Sunday, 23 March 2008

Meet Gus Black

From Bucketfull Of Brains 62-
When the self titled album by Gus turned up a few years ago it illuminated a talent well worth keeping an eye on. Great songs of grown up passion and playing that spoke volumes for the quali­ties of the musicians involved. And yet nothing could have prepared us for the sheer majesty of his next album Word Of Mouth Parade released in 1999. A magnificent creation dripping with beautiful songs brilliantly realised. Sad, regal, intimate, intelligent, emo­tive epics of love fought for, lost and sometimes won. All swimming in a multi-layered production that never loses its way even for a heartbeat. Word Of Mouth Parade is one of the definitive recordings to emerge so far from the adult end of the new American pop movement It is an album so complete in vision and execution that only Michael Penn could equal it.
When I interviewed the excellent Jeremy Toback a while back he happened to mention that he often shared bills with Gus so l asked him to put me in touch. Nothing much happened until last summer when a phone call from the man in question came out of the blue. He was in London scouting out recording possibilities and getting things together with his new label Wild Abandon and would I like to meet up for an interview? My memories of thatbeautiful summer afternoon spent talking to the man are still vivid.
He's a thoroughly decent guy, charming, witty and open. He takes his craft very seriously, driven by a passion to deliver up the very best he can, and he has the intellect and talent to back it up all the way. We talked for nearly three hours drifting away from our purpose on many occasions to talk of other things before returning to the task at hand. Since Gus had not yet started on his new album it seemed sen­sible to put the tape of our ramblings away and add an update when the next album was ready. A few weeks ago an un-mastered copy of the much-antici­pated, new album, Uncivilised Love, arrived and it's another classic from the man.The birth of his first child naturally interrupted the promised update for a few weeks but finally we nailed it all down in time for the album's release. This time he's extended his single sylla­ble monicker and the album comes out under the name Gus Black to save confusion with a number of bands called Gus and another called Gus Gus. (Black being his wife's maiden name.)
Okay Mr Black let's get the low down on the story so far.

Gus. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. My parents listened to a mix of Miles Davis, Jim Croce, and Cat Stevens. I remember being really young, hanging round the house listening to that; my dad would come home from work and unwind with a bit of Miles Davis. It definitely had an impact, even then, lit a little spark of musical appreciation in me.Then when I was old enough to listen to music on my own I was into Kiss and Judas Priest, so I kind of went a little backwards in my early teenage years. I remember lis­tening to a Kiss live record with my older brother; that and The Song Remains The Same and getting our dad to judge which was the better drum solo, Peter Criss' or John Bonham's? When I was ten I'd be seeing bands like Quiet Riot, it's hilarious in retro­spectThen later it became about getting hold of new records and getting in with a bunch of different peo­ple.You just had to open your eyes a bit wider to get keyed into REM, U2,The Cure, that seemed so much more interesting at the time than the Big Hair situa­tion that was LA in the 80s. I remember the first time I heard Nick Drake, this would be '88 I'd say, and I was just flipped out I was working doing house painting and stuff and a friend recommended one of his albums to me. I got it and it was so intense, so real.I couldn't believe it

What made you decide that you wanted to get into singing yourself?

I was sick and tired of being in bands that had crappy singers who didn't want to work hard at what we were doing. So I just started singing.And believing in the songs — I was going to sing them and not just hand them to a lead singer: Up until this point, my early twenties, it had just been about playing the guitar and it was a gnat excuse not to compete with any­body, I was just the guitarist and I did my part. In the late 80's I was in a band called Rain On Fire.This was when I first started writing and pulling it all together. It was all very 80's; Echo and the Bunnymen mixed with Simon and Garfunkel. We had this duo, singer/guitar player affair and this is how it all began. It was a great experience. We made the first demo tape I ever- sang on. We got a publishing deal. We did songs forTV shows and it was all very encouraging. it was one of those things that led me to believe I was a little more serious than other people were.When we got our publishing deal I was so excited. I just wanted us to hole up for six months and write a bunch of songs, but everyone else just wanted to rehearse for the show. So eventually the band dissolved.
I had all these dreams and desires so I was just going to do what I set out to do and write for six months and something radical would happen. Well what happened was I spent the next six months doing nothing. Realising that I am on my own, with no support system, no one to bounce things off. I took a bit of a nosedive and had to discover what it was I wanted to do. I entered into a period of just lying on the couch listening to records and listening to more records. I think it was the best thing for- me because living in LA everyone's chasing and getting record deals. All your friends are doing it and you get this crazy notion that this is what it's all about Somebody hears your demo tape and takes you out for a meal and you get drunk and then they start saying what they can do for you. All that crap.
They think being in a band is easier than working? But it is working.That's the point If you think it's not work then you get lazy and don't pick up your instru­ment for a couple of days. A week goes by, you're going to films, going to lunch and hanging out with people. But it's a craft and it's writing songs, it's inspi­ration and perspiration and you got to put in a lot of hard work to get it right Anyway I finally got to buckle down and start seriously writing songs again. I would do exercises like writing a song everyday for a week Just going through the process was what finally got me off my arse. Sure I want to make records, but if I want to make a record I will sit down and write seven songs, record it, put it out on cassette. My very first release was called The Boat Tape. I was living on this really beautiful sailboat and I wanted to make something so I could say; this is me, this is Gus.

