'How do you know if what you're seeing is real?'
Jessie Atkinson
11:23 23rd August 2021

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Take a look at the artwork for the forthcoming Slothrust record Parallel Timeline. See the rainbow? It’s inverted. Cute right? Well, it’s more than that. Much more. Stare at it again, this time for 15 seconds. Then move your eyes to a blank space. You’ll see a rainbow again, but this time it’ll be the right way up. “Through the phenomenon of the persistence of vision” band leader Leah Wellbaum tells me, as I squint at the artwork, “ your eyes invert the colours and you see the thing that you’re used to seeing.” “How do you know if what you’re seeing is real?” she asks. “You don’t. You don’t.” 

It’s a philosophical chat that Wellbaum and I have on a cloudy London evening and what I can only assume is a sunny L.A. morning - I can’t be sure because Leah keeps her curtains drawn, her half-up hair is lit only by the pink and blue of artificial lights in her bedroom. To her right (my left), a keyboard laden with sheet music; on her desk, a glass of orange juice. We’re talking all things Parallel Timeline, Slothrust’s fifth long-player, arriving on Dangerbird Records this September, and Wellbaum is taking a good twenty seconds out to consider the metaphysical inspirations behind this latest effort. 

“Most of us go through life thinking we only have a certain amount of choices we can ever make” she finally begins, “But it isn’t actually true. There’s always more choices than immediately meet the eye. And there are a lot of different ways things can turn out that might not be as obvious at first thought.” It’s a concept that Parallel Timeline looks at in depth, both in its lyrics and its artwork. What if? How do you know? Are you sure? “I could have spent my life locked in a room” she sings on the title track. 

As the inverted rainbow has already proven, we can’t always know that what we’re experiencing; if what we’re seeing is reality. “For some people it takes a lot to unravel their reality and for other people it takes very little,” Wellbaum says. “If I’m honest, every day feels pretty different to me. Even within a day I’ll oscillate between a series of moods that are extreme.” Take today for example. Wellbaum woke up to her housemate doing yoga on her floor. They had a polite altercation. It was all quite confusing. And then Wellbaum woke up again. “I experience false wake-ups a lot” she tells me. As in waking experiences, sometimes they’re kind of cool and other times they’re “horrifying”, but overall dreaming can be just as meaningful as waking for Leah.

“Sometimes it’s really terrible; sometimes it’s delightful! There are parts of my consciousness I can access when I’m asleep. There’s this certain freedom that I feel in the dream state that I don’t always feel when I’m awake.” Dreams, of course, are closely linked to the idea of reality and unreality, and thus an important element of Parallel Timeline. “I’m a big fan of dreams and of blurring the lines between being asleep and being awake,” she says, echoing the literal themes of Lzzy Hale collaboration ‘The Next Curse’. “At first I couldn’t figure out if I was asleep or awake” Wellbaum narrates in its spoken word bridge, “I went outside to see if I could find a sun or a moon but all I could pay attention to was a feeling, both exciting and frightening.”

It may be no surprise to you to hear that this deep thinker - the brainpower behind Slothrust (Leah is lyricist, songwriter, guitarist and artworker) - writes lyrics with a stream of consciousness technique. “At a first glance I don’t think too much about [the lyrics]. I just see what comes through.” Longtime fans of the grunge-cum-alt-rock band will be delighted to hear that many of Slothrust’s songs - of which there is a formidable back catalogue - have extra verses you’ve never heard before. “For many, many songs I’ve written I actually have an extra 3-5 verses that don’t make it because I just keep going” she tells me. “I think that if you stop yourself when you’re in that state because you have enough verses you might miss the best one. I’m grateful the ones that don’t make it into the song showed up anyway.” And unlike many artists, Leah doesn’t mind if you read something she didn’t intend into her lyrics: “That’s when you end up with music that is both specific and universal.”

Wellbaum doesn’t appear to have any shortage of inspiration, though it has been three years since the release of latest album The Pact. In the interim, she has been writing, and drawing, and staying curious. In the vacuum of the pandemic, she “went on a deep dive into hypnotism.” She’s been playing instruments too, of course. Leah has been playing guitar since she was 14, and piano even longer. The guitar at its best, she says, “can become an extension of your body”, though the piano is her favourite instrument. “It’s grand, like an elephant. There’s something really magical about it because anyone can make a sound on the piano and it can be beautiful.”

Parallel Timeline does fiddle with electronic sounds (in part courtesy of producer Billy Bush) more than its predecessors, though it has been a conscious effort on Leah’s part. “I’ve always been an analogue person” she muses, “I definitely favour real instruments [and] I’m very into markers and colour and the way ink saturates a page.”

Maybe it’s because she’s a Leo that Leah seems willing to try anything. She gave choruses more of a stab on Parallel Timeline (“I come from a poetry background and I don’t like to repeat myself”), worked more with computerised sounds (“you can get a lot of really interesting sounds that you wouldn’t be able to tape yourself”) and is open to loving any of the signs - even those who are ordinarily maligned. “I’m very available for Virgo energy” and “I have found Geminis to be some of the most inspiring people to work with artistically” she notes of the two most hated signs. Astrology is the subject of single ‘Strange Astrology’, a song she calls “one of the only proper love songs I have ever written.” 

Leah herself? Like I say, she’s a Leo. Taurus Rising. Libra Moon. “I also do have a lot of Virgo in my chart and I think that sometimes I can be intense for the people around me” she laughs. I would concur that Leah is intense: over the course of 45-minutes we cover some quite broad - and very deep - ground. Dreaming and hypnotism, perception and reality, the scourge of OCD. But intense is not a negative, I would argue. It is not an overbearing conversation that we have, but an honest one. Like Parallel Timeline, in all of its surrealism, beauty and guitar solos that could be additional lyrics, our talk is only the manifestation of a deep thinker and artist: someone who sees life for how it could be, and not only how it actually is. 

“I just found a piece of broken glass on my desk,” she exclaims, holding the shard up to the webcam and smiling at it. “What a surprise! You never know what you’re going to get each day. Who’s to say.”

Parallel Timeline arrives 10 September via Dangerbird Records.

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Photo: Adam Stone & MIchelle Kwong