If anyone ever decides to write an Aeneid of Phoenix’s DIY scene in the 2000s, they’d be foolish not to use the Jemsek brothers as their Virgil figures.
Whether you were going to see shows at Four White Walls, the old Trunk Space on Grand Avenue, or any house show venue from Phoenix to Tempe, there was a good chance that one of the bands on the bill would have either Tristan or Andrew Jemsek (or both!) on the bill. Trying to keep track of all the groups in the Valley that had a Jemsek in them is like trying to keep half a century’s worth of X-Men comics continuity straight in your head.
The long and convoluted history of Jemsek-ian noise projects, polka bands, ska groups, power-pop one-offs, and Twilight novelty bands is what makes pinning down exactly when Dogbreth got started so tricky. Asking Tristan Jemsek over the phone when his main project came to life, even he struggles for a moment to put a year on it.
“Dogbreth go back to 2009,” Jemsek says. “It came out of a different band I was in called Gilmore Grrls — I basically just renamed that project because I didn’t want the name of my full-time band to be a pop culture reference.”
The music of Dogbreth has been dubbed “power-kindness” and “sentimental power-pop” by the members in the past. Despite the twee-ness of those terms, the band’s music has far more in common with Superchunk than Beat Happening or The Moldy Peaches. It’s jangly with just enough crunch in the guitars to balance out the sweetness of the melodies with some distorted grit.
While Jemsek has been the band’s primary songwriter and sole constant member since their inception, there have been others behind the scenes who’ve been a big part of Dogbreth. Another Valley local, Erin Wrench, wrote songs and was a key part of the band up through the release of their 2016 album, Second Home. Arizona musicians like Cesar Ruiz and Elle Murtagh were regular Dogbreth collaborators before Jemsek moved to Seattle.
Now based in the Pacific Northwest, Jemsek has a new set of musicians backing him on Dogbreth’s latest album, Ever Loving (out October 25). While Jemsek has put down roots in Seattle, he still has the sound of Arizona with him: Audio wizard Jalipaz Nelson continues to master his records. When asked about his songwriting process this time around, Jemsek says it’s “probably the most collaborative it’s ever been.”
“This is the first record with our new guitar player, Bill Palmer,” says Jemsek. “He brought in a handful of songs as well.”
Ever Loving is Dogbreth’s richest, most dense record yet. There are Big Star-esque hooks and a warm, melodic atmosphere that recalls the sound of the early New Pornographers’ albums in its 14 tracks. There’s even some gooey Electric Light Orchestra studio magic on the opener “Old Keys,” which finds Jemsek’s vocals layered to almost Jeff Lynne-ian dimensions.
“We recorded the album in The Unknown in Anacortes — it’s a beautiful studio built into this old Catholic church,” he says. “It’s got high ceilings and there’s all this great old gear that we were able to use.”
Ever Loving also boasts a fuller guitar sound. While the band won’t be mistaken for Dinosaur Jr. anytime soon, the riffs and licks on their new album sound miles away from the project’s early bedroom pop-punk roots.
“Each guitar part went through four or five different amplifiers,” Jemsek says.
Dogbreth’s thicker sound comes as less of a surprise when you factor in that Jemsek recently toured as a second guitarist with drone gods Earth.
“I have a mutual friend with Dylan who recommended me when he was looking for a tour driver for his solo tour last year,” Jemsek says, explaining how he became bandmates with Earth’s Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies. “We met over coffee and hit it off, and he hired me to drive him around the country for a couple of months. At one point, he asked me to sit in with him for an improvisational set based on Miles Davis’ music without ever hearing me play guitar, which kind of blew me away. So I played that one-off show with him and Adrienne, and later that night they asked if I would play with them.”
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Just like 2016’s Second Home (whose “Cups and Wrappers” single is probably the first Stereogum Premiere track in history to feature a Christown Mall namecheck), Ever Loving has lyrical nods back to Jemsek’s old stomping grounds. One of the album’s highlights is the chiming “Heat Island,” a kiss-off to Arizona’s scalding summers, which finds Jemsek crooning “what do you do when there’s no way to get cool” as the band lay down a bed of irresistible of jangle-pop hooks.
Distance is a powerful theme that reoccurs on the album: the space between people, places, and growing closer to one thing as you drift away from another. Like on “Walk You Again,” where Jemsek’s narrator reflects on missing being able to walk an old flame’s dog now that they’re out of state. Or on “Hindsight,” which he says is about “moving to Seattle and becoming a new person in the community.”
Maybe somewhere in Seattle, there’s a pair of siblings who are in every band imaginable. Or maybe that kind of ubiquity is only possible in a city where everything is spread too far and so much empty space somebody needs to fill. But no matter what city Tristan Jemsek’s Dogbreth end up calling home, their songs have hearts big enough and guitars loud enough to fill the void.
Editor's note: In a previous version of this story, songwriter Erin Wrench was known as Erin Caldwell. We also incorrectly stated the lyric on "Heat Island" was “what do you do when there’s no way to be cool.” We regret the error.