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On Otherness, Grayson Gilmour surrenders to the chaos – ‘in a good way’

Simon Day talks to Grayson Gilmour about spatialised audio, his Silver Scroll nomination, and new album, Otherness.

Grayson Gilmour has been recording music since he was a teenager, but it has taken the arrival of his 30s for him to make peace with the direction of his career. On his eighth solo album, Otherness, released last week on Flying Nun, the Wellington based multi-instrumentalist has a sense of artistic self-assuredness, a confidence Gilmour says has come with growing up. “I think after I got to the end of my 20s I felt really comfortable, these are all decisions I made for a reason, and they are right, and I am okay with everything,” he says.  

Gilmour’s attic in Mt Victoria is full of his vast collection of instruments, synthesizers and drum machines. He pieced the album together from musical ideas that slowly grew over years, often born from an unconventional use of one those instruments. The layers of Otherness are thick quilts of dense keyboards, deep percussion, and harmonic strings, his voice a final sheet.

The album’s surrounding artistic offering sees Gilmour desperate not be constrained by traditional perceptions of music and art. The first single was accompanied by a 360 experiential music video and there is another to follow. He wants to change the way music is heard through sonic landscapes, he says, and is fascinated by what the internet and technology will do to the way music is consumed. “I am really intrigued by where music is going in the future and why music videos and the album format is still a consistent medium for releasing music.”

But our conversation started on a much more traditional imagining of music, in a high school band a long time ago in Palmerston North.

The first time I ever heard your music was the organ solo on Buster Keatin’, ‘Coming Down’ [an early-2000s teenage ska band in Palmerston North]. It’s really interesting how many articles refer back to Palmerston North and your origins there. How relevant Palmy is to you, and how does place shape you as an artist?

I left high school at 17, so I effectively left Palmerston North when I was 17, so I’ve been away just less than half my life. It still has relevance today to me as an artist because I learnt a lot of things in Palmerston North that taught me attitudes and ethics around the way that operate as artist now days. That very DIY, independent attitude, a community focus. That scene around The Stomach, the all ages music scene, and the music community, was a really vital part of my musical upbringing. I can’t imagine how I would have turned out if I wasn’t exposed to that kind of culture at that age, especially in a land locked city like Palmerston North where it is very boy racer, and sports focused. The music and the arts and cultures are definitely on the fringe of society there. But it meant that the people who were into that stuff were truly into it, and didn’t mind the isolation.  

I think we have a mutual friend from your journey through Wellington, Nick Ashby lived in the Garrett St flat with a number of the So So Modern members.

Garrett St is kind of an infamous street in Wellington for this flat. They were maybe the people that set that place up. It was a three story building with the roof you could walk out on. At that time it was just Global Fabrics at the bottom, and empty floor in the middle and then a top storey, where a whole cohort of people were living there because there must have been like eight rooms.

That was an amazing space. I lived next to them on Garrett St in one of the most divey places I have ever lived. It was awesome, don’t get me wrong. I loved it. It was one of those little oddly forgotten in time houses, it was like a settler’s house in the middle of town. That place eventually got taken over by homeless people. All kinds of chaos reigned there.

Next door that was where we started So So Modern. We would practice in the living room, or even take over the empty floor downstairs to go and do rehearsals. Those sort of spaces are hard to come by nowadays, and I feel really lucky that there was that space available in downtown Wellington to get together and make music like that.

GRAYSON GILMOUR (PHOTO: HOLLY BEALS)

I found the title of the album really interesting. How much does “otherness” represent a feeling of exclusion or isolation?

Exclusion, or isolation, maybe gives a slightly negative connotation. For me, otherness is a word and a concept that drove some of this album, that is a more positive affirmation.

When things had died down with the band and I was exploring ideas for this record, I was always obsessed with the idea of making something that is particular to me, and what do I have to add to the musical landscape. I still struggle to answer that question and I am still trying to find out what that is. But it is a point of difference, and a change of perspective, a really subtle driving force that’s continually in my process.   

At a certain point, basically when I turned 30, a lot of my anxiety through my 20s [disappeared]. Being a freelance musician and just trying to find your way in that side of life, there is not much to hold on to. When you are trying to figure things out for yourself as an artist through your 20s it is a pretty turbulent time. I think after I got to the end of my 20s I felt really comfortable: these are all decisions I made for a reason, and they are right, and I am OK with everything.

In a way, I am surrendering to the chaos that my life is, in a good way. I have flipped the perspective and this is the life I chose and it is great. I love it. In a roundabout way this album and its concepts were a way of seeing things differently, finding beauty in the chaos, and surrendering to all of that stuff. And very much trying to go for a more positive outlook.

I think there is a lot of myth around turning 30, and you are meant to feel afraid of getting older, but I’ve just turned 32 and I finally feel like I have direction, I have awareness of who I am.

I can totally relate to that. You know who you are and you know what you are doing. That’s the really funny thing about being an artist you make public that whole process.

For me my last album was peak existentialist, I was like ‘what am I doing?’ I was super obsessed with the infinite potential with anything I could be doing, and just getting pretty weird and cosmic on it.

That still fascinates me, but I am so much more focused now, and content with my ideas. Things just fall into place in a way. You have that subtle confidence with letting go of that anxiety.

Thinking about that concept of a ‘solo artist’ again, what is your process to making music? Otherness has so many layers, do you touch every one of those layers? Or do you have people coming in and contributing?

It is pretty much all me. I have Cory Champion playing drums and I got a string quartet in to play all the string parts.

