A Shift in Perspective: Ian Sweet on the Making and Meaning of Shapeshifter

Karen Muller

Photo by Ben Stas

Ian Sweet is as colorful a band as any that’s emerged from Boston’s underground in recent years, but when we first meet on a street corner in Cambridge, the moment is grey. The city’s summer-long drought has finally broken, giving way to an afternoon of downpours and dogbreath humidity, and the band itself– vocalist-guitarist Jilian Medford, bassist Damien Scalise, and drummer Tim Cheney– has just pulled up to tonight’s venue, The Middle East, in lower spirits than anticipated.  “We just got pulled over for speeding,” Medford informs me, grimacing. But that’s the end of it: seconds later, the moment has passed, and she’s cheerfully making introductions, ebullient about the night ahead. They’ve been working toward it for well over a year. A passing setback won’t bring them down now.

Tonight’s main event is the release show for Shapeshifter, the band’s first full-length record and official debut on Seattle label Hardly Art. It’s the seemingly rare kind of raw, emotive rock album that takes its sense of structure from stuff— ice cream and skateboards and TV sets, among other cheerful debris– that’s most meaningful when taken literally, not as tokens in some grander metaphor. The album’s title track lays it all out with its single, eddying lyric: I have a way of loving too many things to take on just one shape. In a work propelled by unstable relationships and emotional turbulence, it’s those tangible sources of happiness that offer the only sense of stability. Such simple, predictable pleasures aren’t to be underestimated, especially after the twists and turns that complicated the album’s realization.

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Photo by Ben Stas

Minutes later, the four of us are crowded around one end of a gnarled wooden table in the vegetarian “food lab” across the street from the venue, chatting about the making of Shapeshifter beneath a Pinterest-hip canopy of bare bulbs that shakes the day’s dreariness.  Medford and Scalise are sipping coffees; Cheney is making short work of a sandwich. Though it’s only 4 p.m., the afternoon already buzzes with the energy of a homecoming show. It’s due in part to the band’s own anticipation, but no less to the greetings shouted by friends and fellow musicians from the night’s bill as they flit through the restaurant, grabbing dinner and clattering away at a pinball machine in the back of the room.

“Homecoming” is a relative term. Ian Sweet is technically known as a Brooklyn band these days, but it’s not quite that simple. Medford recently moved there, but only after two years of laying the band’s groundwork in Boston. She’d originally started the project as a student at Berklee College of Music, performing as “IAN”, her high school nickname. “I was aiming to do a pretty lo-fi situation, solo, record it and write it all within a short amount of time, and record it myself, and kind of prove to myself that I could book all the shows as a one-man kind of gig,” she says.

And it worked, for a while. Though she’d started Berklee in a traditional singer-songwriter vein, she says that approaching her own songs that way “always felt kind of fake”, and that she didn’t find her sound until she stumbled onto Boston’s DIY and noise scenes during her sophomore year. The more experimental approaches that she witnessed there offered the necessary antithesis to her classical training, and with it, the first steps toward Ian Sweet’s sound.

“I was like, ‘I just want to be loud! I knew that my songs had the potential to get there, but not until Tim and Damien came along.”

Cheney joined first, in a spontaneous turn of events: Medford was planning a tour, but suddenly found that she needed a new drummer– and a car. A fast learner, Cheney learned all of Medford’s early tracks in the 2 weeks remaining before the tour. His musical background was informal but broad, stemming from dance-punk and emo house shows in central Mass before he moved to Boston and fell in with “the folk kids”. He explains that his experiences in a handful of fledgling Boston bands paved the way for a quick adaptation to the demands of touring. “It was just good practice to start a band and, a week later, have like 5 songs and start playing shows,” he says. “It’s just second nature to put a song together in a day and have it ready for playing that night or the next night. That’s the fun part for us.”

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Photo by Ben Stas

Scalise’s path was equally roundabout. While he’d barely played bass prior to joining the band, he came from years of intensive guitar training. He’d first picked it up with designs on Nirvana-esque rock, spent four years in a formal jazz program as an undergrad, then came to Boston to get his Master’s studying free improvisation (or as he cheerfully refers to it, “weird shit”) at the New England Conservatory. “I did that for a little while, then found myself going back to the beginning, doing rock and stuff again… but with the renewed vision of being a freak,” he says, laughing.

That vision is paying off. While Ian Sweet’s sound bounces between garage pop and rock, it’s that undercurrent of subtle freakiness that gives its tracks the cohesion and momentum to explore new territory in both genres. It’s audible in the clamor that makes the band sound bigger than its three pieces, in the way most tracks start simply but crest into cacophony, and especially in Medford’s tendency to pepper her soprano with sudden squeals that might sound accidental out of another’s mouth. From hers, they’re natural punctuation.

