Sunday, November 11, 2007

Interview for Imeem

ML: Gruvis Malt has been inactive since the recording of 2005’s Maximum Unicorn. During a WRBU interview (01/25/05), you stated that disabling the band was “an excuse to make more music.” Since that interview you have released six solo records, a collaborative EP with One Drop, and are about to wrap the second release from GM spin-off, Ebu Gogo. Now, nearly three years later, can you say that you are satisfied?

GC: No, I’m not satisfied. Let’s hope I know well enough to stop making music when I am.

ML: You have released a diverse body of work ranging from hip-hop, to rock, to electronic, to folk, to gospel. Do you feel the diversity in your songwriting confuses some listeners? Is it possible that your range of styles has made it more difficult to establish yourself among more easily recognizable acts?

GC: There is no question that the diversity of my work has inhibited digestion for those attending a live performance. I’ve sort of “toned it down” for the live show, opting to do sets comprised of similar styled tracks instead of the more scatterbrained approach I began with in 2004. But I hope that in time it’s that large variation of styles that will become what’s attractive about my shows; that you will get a smorgasbord of musical approaches in a single show… but I think you have to gain listeners’ trust first and I certainly don’t have it on a widespread level. Artists like Beck, Mike Patton, Frank Zappa, and Bjork have/had that kind of trust, and I think it allows for much more creative freedom over the long term.

ML: Your music on record often attains a high level of complexity; many of the arrangements are extremely difficult to translate live without a full back-up ensemble. When performing alone, you have compensated for this by using a sampler to construct each layer of the song, part by part, building the instrumental right in front of the audience [see 90 East video]. Do you feel compromised or empowered to experiment by this limitation?

GC: This is a good question. I’ve felt both, and very strongly on both ends. I had several moments on the last tour where I felt really low because I didn’t feel like I was doing the songs justice. But then there were wonderful moments where the improvisational aspect of building songs organically like that was extremely liberating. With the looping format I’ve made 90 East breathe far heavier than it ever did on record. Overall, I’m disappointed in my lack of mastery with the looping stuff – I’m capable of so much more with that format, and I do believe that most of my more linear songs can be realized properly using it, but this year I’ve just made a conscious decision to devote what time I have to recording and writing instead of live performance. I think a truly great song is one that moves you with a 200-instrument arrangement as well as a simple voice/piano or voice/guitar arrangement. So, if I have any good songs, they should be effective in any format, as long as I do it well. That being said, I currently have two good songs.

ML: Since 2004’s Dark Age and Hypotenuse, the recording quality of your records has noticeably increased, notably on 2007’s A Bullet, A Lever, A Key (ABALAK). Describe the studio setup employed on your first two records as well as what you have been utilizing more recently. Do you prefer to work at home or in the studio?

GC: Those first two solo efforts were big learning steps for me. I did them mainly in my bedroom and mixed them mainly on headphones, which is somewhat disastrous. It’s only natural that I would get better at low budget recording, the more I do it. I don’t have much of a “setup” actually… I work mostly in Sonar for multi-tracking, do my sequencing in Reason, sometimes Acid, and recently Ableton Live a little bit. I work with a Motu 828 mkII soundcard that I should be upgrading for this next record. I use very little outboard gear. I just can’t afford it, really. I mix on a pair of Paradigm Mini Monitors that sound great here but don’t relate to the outside world so well. This is why when I can afford it, I have Rob Pemberton engineer the drums and bass, I do everything else remotely, and then we mix it at his small studio. I’ve found this to be the most cost effective way to make a decent sounding record, like ABALAK. If you look at some of the greatest songs of all time, they rarely come from an era where sound quality was optimal. But it really doesn’t matter, because the content shines through. I think I feel the same way about my recordings – I know sometimes they don’t sound as good as they could if I had more money, but I’m fine with releasing them if I feel like maybe the content will shine through.

ML: Dark Age and Hypotenuse established two distinct approaches to vocals that are echoed on ABALAK and For the Love of Pete, respectively. On these records, you show your ability to jump between unconventional rapping and singing. Which artists do you draw the most influence from between these two very different styles?

GC: For singing, I probably listen to more females than males: Nina Persson, Jennifer Charles, My Brightest Diamond, Inara George, Fiona Apple, Feist, Emiliani Torrini, Bjork (pre-Matthew Barney), eh… there are like five million these days. For bros: Rufus Wainwright, Sam Beam, Jonsi (of Sigur Ros), Michael Jackson, D’Angelo, Rob Crowe, Dave Gutter, Elliott Smith, Jamie Lidell, Stevie Wonder, Anthony Hamilton, Freddy Mercury, Jeff Buckley, you know… dudes that sing. Right now I’m about as interested in Hip Hop as I am in Indie Rock – I find the population in those genres a bit overwhelming and I really don’t want to put the time in to sift through all the thesaurus rappers and bands with animals in their names. I know in general I’m more interested in the cadence of a few MCs than I am in their actual lyrics. And I’m more interested in the rhythms of certain drummers than I am in those certain rappers. So I don’t know… Kool Keith and MF Doom still entertain me… I like some of the lyrical work on the Gorillaz records? Maybe more important than which singers I’m influenced by would be who I draw influence from lyrically (it’s a much shorter list): Rufus Wainwright, Feist, Elliott Smith, Joanna Newsom, Leonard Cohen, M. Ward, Tom Waits come to mind, in the music world. I don’t know, this list sounds entirely uninspired and dated to me, but the truth is I haven’t had much time to draw influence from other musicians right now. I’ve been in a little bubble for a year. I’ll be ready to pay more attention to the work of others when mine is done.

