In Conversation: Downhaul Drives Us Through Their Massive Sophomore Album PROOF

Thanks to Richie for recreating Øystein Aspelund‘s iconic cover art for PROOF

The members of Downhual have made a healthy habit of digging their roots deep and helping build up whatever music community their find themselves a part of. From starting off in Greensboro, which helped them plant seeds all across North Carolina, to their current home in Richmond, the group has found success by moving to town, making friends first and trying to convert them to fans down the road. Hell, there was even a great interview with the band about how beloved they are in Philly, where they recorded their newly released sophomore album PROOF with TWIABPAINLATD’s Chris Teti. Part of that good luck everywhere they go has to do with the kinda fellas that are in the band. Lead singer Gordon Phillips was a ska head growing up, spending formative years trolling the unofficial Streetlight Manifesto forums, while co-lead guitar and PROOF’s artistic director, Robbie Ludvigsen, spent his adolescence at hardcore shows, blasting Coheed and Cambria through his headphones. While Gordon and Robbie started off on different sides of the rock spectrum, they had a love and appreciation for their local music communities from a young age. To that end they clearly both approach songcraft with the attention to detail that any proud rock junkie would.  There were countless times over my hour-long conversation with the two of them where they referenced little details in songs on PROOF and what band they were calling back to. The importance of proper sequencing to help tell their story was also an ever-present aspect of our conversation. While Downhaul is not a music video band, and the group could never imagine themselves recording footage pensively walking about town or doing a “dapping up the boys montage”, Downhaul had a clear cinematic vision for the record, a picture they hoped to paint in listener’s heads with this album. You could look at PROOF almost as a road movie, something that Wim Wenders might have put together right after Paris, Texas, where the band takes the listener on a journey through all the places that made them who they are, to ultimately show the road they seek to travel from here.

Much of what helps give the album its that cinematic feel is the bands attentive ear to sequencing, including generally flawless transitions from track to track (Sidenote, this has always been a priority for the band, even going as far as to make sure the last song on their last LP Before You Fall Asleep lead seamlessly into the first track of their following EP Tornado Season.) To that end, you can gleam a great deal about the record from looking at its first and final tracks. The album opens with Bury” a massive, seven-minute epic that feels like the soundtrack to an opening shootout from a cowboy flick. Interestingly “Bury” was initially thought of as two distinct tracks, with the last four minutes nearly serving as a stand-alone single. But through bridging the two parts with what Gordon described as a “Mosh call riff” they become greater than the sum of their parts, providing a heavy, ambient, western feel to the entire record. In our road movie context, “Bury” feels like the final conversation that served as a last straw before leaving town, as our heroes then furiously hits the highway, hellbent on finding answers that may not come. Given the intensity of “Bury” that lingers for much of the album until “Eyesight” starts to turn the tide, album closer “About Leaving” is almost disruptively calm and laid back. The track wasn’t even originally conceived of as a song initially funnily enough. Gordon had simply put together his New Year’s Resolutions over some chords and sent it over to Robbie asking him what he thought, and Robbie told him he thought it was gonna be on the album. The two think of “About Leaving” as the epilogue as the credits roll, our heroes are driving off into the sunset as montages of the lives their friends would lead play overhead. “About Leaving” is a track about coming to peace with who you’ve become and knowing that you’ll be continuing to learn and change and grow until the day you die. To think it only took Gordon and Robbie revisiting everywhere they’ve ever been to come to that realization.

 I had the chance to chat with Gordon and Robbie about this incredible new record. We talked about the process of putting the songs together, including working with artist Øystein Aspelund on the iconic cover, why Richmond is so conducive to DIY music across genres, and why they still can’t wrap their heads around “Circulation”.

GSC: What are your names, how do you identify, and what are your roles in the band?

Gordon Phillips: Gordon, he/him pronouns. I am the singer of the band and play guitar.

Robbie Ludvigsen: I’m Robbie, he/him pronouns, and I play guitar as well.

