Music Interview

Interview: Ethan Beck Is Poised For Power Pop Greatness

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Ethan Beck is a music writer and musician based out of Brooklyn but hailing from Pittsburgh, previously known for his music writing. Last Friday, he and his band The Charlie Browns released their debut album DUCK HOLLOW, a power pop set that harnesses the raw, youthful emotions of high school and early college into a coming-of-age document. We sat down with Beck to discuss the power pop masters that came before him, the nature of writing through characters, and of course PEANUTS. 

You’re a writer, in addition to a songwriter, and have been known for your music writing leading up to this, your debut album. Does your approach as a journalist or music writer differ from your lyricism or songwriting? Do you have different processes? Do you think of them differently? How do you conceptualize that?

Ethan Beck: I’ve thought about this a fair amount, because I’m not very good at writing fiction—writing short stories and all that. I’ve wanted to. I’ve just always been more comfortable writing lyrics, and I’ve obviously always liked writing criticism or writing about music. I think a lot of my lyrics come from hearing a snippet or something or hearing a sentence in conversation and trying to expand it outward. Maybe “journalistic” is the wrong word, but trying to just snag things from around me and put ‘em in. For example, “Monk Eric” is a real story about some of my friends, and I remember sitting hearing my friends talk about this weird entangled romantic situation they were in. My friend called me and she was telling me about it, and she said, “He thinks he’s going to become a monk.” And I was like, “That’s a song lyric!” It was so perfect. But yeah, I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing music journalism stuff, I guess it’s sort of always at play and entangled.

There’s definitely a writerly approach to the lyrics, it reminds me, and even sonically too, of anything, like, that band Limbeck, straddling that pop punk/power pop/alt-country line—or The Weakerthans, or even going back to someone like Paul Simon or something. There’s that writerly approach you can just detect. It creates really enthralling songs you can perceive or peer into. The stories and characters help personify all the songs.

EB: Totally! As we were wrapping up this record and I was going through the last couple songs, I realized it was so much more helpful for me to write about other people—or rather, it’s so much easier. In that way, I can write about myself, but remove myself from it. I think “Matthew’s Song” is a really good example of it—like, that song is about ME, to an extent, but it’s also sort of about this guy Matthew. I’ve been trying to do a lot more of that. The songs since we’ve wrapped up this record are so much more about people we sort of know. I’ve always been upfront that a fair amount of these songs are directly autobiographical and I’m willing to write songs about my friends as long as they’re not too nasty or mean-spirited or whatever, I’m willing to share it with them and I hope they like it.

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The record does seem very autobiographical, it’s almost diaristic in a way. I was wondering: was there any embellishment or compositing in the songs, or is most of it straight autobiography?

EB: It’s pretty embellished, yeah. A fair amount. I think songs like “Wabush Tunnel,” which closes out the record, some of them are pretty autobiographical. A lot of them I try to spruce it up. This is a record super rooted in me growing up in Pittsburgh, and how much I love being from Pittsburgh, how great of a city it is. I’m trying to match all of my hooligan high school shit and all the fun experiences running around with my friends hiding from the cops, and pair that with my personal emotional experiences from that time.

That’s great, and you can sense it! There’s that great coming-of-age vibe to it. It’s great for a debut album. Some of the best records have that coming-of-age vibe, even if it’s not a band’s first record. Your DOOKIEs, your Replacements, or whatever.

EB: Yeah, speaking to that, I know it’s not really a controversial take and they’re sort of a 50/50 band for a lot of people, but a really important band to me growing up was Car Seat Headrest. They’re one of those bands that’s so indebted to teenage emotions, but also drawing those emotions out in these big grand statements, particularly on TEENS OF DENIAL. As I’ve grown older I’ve sort of listened to them less, but I still think TEENS OF DENIAL is a very formative, ambitious record about being young and feeling all of these hyperbolic feelings.

A lot of BIG FEELINGS on Car Seat Headrest songs, for good or ill, cringe and all. Also, speaking to the sound of the record—it’s very power pop-driven, indebted to all the classic bands, your Gin Blossoms, your Lemonheads. There’s the contemporaneous power pop moment with bands like Hurry and 2nd Grade that you’re also of a piece with. You’ve been playing with the Charlie Browns for a couple years now. How has the songwriting process developed to the point where you reached this debut record? Did the band initially have a different sound as you coalesced into what you are now, or did you arrive fully formed? Did you always have this sound in mind?

