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Cracking the Riddle of Water From Your Eyes

“Experimental pop” is probably the most succinct descriptor for the music made by Brooklyn duo Water From Your Eyes. But it’s also a little bland, which is why singer/vocalist Rachel Brown follows it with the more expressive “dance punk, question mark?” and “art rock, shrug.” They also admit they do, unfortunately, have to hand it to the awful drunk guy they met in England who told them, “You sound like Sonic Youth and New Order fighting underwater.”

Instrumentalist/producer Nate Amos, meanwhile, has grown partial to “sandwich rock.” “I do objectively know that we like sandwiches, and we like to rock,” he explains.

Brown acknowledges the point — their music “is layered, varied, and there are things that keep it together, but the inside is so very good. Like a sandwich” — before getting into a broader discussion of open-faced sandwiches, the philosophical conundrum of hotdogs-as-sandwiches, and so on and so forth. 

The whole exercise is either absurd or brilliant, which might be the best summation yet of what makes Water From Your Eyes one of the most exciting bands out there right now. The music they make is so shot through with the discordant energy of feeling hopelessly stuck in this miserable moment, yet it never strays far from the maxim: You gotta laugh. 

On “Barley,” the lead single from Water From Your Eyes’ new album, Everyone’s Crushed (out May 26 via Matador), there’s a simmering groove, an off-kilter guitar riff, and synths that either blare like sirens or burble like slot machines. Brown’s vocals, amidst this jumble, are cool and unconcerned; their lyrics are impressionistic and peculiar — “One two three four, I count mountains/One two three/Counter/You’re a cool thing, count mountains.”

“There’s nothing about that song that isn’t funny to me,” Amos says. 

“When we were writing it,” says Brown, “we wrote a whole part that ended with ‘fields of gold,’ and Nate was like, ‘Do you know that song by Sting?’ I was like, ’No.’ So we listened to it and just put a bunch of words from it into the verse.”

“We were like, what if we used as many words from ‘Fields of Gold’ as possible without actually plagiarizing anything?” says Amos.

That’s also, he adds, why the song is called “Barley.” Get it?

BROWN AND AMOS MET in Chicago and started making music as Water From Your Eyes in 2016. Their early recordings toyed with everything from sad dance music to wispy, weird indie pop. They made music from the perspective of a grief-stricken dog (2017’s Feels a Lot Like) and from those of ancillary characters in an unspecified movie (2018’s All a Dance). Their 2019 album, Somebody Else’s Song, showcased their strengthening songwriting chops. Their 2021 album Somebody Else’s Songs (note the plural) was all covers — No Doubt, Carly Rae Jepsen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nico. (It opened with a shockingly faithful rendition of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”)

Brown and Amos also dated for about four years, through much of that early run. They split in 2019, but their creative partnership only flourished as they began to work on their 2021 breakthrough, Structure. The album continued to deepen their experimental streak, but it was also meticulously constructed, split into mirrored halves, packed with self-referential lyrics, Easter eggs, and callbacks.

When it came time to make Everyone’s Crushed, Amos says, “We didn’t want to do that again.” But there are subtle links between the songs on the new album. For instance, they wrote “Barley” the same week as the album’s deliriously fun everything-must-go closer “Buy My Product”; both songs came out of a creative kick inspired by the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“The way it’s a singular beat, one chord, one root key that’s not changing, but then there’s all these different sounds that come in and out,” he says. “Essentially, all these fancy things drifting in and out on top of a very basic groove.” 

As an album, Everyone’s Crushed began to take shape in early summer 2021, when Water From Your Eyes knocked out four songs in quick succession: “Open, “Everyone’s Crushed,” “True Life,” and “Remember Not My Name.” Compared to the “really methodical, slow way” they made Structure, Amos says, this album emerged from “little random ideas happening all the time, and if something was able to keep me focused and engaged, then I would track it down.” 

Water From Your Eyes’ process is split into distinct parts: Amos crafts the instrumentals and melodies and brings them to Brown, who marvels, “Wow, crazy, you’re nuts, you weirdo,” then writes the lyrics. (Sometimes Amos brings a phrase or idea as a suggestion, sometimes Brown takes it, sometimes they don’t.) The combined results are singular and distinctly Water From Your Eyes, even if there often aren’t many similarities between how Amos and Brown relate to the music they’ve created.

Everyone’s Crushed was “the product of a chaotic, dysfunctional period” for both of them, as Amos puts it, but in very different ways. Brown was working 12-hour-plus days on film and TV projects for weeks on end. Some of it was fulfilling, like working as a film editor on the celebrated pianist Awadagin Pratt’s recent multimedia presentation Black in America; a lot of it was just commercials. It was an exhausting but effective way to fend off a full-fledged pandemic-era doom state.

“I was like, less mentally unwell just because I was tired,” they say dryly. “But also, I was really just like, ‘Man. America: not it.’” They go on to carefully unpack the tension between the country’s many ills and their family’s own immigrant experiences (their mom’s family came from China, while their dad’s came from Ireland). “My family traveled all the way here for something, and in many ways, it did work out for them,” Brown adds. “There is really no place like America.”