GSC: Downhaul originally started off in North Carolina, and you had a great string of EP’s leading up to your 2019 album. What were your lives like from the founding of the band in Greensboro till when you got to Richmond?

Gordon: So, Robbie and I were college roommates. Pat and I grew up together. I took a job in North Carolina and Pat was going to school in North Carolina. So we were living together in Greensboro. Pat and I had been in bands together before, but I hadn’t been in a band in a while actually. I had some songs I was working on, it was my first time like really writing songs. We would kind of just like slap them together in previous bands, it was never  a deliberate songwriting effort. I had written some songs, and I sent them to Pat and he was like, these are good, we should do something with them. So we recorded them with just another friend of ours, without really any intention of being like a capital B Band. We put the first EP out in August  2016, but we didn’t play any shows until 2017.We found a drummer, Robbie was still living in New York at the time. But the job that I was working in North Carolina was just like a one year thing. And so we all moved back to Richmond, well we are all from Virginia. Robbie was home from New York, he joined the band. And that was fall of 2017, and we’ve been here since then.

GSC:  It seems like you guys are very well settled in Richmond as thriving members of the local music community. Do you guys have a good sense of comradery there in Richmond? Do you enjoy it? Or is there another city you could kind of see yourselves in?

Gordon: We’re super lucky. The Richmond scene has been really good to us, especially as transplants to that scene. Robbie grew up in Richmond, but Pat and I are from a little up 95 in a place called Stafford County. And Andy is from a place called Broadway, Virginia, if you hadn’t heard. Richmond has been really good to us though. There have been great venues, but we’re losing them as time goes by, which really sucks. There are some awesome bands here that we’re really lucky to play with. But part of me, being founded in North Carolina will always make us a little bit a North Carolina band. We still always have great shows whenever we play there, Charlotte is like probably our second or third best city to play after Richmond. So we definitely have a little bit of wandering eye in that regard. But Robbie, how do you feel?

Robbie: Yeah, it’s weird because I grew up here. But in terms of like the music scene, when I was growing up and going to shows like it wasn’t really like punk DIY stuff. So when we all were ended up back here and started playing shows in Richmond, I also felt like a transplant. So, it wasn’t like I was shepherding Gordon and Pat into like the scene, I also felt like a little bit of a newcomer. So I’m very grateful for all of our friends here that we’ve made since we started in Richmond again.

GSC: Right now, in particular Richmond is killing it musically. You have Ty Sorrell on the dance side, Fly Anakin and Monday Night on the rap side. So, what’s in the water in Richmond right now?

Robbie: I think it’s sort of a lack of structure almost. I think in a lot of bigger markets with a lot of very established venues that are almost pillars of the community, it’s tough to break into that. And you know, it can be annoying that Richmond sometimes has a little bit of a dearth of like, good, midsize venues. But in the same vein, I think the lack of that sort of it galvanizes house spaces and DIY spaces to really flourish. When you see that communal energy, it inspires everyone around to try and do their own thing. And you end up with everyone being a lot more welcoming. It’s easier to break into a house space than it is to pay a crazy door deal on a huge venue. That and VCU being a big art school gives the city an art vibe.

GSC:  Who are some of your kind of hometown favorites?

Gordon:  The ones that come to mind for me are Bashful. They’re old school Green Day or The Ergs type pop-punk and are awesome guys. The second one is Gnawing who are on the same label as us, and they’re doing kind of like Dinosaur Jr. Nirvana, big guitar type stuff.

GSC: Downhaul made a name for yourselves initially with a string of EP’s, but I feel your LP Before You Fall Asleep brought you to a new a new level. Can you believe it’s kind of already been two years since that record came out?

