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Escape Velocity

Recombination Therapy: An Interview With Larry Gus
Ned Raggett , November 5th, 2013 06:10

The richly textured pop of Larry Gus' latest album Years Not Living, released through DFA, emerges from a process of sound recombination inspired equally by literature and mathematics. He speaks to Ned Raggett about Borges, Ballard and a love of density in sound

"For everyone I know over in the US, my name is like a nightmare!" So says Greek artist Panagiotis Melidis, who more familiarly goes by the alias Larry Gus. With his second album Years Not Living released recently on DFA and a forthcoming feature documentary My Friend Larry Gus, 2013 has been the performer's highest profile year yet. The album itself is a dense, textured swirl of layered samples and composition mixed with often direct, immediately catchy melodies, as indebted to the history of rock & roll as to 21st century deconstructions and experimentation. Speaking over Skype from his home in Milan, Gus is an enthusiastic burst of energy; amid happy digressions into everything from other stories and interviews to wracking our brains over Robert Wyatt rarities, the Quietus delved deep into the composer's processes and thoughts regarding Years Not Living, as well as what the future holds for him and others.

I was doing some relistening to the album, catching up with it. The first thing that leapt to my mind was fluidity. You have ten songs, all structured, and it seems, like any great hip hop mix or dance mix, that there's almost meant to be no beginning and no end, it could be rearranged many different ways. Do you find it hard to lock into a final version of a song?

Larry Gus: The way I started working on the album, I started with a huge pool of directories. I have the samples, then the sounds and the drums and me playing and some ideas. Everything started when I was reading this book by Georges Perec, a French writer, where he created an algorithmic constraint system so he could start composing stories. Taking from that inspiration, I decided that I would have a huge database of sounds, and I would start finding the combinations between them with different ways. Let's say, the tuning, or the aesthetic, or the country or whatever. At some point, I decided to stay with the tuning, the harmonic content and the BPM, more or less.

Then I really started. I said, okay, I have five hundred candidates that can start to be the basis of a song. This small melody that could be the riff of a guitar, or a guy playing a Rhodes, or a singer from Africa with a full band backing him. Then I'd think, 'There are three hundred sounds that fit with this one,' so I was trying to be exhaustive: 'For this track, I'll have fifty other sounds; for this one, ninety other sounds.' The moment I realised that I knew all the possible combinations, when that was finished, I went to the composition side of it. Then I had to track it, to record it and play it, since I played everything with a sampler instead of arranging it all within the computer, because it makes things much more different. That's why it sounds chaotic at some points! I'd think, 'okay, for this track, I have eighty five sounds like nothing else -- it's just them!' I tracked all of them and there might be a sound that's coming in for a millisecond, just playing a small part. But everything is in there!

When it comes to remixes, whether it's you remixing yourself or working with anybody else, does the huge range of what you have come across as overwhelming, like it's too much within a song?

LG: First, and this also applies with the album itself as well as the remixing work that I do, I know that there are many people that are instantly put off by my music, because it sounds so dense. It gives the sense of being overproduced, that people want to avoid. But the thinking is just the opposite of that in a way, because the experience can change and I'm trying to change it. I like the density, and I like the way that different stuff plays with each other, like when you have a band playing with many instruments, the overtones of the guitar with the bass. For instance, there's this album by the Walkmen, You & Me, from 2008. What I really loved about this album was that half of the time I couldn't understand if it was a really baritone guitar or just the bass playing. I find it really hard to record something that's crystal clear with four instruments, where everything is perfectly articulated. I find it extremely hard to do that! So maybe this is just my way to do stuff. For remixes, I try just to use the vocals from the original song and bring a whole different track out of it - just the vocals, so there can be a connection, the melodies from the original track. Otherwise I use nothing else at all!

I was noting the feature film you're appearing in - my question is a larger one: while predominantly known as a musician, do you see yourself as part of an interconnected creative flow that just happens to be more musical or more cinematic or more something else? Does it all emerge at points? Is it planned?

LG: Because of my background, I still find it hard to call myself a musician or an artist or even a creative person. The way I grew up, I was one of those boring guys at school reading and studying the whole time, computer science and informatics for several years. I even got a Masters in that! It was really hard for me to keep focusing on music. In Greece in general our fathers are like "Do not be an artist, do not be a musician! Go find a fucking job, get some money!" It's really intense in Greece - even now my father, after all these years, is going [pitches voice much lower] "When are you going to get a proper job." I find it hard, but I will start trying to pronounce myself a musician at this point - I should have it on a business card, let's say. I would never actually do that, but I'll just try to persuade myself somehow that this is what I'm doing. Regarding the movies and everything else, because of my background in informatics, I think everything is informed by that. I'm process-oriented in the things I do, putting into boxes.

You mentioned Perec, I saw another interview with you where Jorge Luis Borges was mentioned. When it comes to inspirations beyond the musical, whether it's literary or artistic in general, are there any sudden flashes or do things emerge out of the stew of what you're working with or thinking about at the time?

LG: For instance, with Borges, it was extremely specific. That guy, for me, was describing infinity in a non-infinite way. In a paragraph of five lines, he was explaining how an infinite combination of things could take place in a certain time. This was an extremely direct influence on the way I was working on music at this point. Even now, what I'm thinking about - I'm reading J.G. Ballard, and there are very specific ideas that I see, and I try to translate them in a musical aspect. Most of the time, I'm signing up for pathetic failure, because they're really weird. I wish I could get influence some other way. I try to get myself in the mood where I just take the guitar and start playing, but it never frees me up so much as doing actual preproduction work and reading and trying to scribble down stuff and having ideas. I wish I could change that, and sometimes I'm really envious of other musicians where it's like... a bird takes a crap and the idea lands on their head! I wish I could have that, I find it extremely amazing.