Meanwhile, Amos was making music while struggling to get and stay sober. “The first time I really, really tried to get sober, I didn’t succeed,” he says of his battle with alcohol, amphetamines, and inhalants. “I made it four or five days, then relapsed hard, and that’s when those songs got made” — meaning the core of Everyone’s Crushed

In a way, each of them brought a sense of being stuck in vicious cycles (late capitalism, addiction) to Everyone’s Crushed, a sensation best captured on the title track. Brown starts with the line, “I’m with everyone I love and everything hurts,” then deconstructs it, reshapes it, and spins its many configurations into a lullaby that’s comforting, kind of.

As it happens, that’s also the one song Amos made during his brief first window of sobriety — the first time he’d “made music sober” since he was a teenager. 

“It’s the one that means the most to me, because that’s the one where I hear a sort of triumph or perseverance in the face of hardship,” he says. “Whereas the rest of the album, to me, feels like succumbing to the darkness. ‘Everyone’s Crushed’ is the one moment where there’s a light to walk towards, and the rest feels like you’re very much caught in the machine of depression and substance abuse.”

Brown sounds more detached when they talk about the same music. “It’s not that I don’t feel anything when I listen to it, but it’s not as personal,” they say. “It’s not as tied to any specific period of my life — I was just working and being depressed, and that’s not out of the norm. It definitely feels like I’m less stuck now than I was then, but the feelings I have of being trapped are not exactly feelings I’m going to stop having…. I hope things change. I feel like I have more hope now than I did then.”

LAST SUMMER, Water From Your Eyes spent some time opening for a bunch of indie vets, including Pavement on their big reunion tour, as well as Spoon and Interpol (all of whom became their new labelmates when Water From Your Eyes signed to Matador in July 2022). It was a chance for an up-and-coming band to play some big shows, and also glean some insights from more experienced musicians. Brown remembers asking Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino how he handles it all, and his answer was simple: “I just have a therapist, play games on my phone, and meditate.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, I play games a lot on my phone!’” Brown says, laughing.

There’s still a lot to learn, however. When we talk in mid-April, Water From Your Eyes are in the midst of a grueling tour; they played 21 shows in 23 days that month. The worst part? The overstuffed itinerary was entirely their fault. Seeing gaps in their schedule of opening shows for Snail Mail, they asked their booking agent to add a few more gigs, not realizing those empty days were supposed to be their days off.  

One show was in Bakersfield, California, a gig everyone was surprised they booked — even the five people who showed up. “Everybody was really nice,” Brown says with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Why’d you come to Bakersfield?’”

“Because of Korn, obviously,” Amos says. “I’m taking the fall for this, because everyone recommended not doing Bakersfield.” 

“No, I supported it!” Brown insists.

“I was like, ‘We need to play the Korn town,’ and then we played some bougie microbrewery,” Amos sighs. “No Korn vibes at all.” 

In this moment, there’s a bit of the contradictory essence of what it is to be — for lack of any good term — a burgeoning indie darling. Big gigs, small gigs, stupid mistakes, grueling and exhilarating all at once. The booking fiasco aside, Water From Your Eyes are getting used to the rigors of the road, and the backing of a label like Matador helps. 

“It’s not like we’re just some unknown band showing up to play to three people while Nate has food poisoning,” Brown says. (That did happen; it was the show they were getting paid the most to play, so they couldn’t bail. Amos performed with a bucket next to him just in case. “I was having the darkest psychedelic experience,” he quips.)

Even though Water From Your Eyes have been making music for seven years, there’s a debut-like air around Everyone’s Crushed, and Brown half-jokes that it feels as if the band is being paraded around in some grand indie-rock debutante ball. 

“We’re wearing ball gowns and we’re walking into the—” They stop for a second. “I’ve never been to one of these, so I have no idea what they’re like. I’ve only watched Gilmore Girls.” 

When we talk, they’ve each just finished filing their taxes to the IRS. “I just paid all the rent money I had for the next two months to the government to buy time to actually go through and figure out how much I owe,” Brown says.

“Yeah, we both just got fucked,” Amos adds.

“I’m about to go hang out in my parents’ house for a minute while I sublet my apartment and do my taxes,” Brown continues. “We have 20 more shows to play, and then we have another, like, three tours to go on, and that’s about all I know.” 

Water From Your Eyes are stuck in place, in constant motion, figuring it out as they go along. “It does feel a little insignificant a lot of the time,” Amos says, while Brown adds with a self-aware laugh: “I think that there are people out there that probably feel a little bit less stuck because they’re, like, actively participating in the change. Whereas we’re on tour trying to sell some merch.”

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This is the exact note on which Water From Your Eyes end Everyone’s Crushed: “Buy My Product,” a blaring air-horn of an advertisement for the weird, daring, fraught album you just finished listening to. “There are no happy endings/There are only things that happen/Buy my product,” Brown sings. 

As Amos says now, “No matter how far you drift, you still just need to sell shit.”

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