ther and TAGABOW Talk Emulation, Nostalgic Sounds, and More

Friends and collaborators Heather Jones and Doug Dulgarian catch up.

Doug Dulgarian is the lead singer of the Philly-based shoegaze band They Are Gutting A Body Of Water; Heather Jones is in the also-Philly-based slowcore band ther, and a mastering and recording engineer at So Big Auditory. ther’s new record, a horrid whisper in a palace of endless joy, is out today, so to celebrate, the two friends (and frequent collaborators in recording) sat down to catch up about it, and much more.  
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Doug Dulgarian: I have this recurring dream constantly: It’s a bathroom in — when you were a kid, did you ever go to Discovery Zone, places like that? 

Heather Jones: No. 

Doug: They were these play places for kids where you could climb throughout the whole thing [in] little tunnels, and the floor was this arcade style floor — you know the floor I’m talking about.

Heather: Laser tag-ass floor, yeah.

Doug: Yes, exactly. Very liminal space, you know. [Laughs.] 

Heather: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Doug: But I have this dream constantly where I’m in the bathroom of that place, and there’s these black lights and these green neon lights, and the walls are covered in those, like, triangles and squiggly lines. The bathroom is flooding and I am in a stall and I’m trying to get out, and there’s a kid in the stall next to me who I know is using drugs. I know that he is willing to pass them to me under the stall, but I am trying to fight the urge to do that. That feeling of absurdity, but knowledge of something that’s not told to you — I think that’s really what I’m just trying to capture in my work, that feeling of familiarity that is simultaneously alien. You know what I mean? 

I think that’s why I really connect with Greg Mendez‘s music so much. The song “Maria” really clicked for me probably five days ago, and I really understood what it was about. I think constantly battling that urge… It’s weird, drugs live in this subconscious part of your brain. I don’t know, are you willing to talk about all this? 

Heather: Yeah, totally.

Doug: They live in this very instinctual part of your brain. 

Heather: An animal part.

Doug: Yeah, it’s an instinctual feeling, to want to feel comfort, you know?

Heather: It’s a removal, too. 

Doug: Yeah. And I think that that’s kind of what you and I are attempting to achieve with creating these pleistocene sequences that are, like, plucked from the subconscious, but also accessible, familiar, understood. I want something to click. I always want a song to feel like it’s always been there.

Heather: Well, I feel like when you’re recording something, you’re doing something different than when you’re playing a set for someone. I always think about playing a set versus making an album: The album doesn’t feel like a performance to me, whereas a set is a performance, right? You’re literally putting yourself on a stage and you’re forcing everybody to pay attention to you. There’s a certain amount of control that you have in that situation, because you’re on the stage, you’re calling the shots. 

But a record — and maybe this is what it’s like now with Spotify and playlisting and the internet — you kind of have to make people want to sit there for the whole thing. You know, there are plenty of obtuse, monolithic records out there that are super challenging, but even when a record is challenging, there’s usually something enticing about it.  It’s like, you hear something that feels monolithic and crazy and you’re like, I want to understand this more. And you listen to a record again and again. Like when [My Bloody Valentine’s] m b v came out, I feel like that’s how it felt, like, This is like crazy, this is so weird, and I wanted to listen to it again and again and again and again to figure out how I felt about it and what I understood about it. And I feel like that’s the cool, absurd tapestry of shoegaze and adjacent music, right? You’re using all of these alien sounds.

Doug: Yeah, I think that’s the very reason for art: to make you question how you feel. It’s ultimately to make you feel something, and I think one way of doing that is by presenting the question, “how do you feel about this?” 

It’s funny that you mentioned that, though, about recording versus performance, because I feel opposite of that. I feel like in a performance, I have very little control. I have very little control over the way that people react in real time in front of me. Whereas if I’m able to sit at home and create this thing that ultimately is distributed and digested in people’s personal lives on their own time, I feel like I have more control over that. It’s like when I go into a studio and a song is not really well-written, I think I do the best by putting down what I can and going home and thinking about it and building on it, and then going back to the studio. I don’t know, I’m not good at shit on the fly.

Heather: Well, I feel like the control is maybe more from — because we do stuff all the time where we’ll try a bunch of things on a song one day, and then I’ll get a text from you at, like, 2:00 in the morning where you’re like, “We’re getting rid of that, we gotta do something else!” [Laughs.] Which is just part of the recording thing, and it’s really cool. But I think the thing that you don’t necessarily have control over, I feel like, is a set happens in one place — everyone is together and there’s this kind of communal experience. Whereas like a record, you have no idea whether someone’s going to be just sitting at home staring at the wall or they’re on the bus when it’s raining, or if they just had a really shitty day and they’ve never heard of your band before. You have a lot of control over the sound, but as far as where the listener is when they hear it for the first time, you have no idea what that’s going to be. Which is part of what’s exciting about it.

Doug: You know what’s interesting, though? You’re totally right, but I think the internet has connected us in this way now where regardless of where somebody first listens to something, if something is being talked about and it is important to what’s going on in the general narrative, and the majority of people do end up listening to it and it becomes a good talking point, I think people are still experiencing that at the same time, just in a way more personal way.