Thinking back on some of your comments in a recent SPIN interview about Greece and its current political instability, do you find that music acts as escape from certain realities, as a reinterpretation? Do you find there's a need to be politically and socially grounded in your music? Or do you think people will bring what they have to your work?

LG: I wish I could write political music! For me one artist I really admire is Robert Wyatt, who manages to combine the personal and the really emotional with the social and political. It's one of the hardest things to do without being labelled as political, such as Crass - overtly political and nothing else. I find it extremely hard, so for me, it's escapism, and I can't say anything other than that. I'm doing my thing, I'm trying to talk about it when I have the chance, with other people online or in interviews. There are so many good artists right now in Greece that try to combine these things, and I really love them for what they're doing, it's a big influence. But I can't do it - there's such a thin line. Robert Wyatt manages to do it perfectly. There are overtly communist songs and they're amazing.

In terms of Greece's overall situation, it seems like things aren't getting any better, and there seems to be an increasingly uneasy mood throughout Europe, from what I can tell. Do things feel more unstable, do people just want to withdraw into themselves?

LG: In Greece right now, you can't find a proper job. Three years ago, you could say, "I'm a mathematician, I could work in school," or "I'm a civil engineer, I can start building stuff." But right now you can't do it. So there are many people - my age, a little older, a little younger - doing other stuff. And somehow, because you don't get any money, you learn to live with less and less. It's almost the right climate to pursue your music or whatever. If you go to Athens right now, you could totally stay there for a week and every night you can see different local bands playing, and you can see amazing stuff. Even in Milan I don't see that right now, or when I was in Barcelona. The disproportionate amount of bands we have in Athens is crazy. So many people writing music and so much amazing stuff, so many labels and venues and squats.

Turning back to your circumstances, do you do everything on your computer, or do you use studio time at all? How do you put it all together?

LG: For this album, I think we only booked a studio in New York for three days just to mix it, but otherwise I do it all by myself. Even here I have my drums [adjusts the camera to show them elsewhere in the room]. It's always like that. Because I'm such a bad musician, I could never do something in a studio environment. It has to be the studio of a friend so I can have lots of free time, to have other people play. I'm not trying to be self-deprecating, I can play well enough when I have my own space, to record on my own. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, the way things were like in the 90s, the best thing I could imagine for me was to be a cleaner in a studio!

When it comes to live performance, is there any one particular path? Do you experiment with different things each time?

LG: For many years, I was playing by just looping after looping after looping, no samples or anything. It was just a long improvisation that would take forty five minutes. From that background and those days, I kept the improvisational aspect, so in the way I play with samples, my guitars, my drums, I could play a song in twenty minutes, change a song on the fly. I never use a laptop because it doesn't look nice somehow. It's like I'm building the song from scratch again.

Any particular songs and performers this year that have really caught you, made you think "Ah, here's where I'd like to be?"

LG: When I was in New York this last May, at a L.I.E.S. label showcase, this guy called Bookworms was playing - it was extremely inspiring at this point, to be next to his set-up including a couple of synthesisers and look at it. As for albums, earlier I tried to get myself into some techno kind of stuff, but it's not my background. You need to go out and go to clubs, but I rarely go out. So I listen to that music when I go jogging in the park, taking it out of context and listening to it in small headphones, so it's really weird. For records, I really like the Thundercat record Apocalypse, that he put out on Flying Lotus's label, Brainfeeder. It gives me a Steely Dan vibe, really weird and warped melodies, it's a really nice album. Another album I really enjoy is the Mikal Cronin album, MCII. It hits a power pop thing in me.

Looking to the future, what's next, if anything is planned? Or are things just happening as they do?

LG: It's weird, because this album was created two years ago. By June 2011 it was done, and it took some time - finding the right label, this kind of stuff - and I had to mix it. All this time I've been recording songs on my own, but because I haven't put them out, I'm starting to get bored with them. Right now I'm at this place where I'd like to start recording some new material. But I have tours and stuff so it's a little bit weird! For the next album I want to do something extremely different from this one. I will try to play all the instruments myself without so many samples or that kind of thing, and I have some really specific influences that I keep referencing -- the two first Big Star albums, regarding the quality of the songwriting and the hooks that I really like. Also I have these tropicalia albums - Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, I like the production of it, the rhythm, the feeling. I try to get it over somehow, but it's super hard, because I'm not a good performer and I can't sing well, so it's work.

A final question for now: what is happiness as an artist, and would you consider yourself a happy or satisfied artist?

LG: That's heavy. In a way, I'm constantly happy and constantly extremely sad, at any given time. I'm happy because right now, I could have been working in a fucking bank. Now I'm writing music, I'm talking with you, it's amazing, the best case scenario in a way. But I know things are really fluid, and the thing with music and arts is that it's so subjective for everyone that you can never can be sure that you can do the same thing in a couple of years. This can really weird you out if you keep thinking about it, how you're dealing with it around your peers, how other people are better than you. How can you still deal with that and be happy and stay home and stuff. But I am really happy, I just got married in June, I'm here in Milan, I have so much time to read my books, to go out for a walk, play music all day. It's cool, but at the same time, there is a threshold - things are fucked up, all my family is fucked up in Greece, all my friends are fucked up in Greece. So yeah, that's it.

Larry Gus' Years Not Living is out now on DFA

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