Cellar Dwellar takes the long road to ‘In the Shape of a Swan’

How time, grief and a chance contribution from celebrated writer Hanif Abdurraqib helped the Columbus six-piece uncover the heart of its long-in-the-works new album.
Cellar Dwellar
Cellar DwellarMick Martinez

The one issue with having unlimited time is that you have unlimited time.

This is a reality the members of Cellar Dwellar were forced to confront in bringing sophomore album In the Shape of a Swan to life, with two weeks of basic tracking followed by more than a year of tinkering, experimentation and fine-tuning – an experience that, at times, left the bandmates feeling as though they’d completely lost the plot.

“That happened a few times – more than a few times,” said Kade Weinmann, who joined Nico Linik for a mid-January Zoom. “I think our initial goal was to be releasing [the album] by the summer 2023, so that didn’t happen. And then we were nine months in, and it was like, okay, we need to start finishing these songs. Because a lot of it had turned into going into the studio to fix a vocal and then spending more than three hours on that little part. And it really became, fuck it, we just need to call this. It’s done.”

And yet, the resulting album, which Cellar Dwellar will celebrate with a release show at the Basement on Saturday, Jan. 20, never sounds overwrought or belabored, the musicians catapulting their way through a series of unpredictably kinetic tracks that draw liberally from art-rock, prog, free jazz, punk and more. 

Both Weinmann and Linik credited producer Joe Amadio with nurturing the band’s more experimental tendencies while also preserving the sense of urgency that carries through the recording. At one point, Weinmann said, Amadio threw a tom drum on the ground and then recorded the instrument as it wobbled to a stop, later layering the woozy effect into a song. Another time, when the computer glitched near the end of “Safeword,” the producer convinced the band to leave the blip untouched, the digital fracture adding to the sonic chaos that envelops the listener as the track builds to a close. “I think one of the biggest takeaways for us was that production can be as crucial as actually sitting down with the guitar to write,” Linik said.

Not that Weinmann tends to embrace that approach with his own songwriting. With this album, Weinmann said, words often trailed the music, generally emerging last minute and sometimes stream-of-conscious. On “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” for instance, Weinmann said he was attempting to capture a series of mental images, his words meant to elicit a mood more than a specific narrative.

When we spoke in September, Weinmann said the album’s lyrics were largely informed by the supernatural, taking inspiration from the collected works of Philip K. Dick and “high strangeness” paranormal events, as he termed them. Despite these spiritual proclamations, more often than not blood and dirt course through the singer’s words, with Weinmann questioning who gets to author our stories when we’re gone (“Who holds the camera? Who holds the tape?” he offers on the jazzy “Retcon”), watching his faith slip away (“Pollux”) and, on “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” nearing the point of complete breakdown, only barely held together “by the gravity in the center.”

On the song “Dweller on the Threshold,” off the band’s 2021 debut When Does It Stop Feeling Like a Dream?, Weinmann more explicitly addressed the death of his sister. And there are points on Shape of a Swan where that loss appears to still reverberate, Weinmann singing: “Only I remain”; “This is not the world you used to know”; “Help me find my faith again.”

Weinmann’s late sister also served as the inspiration for the record’s most jarringly intimate track, “Ecorche,” a spoken-word poem written by Weinmann but read on the album by celebrated Columbus author Hanif Abdurraqib.

Originally titled “Before Leaving for the Night Shift,” Weinmann penned the poem not long after his sister’s passing, at a point in time when he was still navigating his grief. “I just felt this looming presence in my parent’s house in Olde Towne East, and I couldn’t really describe it, but it felt like a ghost watching me whenever I would leave to work at FedEx at night,” Weinmann said. “And basically, I tried to catch that feeling in a tangible story. And then my cadence and everything in the story just felt, let’s say inspired by Hanif.”

Weinmann had previously crossed paths with Abdurraqib a couple of times, first as a high school student in the Mosaic program, where the poet and cultural critic led a workshop and reading, and then again in August at Abdurraqib’s annual back-to-school charity event, which included a performance by Cellar Dwellar. Following the event, Abdurraqib agreed to record the track, with the band later adding a haunted musical bed on which the poet’s voice rests – a sonic ghost in the machine that heightens the otherworldly connection in the words. 

“He was only there for 15 minutes. He came in, read, and said his goodbyes, and it was surreal,” Weinmann said. “And then I saw Hanif released a poem not even a month after, and in it he was talking about the mirrors in his really old house, and how he felt he was always being watched, so he took a lot of the mirrors out. But I thought it was a cool mirroring of themes, this shared feeling in an old Columbus house.”

The experience of recording with Abdurraqib – a writer Weinmann has long admired, sharing that his earliest open mic efforts often mimicked the poet’s style, form and cadence – also solidified for the band a concept that runs to the heart of the new album.

“It really cemented this as a love letter to Columbus … and to the scene we kind of grew out from and helped grow,” Weinmann said. “It really felt like all the work we put in was legitimized. And it just gave me this sense where it was like, ‘It’s going to be alright. We’re going to be alright.’”

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