Gabriel Birnbaum (b. 1986, Boston, MA) is a multi-instrumentalist and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has performed on stage or on record with artists such as Sixto Rodriguez, Jens Lekman, DeVotchKa, Akron/Family, Khaira Arby, The One AM Radio, and SKATERS and his projects have shared stages with Deerhoof, Gogol Bordello, Phosphorescent, and J. Tillman. He has performed at Lincoln Center, the Bonnaroo Music Festival, the Kennedy Center, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He is a full time member of the Ethiopian pop ensemble Debo Band (Sub Pop). Wilder Maker is the latest in a series of vessels for his own writing, and has been compared to Bill Callahan, Van Morrison, Bon Iver, The Band, Jandek, Wilco, & Elliott Smith. (From wildermaker.com)
Read below for an interview with Gabriel:
Please describe your path to becoming a musician.
Well, my older brother Adam is a pianist, and he took to it quite young, so I grew up in a house with perpetual music. My mom has stories about taking me to bed as a toddler after I’d been playing with blocks under the piano and hearing me humming the Bach that he’d been practicing. I fought it for awhile, but for whatever reason it’s inescapable for me. I wouldn’t feel whole without it.
In what ways has being Brooklyn-based recently influenced your creative process?
Honestly, I love it here, but my creative process is something that happens 99% in my head and isn’t much contingent on where I live. In Brooklyn, you Meet People, but I’m too shy to take much advantage of that. For example: yesterday I was at work, tending bar at a craft beer place. It was totally empty and one guy came in and ordered a beer and sat at the bar (potentially a sign that he wanted to chat). I couldn’t read him decisively though, so I waited. Eventually I made a joke about a saxophone solo in a Creedence song that was playing, and he responded well so we talked for a while, mostly about Michigan and Bell’s beer. At some point, in a lull, I was like, so what do you do here? And I saw him pause (he already knew I was a musician) and then he said, “I book a music festival.”
“Oh. Which one?”
And then I felt totally self-conscious. Because he had access to something that would be immensely helpful to me, and he knew it, and now I knew it, and anything friendly I said would now be layered with that power-imbalance, would feel like scheming. So I turned the subject back to Michigan, and when someone else came in to get a drink he politely waved goodbye and stepped out. People who get a lot out of being here are able to turn those situations into contacts, but I just…it doesn’t feel right.
One Brooklyn-related thing is that I’ve gotten less sensitive about my writing environment. There’s not much peace and quiet here. I write in the living room of my apartment a lot, with people walking in and out, cooking, chatting. It used to be that something like that would scatter my mood instantly, but I’ve gotten tougher about it. I even wrote songs in the backseat of my van while I was apartmentless for a bit. There are also a lot of wonderful bands here, but most of them make music that’s pretty different from mine, and though I love going to see them I don’t find myself directly taking too much from them. I’m just a fan.
In your experience, what are some of the biggest differences between New York City and New England
I’ve only lived in Boston as far as New England goes, so I’ll have to substitute that. In terms of music people, NYC draws extremely ambitious folks. Often they’re very talented, but they’re also very competitive and are usually overly concerned with status. The city’s rock music culture encourages a lot of quick flame-ups and equally quick disappearances, much like online culture. NYC, being so geographically compressed, also gives you a proximity to celebrity and wealth that has a strange effect on artists. The Boston people I knew were a lot mellower. There was less of a frantic feeling there, less mad rushing around. Things seemed more stable, but also less like they were going somewhere big. I think Boston has gotten over this since I left (actually I think it’s a national issue, and internet domination of press has made it so being in NYC is no longer a romantic or practical ideal), but when I was there the city had a big chip on its shoulder about how no one ever made it out and succeeded. True or not, I think it had a negative impact on how it felt to operate there.
In general, people in Boston are shyer and less likely to strike up conversation in public or stare you down. New Yorkers will be astonishingly antagonistic to strangers, and after you live here for a few years you find yourself doing it too. Yikes.
How have your personal identities influenced your music?
Songwriting is a good way to explore elements of your personality and give them full voice without repercussion. Often the interesting parts of that to me are the elements that are unsavory, violent, lustful, vicious, but I’m still a little cowardly about letting them run wild. I’m working on it. People see me as a nice, smart, quiet, thoughtful person, which is true, but we all have devils in us and denying their existence is dangerous. Songwriting is a good way to explore those feelings, which are real and also sometimes need to be tapped in real life.