I just slowly just evolve these tracks over years. They are ideas that took that long to come to fruition. I always like to work around happy accidents. Building tracks out of strange noises or taking different approaches to starting writing songs. I got a secondhand drum machine a few years ago and I just started making lots of weird noise on it, definitely not how it was intended to be used. But I found that really inspiring because when you start exposing your creative process to things that are foreign to it you will find yourself firing off in all kinds of different directions. And I think that is really important because I don’t want to be stuck just playing guitar strumming through the chords I know.

So a lot of tracks from this album are born of me improvising around drum machines and making all sorts of weird textural noise. I was really fascinated with merging a number of qualities, really punctual rhythmic material, really blurry and woozy harmonic stuff, and quite bright strings, and my vocals on the top. I definitely had a sound in mind throughout pulling these tracks together.

I found the album very visceral. I found myself enveloped inside the music.

It is in that pop framework, and you could throw a singer songwriter tag at it. So it kind of has to have that immediacy to it. What I like really like to do with my songwriting is give it that immediacy, but all these real subtle subconscious layers that perhaps don’t reveal themselves until more listens.

One of the ways I got there was by creating this weird, soupy mid range. There are maybe two songs where I actively strum the guitar. Or just one song where I play piano chords pretty straight. That’s because I was really drawing out the attack of those notes, and making them a swirling, ebbing and flowing harmonic thing, which is that enveloping sound.

I became obsessed with different ways to present a chord progression. The idea of there being a really implied chord structure, and the way you imply it is by looping notes of the chords, or swelling them, or looping them in and out. Enveloping, that is definitely the word for it.

How important is it that your music is a complete piece of work? The 360 music video is something really different and innovative, and Henrietta Harris has provided artwork again. How much do you think about all those parts that make an album?

I definitely think about it a lot. For me, I love continuity between all aspects of a project, between the music and the art and how it is visually represented.

I am so lucky that I can call on Henrietta and ask: ‘what do you think of this, do you want to do another series of paintings for this series of songs I am going to work on?’ That whole thing really needs to come together for me to feel like the project has come to fruition.

Going back to the idea of otherness, I don’t want to be pessimistic about music videos and traditional music video narratives, but I am really far more excited about – even if 360 technology is a bit clumsy – exploring that stuff and letting the listener of the viewer interact with my song how they see fit. And opening that level of engagement up with people really drove how I wanted to represent the music video side. I have another 360 one that is coming out. It is done by a team of animators in Taipei. Which is cool again, throwing it out there and letting people move around an immersive world of abstract visuals.

I am really intrigued by where music is going in the future and why music videos and the album format is still a consistent medium for releasing music. I really wonder what the internet generation will expect of music in the future. It is an open game now.

That is why I went about making a weird sampler for the album, it is just opening out that level of engagement for people if they want to go online and tap around and play samples of my album they can do that.

People always ask: ‘can you monetise that? Is there any source of income from that?’ And I am like ‘Nah, not really’. But what I am more excited about is just engaging with people in a new way. I love the album, but maybe it is a bit of nostalgia, a bit of an artistic statement – ‘This is my album’. I wonder how long it will stick around for?

How do you translate that into another traditional place like a live concert? How long before you are handing out VR headsets at your shows?

I haven’t explored that territory just yet. But I tried to get VR at my show at the Christchurch Art Gallery, we doubled it up with the release of that video. Something that I am working on at the moment is writing music in the spatialised audio context.

What does that mean?

That means that you walk around that musical, sonic environment. The technology is just teething at the moment. For me, it is an evolution of sound installations where people have set up a room of speakers, or they have speakers that are moving. The next step beyond that is to put a pair of headphones on and walk around a room immersed in a musical landscape.

This is leading me where I might be going next which is exploring sound installations. I needed a platform to explore that with, and that has been this album, I did spatial audio mixes for these 360 tracks and it’s opened my mind up to ask why do we just listen to music on our laptops or our stereo’s two speakers? Maybe there are more ways that I can engage with people as a composer.

GILMOUR’S ‘OTHERNESS’ STORYBOARD

That reminds me of the storyboard of your album making process. How do you translate those diagrams and notes into music?

I always have ideas on the go, so that giant mind map storyboard of the album is a way for me to visually keep on track of how ideas are evolving and how ideas are coming together. Putting an album together is just like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You shuffle things around and it is a matter of clicking them into place. That is what I get when I maintain a giant mind map like that. I start seeing that part relates to this part, and I will draw a big arrow, and questions mark it to go back to later. It is like a piece of art in itself that evolves with the recording and songwriting process. I definitely like working visually. It might look like a total maelstrom to someone just looking at it for the first time, but when I look at it, it makes complete sense.

‘Hundred Waters’ was announced last week as a short-listed nominee for the Silver Scroll. How important are accolades and recognition like that?

A lot of the time you think you are making music because it is what you do and you are doing it for your own artistic fulfillment, and your own personal drive. I find it quite flattering, and it’s hard to deny that it is a nice feeling. When you see your name pop up it’s cool – people are listening and they appreciate what I am doing. That’s not something that I ever set out to get out of my music, but there is no denying it is an awesome feeling. It’s a real honour to be included in stuff like that.

I don’t want to make my parents sound like they don’t get it, but when you get a shoulder tap for an award all of a sudden it crosses over into a realm where they understand what you are doing with your life: ‘I get it! It’s a competition, you’re in the running for something, I am so proud of you, it’s awesome.’ Haha. It definitely ticks a box in that regard.

You are always looking for ways to prove yourself to your creators. It’s my dad’s birthday on the day of the awards, so if I get in the top five we’re doing it.


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