M. Geddes Gengras: Interview
“It’s really people just interacting with time and treating it differently.”
M. Geddes Gengras is a tru-G. He’s been helping everyone with their music forever and can’t stop himself from creating mad-musician/scientist syth-worship works on his own. For years, he’s been drowning in wires and plugs in search of exactly what makes listeners move to his sonic adventures. Seriously, go to his Bandcamp, scope out every release on there, and then check out his latest album, Ishi, courtesy of Leaving Records. Tell me he didn’t take you somewhere.
Anyhow, the man himself Skype-seshed a few answers to questions I’ve been dwelling on all these years. So I curled up with my computer on a bed that was way too hot and sweaty. I hear his voice through the computer, but he can’t hear mine, so I instantly panic and it’s like a three-gallon bucket of water just drenched me. As I was sweating to find a microphone in my basement, my dog just laid their on my bed listening to “Hello. Hello?” But I gripped a shitty metal mic outta a box and began the chat.
I’m glad this interview worked out.
It sounded like there were some technical difficulties.
I’ve never used this computer before. My buddy just swiped the memory, and I stole it from work, you-know-you-know.
Hah — whatever works. I kinda stole a Moog from work once in upstate New York; from my boss. I still have it.
Where were you working in upstate New York?
Well, it was this local place called Broadway Pizza I worked at while I went to Bard really briefly. I dropped out after a semester-and-a-half, so while all my friends were graduating from college, I was delivering pizza and playing in bands and doing other illicit things [Laughs]. You know, it was a good time. It’s really ideal up there. Nothing fucking happens. It’s all very beautiful. In the winter it gets so goddamn cold everything stops.
Sounds like some dog-daze… minus the dogs.
No. Hell no. I had some cats that lived with us, but they were other people’s cats. We’d end up with a cat for six months and were like, “This cat is pretty cool.” Our roommates were way more destructive than our cats.
[Laughs] NICE! I saw in that video-interview you did there’s a couple dogs in your current living situation. Mine is passed out next to me as we speak.
We do. We got Murphy (the older one) in 2008, I think. We found Murphy on the street chilling around Echo Curio when our friends Silver Pines (Stephanie from Sleep Over and the Pure X guys and Adam from Troller) were playing with us there. And it was the first time I met these guys, and we see this scrawny little pit-bull walking across the street. Grant, who ran the Curio mostly at that point, grabbed him; we were living with Grant, so we brought the dog back to our place and I just fell in love with the fucking dog. I’m not even a dog guy. There’s just something about him.
Dagmar we got a year later from our vet who found the dog on the street, and knew we were suckers, I guess [Laughs]. Murphy was a little bit of trouble when we first got him, and Dagmar is more like his sister now, and that really chills him out a lot. She’s half-Weimaraner and has a really German quality, and she does these Woo-woo-woo noises, so we were like, ‘That’s Dagmar!’
How do your dogs respond to your personal work/music?
Well they get pretty annoyed when I’m working a lot, which means I’m not paying attention to them. But they’re pretty unaware of the music I make, and it’s surprising to me. When we used to have a drum set set-up at the house, Dagmar would just come in and lie down in front of the bass drum while I was playing. And dogs are supposed to be really sensitive to hearing, and we were loud as shit, so it was pretty amazing to me that she didn’t care and just wanted to hang out.
Being “Cooler THAN” seems backward. Like, where does it get anybody? In 20, 30, 50 years, people won’t be talking about what everyone else is doing. That’s why I’d rather just go home and work in isolation.
Is this the same house you’re living in now? Our mutual pal, Barnaby told me about a Green Machines 2? Did you rebuild it?
Well, Catlin and I were in the same place for five-and-a-half years. That was during the original Green Machines, [at] which I had done recordings before then, but when we moved in, Catlin painted it green, so… there you go. But there is where I began recording other people’s music; myself, yes, but also Pocahaunted, Robedoor, etc. Once we moved a little over a year ago, now, it became Green Machines 2. It’s not that far from where we were before, just down the hill, and it’s actually a better setup for recording. Before, we had all my stuff set up in this long, weirdly shaped living room — a sort of half-living room, half-studio space — and then a garage space for loud shit.
