Alone with His 'Afterthoughts': An Interview with Nosound's Giancarlo Erra
Nosound mastermind Giancarlo Erra discusses his music, inspirations, and method of melancholic creation and direction.
Formed and still lead by Giancarlo Erra in 2002, progressive rock quintet Nosound prides itself as a project that mixes “70s psychedelia, '80s/'90s ambient, and contemporary alternative, progressive, and post rock” into a unique output. Their newest LP, Afterthoughts, finds the band perfecting its blend of melancholic songwriting and inventive production, resulting in their greatest release yet. I recently spoke with Erra about the autobiographical nature of his music, his process for writing and recording, and other related topics.
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The music on Afterthoughts is fairly sorrowful and regretful. Is this a reflection of your own heartache or do you capture feelings that you don’t necessarily feel? How autobiographical is the album?
All of the lyrics I write and sing come from my own life and feelings; I don’t really like writing about something invented or something experienced by someone else. That is also why I wanted and needed to wait a few years after the previous studio album, A Sense of Loss, that was very deep and personal. I know there’s lot of good music and lyrics (not necessarily autobiographical), but I just think they are not as beautiful and honest as the autobiographical ones, and when it’s about music (and most of all, my own music) I don’t accept compromises. I write music for myself; it’s cathartic for me. It’s the only way I know to take out feelings like sadness, regret, and melancholy and admit them to myself in one way or another to deal with them. As I always say, it’s when I admire the magic of music -- through it I can transform something negative and heavy into something beautiful, and something to share and connect with others as well.
That’s a very honest answer, Giancarlo. It reminds me of something Steven Wilson once said -- that sad songs are often the most beautiful songs, while idealistic songs about perfect love are usually the most depressing because of how phony they are. In other words, real romance is quite different from the romance of fairy tales and superficial pop music. Do you agree?
I agree 100%, with the only difference being that for me the sad songs are always the most beautiful (not just often!) I have thousands of tracks on my ‘favourites’ collection -- from the most different artists and genres -- and none of them is a happy song. I agree that the perfect romance is just cheesy and very superficial and unreal, and for me there’s also another thing. When I’m feeling happy I do something other than listening or writing music (and I’m generally a positive and funny person!). I just go out, have a walk, and enjoy life out there. But when feeling sad or melancholic or angry, I need to write music, I need to find and listen to my inner side, and I need sad music because it’s the one that moves me and makes me feel alive. Very often, it makes me feel like I’m not alone in my feelings. And I like the idea that maybe my music will do the same for others.
It definitely does. Now, Afterthoughts has fairly unique arrangements, which is to say that it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, nor does it really fit into a concrete genre. How would you classify and define its style?
Thanks! That’s really flattering. Usually everyone tends to try to make your music fit ere or there. I think that through the years and albums, the Nosound ‘sound’ has become more and more clear in that way it’s evolving while staying coherent (which is a real challenge for me!) I personally think that with A Sense of Loss, we made the first big step towards it, and now with Afterthoughts we focused better and we were more confident about it, so we let the music flow more naturally instead of trying to somehow underline our sound and style. If I had to choose a genre for Nosound, I think the term ‘post-prog’ (used by Kscope) would be the best one, most of all because it mixes (in order of importance) two of our main influences: post-rock and progressive rock. Personally, I used to like only some aspects of these genres, which were probably the ones that are most evident in Nosound. For example, I’m not a fan of the simple, naked post-rock made only of delayed guitars going on and on for hours with the only differences being more distorted sounds and heavier drums (or strings!). At the same time I really don’t like the more classic prog, like Yes, Gentle Giants, ELP, Rush, and the more technical ones. But I love the post-rock of Bark Psychosis or Sigur Rós, as well as the prog side of Pink Floyd and early Porcupine Tree. The problem is just trying to restrict music into a single genre. I think that the best music has to go beyond that.
Really? I love Yes and Gentle Giant. To each their own, I guess. So, many songs wouldn’t work without their vocal melodies, but these tracks feel like they could work as instrumentals. Have you ever considered having any of them exist like that?
Indeed we did! It was something I wanted to do with A Sense of Loss, and with Afterthoughts we are offering a limited number of bonus CDs that contain the instrumental version of the album. It’s not just a version without voices; it’s mixed and mastered slightly differently to fill in the space left by the lack of vocals. The bonus CDs that come with the digibooks sold out in just two days, so at the moment there are still some double vinyls available for pre-orders. Anyway, I agree with you that this music can be very cinematographic without the lyrics. What I like about it is that it keeps the beauty of the music and sometimes it even enhances the beauty of the sound. For me, the songs basically needed a melodic line and (most of all) some lyrics -- the core of the message. After all, the human voice is definitely the most direct and emotional musical instrument we have.
Absolutely. What’s your process for writing and recording? Do you write a basic song structure first and then build upon it, or do you create instrumentals first?
I usually wait for the inspiration to come; I don’t like planning it and I don’t like the studio rehearsal and post production/editing approach, so typically it starts as a simple song structure on the piano or a guitar coming from somewhere inside me. Then, once recorded, the base idea is I’m either inspired to go on and continue with melody, lyrics, other instruments, etc, or sometimes I just leave it to rest for weeks until I’ve completely forgotten about it. When I listen back I’m either surprised by the idea or I can see that it’s not good. I find this process quite useful, as it makes me feel much freer to let the inspiration and music talk by themselves. Usually, once I start having ideas for vocal melodies and lyrics, I somehow start having an idea for the song as a whole, including sounds, arrangements, structures, and even booklet pictures! And it’s just about playing, recording all the important things, and writing down notes before ideas disappear from my head. Obviously, these ideas might be modified; it all depends on my feelings when listening back to them. Also, there’s obviously all the work with the band, which can be different every time. Sometimes it’s just about putting life and real music into the demos, but more often than not it’s about talking about it and asking them to surprise me with ideas. I’m very lucky in that I’ve always worked with people who are able to enter my own world and add something to it without trying to change it. I think this delicate balance is the secret of Nosound and the power of the new album.
