his past January, faced with a world without David Bowie following his death, a Tweet offered mourners the opportunity to bask in the near impossibility that they were witness to the life of the Starman, “If you’re feeling sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.” The tweet was credited to Simon Pegg, not that Simon Pegg another British guy name Simon Pegg, but a brilliant quote none the less, one with multiple applications. Bowie became a topic during my interview with Jessica Dobson and Peter Mansen of Deep Sea Diver, his brilliance and the impact his collaborators had on his music. As I drove South down I-5 away from Jessica and Peter’s home in the Seattle neighborhood of Greenwood, that quote came back to me. Are we that impossibly lucky to be right here and now in the midst of Deep Sea Diver?
On February 19th of this year Deep Sea Diver released its second full-length album, Secrets, and though its title may have begun as a somewhat arbitrary way to settle on a theme, the music that it accompanies is just as complex and layered as its title. “Secrets seemed to embody the layers of this record. The deeper you get to know a person, the more secrets you get to know about them because they open up to you,” Jessica told me referring to the title. Secrets wears down the galvanized armor of its pop-rock exterior, exposing beneath it a beautiful, honest, and raw mess of an album that cuts straight to the emotional core of the band and its listeners. The album is a guitar driven masterpiece and Jessica takes center stage powerfully stabbing at the guitar strings, bending the melodies, channeling these artful-alien sounds. Vocally she is the symbol of strength, both grounded and unpredictable, her range is vast and precise riding an impossible scale in a matter of beats. Secrets hits right on every note, with every member of the band, the album takes a decade of setbacks, trials, celebrations, bravery, and beauty presenting itself with trust and vulnerability.
The origins of Jessica and Deep Sea Diver have been repeated to the point of parody but bares mention when describing the journey that led to Secrets, as it is this path that dictates the convictions of the band. When Jessica Dobson was just 19 and still living in her native Southern California she signed a record deal with Atlantic Records. She was adamant about not releasing her first effort for the label “it didn’t sound like me,” she told me during our first interview in 2012. Later she recorded a second album with Phil Ek in Seattle, one she was happy with, but by that point whatever it was that convinced Atlantic to sign her in the first place had passed. Jessica left the label and the album went unreleased. Disappointed but unbroken she retreated, became the manager of a restaurant for a time before she took a few of the songs from that Phil Ek recording, recorded a few more and put out the first Deep Sea Diver release, the New Caves EP. From there she found touring gigs and cut her teeth with bands like Beck and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After she and her husband Peter (a Northwest native) relocated to Seattle, Deep Sea Diver put out its first full-length, History Speaks. It seems that the years of hard work and false starts had paid off, the album was an amazing record that showed off the band’s poetic lyrics and their ability to write crowd pleasing radio-friendly rock hits, even when they were wrapped in a more experimental sheath. Just as History Speaks was coming out into the world, when Deep Sea Diver should have been taking the city by storm, Jessica was out on tour as a member of The Shins. Though she was impressing audiences nightly on the road, History Speaks was months old before they were able to really get out and promote the album.
The band toured in support of History Speaks regularly playing local shows with fans waited for the moment when this incredible band would blow up, when they would go from being their favorite band to everyone’s favorite band. Deep Sea Diver was also developing one of the most impressive live shows around, as an audience member you are never sure what’s going to happen- if they’re going to bring the music right into the crowd, or if they’ll play a one-off cover of a song like Randy Newman’s Short People with Peter’s brother Jon- who himself is a regular fixture at shows, on at least one occasion appearing in drag as Jessica- or maybe there will be a skit, or the show might conclude with a Q&A. “…Elliot, who joined the band in the last couple years, he [Peter] would try to make him uncomfortable on stage so that he would become more comfortable more quickly.” Jessica says, perhaps referring mostly to the time Peter and Elliot performed the “South Bend shovel slayer” scene from Home Alone. There’s also a wonderful attention to detail, with the set pieces or in the outfits the band wears, but even if you threw all that out Deep Sea Diver is one hell of a live band who always manages to keep it fresh. “There’s something much more exciting about being in the moment which is hard to continue to do when you’re playing a lot of shows, it can tend to become robotic… that’s just so boring to us.” For Jessica, part of mixing it up is her commitment to honesty and vulnerability on stage, “I’m not very good at hiding my emotions or putting a cloak over that kind of stuff.” Jessica’s not shy about halting a song almost a minute in to tune her guitar out of an accidental drop-D or to change corse and play an old song solo while a technical issue gets worked out. “The best relationships that you have with somebody are those kind of relationships where you could be extremely honest and reveal parts of yourself that actually aren’t very pretty,” Peter tells me. For one show at the Fremont Abbey, the band managed to get a sold out crowd from the basement where the bulk of the performance took place, upstairs, “I can’t believe that worked,” Peter exclaims. It was a bonding moment to simply follow a costumed Jon Mansen upstairs to a whole new stage where Jessica would eventually appear -guitar in hand- above the crowd in the crying room. Watching the band play live is like having a chance to hang out with four super cool artists and watch them work.
