“IT MAKES ME NERVOUS, WHICH IS PROBABLY A GOOD THING”
Gabe Birnbaum hails from the outskirts of Boston. He loves to read and write, loves making music. Strongly influenced by literature, his songs have the artful word-choice of a great story or poem.
In conversation Gabe is mild-mannered and soft-spoken, so you might be surprised when you see him perform on stage.
Gabe’s voice rides through the air with deep and hearty resonance. His guitar behavior is raw and idiosyncratic. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness him switch to the sax, mid-song, and blast out a lengthy jazz riff that’ll cause you to stop all else simply to admire.
Aside from his kindness and artistic talent, what’s compelling about Gabe is his humility and dedication to his work. When I congratulated him on his two recent EPs (Everyday Crimes Against Objects of Desire, Vols. I and II) and for having just put on a fantastic show, he said, “Thanks, but I don’t really feel like I’ve done anything yet.”
Gabe’s band, Wilder Maker, has been generating praise and recognition since the release of Everday Crimes earlier this year. And they’ve created notable momentum — recently playing a show with Natalie Prass, claiming a spot on CMJ.com’s “15 Best Albums of 2015 (So Far)” list, and preparing to release the third EP of the trilogy this fall.
Amidst the excitement, Gabe maintains a long-term view of his music career. “I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life,” he said, “I don’t just want to party, blow myself out on the festival circuit for three years then go get another job. I want to write songs ‘til I die.”
Lucky for the rest of us.
THE JALEPEÑO: What’s going on now with your music?
GABE BIRNBAUM: I’m releasing three EPS. There are two out now, one more coming in the fall. We’ll be in perpetual release for a year.
THE J: A few songs at a time.
GB: Yup, I have tons of music. I’m also working on three records. We should have a lot of material next year.
THE J: With the two new EPs, there’s a compelling mix of styles.
GB: Thank you. I’m trying to establish as broad a stylistic base as possible. I want to be able to do what I want creatively.
It’s hard to maintain the freedom to go in any direction. It’s one of the traps – you get big off one song, then everyone wants more of it, but nothing similar is ever as good, and you get stuck.
THE J: You’re put into a box.
GB: Exactly. I figure while no one is paying much attention, it’s good for us to go in as many directions as possible.
THE J: With any art or creative effort, it seems you’re responding to influences, maybe even imitating them on some level, but also striving for raw, individual expression. When you’re making a song, what’s the main driver?
GB: One of the things I like about songwriting is there’s an element that can give you momentum. There’s an element of randomness to it that isn’t in other kinds of writing composition.
I’ll sit down and say I’m gonna write a Nick Drake song. And because I’m not Nick Drake, it winds up sounding totally different.
The harder I try to stamp influences on a song, the less they’re apparent, because people are idiosyncratic.
Also the physical act of playing guitar leads you into different directions. I’m not a trained guitar player, so my playing is weird. I have tricks, but I liked being untrained because the moves I make naturally are unusual.
If I knew exactly what I was doing, if I had a map of the fret board in my head, I’d probably write less interesting songs.
Sometimes my hand will do something that makes no sense at all, but it sounds cool.
THE J: So you’re open to experimenting.
GB: The first two records I put out that I take seriously confused people because there are so many different genres thrown in.
I’m thinking more about finding a middle ground.
The reason I’m working on three records is because there are three different styles of song and I’m trying to make each one more consistent. I’m sure they’ll spread out more than I intend.
I want to experiment.
I did an artist residency in North Carolina in May and finished a lot of stuff.
THE J: Tell me more about that.
GB: They’re mostly not for songwriters. I started looking for them because the music I make is in a weird place. It’s considered pop music and treated like pop music, like failing pop music, because it doesn’t bring in a ton of money.
But it’s actually way weirder than that.
It’s contemporary American music and it’s worthy of the same institutional support that supports classical contemporary music.
But those institutions still consider it pop music and won’t fund any of it.
So I’m trying, and I’m not the first, to bridge the gap there. I would like to find ways to get support.
I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I don’t just want to party, blow myself out on the festival circuit for three years then go get another job.
I want to write songs ‘til I die.
THE J: Hats off to you. How does the residency work?
GB: Room and board, they fill your fridge with groceries. In North Carolina I spent two weeks in the mountains at Wildacres.
THE J: And that gives you the space and silence to get to work.
GB: Life is cluttered with obligations. It’s hard to get the mental space you need to conceive of bigger projects.
When I was younger I used to make all these crazy art projects. Just trying stuff.
When I did a residency in Michigan last year, I realized that the open, creative part of me died in New York because I was so stressed about money and success all the time.