I miss living up in the hills, for sure. The thing about L.A. is it’s all about how high you are. Even if it’s a sketchy hill, but you’re on the top of it, you’re doin’ pretty all right [laughs]. We were never on top, but we had really nice views. There were no mountains between us and Long Beach. The guy we rented from was a really good friend of ours, Tim. He’s actually the dude who did the Test Leads cover art and the Personable record, so we’re still always over there, and it’s like we never left.
Personable is you and your brother, right?
No, it’s just me. Just doing more specific stuff under the Personable moniker. There’s just more constraints around it than what I make under my name.
Like DANCING constraints?
YES! Like dancing constraints. It’s gotta be dance music, or it doesn’t count!
I just painted my living room green and the landlords asked, “Why green?” So… Why’d Catlin paint yours green?
With the white trim and the window frames, it looks good; it has a Caribbean feel to it. Everything had this real green tint to it in there. Green is also the color of life. The color of money.
Make it rain Moog, yo. You mention in that video interview you began your adventures with modular synths with Jeremy Kelly (as Voder Deth Squad, or VDS). Where did you two hook up?
Oh shit, man. I think I met Jeremy in 2002. He grew up in that area around Bard. At first, I actually met a friend of his working at this sad and cute and kinda pathetic record store that I’d order stuff at all the time, and they’d never get it. Me and Jeremy and Catlin pretty quickly hit it off. We hung out all the time and played music together a lot for years.
Then when we moved to L.A., my little brother moved around the Hudson, nearer to Jeremy, and started playing music together, so we’ve kept in touch throughout the years and he’s still one of my best friends in the world. And also the guy who opened my mind to how these machines worked and was a guru to me in that sense.
He’s an amazing musician. He hasn’t released much, but when he does it’s really great. I was out in Albany a few months back and usually we play together when we’re on a bill, but this time I had to see him solo since I hadn’t in so long. He has a really unusual setup, so afterward I was quizzing him, like, ‘When did you get THIS and THAT?’ ‘Cause I’d been using the same shit for the past five years and he rips out his new gear and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, man!’ He’s making all these sounds and I know what’s in his case, but have no idea how they’re coming out, which unfortunately is rare in current music.
Well, that’s interesting, I was going to ask: Since listeners can HEAR your mental process, how do you ACTUALLY process all those wires and plugs and switches and knobs in that noggin?
I mean, to ME, I feel like it’s the same way how people would write a song or come up, well — maybe not writing a song is the best analogy here, but how people jam or flesh out tracks is the same sort of process for me. There’s definitely times where it becomes complicated or convoluted and I’ll forget where some things are going, but that’s kind of the fun part.
Like, I’ll leave complicated synth patches on my machine to return to later. Then you don’t touch it for three days, come back, start touching nobs, and some crazy shit starts to happen. Sort of like a new instrument every time you put it together that I’m suddenly working with.
The chance process is such a huge part of it for me. It’s both the player interacting with the machine and how the machine interacts with the player, so it’s always pretty much doing its own thing. If I could have a 20-hour long record, I probably could, ‘cause I’ll just leave it on for days just going on-and-on in my room, and I won’t even touch it for awhile. But it’s like endless music.
In the past, any time we wanted to go anywhere, we would just pay a dude to drive us, since we were under the impression it was potentially dangerous for us to be traveling alone. That changed the more time we spent there, like anywhere else. If you can spot a sketchy situation in New York then you’re probably going to be OK in Jamaica.
And Catlin is fine with this madness happening around the house?
Well, she does music too, so this is all good with her. She works a lot and I’m usually just puttering around the house messing with things. She was a drummer when I first met her, but she plays a little bit of everything. She does currently play with a group I play bass in called Warm Climate.
That’s right, you really rock with Seth K in Warm Climate.
Warm Climate is AMAZING. Seth is an incredible song writer. So it’s super-fun and really challenging ‘cause I play bass in that band, but never have (in a band) before. It’s a crazy experience trying to learn his stuff.
You’ve ALSO played with Sun Araw, Akron/Family, and others throughout the years, how do you see GED in rock n’ roll music opposed to these machines you’re working with around the house?
