Tomberlin and Slow Pulp Talk EPs, LPs, and Alex G

Sarah Beth and the Chicago band talk shop about recording and navigating stage fright.

Sarah Beth Tomberlin is a singer-songwriter who performs as Tomberlin and released her EP Projections in October of this year; Slow Pulp is the Chicago-based indie rock band (consisting of Emily Massey, Alex Leeds, Teddy Matthews, and Henry Stoehr) whose debut Moveys came out the same month via Winspear. Here, Sarah Beth and the band hopped on Zoom to talk the new releases in more. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Emily Massey: Where are you, Sarah Beth?

Sarah Beth Tomberlin: I’m in New York. We escaped the fires for a month, and then the girls Cricket and Birdie [daughters of actress Busy Phillips, whom Sarah Beth is quarantining with] have Zoom school, so they were just like, “Well, we can’t go outside, so we might as well escape to New York for a minute.” And then Busy randomly got a job on a TV show that just started shooting today.

Emily: So you guys are there for longer?

Sarah Beth: Yeah, I think six months at the least, which I’m actually OK with because I love fall and LA doesn’t really have a fall, so.

Emily: Yeah, but now you’re gonna be in winter, right?

Sarah Beth: I’m kind of OK with it, after summer. 

Emily: Yeah, I guess you haven’t had winter in a bit.

Sarah Beth: I miss seasons. But yeah, so that’s where I’m at now. We’re renting this house for a while, so I have my bedding and stuff like that, I’m making it home. Are you all in Chicago?

Emily: Yeah, we’re all in Chicago.

Alex Leeds: We’re all, like, within a block of each other right now.

Emily: We can’t be apart for more than two days. [Laughs.] Well, congratulations on your release!

Sarah Beth: Congrats on y’all’s release! Congrats all around!

Emily: It’s all good stuff. It’s really beautiful. Your EP rocks.

Sarah Beth: Y’all’s does too. I already listened to the record — like, you sent it to me earlier and and I was like, This is incredible — but I got new good wireless headphones, and these truly hit. I’m a big fan.

Emily: What are they? Drop the brand! 

Sarah Beth: They’re Sony XM4s or something. I don’t know, I did a lot of research and they do indeed hit. So I highly recommend. [Laughs.] some snowfall from. But no, it’s truly such a good album. It feels very sewn together and extremely intentional. This record truly is just like a fully realized…  it’s like a little cross stitch. I don’t know, sewing comes to mind because it just is stitched together so beautifully.

Emily: Thank you, we felt the same way about yours. It’s so seamless. 

Sarah Beth: I was really stressed out about it for a while. I really didn’t know if “Sin,” that track in particular, should go on it. For a while I thought I was going to cut it. 

Emily: You wrote that one in the during At Weddings [Tomberlin’s debut 2018 album] writing process, right?

Sarah Beth: Yes, that’s right, really early on. I sent it to a friend and they were like, “This is like a Hole song,” because it was just like [sings the guitar riff]. I had never even listened to Hole, so then I listened to Hole and was like, Cool. [Laughs.] But yeah, I didn’t know if it meshed, but I think everything actually works really well together. The cover of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone — once I figured out that was going to be on the end, I was like, Oh, this is complete. I just didn’t want to like, slap something on like that. There’s so many songs I want to cover, but it has to make sense with everything else.

Emily: It really does. It’s beautiful. I think you brought a whole level of emotion to that song that was sick.

Alex: I like how different all the songs are from each other. I feel like the hard part of an EP is trying to not make it super repetitive or super all over the place. I feel like EPs are always one or the other, but I don’t feel that way at all about yours because the songs are all different from each other, but they’re related to each other in a more abstract way than just the form or the texture. Which, like, once it’s done I’m like, I could do that again

Sarah Beth: Yeah, I think it is hard with EPs. I didn’t realize that, I’ve obviously never made one before. But once you start at first you’re like, Oh, cool, it’s not as much pressure as LP2 or whatever. But then I was really, really stressed out about making sure that it accomplished those things, like it wasn’t too much of one thing, and I wanted the songs to have a different feel to each. But you don’t really know that until you’re building it out, and the way that we recorded t was just kind of like, Sam [Acchione] and I worked on the guitar parts before we went and over to Alex [G]’s, and then we were all talking about production ideas for the rest of everything. But we were just building it on the spot.