Robbie:  No, I can’t believe it. We just put up a reprint of the shirt for the two year anniversary, and I found myself reminiscing with Gordon about that time, the writing process, the release, and I hadn’t listened to it in a really long time. So I put it on. And you know, it’s funny how when you are working on music you’re listening to it all the time. I was listening to it so much back then, like I was so obsessed with it. I thought it was perfect and amazing. And when I was listening back like a few weeks ago, I was like, man, there’s so many guitar takes and decisions that you wish you could have had back. And so I had this moment, this is what people have been listening to, Jeez! This is really it? And then I was like, Okay, I mean, I guess everyone likes it I can’t argue with them.

GSC:  That’s funny I was talking to Carmen from Remember Sports and she said something very similar about her first their first record.

Robbie:  Yeah, I think it’s a natural. Yeah, cuz you get better as a musician too. Like I I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a musician since then. But you know, there’s a rawness to it that I think is how you should frame it. When you feel like that. It’s raw.

GSC:  It’s capturing the moment.

Robbie:  Exactly right. Yeah.

Gordon:  And everything until the new album, we used to track live. That was kind of our thing that we were very concerned with was the spontaneity, and it was hard to break ourselves of that habit going into the new album. But when I do listen back to old Downhaul recordings, which I don’t do a lot, I remind myself that we were very concerned with having the recordings reflect our live show. That was something that we were very, very worried about.

GSC:  I also I loved your last EP, Tornado Season. What goes into making an EP versus an LP? Do you approach each differently? Or is it more, you kind of end up with a collection of songs and you’re like, Oh, this is that?

Gordon: I wouldn’t say very much the second. We didn’t set out to do three EP’s, we just had batches of songs that felt very cohesive. Tornado Season, I feel like those songs are really strong songs. But I think partially because they’re on an EP and partially because of the timing, those songs didn’t really get as much traction.

Robbie: Yeah, also with the EP stuff, when you’re a DIY band without a label, sometimes you can only afford to do an EP. Like, we only got time to do four songs, we’re gonna do four songs.

GSC: I also love the T shirt from Tornado Season too, and loved your new merch for PROOF. I also love the album covers, especially this new one. With all of the non-musical stuff, what’s the process that goes into that designing album art and shirts and everything else?

Gordon: Well thank you for the support first off it means a lot, and for the recognition of that attention to detail.

Robbie:  We have great friends that are awesome artists. I think that is the main thing. They are doing most of the work.

Gordon: There was a streak where all of our efforts were by the same artist, a guy named Jesse Feinman from Richmond. He’s amazing. We never need to give the guy feedback, he just gives the first draft and we’re like, “Yeah, that’s it.” But we went a different direction with the shirts for this release. Our friend Joey did one and our friend Gabe Kelley did the other. We showed them the album art and sent them the album, I think that was able to guide them a little bit creatively. The first three EP’s covers were just filmed photos that I took. Before You Fall Asleep’s picture was done by a guy on the internet named Josh, who gave us the picture for free, just amazing. Tornado Season’s art was by Brian from Flesh and Bone, who did a great job with that layout. Robbie can tell the PROOF story better than I can.

Robbie:  I’m not ever on an island with anything, but I just sort of took it upon myself to direct the album art early last year. We had sort of like a specific vision in mind for the songs and the themes around them. I had in my head a very clear image and I had communicated it to Gordon and he was on board. I went on my way to sort of just try to find something. I was just trolling through Instagram and 80 pages deep on art blogs, just looking for something that I might like. I finally stumbled upon this guy Øystein Aspelund. We are both Norwegian, and he has this amazing portfolio of eerie nature-based photography. He has this series called Hibernation Two, and that’s where I found the pictures that became the front and back cover of the vinyl. So, I started talking to him. There’s a little bit of a language barrier, but we quickly learned that he was going to be a little bit outside of our budget. We moved on and tried to find something else. Then through the recording, mixing, and mastering  we still didn’t have anything figured out. Eventually we were able to find a good price for the both of us and make it work. I’m really glad that we did because we had other options that were good, but this is it. This is what I had in my head for this record and nothing else gave me that feeling. I’m really thankful that it worked out. Shouts to Øystein he was he was really helpful and made it work, and I think it came out amazing. Also Maxwell Stern of Signals Midwest, who also did some amazing work on the record, is a graphic designer on the side and put together an amazing layout. I think we always have a tough time with putting text over art, because it can seem like you’re gluing something that doesn’t fit on to something that is really awesome. So, he was able to make like text look good.

