“It’s hard to demand patience of everyone,” D Kesler of Thee More Shallows tells me. “But we listened to it and felt it had worlds in it. It had a lot of depth.” It’s been two decades since Thee More Shallows released their debut album A History of Sport Fishing, first on Megalon Records in the US and Monotreme Records in the UK. In the years since, the world of independent music and the internet has metamorphosized unrecognizably—more so now than ever, pop music, and indie music by extension, are dominated by a drive for music that is algorithmically intentioned. Music primed for the 15-to-20 second attention span, short songs, large streaming revenues. While there is still a passionate listenership for concept records and ideas, we can see a definitive shift toward the single (again) and away from the album.
Apropos of that algorithmic cynicism in music at the forefront of pop culture, in the last few years there has been a notable surge with the next generation taking an interest and new appreciation of the bands we associate with the loose genre term slowcore—slow and fuzzy music and sparse lyricism with a general atmospheric focus and less concentration on verse-chorus-verse structures. We think of bands like Bedhead, Low, Early Day Miners, Duster and Codeine. At a glance, Thee More Shallows fits snuggly into this category, but like all genre assertions, it’s a little bit of a generalisation; one that doesn’t fully accentuate what is so emotionally resonant about this record twenty years later. I asked Kesler about these often-cited bands in relation to TMS: “In the new Beatles documentary [Get Back, 2021] Paul says, ‘you come up with something unique when you try to rip somebody off and you can’t do it the way they do it, so you do it the way you do it.’ Not that I’m comparing Thee More Shallows to the Beatles, but I’m sure there was some form of that for us. I don’t have a strong voice, so I got a lot of affirmation from listening to other quiet singers. And realising that I could convey tonality and emotion and lead a band and say things without having a belter of a voice, that was very important. And a lot of those bands use space very effectively. You can create an arena and invite people into it, you don’t need to yell at them. You can let them into the space.”
Thee More Shallows initially formed as a project between D Kesler and Tadas Kisielius while living together in an apartment in San Francisco. They were coming out of a four-piece called Shackleton and recruited friends to record their first album, the extraordinary A History of Sport Fishing. “Tadas and I had this really deep friendship,” Kesler says, “but since at the core, it was the two of us, plus friends, it wasn’t a classic ‘band’ record.” The principal band included two drummers—Jason Gonzales and Chavo Fraser—and percussion is a big part of what gives the album its unique and expansive sound.
A History of Sport Fishing is a long album. 57 minutes. Few of the songs clock in at under 5 minutes, and those that do often feel like expansions of the previous tracks. This is all to say that if you give this album your full attention it will change your life, but that the average listener may not be willing to pay the toll. The guitar riffs are meditative and wandering; the vocals sometimes carry a tone of lassitude—almost lullaby-esque—and then, when you least expect it, the capital letter emotions flood the scene. The logistical constraints may have led to the album’s emotional urgency, but its overall tone is not urgent, it is meditative and thoughtful.
Kesler and Kisielius bought an 8-track and at their apartment they would record vocals and some light instrumentals. Then, they would take their equipment to a practice space to record fully. In congruity with the emotionally affective tone of the album, the songs were recorded in the violet hours of the late evening and early morning. Their practice space was shared by all varieties of loud groups: death metal, etc. So they would show up between 5 and 9 AM to try and get their guitar or drum sections recorded before the other bands would show up, either staying up late or getting up early. But, as Kesler acknowledges, the constraint lent to the urgency that the record conveys—a preternatural late-night sound; unusual, yet curiously familiar. In the same way we recognize something of ourselves in Leyland Kirby’s [The Caretaker] appropriations of Stanley Kubrick or William Basinski’s tape disintegrations. We hear echoes of late nights spent listening to creepy or comforting music for the first time beneath the covers. Worlds of the familiar haunt the melodies of Sport Fishing.
There is certainly a value in its constraint too. “David is a grinder,” Kisielius says of Kesler. “He will always try to perfect. For our working relationship, having a cutoff was really valuable.”
“I’ve had a long career of overworking songs,” Kesler agrees. “My wife will hear me playing a banjo in the basement, and she’ll walk by and wordlessly turn on the egg timer for ten minutes.”
The album opens and a dreary guitar lick is matched by an unnavigably gloomy organ. “Where Are You Now?” then leads in with some cryptic and heartbreaking lyrics—a song about people who want to be together but ultimately are just trying to convince themselves it will work, and inevitably grow apart. It is in this first song we detect Kesler’s casual ability to write incredibly impactful lyrics, and without many words (as Karl Ove Knausgaard says, so much in so little space): “It’s the people you choose to leave / that you’ll see / all the time.”