So that’s how it came together,  really, pretty easily. Then I got to go mix it with [Jacob Portrait]. It was fun, I had never gotten to sit in on that process, so it was really cool to be clear about, “This is too crunchy,” or like, “This needs to be lifted.” It kind of helped me hone in my decision making on that too. 

But y’all, like, rerecorded all of your stuff? Like you made a whole new record, basically, right?

Emily: [Laughs.] We definitely had an intentional starting over point. We had a few songs — some of them we were even playing on that tour that we were on together — that didn’t make the cut for the record. After that tour, we sat down and were like, “This is the fresh slate.” 

Henry did all the production, and he always has on all of our records, which has been really nice to have that kind of like a built–in thing. Our house mixer. [Laughs.] I think it’s easier to communicate ideas pretty slowly as the songs are developing, because I’ve never done a process like that where I have the root of the songs, and then you spend a few weeks with people finishing them and adding the production elements — which I can imagine being really fun and exciting, too, especially with Sam and Alex. I bet they were so fun to work with.

Sarah Beth: Yeah, it was just funny. I feel like for “Hours,” it was basically a day of recording bass for that song. [Sam] would have ideas, and then I would be like, “Eh, it doesn’t do that.” And I would sing the part, and then he’d be like, “OK,” and know what to do. And then with that one for some reason, we were always just like, “We can do a better take,” and he’d be like, “Fuck!” [Laughs.] Alex and I just like sitting there — Alex, like, looking at fucking CATS memes, becuase CATS was about to come out, and I’d be doing a vocal take or something. That one I feel like took the longest, because one day was fully just recording bass.

But yeah, it was fun with them because it was just relaxed. We would take breaks and Alex would make food, or Molly [Germer, violinist/Alex’s girlfriend] would make food and we’d have. like, a vegan chicken sandwich with cheese and mayonnaise, so not even vegan anymore. [Laughs.] It was just really casual. And then we made up the joke that we were going to reward ourselves once the EP was done, and celebrate by going to see CATS, which we did.

Emily: I still haven’t seen it yet.

Sarah Beth: Wow. Well, we saw it before it was fixed. 

Emily: [Laughs.] I was going to ask you the first version of it. 

Sarah Beth: I don’t think they could ever fix that movie, but they tried. We we saw it when they still had, like, human hands. 

Alex: I hope there’s a cut somewhere online of the pre-fixed version.

Emily: I bet it exists.

Sarah Beth: It’s probably on PornHub, to be real. [Laughs.] But yeah, it was fun. 

Henry Stoehr: Did you know you wanted to have more layers on this project before you went in?

Sarah Beth: At first with the EP, I had the idea to do each track with a different producer, just because I was already thinking about LP2 and was stressed out about it — I was like, Well, I don’t know [who] I work well [with], you know, like I don’t want to make that decision blindly. And I just thought, Rappers and pop artists get to do a whole album with numerous producers, I can do that, too, and that could be fun. But then for an EP, I’m going to be too stressed out because everyone is going to have a separate vision, and it does need to be cohesive, obviously, even though the songs can be different. And then I was like, Alex would actually be perfect for that. But that kind of started brewing in my mind when we were on tour, because Sam started playing the songs with me. Then I would sometimes sit backstage and play new stuff, and then Alex was like, “That’s cool.” And I was like, “Thanks.”

I talked about the EP idea and was like, “Maybe you’d want to do a track?” And then at the end, at the Philly show that we did together, basically I stayed there a few days after just to hang out, because there it was around Thanksgiving and flights were just really expensive so I just got a later flight. Before I left, Alex was like, “Hey, send me those songs when you get back home,” or whatever. So I did, and then he was like, “Hey, can I call you?” And he was like, “These are sick. We should do this.” So it happened really organically, which is kind of how I hope for everything that I do to [happen]. You might like somebody’s work, but you don’t know if you actually vibe with them. I don’t know, I just feel like when you’re open, the things come and it happens and it’s cool.

Henry: Yeah, feeling comfortable and natural is the most important part of that relationship.

