"I'm Doing My Best to Make It Unrelatable": An Interview with Gauntlet Hair

Wowing the world with their early singles and crafting a sound that mixes radio-ready beats with abstract guitar sounds, Gauntlet Hair retreated to their grandma's empty house to record one of the most forward-looking rock albums in some time ...

Gauntlet Hair

Gauntlet Hair

US Release: 2011-10-18
Label: Dead Oceans
UK Release: 2011-10-17
Artist Website
Label Website

The first thing you notice about Gauntlet Hair's music is their sound.

This might seem innocuous to say about an audio art form, but they're one of those bands that don't just make sound, they have a sound. The vocals are so drenched in reverb and poor elocution that they grow into this amorphous blur of voice meant to complement the instrumentation not vice versa. The drumming is sparse and digitally augmented yet punk in its drive and hip-hop in its fat beat. And then there is that guitar tone, it's truly something to behold; where U2's The Edge maintains a full-time two person staff just for pedal-board upkeep (this is not true but surely sounds true), GH guitarist, Andy R., is able to create something otherworldly yet still this-wordly with an intentionally anemic set of effects. Take these ingredients and stir in the fact that Andy and drummer, Craig Nice, have been playing music together since the age of 15 and you wind up with what can only be described as Gauntlet Hair.

This sound garnered them some serious buzz on the back of some seriously dynamic singles, "I Was Thinking…" and "Out, Don't…". In mid-October, the Denver by way of Chicago duo's self-titled debut came out on Dead Oceans, with likely indie stardom to follow. In sitting down with PopMatters, this dynamic duo spoke to us about recording their debut album in Andy's grandmother's house, the joys of being a duo, and the ins and outs of their unique, hard-to-define sound ...

* * *

Can you talk about the recording of the record? How did you wind up using Andy's grandmothers house?

AR: Initially, we were trying to record the album at our house. At the time, our place had developed this sort of open door policy where whoever felt like swinging by at any hour, day or night, did so. Trying to record an album when you have about 20 people coming and going as they please can be a bit distracting, and in turn, our recordings started reflecting that. So I decided that the only way we could find some focus was to completely disconnect -- what better than my G-ma's house out in the middle of a field a thousand miles away? So we packed up our shit and U-hauled it over there. We immediately found some clarity in our writing and scrapped most of our previous ideas

and demos. It was a bit eerie being there -- it was just so fucking quiet -- but that was good because it spun our way of thinking. Before we knew it, the album was pretty much written. It took about two weeks. Thanks, Grandma.

Did releasing singles, and the acclaim they received, ahead of time make putting out a full length any less stressful?

Both: Releasing 7"s beforehand definitely made it less stressful. At least, if the album bombed, we'd still have some legit earlier tracks.

With the album being recorded so quickly. Do you think this brought an overall

urgency to the album?

CN: The actual recording process didn't feel rushed to me. There was a sense of urgency on the drive to Chicago, but I think that was just our nerves. We didn't know what to expect. A month doesn't seem like a long time, but I think we were both surprised at how fast we were banging out tracks. I will say though, it'd be nice to take it easy and have a few months to record next time.

Is there anything you would have done or were thinking about doing if you had more time?

CN: Always. After you listen to your songs about a million times, you start to hear just as many "mistakes". Personally, I wish we could have had the opportunity to play the new songs live before we recorded them. Since we've been jamming them lately I've changed a lot of parts for the better. It's just easier to build on a track the more comfortable you become with it.

AR: If I had more time ... even a week, I would have changed everything on my end. That's really what happened while recording. We got about a week in and then Craig had to go up to NY for a while. During that time I rewrote most of my parts and edited the majority of the album differently. If I allow myself too much time, nothing gets done. I have to have a time limit or the writing will just perpetually change.

You guys have been playing together since you were 15. How has that relationship affected both how you play your instruments and the music you listen to? Has it been a constant back and forth of music discovery?

CN: I think playing together for so long has made us musically inseparable. We've both jammed with other people, but it's never quite the same. I guess that's to be expected. As far as music discovery: Yeah. It's pretty much back and forth. Although, lately, it has been a bit stagnant for us as far as that goes ...

AR: Yeah, Craig and I have developed that sort of telepathic understanding that most musicians achieve after years of playing together. I couldn't imagine writing with anyone else. If I did, they certainly wouldn't be a drummer. I agree with Craig on the stagnation of our musical discovery too. Personally, I haven't really listened to anything new in about 6 or 7 months. I don't know if it's the fear of being too heavily influenced or just the fact that not much is interesting me these days. Regardless, its difficult to maintain inspiration when nothing is affecting you. Maybe that's a good thing though, because we are finding more obscure ways of acquiring it.