ML: With the exception of Grace Land, your records feature guest musical performances by former band mates, friends, and family; however, you make it clear that you write all of the music yourself. How do you manage this? Do you play every instrument or do you initiate ideas from your keyboard and translate them to other instruments afterwards?

GC: If it’s an instrument I can’t play myself, and I can’t possibly synthesize it, I’ll ask someone else to play the part. I’ll either play the part out for them on piano, or provide them with sheet music, or more often than not have a demo version of the part for them to follow with. That latter approach is how I’m doing my entire new album: each part is “demo’d” by me, and then track by track I will replace the poor version for a live performance. That approach allows me to make sure each part functions the way it needs to, and also allows the performer to hear clearly how their part fits into the whole composition.

ML: 2006’s Hospital Hymns is the only one of your records that has not been released in hard-copy form and is only available via the iTunes store. Why? Can we expect to see it in hard-copy form at any point in the future?

GC: I have strong feelings about the marketing/sale of religious/spiritual music. Feels dirty. I printed up 1000 copies of Hospital Hymns (sans artwork) and gave most of them away on the U.S. tour with Facing New York. Then I gave the remainder away to anyone who ordered something from the Integers Only Online Store. Five One Inc. was very excited about the album, and wanted to release it, but being an EP, they felt it would be ideal to just handle the digital release. I agreed under the terms that any money earned by me from those sales would go back into promoting my records. This way, since I never see any money from it, I can pretend it was never for sale.

ML: You’ve voiced your discontent with the music industry on tracks such as “Lemon” and “The Great American Bottleneck”. Who is most to blame for the glorification of sub par musicianship, absence of integrity, and lack of originality in mainstream American music? Does the blame fall on the labels, the musicians, or the listeners?

GC: Capitalism is to blame, if we want to waste time pointing fingers. The version we have in the U.S. is based on greed, not craftsmanship. So it’s not really shocking that there are Godsmacks and there are Nickelbacks --- any more than there is McDonald’s or Peavy – these are just practicing Americans (probably not a coincidence that both “bands” license their music to the U.S. Army). I don’t care about blame anymore. I used to think that lowest common denominator music was holding me and my peers back, or getting in the way of more interesting work being heard. Now I just think they’re making our job easier. The more of them there are the more original I sound.

ML: You’ve released three fictional records to date [Grace Land, Hospital Hymns, and ABALAK] that involve elaborate themes, characters, and events. How do you go about preparing to write such a record?

GC: Each record comes about a different way. I never made an album because it was time to make an album (If anything, people in the industry have suggested I slow down on that tip; spend more time promoting). Like every artist, each record I’ve done is inspired by or a reaction to something going on in my life. Grace Land was something I wanted to do because I was fascinated by the mundane and remedial jobs usually held by the most eccentric or awkward people. I remember being very excited about the BBC Office around that time, and I’m sure the influence shows. I also was very tired of writing lyrics, and I wanted to collaborate with my good friend Cyrus Leddy. He’d been noticing this guy Tivoli on his many visits to Staples, and so suggested that we do something about him. He began interviewing Gary, and then adapting those interviews into prose. I cut that up into couplets, and then constructed music to support them. Cyrus coached me through the performance of them, and the rest is sort of history.
Hospital Hymns I wrote because I was working in a Hospital stockroom for a stint and there was this little closet-sized “chapel” that was just off of ICU. It was the only carpeted area besides an office in Women’s Care, and I thought it was strange to have this little haven for the religious in the midst of all this science and sterility. It seemed thoroughly disproportionate to the amount of emotional events that were filling up the halls everywhere else in the building. And there were heavy debates about spirituality and religion coursing through my family at the time, so I wanted to design a character that would polarize my listeners, and maybe have them assess where they lie on that spiritual graph, so to speak.
Many of my songs are written when I’m working at creativity-stifling jobs; emerging from them with a song makes me feel like I’m getting something out of it (besides $8/hr).
I don’t have a set method really for writing a record: sometimes I just start spewing stuff, and see which idea is the most fun to work on at the time, and most times that will snowball into a record. Sometimes, like in the case of ABALAK and Home, the concept comes first, in a burst, and then I craft the songs to fit it.

