Not too long ago (in the general scheme of things), Nik Ewing was a wide-eyed San Diegan playing in local bands like Tape Deck Mountain, Lesands and the Howls. In fact, it was during his stint in that latter band that I first met him and his Howls bandmates, who were, at the time, enjoying success with "Rocky Ground," an album that earned them a 2012 San Diego Music Award nomination for Best Americana/Country Album (and a performance at that year's ceremony).
Fast-forward seven short years later and Ewing has graduated to bigger and better things: After meeting the guys in Local Natives through mutual friends and joining them on the road as a touring member from 2012-13 (according to Songkick, the band literally played 188 shows in 2013), the talented multi-instrumentalist was officially invited to become a full-fledged member.
Ewing's first writing/production contributions to the group's music arrived on their third studio album, 2016's "Sunlit Youth" -- and since then, they've been hard at work either touring or working on its eagerly anticipated follow-up. In fact, there's some big news on that front: Just earlier this week, the band announced a June 19 show at the Observatory North Park (get tickets here) and has promised new music in March.
Despite the focus on Local Natives' fourth album, Ewing has also branched out with a solo project of his own under the moniker Chewing and revealed his debut body of work -- an album covering Dennis Wilson's (of Beach Boys fame) 1977 cult-favorite debut, "Pacific Ocean Blue," in its entirety (the only solo album Wilson would release while he was alive).
Naturally, Ewing asked his Local Natives bandmates (guitarist/vocalist Taylor Rice, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Kelcey Ayer, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Ryan Hahn, and drummer Matt Frazier) to contribute and what started out as a small endeavor grew to collaborations with members of Cults, Pop Etc, the Gloomies and others. The result? Gorgeously haunting vocals, atmospheric synths and otherwordly compositions of disorienting samples, loops and production wizardry -- all mixed together in an avant garde-esque soup that, save for lyrics, largely eschews much of its source material. A paint-by-numbers covers album it ain't; each song is an absolutely fresh reimagination and altogether original.
Ewing took some time recently to talk with SoundDiego about "Pacific Ocean Blue," how its various contributors became involved, and what's next for both Chewing and Local Natives.
Dustin Lothspeich: Let’s dive right into this Dennis Wilson album project: How did the idea for it come about? Why choose to release a cover of an entire album as your first solo project?
Nik Ewing: I've stayed in touch with this rad Seattle vinyl subscription label, Turntable Kitchen, over the years. They approached me about their new Sounds Delicious series, where artists cover albums in their entirety, to see if Local Natives would be interested. It's a really cool series -- Mutual Benefit covered a Vashti Bunyan album, Ben Gibbard covered a Teenage Fanclub album, etc. We were just putting the finishing touches on "Sunlit Youth" and about to start touring that, so the entire band didn't really have any time.
I wanted to make this feel like a dark, lost mixtape, but covering and reinterpreting Dennis Wilson's album. It's a pretty special, sad album that seemed overlooked by the success of all his bandmates (and brother). Obviously it was easy to start by grabbing one of my bandmates to have them sing a part, but then I just reaching out to other friends to get more voices on the album.
The real challenge was to not have each song sound completely different, or to have a disjointed album, but to get them all to flow together into a singular cohesive thing. I love collaborative albums, like most of Blood Orange's releases, where many singers flow in and out, or where a a guest rapper doesn't feel outta place on a James Blake album.
DL: When and where did these tracks come together? Who did you work with behind the scenes? Did you go into big studio or work on these at home?
NE: The tracks were made here and there from 2016 to 2018, just whenever I had downtime. "Rainbows" actually started from a piece of music I made down in Nicaragua during our final "Sunlit Youth" recording/mixing sessions. "River Song" was started in a hotel room in Austin, Texas on a day off on tour, then I grabbed some of my bandmates to throw down some scratch vocals.
The last song I made for the album was "Friday Night," which was started during Local Natives' [fourth album] writing retreat in Mexico at the end of 2017. I guess the only time the songs got the proper big-studio treatment was when they were mixed by Eduardo de la Paz in London. He mixed a couple of the weirder, electronic songs on "Sunlit Youth" and has also worked with Arcade Fire, the Horrors, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc., so it felt like a real natural fit.
DL: You’ve got some great collaborators onboard -- how did all that come together? Did they choose the song(s) they wanted to contribute on, or did you ask them to guest on specific tracks?
NE: The only place where the artist picked the song was Pop Etc on "Thoughts of You." Chris [Chu] called dibs when I told him about the project and I'm glad he did, he really gave such a beautiful, delicate performance. For the rest of album, I knew what kind of voice I wanted to match the music.
Since Local Natives has multiple singers, I already kind of think of music in that way: In terms of "oh, Kelcey's voice is perfect for this melody" or "this song fits Taylor's range." Before I even started making the music, I already knew Kelcey's voice was perfect for the melodies and power of "River Song" and then it was such a natural step for the rest of the band to sing harmonies in our natural range around that performance.
