By Sean Titone
February 6, 2019
Power pop, in the right hands, can be transcendent. When done properly, this particular genre of music will never go out of style. That perfect combination of jangly, driving electric guitars, charming melody and seamless vocal harmonies mixed with catchy choruses is tough to beat. And, over the course of three full-length albums and seven EPs and singles since their formation six years ago, Portland’s Eyelids have proven to be power pop masters.
The members of Eyelids are indie rock royalty. Consisting of musicians who share, or have shared, the studio and stage with The Decemberists, Guided by Voices, Elliott Smith, Quasi, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks and many more, this talented group has logged plenty of time in music’s major leagues. Their musical contributions could be found all over the critically acclaimed section of your local record store, if such a section existed. The two principal songwriters are longtime friends John Moen and Chris Slusarenko. Moen’s other current day job has him holding down the drums for The Decemberists, while Slusarenko spent many years as a member of Guided By Voices. Together they were the rhythm section for Robert Pollard’s post-GBV band Boston Spaceships (before Pollard went on to resurrect the Guided By Voices name). Now, Eyelids is their shared passion project and, more than anything, they just have a lot of damn fun when they get together to play, write and record or, on this occasion, do a joint phone interview. During our recent conversation, Moen and Slusarenko often made each other laugh and playfully joked around the way close friends with a collective musical history and a few decades under their belt will do.
“Chris and I have been friends since the late ‘80s,” Moen said.
Slusarenko followed up: “John was in a band called Dharma Bums that had records out and they were on Frontier Records. I was in a band called Death Midget that had stickers…”
Moen laughs and interjects, “Don’t sell yourself short!”
“I’m just saying it was a little less aspirational and very different musically. But, we met at a show opening for an SST Records band, The Alter Natives.
Years passed and Moen and Slusarenko went on to play in a variety of different bands around Portland and managed to stay in touch, often crossing paths at shows.
“We appreciated each other’s creativity. And it wasn’t really until I was working with Robert Pollard and I was like, ‘John, why don’t you come in and play drums?’ And then, we just clicked,” Slusarenko said. “We were doing things fast; we weren’t really discussing things very long. It was super fun. And we were like, we should carry on.”
Eyelids was born and Jonathan Drews (guitar, vocals), Jim Talstra (bass), and Paul Pulvirenti (drums) completed the rock and roll quintet. Oft-cited influences on their sound include Teenage Fanclub, early R.E.M., a gritty, revved-up version of The Byrds, The Posies, numerous bands from Los Angeles’ Paisley Underground scene in the mid-’80s and New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records. On their debut album 854 and sophomore effort, Or, Eyelids explored feelings of loss, self-doubt and insecurity through a prism of intoxicating indie rock that unleashes hook after hook in a relentless effort to win over the listener. The general rule of thumb has been that Moen and Slusarenko contribute equally on the songs for each album as they alternate songs over the course of the tracklist.
“One thing that’s really enjoyable in Eyelids is I get to sing a song, and then I get to sit back and play guitar on this awesome other song and just listen,” Slusarenko said.
Moen added, “The trick of it is to complement each other and not distract from each other. I’m trying to bring music to the band that will make sense with Chris’s music.”
“I think John pulls me this way and I pull him that way and because of that, we get to do things that are inside our comfort zone and outside our comfort zone. A lot of things are happy accidents that I think comes from us enjoying playing together and being excited about what we’re making in these songs. So I think it’s a weird accidental cohesiveness that comes through vocally, instrumentally and in the songwriting,” Slusarenko said.
As lifers in the Portland music scene who have some kind of connection with nearly every musician in town (they even made a flow chart of all the bands they’ve played in together, which served as the album cover to one of their early 7” singles, “Seagulls Into Submission”), it was only a matter of time before they would hook up with Peter Buck, the legendary guitarist and co-founder of R.E.M. who relocated to the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. Buck produced and played on Or and he produced and played on their recent half-live/half-studio album Maybe More. As is expected, Buck’s investment and appreciation of the band is something they cherish.
“R.E.M. was a major eye-opener for me. When I was a teenager somebody gave me Reckoning, and I just didn’t realize you could be that mysterious and sound so catchy and it just made me realize there’s a whole other universe out there,” Moen said.
In describing what it’s like working with Buck, Moen continued, “You’re looking through the glass in the studio and you’ve got your guitar on, playing the song and Peter Buck’s on the other side of that mixing console. I would think that it would be nothing but intimidating. But there’s something really disarming about him. He gives you confidence just by being there, and it brings out better things from us. When we do get stuck somewhere, he always has a great suggestion and so much experience and then great stories, of course, about everyone you could ever wonder about in music. It’s amazing. He’s a generous guy.”
Slusarenko’s relationship with Buck happens to have both a storybook beginning and ending.
“I wrote R.E.M. a letter before Murmur came out and they’d never been to the Northwest, but I got a letter from Peter and he was like ‘Hey, you know we hope to come out that way sometime soon. Here’s a bunch of bands you should check out. Check out Minor Threat. Check out Mission of Burma. The Replacements.’ It was really amazing. I couldn’t believe someone wrote back to me, so I wrote back and then we had this correspondence,” Slusarenko said. “Then later, I got to meet the band. They got my family and me into an R.E.M. show as well as soundcheck during the Reckoning tour. And then in 2000 I did this concept album called Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel and Peter played on one of those songs in The Minus 5 and I got to reconnect with him as an adult. If I’m with Peter and there’s somebody who doesn’t know who I am, he’ll be like, ‘Chris and I used to write back and forth. We were pen pals when he was like 13. And now I’m producing his great band.’ It’s kind of sweet, you know?”
Eyelids is about to embark on an East Coast tour as well as a brief tour of the South, playing in North Carolina and Georgia for the first time, so it’s a rare opportunity to catch the band live. They’re touring behind the catchy-as-hell, recently released single “It’s About to Go Down,” plus they’ve completed an upcoming full-length album entitled The Accidental Falls (again produced by Peter Buck), which is a collaboration with the poet and lyricist Larry Beckett. Beckett contributed all of the lyrics and is perhaps most well known for his musical partnership with the adventurous folk icon Tim Buckley. The album is set to release later this year. So, 2019 is shaping up to be the busiest year yet for Eyelids as their stellar power pop with a dash of psych rock gets more and more recognition.