[Photo by Caitlin Mitchell]
Experimental LA producer and Stones Throw affiliate M. Geddes Gengras caught our attention quite recently with his latest record Ishi; a 35-minute LP of atmospheric frequencies inspired by the last wild American Indian.
Released via Matthewdavid’s Leaving Records imprint, Ishi is a 3-track voyage through modular synthesis and analog electronics that forms a truly meditative masterpiece. Gengras’ highly expressive instrumental record reveals itself via sweeping tonal gestures and striking, intensely colourful washes of heavily processed electronic sound. The idea of a catchy hook and a chorus becomes trivial and empty when compared with these 15-minute paintings of flickering arpeggios and galactic soundscapes.
Born from the loss of two of Gengras’ friends, the record is truly a journey of contemplation and reflection. Named after Ishi, the last wild Indian who appeared at the age of 49 in 1911 North America as a complete outsider to the modern world, the effort’s three tracks are said to be inspired by what the artist describes as, ‘the schism that exists between the world we live in and those stuck on the margins of it—perpetual outsiders and their quest to understand the torrent of information they are constantly subjected to.’
We reached out to talk more with Gengras about his musical process and inspiration. He’s also made us an exclusive mix filled with colourful vibes which you can download for free below.
Now there’s obviously a very direct narrative behind your new record Ishi, with ideas of isolationism and alienation. With such a strong narrative within this record, how challenging was it for you to actually get the message across through pure sound, and without words?
No, it’s much more difficult for me to do the opposite and convey something that complex through words. Language feels too linear and limited in scope to really express fully; there is a way in which at any moment you can potentially have all sounds present in one moment that is hard to replicate in any other form. I feel like I can sneak up on the listener, I’ve never been that nimble with my words.
How important is it to you that these ideas and emotions come across through your music. I guess this is touching on the theory of art, but do you mind if someone completely misunderstands your intent but still gains a positive experience out of your music?
A literal understanding isn’t really on the cards for people, I’m laying out more of a clear path on this one than I normally do but that’s more a result of it being a pretty straight line in the first place. Normally it’s not nearly as literal in any sense. My belief is that the truth of intention always shows and it’s not necessary to see any further than that. I don’t have to understand the details to appreciate someone’s real direct expression for whatever form it takes.
It’s hard not to draw the parallel between the story of Ishi’s alienation and the actual work that you’ve created, that obviously doesn’t fit within the commercial confines of 3-minute bubblegum pop and MTV drive-time radio hits, and is itself isolated in some respect. Was that a conscious decision of yours at all, or is it how it naturally developed?
The more interesting parallel to me was the idea of all artists as potential outsiders, but with advanced coping mechanisms that sometimes allow us to work through all the shit we are fed & churn it into something unique. The pieces were composed without thought to length, but formed a nice triptych or two large halves when augmented by the Vigil track.
With regards to making 15mins+ tracks, has your mind always enjoyed mapping out a ‘bigger picture’ in music, or getting lost in it, rather than a 3 minute verse/chorus/verse/chorus type deal? What did you like listening to as a kid?
I wasn’t really interested in music until I was a teenager, and when I started making my own I only wanted old synths and delay pedals. I think about music as albums, I think in 15-18 minute sides, and beyond that I think about SONICS, about timbres and expressive textures, not song structure. Not against those things at all, but they aren’t the first priorities for me. I use melody/scales as a tool, to help the sounds slide down people’s ears a little easier and also to provide a contrast for the elements that aren’t bound by those things. The aspect of evolution in a piece of music is exciting to me, and when you approach it in the long-form it changes the way you interact with the instrument. More steering a ship than driving a car. Forcing myself to slow down and let aspects of the piece play themselves out forces the mind into a more relaxed & meditative state.
You’ve said that you look at Ishi as a “passage between different realms, conscious & un, this world & another, laters of reality”, and the 35-minute soundscape is undoubtedly a transcendental cleansing journey. We also read somewhere that you’ve been inspired by the works of Alice Coltrane and King Tubby – artists that certainly have spiritual connotations with regards to the consumption of their music. Is making/listening to music a spiritual experience for you, and if so, how?
YES and I’m distrustful of those who don’t experience it that way. The act of creation has always felt like receiving to me, and the discovery of this form, this way for me to compose/perform/improvise all at once, makes that feeling even stronger. It’s without a doubt the closest thing to divinity i have felt. What brings these heroes together, at least in my mind, whether it’s Terry Riley or Peter Gabriel, is that when I sit with their music I feel that same TOUCH, I can hear the quiet commands they were receiving, it feels like sharing an antenna. To truly tune in to a piece of art is such a profound experience & it’s why I just want to make more records, I want to give that experience to as many heads as I can, the same way I have been and continue to be anointed by others.