Heather: But there is that collective experience there. There is “the discourse,” scare quotes.

Doug: But I do want to say, I think that that is what a record feels like to me as opposed to a performance. It’s so much more deeply personal to not only the listener, but the person who’s making it.

Heather: Yeah, it’s an opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation.

Doug: Yeah. I mean, at the dawn of music recording, it was simply performances — that’s how you saw music — and when recording came about, it was seen as evil. It was like taking away this communal experience [of] going to a show and witnessing it together in real time. Then recordings were thought of as performances that were captured on tape as-is. And once that started to change with the Beatles and layering, and taking songs and thinking of them like paintings — you add more here, you take a little off here, and eventually it becomes this big landscape portrait or whatever.

Heather: The studio as an instrument.

Doug: Yeah. I think that, in a lot of ways, has accelerated this constant individualism of America, where we listen to music on our own, in our own houses. Every time my friend’s like, “Yo, I have this cool new demo, you should hear it,” and they try to play it from their phone, I’m just like, “Dawg, just send this to me, because when I’m smoking a cig on my roof at 3 AM, that’s when I would rather listen to it.” When I’m fucking alone, when I can really pick it apart and think about it, you know? 

And I think that level of individualism — although it can be really toxic and it takes away from community and a sense of unity among people — it also accelerates art. Because everybody wants to tell their own story. And that’s essentially what art is composed of. It’s a very self-obsessed thing to want to have your story be heard.

Heather: Well, I feel like there’s the other half of it, right? Well, this is a topic I’m really anxious about, because I feel like my own music is often really private and personal, which a lot of times gives me anxiety. But I feel like the thing that happens is like “Maria,” the song where Greg is talking about something like very specific — people love this song. It’s an amazing song, and I feel like there are lots of people who are going to relate to it on a deeper level, and it tells a story that is often not told, and that itself is important. But there’s also the other parts about it — there’s the joke in the opening line of the song where he’s literally saying, “I’m afraid that I’m gonna tell you about something stupid”—

Doug: And then he immediately just tells it.

Heather: Yeah, yeah. And then however you want to interpret the last section of the song and what it’s specifically talking about, that is a feeling that almost everybody, or probably everybody, understands — being tempted by something dark and sinister that comes to you because it’s easy. Even though that story is very specific, it says all these universal things, and I think that speaks a lot to, like you were saying, the individualism versus the community. Maybe we do lose those communal experiences sometimes, but—

Doug: Well, that’s what a great songwriter does. A great songwriter presents themselves in this very impossibly self-obsessed way, because that’s just how it goes. But it’s so relatable that it becomes a communal experience. And I do want to say, that that level of relativity is what I think I’m certainly trying to achieve through that feeling of being familiar but completely alien at the same time. I think I’m trying to do that. I don’t think I would do it as much through lyrics or whatever. But, you know, again, it’s like a very self-obsessed thing. But I think that sounds often contribute to the current. Current as in water flowing.

Heather: Especially as we enter a time where — you know, since sampling became a thing, the specific granular details of a recorded sound becomes something that we can be nostalgic for. And that itself can become a color. It’s like the Casio that we use on a lot of the songs — that is a sound that even if people don’t know what it is, even if they’re not gear people, they’ve heard those kinds of sounds before and it conjures a cultural image and a nostalgia. You can use these little sounds to be shorthand for really dense and packed cultural ideas, and historical associations we’ve created with those types of synths and video games from the ‘90s. And for those of us of a certain age, video games from the ‘90s and being seven years old, and what we associate with being seven years old. You can draw all of these lines to these deep human parts that are really individual for the listener, right? And that’s where you can use something that’s personal to you: Deconstruct it into a sound. And then the sound reconstructs itself as a different experience for the listener when they hear it.

Doug: Yeah. I think for me, what I’ve found is that, what you’re talking about — deconstructing and reconstructing — that’s impossible in a live setting for me. I feel like I can command an audience in a very specific way with playing these weird interludes, but to really capture the essence of something like that, it has to present itself in a very personal way. It has to be something that you listen to on your own. You know, we weren’t playing N64 in, like, a fucking gymnasium with a ton of other kids.

Heather: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Doug: We were playing N64 at our cousin’s house, because that motherfucker is the only one that had an N64. You know what I mean? Those particular memories are very deeply personal. I think that’s the thing that I’m trying to achieve, and I just find it way easier to do on a record. For what it’s worth, with Lucky [Styles], we don’t play many of those live. I mean, we’ve played the intro, we’ve played “Behind the Waterfall.” 

Heather: Yeah, I think I saw y’all play that at Baby Gap.

Doug: Yeah.

Heather: Do you play “Webmaster”?

Doug: No.

Heather: That’s crazy! That song goes. 

Doug: I mean, we can play “Webmaster,” but for some reason, it just doesn’t… Maybe it’s just the familiarity of the Destiny [XL] songs at this point and how we played them; they just feel so right live.