I was listening to Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes, which was such a breath of fresh air in the early 90s. It was produced by Eric Ross, and I thought he was great and that I'd love to work with him. I started giving The Boat Tape to a few friends and 1 got a phone call from Eric Ross! So it was like; okay I'm doing something right Actually Eric hadn't heard The Boat Tape, he'd heard some straight up demos I'd done with another songwriter in LA. So he came down to the boat to hang out and he asked if I had anything else? So I gave him The Boat Tape and he thought it was great He is an amazing guy and he ended up producing my first record. He was some­one who functioned like a band member, someone I could bounce things off that had more experience than me. He became like an older brother, someone could trust in.
Things just started lining up. I ended up being a roadie for the summer, touring around America with a band that had a little bit of success. I had about thirty copies of my tape with me and on the way to the first gig we're all sitting in the van playing guitars and they realised I wasn't just a roadie. I ended up on all their radio appearances; playing guitar and back up vocals and opening the show playing solo. I sold all my tapes and had to make another batch. It opened my eyes even wider to the possibilities. When I returned from the tour Eric took me to his house in Mexico and we made an entire record that didn't get released. It was like an exercise for us, it was amazing. We recorded ten songs. I'd play him something I had just written that morning and he'd be, "So is this really what you want to say?" Sometimes it would be: "I guess so" and sometimes it would be, "Well I could take this line..." and this would lead to another line and from that it would become more of a reflection of where I was at So we made a record that was just ours. I ended up getting a deal but I went and wrote a whole other ten songs.
Once the record company got involved I started listening to them and that drove Eric crazy! I made some choices that weren't my strongest choices I guess. And that's a little life lesson, I shouldn't have cared what they had to fucking say!That's something I enjoy seeing in other artists, I think it's highly com­mendable, an artist who doesn't care what the label or anyone else might think. I since learnt that if you let a label feel like they're having input without giving them the opportunity to literally have input then that's the best way. I listen back to my first record and you hear some parts and it's like what was I thinking?

When Michael Penn put out his last record on Sony, the label told him that they would put it out but that would be all they would do.They were not going to get behind it in anyway.

Michael Penn has had a certain level of success so when I hear a story like that, well that's just a corpora­tion being a corporation, doing their thing how they see frtThose are decisions that you cannot control. And so again it goes back to the creative end because that's how it is.You can put the proper tambourine sound with the right snare that was used by all these successful artists and do all these things your A&R guy or producer tell you are the keys to success. But ulti­mately that ain't going to lead to anything, unless the record company decide to really get behind you for whatever reason.And because these reasons are invariably nothing to do with the music it serves no purpose to compromise your creativity for them.

What was the feedback like to that first album?
It had a good response from fellow musicians and it got some things going.That was the great thing about that experience to just get on the road. Just me and my guitar, getting in a car for three weeks and just playing, sometimes to nobody and living out the dream.The record did not do shit except at live shows where I would sell loads and that was great. also got to open for Pearl Jam and Oasis, which was a blast.

There's a giant leap between the first album and Word Of Mouth Parade.The talent is obvi­ous on the first record, but there's a feeling that your true potential is not realised.Then on the second it's there in spades.

The last song on the first album, "Unloaded", was the last thing we recorded and it got a lot of positive response. I felt it was the direction for the next record. It was really about the heart. About being supported by other musicians and the fans; the peo­ple that would come to the show and get the record. Then I would see them at another show. I don't know why that mattered to me so much but it sup­ported the vision I led me back to rediscover­ing the music that first influenced me — the music of my parents.That singer-songwriter era, that sound and that feel and that warmth.The directness and honesty is what appealed to me.
I found myself in conflict on tour, between having a band and playing solo in more intimate sit-down places. So the experience of that record was not doing much other than opening a few doors and giving me the opportunity to make another record But ultimately whatever the response was, it was a great experience because I went right in to writing another album. In ret­rospect I was a very lucky man to get to continue making records because that's what it's all about knew it would be long term, regardless of what hap­pened with the next record. It would make me a bet­ter songwriter and a more well-rounded musician.
I started off on the next record, sort of mis­guided, just trying to splatter a bunch of stuff up against a wall. l knew this record was going to be something new but I still didn't trust it and then I met Greg Wells. I was so not interested in co-writing with anyone. But he came out to Seattle and we worked on the title track together and it was clear he was a great collaborator for me. He got me to trust myself. All the chord changes and everything in that song were from the first attempt, and he would be pushing to stick with them. So he was a great strength, another Eric Ross, who got me to trust in myself. We wrote the majority of the record together and it was really a trusting relationship. He would encourage me and I would encourage him and another brotherly bond was formed.
The album took about two and a half months to record, but it certainly felt like it took forever.The process was so technical and I had a lot of time to just sit and reflect Mark Phillip Ender, the producer, during therecording and during the mixes would be very analytical to a point that drove me nuts. Something in the console was reacting half a dB up and could I just do one more take? And I was; "Right, okay. But could you deal with it another time because my window of cre­ativity only lasts so much of the day."You can't turn the water off and then turn it back on; you've just got to go with it when it happens.That's what made it seem to go on forever. I'm thankful that he had those ears. Glad that he was so focused and all those things, but it was the hardest part, just sitting there while he tweaked and tweaked. And I'm a tweaker myself! He would spend hours on something and it wouldn't sound any different! But it was an amazing experience in most respects because there were great musicians on the album.

