Del Water Gap Crowd-Surfs in Thom Browne Shorts

The songwriter on what he’s learned from his grandparents, Fight Club, and the films of Wong Kar-Wai.

Del Water Gap CrowdSurfs in Thom Browne Shorts

Photograph by Ashley Olah / Courtesy of Del Water Gap

S. Holden Jaffe was a self-described “odd kid” from Connecticut who made his earliest recordings under the name Del Water Gap when he was still in boarding school. Jaffe eventually moved to New York City to attend NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In Manhattan, he says, he “learned how to be an artist,” and Del Water Gap became a big-city band with a rotating roster of members, most famously his friend and former tourmate Maggie Rogers.

On Jaffe’s latest album, I Miss You Already + I Haven’t Left Yet, Del Water Gap is a solo act, musing over moody electronic-tinged production by Sammy Witte (SZA, Harry Styles) about sobriety, frayed relationships, “listening to Sky Ferreira in a K-hole” and shopping for Bertoia chairs. “This album feels much more like Del Water Gap and Holden becoming one and the same,” Jaffe says. “I really allowed myself to tell the unembellished truth.” GQ caught up with Jaffe in between tour stops to discuss moving to Los Angeles, how the films of Wong Kar-Wai and a note from his late grandfather found inside a William Carlos Williams poetry book shaped his approach to the new album, and the pros and cons of high-fashion stagewear.

GQ: Now that your album is out, how do you feel? How are you taking it?

Jaffe: I feel good. The period of time between singles coming out and the album coming out is a really funny liminal space—feeling like you’re sitting on this really well kept secret. And there’s a bit of a denial that kicks in, because you have to finish music so early. I finished a lot of this record like five months ago. So having it out in the world is a really interesting practice. [I’ve been] thinking about how these songs that I made so long ago apply to me now, in this month and this year. It’s been wonderful. I mean, we’re a couple days into the tour and seeing people know all the words to these songs that have been out for a week is very life affirming. Getting to see people is special.

The cover image is quite interesting. You look a little beat up, but there seems to be hope in your eyes. Tell me about the idea behind that cover and why you chose that image.

A lot of the album is about the last three years of my life. I came pretty close to quitting music during the first part of the pandemic, dealt with some addiction problems and mental health stuff. Out of the pandemic I went straight into two years of touring, which was an absolute blessing—getting a second chance at a life in music. In a lot of ways, I never thought that I would make it to this second album. So when this album actually finished, I thought a lot about my journey the last few years. I had just seen Fight Club on tour, when we were opening for Girl In Red. I was like “Man, there’s something so beautiful about this notion of fighting with yourself.” Like the ways in which we torture ourselves and probe ourselves, and hopefully on the other side of that, there’s hope. I’m happy you picked up on that. It was the first shoot that we did for the album. I worked with Erica Snyder and it was freezing cold. We were on a roof in Bushwick.

What are you trying to get at on this album, that you haven’t with previous music?

I think it’s quite a bit more vulnerable and open than the previous music I’ve made. Del Water Gap has always been an extension of me, you know, with certain knobs turned up. I think at a certain point you go through enough stuff and you spend enough time wearing a mask and then you have to either make a decision to start really being yourself or to stop showing yourself at all.

My life became a lot more public the last couple years with touring, taking photos and doing music videos for the first time. I spent a lot of the early part of that [period] just keeping a lot for myself—being on tour and really hurting and getting on stage and not wanting to show that to anyone. As I started making this album, I started breaking up a little bit and realizing that, yeah, actually I was doing myself the greatest service and doing my audience the greatest service by just being really honest. In the process of that, I realized I was more hopeful than I had previously thought.

You’ve explained that the album title is a quote from a note your grandfather wrote to your grandmother in the margins of a William Carlos Williams book. It’s a sweet story—but what was it that caught you about that line? And do you think the album captures the essence of that note?

My grandfather died when I was 13. I was really close to him before he died. I was a bit of a strange kid and he really understood me in a way that the rest of my family didn’t. I have spent a lot of time in adulthood experiencing milestones, whether it’s personally or professionally or artistically, and missing him and wondering what he would have to say or wondering what it would be like to have them witness my life unfolding into adulthood. I’m incredibly close with my grandma, his wife. And so we spend a lot of time talking about him. So he feels really, really, really present—but he’s a ghost, right? He’s just sort of an invisible presence in my life. Stumbling upon this poem that he had written her rehumanized him to me in a sense that I haven’t felt for so long. Like, really took the wind out of me. I really feel like I discovered a time capsule. It was almost like I was just digging in the backyard and I had to pull out some sort of treasure.

I think it just underlines why it’s important to talk to our grandparents and explore their lives a little bit more.

So real. People that have grandparents that are of sound mind, and around—it’s really a gift. Talk to your grandparents.

You mentioned Fight Club earlier. How important are movies to your artistic practice?

I watch a lot of films. It’s probably my main artistic input. One thing that I love doing is putting films on silent—just muting a film and putting it on in the studio. I mean, this sounds so pretentious, but having a French New Wave movie playing while you do vocals will really change the way you do the vocals, versus if it’s Jurassic Park, right? Or if it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

What else was playing in the background while you were in the studio this time?

