The Dead Ships
Singer Devlin McCluskey is in an empty dining hall with his mother and three year old niece. It's the middle of winter and they're staying at a hotel situated on a Native American burial ground in the middle of Illinois that, according to the hotel's literature, is the site of one of the bloodiest battles between two warring tribes where hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. Great, McCluskey thought, we're going to be sleeping right on top of every horror movie ever. His phone rings and he steps away from the table to answer. It's his manager. The Dead Ships, without a record or label to their name, have been asked to play Coachella. For obvious reasons, he didn't sleep that night.
The road leading The Dead Ships to the arrival to their debut album Citycide has been riddled with unexpected twists and turns. Originally formed by McCluskey and drummer Chris Spindelilus, the two had previously released an earlier effort titled Electric Ahab that they recorded in their friend's San Francisco basement studio that they now say should have been an EP. They've since added bassist Alex Moore, who came on board for a one-off then never left, signed to a label, and recorded their first full-fledged record with the aid of Broken Social Scene co-founder Brendan Canning.
"When I heard than Brendan was going to do it, I knew that I needed to change a lot in order to play up to his level," McCluskey shares on a call while the guys are out on the road. He quit drinking, started diligently writing every day, and fixed up his diet to where, for a time, he was eating spinach and lentils for every meal. "You don't get too many attempts to do something like this and you don't get too many shots at working with someone like Brendan. I knew that I had to do everything that I could to make sure it was the best album we could possibly do."
These shifts helped him find his voice. "When you first start out singing, you, at least for me and a lot of my friends who I would talk to about this, it was so difficult to find what your voice sounds like naturally when you sing, and what you want to sound like on a record. I feel like in the beginning, for us, there was a settling back into over-singing things, being really loud, trying to overcompensate for things at every stage and it ends up showing in a lot of the songs. Then on top of that, you've also got massive amounts of boozing that was going on and that really does take its toll [not only] on your vocals but also on your taste and your attitude towards things."
The band first met Canning about two years prior during a trip to Toronto. After catching a few of their shows, he offered to produce, a first for the Canadian artist. They recorded a few demos to test the waters, the chemistry was right, and later arranged time for him to come back for another session to record EP I before starting on the second half. In between the recordings, McCluskey's best friend, Flynn, took his life and knocked the writer's direction onto a different course. "I was getting home and trying to figure out how where to sort of go from there and figure out how that happened and how that can happen in the world... It's such a devastating, life-altering thing that it changes every sort of aspect of the way that I was relating to the world at the time," McCluskey recalls.
"A lot of the songs are about trying to actively participate and get a hold on things. I didn't want to wallow and lament. I wanted to find ways to push on and figure out what was going on, figure out how to move on… but not even move on because it's not like I want to forget anything or even move [on]. I'm still very much wanting to think about him every day." The album's title track, "Citycide," is about how when someone jumps off the San Francisco bridge they're always facing the city. While more somber songs were put to the pen, they didn't make it to the final product as it didn't feel like a complete musical thought with the first half of their album; it didn't fit what they had created together. The album serves as a call to arms, something to shake your fists at and with.
McClusky is responsible for setting the creative tone of the band but it's only able to gain its full fruition with Spindelilus and Moore alongside at the helm. Spindelilus creates the beats for the music and serves as the rock of the group, artfully admitting his strength as his punctuality both off and on the stage. Moore, the wildcard who stakes his skillset as his emotional vulnerability, is clearly the most outspoken out of the bunch and the two work together to reign in the sound to a cohesive sound after McCluskey and Canning went wild with out-of-the-box ideas and experimentation to test out during the recording process.
"Trying to figure out a musical reference language with Brendan was really interesting because he's not an old guy by any means but he's listened to a ton more music that we have–and he's a little older, and Canadian–so he has all of these different reference points than we had which was really great but also sort of made it difficult to find common ground sometimes." They made it through and launched Citycide, a welcome addition to the rebirth of rock hopefully coming back to the forefront.
"I think it can bring out and it can reflect the entire range of human emotion. I think that's why there are so many types of different music, I think that's why music is so important in so many people's lives," McCluskey responds when I ask him why music is something that can have such a hold on us. "There are weird albums that are just so associated with a time and a place in my life, and as soon as I hear it, it takes me right back there and I feel like I'm sixteen years old again listening to Wilco in an abandoned mall parking lot at 10:30 at night for some reason by myself. It has the power to transport you because it does connect you briefly to different emotions and scratch an itch that other things just can't."
Citycide is available now through Nevado Records and in stores nationwide.