Writing songs cross-country and setting memories ablaze: A conversation with Termination Dust

Termination Dust
Left to right: Stefanie Vigoren, Jaybird Parkhurst, and Matt Harris of Termination Dust.

Stefanie Vigoren and Jaybird Parkhurst are no strangers to change. After forming the band Termination Dust in Anchorage, Alaska, the two have traveled around the country, released two full-length albums, and welcomed drummer Matt Harris into the band. Termination Dust don’t just tolerate change, they embrace it — the good, the bad, and the scary — and are now using it as the inspiration for their third album, Growing Down. 

I called up Vigoren and Parkhurst to talk about how they wrote songs from opposite ends of the country and how took advantage of a serendipitous moment to release old memories and create a cathartic music video. Keep scrolling to read an edited version of our conversation, or listen to the whole thing in this episode of the Pass The Mic Podcast.

Thanks for chatting with me! If you two want to introduce yourselves?

Jaybird Parkhurst: I’m Jaybird Parkhurst. I sing and play guitar and omnichord in the band Termination Dust. I’m from Anchorage, Alaska, where it’s currently -15 degrees out. I just adopted a bearded collie with my partner from Mississippi who’s three years old, and I get to do his hair every day.

Stefanie Vigoren: And I’m Stephanie and I play guitar and sing in Termination Dust. I also have a puppy, but she’s because she’s a Siberian Husky and not so much of a puppy because she’s 11. Right now I’m in Austin, Texas but I’ve been kind of all over. Based out of Minnesota, but I left Alaska last year, which is where Jaybird and I met and started the band. And it is definitely not 15 below here, which is great.

I’m jealous too. I’m in Minneapolis right now and it feels like it’s five degrees.

JP: I’ll be there soon too! We’re going to be going on tour, this next one, for about three and a half months, with some breakage, so a lot of downtime to make friends and maybe have some fun.

Where are you going on this tour?

JP: I can consult the spreadsheet! It’s mainly West Coast, but obviously our first show is in Minneapolis, so we’re going to be traveling that way. It looks like we’re skipping and jumping around. We’re going to be going from Minneapolis to Iowa to Nebraska, Colorado, Albuquerque/Santa Fe area, Arizona, San Diego — pretty much the whole West Coast. Then we do the Pacific Northwest, we’re going to Washington, there’s a little bit of Montana in there and some North Dakota. 

Where are you both from originally?

SV: I’m from Northern Minnesota, International Falls, on the Canadian border. And then I moved to Anchorage in 2006 and I was there for quite a while, and Jaybird is also from Alaska.

JP: Yeah I’m from a small town called Willow, Alaska. But I’ve done my fair share of jet-setting and I’ve actually lived in Minneapolis before as well. Portland, a bunch of the hip cities.

Congratulations on your latest album, Growing Down! It comes out soon — how are you feeling about that?

JP: So excited. It’s almost been a year since we recorded it so it’s definitely like this excitement you can’t really explain — you have this secret that you want to share with everybody but you have to wait for the proper measures. We’re getting vinyl for the first time, and so that’s pretty exciting for me. 

SV: And me!

JP: This album is a big step for our band, I feel like. And we’ve grown a lot since our last album came out, and I’m just so stoked to have it out and share it. 

Moving off of that theme of growing, I love the title, which is also the title of one of the songs on the album, “Growing Down.” I would love to hear a little bit more about what that phrase means to you two?

SV: For me, the largest aspect was this personal growth that we’ve both been experiencing over the last couple of years, and thinking of ideas as far as growth and growing up. I just like the idea of growing down, flipping everything upside down. Maybe when times are hard, it ends up pushing you further and it’s way better than you ever expected. But at the time it’s like you’re upside down and turned around and everything’s scary.

JP: It kind of translates to the song. We had a different working title for the song. By the end of what the song was, it was so different from the beginning, we just evolved it and created something bigger and better than we could have ever anticipated. 

The album is very much about growth and falling into what you wanted to become, for me at least. It’s been a struggle, being someone who wasn’t necessarily super musically talented in the beginning, and having to learn everything. And I still don’t know how to read music, I do everything by ear. No music theory.

What was your introduction to playing music? What got you excited about making it?

JP: I really love to have people come together, and so the campfire song situation was how I came to even be in a band. And then people in my community like Steffi uplifting me and pushing me further, I ended up playing electric guitar and learning how to sing, and play all these instruments I never thought I would ever play.

I also love the spoken word part at the end of “Growing Down.” Was that something that was scripted and planned out, or did it happen more spontaneously?

JP: That’s me doing the spoken word part. Basically I had an idea for it, but we were in a remote place at the time. We were in a studio called the Way Out in Washington. It’s in the middle of the country and there’s nothing really around, which was nice for the privacy aspect. So Steffi and I combed through a bunch of emails, got into a mood. 

And then I ended up having to record that part several times. Because each time something new would come out and it wouldn’t fit in the tiny space that we had. And so some of it was based off of an email that I wrote a friend about an abusive ex-partner. Some of it just came straight from the heart, because we did re-record it probably 10 times. So the dialogue changed each time that we did it. 

I ended up having to lay on the ground on my back with my eyes closed with nobody in the room to finish it for the final part.

SV: Yeah that was the final version.

JP: Definitely real.

Does that process mirror how you two write songs in general? Is it more of a spontaneous process and pouring things out on the page, or do you feel like you go back a lot and look over things a bunch of times?

