INTERVIEW: Gruesome Galore
Riding the Line Between Art Rock and Gospel (Gruesome Galore)
By: Alex Steininger
You're a new band, your debut was just released, and you want to spread the word of the album's existence to as many music fans as you can reach. What do you do? If you answered get out there and tour, you got it right. However, for one band, Portland, Oregon's Gruesome Galore, just where to tour comes into question. The band could pile into a van and hit the U.S., without a publicist, booking agent, or marketing person to help assure people actually know when and where they'll be in town. Or they could hop a plane, fly to Spain, and play to appreciative crowds who will, without even being familiar with their music, warmly receive them, offer them hospitality, and enjoy their live show without interruption. For Gruesome Galore, the choice was easy.
"We're really not interested in the U.S. right now for a couple of reasons," front man Adam Mackintosh tells me. "One, I can't afford to take three people on the road and play to twelve people, or fifty people and get paid $100 for the night. And I don't want to sleep in a van each night. That's just not what the band is about."
Not quite what you'd expect from a man who, following the self-release of the band's debut, Gracious Living, keeps talking about tour plans. But it makes sense when he talks about exactly where he plans to tour.
"A tour of the U.S., if it's not promoted or backed by someone else, or if we're not supporting a bigger band, it just doesn't make sense for us right now," insists Mackintosh. "I would rather take the three grand I'm gonna spend on gas money and hotels and spend it on airfare and go to Europe, stay with friends, and play in Spain, renting a car to go to each city within two hours of where I'm staying."
"The guarantees are $600-$1000," he continues. "I'd rather do that. Plus, everyone I know has toured Europe and gained notoriety that way and then used the buzz to catch on in the U.S. We can tour the U.S. anytime, if we want to do the risk-it-all tour. So, why do it now if we can go to Europe instead?
"Besides, I can break even going to Europe, but if I tour the states I'm not even going to come close to breaking even".
But breaking even is the least of Mackintosh's concerns. His post-punk meets art-rock brand of melodic pop is inaccessible in terms of mass consumption. It is a thinking man's record, a literate sculpture, something that, much like a good book, you can't fully comprehend your first time through. It sinks into your subconscious more and more each time you listen to it, as each subsequent listen provides a bit more enlightenment, before one day you finish, realizing you just heard dozens of things you don't recall hearing your first few times listening to the record.
It lends itself more towards growth than immediate satisfaction, something that American listeners on a broad scale have been trained to frown upon. Therefore, Mackintosh is not concerned with losing money for his art, he is concerned with ensuring he makes the right moves to allow people to hear his music. And, as he will tell you, European audiences are more receptive to something new and unheard of, a trait Americans rarely embrace.
"I would say yes, Europeans are more literate people," proclaims Mackintosh. "Instead of the easy, he said/she said lyrics, backed by a beat you can bop your head to, they seem to appreciate words and how the words intertwine with the music.
"When I went overseas two years ago it was with an acoustic act, Paula O'Rourke from Tiny. We were playing alt-country road music. We did it all acoustic and there were 50-75 people per venue and it was silent. People would start talking and the rest of the room would hiss at them. They were very respectful. And even though they couldn't understand what we were singing, they paid attention to everything to see how the words interacted with the music. They were also excited because we came from around the globe to play for them."
Yet, given the same scenario, very few Americans would take the time to experience something they were unfamiliar with just because it came from seven thousand miles away.
"I met the most amazing Flamingo guitarist over in Spain, Javiar Moss," Mackintosh tells me. "If someone saw a poster on the street for a Flamingo guitarist from Spain named Javiar Moss, nine times out of ten people would walk right by it. Over there, they see it as special when a band comes across the ocean to play for them."
These are all the reasons why Mackintosh has forgotten about the U.S. when it comes to promoting his record, preferring to focus on Spain and Europe instead.
"I want to tour once a year in Europe. I want to start in Barcelona, go back and hit Barcelona and France, and then do Barcelona, France, and Germany," Mackintosh says about his touring plans. "One scene is not D.C. to New York, it's France to Germany, a whole new country, a different language and culture. And I realize it's a long process, a five or ten-year plan. But if in seven years from now I have two or three more records and we've found a way to go from one major city to another in Europe and we can, by ourselves, do an eight, nine, ten or fifteen city European tour I will be ecstatic. That would be amazing if we could accomplish that in five to ten years. But, who knows, it may happen a lot faster than that."
Next on Mackintosh's to-do list is secure European distribution, something he didn't get around to last time the band visited Spain, but something he is working on and hopes to secure prior to the band's next trek to Europe for a three-day snail eating festival in May 2003.
