Weaving together elements of doom, drone, noise and sounds most unsettling, Gnaw create a unique sonic atmosphere that is soul-crushing and psychologically demanding. It would seem each of their releases gets more intense and outre than the last, with their third full-length effort, Cutting Pieces, sitting at the apex of this constant evolution. This 40-minute exercise in aural terror, which is now available through Translation Loss, is perfect for metalheads with masochistic tendencies.
Svbterranean recently caught up with three-fifths of the noise unit to discuss the new record, songwriting and more.
Could you please introduce yourself and your role in Gnaw?
CT: Carter Thornton. I do a good portion of the writing. While I usually play bass and oscillators live, in recording I also play guitar, cello, percussion, synths and instruments that I build. Alan, Jun Mizumachi and myself first started Gnaw in 2007. At that point it was mostly home recordings traded back and forth, but it quickly developed into something bigger when Brian got on board and we got Jamie Sykes (Burning Witch) to send us some tracks from his surreal exile in Memphis, Tennessee.
AD: Alan Dubin. I’m the vocalist/lyricist and like everyone else in the band, I wear many hats and have a hand or at least a deformed nub at writing/arranging, adding sounds/noise/sfx, etc.
BB: Brian Beatrice. Depending on what cyclical stage we’re in, I’m primarily guitar player, writing, assembling and producing, or simply whipping post.
CT: You’re not a whipping post. More like a highly paid professional making yourself into an indentured servant. But it’s all for metal so it’s worth it.
AD: Now I want whipped cream! Gimmee!!! The other current musicians include Eric Neuser who plays drums and samples, our newest member Dana Schechter who pushes the limits of what a lap steel guitar can do and last but not least, Jun Mizumachi who does a significant amount of unique sound design for us. Sometimes he likes to yell “fuck you!” when we perform in Germany.
How has writing and performing in Gnaw pushed you as a musician and songwriter?
CT: I write and improvise in a lot of different contexts, but in Gnaw I’m geared towards reflecting the most aggressive and difficult internal states I experience. I think it’s a similar container for all of us. In the first phase of the band I was working in max security forensic psychiatry, and a lot of the trauma and suffering I saw in the context got channeled into my Gnaw contributions. It’s never really lost that tone for me and some of the songs are pretty direct reflections of the people I encountered there, both inmates and not. Plus, when you have a vocalist like Alan, the make-disturbing-sound bar is pretty high. I don’t know if I’d say it pushes me, but it keeps a pretty interesting area open to explore a specific kind of head space and it keeps me on my toes. Plus it’s amazing to work with these guys who are very good at developing and honing some extremely abstract, ugly ideas.
BB: Most of what we are attempting is to create music in a “non-traditional” format with limited boundaries and the irony of that statement is that we constantly impose structure and arbitrary “rules” to achieve this. Our approach includes anything from creating instruments to creating custom electronics to thinking differently about traditional instruments. “This Face” was 100% a studio creation pieced together from file sharing and sound manipulation. We had to then take that material and try to figure out how we could create a similar vibe with traditional rock instruments. I can’t tell you the number of times when we first started that someone said, “That sounds like a guitar”. Well, I’m standing there holding a guitar. So, it has really pushed me to think about sound creation in a different way; whether on a string instrument or not. Since those early days, the song writing process has become extremely varied, and I think we try to not repeat ourselves. Even finding a starting block or jumping off point for this band requires quite a stretch of imagination.
CT: As far as not sounding like a guitar we just had to get through that and then it was ok to sound like a guitar again. Parts of what we were hearing in our heads did not sound like a guitar or a band we had heard before. We had to stretch rock instruments to sound like what we were hearing, even if it’s painful or makes no sense at first. It’s about using traditional tools to make your own language. Peter Brotzmann does it on saxophone. Tom Carter does it on guitar. Bach does it in that extended harpsichord solo in the Brandenburg Concertos. For a few minutes you think you’re listening to a star’s core being ripped apart and then it comes back to some guy in a powdered wig just playing his harpsichord again. The experience is different after he just ripped a star apart.
Prior to Gnaw, you have been a part of other musical acts of varying genres and styles. How do you feel your time spent in these projects influenced the sound of Gnaw?
