Band photo by Sophie Greenspan; Stoppiello on the left, Rosati on the right.
When I walk up to the Jamaica Plain house in which Jacob Rosati resides, I call him to double check that it’s the yellow one. He answers, confused, claiming it’s white. When he comes to the front door he stops and exclaims incredulously, “It is yellow!” Upstairs, most of his possessions are suitcased and strewn about the hallway he has been living in for two months.
We take the interview into one of his friend’s rooms. Before we can get to any interview, he has given me a huge hug, has brewed us some ginger-mint tea, and is talking garrulously about pulling the last crop from his beloved garden, Murakami books, and his soon-to-be move to Mexico City.
It would be hard to expect for such a soft-spoken person—and as someone who didn’t know the color of the house he was living in—that he’s the mind behind one of the most brazen and scrupulously detailed albums to be released this year.
Ponta Delgada, the latest record from his band Skinny Bones, pushes against almost everything familiar about the project’s previous work; almost completely gone are the resigned lyrical musings, the soft wobbling guitar. Instead comes a violent exploration of one’s identity in relation to another’s.
Most strikingly, the album draws heavily on techno as its foundation. “It’s all I’ve been listening to for the past two years now,” Rosati confesses in a separate interview, along with Chris Stoppiello, the other half of Skinny Bones. “And I tend to emulate what I’m listening to.”
Calling techno the “listening man’s dance music,” Rosati, who does all the recording and is the principle songwriter for the duo, has been interested in the expression that style of electronic music allows for.
If you knew Jacob personally, this change in direction would come as no surprise. The young musician has been organizing techno shows under the Cake Factory name for almost one year now.
But the two are interested in more than just traditional techno music; Ponta Delgada is an exercise in bridging the mechanical four-to-the-floor aspect of dance music with the organic feel of a human band. The record was recorded almost entirely sans metronome, a challenging feat for electronic music.
There are calculated imperfections throughout. In “Dropped Bench Press” each measure’s fourth beat hangs on a little longer than its standard allotment.
Recording without any click track is what Rosati calls a “hallmark of dance music.” The two wanted the record to feel flawed just at the tip.
“There’s a lot of stuttering that happens and you can’t ever quite grab onto it… Because of that I think it feels a little more human in a lot of ways.”
“I really love repetition,” Rosati elaborates, enamored, on his admiration of techno. “Whenever I take field recordings, they can feel like this ametric, beatless entity. But whenever you put a loop on it… all of a sudden you start to hear all these percussive moments. Techno does the same sort of thing.
“But that kind of repetition is sort of like a meditation. In pop music you get to this where you get to the chorus of a song and a thousand things happen at once,” he continues, excited. “But in techno there are very small changes. Not even new parts entering but filters changing.
“Those little changes become so impactful. It’s like lowering your threshold for what’s important. And then all of a sudden everything is much, much more important. I’ve definitely spent a lot of time listening to skipping records over and over and over.”
He caught the bug, then spread it to Stoppiello. Now, the two have slowly been shifting Skinny Bones to be a fully electronic band.
Stoppiello believes “as a group [they’ve] been wanting people to appreciate the electronic element more and more. I think this new record is the one we’ve been wanting to make from the start.”
“We never had the skills to achieve ‘polished,’ ” Stoppiello remarks. Which Rosati adds, “I’ve never been able to pin down why so many… musicians tend to get more polished over time.”
Though polished has never been the goal, perfection certainly has. Rosati has always held an obsessive streak with Skinny Bones.
Even older tracks before the band’s technical savvy faced intense self-scrutiny. To achieve their signature guitar timbre (think “Sleep In”), the instrument’s output was pitch-shifted up, snapped down, then up again back to its original octave. Ultimately, the pitch was the same as it started, but the tone kept the artifacts of change, producing their brand of wobbling sound.
But guitar tones have largely been abandoned now. With their new material requiring little need for the instrument, the band’s live set has now foregone the instrument, going so far as adjusting their older material to fit as well.
Both agree that a band shouldn’t just rehash the same version of their recorded work. To them, presenting reworked material is a matter of acknowledging the audience’s presence.
“The computer is also a third band member, the way we’ve always treated it in a live performance,” Stoppiello explains. Because both musicians worked on different software programs in the early days, they had to recreate the files they were performing for each performance. The two now joke that their live show is a actually a “Skinny Bones cover band.”
With a grain of salt, Rosati admits he “fully anticipate[s] people to not like it.” Stoppiello jokingly assures him “From the start of us playing together we’ve just been trying to… disappoint all our fans who listen to folk music.”
As it turns out, Ponta Delgada is disappointment’s antithesis. The sonic nuances are as numerous as the fat synth hooks. Water sounds are stretched and used as hi-hats, bird calls are subbed in for traditional snare; it sounds as if someone managed to stuff an exotic island into an 808.
Songs like “Stupid Slow,” Miso, Tofu, Kale,” or “Human Body Feel” satisfy both the hypercritical audiophile and the free-spirited dancer in anyone.
While many of the sonic textures are warm and washing, many of the timbres and palettes are camped smack center in the uncanny valley—enough to make anyone squirm their skin off.
Rosati wields his voice in the same way. For Ponta Delgada, he experimented with new means of vocal delivery, going so far as to record his vocals drunk or with local anesthetic applied to his mouth.
Atop his crisp, vampiric delivery he punctuates his plosives and elongates his vowels, accentuating the music as a drum kit would.
His cold anger (and his layer of numbness to it) are a hand’s reach away. One travels with him into the world of Ponta Delgada.