GSC: PROOF feels like a massive step forward for the band, but it’s a lot of the songs seem to be kind of calling back to your roots. In what ways does this album teeter that balance of celebrating who you’ve always been, while also pushing in a new direction for the band?

Gordon:  Sonically, it’s a pretty undeniable step forward. I think the mix, the sounds that Chris got are just, I don’t think anybody can deny that they’re a new level for us. Chris had mixed us in the past, but had not engineered us in the past. So it was just a really, really big advantage having him in the studio.

Robbie: Or produced before.

Gordon: Yeah, exactly. At the same time, we didn’t track it live, we tracked it layer by layer, brick by brick. So that gives you more time to really focus on what each individual component is doing and get all the tones right and all that stuff. For it being step forward, I think that the production changes definitely lend themselves to that kind of feeling. But in terms of themes, Before We Fall Asleep was a breakup album, I’ll just say it. So, thematically and conceptually, a lot of it was wrapped up in that, whereas PROOF is, well, not a breakup album for starters. Instead of looking inward, I am trying to look outward and take in all these things happening around me. I focused on places. Someone told me that an album is very grounded in its location. I think that is astute, especially for this record. There’s a reference to different bodies of water on seven or eight songs. When James wrote the bio for this album, they said that Downhaul is a band who are aware of our own roots, and I like to think that’s true. We’re cognizant of who we are and where we’ve been. We also do want through-lines in our discography. We don’t want people to listen and be like this band lost the plot, this band’s lost the good things about them. And I think we were able to hopefully honor that.

GSC: “Bury” is an incredible opening track. It really feels like the opening of a Western movie with like a standoff or something like that, you know, like to gunslingers down an alley. What is the track about and did you guys write it kind of with the intention of opening the record?

Gordon:  Brendan, I’ll ask you, do you think it was the right call to leave it at seven minutes? Or do you think we should have split it? Right when the groove starts, like dun dun duun?

GSC:  I like it as one long song! It is such a perfect tone setter for the record as is, but I’ll relisten thinking of it as two.

Gordon:  So, we had the last like four minutes of “Bury” as the second song we had for this album I believe. Third, second? Robbie, which was it?

Robbie: That was the third song because it was “Eyesight” and “Standing Water” first.

Gordon:  We had this second half of “Bury” and we were kind of like, what do we do with this? It’s sort of heavy and sort of dissonant and minor, what do we really do with it? And then I had written the beginning of “Bury” as you now know it, the first like two minutes of that. I realized the two parts were in the same key, first. Also I knew I liked that first two minutes as the intro to the record, because it was like you said, swirling and western and ambient. So the question was how are they going together, and that’s when we kind of came up with that, it’s almost like a mosh call riff. There are some moments on Before You Fall Asleep that are like very, like hardcore influenced, as Rob and I both listen to a ton of hardcore that time, like if you listen to “Shelf Life” and tracks like that. But we’re very interested in like these heavy guitar moments that are endemic of hardcore. So that riff that serves transition riff between the intro brought the songs together, and that’s how we arrived at this seven-minute piece of music. It’s also an homage to one of my favorite albums ever, Lenses Alien by Cymbals Eat Guitars, which opens with an eight-and-a-half-minute song.

GSC:  So “Standing Water” is about the band’s roots at Newport News, where were some of you were in college together. Why was that a well of inspiration for PROOF?

