For releasing an album titled Mandatory Enjoyment, Dummy guitarist and songwriter Joe Trainor was quite surprised to hear me tell him that I was a big fan. “That is, honestly, truly bizarre that anyone would listen to the music we make for enjoyment,” he said, flabbergasted by my praise.
But as I reach both he and his husband, Dummy drummer Alex Ewell, from their home in Los Angeles over zoom to discuss their influences behind the band’s debut album for the Chicago indie label Trouble In Mind, I soon find out that making music for Trainor, Ewell, and the rest of the band is more akin to exploring uncharted points on a map or chiseling a work of art into granite. The outcome should be spectacular, no matter how difficult it was to achieve. “For us, our whole joking mantra is that making music shouldn’t be fun,” explains Trainor. “It’s this very intense thought out thing. We’re not really like, ‘hey, let’s be in a band and have fun.’ We feel like we genuinely have something to express.”
Listening to the record—which comes off the heels of two excellent EPs in 2020—you can tell that Dummy is a band that does not choose to make things easy for themselves. Along with keyboardist and vocalist Emma Maatman, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Nathan O’Dell, the band rose from the ashes of the similarly shoegaze-inspired band Wildhoney to make music that welcomes influences from krautrock, psychedelic pop, Japanese ambient, all while covering their tracks in a way that seems fully actualized right off the bat. It’s not only one of the best albums of the year, but one of the best full-length debuts from any band in recent memory.
For this feature, Joe and Alex were kind enough to pull back the curtain on some of the records that influenced the band while writing Mandatory Enjoyment. Which is, again, a very enjoyable album to listen to.
Fifth Dimension, 1966
This album was when Gene Clark and the Byrds started to get weird. Are you team Gene Clark or team Gram Parsons when it comes to The Byrds?
Joe: I’m team everyone, honestly. Everyone brings something to the table. I think after The Notorious Byrd Brothers when Gram Parsons kind of takes the reins a little more on… I don’t really like Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I’m one of those people. I feel like most people like that record.
Alex: It’s still so good. It’s just like it’s a totally different band.
Joe: Yeah. But I mean with this record, if you just strip away like everything and just focus in on the guitars, it’s insane. In terms of “Eight Miles High,” the first time I heard that song my brain fucking melted when that first solo comes in. I was like, What the fuck is this? I’d never heard anything like it. Then outside of like how insane some of this guitar stuff sounds, every song is fucking killer. The only song that I don’t like is the stupid “Hey Joe” cover. The production of this, like the way the drums sound, there’s no low end at all. This era of recording is so cool because the drums are small, but it’s still energetic. Then the bass is just like another melodic element. It’s mastered so beautifully and the vocal harmonies, just all of it. I think Alex and I would agree that The Byrds are extremely underrated in terms of psychedelic ‘60s pop music. The focus is always on The Rolling Stones and the Beatles or like Jimi Hendrix. But this band, I feel like you know they were doing so much with so little in terms of like the studio magic stuff. It was more about how fucked up the guitar sounded.
Alex: They did production as well! Obviously they had these crazy guitar parts like in “Eight Miles High” which also, there were no other psychedelic bands playing guitar like that. It’s based on John Coltrane. They’re bringing in this jazz aspect. But like in terms of production, for example on this record, “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)”. This crazy noise they were using. I guess you would call that a field recording or whatever, sampling the jet engine. They were clearly on to some sound design stuff that you don’t really see a lot of these more popular 60s bands doing.
Joe: And they weren’t afraid to get abrasive.
Alex: Joe kind of introduced me to The Byrds. I obviously heard the hits before. But when I started listening to the records, I was just like holy shit. The songwriting is incredible. There’s so many memorable tunes and hooks. The sound of the records was something we really took inspiration from for our album because we really don’t like most modern records, the way they’re produced. The super bassy, super subby, super like overblown pristine recordings. We wanted to really get away from that and really go towards something like this which has more character and just puts you in its own sonic world right away. It doesn’t really sound like other recordings by bands of that time.
Joe: There are so many choices that are the wrong choices like the drums being so low. That’s a thing that we do! Our drums are lower in the mix than most bands. Most engineers or like whenever anyone has mastered any of our records, they really try to boost the bass and we’re like, “No, Don’t do that.”
Alex: We don’t like any subbiness. We take all the sub out. it’s very mid bass. That’s what we prefer. Rich treble.
Joe: That’s a huge influence from The Byrds and The Velvet Underground and that ‘60s psychedelic pop music.
Finis Africae, 1984
I had never heard this record. I just listened to it while reading Dune and waiting to get a COVID test. It was an … interesting soundtrack to have on in the background.
Joe: I feel like there’s this haunting kind of anxiety and dissonance to this!
How did you find out about this record?
