Justin Morris of Sluice, photo by Josh Darr

Sometime it floors me how quickly time can fly by, and it's been a whirlwind of a month.

Stopping and taking a breath, I wanted to go back a month and revisit the wonderful conversation and time spent with Justin Morris (frontman for Sluice) when the band was in Chicago opening for Indigo De Souza. You can read my review from that evening's show here. I'm so grateful he had the time and allowed me the opportunity to chat and hear more about him and his music.

During our time together, he admitted it was his first interview and I feel so privileged to have gotten this opportunity to learn so much about him and where his musical journey began. I think, listening back on the interview, I'm grateful he was patient with some of my long-winded stories and the number of artists he shared with me I wasn't really familiar with at the time I met with him.

As I did explain to him, I really enjoy how much I get to learn about an artist and bands in these interviews, but also the array of other musicians and things in the world they find inspiration in. It honestly amazes me how much I can learn about a person and their craft in just a handful of questions, and much like his music, Justin was really easygoing but has so many layers of complexity about him.

The band’s recent project Radial Gate was released on Ruin Nation back in March and has received much-deserved praise and positive reviews as well as landed itself on Guardian’s best albums of 2023 so far list

Check out our conversation below.

Any chance I can get a quick run-through for those not familiar with you and your music of how you got to where you are today? What are your roots as musicians? How did it come to be that Sluice exists? How did the pandemic affect you personally and as an artist? Did you find the music you were creating coming out of it was more or less inspired than past music? 

I guess how we met each other, the Sluice project was just me looking for an outlet to put my own songs down. I played in a band with some friends from college, that kind of broke up around the time when everyone was leaving the college town. And I was just searching for something to do and honestly searching just for some kind of throwaway—like, I'll just put my songs on Bandcamp and not think about it. I need like a solo thing to do.

But I had moved from North Carolina to New York. At that point, I had moved in with my friend Avery Sullivan, who plays drums with us now, and we were living in an apartment with a really "challenging" landlord who was totally absent for repairs and things in a four-unit brownstone in Brooklyn, and as a result, all our neighbors we shared the building with had moved out and didn't want to be there anymore. But we stayed because we liked it and I think we were being like, let's just risk it and see if anything crazy happens and so there was a five-month period we had access to the entire brownstone. And nobody was in there.

So we were like, should we throw a party down there? Should we do like a New Year's party or whatever? And that went really well and then we were like, oh, I guess we could make a record here. Which is kind of unheard of in a city space like that to do that at your house. We didn't have a lot of gear or a lot of stuff but we just set up in that apartment and recorded the first release that we did that came out in 2019 I think (Sluice). And then that sort of was like, OK, here's my solo project that's sort of a band and also this is fun. And then after that, I moved back down to North Carolina. Avery ended up following; he also moved back down and I don't remember how it happened...just like happened to play our first show, we got offered to play a show with a friend of ours who was touring and we were like, yeah, we live there, we can open. I guess we can learn how to play these songs live and do that and had a really great time.

Sluice performing at Thalia Hall in Chicago, photo by Josh Darr

That was me and Avery and my sister, Rachel, was playing bass at that point. She learned bass for that show, which was very fun. The show was great, super fun. We were like, we should do this and then Covid happened. That just fully put the brakes on that project and kind of put the brakes on music in general for me outside of just sort of playing around. But as the pandemic restrictions started getting a little bit looser and people were getting a little bit more comfortable spending time together, we got offered a couple more local shows then we hooked up with my friend Oliver Child-Lanning, who now plays bass and sings with us [and] is an incredible musician. And we started playing a couple shows. I had been writing a lot of new songs and we hooked up with, I think we played a show in Durham that one of my really old friends I went to college with...

[Justin nervously paused for a moment to make sure he wasn't too rambly. I assured him not the case...the more rambly the better in my opinion.]

We played a festival show in Durham, a very low-key festival and my friend Alli Rogers, who I went to college with—I went to school for audio engineering and she did as well in the same program. She started working for this studio called Betty's, which is run by the Sylvan Esso people. She's the studio manager/house engineer at that studio and she saw us play. We were getting back in touch after not being close for a little bit from being in different parts of the world and she was like, "You guys have to record at Betty's. Come through, I wanna do it." I was like, "I don't know. We shouldn't do a real studio." I know how to record. I mean, I'm not amazing at it, but I just always do it by myself. I don't do anything crazy but she was super welcoming and a couple months after that show she got us in there and we recorded Radial Gate, which we just released.