By late Summer of 2014 Deep Sea Diver satiated their own and everyone else’s appetite with the Always Waiting EP, four impressive songs that recalled Jessica’s past and made bold steps forward, they sold out back to back shows at the Fremont Abbey for the EP’s release, and it felt like something was definitely building. The band had a solidified new lineup with Peter on drums, Jessica on the guitar, keys, and vocals, Garrett Gue with walloping bass lines, and Elliot Jackson tackling everything in between including the often subtle but impacting synthesizer. It was around this time that the band traveled down to California to record their second full-length with Luke Vander Pol. Secrets would be a more collaborative album according to Jessica, “It became more of a collaborative experience and process, we were finding our footing again of how to be a band because any time you add a new element or new person it’s going to change the dynamic.” Though Peter disagreed that Secrets was any more collaborative than its predecessor Jessica pointed out that Secrets was crafted differently “Figuring out how to write and bring things to the table and hear them in totally different ways, with Garrett on bass and Elliott on synth. It was like a really new palate to work together with. It [Secrets] was mostly recorded live.”
“Recorded live,” is the secret ingredient to Secrets, it’s the biggest difference between the two albums and perhaps the biggest difference in the overall sound. That messy, raw, impulsive feeling, recording live allowed for the band to be more unpredictable. With less of a calculating hand Jessica was able to create that spontaneous sound she was so inspired by on songs like Bowie’s Fame and The Talking Head’s I Zimbra. Jessica’s signature style has always been that stabby guitar or those sour and bent notes, it was less present on History Speaks, but always sparkled during the live performances. “Ugliness gets a reaction, and it can still be cool and ugly…When I bend notes it’s an extension of frustration I’m feeling…” Jessica says referencing the song It Takes a Moment which prominently features Jessica’s tangenting guitar, the steel wool that dulls the otherwise shiny hooks destined for pop greatness. There’s a joke in the room that her affinity for the “sour” note is what will keep her from ever recording the next great pop anthem, as if that is something sh’s actually even searching for. Peter clarifies “There’s a humanity in things that are wrong, it has more life to it because it has a ‘mistake.’”