It must have been frustrating for you when the label folded just as the album emerged.
There was a time during the making of Word Of Mouth Parade that I thought Almo was going to really support the record, or maybe I was bullshitting myself into thinking that. But things just started to unravel around the time of the release. But whatever, it's the same story you've heard before: artist delivers a record, label promises the moon, label fails to deliver, then label folds. It's nothing new really. When I hear artists complain about what a label did or didn't do in regard to promoting a record, it just seems lame. Move on, write more songs, live your life, I say. When I saw the end of my relationship with Almo coming I was lucky to come across a book about the legendary Sun Records. In it there were the stories about artistes like Roy Orbison and Charlie Pride that found success only after leaving Sun. But there were more stories about artists with names most people wouldn't recognise and how their dreams evaporated for a multitude of reasons. It really put things into perspective for me. I was definitely not the first person to lose a record deal. I think that helped me to remove myself from what was going on and see that no matter what the label situation I had to start writing the next record. I am thankful for the experience of making those two records on relatively big budgets. My life is much richer for it.

So how did your experience with that album inform your approach to the latest effort?
The thing with this new record is, from the get go I was having fun challenging myself and 1 didn't have the label telling me what I could and could not do. That's not to say that the Almo situation was some totally oppressive process, it's just that I started writ­ing for myself again and it was very cathartic. I felt free to try anything I wanted to without having to justify my reasons for doing so.The record's a bit all over the map, but that's where I've been musically I've worked with quite a few different people since Word Of Mouth Parade. I went through a couple of different band scenarios, a few producer/co-writer sit­uations, and a lot of trial and error. Wally Gagel (Folk Implosion, Eels, Old 97's) and I did most of the record together at his place. We started out writing and recording just to see what we could come up with. And we came up with some cool stuff and quickly became friends. A couple of those initial recordings made the record, but we also did a proper session once Wild Abandon got involved. Wally really helped me tie the whole thing together. He's a great musician/engineer/producer and one hell of a tennis player.) also worked with Greg Wells again. We always have a blast creating music. Most of the time if I spend too long with a song or a record­ing. I can definitely over think it But he and I work at a pace that doesn't allow for second guessing.We just go in and get the job done.There are a lot of my own recordings that made the record as well. I had a little Roland vs880 that was set up in our family room and just started messing around with some ideas.The intention was to capture a vibe, you know, demo up a few songs. But when it came time to cut the songs for "real" the home recordings had more of a vibe than the proper tracks, so we went with them.

I recently got a ProTools set up and have been experimenting with that can of worms. It's a whole new world with sometimes too many possibilities. But I have yet to find a better writing tool than an acoustic guitar. Ultimately the thing that made the process most different this time around is the fact that I've become a dad. It's a cliche to say that it has changed me in more ways then I had ever imagined, but it's true. We are so lucky to have a healthy beau­tiful child, I can't imagine life without him. He's a gift, and it's the ultimate responsibility. It's put a lot of things in perspective.

You're lucky enough to be part of the Largo scene.
Largo is one of the few places in world that provides the kind of atmosphere that nurtures the singer-song­writer as a performing entity.There is also a loose sense of community there. It all really kicked in with Jon Brion's Friday night gigs. Jon's one of the best rock musicians I've ever come across. He played on a few songs on my last.record and did some amazing work But when you see one of his shows you witness the depth of his talent From Bach to Beck from The Beach Boys to Les Paul, you just don't know what to expectThe audience there loves when an artist breaks free and becomes something other than the expected guitar-toting troubadour.That's not to say that great intimate songs don't matter, it's just they are more effective at Largo when they follow a chainsaw with a ghetto blaster while the entire audience is singing "Bohemian Rhapsody." I wish there was a circuit of Largo type clubs around the world for solo artists to play. A place where people go to listen to music and be entertained. Most of the time they do not tol­erate talking during a performance. I've seen people kicked out of the club for doing it But it's funny because I used to do a lot of shows there with Pete Yom, and that guy's crowd not only talked during my set, they talked all the way through his as well.

I've been doing shows there lately with Jude. He is a pretty cool cat that I met while we were both on tour with Train. He's got this ridiculously funny song called "Gay Cowboy" that he does, I'm not sure it's on a record, but the guys in Train and 1 would get onstage and play that song most nights with him and just fucking die laughing. Anyway, he's a part of a Largo community, along with David Garza of "recently been fucked over by label" artistes that have a strong following at the club. It's like Flanagan (the owner) has created a haven for talented people to perform their art regardless of any label involvement or whatever. Bottom line is that Largo is an oasis for the singer-songwriter gigging in L.A.

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