Track Work: Sansyou And The New Lines, ‘Gowanus Canal Field Inspection’

By Alison Baitz

In a collaboration with The New Lines, Sansyou explores exciting new terrain: lyrics.
In a collaboration with The New Lines, Sansyou explores exciting new terrain: lyrics. Nalinee Darmrong

D.C.-based trio Sansyou isn’t in the lyrics game — the band’s entire body of work has been instrumental. That’s why its recent song, “Gowanus Canal Field Inspection,” a collaboration with Brooklyn act The New Lines, may come as a surprise: It’s teeming with words.

“It was a real challenge, and I had no idea if it was going to work,” says David Nicholas, one of Sansyou’s two guitarists. Nicholas and his friend Hewson Chen — vocalist for The New Lines — were hanging out in New York when Nicholas decided he wanted to visit the Gowanus Canal, a famously polluted waterway in Brooklyn. A few days later, Nicholas got a first draft of lyrics and music from Hewson, and the virtual collaboration began.

Hewson, Nicholas and Sansyou’s Matt McGarraghy and Davis White (of Lorelei) worked separately, emailing their music and ideas to each other starting in early November. “It’s surprising how fast it came together,” Nicholas says — and no one quit the band in the process. Email gave everyone an opportunity to fully express their ideas, so he says the songwriting process went down “without a whole lot of bloodshed.”

The final product is a soothing little song, recorded with a peppy, surfy guitar and Chen’s melancholy vocals, adding up to something like a lost tune from Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields or The 6ths. Lyrically, it goes an unexpected route, dodging references to, say, the unnatural creatures that could be dwelling in the canal. To Nicholson, hopelessness is not the Gowanus’ defining feature.

The canal is “never going to be a pristine natural environment,” Nicholas says. “But it’s part of a real sense of industrial history in the Brooklyn area.” And that, he says, is worth commemorating.