His answers only provoke more questions. Some of them leave you wondering if he’s telling the truth and drip with sarcasm; others are thoughtful and stimulating that you want him to keep ranting - mining for truth in the artistic tunnels of his mind.
I should have known Gavin Castleton would be this affecting to converse with. Haven’t heard of him? He’s musically a part of several outlets including Gruvis Malt, Ebu Gogo, One Drop, Wallpaper, Paranoid Social Club and others among his own solo recordings. His own discs involve themes and concepts most artists couldn’t even reach for - the most recent of which, A Bullet, A Lever, A Key involves telling his life story backwards from death in 2054 to present day.
Gavin answered my questions recently and, as I said, I’m left with more. But for the sake of deadlines, space and maybe sanity, we’ll leave it at this in which the brilliant songwriter answers questions about his own headspace, his concepts, and why Nickelback is his prime example for greed-based art.
SSv: You seem to have your hands in a myriad of projects - do you find a bit of sanity amidst the creative chaos?
GC: Not for a while now, no. I haven’t felt very stable-minded since the summer of 2006. I guess stability is sort of a work in progress for me.
SSv: What tipped the scales from that moment of clarity?
GC: Well, no, I said I haven’t felt stable-minded since then. If anything, that was when clarity began to disappear for me. Until that summer my life was thoroughly plotted out and would eventually feature this soft-focus heart-warming transition into my golden years. Then the relationship I’d been in for six years ate itself in a most cancerous manner over the course - pun intended - of the next year, and I had to learn the wonderful lesson that every human eventually learns: life doesn’t go where you tell it to, so you can either rage against it or embrace the chaos of it. I’m a bit of a control freak, so it’s been very hard for me to hand over the reigns to the unknown. Strangely enough, the surrender is easier for me to do in regards to my career than it is in regards to my heart. Like all healthy hearts, it won’t listen to reason.
SSv: It seems you got your musical start early in life, so was the direction always crystal clear in terms of “I’m going to be a musician when I grow up?”
GC: I found this list in my journal, scribbled out in my eleven-year-old penmanship:
Here is a list of all the things I want to be when I grow up:
6. drummer or electric piano player in band
7. animal scientist
8. soccer player”
When I applied to colleges, I applied for both music and graphic arts. When I applied for a big scholarship from Cornish, I submitted in both departments. I got a scholarship for music but not graphic art. So in a weird way, maybe that was the turning point. Course, I didn’t go to college anyway, but seems like it was about that time that I stopped drawing comics so fervently and started writing funk rap songs.
SSv: Is that the typical way you reference your music?
GC: I was being somewhat facetious. But I did start my songwriting in that vein, same as a million other musicians at the time, marveling at the seemingly unexplored terrain of the rock/funk/rap combination. Sometimes I get embarrassed about that goofy and trendy past, but then I need to remember to hold it up higher because it makes where I’m at now musically all the more miraculous, I think.
SSv: Jumping to recent works, the thought processes for your various projects are fascinating. How did you develop the idea for A Bullet, A Lever, A Key?
GC: I’d just read [Ayn] Rand’s The Fountainhead and was feeling pumped about my purpose - as any artist who reads that book is bound to feel - and I was thinking how righteous it was that she wrote something designed to inspire people to listen to themselves. I’d always written these selfish albums that only served my need to exorcise something or stimulate myself aurally, so I liked the idea of writing one that might help someone else. It was also pertinent to my situation - those years of 2006-2007 - I was watching everyone around me turn adulty. The pressure to do so felt immense, even if rarely verbalized. Perhaps in some ways the record was a retort to that pressure.
As far as the reverse sequencing of the record - where the first song is my final year, 2054, and the last is present day - that was necessary to keep it from being a tragedy. If played forward, the listener just feels like they’re witnessing the downard spiral of a man. If played backwards, the listener gets the sense that those pitfalls detailed in the record can be avoided. Basically, the reverse chronology gives the listener omniscience, which empowers them, rather than making them feel like they’re just along for the ride, which makes them feel kind of sick.
SSv: Do you think most artists possess selfish motives behind their creations? Is that necessary for art?
GC: Funny thinking about it now … sort of ironic that I wanted to make a piece of art for other people inspired by a book so loudly preaching self-gratification.
I’ve always felt like expression in art is the same as true prayer: you are trying to share the most inner part of your self with the most outer collective everything - substitute “God,” “The Universe,” “The Matrix,” or whatever. But I think the act of really and truly listening to your self is often confused with just enjoying the sound of your own voice. One is about connecting and the other is just masturbatory. Most of the music in this country fits into the latter category. It shares nothing, takes everything.
For example, I get a sandy tongue when I hear Nickelback. They sell millions of records, which would suggest that they are connecting to the bigger collective, right? No, I don’t believe they listen to their selves, and I certainly don’t think they’re brave enough to share what they would hear if they did. Furthermore, I think their music is speaking to people who don’t really want to be very intimate with others. So for me, that’s not art. It’s greed-driven, not love-driven. Welcome to our form of capitalism.
I think true artists must have a very heightened self-awareness, not selfishness. Unfortunately, in our culture, selfishness is often necessary to deliver the art to the world. If I didn’t spend ten hours a day trying to get my art to you (not just promoting, but formatting it in a way that you can easily digest it), you would never find it. I’d still be an artist, but I wouldn’t really connect with anyone.
As a side note: I think it’s funny to point out that most people’s perception of how you rate in the selfishness department seems to be dependant upon your fiscal standing. They call you “self-centered” when you’re not financially successful, and “self-assured” when you are.
SSv: What about Hospital Hymns? Is that gospel tradition a part of your own background?
GC: I was raised in the Mormon church and we sang hymns every Sunday. The chord structures and melodic tendencies are branded into me, in a sense. And they’re beautiful. I do all my records in twos, and I wanted to make something converse to my ugly record Grace Land, so hymnals seemed perfect.
Conceptually, I’d been working in a hospital stockroom for six or seven months, and was very intrigued by how sterile an environment it seemed, especially for a building that housed some of the most dramatic moments of a person’s life. The stockroom attendants were sort of faceless worker bees, delivering supplies all over the hospital. They were gritty, vulgar men with very little tangible spirituality about them, it seemed. I thought an aged stockroom worker would make an interesting protagonist, especially if he had the ability to find beauty and color and God in this place where everyone else (especially those of greater intelligence and culture) couldn’t. So the record is sung from his point of view. They are prayers for little things that most people don’t think are worth appreciating.