An interview with Telefon Tel Aviv’s Joshua Eustis on releasing a new album after a decade-long hiatus
“I felt a lot of pressure about making a good record because I figured people would think: ‘It’s not going to be as good, his partner’s dead,’” said Joshua Eustis in a recent phone interview. We caught up with him just days after the release of his latest album, Dreams are Not Enough, the first album he’s put out under the Telefon Tel Aviv moniker in a decade—and the first since the tragic death of his musical partner, Charlie Cooper in 2009. Eustis and Cooper formed Telefon Tel Aviv in 1999, making this the 20th anniversary of the project, and the release of the record all the more poignant. The album is not only Eustis’ revival of the project, but a way for him to embrace the present—while thoroughly dissecting his past.
Dreams are Not Enough’s track titles are stanzas to a poem that Eustis penned in 2009, shortly after Cooper’s death. They allude to a recurring stress-induced dream he has had for years, which itself is based on a childhood memory.
During a family trip, eight-year-old Eustis snuck out of the house to take an early morning swim. While in the water, he saw a pod of porpoises that he began to swim after. In his pursuit, he swam past a sandbar, which had a sheer drop to the bottom of the ocean, a turquoise-to-black abyss. “I saw the drop off into total nothingness,” he reflected, “it was me seeing something I just wasn’t ready to see.” After swimming back to shore safely, he spent the rest of the day making sandcastles on the beach.
Despite surviving the incident unscathed, the event sunk into his subconscious, growing like black mold in a forgotten corner of a basement. It wasn’t until years later that the image of the abyss resurfaced in the form of a dream: “In the dream, I look down and I can see a little baby boy version of myself. A little eight-year-old Josh, drowning at the bottom of the ocean.”
Though the dream has followed him throughout his adult life, cropping up during times of turmoil, now in his early 40’s, Eustis sees the dream differently: “I think it’s my psyche telling me: you’re old now. The boy is dead. Now you’re a man.”
Aging and the passing of time are the impetus behind Dreams are Not Enough, the nine tracks of which plumb the depths of his regrets and dredge up the moments that define who he is today. The album has an understandably different quality to 2009’s Immolate Yourself, which saw Telefon Tel Aviv explore the duo’s love of dreary, 80’s synth-pop (a genre that Eustis continues to explore at length with his solo project Sons of Magdalene and together with the group The Black Queen).
Dreams are Not Enough is a return to form for the project in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily sound like other Telefon Tel Aviv records. Listening to their discography in chronological order, one can hear the duo’s musicianship grow with their ambitions. Each release adding or removing elements from the previous to form something different.
2001 saw Telefon Tel Aviv’s first release, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, which paired aimlessly looping melodies with meticulously (bordering on neurotically) programmed rhythms that garnered acclaim, and led many to perceive them as an IDM group to be reckoned with. No small feat for two friends from New Orleans, where the electronic music scene was underdeveloped, to say the least. “There was a generic kind of rave scene, and maybe 10 people total that were into outsider electronic music. That’s pretty much it.”
Before releasing Fahrenheit Fair Enough, Eustis and Cooper had relocated to Chicago, where post-rock acts like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake were creating a new vernacular for American instrumental music. On tracks like “Life is All About Taking Things in and Putting Things Out,” with its somber, meandering piano and guitar loops, the post-rock influence is evident in the group’s music as well. That track title is an apt description for Telefon Tel Aviv’s approach to making music, taking inputs from a wide swath of influences and combining them to put out something entirely new.
Fahrenheit Fair Enough brought their interest in British IDM artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin together with the ambience of Chicago post-rock at the time. Their second album, Map of What is Effortless, brought R&B vocals and hip hop beats into the fold. The album also marked the first time the group experimented with lyricism and—though it has strong echoes from Fahrenheit Fair Enough—elevated their sound to a larger scale.