Sarah Beth: Totally. But to answer your question about the fleshed out part of it, that was what I knew could happen, because I feel like Alex’s production with his own work is very intentional, and there is a lot happening but the core of the song is there kind of driving it, and that’s what you remember. You have all those kind of cozy production things where you feel like you’re being cradled with good sounds. But I knew that he would be able to tend to it in a way. And then we ended up with Sam and I all co-producing it — we were just like, OK, this isn’t really Alex just producing. I mean, Alex really did mostly engineering, honestly. So it’s funny when I see comments like, “I can hear Alex in the song.” [Laughs.] Like Alex didn’t actually do anything besides press record and, like, vibe. It’s funny how people project. But yeah, I knew that he would tend to it and be able to focus Sam and my ideas.

Emily: [Laughs.] I love making music.

Sarah Beth: So I have a question: You write most of the lyrics, Emily, or all of them? How does that work with you guys?

Emily: We really changed up our process for this album. Before, somebody would send me a pretty much finished instrumental, like production–wise and everything structured. Then I would have it to work on the melody and lyrics for it, and that was a really hard way to write songs. It was just hard to fit into the spaces. I think I had also at that time been listening to so many songs that were really stark, just like guitar and vocals or piano and vocals, and that seemed to make a lot of sense. I forget what the first one — I think it was “Montana” that Henry sent me the guitar chords for, then I took the chords and kind of changed them up and wrote the song just with the chords, and then created a structure and lyrics from there. That kind of ended up being the template for all the songs. Except for “Channel 2,” Alex sings that.

Alex: And “Idaho” and “New Horse.”

Emily: I feel that I still had a pretty small starting point, a lot smaller than the other things that we had. And I know, Henry, you can probably speak to this more, but you were saying that that helped you with your the production stuff a lot too, like knowing what the songs ended up being about and what kind of emotional quality they had. 

Henry: Yeah. I think looking back on it, one of the biggest things that I felt a lot better about this album is, I think we got better as a group at letting go of initial ideas — like the attachment to your initial idea. At least I can say that personally. I think we used to kind of get caught up on a different point, there was like a snag earlier in the writing process. For the songs on this album, I felt that we were more kind of like: If the essence of the song isn’t there, then it’s just not a song yet right now. Even if it has this thing we really like, it doesn’t really matter because it’s not… 

Emily: It’s not naturally happening.

Henry: Yes, not naturally happening. I think I just felt a lot more in the moment with you guys and with myself. When we were writing this music, it felt more like reacting to it in real time. 

Emily: Yeah. I feel like our last project — I don’t want to say it was forced. because I don’t feel like it was forced at all.

Sarah Beth: The EP?

Emily: Yeah, the EP we did before this. It just felt really vigorous trying to turn out those songs, like they weren’t easy or being written quickly. I think we’re all a little nervous, like, “OK, now we have to write an album.”

Henry: Yeah, in a way I feel like with those songs, we didn’t really figure them out until the very end. Which is also kind of true about some of the songs on Moveys, but they’re more like the core of it wasn’t figured out yet.

Alex: Yeah, and the way that it got figured out on some of those — or at least our earlier music in general — I think was like a lot of production stuff, versus having things figured out melodically and with the chords and structure earlier on, then everything else is just like icing on the cake. 

Emily: Yeah it makes so much more sense. Like, it’s a no brainer to start with a song that’s, like, chords and melody. [Laughs.] And that’s not what we did until now.

Henry: It feels so silly to talk about it. It’s like, yeah, definitely. 

Sarah Beth: But even how you guys came together — the band was in a different formation. So that also has something to do with it, because it’s almost like probably you’re trying to keep some parts of what it was like before. But then bringing in the band changing, I can see how that would get… 

Henry: I feel like the three boys, we’d been playing music together for a long time but hadn’t had a singer besides ourselves, and we weren’t confident in that anyway so we were kind of like—

Emily: Neither was I.

Henry: Playing instrumental music together, kind of writing instrumentals with afterthought vocal parts for years.

Emily: And then I came in and I was like, “A. I don’t know how to write a song, and B. I don’t know how to write a song that’s already written sort of.”

