Vancouver-based "avant chamber pop" trio Gentle Party are aptly named, but maybe are not as gentle as you might think on first blush. They make beguilingly soothing music, music that is gorgeous, richly-textured, and tuneful, that fills a room with wonderful little sonic details and colours - especially on their second album, God Complex, launching at the Rio on Thursday, April 14th (the day before the long weekend); but it is actually rather kind to listeners. Based on the music alone, you could see someone turning to it for comfort and relaxation, or listening to it on headphones at the end of a long, difficult day. The language of pop music, with its "target" audiences, "hooks," and "hits," tends to be weirdly aggressive, like audiences are fish or other prey, and the artist the fisher, the hunter; but Gentle Party are a bit subtler than such language befits. They still reel you in, but, well - gently, almost so you don't know that you're being caught.
At the suggestion of Rob Frith, of Neptoon Records - who is a big fan of the band - I did the following email interview with Gentle Party - initially reaching out to Meredith Bates, who plays violin, viola and provides various effects and occasional vocals, who I believe is the "I" in the first answer; but I have reason to believe that the answers were given collaboratively (one answer, in a separate email, was signed with an "E," for Elisa Thorn, on "harp and FX," piano, and again, other vocals. Jessicka, the vocalist and occasional pianist, may be in there too!). Treat the answers as coming from a collective entity where possible. I'm in italics, Gentle Party is not.
Allan: The thing that strikes me most about your music is that it actually is fundamentally gentle. Usually a pop song is kind of, um, "melodically aggressive," trying to sink "hooks" in you, aiming for "ear worms." (like I want hooks or worms in my ears!). The songs on God Complex aren't lacking in tunefulness or rhyme, but they're really quite nuanced about it, not trying to overpower the listener... How did you arrive at that approach?
Gentle Party: Hmmm...okay. Well, the first thing that happened while I was reading your questions is the hook from "Black Sheep" started running through my head. It's pretty ear wormy and aggressive. But, other than that, you're probably right...our approach kind of lulls you into listening, but then hits you with the message. We're not really trying for earworms; we're writing what comes to us 100% naturally. We just write what makes sense to us, without really any pop formulas in our heads. I think this becomes most evident in our unconventional form/song structure.
A big thing we center our approach around is generosity - how can we challenge the listener in a way that makes them barely aware they are being taken outside of their boundaries? How can one build a bridge between utilitarian/pop music with avant-garde music without compromising their artistic integrity? Meredith and Elisa are musicians who participate in both of those worlds, our creative efforts centre around trying to push those two worlds closer together with the hope that those two kinds of music (and the listeners) might collide.
There are two specific albums that I reminded of by God Complex - but I bet everyone has their own, "It kind of reminds me of ____." Mine are Hal Willner's Disney Project, Stay Awake - especially the "April Showers" song, after the Ken Nordine bit in the opening medley; and Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak - less for the lyrics or vocals than the music. (I also thought of Meredith Monk and Petra Haden when listening to Jessicka's vocals, but again, I have no idea if that's relevant).
Honestly, our music is super-influenced by our geography... The mountain shadows, the air, the feeling of coming home. We live in such a visually dynamic environment it definitely influences the soundscapes we create. Also the Disney reference is an interesting one as on this record especially there were elements of whimsy we didn’t shy away from. "April Showers" is an absolute triumph of composition.
The three of us span across ten years age wise, and I think had some similarities in influences, and also some big differences! Big influences we all share are Radiohead, Fiona Apple, Debussy, and Satie.
What kinds of classical training do band members have? Are there specific composers that inform your music (I hear different things in different songs - "2 Little 3" seems very Steve Reich in the verses, for example, but most other songs, I don't hear him at all).
Elisa and Meredith trained classically since they were really young. Jessicka did concert band in high school - her musical journey has been informed by her own songwriting and collaborations in the pop/indie world.
On the classical side, we were super influenced by both impressionist and expressionist music. Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. But as we mentioned earlier, tons of non-classical music too. Our first musical loves were Stevie Wonder, TLC, Radiohead, Fiona Apple, the Beatles...
There's a lot of subtle detail in the album's textures - but there's only the three of you in the official lineup. Do you use recordings or effects to provide extra texture or layering, or do you have to rearrange songs considerably for live presentation?
This album, unlike our first, was largely created first as a recording project in the studio, rather than capturing a performance that had already been developed. Because of that, we were able to build up and explore huge sound worlds in the studio with our producer, Chris Gestrin. It's been a fun project now figuring out how to play everything live! We use tracks and trigger samples for many of the songs in live performances to help round out the sound. We also use a lot of live processing with our instruments, so there's really quite a lot going on at all times!
What is "God Complex," the song, about? Both the comment on the "God Complex" video about not separating the artist from his art - a concept I only hear in regard to male artists who have done repugnant things, actually - as well as the video and lyrics for "Unsafe" seem to have a bit of a feminist angle to them...
‘Can you separate the artist from the art?’ has been a question that has come up often in the past few years since the Me Too movement began and the questions of social and moral accountability started developing into what is now called cancel culture. These questions come up a lot on a larger, pop culture scale with artists who have a lot of notoriety, but is just as pertinent on a small scale local level. The song was inspired by a misogynistic person who is celebrated in our arts community, but also refers to the question on a larger scale, as it is all around us.... we believe in art’s ability and function to help people find moments of spirituality, shared humanity, care, and love - therefore, we don’t think it’s morally responsible to separate an artist’s ethics and actions from the art they are creating...