At the same time, I’m the kind of person who thinks about everything too much, sees both sides even when I’m most hurt or angry, so a lot of my favorite moments in songs are moments where I think I’ve managed to capture the pure ambiguity of a situation. Words make things sound definite, but they lie. Most pure feelings are combinations of contradictory elements. For example, wanting an old lover back, someone who’s wronged you. The dominant element is idealizing that person, romanticizing them, longing for them, but that longing would be incomplete without including a tinge of hatred of them for hurting you, shame at your own doglike loyalty to them, fear and vulnerability at the power-imbalance. The more of those things you can hint at, the more powerful the song.
James Reed, a reviewer for the Boston Globe, has depicted Wilder Maker’s music as an amalgam of experimental jazz, rock, pop, and folk. How would you characterize the band’s styles?
I try not to. Thankfully that’s the critic’s job. I accept what they say. It’s no longer a point of pride to me to be “uncategorizable” but I also have no interest in setting mental boundaries for myself. If I want to write a yacht rock jam or a 30 minute instrumental or an R&B ballad I want to feel free to try.
What have been your stylistic influences?
Anything and everything. In the last week I’ve listened to a lot of Marvin Gaye, The Walkmen, Damien Jurado, Richard & Linda Thompson, Bill Callahan, The Mountain Goats, Ahmad Jamal. I also read a ton, and constantly take notes on things I want to steal from. My latest theft targets (bands/authors) are San Fermin, Archibald McLeish, DeTocqueville, Shakespeare, Porches, Fleetwood Mac. Whenever something moves me a lot I go back to it and try to take it apart and figure out why it got me, then I steal those isolated elements, which are usually not traceable. Even if the whole process is nonsense and I’m totally wrong about why these things work, it still gives me ideas, so it works for me.
I’m basically a sucker. Things make me cry all the time, sometimes just because they’re so beautiful. I know that makes me sound like a thirteen year old, and am well aware that it is hilarious, but it’s true too. The other day I was in the Philly airport waiting to switch planes. I got hit with a really strong feeling/idea, and wound up writing lyrics on a boarding pass and silently crying because I was so moved while the lady selling cell phone accessories gave me the side eye. This is my life. Ha!
In what ways are Wilder Maker’s music and message feminist?
I don’t know if they are. I don’t have a message intentionally, except to bring to mind various glimmers of meaning I see in the world. I think any attempt to project a specific message in writing falls flat. I just let things happen. I identify as a feminist personally, but I don’t really talk about it. I have an inherent distrust of men who make a public fuss about identifying as feminists, because I feel like it’s often just done to try and earn the trust of women in a sort of sleazy way.
You have described “God Bless The Hunger (GbtH)”, Wilder Maker’s previous record, as “a little like listening to a mashup of Dongs Of Sevotion and Love Cry.” Can you say more about that? 🙂
That’s from a music blog called My Old Kentucky Blog. I like it because someone caught the two primary elements of that record that I was trying to synthesize, smart songwriter music like Bill Callahan’s and then wild, fiery improvised music like Albert Ayler’s. It’s always really nice when it feels like someone gets it!
How do you see the differences between ‘God Bless the Hunger” and “Year of Endless Light,” your latest record?
The main difference is that GBtH sounds like (and mostly is) a band in a room record. The rhythm section tracks were all done live in one day, same for the horn section. All the songs, with the exception of “Only Sweetness,” have the same basic sounds, and the difference is only in the tempo, arrangement, melody. With YoEL, I wanted to try and produce the record a little more, get different vocal sounds for each song, incorporate found sounds, unidentifiable things that would give the record more atmosphere. “Hangs Hooks” is a good example of that. We made a field recording of a windy Medford, MA at 5 AM, while I stood with a boom box on an extension cord on the other side of the building from the mics, and played a cassette tape of some 1940s jazz compilation I found laying around. I’d like to go further in that direction next time.
The title of “Endless Light” has been described as reflecting the gravity of the topics with a positive perspective on music. I can totally hear that combination on the album. What was it like making it?