With his plan of attack for Europe already mapped out, I ask Mackintosh about the band's reason for self-releasing the record in the states.
"It was a lot of things, but largely I'm not interested in being signed to anyone," he says flat out. "That's a world that I don't have enough time to concentrate on, to make sure I am getting the best shake I can from someone. I don't understand what a label can do for me that I can't do for myself, aside from the exposure and overexposure, as it were. Plus, as a person, I don't think I'm ready for that kind of exposure.
"I have a friend that I've known since I was 5 years old who is a high-powered lawyer in New York. I could have probably called him up and said, 'OK, I want to be on MTV and be on the radio, make it happen' and it just might have. Right now I just want to concentrate on making really great records that I know are right no matter how long it takes me to make them, records that people won't re-sell. Records that don't have a lot of crazy influences over the making of the record, and ones that people will cherish."
Mackintosh has seemed to achieve that goal, making a record people will cherish - once they hear it - in Gracious Living. After a marathon 8-day recording session, working 17 hours a day, tracking and recording the tracks for the first six days, doing vocals one day, and mixing on the last day, Gruesome Galore again device a plan and execute it in a timely manner.
"I didn't sleep so I could get it done as quickly as I could and make it sound the way I wanted it to sound," Mackintosh tells me. "And that is what I'm talking about when it comes to making a record I want without outside influence. I don't want to sign with someone now and sacrifice the gracious living, which is what the album is all about. Doing exactly what I wanted to do and making sure it came out the way I wanted it to sound without anyone from the outside telling me it should be this way or that way.
"Of course, if we had two months to work on the record, it would have come out completely different," he admits. "But the point was to make a record that, from start to finish, including the recording and artwork, was exactly how I wanted it to be. And Gracious Living turned out just how I had planned. There was nobody telling me to do anything. We went in, got it down, and made it the way we wanted with the short amount of time and money available to us."
The final track, "Music", part three of the "In The Music" theme that runs through the song, ends the album with a bang, summing up the record both musically and lyrically with only a few lines.
"The final track just came about," Mackintosh says of the spontaneity of the record. "As we were doing it, I knew I wanted to put the vignettes of 'In the Music' at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. On the fifth day we tracked this really loud, blown out version of 'In the Music'. The first one starts in the key of D, the middle is the key of A, and the ending one is in the key of G. The last day we tracked vocals for like 8 or 9 hours and I was really delirious. Then I want upstairs and it just came to me. Which is one of the reasons I want this record to be pressed on vinyl, because I think the line merits it be pressed on vinyl.
"I pulled out a 13 gauge pack of guitar strings and wrote down, 'so if you're out there child, and I know you are, pull out the vinyl and lay the needle down, I know you're hungry in this bleak and empty world, but, hey, it's written in the music'. That just happened then and there. I still have the packet; the words are completely scribbled on it and you can't even read it. It looks like a crow wrote it. I went downstairs and I picked up this old CB microphone and had [the studio engineer] wire up everything. We took the reel I was tracking vocals on off the machine and wound up the final 'In the Music', cued it up and I just blew that out. I was risking the earlier vocal takes, but I had to completely blow it out and sing it as loud as I could.
"For me, that sums up everything I'm trying to say on this record. That is the type of thing that reminds me I am a musician and I am an artist. It's one of those time bomb-esque elements you put into your music and art, an element of longevity, and the thing that makes the music timeless. It's so childish and simple, like putting the toy piano on it. You listen to it and it eventually comes to you, even if it is ten years later. It helps you remember that part of you."
Since the recording of the record, Gruesome Galore has grown to a seven-piece outfit, including three back-up singers helping to add a new dimension to the band, though Mackintosh still strips the band down to a duo or power trio when others aren't available or the night calls for it.
"The sky is the limit with what you can do performance wise," Mackintosh believes. "I've played with just a piano player and an acoustic guitar, playing my loud, full-on rock songs. They're the same songs whether they're loud or played with a piano and an acoustic guitar. It just brings a different element to them. And sometimes our keyboard player can't make it so we're down to a power-trio. In the future I'd like to play with strings, and an oboe, or whatever. That's the great thing about playing live, you can do so many different things."
For right now, however, Gruesome Galore's focus is the 7-piece version. They even perform Gracious Living in its entirety with backing vocalists. "You can put back-up singers to anything," Mackintosh insists. "I learned that from doing Gracious Living. We play all the songs live with the back-up singers and they perform on everything. Writing back-up parts is one of the most fun aspects of writing a song."