Many progressive rock acts are lead by a single person. For example, Porcupine Tree is Steven Wilson’s project and Opeth is Mikael Åkerfeldt’s. Obviosuly, Nosound is your project. How do you choose the musicians you want to use for your music?
I think somehow I started replying to this already [haha]! With the kind of music I write, it’s very important to have the human relationship even before the musical one. This is why I’ve always played with people whom I was already connected with. If you take the average instrument player, you’ll find that it’s difficult for him or her to like to be part of the music; There’s not much space for the music itself; it’s all is made to be the carrier of the emotional message, so there’s no space for music or sounds that are not functional or needed. There’s also no space for ego when playing. The choices (or the natural events) I encountered always determine that Nosound is a band formed by people who are all able to feel this music, to feel the pain or sadness, and who want to make it become something beautiful. What I love about the band and being in a band is that I have such support and creative help from exceptional musicians who want to be a part of it. This leads to more unique and ‘real’ albums, and it also leads to live gigs where we feel in real time all together and we give the music a new dynamical dimension that’s different every time.
Speaking of your players, how did Chris Maitland become involved?
I’ve been in contact with Chris ever since I published Sol29. He was on tour with his music for lots of years, and recently we came back in contact when we were supposed to play together on a short set Memories Of Machines music. That gig was cancelled, but since we were in contact again I asked him to join the new Nosound album for a couple of tracks, and he liked the demos and the idea. At the same time we had our Nosound lineup changes, which meant that we were without a drummer, so I asked Chris to join us for the whole album. He was very happy to be able to leave more of an imprint on the work. We met a few times, listened, and talked about the music and the work. Then we recorded all the music for At the Pier and Afterthoughts in London. I think it worked out beautifully; he’s the most musical and artistic drummer around at the moment and his artistic feeling is very present in the way he contributed to this music.
Is Afterthoughts your favorite Nosound release, or does another one still rank higher? Why?
For some reason I think it’s normal for every real artist to think that the latest release is the best (otherwise, why did they do it?) I personally think that with every album we build something more, and although I’m still very much linked to all previous albums, I think this one is by far the best for many reasons. It’s the most band-oriented one, it’s more mature and focused, and in terms of songwriting and production I think it’s a big step ahead of everything we did before. Overall I felt from the start that the material was special, and during production the enthusiasm and support from everyone involved (the band, the label, etc.) really confirmed my feeling that this was going to be a good release. I think my preferences in terms of Nosound albums are still arranged simply by the release dates! With this last one we left more of the music to speak for itself. We as a band and Nosound as a project went through an important turning point, and I think it’s a great new start for the albums yet to come.
Indeed. I can’t wait to hear what you guys do next. However, I’d like to look back a bit, if we can. In 2009, you worked with Tim Bowness on the Memories of Machines record. How did that come about, how did it differ from Nosound, and are there any plans for a follow-up?
Yes, there are plans to do a follow up; it will all depends on the schedule and other projects we both have. It all started from that first song, “Someone Starts To Fade Away” (on Lightdark), and we both liked it so much that we decided to go on without any precise plan. We just recorded more and after four years we realized that we had an album and a coherent set of songs and sound. That’s how Memories of Machines started. Personally, there are several big elements that differentiate it from Nosound. First of all, I’m not involved with the lyrics (only with music), and I’m co-producing it with Tim, so it’s quite different for me. It’s an interesting challenge. Most of all, it allows me to concentrate more on the sound engineering and production side of things, and I feel that there’s more of a singer/songwriting feel to it. That’s also how I decide if something I’m working on is going to be part of a Nosound album or if it would fit better on a Memories of Machines record or something else.
Who do you listen to today and who influences you?
I think the list could be really long. I’m an avid music listener, and I love all kind of services, like Spotify, Radio, Pandora, and Last.fm, where I can start from an album or even a song that I like and then discover all sort of old and new music. I keep discovering new, interesting things every day. From Kscope, I can hear Ulver or Anathema passing through to Sophia, Last Harbour, Under Byen, Matt Elliott, Efterklang, or The White Birch, as well as more well-known things like The Swell Season, Bark Psychosis, Sigur Ros, Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Arvo Pärt, Blueneck, Soulsavers, etc. The list would be very long. What I really like is to keep myself curious about new stuff. I think it’s impossible to be a good artist if you are not able to enjoy art yourself, and today there’s so much good music (sadly, also lots of not so good music) that it’s really just a matter of reserving the right amount of time and mindset to discover it.
That’s quite an eclectic list, for sure, and it begs me to ask that following question: if you could work with any other musician (alive or dead, in the progressive rock realm or not), who would it be?
That’s a good one. I usually change my mind often when it comes to this. Two names that come up immediately are David Gilmour (because he was my teenager era hero!) and David Sylvain (because he has such a unique voice). I could continue with Graham Sutton or Jónsi as producers, as well as Clint Mansell and Darren Aronofsky to create some stunning new audio/visual experience. Also, female singers like Rachel Yamagata or Regina Spektor, along with some unique music from Henryk Gorecki (who sadly passed away two years ago) or Arvo Pärt. Who knows if any of this will happen soon or later.
Other than music, what inspires your work?
I think it’s real life more than anything -- things happening to me and around me, observing the world, people, nature, and everything around. Also, listening to my inner side. I read books and I watch films with my very own tastes, like with music. My main inspiration comes from the real world and the life I live.