I watched a ton of Wong Kar-Wai while I was making this record. Chungking Express, In The Mood for Love—that hyperromantic deep red got into the record. I watched a lot of David Lynch. One of my favorite films is My Own Private Idaho. I think it’s such a great road movie and it’s so sad and wistful—this confusion between platonic love, romantic love and care. Also the way that we become our parents for our friends and for our lovers. There’s so much in that movie.

Who’s one director whose work everyone should know about?

Akira Kurosawa. I’m in this film club with my grandma, and one of the things I really love is watching a few films by the same director in sequence. I think I’ve been most moved by seeing the breadth of Akira over four weeks watching a few of his movies. We just watched this film High and Low, one of my favorite films I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful. You could watch without the dialogue and really enjoy them and then turn the dialogue on and realize that it was a completely different movie than you thought it was. He made a lot of films in his career and I have a lot of respect for artists that are as prolific as he was. I think that’s the dream for all of us, right?

You live in L.A. now. Has that had an impact on the way you approach music or writing music?

Oh my God. I mean, it’s changed everything, I think. It’s had an impact on my notion of home. I don’t feel at home in L.A. in the way that I did in New York—L.A. is very much where I go in between tours. That’s where I go to make records and all my stuff happens to be there. L.A. feels like an artists’ summer camp, a little bit. There’s so many powerful creatives. But I have a lot of trouble resting there and I feel very disconnected from the ground. You know, the thing about New York—I get off the plane in New York and I immediately wanna hit the road walking, write the next great novel, have a beer-shot combo, fall in love and have a crush. I don’t feel that way in L.A.—I want to take care of myself and I want to show up to the studio every day, bright-eyed at eight in the morning. And that’s great too. But it’s a very different feeling.

You’ve just kicked off the tour and, last time you and I were on the phone you were excited to see people’s reactions to the music live. What’s the song that fans are reacting to the most right now while you’re out there?

That’s a great question. Well, at the end of this, I play this song, “We will never be like anybody Else,” which is a bit of a confessional. It’s probably the most vulnerable song on the record. There’s a bit of a peak in the live show and things are quite high energy and then I come way down and I sing this song and right now it’s been my favorite part. Seeing, on the other side of this, ecstasy that is like the up tempo part of a show, feeling everyone really come down and feeling people really get emotional and cry and sing a lot. It’s an absolute superpower to be able to lock in with people energetically like that, and I think it’s happening because I believe this song. I think it’s one of the best parts about playing new music—you’re more sensitive to it. These songs have only two shows on the tour. So I’ve only sung that song live in front of people a few times. It’s really special to get to feel that. I’m really shocked that this record has been out a week and a whole room of people knows the words, it’s really moving, it’s really humanizing.

What’s Holden like on the road? What do you need to feel comfortable when you’re touring?

I’m still figuring this out. I got a tour bus for the first time, which has been really exciting for me. When you’re 14-15 and you’re imagining what life as a rock star would be like, for me, the tour bus was part of that dream. So there’s been a couple of moments in my career when a 14-year-old’s fantasy and reality actually align; seeing my tour bus pull up to the rehearsal space for the first time is one of those moments. I got really choked up. It’s been like a hard couple years of touring and I really think I put in my time. I think classically touring meant giving up all the things that stabilized me. Tour has meant some version of a mental breakdown, eventually. Now, I have a lot of hope for this tour.

How would you describe your onstage style as opposed to your personal style this year?

Well, I really didn’t think much about clothing until about a year and a half ago. I booked Governors Ball, which was a really big moment for me because I went to Gov Ball when I was in college, growing up around New York City. So that was a real bucket list moment for me and right around then I had started working a little bit with Saint Laurent and they wanted to dress me for that festival. Up until that point I had never worn anything but a t-shirt on stage. I affectionately call my style aging skater dad– Carhartts and loafers. And for the first time I was able to suit up a bit. I put this Saint Laurent short suit on and I walked on stage and I felt ten feet tall. It really clicked for me—the importance of having a bit of a separation between stage and life clothing.

From that moment forward, I really did start siloing what I wore on stage and what I wore in my normal life. It’s allowed me to have a bit of separation and this feeling of energetically zipping up into a show. That can really help you puff your chest out and be a bigger and elevated version of yourself. So yeah, that was a really important moment. Since then, I really had a lot of fun experimenting with clothing and learning a lot about fashion. I think it’s such an interesting and fun part of getting to do this job.

Do you have a few different fits planned up for the tour or are you wearing sort of a similar thing every night?

I have a rotating cast. I’m wearing four outfits from the newest Saint Laurent men’s collection. And then Thom Browne gave me a short suit after our event the other night. So I wore that suit to kick off the tour and I’m gonna try to take good care of it and not to sweat it to pieces. I do a lot of crowd surfing, climbing on things, and moshing during my show, and I’m trying to strike this balance between having reverence for my clothing and also allowing myself to be the most sort of uninhibited, feral version of myself. It’s funny to dive into the crowd and you’re like, “Ok, but please don’t rip my Thom Browne shorts.”

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