On the topic of spirituality, I noticed the structural parallels between the 3 tracks of Ishi and the three movements in classical Indian rag performances. Weirdly enough, in your track Threshold I definitely heard subtle glimpses of Indian scale trills and inflections at one point, but maybe I was just hearing things. Could you talk us through the meanings behind the names of each track and how they come together?
The three tracks (or four in the CD version) form a rough spiral, the second is twice as long as the first, the third roughly matches the first two, and the fourth track is slightly longer than the record proper. Tidy proportions and also a shortcut into the feeling of descent. ISHI is the statement of intent, static tones begin to overlap and beat, the Publison starts buzzing and bending the tones and as soon as it beings to feel full it all falls back to the starting point. PASSAGE begins in those same waters but beings to describe a transition between the two worlds. THRESHOLD is the final moment of that transition but stretched out 2,000 times in length, as the mind struggles to soak up the last moments of consciousness even as it disintegrates. VIGIL is what it says & was recorded as such.
I like working in threes, usually my live show is divided into three sections, no doubt a lot of time spent listening to ragas had an influence on that. I’ve long been attracted to the indian idea of cyclical, monophonic melodic content with lots of modulation, and those scales and trills do get teased out from time to time. The keyboard playing on Ishi was improvised top-to-bottom, and in those states I sometimes find that things I have no technical understanding of or training in will have regardless become internalized and find it’s way into my playing.
The artwork for Ishi looks like it has fallen out of a Magritte or Dali exhibition. What’s the story behind it and how does its Surrealist character tie in with the music?
I approached Nicole Ginelli (http://www.nicoleginelli.com/) after coming across one of her images on Tumblr as I was finishing the album. I’ve known her for a while and always been a big fan of her work, but it just CLICKED all of a sudden and I wrote her an email right there asking if she wanted to work on it. Her work is so beautifully mannered while being capable of holding these huge emotions that are sometimes literally bleeding out of the image. I told her i wanted serene terror, something design-y and surreal but vaguely grotesque at the same time. We talked about a lot of influences, I was really into the stark De Chirico vibe and she introduced me to these Ken Price sculptures that really nailed the feeling I wanted to get across.
We’ve also seen the video for Passages, which is pretty trippy. How important is the visual element to all this? Do you see colours, images, shapes etc when you listen or make music?
No, I’m not a particularly visual person which is why I choose to work with artists I really trust and respect on the visual elements. I do enjoy performing with visuals, especially when they can be done live in conversation with the music.
Has the journey of making Ishi changed the way you hear the music now?
Yes but everything does so it’s sort of a wash.
You’ve just come off a 9-date West Coast tour with Pure X. How have your live shows been going down and how have the venues been as environments for your music to be heard? What has the crowd response been like?
I don’t really enjoy playing in rock club / bar environments, but I’m appreciative for the opportunity to play for a different audience. My main capacity on this tour was doing sound for Pure X, a band I love and respect, and I was looking at the solo sets as a chance to burn out some of the accumulated bad energy in the club & to cut down on the number of boring bands stuck on the show. There are almost always a few people very excited about what I am doing at shows like this and it’s almost always worth it to get to play for them.
What makes a good live show for you?
Powerful but not overly loud PA, a good sounding room that is comfortable for the audience, bar in another room (or building), a clean, quiet and comfortable place I can sit down by myself, a staff that cares and an audience that doesn’t talk during the show.
What’s on the horizon for you, releases/tour etc?
There is a new Personable lp on Peak Oil coming soon, plus two lps under the MGG flag, a first pressing of an unreleased album from 2011 called New Process Music as part of the Collected Works series on Umor Rex and an album of more recent material coming on Spectrum Spools. This winter will also see the release of the Duppy Gun Productions album on Stones Throw, a double lp of left-field new dancehall music with production by myself, Sun Araw, Matthewdavid, Peaking Lights, San Gabriel and D/P/I. Right now i’m working on a new album for Intercoastal Artists, who released my Test Leads LP.
Lastly, can you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve recorded for us?
Just some songs I like, some stolen (sorry), some by friends, some old and some new. Tonio Hubilla is an amazing composer from New Jersey. The Garden is a collection of generative computer works (http://earthlyillusionaudio.bandcamp.com/). CHASSIS is the forthcoming album by Psychic Reality, recorded right here in my house. Mendocino are like a dream of Chrome joining Creedence, getting stoned listening to the Stooges and making an album called KOSMICHE’S FACTORY, a barely documentable combo from asheville, their tunes can be sourced through the Old Man Tapes label. I robbed I Gotta Woman from Matty Tommy Davidson’s ipod.
Grab M. Geddes Gengras’ Ishi over at Stones Throw Records now.