Music Monday: Slothrust's Leah Wellbaum

The singer and guitarist talks about politics on the road, and sleep as a tool for survival.

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I fell in love with Slothrust in 2014, when they released their very excellent second record, Of Course You Do. I can even further pinpoint the exact moment I realized I had found a band that was a kindred spirit to my soul — it's when, in the second song, singer and guitarist Leah Wellbaum sang, "My name is Leah and I drink juice / every morning when I wake up / but it's no use, I'm unwell / can you tell that I'm sick in the brain?" It was love at first sound.

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Slothrust, which alongside Leah is made up of drummer Will Gorin and bassist Kyle Bann, make incredibly rocking music that makes you want to thrash around, makes you want to pick up a guitar and makes you want to sing into your deodorant like it's a microphone, the way you did when you were a teen in your room exorcising your demons. Last year, they released their follow-up album, Everyone Else, which proved they're in this for the long haul. The insane shredding, crazy bass lines, and mad rocking are still there, but it also feels like a natural evolution from their last record, especially with Leah's lyrics, which are poignant and funny and you can relate to as an adult going through adult things and living through adult shit without wanting to pull your hair out. Leah also makes really cool art books and is generally the kind of woman you'd want to hang out with and be friends with. We caught up on the phone last week and talked about the ocean ("It's peaceful and terrifying and fascinating"), why rebelling against your parents can have really great results, and why sleep is the most important survival tool for a touring musician.

Laia Garcia: What did you get into first when you were a young person, was it music or writing?

Leah Wellbaum: I've always done both. Since as far back as I can remember, I've always loved music, and heard it in my head, and written lyrics or poetry, wrote stories, sort of whatever I felt compelled to do at the time, for my whole life. It's really always been in there. When I was a kid, I used to — I guess for lack of a better term — hallucinate big-band music sometimes when I was trying to fall asleep. [It] was a little frightening because it's not always the best sign [when] people hear things that aren't really there, but I think it's because I would always sleep with white noise. If you're particularly sensitive to pitch, you can pull certain frequencies from white noise and sort of craft your own thing, and I've actually met people who had the same experience who also slept with white noise. So, yes, I guess I've always heard music in my head, and I've always loved musical theater.

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LG: Was the guitar the first instrument that you learned how to play?

LW: No, piano was.

LG: What made you want to switch?

LW: I would say that piano is my favorite instrument. I love the piano. What made me want to stop playing piano was [that] my dad was on my ass about practicing all the time, and I did not like that. I didn't like being told what to do. I picked up guitar when I was about fourteen, and what I really liked about it was that I could be alone while I played it, I could be by myself in my room, and it's a portable instrument. I could bring it with me places. No one in my family had ever played guitar. Everyone in my family could play piano.

LG: What was the first song you learned to play on guitar, do you remember?

LW: Oh my God. I went to a summer camp when I was younger, I was probably twelve or thirteen, and I took one single guitar lesson there. The guitar teacher tried to teach me "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I didn't like it because it hurt my hand a lot, and I wasn't ready to embrace that as part of the process, but in fact pain is part of the process of learning a new instrument.

I couldn't really play it [then], but I can play it now, so there you go.

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Slothrust perform "Rotten Pumpkin," off their excellent new album Everyone Else.

LG: You're going on tour in a bit. How do you prepare for it?

LW: We generally will have a couple of band practices and try to get our assets in order, and then we just go for it. This tour will be interesting because it's our first headlining tour in a really long time, or in some ways ever. I'm the type of person who always thinks nobody is going to come. I just always assume that no one's heard of us and no one will come.

We've only played Cleveland two times, and the first time we played I think there were eleven people, and then we went back there this fall and we drew almost a hundred people! It was an interesting time because it was right after the election, so I was really glad that we were headlining there as opposed to being a support act because there was a lot of room to encourage a dialogue with people, and to try to create space for people to meet each other, and encourage people to be good allies. I think our fan base definitely is receptive to that.

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LG: Is that something that you're going to keep doing as you go on this tour?

LW: Yes.

LG: Since you get to travel and go to these different places, do you get a different perspective of the country?

LW: Yeah. I think America is incredibly diverse. Our final tour date on the tour we did in November was in Flint, Michigan, [and in] Flint, Michigan, they still don't have water. It's a community that has been so neglected, and there were only two places available that we could find food, and it was steak sandwiches and pizza. Everyone in more metropolitan cities has access to Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods, and farmers' markets, and that doesn't really exist over there. It's just a totally different thing going on.

There are people in those communities that are living in poverty, very neglected, that are in support of Trump because their situation [did] not improve with Obama. They are hopeful that somebody different — who's lying to them, frankly, who doesn't understand that experience at all — is going to bring them some sort of financial stability, and it sucks. It sucks, but you also have to acknowledge somebody's experience because it's not yours.

Talking about politics onstage went over very differently in different cities. When I say things in Boston, everything is cool. Same with Chicago. Then you get to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cincinnati, and you're going to get booed a little bit, but it doesn't really matter. If it's a big room anyway, which this past tour all the rooms were pretty large, I don't care. In some ways it's good for people to realize that there is a divide there, that maybe there's room for conversation, to hopefully stay more productive.

LG: Do you feel like your writing is getting more political?

LW: I think that I'm the type of writer who in many cases doesn't necessarily know what a song is about until it's done, and I've performed it a bunch of times. Part of my creative process is trying to write no-holds-barred while I'm writing and not trying to be too obsessive about what the concept of the song is at the moment.

LG: One last question, do you have any rituals on tour to take care of yourself?

LW: I think that that's a really good question and something that needs to be examined more in the music industry. I see a lot of musicians get really burned out on the road, and I see a lot of people not take care of themselves, and be very sleep-deprived, and develop dependencies on substances, and it's very real and very scary. I hope that people can start to become more aware of that and recognize that of course bands are a business, but simultaneously it's people, and you're asking people to do something that's very rigorous.

The number-one thing that I try to do is sleep as much as I can. I really like to sleep. Once you start to get sleep-deprived, I think a lot of things start to go downhill. Your physical health and your mental health start to slip. I think that that's important.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is Lenny's deputy editor.

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