The structure of the record is very cinematic: there are long and orchestral songs, couched between shorter instrumentals. The instrumentals were not planned this way—Kiselius and Kesler would write song structures first, then Kesler would hang in melody and the words. When the result felt unnatural, the instrumentals would emerge, typically as a riff driven through melody, a chord progression that crescendos with the guitar, in lieu of what we would anticipate from vocal structures. This has a fascinating effect: the listener engages the instrumental tracks with the same wonderment as the lyrical ones, giving the instrumentals more life than instrumentals we come across on other albums, operatically or conceptually preconceived as filler, whereby the listener often disengages because that’s what they’re supposed to do. “We spent a lot of time on sequencing,” says Kesler. “Tadas would bring in some found sound of children playing or something, we might add that. Not everything you do in life is given that kind of space, to let it be what it’s going to be. No song was forced to do something it wasn’t able to do. That’s not the case with a lot of creative endeavours; you often make things do what you need them to do, rather than letting them be what you want them to be.”
One of the tracks that fully embodies the cinema of the music is “The 8th Ring of Hell,” a song that glides the full range of quiet-to-loud, tackling pedantry and infidelity, and begins and ends with the mesmeric sound of a tape recorder pleasantly clicking on and off. It’s also the song that showcases Kesler’s range as a vocalist. “I’ve always thought that David’s voice was great,” agrees Kisielius. “The most compelling moments on the record are where David does belt. There are lines that David delivers that are not in the hushed tone that I can remember recording: those are the most compelling lines because of how he performs them. I think it gave him cover to do the hushed tone and make those other lines that much more powerful, in the juxtaposition.” It’s a prominent contrast and it does work rather brilliantly—the other moment on the album that matches its fervour is “I Do So Have A Sense of Humor” a breakup song that truncates an entire romantic saga in about twelve lines. Somehow, Kesler is tracing over the familiar lines of heartbreak with which we are all familiar, but does so in a way that still catches a lump in your throat—“I know that you got a big heart / ‘cause it has a place for the hearts that you tear apart.”
The precision of Kesler’s lyricism is compelling as a listener. The less-is-more conviviality is a big genre draw to the band’s general sound, allowing you to become more immersed in the atmospheric nature of its melancholy rhythms and lush melodies—see “The CruXXX” or “He Hate Me” for reference. Speaking of melancholy, the most devastating song on the album must be its title track, which glacially blankets the listener in a dark, chilling place. Hauntology is a neologism usually referenced in relation to the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who wrote about ambient music and its hypnogogic use of sampling antiquated music in a temporal and disjointed way, replicating hostile memory loss or contemplating lost futures, no longer available. But I think the term is applicable to Thee More Shallows too: much of their sound is reflexive of familiar 20th century music but presented in an originally frictional, and uncanny way. This is evident in the words, which are not thematically new, but always feel somehow inventive. “My lyrical style can be concise, I’m not a stream of consciousness writer,” says Kesler. “But there’s still this wonderful moment when you turn a phrase, and you don’t feel like you wrote it. That’s a hard razor’s edge to navigate. “A History of Sport Fishing” [the song] has a specific thing it’s saying, but when I finished it, I saw it had become something else. It’s got a pillowy sound Tadas came up with. The lyrics have a stark tone that conveys something deliberate, and you’re forced to be there, measure by measure, with it, as it speaks.”
One of the songs that has gained a bit of a reputation online over the last twenty years is “Ballad of Douglas Chin,” which stands out as something of a end-of-act-one in the album’s emotional narrative; a song that portrays the emotional breaking point of late night insomnia. “It’s a very specific song,” says Kesler. “Where we lived in San Francisco, on Friday nights it would become a very trafficked corner. My window looked out over so much noise. I would wake up and look out—a couple times I yelled out the window like a crazy person. It was bad enough that the guy across the street got arrested for cutting up pieces of rebar, which he would throw out at the Johns’ cars from his third story window. He went full vigilante.” Beneath the song’s woeful tale of its titular rebar archer is something more: a paean to artistic failure, the frustrations of trying to pursue music not just as a passion, but a career, and the agoraphobic anxieties of that effort. “We were living in a difficult situation, forgoing getting real jobs, working on that record that we didn’t know if it would see the light of day—it was very off the deep end,” recalls Kesler. “That narrative is thinking through what I’m willing to risk making good art, and simultaneously bringing in the narrative of people on the street, imagining intermingling my own entitlement with this person who is turning tricks and being yelled at.”
