"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 ...
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 ...
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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.
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.