The long, slow process of becoming Mungbean

Andy Downing

On “S.A.D.s,” a downtempo electronic number that falls near the midpoint of Mungbean’s long-in-the-works debut, I Love You Say It Back, Emma Swysgood delivers a line that sounds like it could be a commentary on our current, coronavirus-shaped reality. “Try to remember what it was like before,” she sings wistfully.

In actuality, though, the song was informed by the onset of seasonal affective disorder and written long before COVID-19 entered into the public vernacular. “This record, in the short we’ve been working on it for two years, but in the long we’ve been working on it for five,” said guitarist/singer Sean Gleeson, who helped start Mungbean as an electronic duo alongside Swysgood around 2015.

Since that time, the band has added and changed members, which has altered its sound and caused it to revisit and reshape the songs that populateits new album, which is due out Friday, Nov. 20. 

Gleeson and Swysgood originally recorded the album track “Slow Motion,” for example, in the backyard of the house Swysgood was living in at the time, Gleeson strumming an acoustic guitar as the singer drifted back and forth between a pair of microphones. “It was very slow and dreamy,” Swysgood said of an early demo, which the pair layered with meandering synthesizers.

For the album version, though, a full roster of musicians, including bassist Colin Giacalone, keyboardist Ian Goldthwaite and drummer Max Slater, help crank “Slow Motion” into a higher gear, the song lifting skyward on a soaring guitar solo even as Swysgood sings of remaining earthbound, her back resting in the grass, eyes focused on the clouds.

“[Mungbean] started as this electric project … and it just kept evolving, and we just kept adding members and playing shows,” said Swysgood. “I don’t know if we ever saw it getting to this point. It wasn’t planned, I have to say.”

Think of Alive as Mungbean in reverse, starting with myriad staffers and stripping them away until only two remain: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Throughout this process, Mungbean continued writing and recording, makingI Love You Say It Back both a document of a band auditioning sounds in an attempt to find its own musical voice, as well as a coming-of-age story captured naturally as it unfolded over the last five years.

“I still remember what it felt like writing [‘Slow Motion’]. The song is about being young and not really knowing what you’re doing, so it was like, ‘I’ll just lay here in the grass until my life takes a direction,’” Swysgood said. “It’s not a concept album, or something where we went in the studio for two weeks and made a big piece of work that’s supposed to go together. We recognize that it’s scattered … but, ultimately, when we decided two years ago that we were going to make an album, it was a test of: Are we going to be a real band? Are we going to hold this down and record albums? Can we do it?”

I Love You, in turn, serves as a collection of snapshots that, taken together, help document this stretch of time, songs touching on youthful uncertainty, the comfort of new love and the pains that come with growing apart. Musically, tracks traverse a similarly wide terrain, stretching from shimmery ambient numbers (“‘Cool’”) to comparative rippers like hard-charging “Party,” on which Swysgood howls about drinking in the car outside of a raucous house party, all the while wishing she were inside with everyone else.

“It feels like we took everything that was in our brains and threw it at the wall to see what would stick,” Swysgood said. “I think moving forward the EPs we have planned are a bit more decisive.”

“The songs started at different times. Some of them are a year old, some are five years old, but when I listen to the record I’m seeing a band find itself exactly where it wants to be,” Gleeson said. “And the whole record is the process of getting there.”