The album’s climactic moment comes with track 9 of 11, “The Perfect Map,” which is also the album’s longest tunes, a thunderous eight minutes of peculiar rhythms and whispered lyrics, somehow doleful yet energized. The drumbeat is 5/8, which is a very unusual time signature, no easy feat for a drummer to pull off. “That beat is unique, and I love it,” says Kesler. “I haven’t heard it other places, it’s our tiny contribution to the music language.” This affinity for odd time signatures is not unique to “The Perfect Map”; many of the album’s songs utilize counter rhythms and weird time signatures, which is part of why the album feels so wholly singular. “We enjoyed playing with rhythms—counter rhythms, polyrhythms, and time signatures,” says Kisielius. “For some drummers who are used to 4/4 time, that was too much. But for both of Thee More Shallows’ drummers, they were just instinctive on that end. But they both played differently too, which leads to the nice variety of drumming on the record.
A History of Sport Fishing closes with two of its most gorgeous songs; the pleasant “He Hate Me,” a brief, whimsical instrumental; and “The Horizon Is a Single Point,” a bluesy conclusion to one of the best records ever made. Upon its release, the album did not get the critical or commercial praise it deserves, with some strong local attention in the Bay area and a modest following in England. The album’s lingering sound does not match the imagined energy of caffeinated music journalists with word counts to meet. To some ears, the long stretches of instrumentals were too long. But for those with the time to fully immerse in its waters, the album is an ocean of splendour.
Looking to the future, Thee More Shallows are not calling it a day yet. Last year, they released Dad Jams, their first album in 13 years. The album treads a lot of new ground for the band—namely fatherhood—but also returned to the established musical discourse of the band’s previous three albums, picking it up right where they left off, sonically and thematically. Since then, the band has continued. “Tadas and I got bored during Covid and recorded covers on our phones, which we’re going to release.” Kesler says. “When you have children, it’s a time and energy expenditure thing. When I was younger, I wondered why old people were so lame, as if they were making a choice, deciding not to put on the cool pants and go out. But for ten years of your life, you’re so tired. Tadas and I are wonderfully coming out of that. Art is a masked wisdom—a desire to do it, which we have, a deep desire to make music.” The drive of developing the ideas, allowing the songs to take shape, which both Kesler and Kiselius describe, is what feels evident in the newer TMS songs; a sense of conception and ideas that have gelled into realities. It’s new, but it’s also very resonant of the sound that made Sport Fishing so wonderful. “Writing now is purely the one thing I do that gets me in that same space,” Kisielius says. “It’s free of any need to justify a product but wanting to finish a song. It’s rejuvenating. As a result of that, I’m looking forward to trading ideas.”
“I made a song today,” Kesler adds, “I watched an interview with David Berman [Silver Jews/Purple Mountains], and his facility of language…I just took a deep breath and thought. Even now, in my late 40s, I psyched myself up and got into that great balance, in touch with my emotions and out of my own way, and made a song, which I’m really proud of.”
The notion of the “unsung album” feels kind of antiquated in 2022. With music more accessible than ever, some of the specialness of an unknown or “underground” record exchanged in hushed tones on a cassette tape or mix CD at the back of the store feels quaint and irrelevant to the discovery process for today’s record geeks. Growing up in the 2000s, many of the best albums I discovered were not through working at a record store but from being on music forums and fan websites. That culture has faded too. What remains, and how it relates to the culture of music discovery, is relatively unclear. How algorithms advantage some artists and forgo others is cloudy and ambiguous, with the sense that the streaming companies are hoovering the revenue. In my view, it’s all traversable so long as the musicians are compensated for their labour—that’s not happening right now. But with physical LP sales continuing to increase each year and the recent clash between Neil Young and Spotify, there is at least some optimism.
As for Thee More Shallows? Even if they don’t rake in millions as the new flashy undiscovered band ala Neutral Milk Hotel, they still have accomplished so much. “We were a small band. Any interaction I would go into with people, nobody would know my band, and then only sometimes,” says Kesler. “But then, all through my life—it’s the most wonderful thing—there will be these moments where someone has had a connection with it. And that’s through it being out there on people’s hard drives and traded among fans. It’s never been a giant group of people, but individuals having a personal experience with it, in all walks of life, in unexpected ways, people will say ‘this had an effect on me.’ Just enough to make me proud we made it.”
Article by Jon Hoel
Photograph from the band’s official Bandcamp page