Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Backchat: Charles Griffin Gibson on CHUCK's Back Catalogue

Welcome to another edition of Backchat, where bands and artists look back at the albums they've released over the years and share their memories with us fans. My guest this time is Charles Griffin Gibson, a songwriter with a wonderfully nasal voice who lives in New York City and makes top-quality laptop pop. Most of his albums and EPs have been self-released, but earlier this month, Old Money Records - an imprint of the Audio Antihero label - issued a compilation of CHUCK tracks entitled My Band is a Computer (read my review of it here).

With CHUCK's music now in front of a wider audience, this seems like a good time to sit down and look back at what Charles has been putting out over the last few years. Here's the man himself to tell us the whole story:

(self-released, 2010)

I made People when I was 23. I had just moved to New York. I was living up in Washington Heights in Manhattan. I was in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 friends. I was sleeping on an air mattress that would deflate every night, so I would just wake up on the ground. Rent was $400 a month. I'm not trying to glamorise any of this; I'm just painting the picture.

My sister's friend got me a job as a production assistant on The Celebrity Apprentice. The job was mostly driving to CostCo to buy snacks, and then I would distribute the snacks on set. After several months of that, I had a few weeks of unemployment and decided to record an album. I had already made two in college, but they weren't really that good. The songs I had written up until that point were generic and sappy. But when I got to New York, I made friends with a group of guys who were in a band called Uncles (core members are now in the band Frog, also on Audio Antihero) and I remember being really inspired by their music, in particular their lyrics. They were much more compelling and visual and specific than the other stuff I was listening to. Also, there was a lot of humour in their work that I related to.

I think part of it might be the influence of Billy Joel over the tri-­state area. We all grew up with him on the radio, and his songs are full of specific references to restaurants and neighbourhoods in New York. And his songs tend to be funny ones centred around sad­sack protagonists. I respond to that kind of stuff, and tried to emulate that style of writing on this record. This whole album was recorded in my roommate's closet on the inboard microphone of a MacBook Pro.

(self-released, 2011)

After People, I knew I needed to get an actual microphone. So when I had a few weeks off again (freelance life!), I bought one and started making new songs. Pictures was made in a new apartment in the same neighbourhood, but this time I had a ton of space, and I think you can hear it in the songs. Things opened up a bit. Pretty much every day I would wake up, smoke cigarettes, make a sandwich, watch The Larry Sanders Show and record.

While I was working on this album, I was obsessed with capturing things from my everyday life on some form of media. For example, I was doing a lot of candid point-and-shoot film photography at the time (here's a book of it). I also made a very slow slice of life documentary about my Fourth of July weekend that year:

For a variety of subconscious reasons, I was having instant nostalgia for everything that I did. I was just documenting non-­stop. Now it's 5 years later and I barely document anything. (I'm almost 30, I gotta conserve my energy lol.) Camel Lights off this record seemed to be a turning point.

That was the first time someone I didn't know seemed to genuinely like one of my songs.

(self-released, 2012)

My roommates and I all decided to leave Washington Heights and we found an apartment in Brooklyn. It was a small place, but in a great location, right around the Pratt campus in Fort Greene. This was a fun time! There were a lot of really great, eclectic musicians making a big impression on me while I worked on this record. People like Grimes, A$AP Rocky, and Destroyer to name a few. They were really playing with genres at the time. Listening to them inspired me to make something diverse, and also to up my production value. I didn't just want candid and intimate. I wanted something really professional-sounding.

So I bought an electric guitar. I bought an electric bass. I went from GarageBand to Ableton. I got a real mixing engineer. We pushed the final mixes through a vintage mixing board to give it a bigger analog sound. And we mastered it. These were all things I had never done before. It was a great learning experience.

But this album wasn’t exactly a breeze to make. My bedroom was probably 10 feet by 10 feet, which I think makes it a literal closet. Also, I shared a very thin wall with my next door neighbour, and he really hated listening to me record. He would bang on the walls and threaten to 'fuck me up' if I didn't stop. One time I remember him screaming, "Yo Willie Nelson, nobody wants to hear all that!" when I was doing a vocal take.

