For more than two decades, Johnathon Ford has led the post-rock band Unwed Sailor. Throughout the years, Ford has steered the band—an ever-evolving collective that’s included members of Pedro the Lion, Fleet Foxes, Danielson Famile, and more—through a searching series of albums, incorporating the influences of ambient music, shoegaze, math rock, and drone into its body of work along the way. Led by Ford’s singular bass playing and melodic overview, Unwed Sailor has built one of the great under-recognized discographies in indie rock. Despite the lack of vocals and thematic scope, these are direct and often brief transmissions. Inspired by the new wave sheen of New Order and the zoned-out slowcore of Bedhead, Ford remains as interested in crafting recognizable melodies as he is grandiose moods. “I’m interested in writing pop songs with hooks that speak to me,” Ford says.
Unwed Sailor’s ability to morph and fold in disparate elements is crucial to Ford. He formed the band in Seattle in 1998, after the dissolution of the beloved math rock band Roadside Monument. Ford had begun playing in Pedro the Lion, led by songwriter David Bazan, and found himself drawn increasingly to quieter sounds, a sharp contrast to the violent and deafening artistry of Roadside. Inspired by Louisville minimalists Rachel’s and Chicago experimentalists Tortoise, Ford began writing new material. It retained the kinetic propulsion of Roadside Monument but showcased a new reflectiveness. Mostly wordless, the grandeur of early Unwed Sailor positioned the group among the vanguard of independent and mostly instrumental bands loosely grouped together under the “post-rock” banner.
In 1998, Unwed Sailor debuted with Firecracker EP (released the same year as the final Roadside Monument album, I Am The Day of Current Taste, and Pedro the Lion’s debut LP, It’s Hard to Find a Friend, both featuring Ford), following it up with the full-length The Faithful Anchor in 2001—which includes one vocal performance by Ford on the “The Quiet Hour.” A soundtrack collaboration with Early Day Miners, Stateless, came in 2002. In 2003, Ford embraced a chamber pop approach—forgoing drums entirely—on The Marionette and the Music Box, a concept album based on a children’s story Ford created. The White Ox appeared in 2006. Featuring art by James Marsh, whose neo-surreal paintings also graced the covers of Talk Talk’s legendary albums, the album was steeped in mysticism, inspired by new age music, the sophisticated pop of Blue Nile, David Sylvian, and ‘80s-era Madonna. 2008’s Little Wars returned to a rock-based sound, and a string of self-released EPs and tours preceded the band’s return with Heavy Age more than a decade later.
Even as Unwed Sailor has shifted its sound, it’s retained Ford’s distinct point of view. His vision serves as a connecting thread, and while tone and mood constantly swirl, his original intention remained fixed. “When someone hears Unwed Sailor, I want them to be able to reflect in their mind,” Ford says. “To reflect on things they’ve been through, beautiful places they’ve been, and experiences that have shaped them. I want their lives to be reflected in the songs.”
Ford’s own life is reflected by the music too. Looking back, he sees the last 20-something years of Unwed Sailor’s work as something of a travelog, documenting his time spent in Tulsa, DC, Chicago, New Orleans, and Seattle, and his touring abroad. I’ve always had a wandering free spirit,” Ford says of his reluctance to put down geographic or stylistic roots. That willingness to keep moving is at the heart of Unwed Sailor. The locations change, the surroundings morph. Motion serves as a unifying force.
Unwed Sailor’s tracks