There is nothing particularly metaphysical or even quasi-spiritual about the songs of Ryan Eilbeck. Unless of course you consider the morning ritual of Oolong tea with honey a life-changing moment, in which case the casual observations in an experience-rich life and those little things, like church bells in the distance or conversations with an interesting stranger, become grand and fleeting globs of meaning holding it all together.
In a lot of ways that’s how Natural Sway feels when you put it on. Their debut album Sweet Life is a record that forces one to pause and interact with a certain recent nostalgia that could contain memories of a lost tryst with a forgotten lover, or blaring a well-worn copy of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night through chunky headphones in solitude. One way or another, there’s a moment on Sweet Life that’s happened in your past. And that threshold between your 20s and 30s—part-time and full-time, in the van and sell the van, beer and Oolong —becomes a transformative phase or a dulling reality.
For Eilbeck it’s the former. Perhaps it’s the “energy” he frequently refers to that keeps him going, and best of all, keeps him writing songs, creating art. Eilbeck has already lived an infinite musician’s tenure in Delay—the oft-celebrated yet oft-overlooked pop punk band he formed with his brother and best friend at a middle school in Berea, Ohio in 1997. That trio has played the house-show and the zero-sum-touring trenches of underground rock for nearly two decades, and begat a whole generation of Columbus bands in the current zeitgeist, from All Dogs to Saintseneca, directly, to Pretty Pretty and Sega Genocide, indirectly—a truth Eilbeck shrugs off in earnest.
“I never felt like we were trending in any way,” says Eilbeck of Delay’s influence. “We were always knocking on the glass outside the house where the really good party is at, with the cool music and cool drugs.”
According to Eilbeck, Delay is in “hibernation,” but one need to only listen to Natural Sway’s debut to hear he’s picked a new path. One that’s decidedly quieter and more contemplative. Delay was too much of a center, too much a demand on career and domesticity, and things simply needed to progress. There was a need to move on, quite literally—Eilbeck moved from the chaotic campus scrum to the tranquil hills of Athens.
“In Delay, we kept a hold of each other in these silent ways and that wasn’t really letting us get too far in life,” says Eilbeck of the eventual formation of Natural Sway. “Delay was phasing out, but it wasn’t so much of a breaking as it was the wheels turning, and the energy for me to do something that was more in my own space. I didn’t have the same buffer.”
At 32, his story is not about maturation, or retreat, or even relaxation. Natural Sway, though rustic and crusted, slow and graceful, buzzes with life. Eilbeck needed a new outlet to “occupy his mind,” and soon, after being inspired by a library book filled with photos of honky tonks and outlaw country troubadours, the idea of Natural Sway became a “private musical obsession” aimed to sound like what he saw in those images. Indeed, Eilbeck’s musical shift could compare to the songs of Waylon Jennings and Neil Young, albeit undercut with a healthy tint of grunge and ‘90s emotive swoons.
“As far as that [Jennings and Young] I had none of it. Growing up, my parents listened to no rock at all,” explains Eilbeck on how he came to such a classic sound in Natural Sway. “A lot of that had to do with working at Used Kids and throwing on everything and realizing that I loved it. Eventually I felt like punk rock really let me down.”
Songs like “Boy” and the title track do retain the youthful abandon that defined Delay, but for the most part Sweet Life nestles in a comfortable, roomy atmosphere of late-night laments; “Bar,” pitch-black confessionals, “Line,” or sunlit mornings reading the paper, “Oolong”—you can practically see the dawn light glinting off the dust in the air. What were first demos, eventually “came to life” after Eilbeck recruited scene veterans Sarah Yetter on bass and Michael O’Shaughnessy on drums. That culmination and the final result projects a telepathy that’s tough to find in most bands around town. It’s an “energy” that Eilbeck feels is just getting started.
“I feel like we are actually still in the process of what I started when I first hit record,” says Eilbeck, speaking to the Sweet Life album as a living document that will most certainly evolve as more people hear it, the more this particular heart-wrenching series of songs gets played out to a live audience. “It will be impossible to have the same commitment for this as I did with Delay because of responsibilities in life, but there’s a lot that I want to do. It’s answering an impulse.”
For more information and to listen to perhaps the greatest Columbus release this year, visit naturalsway.bandcamp.com.