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Matt Dowling is transparent about what it meant to take the lead in creating an album: “growth curve,” “growing pains” and “not in my comfort zone” are among the phrases that pepper the conversation as the bassist/singer explains Swoll, the debut album of his largely solo project by the same name.
So why even bother? He’s also up-front about that, too. As a bassist, he’s been in three arty, high-profile D.C. rock acts over the past few years: the now-defunct Deleted Scenes, and two that released memorable albums last year: Alex Tebeleff‘s long-running Paperhaus, and The Effects, the latest band led by Devin Ocampo. Dowling is proud of that work, “but I feel like nobody knows who I am,” he says.
Of course, anybody who has heard those records and cares about bass playing will notice Dowling’s talent—he’s equally adroit with big, sweeping gestures and taut art-punk breakdowns. But, as he puts it, these days “it’s kinda hard to give a shit about anybody in the band other than the singer … if you talk to one person, it’s gonna be the singer, right?”
He’s definitely that person on Swoll, a largely synth-based and obliquely hip-hop-influenced collection of nine songs polished over a couple of years, into late 2016, at the home of Benjamin Schurr, a member of electronic band Br’er and the owner of D.C. record label BLIGHT. There’s a pop feel to much of it, but there’s also an inherent tension that protects the songs from too much breeziness.
“I really loved how stark and minimal his ideas were,” Schurr says. “There was a sense of melancholy/longing that I really wanted to highlight, which is why we used these very gauzy/dissociative-sounding synth patches which were made specifically for these songs.”
Dowling sings most of the tracks in a solid falsetto that has its roots in all the backup oohs-and-ahs he’s done in other bands. He says he’s painfully aware of what it means, in today’s culture, to be at the center of the picture. The name Swoll itself—as in “look at how swoll that dude is”—is a nod to the idea that ego-tripping is often baked in to contemporary life.
“The act of making music and getting up onstage, that in and of itself is a little bit narcissistic,” he laughs. “There’s just no way around that. … But I am aware of that fact maybe in a way that others aren’t, and it does freak me out a little bit. And I think about that while I’m making stuff.”
Many of the lyrics are about relationships on the brink of something—looming decisions, changing connections, shifting perspectives, and so on. Sometimes a low, digitally altered version of Dowling’s voice comes in, commenting on the narrative of “Settle Up The Road” and “Stranger,” like a weirdo Greek chorus or an odd-but-insightful friend. Not everybody has vibed with it, Dowling says, but it feels right to him.
“I can’t say there’s a specific inspiration for doing the low-voice thing, other than I almost wanted to have a little bit of a comedy element to some of the songs,” he says. “I think comedy is an important element to have in music. I also think conversation is a really important element to have in music. And so [the voice] allowed that to happen.”
It’s also one of the areas where Dowling’s hip-hop influences arose after bubbling underneath for so many years. He says he envies rappers’ leeway to experiment.
“Rap has adapted to internet culture much better than rock simply because they’re able to make stuff fast and keep up with stuff … It’s basically like, they’re making it very freely,” he says. “So that’s what I wanted.”
Swoll is now available via Blight Records. Swoll plays a record release show on Friday, April 6 at Comet Ping Pong.