Sarah Beth: I mean, yeah, that’s hard.

Emily: When did you start writing music? That was like kind of a later thing. I feel like a lot of people are like, “Yeah, I started writing songs when I was four,” you know. 

Sarah Beth: All of our home videos of me are literally just me, like, walking around, singing made up songs that I was making up on the spot. But it’s not like it was, like, pen and paper writing it down. That was something that I was always doing. So with my family, even when I got signed to Saddle Creek, they were like, “That’s great.” Like, there was no take–you–out–to–dinner. And I mean, they’re in a very different world than me anyway, so that’s a whole situation. But no one was surprised, basically. I was always kind of doing that stuff, and I really liked writing poems and creative writing stuff.

I didn’t start, like, writing–writing songs till I was 16 or so. And at that time I was still attempting to love Jesus a lot, so they were like Jesus songs. Which weren’t honestly all trash.

Emily: Yeah, I bet you have some fire Jesus love songs.

Sarah Beth: Yeah, they were OK. [Laughs.] They weren’t fire, but they were fine. 

Also, I had to hide things — even when I’s buy CDs, my dad would be like, “Let’s play it in the car!” And I’ll be like, “Let’s not.” [Laughs.] So that was part of it too, I knew that I would have to kind of hide it. “Tornado” was the first song that I wrote that I liked, and that was when I was 18 or 19. I had it for, like, two and a half months before I even showed my little sister. I, like, waited in the car, and she was like, “This is good.” So it was kind of a thing that I was always interested in and into in various ways, but I didn’t really try until that one. That when I wrote in, like, 10 minutes at the piano — I just playing that piano part with my little MacBook with GarageBand. 

You said that it was hard for you to write songs?

Emily: I think similarly as a kid, I was way over the top, like performing constantly — there are so many home videos of my parents trying to film my little sister, and me, like, bobbing my head into the camera and being, like, “No, no, no, it’s my show!” [Laughs.] I think here and there I’d written a few things. I was in a band in high school that I joined, and all the songs were already written. They had a flow with writing and I was just the lead singer, which was kind of funny to be singing all these songs that I didn’t write.

Teddy Matthews: Liam Gallagher.

Emily: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! My Oasis moment.

But, yeah, I wrote a song when I was like 16, and it was like super SoundCloud pop. That was the first time for me that I was like, Oh, I can kind of write songs. But my whole thing was like, I can’t work very hard at it, it has to come super easy or it’s nothing. Very stubborn.

Sarah Beth: Yeah, I always like the ones that are written 10 minutes.

Emily: Yeah, that happens once in a blue moon. And then Henry and I wrote “Preoccupied” together when I was, like, 19, and that song was the first one that was like, Oh! You know, like it existing in another space and having other people hearing it.

Sarah Beth: That’s a big deal, other people hearing it. Then you almost kind of hear it in a different way because you’re recognizing it as a thing because it’s being shared.

Emily: Yeah, totally. When you’re writing music, do you think about the fact that other people are going to be listening to it?

Sarah Beth: Of course sometimes those thoughts creep in, but generally I stop working when it does. I’m just like, Nope, this isn’t the moment. When I do that, I know that I’m limiting myself in a way, because I am just thinking about perception rather than what I’m trying to communicate or explore or build or whatever. So if that thought does permeate something in a way where I can’t escape it, then I just I don’t work that day. If that’s really present, then I just abandon it, because I find that if I don’t then it’s really garbage, and it’s a bunch of wasted time. Sometimes it just doesn’t come, so you just do something else. I’ll just be like, Well, maybe I’ll just play guitar for a little while, or if I have a piano I’ll play piano.

I have a question: How did y’all get to know each other? Because the boys were already together.

Emily: I met Teddy first. I was in the same band from high school the year after high school, and we played a show together in Madison. And Henry was also playing music, and Henry and Teddy have known each other since kindergarten, and we just all started hanging out and really clicked. Henry, Teddy, and I were playing music just in my parents basement sometimes — for fun, not really with an intention of starting a band necessarily, but just as like, “We’re gonna jam.” [Laughs.] I played keyboards, didn’t I?