It made me pretty sad to realize that, but all these new ideas started coming to me and I felt like a long-dormant part of me had woken up, which was great.
THE J: Like what?
GB: I’m curating this compilation series now called Genius Loci where I reach out to songwriters, send them a prompt, some restriction or rule. Then they send me back a completed song. The first one was that you have to write all the lyrics first before you write the music. It comes out Sept 18th.
THE J: Anything else?
GB: Six or seven pages of this really long poem by Frank Stanford, The Battlefield Where the Moon says I love You.
It’s this crazy 500-page thing that’s all over the place. It’s funny, it’s really beautiful language. Inventive, dark, super weird, transgressive.
The narrator is a kid, so it flows between sex and death in ways that are more childlike.
Adults create boundaries so we don’t go crazy, kids don’t really do that.
“HUMAN PERCEPTION IS MORE NUANCED THAN LANGUAGE ALLOWS”
THE J: Getting away to create gives you time and space to start coming up with honest ideas, clear thoughts. It can be difficult if you’re squeezed for time.
GB: The knowledge of the time limit is devastating to creative relaxation.
But there’s also a part of my brain that’s very creative when I have little time, because expectations are down.
THE J: A different trigger, kind of like your prompts, a new perspective. It’s good to challenge yourself with these things.
GB: Your brain, writing, it’s a muscle. It’s a holy thing. But it’s work.
THE J: So consistency helps.
GB: Yes. The more I do, the easier it is to write. If I take a lot of time off it’s harder.
In the rock world, there’s this stigma to talking about creativity as a craft or talkingabout working on it. It’s supposed to come from the gods or you’re supposed to be too cool to work on it, but it’s a lot of work.
It’s like being a monk. It takes over your life.
THE J: Do you often draw from fiction and poetry when writing?
THE J: Examples?
GB: Ben Lerner’s novels. Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love My Struggle. It’s extraordinarily autobiographical fiction.
It’s so detailed about the mundane. One part he goes into the closet and describes it for two pages. It’s so hard to talk about it well, I feel like I sound ridiculous. But it’s really beautiful.
THE J: One thing that interests me about music is it’s an accessible way to observe the nuances of language. In some ways music can do similar work as a novel or poem in terms of presenting moral issues, existential questions, human emotion, compassion.
GB: Totally. And the tricky thing about songwriting is that there’s not as much space for words. I’m working on pushing the boundaries with some new stuff, using a lot of words. I’m trying to get myself out of the fear of using complicated language in songs.
It makes me nervous, which is probably a good thing.
It’s a good sign. It may work and it may not. You’d be surprised what people will accept.
People are way more open-minded than they’re given credit for.
THE J: Why is it good to be nervous?
GB: If you’re nervous it means you’re pushing forward creatively, you’re taking risks, you’re not writing the same song over and over again. This is why so many bands sound exactly like whatever is cool at the moment. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. No one can single you out and tell you what you’re doing is stupid.
I don’t think people play it safe on purpose, with full awareness, but no one likes to feel exposed all the time. It’s exhausting. I get it. On the other hand, it’s the artist’s job.
If you’re not exposed, you’re just fucking around.
THE J: Do you collaborate with the band when you write?
GB: Sort of. The songs don’t exist until someone else hears them. That’s when they become real.
THE J: If no one ever heard the song, the conversation wouldn’t occur. There’s gotta be a back and forth, a connection.
GB: Yes. And with the internet, you can make something in your room and thousands of people can hear it within a few weeks.
This third EP is all home recorded. It’s done differently. It’s dense, and I can do whatever I want to it.
It’s very different from the studio stuff.
THE J: What does it feel like when it clicks?
GB: I don’t know. I’ve written songs that I love and the band or other people say “Eh.”
Sometimes I think they’re wrong and I’ll push it through. It’s hard to tell. Every once and a while I know something’s good, but I don’t know why.
Sometimes I just accidentally stumble on something.
You write lyrics, you don’t understand them. You leave them and come back, now you know where they’re coming from.
THE J: See what sticks on second look. New ideas and images come up, those can become interesting, what you didn’t see coming, an image or a theme that appeared out of nowhere.
There’s a quote (by E.L. Doctorow): “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
GB: That totally sounds right. I learned that writing essays. When I knew the conclusion before I started, the essays were horrible. When I didn’t know and I found my argumenton the way, the final product was much better.
That was educational for the creative process. I won’t care about how I start, but I will start writing. I’ll land somewhere interesting, but I often have to cut off the first part.
Imagery is very important. Abstract emotions are fine but images snap into place for people. Neil Young talks about that, writing songs, he has a picture in his head and he describes aspects of that picture.