Dreams are Not Enough, despite the absence of Cooper and the immense gap in time since the previous release, still has this dynamic quality to it that defines Telefon Tel Aviv and also makes the project difficult to pigeonhole. Where earlier Telefon Tel Aviv tracks could overwhelm the senses with their dense grooves, Dreams are Not Enough shows a matured sense of restraint. Gone are the builds to effervescent, glitching synth rhythms and electric piano lines of Fahrenheit Fair Enough and Map of What is Effortless, leaving plenty of room for both old and new inputs—of which, Eustis has acquired many in the past decade.
“Although it might sound like it, the record’s not really an entirely morose affair.”
The most notable of Eustis’ inputs that seems to have spilled over into the new record come from another of his projects, Second Woman. Together with Turk Dietrich (of Belong), Eustis has been probing the outer limits of electronic music as Second Woman, creating tracks that are at times frustrating, and always interesting. As Second Woman, Dietrich and Eustis explore unrelenting, stuttered rhythms and gloomy ambient soundscapes that often never resolve themselves. On Dreams are Not Enough, Eustis has distilled these lofty ideas into something more palatable, employing repetitive rhythms that are more hypnotic than confounding, that swell with impact as each track progresses.
This new musical sensibility permeates much of the album. Tracks on Dreams are Not Enough wash in and out like the tide: moments of near silence swell to cacophony only to slowly drift back to nothingness. Eustis’ voice is a crucial element in creating this swelling quality throughout the album. Having honed his lyrical abilities since Map of What is Effortless as the Sons of Magdalene, Eustis uses his voice to great effect throughout the record. Eustis’ voice saunters through the album as a spectre, calling to mind the shoegaze-inspired singing of Have a Nice Life and Giles Corey vocalist Dan Barrett. On tracks like “Mouth Agape,” and “A Younger Version of Myself,” Eustis’ voice leads the tracks into the dreary territory that Barrett explores in his work, but Eustis assured that “although it might sound like it, the record’s not really an entirely morose affair.”
Like the turquoise abyss from Eustis’ youth that inspired the record, there is beauty gilding the album’s dark center. Eustis’ ability to create ethereal, ambient melodies is as sharp as ever, balancing out the occasionally menacing rhythms (like on “Not Seeing or “Not Breathing”). The effect is pleasant and doesn’t give the album an overbearingly bleak feeling. Listening to Dreams are Not Enough gives one a cozy sense of dread, like staring out of the window on a rainy day and drinking a pretty alright cup of coffee.
Dreams are Not Enough is Eustis reclaiming Telefon Tel Aviv for himself—reclaiming it from fear, self-doubt, and death itself.
But it’s easy for one to read into the darker ambience, exploration of silence, and exclusion of sound on the record as a way to mark the absence of Cooper, but Eustis asserted that the record is about more than that. “That’s just one part of it. The Charlie thing,” he explained. The result is a deeply personal record that explores far more than just the death of his partner. “It’s mostly about aging,” says Eustis, “and looking back. Having regrets.”
When asked what regrets crop up on the record, Eustis was coy, “There’s a ton of them, but I’m not going to tell you those things,” he laughed. But one thing he certainly doesn’t regret is coming back to Telefon Tel Aviv. “I literally cannot fucking believe I’ve released the record. It was the running joke among my musical peers for the last ten fucking years: ‘When are you going to release a new record?’ But I’ve done it. And I’m relieved.”
Dreams are Not Enough is Eustis reclaiming Telefon Tel Aviv for himself—reclaiming it from fear, self-doubt, and death itself. Telefon Tel Aviv will endure, but as an outlet for Eustis to explore both musical and emotional avenues that he can’t with other projects. And luckily, we won’t have to wait another decade for the next release: “I already know what all the song titles are, what the name of the next record is, and what the cover will be. I’ll just have to find some time to do it.”
Eustis now lives in LA with his wife and pet rabbit. And though he frequently comes to Berlin, he feels “a little old for the club thing. I’m 42, so I think maybe those days are mostly behind me. I’m much more into hanging out with my wife and the rabbit, reading in silence. Silence is a luxury for me.” But fortunately for Berlin residents, he will be stepping out of his quiet home and away from the rabbit to play at Gretchen on the 26th of November.
Kevin Chow is an American copywriter & cultural journalist living, laughing, loving in Berlin.