But her voice functions as instrument, and the lyrics themselves are a separate force entirely.  “I think these two can vouch that it was really hard for me to write lyrics,” she says, nodding at them. “I was really struggling to express myself.”

Even a year later, discussing those lyrics isn’t easy for her. Shapeshifter mostly runs on face-value storytelling, but its occasional moments of obscurity carry extra weight. Medford explains that while writing the album, she kept having the same vision of a moment from her childhood, of tossing a plastic chair into the community pool and sitting on it, trying to keep it submerged. The image inspired bookend tracks “Pink Marker” and “Pink Marker 2”, and makes an overt appearance in the last few lines of the record:

But I threw that plastic chair in the water
And I dove after it
Pushed all my weight down on it
And all it did was resist

She takes a long pause before unpacking the scene, pressing her fingertips to closed eyelids as she thinks. Eventually, she concludes that it’s “just the general theme of someone resisting love.”

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Photo by Ben Stas

Like so much of the album, it’s the sound of pushing for comfort in an inherently uncomfortable situation. The theme’s centrality was unintentional, but became unavoidable. Despite the trio’s excitement about signing with Hardly Art, they found that their self-imposed pressure and hopes for the album were actively hindering its creation. At the same time, Medford was quietly grappling with a toxic relationship and an undiagnosed panic disorder that only compounded the stress. Those frustrations spread throughout the album, but become particularly poignant on “2soft2chew”,a reflection on the lack of support in her relationship.

“I think a lot of the anxieties and stuff that I was having when I was writing the record, when I was trying to talk to the partner I was with at the time, they weren’t taken seriously. They just kind of laughed it off. It’s like, dude, this isn’t fuckin’ funny. This is so serious,” she says.

That combination of obstacles left Ian Sweet’s future uncertain, and early on in the recording process, it became clear that circumstances needed to change in order for the band to make any progress on the album. In early 2015, Medford ended her relationship, graduated from Berklee, and took a brief detour to her hometown in California to clear her head. In July, she returned to Boston and joined up with Scalise and Cheney to finish recording the album with new focus, though the familiar surroundings served as a constant reminder of the year’s challenges.

As a result, Shapeshifter developed into a thorough reflection of a difficult time, laced with references to Medford’s struggles with depression. While she now discusses those experiences with candor, her comfort is tempered with the concern that Shapeshifter might be misinterpreted as a record about mental health, rather than a record that encapsulates an entire era of her life. “Mental health is extremely important to talk about and be aware of, but it’s not all we are as a band. And it’s not all I am. And it’s not who I am at all. It’s just a thing that happens,” she says.

“It wasn’t until we heard the whole thing that we realized we had problems,” Cheney says laughing. He’s half joking, but a year’s distance puts it all in a new perspective. “I feel like once the record was done and we knew we had to wait around for like eight months, that was the hardest part. We’re all at our best when we’re touring or writing, and not being able to do those things and see each other do work, you lose sight of what we’re supposed to mean to each other and be as a group.”

Ian Sweet’s collective energy isn’t just a part of its performances; it’s a component that’s impossible to separate from the songs’ meanings, whether played live or otherwise. Medford is emphatic that there’s more to the record than the narrative laid out in its lyrics: “The instruments speak. [With] Tim and Damien, it’s such a personality thing.” But that chemistry is at its most obvious onstage, where the energy and dynamism in their musicianship flips songs that might read as downtrodden into moments that combust with joy. While it’s a whirlwind of emotions at once, there’s nothing contradictory about the happiness that the band takes from performing even their heaviest numbers, because the chance to open up to a crowd annihilates the loneliness that some of the tracks contend with. According to Medford, that’s the entire point. “I don’t get sad while I’m playing. I’m so happy that I get to let people know what’s going on.”

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Photo by Ben Stas

Finding that audience has been revelatory in itself, since answering questions about Shapeshifter has required the band to reflect on now year-old songs from new angles. “I feel like I didn’t actually understand a lot of the issues I was having until I was rehashing the album with a lot of people, doing interviews and stuff,” she explains. “I was like, ‘Oh, this lyric… wait. That sucked.’ I feel like through talking to people about the record, I started to understand it more. It’s hard to understand what you write sometimes.” In turn, she’s had the strange experience of learning that listeners are considering and reconsidering the record in the exact inverse. “I’ve had a lot of people say that they listened to the record before they knew what it was about, and they were like ‘yep!’. And then they read a bunch of shit and when they listen again, and they’re like ‘I feel something bigger.’”

After a year of working on and discussing the album, the members of Ian Sweet all seem to feel something bigger, too. Once a source of such difficulty to its creators, Shapeshifter itself has changed form in a sense, becoming a fossilized version of feelings that, in many cases, have started to slip away. But while they’ve moved on to new emotional territory, two key elements remain as real to them as ever: the joy that they take from performing it all, and those small, tangible sources of happiness, still an anchoring force.

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