Gavin Castleton spent the good part of a decade playing keyboard, rapping, and singing with a band of musicians from the future. From 1995 to 2004, Gruvis Malt toured the US and released nine recordings before disbanding. Since then, Gavin Castleton has continued “futurocking,” accumulating an impressive catalog of his own. His latest full-length album, Home, proves that he is still breaking the space/time continuum, as it takes listeners through a prog-pop odyssey far ahead of its time (read our review of Home here). The Social Narwhal recently sat down with Gavin Castleton...at incongruous times of the week...2,100 miles apart. Here is what transpired:
SN: The Social Narwhal would first like to thank you for taking the time out of your day to answer our questions. Home is a concept album, as is a good portion of your back catalog (A Bullet, A Lever, A Key; Hospital Hymns; Graceland). Explain your lyrical process. Do you usually approach a recording project with a specific story or theme in mind?
GC: I try to change my process for every project. If I'm making a narrative record, then I begin by drafting the story/message that I want to tell, determining which plot points have to happen in order to get the story across in the most efficient way, map them into songs, and then begin writing music and lyrics as jointly as possible. Sometimes melodies come alone, sometimes rhythms come first, sometimes lyrical phrases come first. Doesn't matter, just so long as every element compliments each other and supports the thesis of the record. I wasn't able to be quite as organized for Home, because I wanted it to be written in "real time" with the events that were transpiring in the relationship I was depicting. So sometimes it would be months between songs while I would wait for the sky to fall down.
SN: Let’s be honest, zombies are a weird subject for an album about a relationship. Are you a fan of zombie movies? What is it about the impending zombie apocalypse that makes it an appropriate metaphor for your relationship with your ex-girlfriend?
GC: Yes, I'm a fan of zombie movies, this was my chance to make one myself, in a way. Zombies were the perfect metaphor to play the role of antagonists because they were slow and plodding, impending, compounding... it was the layering of unresolved problems that killed our relationship, not so much a single swift horrific event (if it had been, I would've used vampires, and probably been a millionaire by now).
SN: Not only do your albums reveal that you are an exceptional lyricist, but your personal blog is further evidence of your writing affinity, as it includes micro-poems, fiction, and other writing exercises. Do you have any plans for non-album work? Perhaps a book?
GC: Thank you for saying so. I don't have any specific plans as a writer... I've been working on a children's book of sorts, a few essays about things I feel strongly about, a piece or two of unfinished short fiction, random poetry spattered out across the web where hopefully no one will find it... I write when it's too late at night to make noise, or when the songs aren't coming.
SN: How do you organize a record store's worth of influences into one album successfully? It's a risky artistic gamble that pays off handsomely in the case of Home.
GC: haha... risky? It's funny how in our culture combining multiple genres on a record is considered "risky." We're expected to have a diverse playlist on the iPod, but we still don't encourage diversity from a single artist (especially within a single album). Creating the sound of Home was easy; I just wrote in all the elements that I would want to hear in an album, and colored them with emotions that any normal human would feel if dealing with heartbreak. If it was successful, then I guess all those years of listening paid off.
SN: Judging by the YouTube videos documenting the making of Home, the recording process looked involved and nightmarish at times. How difficult is it to replicate the tracks on Home live? Are there any that you hesitate to play?
GC: It has been a very uphill battle to perform any of the songs from Home live. I can't afford the musicians I would need to do it justice, and even if I could, there wouldn't be enough in attendance to pay for the light rig. Knowing this breaks my heart, but maybe it's for the best - if I ever heard it done verbatim on stage I would probably find myself back in the place where I was when I wrote it, and going there in front of an audience could ruin my career.
SN: You recently completed a tour opening up for Taking Back Sunday, whose members accompanied you on stage for your performances. How were you chosen for the tour and what was it like playing your songs with TBS? What was the response from TBS fans?