EB: A lot of these songs are a little older than the Charlie Browns. They’re songs I would bring to bands I would play in in high school, and they’d kind of be “my” songs—like, “Let’s drop ‘And And And’ in the set cuz I like playing it.” At the beginning of being in college, I hadn’t been playing in a band throughout COVID, and I hadn’t been writing music. For Hannukah one year, my dad bought me this cheap, super shitty Yamaha, like a small-scale guitar, a baby guitar. While I was at school, I started fiddling with it and playing songs and writing songs. That year prior I had gotten super into Fountains of Wayne, I got into 2nd Grade. That whole summer, some of that older stuff like Badfinger was creeping in, all that power pop stuff. I really just spent six months soaking in it. I was in the beginning of college, I felt like shit, so it was perfect music for it.

Then I finally got COVID in the winter, January 2022, and I wrote “Monk Eric.” That sort of felt like one of those Fountains of Wayne character songs, like “Jonah Ray” or “Leave the Biker.” That’s what I wanted to be doing. I started writing all of these songs that seemed indebted to pop as a vehicle for childish, silly emotions. “Monk Eric” was a big one where I was watching my friends hurt each other, or have this weird situation unfold, and I cared about both of them a lot, and I was relating to them a lot and felt really weird about it. I had such a distinct memory of being in high school and also saying at one point that I felt like I could become a monk since things were not going so well for me socially or romantically or academically. “I’m just gonna become a monk!” I thought it was a funny thing to say, and so when I heard my friend say it years later I knew it was a sentiment I wanted to pick up on. I wrote “Matthew’s Song” shortly afterwards. Those two songs felt like instigating moments for the band—super power poppy, kind of pastiche-y in a way which I liked. I wanted to play into that. We played our first show in June of 2022, and those made up a lot of the early setlist.

I can totally hear the Fountains of Wayne character portrait connections. Lemonheads also have their songs like that, the character study songs. That’s one of my favorite styles of songwriting.

EB: The Lemonheads stuff can be really fun with that. Evan Dando isn’t some great lyricist, but he’s really tapped into feeling—like, “Confetti” is such a great song in that sense. 

There’s a great depth of perception. Like, sometimes the rhyme scheme is a little clunky, but there’s a great deal of sincerity there. Dando did a lot of co-writes, too. He’s a really fascinating songwriter and guy in general. 

EB: I saw them last fall—at some point, it was just him onstage and he did a Misfits cover, and “If Only You Were Lonely” by The Replacements, which was amazing. Then he was behind the drum kit singing and playing “Lyin’ Eyes” by the Eagles. I’m worried for him. His brain is on a different level and he’s a madman in the best way and I hope he’s well. All of this to say that the Lemonheads are a big touchstone.

Who is your favorite PEANUTS character? How do you justify it?

EB: Um… so the name comes from a friend comparing me a bunch to Charlie Brown when I was in early college, because I was always moping around.

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Did you read PEANUTS as a kid?

EB: We would always watch the movies growing up, like anyone. I know it’s having sort of an aesthetic comeback at the moment, like a lot of people are getting Snoopy tattoos now. 

A lot of people are into Snoopy now, specifically.

EB: Yeah! What’s that about?

Because Snoopy is cool!

EB: I mean, he’s the best! I would love to be Woodstock.

Woodstock is a top-tier PEANUTS character. Woodstock, Pig-Pen, Peppermint Patty, Marcie. Obviously formative to our childhoods, much like Pittsburgh icon Fred Rogers—I wanted to get a Pittsburgh connection in there somewhere, so Mr. Rogers counts. One song to that point that is kind of apropos to that: “Brenda and Eddie.” How about that new Billy Joel single, huh?

EB: Look at him go! My dad loves the new Billy Joel song. Joel is a musician that’s near and dear to my heart. He’s the musician I’ve seen the most times. I’m glad he’s still kickin’ and still doing it. I spent 40 bucks my freshman year of college at Madison Square Garden, so I was just looking down at his bald head the entire show. “Brenda & Eddie” is a funny song because it’s mostly about coming back to Pittsburgh and feeling weird about that. These distinct feelings of seeing Billy Joel so many times in my young life because my dad loves Billy Joel so much, and always wants me to go with him, which is great. The only time I didn’t go see Billy was when all these people I knew were at the Billy Joel PNC Park Pittsburgh show—this was like a cultural moment for Pittsburghers—and I just remember sitting in my buddy’s basement thinking “Is everybody really at the Billy Joel show tonight…” which is a crazy thing to feel, because I was like 19. That song is probably the pissiest song on the record, which I’m fine with.

You can snag DUCK HOLLOW over on Bandcamp, and be sure to follow Ethan over on Twitter for all of his upcoming dates and writing! 

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