If you’ve ever struggled to parse the meaning of a Beasthead song, that’s by design.
The Minneapolis five-piece move in indiscernible waves, concealing their intentions. In one song, singer Harry Reynolds’ vocals are a bright vertex; in the next, they’re dissolved isometrically into the mix. Guitars disappear for whole measures at a time. Often, the only orienting factor is the percussion, but even that dissolves into false polyrhythms and off-tempo cadences.
That doesn’t mean everything happens without purpose.
“There’s a rough idea of what we’re doing here, but there’s an open-endedness that people can pull from,” says Beasthead keyboardist and guitarist Doug Deitchler. “Hopefully you listen to them five or six times through and come up with something different every time.”
It’s been four years since Beasthead released their last EP, Tallest Trees. While that album was a playful testing ground for the ambient indie rockers, I Owe You for This (released May 19) is more mature and deliberate. Candid and imprecise, it still shows the band finding their way through manifold moods, but it’s been forged over the hundreds of shows Beasthead has played in the intermission between the two EPs.
Co-produced by Ryan Olcott (12 Rods, Pytch Records), I Owe You for This is a glimpse into the complexities of a growing band and the isolation of their always-going tour life. Influenced by long nights, far-flung gigs, and psilocybin, the record comes through in a blur that makes it seem accidental or spontaneous.
“We kinda work backwards in a lot of different ways,” Deitchler says. “All these songs, we just threw them together, and then we looked back on them, and we were like, ‘Oh, this is all cohesive. There’s things that pop up that make them relate to each other.’”
To try and capture some of that cohesion, City Pages sat down with the mercurial mood-makers and discussed the mystifying journey that is their new EP.
I Owe You for This opens on an undeniable, contagious moment. An incongruous snap beat breaks in as singer Harry Reynolds' coo layers in over the top, and suddenly your shoulders come unglued. Your hands raise, neck craning to capture the beat.
“That’s basically our criteria for a song,” Deitchler jokes. “Whether or not you can wrist dance to it.”
That opening salvo on "Fastalker" makes a perfect first impression for a band returning after a four-year lapse. “You want something that starts right away, especially with how stuff is played nowadays,” says guitarist Nick Whebbe. “I listen to a lot of stuff and I give it 10 or 15 seconds, so I was like, ‘What’s the best 10 or 15 seconds we can put on right away?”
Whebbe leads the song with a twangy guitar line, but something nagging emerges from the drums as the song goes on. Deitchler piled three separate beats on top of each other, creating an elusive dance factor.
“They don’t work apart, but when you put them over each other, it creates this polyrhythm,” he says. “You nod your head to that beat, but you’re not on the same snare hit every time.”
Reynolds admits to writing the Dirty Vegas-style melody before retrofitting the lyrics. There’s a vague sense of yearning, but ultimately the vocal track is meant to emulate another instrument in the mix. And the chorus has no lyrics.
“When I write lyrics, I don’t write them about a specific thing, they’re just sort of a collection,” Reynolds says. “I think of ‘Fastalker’ as my favorite kid. I just love the way it moves, man. It’s hard to describe.”
At the end of “Keep Up,” Reynolds provides the first clue into the overarching theme of I Owe You for This. In a slurred and desperate moment, he pleads, “I want you to leave me here/ 'Cause it’s wasted/ I’m wasted/ I’m gonna owe you for this/ Leave whenever you can.”
“That song came from a time when we all were partying too much,” Reynolds says. “The majority of it is about being at a party and feeling uncomfortable. Not knowing where you’re at.”
Existential doubt runs through the EP, and “Keep Up” is a come-to-Jesus moment where the band realizes that getting blasted at after parties show after show is beginning to weigh on their souls. The chorus of “I can’t keep feeling up” is a sigh of forfeit as the rush of the night folds into angst and dread.
I Owe You for This is a time capsule of the twentysomething band’s journey from 2013 to this moment. Over a manic ‘80s synths, with the formants of Reynolds' voice all kicked to shit, they invert and overanalyze, breathing out the song as an exorcism of those nights when the party went too late and it all got too real.
“It’s about isolation in a lot of busyness,” Deitchler says. “Thematically, that’s probably the most on the nose for the whole album.”
At the EP’s midpoint, shit goes utterly off the rails. The collapse of “Keep Up” leads into the glorious rock bottom of I Owe You for This: “Warbanger,” an indulgent ‘70s fuck groove that bridges seamlessly into a Public Enemy-era rap verse. It’s a moment that could only be accomplished by a band that’d come so undone that slapping a hoarse screed on top of a jagged, garagey drone made sense.
“The whole thing is kind of a mess,” Deitchler admits. “I have a picture with each one of us having a hand on the beatpad. We were probably stoned or something, and we were just like, ‘Hit this! Add the rattler!’ We were all just hitting things, and it wasn’t in time, but it kinda is? I dunno, we never quantized it.”
When Ghostmeat heard “Warbanger” at the Kitty Kat Club, he knew he had to lend his voice to the cacophony.
“He came to us and was like, ‘Put me on this song, I have the lyrics written,’” Reynolds remembers. “He came in and played it with us, and I was just like, ‘What?’ We didn’t even give him a demo.”