That was a really cool experience to do it like that because we had never made anything in the studio before and I was nervous about that and felt a little uncomfortable as we started it but she's such a great producer and engineer and is my old friend and I felt really comfortable with her and it was really, really helpful to me to relinquish control to someone else. Because when I've done my own stuff, I definitely can work on it to death until it's not as good or I'll hate it and I don't want to work on it anymore. So it was great to have someone like her to take over.

Who were some of the musical influences that aided in the molding of the musicians you are today? 

My dad's obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, so I also love Bruce Springsteen and have gone through some funny arcs of being a kid and being, "This is the coolest music ever," and then being a teenager and saying, "Oh, that's dad music! I don't even like that!" And then coming around ultimately and being like, "Oh, thats really good music. I love Bruce!" I don't think necessarily our music is "Boss-esque." 

If you were to create a piece of art to best visualize the music you create for someone who has never heard it, what would it look like and what sort of medium would you use? 

I should maybe look up this artist (Gemma Luz Bosch), so I could directly reference it. I had two different friends who sent it to me actually but there's this: I think she's from Europe, a ceramic artist who does a lot of audio. Like, she makes ceramic instruments and one of them she made is called a sluice-flute and so those friends sent it to me immediately. "Yo Sluice check it out!" Yeah, it's a big ceramic, I think its ceramic, but it's a big vessel that has holes in it for air to pass through and I think the way it works is that there's a cavity in the vessel and it floats, so it's in a channel of water below a dam and—are you familiar with a sluice, what that is?

[I reassured him I had recently googled what it is prior to our meeting.]

So they slowly open the sluice gate and the water starts flowing under it and I think it forces air out of it and it goes [mimics a woodwind instrument sound]. So that's not of my own creation but I thought that was so fitting visually of like, because I'm inspired by that image of a sluice or like trying to control water in some way just like trying to control nature and never fully being able to but also being able to do a lot of cool stuff with it and just to see somebody using that to make music directly is like what I'm trying to do but much more direct.

Photo courtesy Gemma Luz Bosch

Follow up question then...Is there an infatuation with water? How did you land on the name Sluice?

I guess I encountered that word the first time—my family would go up to a lake in the mountains of Virginia. We would rent a house there a week out of every summer when we were kids and go up and water ski and play in the water and stuff. And you would have to take kind of old back roads to get there and there's a historical marker on the way up there for a particular sluice called the slink shoal sluice and I just remember seeing that as a young person and being, "What the fuck is that?" Those are like the craziest combinations of words I'd ever encountered and I'm kind of a Wikipedia head. I like learning about history and local history and stuff like that, so I looked up this particular sluice and I'm not as familiar with it now as when I first read about it but I didn't know what any of those words meant, but the sound of them together is very interesting to me and the band I was in before, I think we put out a song called "Slink Shoal Sluice." And I was looking for a word that would feel cool for music I was making and I was just really drawn to that because I think on its own it's an interesting sound. It looks interesting to me and it's an uncommon word like, is that a real word? I feel like I've written music or am most drawn to music when I'm feeling very emotional about something  and playing music or listening to music feels like a way of sort of opening the tap to kind of release some pressure internally. Sluice felt like a good word because that's what it's doing on a dam. It's still wild and a little bit scary but it's very controlled. Just allowing some of that pressure to exit; it feels good.

If there were any character in history from any medium (TV, literature, film etc.) that you’d best liken yourself to, who would it be and why? 

Whoa. I don't know. There are a lot of characters that I really like but I think a lot of them I like because I feel they can do things I wouldn't do. I don't know. (Laughs) Like, I love True Detective, but I don't think I'm as cool. I don't know..do you have an answer for that?

[Admittedly, in the number of years I've asked this question, this was the first time someone asked me if I had an answer for it. Clearly, I was stumped in the moment. I'm sparing y'all from the stammering and probably longer answer than what was necessary in the moment, but I derived at Elliot from E.T. He laughs.]

Do you say that because, do you know about our E.T. connection? We made a music video for "Centurion" on Radial Gate that's a remake of the bike chase scene.

[Laughing with him, I trade my own stories about that specific scene.]

That's one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe that's the answer I should go with. Yeah, that was one of the few [VHS tapes] that we had growing up, and my siblings and I would just watch the shit out of it. I was drinking a lot of coffee one day and figuring, oh we should make some music videos and that song "Centurion" we did it for is loosely about recklessly riding your bike really fast. And then for some reason I was like, I kind of wanna watch E.T. It's been a while and watched it again and sort of made a mock-edit of watching that scene as that song is playing. Like it talks about flying, it talks about riding a bike really quickly...You should check it out. It's great! It's really hacky.

Outside of creating music, do you have any other creative or non-creative outlets that help you process things either personally or with current events? 