AD: In every band or project that I’ve been a part of, I always strived to deliver something unique and never wanted to repeat myself from album to album. My previous bands allowed for vocal experimentation from the ultra fast thrash/hardcore screams of Old Lady Drivers, to messing around with vocoders and clean singing in Old and then absolute vocal shredding (and spirit crushing) in Khanate. For myself, I feel like I expanded on that notion as soon as we started Gnaw and continue to do so. Right now, nothing is off the table as far as genre, style etc…unless it sucks! I also feel that my lyrics have become very visual, so to speak, over the years in previous bands and I think it works very well with the music that Gnaw creates.
CT: I’ve played a lot of psych, free jazz, improv, modern classical. Pretty much any musical experience you have teaches you something, whether it’s what you want to move towards or want to avoid. I went through a period of playing in every kind of music I could, everything from country bands to composing for underground musical theater. It’s all a process of figuring out how to externalize things that are hard to articulate with words or actions and how to do that with other people. So I don’t know if the actual aesthetic of those things comes through in Gnaw, but it all certainly goes into the way our methodology is executed.
Throughout the 90s I was in a band that had a song called “Hey Man, I’m a Shaman”. We also had a song called “Amphetamines and Milk”. Look for covers of those on Gnaw’s upcoming fourth album.
Noise and other “unsettling” sounds are used quite extensively in Gnaw. What do you feel these more abrasive techniques and soundscapes add to the music itself?
BB:I can just as easily look at it the other way. I think those sounds are the music itself.
CT: Those sounds are an essential part of the music and don’t play less of a role than the sounds made by traditional instruments. Some of them may be actually be manipulated instrumental sounds. Jun, our main sound design guy, uses all kinds of unexpected processed sounds. Sometimes I’ll have been hearing an element for years and ask him what it is, and it’s an otter mating with a bee or something. He’s a master of surprise, a totally unpredictable person. Unfortunately he had to relocate to Japan recently. Live we have to resort to laptop, samplers, ipads, etc to get those elements in there.
AD: I concur. All the soundscapes, fuzz, noise and non-traditional sounds are musical elements that add to the atmosphere and aura of whatever world each particular song lives within. A drill, chainlink fence and a guitar are all instruments that create music…to us.
Do you face any challenges replicating and performing some of Gnaw’s pieces in a live setting?
CT: In terms of the musical structure, no. We’re inside of it enough that it sounds like obvious pop music to us. Since Jun isn’t around Brian has taken over the helm on a lot of the samples, etc. He’s very solid in the tech and sound department. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear him regularly curse in very creative ways about it.
Also, Eric, our drummer, is great at negotiating those weird in between spaces and still keeping it contained to a riff like structure. Sometimes those structures are only in our brains, you wouldn’t hear them so obviously as a listener. Eric has a pretty deep knowledge of heavy music exceeding the borders of traditional metal, so he has a lot of reference points, and one of his main roles has been to wrestle the ideas into more manageable live shapes. They get skeletal in that process and take on new energy, which is laborious, but usually pays off.
BB: Often songs are constructed from found objects and sound manipulation. We will then re-imagine those pieces as a live unit and figure out how to incorporate or recreate sounds found on the recordings. So, we are generally re-writing the material for live performances. Also, a lot of what we do is spontaneous, but exists within forms that use various cues. So, it’s important to have unspoken communication, whether subtle or overt, as to how to move through a piece. Then there is simply the logistical challenge of it all as each of us juggles instruments, laptop, samplers, oscillators, and effects. Not only is that challenging from a performance standpoint, but we’re also that band that shows up and requests 6 DI boxes.
What can you tell us about the writing and recording of the new record, Cutting Pieces?
CT: It was a long process that went through a lot of stages. For the parts that came initially from me, I went into phases where I wrote a lot and then I had to watch it be chopped apart for four years until the was four minutes of it left. Gnaw is always ruining my epic masterpieces. I hate them for that.
