Analogue Music | Unwed Sailor

Unwed Sailor

By Matt Conner

Johnathon Ford gets a bit mystical about his creative process, but there's no way around it.

The founder of Unwed Sailor has found a clearer creative flow than ever before these days, but he's not sure how to explain the process. The music, he says, simply presents itself. His lone responsibility is to be obedient enough to document the inspiration.

For the instrumental band's newest album, Heavy Age, Ford's inspiration turned as dark as the narratives around him. Loss and loneliness informed the compositions that came. The resulting waves of distortion collided with Ford's inventive bass work to create what Ford describes as the band's most bombastic release to date.

Eleven years have passed since Unwed Sailor's last full-length, but a brand new album is already on the way after this one. It's lighter and even poppier, he says.

He can't control it. He's just a curator for the muse.

Analogue: It's been over a decade since the last full-length album from Unwed Sailor. What made this the right time to emerge with a new one?

Johnathon: For Heavy Age, it just seemed a good time in a few ways. There was a time a few years ago that was a hard time for me. My mother passed away. I had some relationships that fell apart. So Heavy Age reflected that. It's definitely a bigger, heavier, more bombastic Unwed Sailor record than I've done in the past. So I think the timing was perfect so that I could express those darker times through that album.

One thing I've noticed with Unwed Sailor is that I cannot try too hard at it. It presents itself to me in its timing and what it wants to say. It's almost its own entity. [Laughs] Lately what's been so great about Unwed is that I've felt really inspired to write, and I've been writing a lot—more than I ever have in just doing demos. Matt [Putman], Dave [Swatzell] and I have already started on our next record, which I'm hoping to release next year.

Credit: Vince Griffin
Credit: Vince Griffin

I'm just in a really inspired state lately. I'll pick up my bass to move it across the room, and then 40 minutes later, I'll have a new song. I love that. I've never, ever had that capability or kind of drive or inspiration in my life. I don't know what's clicked in my brain to allow me to express myself so consistently every day, but I'm definitely welcoming it into my life.

Analogue: I know you just said you don't know why you're so inspired, but are there any inclinations on your part of what is at work—even in part?

Johnathon: Well, I'm in a really good spot in my life. I'm really happy and content. There's no drama. I feel good. I don't know if that's something that happens as I get older. I mean, I turned 45 this year, so maybe there's a place where I figure myself out a bit more. Maybe I feel more secure so my brain or mind is somehow opened up more. Maybe it allows my creativity to come through. I don't know. It's really strange. Maybe I should just chalk it up to my state of mind being better. I feel good and I'm a happy person.

Analogue: You mentioned there's no drama these days for you yet you're still writing. Does that mean the new music is lighter than Heavy Age?

Johnathon: Yes, the new record is sonically way different already. Saying it's more pop will be confusing, but it is lighter and more poppy and even slightly danceable. The production is cleaner. Heavy Age is more dirty and murky and more in-your-face. The new stuff we're working on floats more. I don't want to say it's happy music, but it just feels lighter, like I said.

Analogue: You said earlier you only write when Unwed Sailor presents itself to you? Has it always been that way for you?

Johnathon: Well, there is some effort on my part. I had to say, 'Okay, I want to start a band that is an instrumental band.' There's that element of it, but then once I made that decision, then the name Unwed Sailor comes. Then suddenly I pick up my bass and here's this line I really like. Then it's like, 'Oh, that's a verse, and if I put my fingers here, that's a chorus.' Then a song title pops in my head that makes perfect sense for the melody I'm writing. I can't sit and try to think of a song title or write a song. It all presents itself. It's such a mystery to me.

I'm honestly thankful that this thing called Unwed Sailor came into my life. It's my vehicle of expression. It's how I mourn my mother's passing. It's how I express my frustration at broken or failed relationships. It's my vehicle to express feeling alive or contentment.

Now we're getting into the picture of music. How in the world does that happen? Where does a song come from? Where does a melody come from? It's obviously in your mind, but where it comes from and how you grab that is a mystery. I'm honestly thankful that this thing called Unwed Sailor came into my life. It's my vehicle of expression. It's how I mourn my mother's passing. It's how I express my frustration at broken or failed relationships. It's my vehicle to express feeling alive or contentment.

When you express yourself, if you force it, you're not going to get an honest expression of how you feel. When you can let go and allow your voice to say what it needs to say or allow your music to say what it wants to say, then I feel like that's honest. You can't really forcefully honestly express yourself.

Analogue: Have music always helped you process what's happening?

Johnathon: Yeah, it has. Music was in my life from a really early age. It wasn't about playing instruments. My favorite thing in the world to do was to sit down in front of the speaker, put a record on, and just sit there and listen with my back against the speaker. I also liked to read books and listen to music at the same time. I'd listen to a lot of movie soundtracks and classical records.

Now that I think about it, maybe it was the seed of what Unwed Sailor would become. I'm sitting there reading a book listening to classical music and it's giving me a narrative but there are no words. Perhaps that's how being in an instrumental band came to be as a little kid. But I've always loved music. From there, I started listening to the radio and '80s music is definitely an influence for me. Music has always been my thing. It's always been the thing that speaks to me or makes me feel something.

I played the trumpet in junior high but it never really went anywhere. I loved the Ewok theme on Return of the Jedi. There's a trumpet playing that theme, so I thought I wanted to learn the trumpet. But when I became a teenager, I was all about punk rock and new wave. That's when I wanted to learn to play the guitar. The bass then put itself out there. I liked the way it looked. I liked that it had four strings. I liked the heaviness of it. I like how it cuts through the music. When you pull it out of the music, everything just feels empty in the song. So I loved how it filled the music.

Analogue: Are there cornerstone tracks for you on the new album?

Johnathon: Well there is the title track, "Heavy Age". That is the heaviest song on the record. [Laughs] It's full-on distortion with a heavy groove, so I think that definitely expresses the heaviest element of the record.

Analogue: Did that come to you early?

Johnathon: Yeah it did. When the record started to solidify in my brain, "Heavy Age" was pretty obvious. Some of these songs have been written and played live a few years before "Heavy Age"—songs like "Jealous Heart". Yet it somehow fell perfectly into the narrative of Heavy Age. Another one I really liked is "Indian Ocean." It doesn't have the bombasticness of other songs on Heavy Age. It's definitely more serene and mellow.

Analogue: How have the new songs been received on tour?

Johnathon: Really good, man. I feel like Unwed Sailor fans are really stoked there's a new record. They're really excited and that makes me excited to see that peopel are experiencing the songs live. They're connecting to them. They're hearing the singles like "Ovid" and "Moon Coin" and they're already fans of those songs and looking forward to when we're playing them. We've been getting a really good response. It's always weird when you go 10 or 11 years between a full-length, so it's been inspiring me to keep creating and releasing music as quickly as I can.

VISIT: Unwed Sailor