ML: The themes and events of your records seem to dictate the way you perform vocally. For instance, ABALAK spans a lifetime, and you pay close attention to reflect the passage of time and how your character’s age and predicament affects him by altering your voice accordingly [76-year-old Gavin sounds very different than 28-year-old Gavin]. The same can be said of Grace Land and Hospital Hymns. Will you ever run out of voices? Do these dynamics keep it interesting for you?

GC: Yes, role-playing is a nice way for me to break up all the non-fiction, and exercise that acting bug that we all think we have. That being said, I don’t think my tones are that varied – not when held up againt say, Billy Bob Thorton or Martin Short. That sounded pompous. I should’ve compared myself to musicians, but I can’t think of any.

ML: On 2006’s Grace Land, Gary Tivoli is credited with having helped with the album artwork; what role did he play in the telling of his own story?

GC: See above… Cyrus found the drawings for the album art on the wall of Tivoli’s bathroom, believe it or not. When Cyrus asked him about them, Tivoli told him they were drawn “from memory.” He was none too pleased when he found they were gone, but we figured giving him album art credit was a fitting apology. In general, we didn’t tell him about the album until we could hand him a copy. I think Cyrus gave him a copy.

ML: A Bullet, A Lever, A Key (ABALAK) presents a grim account of what may happen if you were to abandon your musical endeavors and attempt to change direction at this point in your life [at age 28]. You’ve presented this frustration in your earlier work, yet ABALAK is arguably the most refined attempt to depict this inner turmoil. Where is this pressure to conform to an alternative lifestyle coming from? Is ABALAK self-justification for your career choices or more of a response to external pressures?

GC: Well, to answer the first question: I feel the pressure from everywhere really. Not from any particular person, though many elders have rudely hinted that it may be time to “grow up.” This is just the pressure you feel when you’re 29 and you still don’t have health insurance, and sometimes your electricity gets shut off. Even your body is constantly telling you it’s time to nest and have children.
And in answer to the second: it’s a little of both, but more than either of those, it was written as a warning/encouraging word to other “struggling artists.” It may be an original vehicle for the message, but the message itself is nothing new: Be true to yourself, to thine own self be true.

ML: For the Love of Pete is a compilation of songs written for Jenny Lederer, a girlfriend you were in a relationship with for six years. Not only did you release this record post-breakup, but the cover image features the two of you holding hands and the album artwork would lead most of us to believe that this relationship is still alive and well. What part did Jenny play in putting this project together with you?

GC: 10 of those songs were given to her over the last six years, so I asked her permission to compile them into an album and give them to the public. In conjunction with that request I also asked her to help with the artwork. She graciously said yes to both. She did all the photography, and most of the graphic layouts. She also did her profesh spell-check. She’s extremely talented in all three of those fields, so it was a step up for me to collaborate with her, and I’m very pleased with the result. As far as the status of the relationship, it is not alive, it’s over. Shortly after that artwork was shot, crappy things happened and I lost my grounding altogether, got into a really bad spot and asked that we cease communication. It’s hard on the kids, but at least I’ve resumed my motor skills.

ML: In 2004, you discussed your intention to record a children’s record for your nephew. The project has temporarily been put on the backburner. When do you plan on resuming work on it?

GC: Now that I have 3 new nieces and two nephews, it is even more imperative that I finish it. That being said, it will have to wait until my Home album is safely birthed. I will probably start tinkering with it again in June or so, if I haven’t completely fallen off the deep end.

ML: Ebu Gogo are currently in the studio with Rob Pemberton recording record number two. Pemberton did a fantastic job engineering Gruvis Malt’s Simon in 2004 and one of your most recent releases, A Bullet, A Lever, A Key. Chase Scenes 1-14 has a homemade and live feel to it. What can we expect in terms of audio quality on the new record?

GC: Well this one is going to be interesting because we’ve employed him to capture everything much better than we did on that first recording, but then beat it up pretty bad. We really like the filthy sound of the first album, and this one needs to be that flavor, but 3.0. We want it to sound very very large and dirty. But this record is a much different color than the first one, so it will be interesting to see what that sounds like.

ML: You have been hard at work on a new full-length record titled Home due out next year. Can you provide some back-story and details?

GC: Home is the story of my relationship with Jenny, from beginning to now. In addition, it’s the synthesis of all my work up until this point. Musically, it makes sense of everything I’ve done, or at least features the deployment of ideas I began to play with on previous records. It will feature a female vocalist on half of the songs, playing the role of Jenny, singing lyrics she wrote with me, in the middle of our breakup process. There is a lot more to say about this record --- it’s the most important record I’ll ever make ---- but it will be more of a conversation, and less of a monologue if people are able to hear it first. I need it to be done so I can close that chapter of my life. I’m trying to make a record that has no regrettable element to me, so it’s a long process. I also am trying to properly depict the most loving situation I’ve ever been a part of, so that’s a tall order.

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