The Emerald City isn’t always emerald and beaming. Seattle’s grey skies and rain are well documented in pop culture. While those depictions aren’t necessarily inaccurate – we did, after all, just made it through arguably the greyest and rainiest part of the year – but it doesn’t paint the full picture. The secret of Seattle is that it’s pretty damn beautiful with its lush forests, serene waters, and radiant summers. Local band Flying Fish Cove has found another aspect to love – the people.
Boasting members of iji, Sick Sad World, Guests, and the enchanting vocals of Dena Zilber, Flying Fish Cove is something of an avatar of Seattle’s joyous DIY music scene. Their music exemplifies the lesser talked about aspects of the Northwest, shining vibrantly with hooks made for endless summers at Discovery Park or a restless day wandering across the city’s hot pavement. Their debut album At Moonset arrives April 5 on Seattle’s Help Yourself Records and features guests from the Seattle community as well as far away talents like Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos and Athens, Ga. songwriter Lydia Brambila.
The band’s latest single, “Sleight of Hand,” effuses the wobbly pop pastiche of Olympia’s K Records with the timeless shine of the Paisley Underground. Lavished with spindling guitar lead lines, oohs and aahs, and bustling drums, the song exudes a daydream-like quality. The kicker is that, for all the blissful tones coalescing, vocalist Dena Zilber sings in a sweeping melody about a toxic, manipulative relationship. But Zilber isn’t taking the space to mourn the troubles of the past. She finds power in herself, knowing where she was and urging the listener to find their own confidence to remove themselves from whatever toxicity they may find themselves immersed in.
The song is indicative of some of the other prevailing themes on At Moonset. It’s a record that practically glows, emitting a rainbow of colors with every ringing chord and sweeping, layers of voices. It’s a testament to the band’s pop mastery, but also the community from which it was birthed. It’s a record made by friends near and far, coming together with a single artistic vision
KEXP caught up with Flying Fish Cove to learn more about the relationships baked into At Moonset, their penchant for fantasy and the phantasmagoric, and how they find the brightness in a city that’s sometimes grey and always changing.
Read the interview and listen to “Sleight of Hand” below. Pre-orders for At Moonset are available now.
KEXP: Seattle and the Northwest in general often conjure certain images in people’s minds – dreary gray skies, a constant downpour of rain, and masses of people warming themselves with flannel. Yet the vision of Seattle portrayed on your record is a vibrant one. You’ve mentioned this is a reflection of the city’s arts scene. What about Seattle’s scene inspires your sound to sound so vivid and colorful?
Dena Zilber: I first moved to Seattle in mid-June 2015, which was a particularly beautiful summer. I met many colorful and artistic people during that time. I went to shows, festivals, camped, hiked, every sort of summer adventure - and was astounded by the beauty of the PNW all around me. Yes, Seattle is known for rain, gloom, “the freeze”, and flannels- but those late spring through early fall months are gorgeous and fantastic to me.
You can see the range of mountain peaks in both directions, fruit grows on all the neighbors' trees and gardens, the parks are lush, flowers everywhere, lakes and ocean nearby. There’s also so much wonderful hiking and adventure right outside the city too. I guess I tend to hibernate in the winter and dream about the spring and summer, then in those warm months I awaken like a phoenix – and being from the east coast, it’s really not that different here- winter is always hard.
But Seattle was/is everything I dreamed it could be and more in its beauty. I was told by a friend the glorious warm weather months of Seattle are like its best-kept secret, and I have to agree. I’ve also been able to travel to other lovely western states more often now and that has been enriching too.
Jake Jones: Some use negative energy to push back against the world with art but we try to paint it as it could be, vibrant and fantastic.
You’ve all been apart of various projects outside of Flying Fish Cove and bring in some notable guests on this record. How did you all first come together for this project and when did ‘At Moonset’ start to take shape?
Jones: A beautiful characteristic of Dena’s musical endeavors is the inclusion of many guest artists. Allowing many friends to come together (some as close as roommates, others by mail from across the country, some passing through town for only an afternoon) allows for a warm tapestry to be woven.
Zilber: Some background on me: after High School, I went to Purchase College in NY to study art (printmaking). Purchase is a liberal artsy school not too far from NYC. There was a flourishing indie music scene on campus at the time, which really led me onto the path of the music world I’m at today. After graduating I had moved to Athens, Georgia for several years- seeking out a similar music/art community that was small and nurturing to artists. It was there that I started my first band and was playing in other people’s projects and attended hundreds of shows. After growing tired of the small town south though I moved out here. It’s been a really transformative path for me as a musician and I am so grateful for all the positive experiences I’ve had that led me to where I am today.
Some background on Jake (via Dena): Jake was born and raised in a musical family in Olympia, WA. His mother was/is an active folk singer and guitar player as he was growing up and a music director at her church. Jake started playing instruments at an early age because of this and is incredibly skilled- he can play everything! He went to many DIY shows growing up, interned at K records, and was an indie pop nerd like me, haha. He’s played in many bands and fills in often for other bands when they are short a person. He also mixed our record- I always say he is a Jack of all trades kind of guy.