Henry: I think we only had, like, two ideas we were trying, and they were both like, guitar, drums, and keyboards, and no vocals. They were just random ideas.

Emily: And then you guys had a band, the three of you.

Sarah Beth: Was it a project? It wasn’t Slow Pulp?

Emily: Yeah, a separate project.

Henry: We had an EP out called Slow Pulp.

Sarah Beth: Aah!

Emily: Yeah. And then you guys were like, “Hey we need a rhythm guitar player, and you can do some backing vocals.” I had just started my own project for the first time, too, and same thing — just, like, did not know how to lead a band. I didn’t know what type of music I wanted to make. So I was like, This sounds fun. This is something I don’t really have to think that hard about, and I really like the songs. Low pressure. 

The first shows I played with them, we went on a tour to just Philadelphia. [Laughs.] We took Teddy’s mom’s minivan, and about everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong. We were stuck in Philly for, like, a week while the van was getting fixed at a shop. I didn’t know know you guys that well — I mean, we were friends, we were hanging out, but it was such a crazy time to be stuck with these three boys in Philadelphia, and like not know anybody. We had our friend Caitlin — we stayed at her house, and we had just met her. Like we didn’t know her, and she was so nice, she let us stay at her house for a whole week.

I feel like that was the trip that just we got really close.

Sarah Beth: It bonded you.

Alex: To be clear, by “tour” we mean two shows. 

Emily: Yeah, we literally played two shows in Philly and then went back home to Wisconsin.

Sarah Beth: I mean, I feel that. I had my first tour ever in October of 2018, and I was opening for Mirah — who I loved forever and ever, so it was really cool that that was my first tour. But after that tour, I did a headlining tour which was four shows. Or maybe it was supposed to be five, but something happened with the DC show — I think a venue owner got Me Too-ed, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m not gonna play there.” So it was four or three shows or something, and it was like, At what cost? Because I was so new, it didn’t make sense to do a headlining tour, but for some reason my sweet booking agent Carly was like, “I think it’s good, you’re getting a lot of good stuff, I think we could do it.” We shouldn’t have done it. It’s not like the shows were empty, but it just was like, I don’t know why I’m doing this yet. No one knows anything about me, the nuance is lost. 

Emily: That’s what it feels like — when the ball starts rolling, it’s kind of like you’re just dropped in and you don’t know how to swim and you gotta learn how really quickly.

Sarah Beth: That was the whole thing: Before that tour I had played five shows total. Rob and Amber from Saddle Creek came to Louisville October of 2017 — it was Halloween weekend. They’re like sitting on the floor in my apartment and it was like, signing talk. I was like, “So you guys know that I haven’t played any shows?” “And they were like, “Yeah, I mean, that’s that’s fine.” And I was like, “Cool.” [Laughs.] I was like, “Just so we’re clear, so the expectation is low.” It’s so hilarious looking back, because I was truly trying to deter them from signing me. I was so excited about it, but also like, Oh, my god…  

Emily: “What am I getting myself into.” Yeah, I know that feeling.

Sarah Beth: My record release show was at Union Pool, and that was my fourth or third show I’d ever played and we sold it out. My mind was blown. 

Emily: That’s fast. 

Sarah Beth: Yeah. I was truly like, What the fuck is that like? It was so cool, but it was too much to really process. I don’t know, a lot of people grew up playing music with friends, and I didn’t even have that. I didn’t even jam in someone’s bedroom or whatever, it just truly had always been a private thing. So it was such a weird switch.

Alex: That sounds intense.

Emily: Yeah, that sounds scary. 

Sarah Beth: Last year, except for towards the end of last year, was like a total dissociative episode. The Alex G tour, I was very present, but pretty much everything before that was. It was just like, Must do job, must sing the songs. I played Primavera and I’m wearing, like, a fucking camo hoodie and jeans, because I wasn’t thinking about anything other than, like, Must do good job.

I mean, I didn’t even start standing and playing — like at first I would sit in a chair because I would play solo. I hadn’t even gotten used to standing and playing guys, you know? I would write new songs and just sit, so when I would try to sometimes play, I was like, Fuck, this is like hours. This is so hard. But towards the end of last year it was better. I would just pretend that I was in my room. 