"Moonshine" became this sad, bedroom pop song. I wanted a beautiful, otherworldly voice on that and asked Cults, which have been friends of mine for awhile. They actually had so much fun recording the cover song, that they then joined the Sounds Delicious series to cover a Motels album, which is super rad. I highly recommend! Same kind of process with the Gloomies: The song became this soulful, sample-sounding drum loop, but with really dark, distorted interruptions which seemed to really fit in the world of Andy [Craig's] voice. Again, the real challenge was to get them all to fit together and not like 12 randomly disjointed songs.
I love when artists cover songs and really make them their own. Cat Power does this a lot, where she just takes the lyrics and abandons the melody and chords, just starts over. Ryan, from my band, and I did that on the title track "Pacific Ocean Blue." Other than the lyrics, it has almost nothing to do with original song.
DL: Did the guest artists work on the instrumental portions of the songs too or did they only lend their voices?
NE: Nico Segal played all the horns on "Time." He used to go by the name Donnie Trumpet and released an incredible, incredible album a few years ago called "Surf." It's mostly known for "Sunday Candy" but the entire thing requires multiple listens. He makes a lot of music with Chance the Rapper and he played trumpet on "The Only Heirs," a Local Natives single from 2017.
Matt Frazier, from my band, played drums on "You & I" and "Dreamer." I wanted a looped, sampled drum vibe for those songs, so I recorded him playing the same beat for like half an hour and then I just picked the five seconds I loved the most and put that on loop -- sorry/thank you, Matt! [laughs] Other than that, I played and produced all the other music and the contributors lent their voices to the album.
DL: Like most of Dennis Wilson's releases, this particular album has quite the cult following; how would you explain its enduring and growing appeal over the years?
NE: Legacy bands have so many albums beyond the classics they're known for, it's really a miracle if anyone can listen to all of it. Like outside of the Beatles, there are like 60 albums combined from those four guys' solo careers! Who has listened to all of them?! All that to say, I get how rad albums get slept on. If you made "The White Album," I get how "Ram" isn't as widely known.
I stumbled upon "Pacific Ocean Blue" about 10 years ago from a friend's recommendation. I was in awe how a Beach Boy could make something so raw, dark and honest that late in his career, while mostly successfully side-stepping the production trappings of the late '70s. Maybe the shadow of Dennis' sad death helped it's cult following? I'm really not sure how the album has grown over the years, but I'm glad it somehow made its way to my ears.
DL: If someone was asking about the album and you could show them one song from it that sums up the way you feel about it or inspired you the most, what song would you have them listen to?
NE: To me, "Time" is the most Chewing. Even to my bandmates and close friends, I think they'd agree that all the music on that song is my musical taste and tendencies at it's purest. Chopped up vocals and piano, arpeggiating synths, heavy distorted bass, self-sampling, etc. Kelcey's and Nico's performances on the song are really next level, I'm honored to have them contribute to the song.
DL: You mentioned it’ll only be released via vinyl -- explain why that is and the different options folks have for ordering it? Releasing an album without going through the various digital streaming markets seems like a bold move.
NE: Turntable Kitchen is a vinyl-only subscription service/label, so that's really the answer why it's only on vinyl (having said that, each album does come with a digital download). The album can be bought individually on classic black vinyl here. Or by subscribing to their series, you'll get the album on sea-blue vinyl and future unannounced releases here. I really really like what Turntable Kitchen is doing and at the risk of sounding pretentious, I like forcing people in 2019 to listen to an album in its entirety.
"Rise Above" by Dirty Projectors is technically a cover album. "We're New Here" by Jamie xx and Gil-Scott Heron is technically a remix album. But to me, as a fan and a listener, those both stand on their own. I really don't think of them as covers in my mind, just incredible music. Not to compare my album to those, but "Pacific Ocean Blue" really feels like it's own cohesive thing. There aren't really any "bangers"/singles on this album, there are a lot of repeated themes and sounds that are only caught by listening in the context of an album.
DL: Do you have original music in the pipeline to release after this?
NE: I'm planning on releasing a more ambient EP this year, but no definitive dates. I'm also working with Jon Chu on a short film/multi-layered video installation that I'm making music for. A lot of "Pacific Ocean Blue" will be used in the film, it's kind of a companion piece to the album. I'm always working on music. I'm sure some of that will make its way into some new Chewing music in the future.
DL: While we’re here, is there any news you can share on the Local Natives front?
NE: Unfortunately, I can't really share anything definitive right now. Just that new music is coming very, very soon! The best music I've made with my best friends. Really excited to share it soon. We'll have to chat again once it's out or when we play San Diego next (June 19).
DL: I’ve gotta ask, as someone who highly dug the Howls, is there any chance that group could see a reunion at some point? I know myself and a bunch of friends would love to see that.
NE: Oh man, that would be so fun! We haven't chatted Howls in years, but maybe give it enough time for that music to grow into a cult following and someone covers it -- and we'll be back!
Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician, an associate editor at NBC SoundDiego since 2013, talent buyer at The Merrow, and founder of the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.