(Monkfish Records, 2013)

I stayed in the same apartment, but for year number two I had the fortune of switching rooms
with one of my roommates. I was now in The Big Room (emoji with sunglasses).

But that actually didn't matter. I decided with this record that I wanted someone else to produce and record it. I didn't want to do it in my room alone. So I was lucky enough to convince Danny Bateman and Tom White (previously mentioned, they were in Uncles and are currently in Frog) to help me. I made some demos, we picked the ones we liked, and then we recorded them in their practice space in Queens.

My primary goal with the songwriting was to get further away from just writing autobiographical stuff. So I tried to introduce new characters and settings, while still digging into what I was going through at the time. I was thinking a lot about the process of losing myself in pursuit of vice and pleasure. The dankness of being 25 and just biking around and staying out all night and drugs and new friends and new food and all that. Things were a lot messier for me back then.

This is also where I became CHUCK. I thought it was snappier, and I wanted the music to feel more like it was coming from a band or something. I feel like my name is too formal for the music. I'm glad I made the switch, I like CHUCK more.

I love this EP, and I think Danny and Tom are so talented. Danny added a lot of keyboard and guitar parts that I couldn't have come up with on my own, and it's a real treat to hear those on the songs.

(self-released, 2015)

After Let’s Make Out, I wanted to knock it out of the park with my next full-length. I wanted to make everything perfect. This was sort of my Brian Wilson phase; I was very meticulous and unforgiving. In particular, I wanted to get good at writing and singing harmonies after seeing what Danny did on Let’s Make Out. I didn't even know what a harmony vocal was before that!

I lived with these songs for years to get them just right. I would listen to rough mixes over and over and over on the subway and write little harmonies on the go and record them into my iPhone. I was constantly tweaking the lyrics. I was also trying to get other people involved in the recording process. I met this girl Cintia who was really into music, so she would come over and I'd play her stuff and we'd come up with parts she could sing. I also became friends with a co-­worker named Lou who had just moved to NYC from Massachusetts. We clicked right away and he ended up playing some french horn / trumpet on a song or two. My friend Jon played piano and violin for me. I liked the energy other people brought to the recordings.

At this point I could look back on the older albums and recognise how they represented periods in my life. So I called this one Happy New Years Babe, because I thought it sounded sad and funny at the same time, while also signalling a new beginning. I was in a committed relationship. My metabolism was slowing. Hair was thinning. My interests were changing. I really felt like I was entering a new phase or something. This was also around the time that bands like Frankie Cosmos, Alex G, Girlpool and Elvis Depressedly were blowing up. I'm very motivated to keep going by all them cause I like their music so much.

(self-released, 2015)

My girlfriend had to go home to Norway for a few months due to a visa issue, so during the summer of 2015 I was flush with free time, and I didn't have to waste it dating. So I made this split EP with the previously mentioned Lou.

I thought it was a cool idea, since neither of us had done a split before. We both wrote a few tracks and then just recorded them, piece by piece, in our apartments. I did the bass. He did the drums. And we shared duties on everything else. I was heavy into my obsession with Alex G when I was working on the songs, so I think you can hear me trying to emulate him a little bit. The most obvious example is the pitched-up vocals on Oceans.

He does that a lot.

(Old Money Records, 2016)

So now here we are in 2016. Audio Antihero approached me a few months ago and asked me if I would be interested in doing a compilation record. I'll be honest, I've fantasised about something like this for years. This is really a dream to me. Personally, I get obsessed with musicians who built large catalogues without much fan fare. Daniel Johnston, pre­-DSU Alex G, Rodriguez, etc. I'm not saying I'm as good as any of those artists, but I think it's fun as a music fan to discover a band and have all that material to dig through. There's something very romantic about it (if the music is good).

So I hope it's fun or inspiring to somebody else to go through my stuff! I am not very confident in my skills as a musician, but I have worked hard and stuck with it and I'm proud of what I’ve made so far.

Previous Editions of Backchat:

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