GC: They had a spare slot on the tour, and members of the band have been extremely supportive of Home and my solo work, so they went to bat for me and convinced their agent to put us on. It was an amazing experience, and quite a luxury to have two guitarists on stage with my trio. I'm not sure how the TBS fans felt about me, I wouldn't say their response was overwhelming. It's a safe assumption that my stage attire may have been a deterrent for them.
SN: Any interesting stories from the tour?
GC: My last tour was 70 days long... every day was it's own story I suppose. The best I could offer is probably a link to this essay I wrote about the lessons I learned on tour: http://gavincastleton.blogspot.com/2009/11/keys-to-failure-tour-edition.html
SN: How much longer do you plan to tour in support of Home before you work on your next full length album? Will we be seeing you perform in Chicago any time soon?
GC: I'm halfway done recording a block of 12 songs, which I hope to wrap up this month. The label (Five One Inc.) and I have not yet determined whether it will be released as an album or a series of EPs. I will be doing a 12 market west coast tour in April, and then I don't know what will happen after that. I don't currently have any plans to play in Chicago - no club would have us the last two times we passed through, and I'm too old to beg for a show.
SN: As an independent musician, how do you go about marketing yourself and interacting with fans, and how has this evolved since playing with Gruvis Malt and other past projects?
GC: I've been lucky enough (or unlucky enough depending on how my soul is doing today) to have been making music during the most transformative years the music industry has ever seen. We sold cassette tapes in class rooms before bands had websites, flyered on the streets and at the colleges, got our first website in '95 or '96, started and maintained email lists, realized the potential of selling merch online in '98, realized the potential of file sharing in 2000, organized and nurtured street teams from 2001-2002, realized the potential of myspace in 2004 or so, and so on and so forth. These days I spend almost as much time marketing as I do making music. In fact, last month I spent more time on Facebook than I did making music. It really sunk me, when I realized that. My approach to marketing is due for an overhaul - I think I'm in danger of joining the throng of artists who are accelerating their own insignificance. I have a lot of thoughts about artists and their relationship with marketing, but it deserves to be an essay, and that wouldn't fit here. I will write it out and post it on my blog when it solidifies.
SN: You recently released an album as a limited holiday giveaway covering songs by Bjork, John Lennon, Elliott Smith, Peter Gabriel, and others. Any chance listeners will have another opportunity to grab a copy of that album?
GC: One of the fifty people that received a copy has leaked it onto bittorrent without asking me (I guess they aren't aware of the proper etiquette for that sort of thing), so I'm sure anyone could grab it there. I've posted a few of the songs on Youtube as well for those that missed out on the promotion.
SN: One final question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
GC: My listening has declined dramatically since my iPod was stolen at a show at Harper's Ferry. But in general, I'm not very interested in the music being made right now. I check in from time to time if I hear a band's name way too much, but I'm always disappointed by how fashionable everything sounds. I believe we're nearing the end of a very fashion-centric age of music (not surprisingly, one that borrows 99% of its ideas from vapid 80's music). I can't find anything with soul, honesty, inspiration, or craftsmanship making headlines---that's not to say it's not out there, just that none of our social filters are tuned to allow it through, and I'm not willing to spend all my time trying to unearth it when I can just try to make it myself. So if I do find time to listen, I usually go back to the elders: David Byrne, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Waits, Sam Beam, Brian Wilson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, people of that ilk.
Looking through my iTunes, there are a few modern folks that move my blood: Lex Land, Kelli Schaefer, Laura Marling, Jose Gonzales, Tugboat, Van Hunt, Flying Lotus, many of them friends of mine... I find myself listening to the Ebu Gogo album Worlds --- pretty tacky to say because I'm in the band, but it's the truth.
SN: Thank you for your time.
You can listen to Gavin Castleton's Home in its entirety for free, complete with director's commentary at www.gavincastleton.com, and purchase a hard copy (with lyrics and glorious artwork) at www.fiveoneinc.com. Follow him on twitter for the latest info on his new releases and touring plans, and visit his website to stay up to date with all Gavin Castleton happenings!