I’ve personally really been struggling with my ability to access — you know, I don’t ever want to second guess myself, but this is honestly how I’ve been feeling creatively, and I think it’s important for me to mention. When I listen to Led Zeppelin or Nirvana, it’s just inherently good. Its pop sensibilities — undeniably just good fucking songwriting. And I very much feel that way about the songwriting aspects of Destiny in a way that I don’t necessarily feel about the songwriting aspects of Lucky. I don’t think that Lucky is a worse record by any stretch of the imagination, but what I do think is that simple, good songwriting lends itself more to live performance. Do you understand what I’m saying? 

Heather: Yeah. 

Doug: I think that a lot of the stuff on Lucky is almost hard to recreate in a live setting. I also think that I’m coming to this point as an artist right now where I realize that I have been emulating Brian Nowell from Blue Smiley a little bit to the point where it’s like, OK, that’s real. And of course, you know, we’re a Blue Smiley worship band. But I think with this next batch of songs, I’m getting a little bit too good at it and I really want to dig deep and truly discover what my own voice sounds like, and what I want that to be. I really just want to get back to that Destiny vibe of just good songwriting. 

Heather: The hooks.

Doug: Yeah, just good fucking songwriting, and not hidden behind all of these techniques — you and I have gotten really good at establishing some techniques that are just almost like cheat codes. 

Heather: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Doug: I want to be my own fucking artist. And I think that’s important. I think there are two types of artists, too: I think that the majority of of genuine artists that become great begin by emulating their heroes and eventually they get to this point where they find their own voice. And then there are true originals, in a way that they rarely come about. And I think that those true originals are people that inspire everybody else to become great. And I think that those people who are emulators are able to get to that point of greatness through emulation and eventually finding your own voice. But I think it’s very rare for somebody to come along that is truly original. And I think that was the draw — the shimmer, the sheen — of Blue Smiley for me. I had just never heard anything like it, but it was uniquely from Philly. There’s no other place that could have been from.

Heather; I mean, I remember hearing it in, like, 2013, 2014, and being like, What is this? It almost didn’t make sense. Yet music that now makes a lot of sense — even people who’ve never heard Blue Smiley, if they heard it now, they’d be like, “Oh, this is the genesis point for so many currents that are going on now.”

Doug: Definitely. And I don’t think that there’s any shame in being an emulator. I think most people really are. 

Heather: I mean, well, there’s something to be said for when you learn how to just make music. For a lot of people, that means starting off figuring out how to do something that you like, and using that to teach yourself how to make good music. And then once you learn enough about what it means for you to make good music, then you start to have your own ideas.

Doug: Well, that’s what I’m saying. That’s why a kid learns covers first. 

Heather: Exactly. You learn how it works, you take it apart. 

Doug: Some of the greatest songwriters of all time are are emulators. I mean, you look at Kevin Shields — My Bloody Valentine initially started out as a Siouxsie and the Banshees rip-off band, and then eventually became a Jesus and Mary chain rip-off band, and then eventually found their own voice and started to explore it. And to keep it a total buck with you, I think that’s the point I am at in my artistic career. I really need to hone in on what that means. And I’m sure that there are going to be elements of Blue Smiley, I think that there are going to be elements of My Bloody Valentine. Of course — I don’t think I can not write that way anymore.

But the next thing is going to be the true test of where you and I are as artists. As far as TAGABOW goes, I think that the next thing that we make is really going to be the culmination of all this time. I don’t want to say that I’m not writing good songs, but I think that general sense of familiarity and just good songwriting is really what I want to achieve. So I’m going to take some time and just fucking write and really get in touch with where I’m at. I think that’s really important for me, and for the future of me making music.

Heather: I think there’s something really liberating about being able to go into the studio or band practice with what you know is a really, really good song. Because then you’re like, You can’t fuck this up. I feel like I write a lot of scraps, and I usually throw out a lot of stuff, and I’m kind of at a point where I know that if I write a really good song, I know that I don’t have to worry about it turning out good. I know that if I play it with people that I trust, it’s going to turn out good. 

And that also means that I don’t need to get precious about any ideas in finishing it. I know that it’s a good idea — I don’t have to, “Is it the right one? Is it the perfect explanation of my thought?” It’s like, “No, it’s a cool idea. Just do it.” And then you can have more of a conversation with yourself, or a conversation between yourself, the song, and the people that you’re making it with. You don’t have to make and develop a musical idea from a place of insecurity. It can come from curiosity and freedom, and just the joy of doing it — whether you’re doing it in your room by yourself or you’re working with somebody else, and being able to share the joy of making it rather than just the agony of tearing yourself to pieces every time you have an idea. 

Doug: I’m really excited to wash my hands of this feeling that I have and embrace the next chapter of all this. And especially with you — I’m really, really happy to constantly be working with you. I really fucking appreciate you being in my life.

Heather: I love making music with you, and being your friend. 

Doug: I love making music with you!

(Photo Credit: left, Kati Malison; right, Joseph Lacy/Emily Lofing)

ther is the slowcore project helmed by West Philadelphia-based mastering and recording engineer Heather Jones, and including members of Sadurn and Crooks & Nannies. Their latest record, a horrid whisper echoes in a palace of endless joy, is out now.

(Photo Credit: Kati Malison)