On new album, the Kyle Sowashes let out a big 'welp'

In the past few years, singer/guitarist Kyle Sowash has found himself saying the same phrase over and over again: “I don’t know what to tell you.”

It’s a response that embodies a sigh, a shrug and a sense of resignation, and it tended to spill out of Sowash’s mouth in a variety of situations. “The dog is limping. He needs to have ACL surgery. ‘Well, I don’t know what to tell you. We’re just going to have to do it,’” Sowash said. “Our kid has been throwing up nonstop for the past six hours. ‘Well, we have to go to the emergency room. I don’t know what to tell you.’”

The response became so pervasive that it eventually became the title of the new album from Sowash’s long-running indie-rock band, the Kyle Sowashes: I Don’t Know What to Tell You. “All of a sudden you're 41 years old, and things are the way they are, and I don't have an explanation,” Sowash said. “It’s just the way that I feel with everything. It's like a, ‘Welp.’ That was an alternative title for the record.”

Maybe the biggest “welp” moment came a few years ago while Sowash was playing bass on a European tour with the band DTCV (pronounced “detective”). “I got a text message at 5 in the morning in November of 2016. I'm in Hamburg, Germany. And it says, ‘They elected Donald Trump president.’ Oh. Um. Well, America has spoken. I don't know what to tell you,” said Sowash, who wrote some of the new album’s songs in the back of the DTCV van. “I remember being in Italy right after that, and people just wanted to talk to us about it, like, ‘What happened?’ But I wasn't sure why it happened. I don't have an explanation.”

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Sowash relives that morning and that feeling on the album’s title track, singing, “When you told me the bad news/I threw up a little on my shoes/What you said has got me down/And I don’t know what to tell you now.” Similar sentiments resurface on the aptly titled “Bumming Me Out”: “Now you’re armed to the teeth/And you’re hoping that they’ll take you way back when/So that you and all the good ol’ boys can pretend/That America is great again … And you’re just bumming me out.”

Modern political discourse isn’t the only thing causing Sowash to shake his head in disbelief. The album’s cover, a black and white photo of a guy in a sleeveless T-shirt and mohawk staring at a pile of rubble, directly references a more localized bummer: the bulldozing of old Campus haunts, particularly grimy-but-beloved punk-rock venue Bernie’s Bagels & Distillery.

“[The cover] is actually a picture that I took out of my car with my cellphone,” Sowash said. “I'm driving up High Street, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. They tore [Bernie's] down.’ And then I'm like, ’Oh, my God. There's Ratboy.’ He was a door guy at Bernie's, and I saw him standing there up against the fence, just looking so sad and so disappointed. So distraught. I just took a couple pictures.”

On the album’s back cover, Sowash stares through the window of a brightly lit Target that now sits atop of where the basement venue once hosted thousands of local and touring acts.

Musically, though, Sowash’s songs never feel like a bummer. The upbeat sing-alongs, which the four-piece recorded at Musicol in February, are filled with shout-sung choruses and big, distorted guitars that recall vintage indie-rock a la Archers of Loaf and Superchunk, all filtered through Sowash’s ever-present sense of humor — a key component of every Sowashes release dating back to the band’s 2006 debut, What’s Important (And What’s Not).

“Not All Heroes Wear Capes,” for example, tells the true story of a band (not the Sowashes) that gets revenge on a dishonest club owner by tracking down his address and using pink spray paint to decorate his driveway with a phallic act of vandalism.

Sowash also writes with a very particular sense of place. Columbus bars like Cafe Bourbon St. and Ace of Cups (where the Sowashes will play an album release show on Friday, Sept. 13) show up on lead-off track “Washed Up,” while “Blueberry Beret” spins a fictional yarn about Columbus music scene luminaries Ron House (Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments) and Lizard McGee (Earwig). It’s an allusion to Earwig’s song “Used Kids,” another fictionalized account involving House.

“I want to see how Lizard feels being a character in a song,” Sowash said. “And this time [House] isn’t working at a 7-11. He’s working at a UDF.”

Sometimes there’s more to a Kyle Sowashes song than what’s readily apparent. “Bottled Up” ostensibly tells the story of a home brewing project gone wrong. But in light of the album’s title and events of the last few years, a beer explosion becomes more than a sticky mess of yeast and hops.

“That song was about how to deal with these feelings,” Sowash said. “If you keep them bottled in, your beer explodes.”