It’s a weirdly taboo topic these days, isn’t it? There’s not much cross-over in that world. I grew up listening to rock music. I don’t listen to it a lot any more. But playing in other people’s bands has been a big thing I’ve done for awhile, and I enjoy the experience of not having to be entirely responsible for the creative aspect. So it’s nice to be able to work on others’ projects and help them find their personal aesthetic. To me it’s a similar process to mixing or producing a record… like a puzzle.
Especially like Akron/Family, as they have this really refined thing you’re stepping into, and trying to find holes to give them freedom so they can do what they want to do. As well as how you can ADD to the experience. Sitting with them and finding my way was the hardest thing because they’ve been together for so long and understand their own improvisation as schooled musicians, which has been LESS my experience. It’s a different thing, and I’m not as precious about it as I am with my personal work, but it’s an important thing for me to get my creative rocks-off like that. Having different projects is nice because if I get bored with one, I can start thinking or doing something else.
So, back to these machines you’re working with around the house… Are they always set up in a similar way? Like, are they currently set up for Ishi… uhh Ishi? How do you say that?
Oh! I dunno, actually. I’ll figure that out at some point I’m sure. But yeah, I mean, the patch on Ishi was a pretty simple one on the modular side, and a lot of the really psychedelic sounds are being created through external non-modular gear. It’s mostly a Publison box that I have sitting on top of my rack mount. And it’s this cool, early digital delay and pitch shifter, but also kind of a sampler in a weird way because you can grab whatever is in the delay line and holds a start and end point to it, while adding pitch-shifting and vibrato. So I was doing a lot of processing of these simpler, synthesized parts to create bigger, breathing, organic, glitchy textures and tones. Make it sort of bigger than life.
How do you visualize your music as you edit and/or employ sounds that make your music “bigger than life”?
My process is very composed. I try to create a scenario where what I’m playing turns into something, and specifically with Ishi. There’s a lot of keyboard stuff processed externally, and I want to create something that is simple, but expands well. Like, when I sit down at the keyboard, it’s purely improvisational.
Think of that last bit on “Threshold” there’s a reoccurring, uh… it almost sounds like a sample or loop that plays out throughout, and becomes the focus at the end as everything else falls apart. And that was done using Phonogene (by Make Noise Music), which is set up to randomly sample what’s coming out of the keyboard and looping it, so in a way where I’m not actually controlling it when it’s grabbing these loops, or when they cut them up, etc. That sound is just a chance occurrence. I don’t think I could ever make that sound again in a million years, if I tried.
Then I try to take just that one bit and mix it with others in order to bring out emotions in people that I’m interested in having been expressed. It’s also a pretty different process than my usual records, but it’s kinda of a different record for me too.
How do YOU see it differently from your other releases?
Well, Test Leads is an exception, ‘cause it was inspired by playing live, so all the pieces on that were almost all entirely recorded live. But a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on recently &mdash especially some forthcoming records &mdash are on a heavy editing basis, grabbing bits and pieces and turning it into an almost musique concrète sort of thing in the sense of arranging sounds. And keeping focused and patient is hard, so I’ll try and get a lot done fast, then just put it down for a little while and come back to it. It’s just months and months as a process, recording every day.
Now, I also heard you were a master at Pro-Tools…
[Laughs] I mean, I’ve been working with it for awhile, but like, my pal Butchy has been my teacher here, and will just sit me down and do 10 things I’ve never seen before, and I’ll be astonished, ‘How’d you do that? Glad I know now!’ He’s great. Just a journey man sort of musicians, been in tons of groups as a drummer, and I think he was in the Boredoms for the last seven years, I think. And drums for Liars right now. He did drums with us on that Congos thing, too.
The dude is amazing. He throws these insane parties in Californian campsites that are just acoustic, no-power shows and everyone just camps. I went to one a year or so ago and I ate acid, then like Dan Higgs played an hour-and-a-half solo banjo show, and it was just the most, like… I found myself lying and staring at the sky during his set, then looked at him and he was across the campfire just shooting lasers at me from his eyes. And I was like, ‘’You’re the deepest dude I’ve ever met.’ Butchy also does this group called Seeing Trails, which is sort of an excursion group, but he’s a trip. He’s a man of many arrows in his quiver.