Robbie:  I remember when I first heard this song, when I first started working on it, this was September 2019, for work on the phone. I heard Gordon sing, “and in Newport News,” and was like, oh, we’re going back to college. They’re such formative years for people that it feels like a big part of who you are, and who you become, is so rooted in that time in your life. Because relationships are so fleeting in that time of your life, the memories are evocative for better or worse. Anyone who used to be somewhere for a very significant part of their lives and have moved on, even outside of college, can find something in “Standing Water” that that resonates. It’s not like he’s talking about going to parties and reading books. Just like a time and a place that affected you deeply, and now you’ve moved on. We all have places like that in our lives.

Gordon: Yeah, use Robbie’s answer to that question.

GSC:  I definitely have had a number of places in my life that are coming to mind as you said that, Robbie. Gordon, I really loved that the photo essay you did to accompany the song as well.

Gordon: Thank you!

GSC: You guys seem to have a very good streak of going to a new place, planting your roots, and making a name for yourself the community, first in Greensboro, you got Richmond now. Is there anywhere you lived that you would not want to commemorate to song? Just hated living there or the scene?

Robbie:  I love New York. When I was living there was such a great time in my life. However, I could not imagine trying to be a band in New York. That would be miserable. I saw people get on the subway with amps and guitars, I would not want to have to break into the scene in Brooklyn.

Gordon:  One scene that I do admire is the Baltimore scene. We’ve played some awesome shows there, really nice people there. It’s a city that we always joke about. Whenever we’re fed up, we’re like, Okay, it’s time to rip the band again, lets head to Baltimore. There and Altanta.

GSC: So Google Docs is failing me I had a well a detailed question on “Scatterplot” that did not save but that was another song that stood out. What went into its creation? What’s that song about?

Gordon:  So that song came the fastest out of writing any of his songs. I remember texting Robbie, and like, yo, we need another fast song. And like half an hour later, I was about to finish that second fast song. And that song… what do you think it’s about Brendan?

GSC:  Hmm.. is it about trying to put together the constellation of memories that went into a failed relationship?

Gordon:  I think that’s fair… so when I wrote “Scatterplot”… I’m trying to be diplomatic about this. So Robbie when you wrote “Scatterplot” what were you thinking?

Robbie:  So, when I first wrote “Scatterplot” — No. I remember that song did come together very quickly.  Gordon did a very good job of writing, it was using something and distilling that event and those feelings into a universal sentiment. It’s something that everyone in our band has experienced. Getting out of a long term job, or lease, or relationship, or whatever and just being like, why did I put up with that for so long? I think Gordon distilled those frustrations into something anybody can relate to,

GSC:  What are your favorite songs on the record?

Robbie:  The easy answer is “Circulation”. That song was one I was worried about. I remember I showed my the first mix of that song and they were just slackjawaed at the end with a 1000 yard stare. Just like, “That sure was a music song!” But it came together in the mixing process so well. Its scored so well and I’m sorry Gordon, but it’s very proggy, with lots of movements, and it never goes back to any one moment. I think every single part of it has like a lot of impact. So that’s one of my favorites. And then my other favorite is the closer “About Leaving”, it feels very different for us, while still being very natural. On first listen it might sound sort of out of place, but I think something that the album does that I really enjoy is that like, it starts off very tense and minor, and eerie, and then over time it opens up. The songs become more major, and more like happy and hopeful, I think. By the end of it, it is a celebratory occasion. I think of the closer as an epilogue or conclusion to the album. “About Leaving” the epilogue playing out scenes as the credits roll. And I think it just wraps up everything. And like Max Stern, who did the artwork, or the layout did some work for us on a few songs and like the stuff he put down for that song is just like absolutely killer, like we didn’t have any of that before we went to the studio. And he just like came in one day and just like knocked it out of the park. And I think that song is just pretty much perfect. So those are my two favorites.