When I first moved to Seattle I had started a band with friends called Jenny Creep, we wrote some beautiful songs together as a three-piece and put out a record, but for many different reasons, the project came to an end. I knew that I needed another outlet for creating songs, so I thought a lot about my visions and ideas for this project, which became Flying Fish Cove. In some ways I knew I wanted to take it in a somewhat different direction than any other band I have been in, and I have been awestruck by the results. Though I love every band and record I’ve been a part of, this one really feels the most like a completed vision of my art and dreams.
Jake and I are partners (romantically) and live together. It was a little scary at first to make the leap to decide to start a band together. But looking back I can’t believe we didn’t do it sooner. Our creative sides go so well together because our tastes are so in sync with each other and we bring different skills to the table.
I asked Sean Canfield to play bass, and Jacob Jaffe to play drums because they have gentle souls, are extremely dedicated to art and music, and have tastes that vibe with mine and Jake’s in a big way. We all knew each other from our involvement in the DIY music scene.
Lydia Brambila sings back up on every song, but she lives in Athens, Georgia where I previously had lived. She is not only one of my best friends but one of my favorite musical collaborators. Her voice adds so much character and we share visions and sculpt them together with our own unique efforts and style. She did a lot of “oooooh” sounds on the record which may seem small but added a lot of the atmosphere.
Jake has also toured a great deal over the years with many bands including Frankie Cosmos (with his band iji), and that’s how we became friends! Greta was in town when we were recording and I asked her to come by and sing on two songs that I felt would suit her voice- and we were thrilled to have her become part of this project. Her voice adds a gorgeous tone. My roommate Jena Pyle (of Sundae Crush) plays flute on two songs too which also make the songs shine.
I knew from the start that I wanted to make At Moonset with Flying Fish Cove, and I knew that would be the name of the record before all of the songs were even written. It just came to me in a daydream, and we all worked very hard on making that into a reality.
Given the different musical backgrounds of everyone involved, how did you start to forge the sound of the project and how did you balance each person’s unique skill set?
Jones: I was excited about the opportunity to play lead guitar without the responsibility of being a lead singer. I love to show my personality in music while also serving the song as best I can. I try to have fun and not be greedy.
Zilber: I’m mainly a rhythm guitar player but I love to write song lyrics, melodies, and song structures. Each song I wrote would be shown to Jake first and he would help me flesh them out with upbeat jangly pop lead guitar lines that really mold the songs shape. Sean and Jacob our bassist and drummer come from similar backgrounds as us- very much appreciating the softer, quirkier, and poppier side of rock music. They wrote their own parts to compliment the songs.
During recording, we layered on lots of background vocals and harmonies, and friends to play violin, flute, accordion, and keyboard in certain songs that felt like they would be a good fit. I would have probably even added more instruments if we had the time and ability! I love a big full sound on a record with many interesting layers playing off of each other. One funny final touch to every song was the Omnichord. Jake and I played it for part of every song. It is an electronic autoharp from the 90s that sort of sounds like a keyboard/synth: but many of the sparkly chime bell sounds on the record came from it!
Tell me about the track “Sleight of Hand.” What inspired the song and its exuberant, narrative style?
“Sleight of Hand” is a song about surviving a toxic romantic relationship and becoming a stronger person. The particular “sleight of hand” in this song is a reference to the kind of partner who manipulates or gaslights you into believing things that are not true – so that they can get away with things they should not.
It’s also about reflecting and finding yourself in a better place when you've come out of it. I used some fantastical metaphors in the song too (an ongoing theme for At Moonset). When I sing “Listen to Soothsayers, heed their omens wary” that is a reference to all the friends who tried to coax me out of the toxic relationship I was in – or could see that things were sort of doomed.
It is one of the first songs we wrote together as a band. When I first wrote the song, it actually had entirely different chords and vibe to it – it was more downtrodden. I knew I just didn’t want to make songs that sounded like that right now. I wanted to make pop songs you could dance and sing out to and make you feel alive.
I reworked it with different chords and a poppier melody that came to me, and then Jake wrote his lead guitar lines. It all really came together with the band and kind of blew me away to see that we were capable of making a song that sounded like this. I knew because of its subject matter I wanted to sing it with a strong narrative voice to tell my story. I was not feeling downtrodden about it anymore, and I wanted the words to really fly out to the listener with poignant determination.
Beyond just celebrating Seattle’s music scene, you also address issues of gentrification that plague the city. As artists, how do you cope with the changing landscape of the city and how do you channel these changes in your work?
Zilber: There's a looming feeling of impermanence in the lives of everyone we know here in Seattle. It's difficult to put the necessary amount of dedicated energy into art while continuing to feed and house yourself, in a city that’s becoming less hospitable every day to low income hard working artists. Our friends are constantly being evicted from their homes because the landlord wants to take a large payout from a corporation.
This city feels like it is trying to appear spotless, efficient, and brand-new. But we feel it’s important to let the imperfections show, take care of and foster the places we love that have a character to them, and not be ashamed when things are difficult.