THE J: On the latest EPs, there’s an honesty, a vulnerability. It pulls you in. What’s driving it, thematically? Love, lost love, severance?
GB: Those EPs are all about a break up, so yes, lost love. But the songs change over time.Once each one is done, I try to keep moving. Once it’s done it doesn’t belong to me any more. I don’t have to maintain an emotional connection to it.
Fools is not a happy song at all. But it’s been so long that now, it’s fun. When we play it live we’re all smiling ear-to-ear.
It’s a song about being miserable and angry but it’s so bouncy. It’s nice to have that, because now when we play it I get to enjoy myself.
I’ve stepped away from writing love songs for a bit. I’m approaching it from a different direction. You start saying the same shit.
But the well is never dry.
THE J: What makes you cling to a song?
GB: It changes over time. I like to relate emotionally to songs, after a while it doesn’t work any more. But that drives me to look for more music.
I can go back to it. But you need new fodder.
THE J: I guess it depends on what was going on in your life when you experienced it. Certain songs will always represent your experiences. But that same song may not hit you if you heard it now for the first time.
GB: Totally. There’s a song I had to tell my boss to not put on at work anymore because it makes me cry.
THE J: You mentioned your music is considered pop, but it’s more than that. David Byrne talks about this, how he wanted his music to be accessible, played on the radio, fun to listen to, but also challenging and artistically compelling. His example shows that’s possible. And it becomes this special and timeless thing.
GB: Right. And it’s interesting that something that at the time is seen as not viable is the thing that lasts. I want to make music like that.
Part of my goal writing is to make a record that stands up with consistency and depth … like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
That people can go back to for fifty years.
THE J: What are you writing about now?
GB: I was reading an interview with Stephen Merritt from the Magnetic Fields, he says you have to address the mundane to connect with people.
We live in the mundane. 99 percent of our lives. Cell phones, iced coffee, jobs, mundane social interactions.
So I feel compelled right now – I’m trying to write music that does not shy away from the mundane and the specific, which is harder than it seems. But, if you catch it right, the mundane can actually be an entryway into really resonant, huge emotions.
I wrote a song about texting. The word texting doesn’t appear because that’s an ugly word, but it’s about texting a girl I have a crush on.
THE J: What a humongous part of our lives
GB: Exactly. It’s how I communicate, mostly.
In one song, the narrator is having this desperate feeling where he wants to do something grand and huge but also feels a complete inability to get his efforts to register with the world. What will he do if no one ever notices?
He has a conversation with a friend, bums a drag off his friend’s cigarette, has a bunch of wild desires that go nowhere. That’s all the action in the entire song.
THE J: It requires mindfulness, to recognize the potential of the ordinary, of every conversation. Do you think art helps with that, to make people aware of that potential?
GB: Yes. Robert Frank’s photo series, The Americans. When I saw that, I walked outside and was just astonished by everything.
When I left North Carolina, I played a show, after writing alone in a cabin for two weeks, I was so raw, everything was bringing me nearly to tears.
You can’t really live in that state and be a functional person.
THE J: It’s real though, it’s available.
GB: That’s true. You might go insane if you lived in that all the time, but it is awesome to be able to get there.
It gives you a lot of appreciation for things. That’s one of the things art does best, one of the things I hope to do.
Have you ever read Moby Dick? That book made me think about what makes something resonate with people.
It’s about something that I can’t connect to in any direct way, an industry that doesn’t exist anymore. I have no connection to that world.
But it’s so detailed, you go through the rabbit hole of specificity and come out on the other side. It becomes this very universal thing. Hyper-specific, universal. It’s a weird thing.
THE J: And I guess humans across time and space have a pretty similar spectrum of emotions. So whether you’re a whaling deck hand in the 19th century or a person in Brooklyn today, you experience fear, humor, joy, jealousy, confusion, love, compassion, nervousness, etc.
GB: Yes. And also the white whale is a great metaphor for being in a band. This crazy quest, why would anyone ever do it?
But also this compulsion that you have to go after it.
THE J: I don’t mean to project, but it reminds me of your lyric “Could you get back to your own divinity” (from Hope Springs). Some pure, hidden thing we’re after, some unspeakable thing that drives you. What do you think that is?
GB: Oh man. I have no idea how to answer that. I try to avoid drawing any really concrete meaning out of songs, not because I don’t think it’s there, but because I think there is a lot of value in the inarticulable.
You know, human perception is more nuanced than language allows, and some things are more potent unspoken. But they’re there. To sketch them with words and psychology is to ignore the part of the iceberg that’s still underwater, which is to say, most of it.