Gordon: “Circulation” is the most rewriting I’ve ever done on a song. “Circulation” went through so many changes and rewrites and restructures. I still don’t know about “Circulation”. People had said like, make “Circulation” the single and I’m like, No! I’m afraid of that song. I don’t listen to it. I don’t know how we’ll ever play it live. I have no idea how “Circulation” is going to happen. My two favorites are “Eyesight” and “The Ladder”. I think the way the way “The Ladder” came together was really nice and organic. I think that melody is very simple and sure-footed and well rooted in the chord changes. I think “The Ladder” is a perfect palate cleanser in terms of sequencing, even if I’m sure its the least played song on the album other than “The Interlude”. “The Ladder” is in the same space that “Balcony” held in Before You Fall Asleep, just totally different. Same sequencing spots, same conceptual idea, but totally different mood and feel. I just like how it came together in a way that really flatters what everyone was doing.

GSC: We’ve kind of talked about it intrinsically, but I feel like the sequencing is so important, especially this being such a cinematic record. Is sequencing always something that’s so important and what went into putting together the sequencing for PROOF?

Gordon: We’re like, kind of freaks about sequencing. To me, a big thing about our band is that we’re very focused on like the album on like, the release itself. We don’t think about playlists, we don’t really think about setting goals. What we do think about is putting out this final piece of art that is sequenced and arranged in a way that makes sense. We always think about how we want to open and close the A side and the B side of the record. That is is, for all four of us actually, something that we prioritize really heavily in writing. I remember when we just had “Standing Water”, we were like, okay this song needs to be the opener on the B -Side. We knew this song is not an opener, but it is a good tone re-setter. So put that one down. And “Eyesight”, we were like, this is a this is as closer a song as it gets. It’s the wrap up song, that big ending. Like Robbie said, then we came up with like this epilogue roll the credits type song. “About Leaving” wasn’t supposed to be a song, it was my new year’s resolution list that I put over chords and sent to Robbie and was like, “What do you think?” And he was like, “I think it’s a song I think goes on the album.” There’s like a very, very, very plausible situation where that song was not on the album, right? Like, if Robbie hadn’t said something, it just wouldn’t have been there. And the album would end with “Eyesight”. And that would have been it. But we’re super concerned with sequencing and thematic kind of through lines and narratives.

Robbie: And the transitions. I mean, Chris did such a good job linking arms together and doing all that stuff such that the vinyl master is gonna sound like so good when it comes in and doesn’t have gaps.

GSC: Robbie, I love you believe in Gordon, getting “About Leaving” on the album. That’s boys supporting their boys right there. Gordon, through a mutual friend I found out you were a big ska fan, how did you feel about today’s Jeff Rosenstock Ska Dream drop?

Gordon:   I loved it. Man, I have been a Rosenstock aficionado for like 15 years. I mean, I saw the first Bomb! The Music Industry tours. I never saw him with ASOB, but I saw him in the Bomb days when he was stenciling shirt with spray paint. You’d bring your own t shirt to the merch booth, and he would take it and spray paint it in the venue without getting caught. I saw him on all kinds of Ska tours. And I think No Dream is his best record. I think the songs are so good. And the ska version I listened like three times today. It’s great. But he still had all the ska moves, he still knows all the techniques and all the little switch ups and changes and arrangements. And like, I mean, I just think he’s one of the greats. His politics are great. His stances on music industry have always been right. He’s a living legend. Also not to brag but I actually I actually knew Ska Dream was coming. Shout out to one of my friends, Matt, on that one.

GSC: I thought it was fake when I saw it on April Fool’s Day.

Gordon: I had the skoop with a “K”. I was ecstatic and I love it. Jeff rocks.

Robbie: …I’m not a ska fan.

GSC: Oh, really?

Robbie:  No, no, I mean, I have, I have a passing respect for it because Gordon is dear to me, and I know he loves it. But it’s one of those things where I sort of look at the same thing as Coheed and Cambria, who I love. Where, if you didn’t have that phase when you were young and did not care what anyone thinks, then it’s too late for you, you just missed the boat.

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