Ryan J. Eilbeck talks bugs, Golden Donuts and the addiction of discovery
Ryan J. Eilbeck lives on the southeast outskirts of Columbus, where woods and open fields battle for space with unfinished condos and warehouse parking lots. For now, at Eilbeck's comfortably primitive house that overlooks a Three Creeks Metro Park entrance, nature still holds the advantage over the encroachment of nonliving things.
That advantage is most apparent in the summertime, when insects swarm the air, invade the dirt and penetrate the unseen gaps in Eilbeck's window panes and light fixtures. “My roommate was just like, ‘This house is an entomologist's dream,'” he said on a recent weekday morning at the house. “Every single room there'd be bugs that I hadn't even seen before. In my head I thought, ‘Church of Bugs. That's where we live.'”
Eilbeck, who records and performs as Natural Sway, wrote an insect-inspired poem he titled “Church of Bugs,” then headed to a small side room where a four-track cassette recorder and microphones sit ready to document the songwriter's creative whims.
“The thing that I love doing is the family trade: making cassette tapes,” said Eilbeck, who used to play in pop-punk band Delay with his brother. “My dad is a musician, and the tape deck is on the piano. There's a microphone in the left jack, microphone in the right jack, and you just go. That was always there. … I've always had the most fun being at home with the microphone and putting stuff to tape, and then playing it back and just getting weird with it. It's taking it back to its rawest form of joy for me.”
To get weird with “Church of Bugs,” Eilbeck read and sang the poem into the mike, improvising as he went. “There's a burst, like an energy of the idea,” he said, “and once I run the tape, it's on its way to becoming something else.”
For the second track, Eilbeck read from a handwritten sheet of instructions titled “Recording Insects” that he found in an old LP at Used Kids, his former employer. “The handwriting is beautiful, and the way in which the person is telling you how to do this is not scientific at all,” he said. “They're like, ‘Go out in the woods, and do it at 1 in the morning and, you know, there's no electricity, so hook it to your car battery and walk out into the woods with a really long extension cord.' And I'm like, yeah.”
For the third overlaying track, Eilbeck sat outside next to a crackling fire and improvised musings about the mosquitoes buzzing around and biting him. In the end, he emerged with a nearly eight-minute song that is both epic and entirely casual. “The chaos of the song is the equivalent of when you're walking into the house and you flick on the porch light, and you go to open the door, and there's things flying in, and there's things flying out,” he said. “That's how the song sounds to me.”
But the song also makes a larger point about Eilbeck's place in a world occupied by insects. “You have to see these ants. They're everywhere, and they can lift their own weight 5,000 times. Sometimes I can hardly lift my own head,” he sing-speaks over intermittent guitar squeals and a delicately picked, nylon-stringed acoustic.
“You're in a world where you get told to believe a lot of things, whether that be a brand of religion or just subscribing to the culture of the United States or whatever,” Eilbeck said. “I don't believe in that. I believe in these bugs. They're everywhere. They're gonna win.”
“Church of Bugs” is the final track on the new eight-song Natural Sway album, Pre Sacred, which Eilbeck will celebrate with a cassette release show at the Oracle on Saturday, Jan. 5, where Natural Sway will perform as a full band alongside Caitlin Kraus and the Roof Dogs.
Pre Sacred, which follows last year's sacred as you make it pt. 1 EP and 2016 album Sweet Life, is Eilbeck's most intimate and experimental Natural Sway release to date. Coated in analog hiss and speckled with tape pops, the pastoral songs reflect the singer/guitarist's attempt to capture that fleeting feeling of newness. “One of the big reasons I love making music and writing is because of the moment where you feel some kind of discovery, or a sense of it — that burst,” he said. “Finding a surprise, you know? It's kind of addicting.”
In order to find surprises, Eilbeck has created a life for himself in which surprise is possible, whether he's messing around in his home studio (dubbed “The Fart Zone” after a warning sign hanging on the door) or exploring new parts of Columbus. “When I worked on the South Side, I would go a different way on my bike to work. I'd be like, ‘I don't know what that road is…,” said Eilbeck, who one day came across a place he'd never seen before: Golden Donuts & Diner.
“The first time I biked by it I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going there tomorrow,'” he said. “It's in a part of town where it has survived outside of the [growth] of Columbus. This is there. It was there, and it still is. Those donuts are pre-sacred. Before anything was sacred, it just was. ... And it's a good donut.”