SV: There’s always going to be that level of spontaneity with my songwriting, but I definitely go over it quite a bit and work on it on my own time first. But with this album, we came together — because we were on opposite sides of the country — we came together and some of it ended up being really spontaneous. A lot of the overlapping vocals and stuff, and our own parts in the songs that the other person had written.

JP: I feel like the whole album was spontaneous because we don’t live near each other, we don’t get to jam ever, anymore. I came to the table with really different ideas than what the songs ended up being. “Still Sleeping,” one of the slowest tracks on the album, we originally made a punk song. It was really fast, and it’s different now. I love the way it turned out, but it’s so wild to think that you have different ideas. Mike was really great as a producer, to help guide us on what we wanted.

SV: Yeah I love working with him.

How much time did the two of you spend together throughout the songwriting and recording process?

SV: I spent time with Matt [Harris] and worked on stuff because we were both in Minneapolis. But [Jaybird and I] just came together four or five days before we started recording and worked on stuff then, worked on stuff over the internet. But all of it came together in the end at the studio. And then we met back up to finish it up, that’s when we went to the Seattle studio.

JP: We had a bunch of friends come in, too and inspire us. They heard something different and so we were pushed in a different direction, which was cool. Alaska has a really diverse and small and connected music scene. No matter where you are, there’s probably always an Alaskan in the city that you didn’t know that was there that you’re in. So that was pretty fun about the recording process; we got to include people that we hadn’t seen for years that were in either Seattle or Portland, even if they came to just lift morale. 

“It’s Not A Place, It’s A Feeling,” is one that’s been out for a little bit. I’ve watched the music video, I love it. Do you want to talk a little bit specifically about that song and where it came from?

JP: I wrote that one. Initially I had been thinking a lot about when relationships end and how you’re always going to have those memories that keep moving on. You don’t have anymore physical remains — you don’t have the pictures of your relationship anymore — but no matter what you do you still have memories, even if you want them to go away sometimes. 

But that was kind of my feeling when I wrote that song: not being able to forget certain negative things. And also in a positive way, remembering that I will always have good memories too. In the future I won’t have any physical things to remind me of this, but I walk past that coffee shop and I’ll remember a time we had there, and that won’t go away. 

What was so wild about doing the music video is I was in a place to where I was getting rid of my stuff because I’m going on tour for half a year, and I had all these diaries and photos from years and years of different relationships and friendships. 

The video was totally spontaneous. We were just hanging out, it was the first night Steffi was in town. She had flown in like an hour and a half before. And I was like, “Let’s do this, let’s burn this stuff.” And all five of us that worked on the video came together and just made it happen. And it turned into being a really powerful and emotional video because it worked so well with the content of the song in my opinion.

Wow, that’s amazing. So those were your real photos, those were your real memories, not just something that was created for the video?

JP: Yes. That was like a thousand 35mm prints and Polaroids and I think there were about 12 diaries from the past 10 years. 

Wow. That’s amazing. 

SV: Like we said, we hadn’t even planned on making the video. We were like, “Let’s do something, we’re together. We should create something at least while we have this time together because we aren’t together very often.” And then next thing I know we’re making a music video and burning all of her memories. It just fit so much with the theme of the song. 

JP: My favorite part of the video is the box that says “Places/Feelings” that had all of the stuff in it. I just thought that was so fun, and then it ended up working to burn it in the end. 

Was that written on there before, or did you write that on there for the video?

SV: We wrote that on there for the vide

Ok, I was going to say, that would be an amazing coincidence. How did you feel at the end after recording this video and burning all of these years of memories and photos and journals?

JP: It felt super cathartic. Just shedding a layer; we all have friendships that end for whatever reason — you grow apart. And it’s not that I’m not grateful for the times that I spent feeling these feelings or being with these partners or being with these friends. It’s just that sometimes you have to move on or you will dwell on the past for too long. 

SV: It is a pretty good feeling once you realize that. That you don’t necessarily need all of these things to keep the memories. I’m the same way as well and I had to get rid of basically everything when I left Alaska. I got rid of things I didn’t even realize I would, because I left some stuff in Alaska and ended up just having to be done. 

JP: Convenient for her, I took a bunch of it. So she still gets to live around it. We wear the same size shoe. 

I heard that you describe that when the two of you started making music together you wanted “to emulate Taking Back Sunday but, like, in a sweet way.”

JP: We’re both big TBS fans, mainly Tell All Your Friends. When we first started the band, that was a big influence on something that we wanted to add to our songwriting style. Steffi has a very sweet voice, and I would say that mine is a little bit more on the rough side. So we do a lot of play with her being the sweeter voice and me being the more talk-y, raspy voice. 

They were kind of doing that lyrical style before any of the other emo bands at the time. We had to fight for it essentially our whole time as a band — the first time we went and saw our producer, he wanted to cut out any of the double vocal stuff because it was kind of complicated sounding, I guess. And then even going into the studio this last time, we just really had to fight for both of the vocal levels being the same. And even though it’s kind of like knotted and convoluted, I feel like it works, especially in “Eyes Open[/Eyes Closed].” 

SV: Ultimately, I think Mike really loves where we went with it, all those songs. Especially with “Eyes Open.” Mike just had to do it and see what we could do and what it would come out like. And it ended up working out.

JP: Yeah I think it turned out great. 

You can listen to Termination Dust on Bandcamp, and you can preorder their album Growing Down, which releases on Friday, Jan. 24.

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