Do you think your current sound tells the story of the various types of bands you were in together over the years?

CN: Our sound definitely tells the story of our past. There's a little bit of Robot Resistance [their first band] in every track.

AR: Yeah, however insignificant the influence, that grindcore still seeps.

At times, do you still thinks of yourselves as that high school grindcore band in the way you approach songwriting or your live shows?

CN: Haha, that's a good question. I don't know about Andy but, Yes. I definitely feel that way sometimes.

AR: Absolutely. That energy will always creep up during shows.

Do you ever look at other duos? Partly, in regard to how they're able to make a full sound with just two people but also in how they maintain their friendships.

CN: Yeah, I'm always curious to see how other two-pieces do it, i.e. Hella, Lighting Bolt, No Age. The fact of the matter is: all those bands, including Gauntlet Hair, are going for very different sounds. Some smaller bands are going for a much more minimal sound, so it works out for them. I don't think were one of those bands ... not right now anyways. The hardest thing for us has always been trying to sound "bigger" than just a two-piece.

Andy, the thing that smacked me in the face when I first heard you guys was that guitar tone. You don't have to give up your secret recipe, but was there an idea behind it? How did you know you had something special?

AR: That tone took a lot of developing. Just like our music in general, it is a culmination of all phases. I think it was about a year ago that I realized I had reached the point where I could say, "If I only had a guitar to express myself, I could do it." It's tiring, though. I am a bit fed up and uninspired by it lately. If any instrument in the world has been played to its furthest extent, it's the guitar. But I have this affinity for it. It's the fundamental. I'm sure it will always have an involvement in my writing. And no, I will not disclose my secret recipe.

Beyond that interesting tone, why I find it so compelling is its able to be loud with out relying on distortion. Was this an explicit goal?

AR: Absolutely. I crave depth with the guitar. I know that it doesn't seem that way when listening to Gauntlet Hair, but I feel it, it's there, just in a different sense. Distortion has its place and I do use it, sparingly, but I find that it hinders my ability to create the more foreign sounding tones that I'm trying to achieve. I'm doing my best to make it unrelatable.

Craig, similarly, the drumming is propulsive and has this momentum without you necessary playing very fast. Was this an objective for you? How do you think you were able to achieve this?

CN: That's definitely my main objective. I like playing hard but I don't like confusing people. I hate drummers that are overly concerned about playing ridiculous fills or really fast or whatever ... I enjoy playing comprehensive beats in a (hopefully) more interesting way.

Craig, you've mentioned a Beyoncé influence in reference to the thumping beat sound of the drums. How did you capture this?

CN: I captured this by listening to 95.7 "The Party" every day for about a year. I just love those simple heavy beats. Everyone does! Right?

With both of your instrumentation, there is a use of technology, be it pedals or digital beats, but its used with a light touch. Is this a reflection of your punk roots or a certain ideal of song craftsmanship?

CN: Definitely trying to stay true to my punk roots. Even though we have the digital beats, I still play them live ... with my own hands and feet. I never wanted to be a band with a table full of samplers. Andy and I have always been into electronic music of sorts ... like Aphex Twin, for example, but I always wanted to watch a real drummer play that shit. It's way more exciting. I love that we have both.

AR: Agreed.

Andy, what was the intention with the deeply reverbed vocals? By the nature of how the vocals are produced, it's hard to decipher many specific lyrics. Were you hoping to have the songs be a bit ambiguous and abstract?

AR: Yes, and as I have said before, the lyrics need not concern the listeners, they are for and about Craig and I. The vocals themselves are predominantly used to aid the music like another instrument anyways. But still, the effect itself yields a whole other creative platform for writing. A lot of the parts I have written were conjured by it.

Lastly, I'm sure you will be touring around this record. Do you guys enjoy playing live?

CN: Playing live is the ultimate drug. It's the greatest feeling ever. I mean that. I could definitely give up everything else before turning my back on playing shows. Watching me play drums live is proof of that. As far as the other members...We haven't toured with Nathan yet. Just played our first live show with him this week, actually. But I'd say it definitely makes it more fun. Those kids are just as silly as Andy and I. Can't wait to get on the road with them. It's gonna be fantastic.

AR: Oh yeah, tour is going to be a blast, and I can definitely relate to the "ultimate drug" reference. It seems like nothing can satisfy as much as playing live.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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