I feel like we cope with these changes by trying as much as possible to not take up too much space from people who are in need. We avoid shopping at corporations, support local business as much as possible, we live in houses together that are dedicated art/music spaces, we go to protests, try to raise awareness through communication, we raise money for good causes whenever we can, and spend a lot of time at house shows/DIY venues supporting our friends work. I wish I could say there is more we do because I know there is more we could be doing- but at the end of the day of working so hard to live and trying to make art, it’s difficult because we get spread so thin.
“Home Sweet Home” was the song I wrote about all of this, as my friends were going through evictions and I saw that one was starting to loom over my own house. The song starts off as a vague poetic metaphor but moves fast into what it truly is: a song that reminds us all to hang on as much as we can while we are able to. We know we could maybe just individually move to a smaller city, maybe somewhere far from here, but that would be the end of many of our dreams of thriving in an artistic/musical community together.
“Claw your way/hang by the nails/don’t let go till the boot’s in your face/When there’s no will left to decorate a wall that will soon desecrate/’cause there’s no more room and they want us out/Where do we go if we don’t want to live on the outskirts and alone?”
At Moonset is packed with melodic hooks and bright, shimmering instrumentation. What about this sound and aesthetic appeals to you? Were there particular albums or artists you were listening to while writing the record?
Zilber: As a teenager, I was an indie pop music nerd. it starts with: The Unicorns, Belle and Sebastian, Ariel Pink, to They Might Be Giants. I’ll never forget the first time I heard these bands and lost my shit- dancing around my parents living room next to a dial-up computer wanting to scream because I loved it so much. I then listened to Sarah Records bands and C86ers, Elephant Six…
This record was definitely influenced by that as well as 80’s pop music- I love The Thompson Twins and Cyndi Lauper. 90’s indie pop rock, dreamy/Avant-Garde music like Cocteau twins and Bork. 60s/70s psych pop rock like The Zombies and Os Mutantes. I also love my eclectic and amazing bizarre friends bands like Iji, Frankie Cosmos, ancient forest, Wolfgang Strutz, and hoop - I spend a lot of time going to my friends shows and seeing what amazing things they are up to, and they definitely hold an influential part on me too.
Particular bands that definitely helped to shape the sound of this record aside from those above were Even As We Speak, Heavenly, Cub, Donovan, Dear Nora, The Pastels, Magnetic Fields, The Go-Betweens, and Teenage Fanclub. Including modern rockers La Luz and Tele Novella.
It is hard to say why I’m so in love with vibrant and melodic styles of weird and sincere pop music- but it touched my heart at a young age when I needed it most and has never left my interest. I tend to emulate the things I love and they give my art and music spirit that I believe in.
Elements of fantasy, storybooks, and folklore appear throughout the record, particularly with tracks like “Manticore” and “Johnny Paper.” What made you want to look toward surrealistic imagery while you tackle big ideas like anxiety and heartbreak?
As a child, I was fascinated with fantasy books and movies, mythological beasts, and artistically bizarre or surreal worlds in media. I grew up obsessed with strangely dark-slightly lesser known for children cartoon movies like The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH, Puff The Magic Dragon, The Theif and the Cobbler, etc. As a young preteen, I loved The Neverending Story and The Dark Crystal and would love reading books about the stories of Greek gods and myths. In high school/college I rediscovered The Last Unicorn (the book), Pippi Longstocking, The Moomins- I Also was obsessed with graphic novels and the Michel Gondry film “The Science of Sleep”.
It’s just that unlike some of the other adults around me, I didn’t grow out of loving these things, holding them close to me or discovering more of it that I loved. I am also an illustrator so these creatures and worlds influence me artistically every day. I love to daydream and I think it is so important to not lose sight of your imagination as we grow or the childlike wonder for finding magic in the world.
“Manticore” and “Johnny Paper” are some of the first songs I wrote for the band and made me realize a theme I was wanting to bring into the lyrics in my songs for this project. “Manticore” in particular- when I sat down to write that song I realized that even though I had written so many songs before- I had never truly written a song about the abuse I suffered as a child growing up from family members, peers (being bullied), or about the anxiety/guilt of dealing with my mothers death or moving away from my sisters.
I realized fantasy was always my escape from this pain in reality- and so I used those themes in the song to share those stories too- it’s magical escapism as survival. I was very inspired by the book Anne of Green Gables because the character Anne in that book also uses her imagination in this way to make her world more loving, beautiful, and hospitable. Fantasy is magic and it can be a tool for emotional survival too.
What’s next for the band after the album releases? Are your other projects working on anything as well?
Zilber: We currently have a 4 song EP in the works for later this year, and I am dreaming on making another Flying Fish Cove record next year that may go in a slightly more electronic direction, similar to the style of the song “So Slowly” from this record. We’ve been working on music videos too. I am also excited to work on more illustration projects and making little ceramic figurines (my other artistic past times).
Jake’s band iji has a record coming out this year, and he has been working on a solo record. Sean, our bassist has a solo project called Guests (an acoustic-singing- choir band) which has a record coming out this year too (and I sing on it). Our current drummer Chris McFarlane runs a record label/shop called Jigsaw Records and he always has projects and releases he is working on for that.