Place has always played a huge role in Rosati’s life. The band’s last album, Noise Floor, focuses much of its material on the relation one holds their self to their environment or home.
Ponta Delgada takes a new approach to the idea of place. What if you could remove someone away from everything they relate themselves to? Would that jolt be enough to solve a personal struggle?
People relate themselves to their environment. Take an individual away from their home, isolate them or surround them with newnesses, and they can change.
The lyrics of “Ask the Atlantic” set the scene: “Logically this decision is simple/ you risked my health and that’s a massive trust issue/… I’m on an island/ I’m on vacation/… asking the atlantic to distract me from you.”
The island aforementioned belongs to the Azores, a collection of islands off of Portugal where two years ago Rosati vacationed with a few friends.
Ponta Delgada relies almost entirely on this experience—the lyrical content was born out of the isolation he felt there, how it worked its way into him and gave him new ground to climb upon and reexamine a relationship that was troubling him.
“I had a whole narrative flow of my life in Boston,” he says. “I was pulled out of it and was able to sit in this more solitary space.”
Nearly all the field recordings on the album were taken there, including the turbid water samples that punctuate many of the songs. Rosati’s goal was “to make the ocean feel like it had music in it, not music on top of it.”
The particularly unnatural sloshing sounds heard throughout are different recordings of irrigation pipes found all over the island.
“I think that sound exemplifies Skinny Bones,” Stoppiello muses. “Sometimes in the record we just present that sound to just appreciate the sound. And sometimes that sound is a hi-hat. And sometimes that sound is a snare drum.”
He adds that “anything is a kickdrum if it has the presence of a kickdrum.”
Ponta Delgada album art
Ponta Delgada is an extremely intimate record, which comes with its given drawbacks. For one, “there’s real people involved,” he says of the album, “people that I have not spoken with in awhile.” Then there’s his own presence in the music.
“It’s me,” he admits. “I think it definitely is only a reductive part of me.” Ponta Delgada explores feelings of his that would seem hard to express even to a friend, let alone share publicly. “It’s not necessarily what my whole life is made up of. It’s just the parts that end up sticking to music.”
There’s a distinct version of the story here—Rosati’s working and weaving through the difficult situation of a love’s betrayal and loss—a tense and obviously biased one.
Rosati describes the album as “wanting to feel something and caring a little less about what it is.”
A rough story eventually comes through—someone kept a secret from him, and the secret came out. And how he had to deal with being less important to this person than he thought he was. The listener is along for the masochistic ride—anger, apathy, sexual frustration.
It’s not so simple to artistically work through being hurt; there’s always another’s side of the story to account for. But that’s not Ponta Delgada‘s purpose.
Lines like “When we’re not together you don’t think of me a bit” or “Don’t make a dumbass out of me/ I’ve trusted you a lot, won’t you agree?” are so acutely focused from Rosati’s viewpoint that it becomes his tragic flaw. It doesn’t take much for the listener to realize this character is so blinded by solipsism he hemorrhages lines like “please love me” over and over.
It’s like watching your best friend send some massive, embarrassingly pining drunk text to their ex.
He digs so frustratingly inward, toiling and toiling away at the idea of this other person, that the listener watches, but does not necessarily align. There isn’t any illusion that this is the truth—rather, it’s an admittance in his own inability to understand anything beyond his own emotions.
But this didn’t stop Rosati from questioning if this record should ever see light.
Over the two years it took to make the record (considerably long for a DIY band) Rosati would bring draft after exhausted draft to Stoppiello for scrutiny, often claiming he could no longer to work on the project. But Stoppiello never let him abandon the piece.
“I learned a ton making this record,” Rosati says, adding that it “wrecked me at some times.”
“It is a personal thing,” he adds. “I feel that it’s better because of that, because I kind of let myself go a little bit.”
For Rosati, this selfishness climaxes in “Miso, Tofu, Kale” when he sings “I don’t think I would be anything without ya/ It’s pitiful how much I stress, how much I pine over ya/ It seems the coffin that I set you in put me in a cage/ I should value your trust and not just your jaw and your grades.”
There are two important lyrical callbacks here—there’s one to a previous Ponta Delgada track “Ask the Atlantic.” Here’s the acknowledgement of the fallacy of his anger. But then there’s a subtler easter egg: he’s also playing on an early Skinny Bones lyric in “Shake Your Shoulders,” where he sings “I don’t think you would be anything without me.”
He’s relenting any position of power he could’ve held by projecting his own story. He’s not silencing another person, he’s revealing through example how harmful it can be to do so. The main focus isn’t message but the search for understanding, the desire to see beyond one’s miserable self.
These small surrenders are where the conclusion, if any, can be found in the album.
In the album’s closer, “Human Body Feel,” he directly acknowledges the fallacy of having been telling solely his own story. This is done through a cut-up of field recordings done on the Azores. To make it, the two rooted through hours of recordings for any spoken words, transcribed them on a word document, and put them to paper. From there, they cut and arranged words into the poem that became the track’s lyrics.
“It’s acknowledging that it’s inherently one-sided,” explains Stoppiello. Rosati describes it as a curtain pulling on the entire viewpoint of the album.
He admits feeling “Safe/ And like you could not argue both angles/ Here at my performance/ No conversation,” and that “this recorded fantasy performance no way represented the way I felt.”
This is the last song. By now, the self is exhausted with its egomaniacal mire. But then, amid pan flutes and sloshing four-on-the-floor beats comes the admission:
“I say let’s go backwards to skinny dip/ Crack up, laugh, and human body feel/ I know this path’s circular trouble but sometimes I still like walking.”
At long last, Allston Pudding is proud to debut Ponta Delgada. Listen below: