clancy. “I’m drawn to sad music. If I’m feeling bummed out, I don’t want to listen to ‘Walking on Sunshine’ or whatever. I’d rather listen to something that’s more along the lines of how I’m feeling. But if it’s too dark, or there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, then it’s just kind exhausting to be in that headspace all the time. So I’m trying to meet somewhere in the middle with Sloucher: Be true to how I’m feeling, and be true to how I’d rather feel [laughs].”
Not instantly turning away from the labels applied to Sloucher has even led Clancy to some musical discovery. “Another cool thing that’s happened since I started this band is people comparing us to bands that I’ve never heard of or never made a point to listen to,” he says. “And I did go and listen to these bands and completely fell in love with them. Teenage Fanclub is a good example. Sparklehorse is another.”
And while ’90s rock serves as a solid baseline for the group, less obvious things from outside the genre sneaked into the sonic walls of Be True. For example, when Clancy and Hamrick (who’ve been friends since age 8 and took drum lessons together) approach constructing song rhythms, they often keep hip-hop and funk in mind just as much as straight-up, in-your-face Nirvana-style aggressive drumming.
Musselwhite brings even more unexpected influences to the table. “Kyle’s a huge modern top-40 country fan,” says Clancy. “So some of the stuff that he ends up playing is somewhat derivative of top-40 kinda garbage country music. I like that stuff too, and that’s something that him and I have bonded over. It’s not something we’re super-public about. We’re all just music nerds, and all those sought-after studio dudes playing on these weird modern country songs are the craziest fucking shredders.”
Be True doesn’t swing for the fences. Sloucher isn’t feigning that it’s reinventing the wheel or “saving” rock in a way that will push the genre mainstream again. Still, there’s a very becoming modesty to the guys simply making an excellent version of the type of music they like. After all, no matter how the world outside defines what you do, you gotta be true to yourself.