The graffiti had barely dried inside the new Hollywood location of venerable punk club The Know on March 10, but a teeming crowd packed the confines of the venue to welcome home Portland guitar-pop progenitors Eyelids. The band had only the day before flown back to the States from a two-week stint opening for Drive-By Truckers in the U.K. and Europe, the first time the seasoned quintet had toured overseas as Eyelids. Despite the group’s jet lag, their performance is blistering, pocked with a buoyant push and pull from frontmen, guitarists and vocalists John Moen and Chris Slusarenko, and the equally propulsive drive of third guitarist and vocalist Jonathan Drews, bassist Jim Talstra, and drummer Paul Pulvirenti.
With Eyelids, it’s curious speaking in terms of firsts. While the band’s run with the Truckers was technically their first collective trip overseas, Eyelids isn’t the band members’ first rodeo. The de facto lede for the band is tough to underemphasize. Moen plays drums for The Decemberists and was part of legendary Rose City rockers Dharma Bums; Slusarenko logged years with Guided By Voices and fronted Sprinkler, the first Portland band signed to Sub Pop in 1992; Talstra was in The Minus 5 and Dharma Bums; Drews produced Slusarenko and Moen’s work with the Robert Pollard-lead Boston Spaceships; and Pulvirenti backed Elliott Smith. The pedigree is formidable, to say the least, and that’s only scratching the surface of the résumés for these long-tenured musicians. So when Slusarenko and Moen relate their firsts with regards to Eyelids, it isn’t necessarily just the first time this band has accomplished something. What’s notable is that the chemistry being achieved as Eyelids is a first for them, period.
The band is set to release its second full-length, Or—a masterful exposition of perky harmonies, strong melodic flourishes, and smart, hooky songwriting in the vein of the Paisley Underground world both Slusarenko and Moen cite as muse. Produced by Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Or follows up the band’s debut LP, 854, with its first full-band effort, and a much less sculpted approach.
“The first record was almost more of a concept album,” Moen says. “[Chris and I] built some parameters by agreeing on different musical styles we enjoy. Then I wrote my material more to that style, which is something I don’t really do normally. The new record is more me trying to see what I can get away with as the writer that I just kind of am.”
Slusarenko and Moen worked separately on material they hoped to bring into the new Eyelids record, agreeing to a summit of sorts to show each other what they’d come up with.
“It’s so different for me because John’s stuff is always melodic and my stuff is always about energy,” Slusarenko explains. “So, for me, what we do in Eyelids is still new. We recorded [the new song] ‘Falling Eyes’ and I was like, ‘Nah, it needs to be lighter still.’ That’s not my normal instinct.”
The band’s instincts, however, are perhaps its greatest asset. Both Slusarenko and Moen report that their chemistry is the result of the respect accrued through years of friendship and playing in previous bands together. You can hear evidence of that trust in songs like album opener “Slow It Goes” (watch the video below), a scorcher of an intro that begins with Slusarenko’s pretty lead and the Moen-Drews tandem pushing a chunky progression. Slusarenko’s anglophilic vocals flutter through an intoxicating verse and chorus befitting of his preferred self-descriptor for Eyelids’ sound as “pretty music played loud.”
“It’s weird, conceptually, to make a second record,” Slusarenko offers. “Second records are notoriously either a change of pace or more of the same. Bands name their albums Reckoning or The Sophtware Slump, you know? Everyone kind of is aware.”
Part of breaking out of the trappings of the dreaded sophomore slump was found simply by believing in the songs that Slusarenko and Moen were writing, and the creative input dispensed by Drews, Talstra and Pulvirenti. Upping the ante more was the addition of some special guest musicians on Or, including Jonathan Segel (of Camper Van Beethoven, who plays violin on “(I Will) Leave With You”), Jay Gonzalez (Drive-By Truckers) and, perhaps not surprisingly, Peter Buck.
“During the session we asked Peter if he’d play mandolin on ‘Ghost Ghost Ghost,’” Slusarenko tells. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a mandolin that has a whammy bar on it.’”
Working with Buck again—he was previously in a producer’s role for the band’s self-titled EP—was a mutual thrill for the band.
“It brought out better performances in us, just the fact that he was there,” Moen says. “We all showed up a little sharper, maybe, because everyone’s got a lot of respect for him. It feels great to have someone say, ‘Yes, you’re good enough at this that I’m here helping you.’”
“It’s Peter Buck, so when he’s sitting there, you can’t mess around,” Slusarenko adds. “You gotta be good. Peter’s lovely and he’s a friend, but it’s still 10 days out of his year. We all speak the same language. He’s such an influence on us and he knows it.”
For a band as experienced as Eyelids, there exists an unusual giddiness that is palpable to anyone who’s ever seen them live. The five of them perform as if they’re in on some inside joke alluded to by the flubbed note of a guitar run, or the daunting prospect of between-song banter. Their accessibility in light of their relative individual successes endears them to showgoers of intimate venues like The Know or The Secret Society, as well as larger venues like the 3,000-capacity Roundhouse in London. As Moen notes, you can have just as much fun in a small venue as a larger one.
“I feel like every band is kind of a restart. Especially this one,” Slusarenko says. “The pressure is off in a weird way. I’ve never been as involved and charged as I have been with this band. I will totally fight for this band. I feel really impassioned about it.
“It just feels right; it feels different than anything I’ve been in. It feels easier musically than anything I’ve ever done. I think we’re just constantly surprising ourselves a bit. Things are rolling at a really nice pace. I think we have a lot more records to make and a lot more shows to do.”