We had a chat with Slothrust’s Leah Wellbaum on creative flow, embracing the space of live performance and past songs that no longer make the set-list.
Written by Samer Khudairi
Photos by Lauren Schorr
Leah Wellbaum is both a musician and an artist. She is the singer and guitarist of Slothrust, a garage/grunge rock band with surf and jazz influence. Some could go on about the band’s stylistic nuances, but one thing that is certain, is that since forming in their college years, Slothrust is now headlining sold out shows. After touring throughout the US on their record cycle for The Pact and followed by another tour to support Highly Suspect, we caught up with Leah as she reflected on her expeditions of the past year, and decade.
There is a pattern in some of Leah’s work both as an artist and musician. Her drawings tend to have colorful creatures with large eyes that dominate the space. Her lyrics, throughout the past four albums, have alluded to water, floating, orbiting. Leah comments:
“Artists and musicians both have themes that they intuitively return to. In music, for me, one of those themes is definitely water. It always seems to come up. In art, water is also one of those themes, but I usually represent that by different color ‘drops’. I didn’t go to art school or anything, so art has always been an outlet to do whatever comes naturally. I did go to music school, so I am working with a bigger rolodex of style. I can play a lot of different styles of music, but for art, I can have my own voice.”
Leah began drawing as a form of distraction and relaxation. Expressing herself cathartically, her medium of choice is mostly markers on various paper stock. Though Leah also designs most of the band’s merchandise, she never intended to sell her personal art. She now sells prints at shows, and does custom commissions for patrons. “It’s so open ended, and feels like a true collaboration,” she remarks.
Collaboration is another theme that recurs in both Leah and Slothrust’s work. Last year, there was a notable project with Sons of an Illustrious Father, where each band took a song of the other, to cover (proceeds went to The Trevor Project). Slothrust is also known to cover pop songs spanning the years such as “Sex and Candy” and Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash”. For the release of the Show Me How You Want It To Be EP, Leah provided fans with a template she drew (a pair of dreary eyes), for them to expand and illustrate on. This all lead to a fan-art style ‘zine to accompany the album (named after a Britney Spears lyric).
Leah continues, “I love the idea of artistic collaboration. To me, art has never been that ‘precious’, and neither has music. It’s more about the process of doing it, and continuing to do it, rather than being obsessed with the outcome. That attitude has made art and music bring me more joy. Slothrust is always available and interested in covering new music. Will, and Kyle, and I all love different genres of music and it’s a fun experiment and challenge for us to interpret a song,” adding, “The testament to a good song is when you can create different arrangements of them, and each arrangement will have an impact, but a completely different impact.”
This practice is manifested in Slothrust’s live shows. Certain songs have been played at a doubled tempo, while others become stripped down. In a Paste Magazine live recording, Leah even plays an acoustic version of one of her much earlier songs, “7:30 Am” with the original guitar riff. From playing college parties to crowd surfing at larger arenas, Leah describes some of those changes and states:
“We have become more aware about the dynamics of our show as we have toured as a band. We used to do a more straight ahead heavier show. I talked minimally. It was a lot more austere. And now, it’s a lot more playful. I think there is a sense of humor that we bring to the stage that we didn’t in the past. It feels a lot more natural to laugh with your audience.”
She admits that it can be burdensome to feel robotic in a craft you love and hopes to challenge herself on the next tour to continue crowd work adding:
“It’s important for performers to embrace whatever the space that they are performing in. It is really common that artists will sometimes be playing rooms that would hold 500 people in one city, and 2,000 people in the next city. It’s important for me to assess the room and then see energetically what feels right to do on that stage. So when we started playing stages that were significantly larger than what we were used to in the past, it felt natural for me to move around more and think about what we could do to mix it up. Not just stay stationary the entire time, like we used to when we played a smaller stage, since that felt like that was the only option. And it felt very cramped. I personally love a big, open stage. It feels more like the theater to me, which is something I have always been passionate about as a kid. It has been really liberating to have bigger stages and to conceptualize the show with more unconventional choreography.”
Being back from tour has allowed Leah to amplify good energy in good places and create a fluid workflow. She’s excited to work on more commissions and enjoys including bonus gifts and momentos in some of the packaging parcels. She finds surprising people fun, while also using it as an exercise to give away things that she had once collected, but no longer “spark joy”.
Musing on methods of tidying up, organizing, and restructuring, Leah considers songs written from her past that no longer make set-lists:
“There are absolutely songs that I enjoy playing more than others. And songs from previous records that I have no interest in playing live. I cannot say that there is something I would never play again, because I am not really and absolutist like that. I believe that anything can happen at any moment, and if I’m inspired to play one of them, then I will. There are definitely songs that I don’t feel passionately about playing anymore. Because of the rigorous nature of touring and how repetitive it is, it is really important that if there is music that you are playing that you’re not enjoying playing, that you sort of figure out if you can find the joy again or retire the song. I don’t believe in playing a song I don’t want to play to a room of people, just ‘cause they want to hear it. You have to either find something in that song that brings you joy again, or cut it out of your set.”
In 2016, Girls Are Awesome’s familial Bitchslap Magazine featured a review of Slothrust’s album, Everyone Else, writing: “…Overall, [‘Everyone Else’] understands the temptation to put up the blackout curtains and stay in bed for days, but errs on the side of having a drink, turning up the volume and yelling ‘fuck it’ instead.” (Kati Young Lolz)
Reflecting on her work, Leah responds:
“That’s an interesting assessment of that album, and I like what that person wrote. Something they’re calling attention to is the extremes of both of those things. I was definitely more like that at that point of my life. I had more extremes going on. And now I do not have extremes going on in the same way. I feel like I have leveled out as a person as I have gotten older and have become more honest. Trying to be more clear in what I want in life. I try to follow my heart and listen to my intuition more than I ever have before. And if there were a day where I wanted to stay in bed with blackout curtains, I think I would do exactly that. And probably not fight it, because it is important to acknowledge those moments and appreciate the contrast between that and the feeling of ‘let’s go out and party.’ I have learned that drinking IS NOT an effective method to combat depression. But I think it’s all about whatever seems right at the moment, really. I try not to resist myself all that much anymore and do what I want in that moment, and try to be in alignment with myself enough that it is the right thing for my mind and body whether that is going out and having a drink with my friends, or staying in or drawing, or staying under the covers. Whatever feels right.”
Check out Leah’s newest long sleeve shirt “Hard Pass“, other work on her website, and listen to Slothrust wherever music is played.