Much of what Deep Sea Diver presents to the audience on Secrets is jarring, the band took a serious risk and trusted in themselves that embracing the rawness in the songs is what would provide its punch and emotional power, and it paid off. Similarly Jessica trusted in her bandmates that the two minute guitar fueled intro on Wide Awake was the right move. Earlier iterations of the song featured a much abbreviated intro launching into the verse far sooner. Jessica had to be convinced to go with the intro, “It was a little bit frightening for me. I’m much more of the traditional arranger of the band where it’s like, ‘alright y’all let’s get to the verse, let’s get to the chorus.’ Where I get a little more experimental has always been on the back end of songs, on the bridge, or the outros, and I’d never done anything like that. So it did take convincing for me to step into that and go ‘I’m going to own it.’” What the listener gets is a powerful song of gargantuan scale, one that asks every member of the band to hold their own or risk the song’s unraveling. Wide Awake, like much of Secrets comes across as a major departure for the band which Peter and Jessica are hesitant to admit to fully. It might all be a case of being so close to the music they just didn’t notice the shift as Peter said, “It’s like having a small dog or a child, you don’t see how it grows or develops. At a certain point you look at pictures and you see, ‘wow this has changed.‘”
As the Summer of 2015 drew near, Secrets was completed and primed for release, the water was hot and the pot was going to boil over. The band was eyeing a date in late August for release when their manager advised them to wait until early 2016. This was not the news they wanted to hear, and as Jessica has said on more than one occasion, “I totally cried.” These songs they’d toiled over for months and months were burning to be heard and the band was impatient to get them out to the masses. Deep Sea Diver has always been a DIY band, they self-released and shipped out copies of History Speaks and the Always Waiting EP themselves. There were expectations that a label would have picked them up in the intervening years, nothing quite worked out and they opted to do it themselves once again but Jessica wanted to change one thing, “I was tired of saying self-released.” So the band started High Beam Records, a throwaway name that wasn’t totally cheesy and connects best to the “high-beams” in the band’s practice space. “We basically just formed a team that is as good as any record label,” says Peter who is uncomfortable placing the same pressure he puts on himself on anyone else. “We have such a drive because we’re doing it on our own, to make this as fun and enjoyable and as successful as possible,” and Jessica’s right, when I arrived the Vinyl was being prepped for the mail, and cd’s were at the moment being sent out to radio stations. Boxes of t-shirts and tote bags formed impressive walls, and fresh Polaroids for the pre-order campaign hang from shelves. A new tour van sat out front, and Jessica beamed at me while wearing a shirt with her own face on it, “did you see our new tour van out there?” There was a sense of excitement, they’d just suffered a couple days of “business stuff” setbacks, but they were chomping at the bit to share this music with their fans.
“I’m really glad this is coming out in the beginning of the year because it feels fresh to me, and that you have these twelve months to see something hopefully blossom,” Jessica concedes. “It’s terrifying, who knows how it will go,” Peter adds. We spoke in January a month out from the release of the album, three “teaser” videos had come since December and the early reviews were painting the album as stellar. For my own part, without hyperbole, Secrets is the best album I’ve ever heard, it is everything I’ve ever wanted an album to be, from the grungy guitar picks at its opening to its beautiful and gentle closing. The risks the band took make the album an emotion feat unlike any other, full of raw power, giddy joy, anguish, frustration, and sensuality. My daughter has attached herself to the song Great Light, the albums midway ballad, the other night at dinner we were listening to the album and as the title track drew to a close she leapt up from the table to dance and sing along to her favorite song on the ottoman, I can’t thank Secrets enough for moments like that.
Of all the infinite time and space for my stardust to flutter down to earth, for it to rest neatly here and now is awe inspiring. For the past five years I’ve had the pleasure of existing in the same time and space as Deep Sea Diver, watching them develop, grow, stumble, plant their feet to keep from falling, and triumphantly return with a collection of songs that slashed my chest with the clean exacting blade of a scalpel and massage my heart to the beat of the drums, the thwack-thump bouncing bass, the swirling sensual tickle of the synthesizer, the stabs and clashes of the guitar, and the immeasurable power of the vocals. This happens every time Deep Sea Diver plays music, and I am encouraged to drop my armor and relax my guard-to let the music wrap me up in its arms and console me. I’ve never taken for granted the access and proximity we’ve all had to the band over the years, not far from the surface I’ve always had the understanding that at any moment everyone will discover Deep Sea Diver. It’s not an if it’s a when, and it’s Secrets that’s going to do it.
Deep Sea Diver fans new and old, take advantage of this moment, don’t miss a show, you are lucky to be existing at the same time and place as them. Catch them on tour in May, see them perform at the KEXP New Home Grand Opening, this Saturday April 16th (7pm). Pay whatever it costs to get out to Sasquatch to see them, pack up your family for a trip to Carnation to experience the magic at Timber fest. You can find Deep Sea Diver on the web at thedeepseadiver.com, and pick up Secrets on all the susual formats at thedeepseadiver.bandcamp.com. They’re also on facebook and twitter @deepseadiverbnd. The above quotes were taken from my podcast interview with Jessica and Peter which you can hear in itunes, over at depthsounder.org, or right here. A recording of Jessica performing Great Light can be heard in the podcast or on Soundcloud.