My main work outside of music is that I do carpentry and construction and stuff like that, and that's something I got into like peak-pandemic. I hadn't done that before and I lost the job I was doing and was getting really afraid about pandemic stuff and found it through a friend of a friend. There was a carpentry crew that was hiring and doing mostly outdoor stuff and I thought, oh this is great, I can do this. I really like being outside and hiking and camping. I kind of like physically working hard and though I hadn't really done anything like that professionally. But I've been doing that since 2020 and I really like it. (We have too many similarities as this is a similar job I had myself leading into the pandemic.) I feel like it's been really helpful to me to find physical and meaningful work. It feels good to me for at least right now.

What would you say is your favorite work project you've done in that field?

I don't know. It's interesting. For the first company I started working for and this company I'm working for now, they do a lot of high-end stuff, which is great. You can be deliberate and take your time and be really artful. A lot of clients and people we work for and a lot of the projects are kind of unique and sometimes don't make sense. Many of them are spending a lot of money on projects at their really big houses, so I have a hard time saying or picking a favorite project, but through that there's come a really beautiful comraderie of like working with other people. There was this gorgeous back deck that the architect called a loggia. It's a word I had never heard of before, but all the carpenters on the team were mocking the architect's name for what was obviously just a porch. (Laughing) Yeah, it was goofy. But it was all tongue and groove, cedar, outside just gorgeous detail work. We did that for four months, we were just laying tongue and groove, so I don't know if I have a favorite project but I just kind of like the process of it all.

Photo by Josh Darr

What are five songs released so far that are still constantly on repeat for you? Additionally, five albums you can’t live without? 

Constantly on repeat...I don't have Spotify anymore, I'm on Tidal recently, but the Spotify Wrapped or whatever for last year, [one of] my top songs [was] "Dark Blue" by Caroline. Do you know that band? They're Amazing. Ollie—Oliver—the guy I play with, we went to see them play in D.C. They're from the U.K. and they played and there were like 15 people there and we had bought tickets six months in advance, drove six hours to go see the show. We were so stoked and it was great to see them in such a small room. We got to talk to them and all that stuff, but we were expecting it to be totally packed out and it wasn't but they're doing really well.

They make like, they're maybe an eight or nine-piece. Two middles, two guitars, there's no frontperson. They all kind of share singing duties. They set up in a circle, it's really cool, it's a real egoless band from my perception of it. It's kind of like Midwest emo-inspired, kind of minimalism-inspired. It's very sparse, like a lot of repeating ostinato things, slow, atmospheric, a lot of instrumental and then the singing is minimal. So I love that song. I've been really obsessed with "Straight Time" by Bruce Springsteen, which is on Ghost of Tom Joad. How well do you know Springsteen? (I admit I'm still learning.) Cool, yeah, that's like mid '90s. It's a skipper record for a lot of people, but that song, a lot of the writing on it is some of the strongest that I have experienced from him. I think it's a really cool, kind of creepy song. But I really like it. It's about someone getting out of jail and having a perfect—a return to life and seemingly good domestic situation but he can't quite shake the part of himself that wants to like go wrong and kind of sabotage all of that. But yeah there are some really cool lines on it.

[I was unfamiliar with Tidal as a streaming service, but I learned from Justin as he was scrolling through to figure out additional songs, it's similarly priced to Spotify but the fidelity is way  better and not why he purchased it, but all pays artists/rights holders the most for stream, reportedly closer to 100% versus Spotify's 70%.]

A lot of the artists I really love are on Tidal not Spotify, so I mostly made the switch because of that. Joanna Newsome is just on Tidal, Bonnie "Prince" Billy is just on Tidal. Those are the big ones for me. "Shenandoah" by The Magnolia Electric Co. has been really big. My roommates and I went on a backpacking trip last year in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and I just obsessed with Jason Molina and as it related to that, as we we're coming through the Shenandoah, you don't have service on the backpacking trip, so we were constantly, "Shenandoahhhh" (in a singing voice). That's a great one. Do you know Jason Molina? "Over the Ocean" by Low. I honestly didn't know Low very well until [the late Mimi Parker] passed.

They're incredible, the stuff that they do, very choral-like singing but also stretching things out as far as they can. It's really inspiring. Oliver and I had a pretty similar musical background of singing in like, church choirs kind of thing. Which is really fun to sing with him, because we sang in that environment long enough, so we know how to match vowels and pick our consonants and like extend the followed breath and all that stuff you learn when you sing with a lot of people, and it seems really clear that they're fully subverting that form, but using all that training in a really cool way. This band Lankum, I've been really into. This band from Dublin and they do like really old child ballads and old British Isles folk songs but their rig looks like Sun (laughs). They have huge stacks of amps and they play acoustic folk instruments and they look really massive and gnarly.

Photo by Josh Darr