Blame it on San Luis Obispo.
Dylan Travis of Some Ember describes the California city as “one of the most beautiful places on Earth”, but he also credits it with the sombre tone of the synth-addicted duo’s new self-titled LP. Travis and his bandmate (and girlfriend), Nina Chase, found themselves living there out of necessity after a lengthy tour left their bank accounts drained.
“In certain ways it completely changed our outlook, and it changed how the music started coming out,” Travis says, on the line from a tour stop in San Diego. “I lived for seven years in Oakland, and I think Nina was in the Bay Area for three or four years. It’s a really beautiful, wonderful, inspiring place, but we were sort of priced out and were forced back to my hometown, which is San Luis Obispo. But it’s been good for our music. It’s really forced us to buckle down and work really hard on this stuff that means a lot to us. I think that’s why it got darker, though, definitely.”
Natural beauty aside, Travis says San Luis Obispo is something of a politically oppressive cultural dead zone, with no music scene or any other outlets for youth culture. In other words, it’s the perfect breeding ground for inward-looking darkwave of the sort heard on Some Ember, which is the duo’s first vinyl LP after a series of cassette-only releases. While those previous efforts brought to mind Black Celebration–era Depeche Mode reimagined for the bedroom-recording generation, the new album stretches the project out in a number of directions, from the claustrophobic industrial drones of the opening “River Walker” through the electro-terror of “Shards” (which will warm the black heart of anyone who ever loved Cabaret Voltaire) and the luminous beauty of the ethereal closer, “In Bloom”.
It doesn’t hurt that both Travis and Chase are prodigiously gifted singers. In his lower register, he evokes the voice-of-doom portentousness of Ian Curtis, but he can also croon with the authority of a Bryan Ferry or Dave Gahan. Chase’s approach is more restrained, bringing an austere, fragile beauty to numbers such as “Splendor” and the duet “Shining”.
It’s just the two of them on tour; Some Ember previously played as a full band, but that arrangement ended for purely practical reasons. “It was more guitars and bass and synthesizers,” Travis notes. “Now it’s more based around the sampler and sequencer and stuff.
“We’re still good friends with them,” he adds, referring to erstwhile bandmates Peter Wallner and Josh Unger. “They’re awesome dudes. It was just that we ended up going on a really long tour and after the tour we were super broke, so we kind of had to part ways. We all moved to different places, and so Nina and I started working on it as a two-piece, and it’s just been that way ever since.” A planned full-band EP never materialized, and Travis and Chase made Some Ember with little in the way of outside assistance.
“It’s such an intuitive process making music on your own, without a producer,” Travis says. “It’s all self-produced. The interesting thing about this project, to me, is that it has been a learning process from day one—just learning how to record myself, and learning how to record Nina and work that all in. We’ve worked on that a lot.”
For better or worse, Some Ember seems to have found a suitably isolated place in San Luis Obispo in which to do its learning.
Some Ember plays Electric Owl on Saturday (July 26).