Interview with Holden Jaffe of Del Water Gap

Del Water Gap, a Brooklyn-based project led by singer-songwriter Holden Jaffe, released a new EP in 2017 called 1(646)9432672. With a unique sound that crosses acoustic and electric, city and country, Del Water Gap continues to attract those who crave poetic lyrics backed with steady rhythms that infect the mind for days to follow. The band will bring their live energy to Philadelphia this weekend with one set at the Pilam BBQ and another opening for RFA at PhilaMOCA this Saturday. WQHS sat down with Jaffe to ask about Del Water Gap’s upcoming shows, plans for the future, and just whose phone number that is on their EP. Read the interview below to find out, and be sure to give a listen to 1(646)9432672.

WQHS: Where does the name Del Water Gap come from?

Holden Jaffe: I was in this sort of noise-rock band in New Jersey when I was in high school and we were just driving around one day and I saw on the back of a box truck, someone had written “Del Water Gap” with a Sharpie, and I didn’t know what it was at the time but I wrote it down in my growing list of band names. Eventually, a couple years later, I started the project and I liked the name so I kept it, and it turned out that it was a national park, which I didn’t realize. But supposedly it’s a good one.

WQHS: Have you ever been there?

HJ: I’ve never been there, no. But I’ve driven by it a lot on the way to Philly. Yeah, I need to go. A lot of time I meet people from there and they’re like, “Oh you’re from the Del Water Gap!” And I’m like “No…never been there, sorry.” Someday.

WQHS: Where are you actually from if not from Del Water Gap?

HJ: I’m from Northern Connecticut, sort of New York/Connecticut border. Up in the sticks. Sort of a big dairy area. Grew up in between two farms in the woods. So yeah, that’s me.

WQHS: But now you live in New York?

HJ: Yeah, I live in Brooklyn now. Love it. I live in Green Point, which is sort of north of Williamsburg.

WQHS: So, you moved to New York for school? Take me through how you formed Del Water Gap from there.

HJ: My senior year of high school, I was really bored, and I started writing songs and basically decided that I wanted to put a record out, but I needed a project. So, I did that, and I put what became the first Del Water Gap EP out in high school. It got somewhat of a local response, and I got on some blogs, randomly, which was really inspiring. When I moved to New York, I came here and I really wanted to be a sound engineer. But I met a girl who had heard the record, and she was managing artists at the time and she pushed me to take it seriously. At the time, I was also playing drums in a lot of bands, not really taking my own stuff seriously. But she encouraged me and booked me a show before I had a band together. So, I had a month, and I scrambled and got a crew together. They ended up being people that I played with for five or six years. One of them I met in my dorm during Hurricane Sandy, when we were stuck in there while the whole East Village was blacked out. That’s how I met Will, who’s a bass player. Then, this kid Charlie, I met him at a party. Since then we’ve had a bunch of other people come through the project, and it’s evolved over the years, and we’re still here.

WQHS: Do you think being in New York made it easier to find success as a band?

HJ: I think that it’s easier in that there’s so many more opportunities here than if you compare it to a lot of smaller cities that have scenes. Like even in Philly or Burlington, there’s a great music scene, but as far as industry goes, there’s a lot more in New York or LA. One of the main things was being able to meet with record people and managers in person. It’s way more competitive, like everyone here is in a band. But I think that early on, that sort of pushed me to work a lot harder than I would’ve had I been in a less competitive city. It’s been hard but the opportunities have been great, and the hard work has paid off. Seeing friends of mine really succeed in a way that is really impressive all the time – it’s just really inspiring, despite being challenging.

WQHS: Let’s talk about your music a little bit. I love that the title of the EP is a phone number. Where did that idea come from? Have you ever gotten any good phone calls?

HJ: I was trying to figure out a name for the record, and I couldn’t really think of a good one. I had a conversation with my parents and I realized that it’s crazy that I don’t know anyone’s phone numbers. I don’t know my best friends’ phone numbers. I don’t really know my parent’s phone numbers. They’re just a contact in my phone. And I thought about how funny that is, because it seems like there was an era not so long ago when there was something really intimate about typing in someone’s phone number. Knowing it by heart – that sort of means that you’ve attained a certain level of intimacy with someone if you know their number. That very simple part of intimacy and romance disappearing with the advent of mobile phones – realizing that was a striking thing to me. Sort of out of that conversation, I wondered if that realization could be expressed in the release of my record. Similarly, a lot of the ways that the music format has changed has also changed the way a lot of people interact with bands, or bands with their fans. It’s become more personal in a lot of ways, but also more impersonal in a lot of others. The format really favors playlist-ing, and hearing singles and stuff that’s not really connected to the band as much. So, I went out to an AT&T store and bought one of those drug-dealer-style flip phones, and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. I get a few calls a day, a bunch of voicemails. I pick up once in a while, but not that much because I’ve had some really weird experiences.

WQHS: Tell me one.

HJ: The best one I had, it was this kid, and I picked up and he yelled, “Who is this!” And I was like “You called me, who is this?” He said, “This is so-and-so from Nova Scotia,” and I was like “Oh, cool what’s up?” And he told me, “I’m listening to your music right now.” He was so horrified and surprised, it was really amazing. That was one of the good experiences. But I’ve also had experiences where I think people think it’s someone else’s number. I’ll pick up the phone sometimes and they’re like “Why the fuck haven’t you called me back?!” So, I think this number used to be someone else’s number, and after that happened a couple of times I stopped picking up as much. But I listen to the voicemails every week, and it’s really inspiring. If people text me, I text back. It’s cool, I’ve probably gotten a few hundred since the record’s come out. It’s been a nice thing to look forward to, especially when I’m feeling a little down. Just realizing that there are actual humans connecting with these songs and then taking the time to call me.