Alex: I found out about it just through—and this is something we’re really into—watching those Amoeba videos, What’s In My bag? We will always watch those. I think it was this house DJ, I forget his name. He had picked that record and just mentioned it in the video. And I was like, Oh, that sounds interesting. And I just ended up looking it up. Their first record isn’t what I first heard from them. It was a compilation, which has a lot of the tracks from the first record, but not all of them. And then it also has a lot of tracks from other records, like a double LP. I started listening to that record a bunch and just got really into it, and then ended up showing it to Joe at some point, and you really liked it, too.
Joe: I feel like I got into it a little after you showed it to me. I was like, Oh, this is cool. And then at some point, it hit me harder. I just started obsessively listening to it. Specifically, the last song on the record. I absolutely love it. No one knows who the fuck this band is! I have not met a single person who’s ever heard of this band, except for Bill [Roe of Trouble in Mind].
Alex: And there’s no reissue! We live in a time where anything popular, anything that would sell records, if they reissued it has been reissued or is being reissued, or whatever. No one’s reissued this and it’s this sort of lost music.
The only thing I could find on it was a tiny Allmusic blurb about the band.
Joe: I wrote about it somewhere on one of my blog posts and I was like, I can’t find any information about this band! I have no context for them at all! But they take all things that we like. There’s new age, there’s jazz, there’s post punk, there’s, I guess world music, Japanese ambient music. They merge it all. Everything is so hypnotic and it’s very lush.
Alex: It’s very euphoric music. It makes you feel uplifted. The whole concept of bringing in influence from a bunch of different places and kind of swirling it all together and creating this really potent music. That was very inspirational to us.
Joe: There’s moments on the record that we like to reference Finis Africae, like the end of “H.V.A.C.” When the bass is held out and drones out, we wanted it to sound like off of that record. Or just just the rhythmic quality…
Alex: Yeah, a lot of their drum stuff is weird. It almost doesn’t sound like anything that I was familiar with or am familiar with. It’s very singular.
Joe: I don’t think there’s really any bands that sound like them. It’s crazy to me that they aren’t revered because I think you could call them a post-punk band…
Alex: It’s not like it’s just like ambient music and it’s not like, whatever. It’s really a lot of different stuff and, and it’s catchy. There’s pop moments, there’s pop sensibility all over that record. It feels contemporary.
Joe: Yeah, well I think that’s like a through line with like all the music we make and we like to sit despite like even if it’s the most avant garde thing there’s something poppy or accessible about it like we’re not like we like pop music we just like pop music that you know isn’t…
Alex: We’re working in the framework of accessible music that has that connection to the history of popular music in our society and in our culture. We want to push the boundaries of that, obviously. But it still has to be accessible and have a sense of immediacy and enjoyability.
Joe: The best art is a mixture of experimental and accessible. I mean that’s the Velvet Underground. They were pop but also aggressively abrasive. The Byrds, the same. MBV, the same. Kate Bush, Bjork, or Frank Ocean. You go down the line of like great artists, like those artists are mixing high art and pop music.
Utakata No Hibi
Alex: Was this Jenn Monroe?
Joe: I think so.
Alex: Maybe it was? It was this blog that we really liked. I guess I discovered it maybe four years ago, it’s called Listen To This. It’s a blog that this person Jen Monroe used to write for. She’s not very active anymore. But I just got obsessed with everything she wrote about. Her taste and ours really overlaps and she really digs into some stuff. I think we really relate to her kind of voracious appetite for finding obscure little gems and stuff like that. Obviously, this one isn’t that obscure at all, but it’s one that’s so much better than almost everything. This is like one of my personal favorite albums in the world and I got really obsessed with it right when we started dating. It really got me into the whole Japanese New Age and like ‘80s pop … everything that was happening in Japan in the ‘80s has become such a huge reference point for us and inspiration for us and you know everything Hosono and Yellow Magic Orchestra were doing, this is where that all started for us. I still absolutely love this album and like it just has a sound that literally nothing else has because it’s pulling from so many different places and has so many different weird choices and outside the box choices. The vocals are awesome and sung by this German vocalist, even though it’s an all Japanese band. It kind of just creates this weird world in and of itself.
Joe: It’s soo rhythmically interesting and out there. It uses a combination of really traditional instruments with rock guitars…
Alex: It has rock guitars and drum kits and everything. But then it also has like, these really, you know, intense malletted marimba parts and this mix of stuff that we really connected to and we were inspired by for our record.
Joe: I remember when we first got into this, I remember walking in Baltimore to go meet up with you at work and listening to this and being like, How the fuck is this not huge? I feel like at this point, this record is like baby’s first Japanese [ambient record]. I’m not going to say “surface level.” But I think it’s like one of the gateway drugs. It’s an incredible piece of ambient pop.
Alex: Yeah,exactly. It has like these definite ambient, new agey textures. That influence is clearly there. There’s certain tracks that could almost be new age music if you took them out of this record that would sound like new age music or whatever. So that was sort of an inspiration for us and what we did on our record.