To be honest, I was going through an enormous amount of turmoil almost the whole time. There are two vocal takes on that record that I did in a complete pit of depression, where I couldn’t understand why I was making the record or singing any of the words. I know which songs they are but I’ll never tell. You can’t really hear it on the album. The title is actually an ironic joke about how dark the subject matter is. The lyric it originally came from was “some days I wish I was a year of endless light.” At the same time, though, I always look for transcendence. Occasional despair can be poignant but its very rare that a whole LP of it is worth listening to. I came out of the whole period having grown up a lot, even though I laid ruin a lot of beautiful things in my life on my way there, things that may never come back. This is what we do. We think we understand, and then we look back and realize we didn’t understand at all.
Uh, on a lighter note, the album was made at The Soul Shop in Medford, MA, which is my favorite studio in the world, so it was a great comfort to be able to work there, even if I wasn’t fully myself at the time.
One of my favorite Wilder Maker songs is “Song for the Singer.” What does this song mean to you?
I tend to shy away from explaining what the songs are about because I think it makes it harder for people to identify with them. In part, it’s about having a tryst, feeling used, and then both liking and not liking that feeling. It’s also about being an artist and the delicate line between that and being a crazy person.
The harmonizing on the record is really nice. How do you feel music can be gendered?
Thanks! I feel like music is always gendered because it reflects our world. I’m trying to expand Katie’s vocal role in the band because often she winds up playing a pretty traditional “lady backup singer” role, and she’s a great singer who could be doing a lot more in the band. I still want to write all the music for Wilder Maker, because that’s why I started this in the first place and that’s what I love doing, but I think as we all work towards a more collaborative arranging/finalizing process her role (vocally and instrumentally) will naturally get more interesting. Also, 99% percent of my songs are about romantic relationships between men and women, so it’s useful to have access to male and female voices.
One more thought – I tend to switch the genders in my songs so that the narrator is always male. Some of the songs take from personal experiences where I was the “I”, some from perceptions I imagine other people had of me (where I was the “you”), and most are a mixture of all that. But, unless you have a really good reason, I think it’s distracting to have a male singer singing words that issue from a female character. It’s sort of a red herring.
What is your reaction to the latest “new folk” movement featuring such bands as “Mumford & Sons,” “The Lumineers”, and “the Head and the Heart?” Do you feel a kinship with any groups in this genre?
Nah. They don’t bother me, but I feel kinship pretty selectively. I think we do completely different things.
Where can folks hear and/or see Wilder Maker next?
We’re playing at the Cake Shop in NYC on Jan 9th with Miniboone. And then I’ll be going on a solo tour out to a songwriting residency I’m doing in Michigan, which will include shows on 2.3 at Acoustic Music Works in Pittsburgh, PA, and MOTR pub on 2.5 in Cincinnati, OH. We’re also stepping into the studio twice in January, so we should have a lot of new material ready in the near future.
On what projects are you working?
I’ve been getting into doing production/arranging work for friends lately. I did an arrangement of a song by my pal Sean McMahon, who goes by Workman Song, that’ll be out soon, and am planning on helping another friend Nathan Reich with an upcoming LP. I also play saxophone in an Ethiopian pop band called Debo Band, and write for them on occasion. Mostly all I’m doing at the moment is working on new Wilder Maker songs. I’ve been trying to work for a solid 3-4 hours each morning on writing and the results have been really great so far.
What feedback do you have for aspiring musicians?
Get comfortable with the label “aspiring.” I still put myself in that category. Actually, one time John Darnielle gave me the best advice anyone ever gave me, when I was kinda whining/freaking out about how difficult it was to be a musician. He said – get good at the business part of this, no matter how much you hate it. Be your own manager, booking agent, PR, label (not necessarily forever, but know how to do all those things, learn them all). In the end if it works you will be able to build an entire career that will be under your control, and that is the best possible outcome if you want to really do this.
I made spreadsheets upon spreadsheets and spend weeks putting in 6-8 hour days online while doing PR for this record. The main thing I learned is that if you’re nice and work your ass off you can get the things you complain about other people lucking/charming their way into. Yeah, it’s easier for someone to “discover” you and do the work, but it’s so empowering to realize you don’t need that. It’s also empowering to be really methodical about it, because it takes away the sting of someone not like the precious output of your soul. It becomes a separate job from writing songs, which is really liberating because writing is the part that rules.