WQHS: It sounds like your experiment about using a phone number to connect people worked.

HJ: Yeah, it’s gone much better than I could’ve imagined. The other day actually, a radio station called me live on the air and left a really cool voicemail. That was a good one.

WQHS: Your website says that you’re inspired by “romantic encounters and dimly lit rooms.” Could you tell me a bit more about the aim of your sound?

HJ: I don’t know how much of it is really intentional, to be honest. I come from a singer-songwriter background. I grew up listening to Dylan and Randy Newman. A lot of my music-making took place classically, with me and a guitar or piano. The way that those songs are then turned into arrangements is when I bring in the band and we kind of put them together. I think that hybrid of acoustic and electric comes from a songs-first aim of the project. A lot of the arrangement decisions seem to revolve around supporting the writing. Not to undermine the importance of arrangement and production in a band, but I think that intent is probably what you’re hearing.

WQHS: But beyond the singer-songwriter qualities, you use so many instruments that it often sounds like a lot more than just three people are playing.

HJ: Yeah, a lot of that is a product of being in New York and having access to some really incredible musicians. It’s funny you mention that, because I love that record and I love how it came out, but it is incredibly maximal. There’s a lot going on. So, for the next batch of stuff, one of my goals is to make it a little simpler and not have so much noise. I’ve been thinking a lot about limitations and how limitations can really be inspiring. I think one of the things that defined that last record that came out, and the process of making that, was that for the first time in a while I felt like I had no limitations, which was great. I had access to amazing horn players and amazing studios. I had a budget. A lot of things I didn’t really have before. It allowed me to be creative in a certain way that I hadn’t been before. I also think just listening to arranged music like that helps. I really like Ryan Adams, and all those old Oasis records are awesome. They sort of unabashedly use the horn section or a massive wall of sound vibe from Wilco and other bands like that.

WQHS: To keep going with arranging and songwriting, what’s your inspiration? Is it more spontaneous or do you have certain creative rituals?

HJ: It’s something that’s really important to me – keeping my artist brain alive. I spend a lot of time doing it. When I first started writing in early high school, I really subscribed to the notion that you have to be inspired to write. And that you sit and you wait, and when you feel it, you write. That’s one of the biggest myths of any sort of art, I think. And as soon as I realized that that was a myth, it completely changed my workflow. One of the things I realized was that if you show up to the page, once in a while you’ll get really luck and you’ll make something special. A lot of the time maybe, it won’t be special or it will feel normal, but at least you’ll be opening yourself up to receive that. Sort of midway through college as I was discovering this, I started journaling every day and reading a lot more, and just sort of taking care of my creativity in a way that I hadn’t before. And all of those habits have remained. I try to journal every day and I try to read a lot. I try to listen to music in a scholarly way as much as in the way of a fan. Trying to write a couple songs a week, or at least one a week is really helpful.

WQHS: A lot of your songs mention romance and girls. One song on your new EP is called “Vanessa,” another’s called “Deirdre Pt. 1.” So, on the cover, who is that?

HJ: It’s a funny story. I was trying to figure out an album cover, and I was on Reddit one day. And I found that photo, and I messaged the user to sort of take a shot in the dark – not really expecting a response. I just said “Yo, I like this photo, is there any chance I could use this for something?” And then within 10 minutes I had a response from this kid, and he was just like “Oh my God this is crazy! I’m in China, and you’re in America – the Internet is amazing!” And it turned out the photo was a photo of his mom from the 1970’s that his dad had taken right when his mom and dad had met each other in college. And he asked his mom if I could use it as the album cover, and she was really excited about it. It was such an experience of this era, like none I’d ever had before. That’s such a nice part of being in music or being in the arts – it’s a good reason to just get in touch with strangers and build a relationship because I think it gives you the benefit of the doubt. People are a little more inclined to let you in if you’re like “Yo, this is for a project.”

WQHS: That’s amazing. Because even though it’s not somebody that you’re talking about specifically, it seems like the lyrics of your songs could still fit the little story behind it.

HJ: I’m happy to hear that. It was really funny to connect with that photo and then hear the story behind it, and be like “Wow, this is actually kind of perfect.” This is a story of a couple that met each other, and it worked out.

WQHS: On a final note, tell me about what we can expect from Del Water Gap in these next few months.

HJ: It’s been an interesting couple of months. We had a really good show in New York, where we sold out this big venue. That was a big breakthrough for us. We’ve been working on a new batch of songs, some of which are being mixed right now. Hopefully some new music will be out in the next couple of months. My main partner in the band, our drummer Charlie, he recently departed to take on some other things. So, it’s been a really sort of scary and inspiring time for the project, because things are changing a lot. We’re adapting as life changes. I’ve learned to be less concrete about my goals. I really just want to keep making songs that I love and that I’m going to love in fifteen years, and putting those out. And if those allow me to travel more or advance my career more, then that’s amazing. But if not, then that’s fine too.

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Catch Del Water Gap at Pilam BBQ XL, and listen to 1(646)9432672, out now.

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