Sweet Teeth finds balance on the pandemic-indebted ‘Body Weather’

The band will celebrate the album release with a concert at Cafe Bourbon St. on Friday, March 18

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Sweet Teeth

“Eating Peaches,” which kicks off the new Sweet Teeth album Body Weather, captures the slippery, disjointed way time has existed for many over these last two pandemic-marred years. “June ends and September begins,” Stew Johnson sings. “Every month is February.”

“Now more than ever I hear people talk about how things feel immediate and eternal,” said Johnson, who will lead Sweet Teeth in celebrating the release of Body Weather with a concert at Cafe Bourbon Street on Friday, March 18. “Thinking back on any past event, it feels like it happened yesterday and last year, and I think that’s really true both from the perspective of the drudgery of work and the joy of leisure. All of those things kind of dissipate into each other.”

When the pandemic hit, Johnson, who has a management role in the service industry, spent the first three months navigating 70- and 80-hour work weeks, and he said nearly six months passed before he finally carved out enough free time to again pick up a guitar. “There was a moment in there where I was scared I was never going to write again,” said Johnson, who is joined in Sweet Teeth by his brother, Sam, a professional cellist. “And that was a very fatalistic thought, but it was also a very fatalistic time.”

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In those initial creative bursts, Johnson, who wrote alone in his room, accompanied by a guitar and a drum machine, tried to avoid writing about the pandemic. But the all-encompassing nature of the coronavirus and the numerous ways it upended existence repeatedly forced his hand. “It’s very much a pandemic record,” Johnson said, “as much as I didn’t want to make one.”

But while there are references to unnamed tragedies causing ripples in the water, Body Weather more often centers those moments of beauty that continued to exist amid the upheaval, Johnson constructing a lush, trippy landscape that, at times, feels like a blossoming sonic jungle — a sensation echoed in everything from the chirping birds that open the record to the dense instrumentation that transforms the deeply layered “City of Fern” into an immersive experience worthy of its name.

“Being at home all of the time, it was really hard to know when to step away and when to quit, and a couple of the songs feel so overburdened by instrumentation, or just kind of endless where there didn’t feel like there was a clear starting or stopping point,” Johnson said. “It did have that characteristic of being lost in the depths of something, but, again, that’s what the pandemic has felt like.”

Aspects of the album were influenced by the time Johnson spent in nature, much of it logged a short walk from the house he has lived in on Summit Street the last four years, which stands just steps from Iuka Ravine. “It’s been such a joy to live here during the pandemic, because we have a staircase that goes down to the ravine, which has been helpful for the times that things have felt out of control,” he said. “The second flowers start to bloom, it’s cheesy, but it’s so hopeful and refreshing. … The album cover [for Body Weather] is aggressively floral, and it’s just covered in goofy, cut-and-paste flowers. I really tried to capture that spring and summer feel, almost as an escape, whether that’s from winter or the slog of the pandemic or just the uncertainty of daily life.”

In that way, the music on Body Weather is reflective of a mindset Johnson has adopted throughout the pandemic, a time that also coincided with a resurgent social justice movement, and which collectively forced the musician to be more intentional about seeking out moments of joy.

“When things are so out of control or desperate that you have to completely alter your way of life or your approach to something, that opens up so many new opportunities to discover something new about yourself or the world or your interests,” Johnson said. “And I always try to find hope instead of fear in those things. So, while the pandemic has obviously been a living nightmare, and there’s been so much death, there have been good things I’ve been able to take from it in terms of our relationship to ourselves, or capitalism, or how we experience rest and joy and things like that. It’s all about balance.”