BB: We have a fairly dense archive of sounds and ideas that we’re always contributing to and from which to cull from. So, we began by evaluating and organizing those ideas. Some of those were developed to be full songs or were used as parts. Unlike ever before, we began a lot of the structures for Cutting Pieces on instruments in a rehearsal room. We got core song structures down, and then tracked those ideas. Everything ultimately ends up in my lap in the studio. We see what ideas go together and craft new parts if needed. I work out different arrangements and then we argue about it and about how I’ve ruined the demos or the original intention, and then slowly degrade ourselves back to a place we’re all happy with.
Did you face any particular challenges when constructing this record compared with previous releases?
BB: I feel like this record actually came together easier but was more challenging to finish. We were able to get drum production that I was really happy with, and as much of this material originated as guitar/bass/drums, it was easier to get core tracks accomplished. But once we started developing the pieces further and working out the arrangements, it became more challenging because we all knew we were on to something really great. We spent much longer getting songs finalized and mixing this record. I would circulate a new arrangement or mix and there would be hundreds of emails about it and 300 revisions. As a producer, this band always forces me to reevaluate modern production norms. The modern tendency is to over-work things in the studio, but often Gnaw can require the opposite. The second I start doing things like performance corrections, there is an instant aversion to it. For example, Alan has a really unique sense of timing. I often want to correct things that initially sound like mistakes and line his performance up to be more rhythmically linear. But I quickly learn that’s a huge mistake because his “off timings” are intentional and part of what really make his performances dynamic and amazing. In that regard, this record was no different, except that maybe I’ve learned from the past?
How do you feel Cutting Pieces compares to your previous release, Horrible Chamber and This Face?
BB: This record feels like a realization of what we’ve been trying to achieve for years. It’s a better representation of what we do live and I’m happier with the overall production of it. It also feels more unified as an album. With “This Face” we were really experimenting and most of the elements (and final result) are real grimy and lofi. That’s great for that record and where we were then, but this record feels very far from that, at least to me.
CT: It’s a totally different animal than the first and a natural evolution from the second. I feel like it’s the most concise and most tormented record yet. I feel like this one was a deeper process personally than the previous two, though that’s just an abstraction and I probably would have said the same at the time of each release. We’re just coming out of it. It’s weirdly freeing to have the thing down and out in the world. It’s like tying up your garbage and putting it out on the curb. But it’ll be brand new to the weird hunched guy who digs through my dumpster every night. One time I opened the dumpster and he was in there. Holy shit that was scary.
AD: Oh yeah! I remember that night when you woke me up in that dumpster. Oh wait! I don’t have a hunch so that wasn’t me. For me, Cutting Pieces is sort of how I envisioned what a Gnaw album would sound like before we even started creating our first album. Ferocity and sadness intertwines in a thought provoking way throughout the whole album even though the songs vary wildly. The previous two albums, while having the same spirit, had a different feel. CP is my personal favorite thus far.
What are some of the themes explored on the new record and what inspired them?
AD: Most of the songs can be taken a few different ways. There’s the literal versions and there are metaphoric meanings behind them as well. That being said, that’s my personal way of looking at them. For instance, the lead off song called Rat paints a horrific picture of despair…a house burning down with the main character inside burning with onlookers watching. To me, the song is about the aging process. The only certain thing in life is death. The house burning is the body (life) and mind getting older. The people watching represent envy perhaps. The “self” needs someone to blame but there’s no stopping it. You become decrepit and the world doesn’t give a shit. Is it a song based on how I feel? I go to the gym and sleep the Druid Sleep and am obviously beautiful, so not right now. Not yet. There’s a song about stalking called Prowled Mary. I really love the creepy POV feel to the song. It conveys paranoia to the Nth degree and compliments the “sad” cello in the song perfectly. As far as inspiration, it’s really just my imagination possibly combined with numerous everyday obstacles, life bullshit, human interaction, relationships and my twisted sense of dark humor. I try to keep the humor out of Gnaw but we have a few tongue and cheek moments in there for sure. “Oh my God, I smell a rat”.
Alan, your lyrics have always had a dark, storytelling aspect to them. Do you find that you have to be in a particular headspace to write these lyrics?
