It’s evident within just a few minutes of speaking with him that Dean Engle — the principle persona behind the New York outfit Quarterbacks — is a big-hearted guy. When I reach him, he’s on the drive home from taking his little sister back to college (fear not: he pulled over for the interview). He’s headed back to New Paltz, where he’s studying to be a literacy teacher, helping High School students with comprehension issues learn how to read. “You tell some of these other teachers that these kids are only reading at a fifth-grade level and they say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, but that kid is reading To Kill a Mockingbird regardless.’ I’ve found joy in being able to be a sort of a different voice to those kids.”
And then there are the gentle, beautiful songs on Quarterboy, which feature little beyond Engel’s whispering voice, an acoustic guitar and the mechanized grind of the tape machine. The album brings to mind ’90s bedroom heroes like Super XX Man and Sentridoh and even early Elliott Smith — the sound of one man making himself softly vulnerable. The album represents a sharp about-face from the previous Quarterbacks record, Sportscenter, which consisted of blissfully shambling indiepop. “When I started the band I’d just found out about twee,” Engle explains. “Tiger Trap is one of my all-time favorite bands, and so is Henry’s Dress, and so initially there was a very intentional ripping off of those bands.”
Quarterboy was never meant to be a proper follow-up to Sportscenter, just a compilation of Engle’s home recordings of Quarterbacks demos, plus some other odds and ends he had lying around. But the response from people who heard the tender songs was overwhelming. “The guy who helped us mix the last record, when I brought him Quarterboy, he put it on and was immediately like, ‘Oh, I like this more.’ There’s only two songs streaming on Bandcamp and we’ve already almost sold out of the tape. It took us a year-and-a-half to sell out of the last one.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal. Songs like the beautifully-muted “Center” and lovers’ lullaby “Knicks” have an intimacy that’s startlingly affecting — like you’ve got your ear cupped up to your neighbor’s apartment, trying to make out his conversations through the walls. In reality, that scenario isn’t far from the truth. “I live in this weird apartment,” Engle explains. “It used to be the porch of a house, and it got converted. The walls are wood paneling, and so is the ceiling, and then it’s hardwood floors. Every surface in the apartment is the same color — dark brown. So what you’re hearing is the sound of me having to sing really quietly, drinking a full pot of coffee and sweating my brains out in this all-wood room.”
Other artists might be concerned about being so emotionally candid, but Engle is used to it. In between gigs with Quarterbacks, he substitute-teaches at the same school he attended as a teenager (“Teachers will see me and be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I’m like, ‘Oh I’m substitute teaching,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, wow. We really thought you would do so much more.’”) When his students uncovered this fact, they made it a mission to expose him. “My little sister will send me screenshots of things they’ve Tweeted about me,” he says. “This one girl found my picture in the high school yearbook when I was a freshman and put it up. But I mean — that’s a good Tweet, you know? I can’t really get too mad at that. I mean, if I had something like that when I was a student, I’d put it up. Even my little sister is like, ‘I Tweeted that picture we took together on Easter. 20 faves. No problem.’ I’m glad I have such social media currency.”
The irony is that Engle’s students would likely deeply relate to his songs, which recount first heartbreaks and hopeless crushes in striking emotional detail. But when discussing what he’s accomplished with Quarterboy, Engel remains charmingly self-deprecating.
“I get it,” he says. “I get it. It’s a pleasant, sleepy little record for when you want to feel bad for yourself. Listening to it I was like, ‘Wow. This is the music I make. I was put on this earth, and could have made any kind of music, and this is what I make.’” He delivers the last line like it’s a punchline. In reality, it’s a blessing.
[Quarterboy will be released on cassette by Double Double Whammy on May 6. Only a few copies remain. Pre-order today.]
Quarterbacks On Tour
4/17 Brooklyn, NY @ Death By Audio w/ Crying, Donovan Wolfington
4/19 Beacon, NY @ Quinn’s
4/25 New Paltz, NY @ Youth Center
4/27 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right w/ Bluffing, Turbosleaze
5/17 Kingston, NY @ BSP Lounge w/ Screaming Females, Shellshag
5/23 Brooklyn, NY @ Silent Barn