I feel like when I was watching you guys, I was like, Oh, they’re having so much fun! You feel very connected. Do you guys like feel like that’s the energy? 

Henry: It feels so far away right now. There’s definitely some shows where I feel like we all kind of know we’re not really feeling it that day, and it feels a little bit more like keeping it together. But then there’s definitely a bunch that are a super good time. It’s like the most fun way to hang out. 

Emily: I totally hear you on the disassociating thing. I’ve definitely done that playing shows. I did it on the last couple of tours we did. It just kind of happened, it wasn’t like an intentional thing which feels crazy when that happens. You get off the stage and you’re like, I have no idea what just happened in the past 40 minutes. I mean, I feel like looking at you guys sometimes helps me snap out of that. 

Henry: At least for me I feel like I can’t think about it almost at all. Like, the blanker my mind is when we’re playing, I feel like it goes better. Sometimes I’ll switch to a chord or see Teddy’s stick hit the snare drum or something in a way that snaps me into reality in a really disruptive way, and all of a sudden I’m really aware of where I am and I’m like, Fuck! [Laughs.]

Emily: There’s so much that’s happening in your brain when you’re playing show, and I think when I’m watching somebody play a show, I never I’m never like, Oh, they’re having this whole dialogue

Alex: When I can sense somebody being maybe really aware and thinking about the fact that they’re in front of a bunch of people, it makes me really anxious. It’s really hard to watch.

Sarah Beth: So are you guys making new music?

Emily: We’re, like, just starting this week.

Henry: We haven’t played all of the album as a group yet, so we’re still also learning the songs. But yeah, we’re also kind of starting to send ideas back and forth and feel it out. 

Emily: We were apart for so long, so we’re just kind of coming to it. We finished the record apart from each other, so we’d never played any of the songs together. 

Sarah Beth: So wild. 

Emily: We’re figuring out how to arrange them live, because it has so many other instruments that we can’t play on top of the other stuff that needs to happen. So, yeah, that’s a new challenge for us.

Sarah Beth: That’s always interesting, figuring that out. Especially as I’m expanding, I’m thinking about that because I don’t have a band. 

Henry: I was going to ask you earlier, are you thinking about expanding the band for whenever we’re able to play live shows again? 

Sarah Beth: I want to. The last part of the year, I was like, I do want to figure that out. But it’s the same thing with people that I collaborate with — I just need it to happen organically, because every time that I’ve tried to bring people on tour, it’s not like it’s been horrible or anything, but it’s just hasn’t connected in the way that feels good. So there’s no need to force something into existence just to fill the space. I have been asked for some tours, where they’re like, “They’d like you to play with at least one other person,” which is funny to me.

Henry: I wonder why they would say that. 

Sarah Beth: I don’t know if it’s because they think if it’s, like, a bigger presence, people will make sure that they’re paying more attention or whatever. 

Another big part of it is that with how grueling [touring] is — if we ever get to do it again — I want to, like, love and be comfortable and feel reciprocally nourished by the people that I’m around. I don’t want it to just be like, “Oh, well, you’re a great guitarist. So, like, hired.” I want them to be connected to the music, and I also want us to be connected to each other. So whenever that happens, that would be great and cool. I would love for it to have happened, like, yesterday, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

Emily: It’s hard to make plans for it at this point. 

Sarah Beth: For sure. But I’m pretty close to finishing LP2, which is exciting. In the writing stage. I do have people that I’m interested in playing on it, but that’s to be sorted out. And a lot of that can be done remotely. It’s a little bit freeing to just be like, I can change the song so much up until the point of recording. I don’t think a song is finished until I record it, and I’m like, OK, I can’t do anything now

Emily: Well, that’s exciting! Congrats.

Sarah Beth: I’m getting excited. There was a long period of time where I just didn’t really write post–At Weddings coming out, because I was like, Oh, no, I can never do this ever again. So it’s nice to be like Oh, I can.

Emily: “I can and I did!”

Sarah Beth Tomberlin is a Louisville, KY–born, LA-based folk singer–songwriter. Her debut album At Weddings was released in 2018 by Saddle Creek, who also put out her EP Projections in 2020.

(Photo Credit: Marc Silverstein)