AD: I like that my lyrics can be quite “visual” to a point depending on the song. When writing, I usually think of the storyline as if I’m in someone else’s shoes. I don’t necessarily need to be in a certain frame of mind but I suppose if I’m having a rare bad day, that could certainly influence subject matter. Rat and Fire were both written while I was in physical pain. Vacant from the first album and Extended Suicide were both written on particular bad days as well. Hmmmm…now that I’m answering this question and thinking about it, a lot of the Khanate lyrics were written when I was extra pissed off at the world, especially during Things Viral.
Do you feel your approach to writing lyrics, or perhaps the type of lyrics you write, has changed over the years from project to project?
AD: Most definitely. Early on when I when I first started writing lyrics in Vile Stench (my first band) and then Old Lady Drivers, I was in my early teens. I always had an off kilter, dark sense of humor so I wrote really juvenile, somewhat offensive lyrics. Some were considered shocking back then but would be considered either silly or so politically incorrect these days that internet PC warriors would string me up (see Special Olympics by Old Lady Drivers). Ha ha. It was all for extremity and I loved pissing people off for the comedic aspect. That being said, I knew I had the knack for coming up with ideas that were unique. You can tell just by the song titles “Tracheotomy Peashooter” and “Colostomy Grab Bag” that I had a um…gift? Heh heh. When I got a little older and when O.L.D. formed into Old and we ditched the comedy, I started exploring lyrical ideas and wrote stories about dreams, sci fi, psychedelic stuff and then eventually it morphed into somewhat of a personal nature…sometimes. When Khanate formed, I’m not sure why or how it initially started but that’s when I began to work in more of a POV frame of mind. The first song I wrote lyrics for in Khanate was Pieces Of Quiet. It was visceral and I loved that I could deliver something so descriptive that painted visual imagery in such a savage way. I assume that’s when I discovered that I like to write lyrics in that fashion. Lyric writing in Gnaw is somewhat similar to how I wrote in Khanate but it seems there are more repeating chorus sections in Gnaw.
How do you feel the album’s artwork ties in, if it does at all, with the themes and mood of the record?
CT: We argued a ridiculous amount about the art and it went through multiple versions, which probably drove the artist, Sebastian Hayez, completely bonkers. We’ve used him for all of our releases and some other things, so I think he knew what he was getting into. He’s a masochist. In the end I think the art reflects the tone of the release if not its content directly. It just kind of feels similar. I’m talking about vibes here. Alan knows all about vibes and chakras and spirit animals. You should ask him.
AD: I’ll eat your spirit animals and give lusty squeeze-ums to your chakras! I think the artwork compliments the music perfectly. The fragmented skull “pieces” on display make sense and look fantastic. Also, I’m as sucker for Obi strips on Japanese releases and we have a built in one on the Cutting Pieces digipak.
BB: I think Seb, the artist, really gets what we are trying to achieve. The overall presentation he helps us project is definitely in line with the music. On this one, we liked that some initial mock ups had a very 80’s industrial nod. He pulled us out of that a bit but I still feel it. It’s stark and rigid, but it’s also graphically a very dense production.
What do you want listeners to take away from Cutting Pieces?
CT: Hopefully it’s affirming to people out there who experience similar internal states to what we’re expressing. I don’t think those psychological spaces are uncommon; they’re just difficult to articulate authentically or successfully. We’re lucky enough to have learned instruments so we don’t have to kill people.
BB: Someone once remarked to me that we are “like the Bitches Brew of metal”. If anyone can walk away from our music in any way affected the way Electric Miles has affected my life, then that’s the biggest win. Hopefully, it can retain attention for repeat and focused listens to hear how nuanced and muti-layered it really is. One of our biggest tricks, in my opinion, is that it all may seem repetitive but the devil’s in the details.
CT: You never told me that. That’s a big compliment. I went through about a year of my life frightened and awed by Bitches Brew. I listened to it until it became logical and relaxing. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. That record ruins lives.
Any final words or thoughts?
AD: Thank you so much for the great questions! Right now we’re trying to get exposure for Cutting Pieces since it was just released (tell your friends!), working on a few music videos, working on some tour dates (please get in touch if you want us to play near you, fests, etc) and we started writing Gnaw IV. See you out there!!!! Cheers.
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