It turned out to be the exact right measure of madness that the song needed. Ghostmeat’s verse comes off like a trashcan zealot screaming on a street corner, a bottle of hooch in his jacket. The verses add a totally unanticipated element the song that clicks on an instinctual level.
After volleying verses without interruption, Reynolds and Ghostmeat finally come together in a scintillating moment at the end of the song. Together, they chant, “Minds often open, rented/ Bottles often empty, tempting/ Everybody gets on in the land of plenty/ No pork ya'll, and that's all, that's the ending,” tying the theme back to “Keep Up” while still nudging it towards absurdity with the Porky the Pig reference.
“It sorta comes out of left field, but it sorta makes sense,” Deitchler says. “We threw a guitar solo into a sorta-off-time rap song, and it was just like, ‘Why not?’”
Following the calamitous crescendo of “Warbanger,” Beasthead collect themselves for the most earnest tune on I Owe You for This. Unlike the bulk of Beasthead’s songs, “Ikaray” was written with a beautiful, singular intention that Reynolds is almost reluctant to discuss.
“A couple years ago, my brother had a longboarding accident, and he had a traumatic brain injury,” Reynolds says. “That happened two months before we wrote that song.”
The lyrics stem from a conversation Reynolds had where he first realized his brothers personality was changing due to the injury. You can sense Reynolds' difficulty in the song’s warbled chorus. In the EP’s emotional pinnacle, he screams out unintelligibly on the bridge, unable to express the pain unmasked.
The title of the song came while Reynolds and Deitchler were processing the emotions of the song together. As they tried to hash out the lyrics, they ended up going down an internet rabbit hole, digging deeply into articles about South American indigenous rituals and ayahuasca ceremonies. It's in those strange enclaves that they discovered icaros -- healing songs sung by shamans, often during psychedelic ceremonies.
“There were things that tied in thematically to this culture,” Deitchler says. “There were phrases in [the song] like, ‘smoke this away,’ or something like that, and we were looking up tribes in South America that did smoke songs, and they do healing songs for people with bad spirits inside them. It was uncanny how much crossover there was not only in content but also in intent.”
Uncovering this idea of music as healing was a strong moment of symmetry for Reynolds, one he couldn’t chalk up to coincidence. He knew right away that he could finish “Ikaray” as a gesture to his ailing brother.
“The verses were written, but I needed connecting pieces to finish off phrases I hadn’t quite figured out, and that’s when I found out [about the Icaros],” he says. “I wouldn’t wanna call it an icaro, because it’s not that. It’s our take on that. Our interpretation. I basically took that idea of the healing song and molded that to my situation. “
Spent from “Warbanger” and “Ikaray,” Beasthead retreat into their simplest expression on I Owe You for This -- lead single “Sticker on Your Brain.”
“It’s about a girl I used to date,” says Reynolds swiftly. “That’s where it ends.”
A deeper scrape reveals more. “Sticker on Your Brain” is about infatuation. Reynolds yearns for a woman he knows will escape him, though he devotes very few words to the feeling. Instead, he repeats despondent phrases, rendering his voice as articulate as a guitar chord strummed into the background.
“Oh, I yearn,” Reynolds says dismissively. “It’s pretty emo.”
Despite his efforts to dismiss the song and the feeling, Reynolds’ repetitious vocals make “Sticker on Your Brain” an immutably catchy song. Add the gripping imagery of the song’s title, and you have a tune that embeds itself in your mind just like a reluctant crush.
There’s also a universality to the song that Fort Wilson Riot’s Jacob Mullis immediately latched onto when he was helping engineer it.
“There’s this one line in there that’s like , ‘I wish I saw you first/ I wish I saw you sailing away.’ He was like, ‘I love that,’” Deitchler recalls. “He got so excited that he called [wife and fellow Fort Wilson Riot member Amy Hager] to come over.”
Hager added supporting vocals to the bleating chorus and bridge, fleshing out a song that was never meant to do more than exorcise a ghost.
“I think the simplicity of it, the straightforwardness, is what makes you get it right away,” Deitchler says.
“It’s like a Honda Accord,” Reynolds adds. “I love Honda Accords.”
“Sleep” closes the record with its biggest mystery.
The last song to come together for I Owe You for This, “Sleep” went through significant changes before it was finalized. Whebbe intentionally scaled back his guitar part because he was so confused by the song’s lack of structure.
“The parts shouldn’t work together,” Reynolds says. “It’s so disjointed. I didn’t even like the song until a week after we finished it.”
It was Olcott who rescued “Sleep” from the editing room floor, bridging the three disparate parts into a stirring, albeit manic, jaunt. Olcott’s mastery showed the band how to take the song live, layering spoken vocals over video game keys and heavily modulated coos. It’s a final note that steals every moment of clarity from the previous five songs.
“No one liked it, we all went through periods of hating it,” Deitchler says. “But after Ryan took a look at it, we were like, ‘Oh, that’s how we can tighten it up.’”
The tightness of “Sleep” can’t be understated. It’s one stray downbeat from falling apart entirely, tensing around each juncture reflexively. This also means that the song’s intention is locked securely away in the madness, barely offering itself to interpretation.
With: Cool Pollution, MAKR, and Keith Millions
When: 9:30 p.m. Thur., May 23
Tickets: $7, more info here