The Dead Ships frontman Devlin McCluskey is laughing as he describes the bizarre shoot for “Seance,” part of filmmaking duo Leo Longo and Diana Boccara’s “Around the World in 80 Videos” project.
“It was kind of terrifying, because I’d just met them, and it was like, 'Sure, you can tie me from neck to toe in naval rope and hang me upside down. Let's do it!'”
It's a Thursday morning toward the end of spring, and the 31-year-old Chicago transplant is with drummer Chris Spindelilus and bassist Alex Moore at Spindelilus' house in Glassell Park. Over speakerphone, their conversation crackles with the carbonated harmony of band members who have spent months crowded together but somehow aren't sick of one another. So far, 2016 has been great for the Dead Ships — and having their singer bound, suspended and filmed by a pair of Brazilian auteurs is hardly the craziest thing that's happened to them this year.
The craziest thing would have to be getting Coachella founder Paul Tollett's personal invitation to play California's signature music festival, even before the trio had a label. Or a record, really.
Upon hearing that Tollett was reaching out, McCluskey, Moore and Spindelilus thought it was a prank. “I was in Vegas, very hungover, taking a nap at my girlfriend's grandmother's after losing a bunch of money at the craps table the night prior,” Moore says, “and our manager called and said, 'They want us to play Coachella.' I was way too hungover to deal with a joke like that, so I brushed it aside.” Spindelilus was also skeptical, adding, “I was getting stoned playing Xbox. I obviously didn't believe it.”
Coachella was a particularly surreal experience, because while McCluskey, Moore and Spindelilus all played music for years, The Dead Ships is the first proper band for everyone involved.
“It was crazy to see that many people out at noon on a Saturday,” McCluskey says. “I'd never been to Coachella, so I had zero idea of what to expect, and then seeing 800 to 1,000 people in the crowd was amazing. It seemed like everyone who was there came by our stage.” According to Moore, “It didn't really seem real until the second weekend.”
McCluskey and Spindelilus began as a two-piece and self-released an album titled Electric Ahab in 2012, which, according to McCluskey, “should have been an EP.” Moore was initially tapped to join the band for a one-off Levon Helm tribute show; he says that afterward, he “just kept showing up.”
They all consider the forthcoming Citycide, recorded at North Hollywood's Studio Wishbone and produced by Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning, the band's official debut. The album will be released June 24.
“The first time that we went into the studio with Brendan, we had a number of songs we knew we wanted to record, and we did some preproduction work,” McCluskey explains. “Then there was a bit of a break, and in between the two recording sessions, my best friend, Flynn, committed suicide. After that, I wrote a bunch of new songs and really wanted to do those, as opposed to the ones we had.”
On the surface, Citycide is a drum-tight rock record, flirting with twang on opener “Company Line,” rolling into buzzing, high-octane garage on “Los Feliz,” hitting a peak with the celestial jangle of “First Mistakes” and punctuating the whole thing with the driving beat and soaring flourishes of “Tomorrow's Crashes.” It's a haunting, hypnotic whirlpool, deftly balanced somewhere between the wry humility of David Lowry's Cracker and the sexy abandon of London's Palma Violets.
While its 11 songs were germinated in a pitch-black place, Citycide is far from a dark album, with biting lines such as “You got to pay for the room they let you die in” tempered with cathartic choruses proclaiming “It's good to be alive.” Though its title is derived from the grim statistic that most people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge do so facing San Francisco, Citycide is equal parts heartbreak and hope.
In explaining why such a devastating loss didn't make for a bleak record, McCluskey echoes the sentiment of Woody Guthrie and native Chicagoans Wilco. “I always have, somewhere in the back of my head, that question, 'Is any song worth singing if it doesn't help?'” he explains. “Believe me, there are definitely songs I wrote in that period that are sad and depressing. But what's the point if it's going to be really dour and bring you down? It's about trying to find a more positive angle, or at least something to shake your fist at and actively respond to.”