Monday, April 11, 2022

Gentle Party: Of Generosity, Collaboration, and Shaking a Fist at the Patriarchy

Gentle Party by Stewart Campillo

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! 

I noticed that Chris also plays on the album and is prominent in the credits, even moreso than on Jouska, but isn't a part of the band... how did you connect with him, how important is he in the conception of what you do? Will he be onstage with you? It seems like there are a few overlapping people here, like there is a cluster of other artists who have ties to you - Eva Dominelli also does art for Andromeda Monk, for example. Anyone else who is "almost" a member, who has a particularly close relationship to the band? Do you all have some common background or other connections besides your music?

Chris is our Nigel Godrich. He plays a huge role in developing the sound and is integral to the recording process. He also puts out our albums on his record indie label Phonometrograph. He also works with Elisa and Meredith on many of their other projects, so he has a close relationship with their artistic voice, style and sound. Chris is an integral part of so many artists’ voices here in Vancouver! We are so lucky to have him. 

Vancouver is a tiny 'big' city, so we get to benefit from having a tight knit arts community, with lots of overlap across disciplines. We know Eva from the indie/DIY scene, of which Andromeda Monk is a part, too. We also get to play with Andromeda often through the jazz improv scene here in town. But, basically, after a while, everyone knows everyone (to reference another Vancouver avant-indie band!), or that's how it feels at least! It's really nice to get to build and develop artistic friendships with these people over time.

God Complex has a strikingly weird cover (relating to an equally weird video!). What media is Eve's original? Was it a completed work of hers that you asked to use, or was it commissioned for the cover? (If so, did you give her direction or the album title, or...?). Did it come before or after or from the video, and what's going on in it, exactly....? (The black hand at the end seems kind of scary). 

We love Eva's artwork. She also created the cover for our first album, Jouska. We were inspired by a different piece of artwork of Eva's, an amorphous blob with multiple limbs coming out of it, that really resonated with the themes in our album. So when discussing the direction to take with this album's art, we used that as a launching pad to build on. When she made the art for the album, we knew it would be called God Complex and had lots of themes and concepts for her to develop her visual ideas from. She is the one who originally suggested creating some kind of animation based off the album art, and we were lucky enough to get funding to actually create an entire music video that brought to life the album art for the title track, "God Complex." She matched the tone of the song beautifully, and the images she created for the video truly blew our minds. It’s really special to collaborate with her, we feel that she certainly elevates the entire project.

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...

We’re very unabashedly shaking a fist at the patriarchy. We actually strive to smash it entirely. "Unsafe" was inspired by wanting Brock Turner to feel everything Channel Miller must have. But even if he did he still wouldn’t understand the depth of it because he’s a cis white male living with enormous privilege. It also is an ode to witches, women punished in absolutely horrific ways, sometimes over simply a suspicion. God Complex is putting a magnifying glass on certain people in our own music community. We didn't sit down and decide on any overarching themes for the record, but 'smash the patriarchy' is definitely one that emerged naturally from our own life experiences and stories we have to tell. 

I was grateful for the lyrics on the "Unsafe" video, because I'm otherwise inclined just to take them as part of the music.Why no lyric booklet with the albums? 

We would've loved to have printed a lyric booklet with the albums, but it's just too expensive! We're super grateful for the funding we received for the album (thank you Canada Council, FACTOR, and CreativeBC) - but we definitely had to be smart about how to allocate our funds, prioritize the music, and make decisions about what we could and couldn't afford. You’ll find lyrics to both "Unsafe" and "God Complex" accompanying the videos on our YouTube Channel.
Another difference I notice between Jouska and God Complex is that you  have one fewer member. What happened to Shanto Acharia? Will you have a cellist onstage? (perhaps Peggy? (Are you looking for a fulltime cellist?). 

Shanto left the band a few years ago after we came to a consensus that we were moving in different musical directions. Without him, the cello as a consistent backbone for our sound was gone, which led us to experimenting in the studio around how to process and layer the harp and violin to create something really big. 

There were a couple of tunes where we still really wanted the interaction between cello and violin, so it was a no brainer to call up Peggy Lee, who is one of our favourite musicians in town and truly such a gift to have in Vancouver. Peggy is back and forth between Melbourne and Vancouver these days, so we are so excited to have a long-time friend and colleague of Meredith’s, cellist Shin-Jung Nam, joining us at The Rio for our release show!

Rob Frith seems to be a huge fan of your music - how did you connect with him? Any history there?

The first time we met Rob was when we opened Just a Season's album release at The Wise Hall a few years back. It was a really wonderful, special show and we became fast friends! He’s a great guy. It’s really nice how supportive he is, not only to us, but to so many artists across different music scenes in Vancouver! 

He's got pretty good taste in music, too! Anything else we should say about the Rio concert, or other upcoming events? 

Tickets are available for the April 14th album release on The Rio website. We’ve got several shows booked throughout the Summer around BC, so stay tuned!

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