My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine …. What can be said about this band at this point?
Joe: This is a controversial statement. But if you put the Glider in Tremolo EPs together, it will be better than Loveless. I have no problem saying that. The Glider EP obviously has “Soon” which I guess you could say that’s like the MBV song. But then it also has “Off Your Face”, which is one of Alex and my, if not our favorite MBV song. And then and then “Don’t Ask Why” is a great fucking ballad. The song “Don’t Ask Why” directly influenced a song on the Dummy record “Cloud Pleaser”. Originally, that song was almost like a rock song. And then I was like, “Well why don’t we try to think about it as more like ‘Don’t Ask Why’? So, the whole tambourine thing is very clearly like, ‘Well, there it is!’ (laughs). I mean, MBV is one of our favorite bands. It’s obviously one of the best bands ever. And this I mean this is just their best material. It’s four uncommon, uncompromisingly weird songs.
Alex: They weren’t really holding back. This was the period when they were really just like firing on all cylinders and making crazy music that no one had ever heard before and it still sounds like nothing else. Obviously we could have picked Loveless or maybe even Isn’t Anything. I mean, with My Bloody Valentine, obviously the production was such a big part of what we were like referencing when we were recording. Just the way that they recorded things was so weird and wrong and it’s its own sonic world. That’s what we wanted to recreate with our music and not, you know, sound boring. [We want to] sound interesting, sound weird.
Joe: [We] just do things that aren’t necessarily like the way things are done, you know? We try to operate our band in that way and you know in general and, you know, you succeed or fail at that. I mean “Don’t Ask Why” and “Off Your Face” are top-tier MBV songs, without a doubt. “Off Your Face” is just so fast and propulsive and energetic. But it’s also extremely chill. It’s got these weird time signatures.
Alex: The chord changes are really weird. The drum beat is really frantic. That was a huge part of how my style of drumming [developed]. I had never played drums before I joined the band. So I mean I’ve been playing now for like, two years or whatever. But when I first, I remember putting on “Off Your Face” and trying to play along to it. That kind of ended up informing a lot of the ways I play.
Joe: The way he plays fills. What makes MBV so different from other shoegaze bands. Is that the drumming is just so frantic and propulsive and in your face. Unlike most shoegaze bands where it’s just kind of slow and boring. You have all of these soft, beautiful textures but then you have drums that are just like careening forward.
Alex: They provide that drive.
Joe: Yeah. And there’s a simplicity to it that a lot of other shoegaze bands don’t have. Also drummers in general, just over drumming…
Alex: It’s something I really try to avoid. It’s all in service of the rhythm and the feeling of the song. I never want to play the drums in a way that doesn’t contribute to the drive of the song. I guess that’s how I think of it.
Joe: A lot of the songs are based on the simplicity of the drums. A lot of our songs do use the Neu beat, but we tried to spice it (laughs).
Ralf and Florian, 1973
This is a period of Kraftwerk that doesn’t get talked about much. Why did you choose this particular record?
Joe: Alex was kind of reluctant [to pick this album] just because, it’s Kraftwerk and who the fuck doesn’t listen to Kraftwerk? But I feel like most people don’t really fuck with early Kraftwerk or don’t talk about it. This record is perfect. It’s insane. It has elements of, obviously, prog rock and electronic stuff. But there’s also exotica on it, like weird little exotic moments. There’s jazz and the flute stuff…
Alex: The last track is easily one of my favorite tracks of all music (laughs).
Joe: Have you watched that video of them on YouTube? Like, one of their first live performances ever?
Yes! If it’s the same one we are thinking of, I believe it’s this performance at Rockpalast from 1970?
Joe: Watching that is so inspiring. Like, it’s so incredible. Like, it’s just you have all these German kids in there. For the first like, 25 minutes. They’re just making nonsense noise before there’s any sort of release. I think it’s incredible. They’re basically just being like, “fuck you” the whole time. To me, this is one of the most punk things I’ve ever seen in my life. They do not give a fuck like and it’s so cool. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Obviously, this doesn’t have anything to do with that performance. Kraftwerk was like The Velvet Underground. They’re a punk band, first and foremost. It didn’t have a name yet. But, they just didn’t give a fuck about the rules. Like with this record, it’s so mellow and weird and quiet comparatively to their earlier stuff which is much more aggressive and in your face. Then, obviously, the stuff after it is much more accessible and like poppy. I feel like this record, in particular, doesn’t get its flowers the way a lot of their other records do. I feel like this is like an underrated Kraftwerk record.
Alex: It doesn’t really sound like Kraftwerk or, you know, the way most people think of Kraftwerk. That’s an aspect of Kraftwerk that I think is really cool. They’re such a dynamic band and creatively dynamic to the point where one record sounds completely different, like a completely different band. This album sounds nothing like this performance from them that we also love which is super abrasive and intense. This is an album you can just sit down and listen to anytime.