Interview: Tugboat Captain

With Everybody Seems to Think That I Am a Raincloud, Tugboat Captain have released a very special album. The 16 songs are reminiscent of Guided By Voices in the way they are short, halfway unfinished and yet perfect, and of Galaxie 500 in the way they sound terribly lonely and terrified of life. At first, there seems to be a lack of unity accross the album’s half hour span, and then suddenly it’s all connected. Individually, each song is as precious as the other, and a track like 50-second ‘Little Life’ is equal in stunning captured-beauty to lead single ‘Don’t Want to Wake Up On My Own’.

To celebrate this autumn surprise, I talked to two of Tugboat Captain’s six members: Sox, AKA ‘The Captain’, and his mate Sloppy. The nautical theme reverbs throughout the band’s mythology, with other members carrying names such as ‘Botswain Joe’ and ‘Jesus Bigboy’. Indeed, compared to their undeniable influence Galaxie 500 (who, after all, sang “I just wanna be your tugboat captain”), Tugboat Captain are a bit more silly and a tad less existential. They’re naughty (Sloppy: “naughty-cal!”). Sox explains: “I guess we’re a bit more of a laugh. I can’t imagine hanging out with one of the Galaxie 500 lot. They take themselves too seriously.” (Sloppy: we take ourselves seriously man!).

Everybody Seems to Think That I Am a Raincloud, which is Tugboat Captain’s second album – though their first one as a full, six-membered band – has been released independently and DIY, with a Kickstarter campaign behind it. Sox and Sloppy explain that this is more difficult, but that the validation from strangers online through Kickstarter support or reviews is amazing. The world has certainly seen the quality of the music: the campaign target was reached weeks early and received backing from around the world. Nevertheless, Tugboat Captain have not chosen to be DIY out of aesthetic reasons. “It’s foolish to pick DIY as an aesthetic if you can do anything else,” Sox says, “Obviously it’s nice to be in control of everything, but we’re not doing it out of choice. It’s not poser stuff – we’re not posing as DIY or lo-fi; anything that sounds like that is because it had to be like that. It’s really easy to pigeonhole lo-fi music, but actually we’re doing our best to have it sound like Sgt. Pepper’s!” (Sloppy: not soundwise though – Sox: but there’s brass on there! – Sloppy: there is brass, and there is sitar too!).

So if it’s not DIY or lo-fi, then what is the characteristic, hard-to-capture Tugboat Captain sound? Sox again: “It’s not disjoined, our sound. Because we produced it all at home, in the room we’re sitting in now, there’s a sound to this record. I think it’s pop – it’s guitar pop. We wanted to write pop, to write music people can empathise with and that they can feel.” (Sloppy: not popular, but pop!, like snap! – Sox: sounds like rice crispies – Sloppy: yeah, we wanted to sound like a rice crispy!). This ties in to the shortness of some songs. “There’s that Guided by Voices ambition that there’s no reason to drag anything out for longer than necessary,” Sox explains of ‘Little Life’. “Why would we make it more than that? We’re not self-indulgent enough to make it more than that.”

This leads on to a discussion of the album’s structure more generally. Everybody Seems to Think opens with ‘Signs to Come’, a quiet, un-Tugboat Captain-like song repeating the line “I’m still hoping for signs to come”. In a way, this is both part of the album’s narrative structure, as well as a reflection on the album itself: after the first few subdued notes, the listener is still hoping for signs to come, a hope that is soon fulfilled. Sloppy explains the narrative of the album by analogy with Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. The first half of that album is Guns, “they’re out ta get me”, (Sox: Signs to Come’ is basically ‘Welcome to the Jungle’!), while the second side is Roses, ‘Paradise City’. According to Sloppy, Slash wanted the line on that song to be “Take me to Paradise City where the girls are fat and they’ve got bit titties“, which has obviously been changed to the less crude “Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”, and it’s that change, from Fat and Titties to Grass and Pretty, that illustrates the change from the first half to the second, from Guns to Roses. At this point, Sox breaks in: “No, what Sloppy is trying to say really is that there’s a narrative on the album” – (Sloppy: I think what I wanted to say is that essentially we sound like Guns n’ Roses) – “with the first half very much being a break-up record, which then arches accross the album to a more positive half. That’s what ‘Signs to Come’ is about, about what’s coming next, and then at the very end of the album, finally something good is happening.”

Early on that break-up first half occurs the aforementioned short song ‘Little Life’, which goes like this: “So caught-up in your little life, so caught-up you didn’t realize”. I ask whether this is about a specific person, or (also) about life in general. Sox: “The record is…” – (Sloppy: aimed at a specific person!) – “there’s obviously a relation in there, but a lot of the writing is also about us being in our early twenties and confused about what we are doing. So now we’re writing this music and we still don’t know what we’re doing even in the band. A lot of the record is about this frustration of what we’re trying to get from this age”. “It’s not fun,” Sloppy adds. “We’re the kind of generation that’s really unhappy about everything but too lazy to do anything about it. So we write unhappy songs, but then we’re also unhappy with the fact that we can write songs about that.” It’s a timeless feature of pop music, we all agree. “Pop music is a language for young people, traditionally. It’s a way for young people to communicate their frustration with the times and with a previous lifestyle or generation.” Part of this frustration in this day and age is the role technology plays in our lives, and this is what single ‘Artificially’ – sung by The Captain’s sister, who is also part of Tugboat Captain – is about. Sox: “We’re constantly living under this sheen of technology and nonsense, and we’re never presenting ourselves to each other properly. And that can destroy relationships.” Is there a way out? Music is, of course, the answer. (Sloppy: Guns n Roses!). 

Finally, the question I always ask of the people I interview, because it is the core concept of this blog: are you Beautiful Freaks? Sloppy, after Sox says that they’re freaks, says that “if you call yourself a freak you’re probably not a freak.” But Sox has a justification for his claim. “In fairness, what we’re trying to do is playing the game from the outside of the industry, not done to script. We’re creating art, something beautiful, but we’re not doing it the normal way.” (Sloppy: is our music beautiful? – Sox: it makes people cry. – Sloppy: getting punched can make you cry! – Sox: different kind of tears – Sloppy: getting punched in judo can be beautiful, it’s a martial arts; I’d say we’re a bit like not so well done judo. – Sox: I don’t know about that, let’s take it back. – Sloppy: I liked rice crispies better, yeah. But a big nice ceramic bowl of rice crispies. – Sox: Are we Beautiful Freaks? Shall we ask Paulina? – Sloppy: Do you think we are, Caspar?).

And I do think they are.

Tugboat Captain’s second album Everybody Seems to Think That I Am a Raincloud is out now – order it from their BandCamp here!

-- Caspar Jacobs, October 31, 2017