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Unwed Sailor's Johnathan Ford recounts Seattle's music scene of the 90s, coming back to Tulsa and his approach to songwriting

Johnathan Ford of Unwed Sailor
Charles Elmore
Johnathan Ford of Unwed Sailor

This is Songwriters & Tour Riders, a music podcast from KOSU and Oklahoma State University and hosted by Matthew Viriyapah.

Unwed Sailor is an instrumental rock band based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but also has its roots in the 90s music scene of Seattle, Washington. Johnathon Ford is the bassist and songwriter and lived in the famous music scene with his former band, Roadside Monument.

Ford left his home in Tulsa looking for his 'Black Flag get in the van' experience, but he has since been back for about ten years. Now, in his late 40s, he has continued to put out music with his band, Unwed Sailor. Their first album, The Faithful Anchor, came out 20 years ago and has just been reissued. They have put out an album a year for the last three years, with another planned for next year.

Listen above to hear stories of early 90s Seattle and coming back to Tulsa, his approach to songwriting as a bassist and how he wrote and recorded their latest album, Truth or Consequences.

On moving to 90s-era Seattle

During that time, you're looking at the early 90s, where else were you going to go to play music. Seattle in shining lights, the beacon on the hill. So I headed up that way. I actually ended up in Portland... And then I went down to Long Beach, California for a while and hung out in the hardcore scene there.

I had some friends in Seattle and went up to Seattle and finally everything clicked and stuck. I found a band. I found a community that could support me and I could support them.

The reason I left Tulsa, I found in Seattle. That place is going to be special to me. Even now, when I go back, I leave feeling inspired.

I was just out there cutting my teeth. It was definitely my truly punk rock era.
Johnathan Ford

Roadside [Monument]: that was my Black Flag get in the van experience. That's where I started paying my dues. That's where you, as a musician, where you start realizing that maybe people don't care about what you're doing. But at the same time, you're playing music as this three-piece group that you'd literally probably die for in the band.

It was such a passion and a love for us, and we just threw our entire selves into it.

A different strain of the '90s Seattle music scene packed into a basement to see the ballistic math-rock band get back together for just one night.

On writing songs on the bass, and Peter Hook

For me as a bass player, I want to be creating alternate rhythms and alternate melodies. And things that aren't necessarily just going with the guitar or going with the drums. And that's the kind of bass player I strive to be.

For example, the band, New Order— the bass player Peter Hook from that band, if you listen to his bass lines they're super unconventional. A lot of people think it's a guitar when they listen to his bass lines, 'cause he's writing these big hooks.

And that's what I want to be as a bass player. I'm very interested in melody and hooks. So when I write a song, I want it to be super catchy and memorable. Just push, just really pushing the song.

If you listen to Unwed Sailor songs, if you don't hear Peter Hook from New Order in that then we have to talk cause to me, it's so blatantly obvious.

For me when I'm getting personal in music, my voice is the bass
Johnathan Ford

When I bring the bass song... David (Swatzell) just instinctively knows how to harmonize with those and how to weave through those, and knows how to just put the icing on the cake. So it's a magical thing working with Dave. Then we have Matt Putman on drums. And it's the same thing with him. There's just this connection where he knows what to do. We don't have to think about it.

I'll write the song on the bass guitar. It's a pop song on a bass guitar. But it's not just one bass guitar. I'll stack lead bass lines over the main bass lines so when I bring that song it's a song. It could technically be a completed song...

When I bring it to them, it's like an ambient mood thing. And when Dave and Matt get involved, it becomes maybe more like a rock song.

On putting out a new album every year

I mean, I'm in my late 40s now, and I've been doing this well over 20 years. And I've come to the realization that this is what I do. This is who I am. It's what I love.

So if music has made that kind of commitment to me, and I've made that kind of commitment to music, why am I not putting out a record a year.

Why am I not completely 100 percent throwing myself into this— the good and the bad.

And I think another inspiration was my friend, David Bazan, who plays in the band Pedro the Lion. And we were talking once... And he mentioned the idea of putting a record out a year. And the just really inspired. Just working hard and making it happen and even wondering, 'Can I make it happen?'

I was just like, I'm gonna go for it. And so that's what's happened for the past three records. And we have another record competed that's coming out next year.

And I feel like with all those mindsets put together when I sit down and write now, it's just not as hard for me anymore. It flows really freely. And I just learn to allow songs to happen.

Anytime in life and you're just trying to make something happen, a lot of times it doesn't really happen. I mean you can work to make something happen but if you're just trying to pull something out of something that's not there, it doesn't work.

So I just sit down with my bass and I just kind of start playing around and allow the ideas and the melodies to come to me.

Music featured in this episode:

  1. Unwed Sailor - Last Goodbyes
  2. Bare Minimum - A Dime's Body Makes Him A Diver
  3. Soundgarden - My Wave
  4. Polvo - Vibracobra
  5. Roadside Monument - My Hands Are Thermometers
  6. Unwed Sailor - Ajo
  7. Unwed Sailor - The Faithful Anchor
  8. Tiffany - I Think We're Alone Now
  9. Dead Kennedys - Holiday in Cambodia
  10. Depeche Mode - Enjoy The Silence
  11. Unwed Sailor - Lilith
  12. Unwed Sailor - Dark of the Morning
  13. New Order - Ceremony
  14. New Order - Regret
  15. Unwed Sailor - Fellsway
  16. Unwed Sailor - Heavy Age
  17. Unwed Sailor - Look Alive
  18. Unwed Sailor - Voodoo Roux
  19. Unwed Sailor - Blitz
  20. Unwed Sailor - Truth or Consequences
  21. Unwed Sailor - The Magic Hedge

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Matthew Viriyapah is KOSU's production assistant and host of the music podcast Songwriters & Tour Riders.
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