Some measure of profile comes automatically attached to Brooklyn‘s Man’s Gin, owing to singer/guitarist Erik Wunder‘s continuing tenure in Profound Lore avant black metallers Cobalt, but more than that, what attracted me to the project’s first full-length, Smiling Dogs, was the rugged-yet-vulnerable songwriting style and unique approach to melody. The album reads like Bukowski; a collection of misfit philosophies and offbeat characters who seem built, drunk, for another world. I said in my review that it was one of the most impressive debuts I’ve heard in 2010 and a couple months later, as the year begins to wind down, I stand by that completely.
Man’s Gin, as Wunder explains in the subsequent interview, started half a decade ago and began in earnest — or at least in the sense of making an album — after the multi-instrumentalist moved to Brooklyn from Denver, Colorado. In that most “$8 PBR” of boroughs, Wunder hooked up with co-conspirators Scott Edward and Josh Lozano and began to fine-tune the material he’d been working on for so long, resulting also in some new songs that would become highlights of Smiling Dogs — tracks like “Solid Gold Telephone” and “The Death of Jimmy Sturgis.”
As a band with Wunder, Edward and Lozano, Man’s Gin has really only just begun its tenure, but gigs in New York alongside Altar of Plagues and Castevet and most recently with Kirk Lloyd of Buzzov*en have helped the band gain both exposure and reputation. In our conversation, Wunder discusses the move from Denver to Brooklyn, his collection of tapes with unused song ideas, working in Man’s Gin as opposed to Cobalt, recording with Colin Marston (Behold! the Arctopus, et al), and much more.
You’ll find the complete Q&A after the jump. Please enjoy.
What brought about the move from Colorado to Brooklyn and when did all that go down?
That happened last Spring, actually. I was on tour with my friend Jarboe from Swans. I’d previously worked with her on the Cobalt album. She did guest appearances on our last two albums, and then I’d also done a couple guest appearances on her Stream Enterer series. I did some drums for her. So we’d been of working back and forth together when I was still in Denver, and then this tour came about last year, this European tour, and she asked me if I wanted to be the drummer, so I said yes, packed up my shit and crashed on a buddy’s couch here in Brooklyn, and ended up going on a tour with her last Spring. When I got back, I realized that I kind of liked it here and thought it would be a good change of pace, and if I was really gonna get serious and push things to the limit, it was probably a good idea to come out to a place like New York and see how the magic unfolded.
How do you mean, getting serious?
Well, just pushing it to the extreme. I’d like to be able to figure out a way to do music as a career-type of thing and not have to keep a regular job, so I figured you have to come to a place like New York or Los Angeles or something like that if you really want to see where it takes you. I know there are bands from Denver, Wovenhand and a few other bands, who make a living doing what they do, but they’re few and far between, and there’s just a lot more culture here in New York. There’s shows going on all the time, you meet people from bands, you meet people from record labels. I think there’s just a lot more networking potential being in New York. I like it out here. There’s a lot to do. It’s easy to get around because of the subway. It’s a little pricey – cigarettes are like $12 for a pack (laughs).
And if you’re drinking too…
It adds up. I tend to eat cheap (laughs).
What about going from Cobalt to Man’s Gin? Was there something behind that stylistic shift?
Yeah. With Cobalt, most of that music is about interaction between the drums and the guitars, and so I think the voice of the song is moving through the instruments. Phil [McSorley] obviously adds his vocals over that, and the message, but the songs from the ground up are mostly concentrating on the interaction of guitars and drums and the rhythm there. As I was working on that, I discovered Deadboy and the Elephantmen and I started going back to the ‘90s and listening to Soundgarden and things like that, and also guys like Will Oldham, Leonard Cohen. I started getting interested in writing lyrics and weaving those into guitar parts. Man’s Gin works with guitar and voice as I felt Cobalt did with drums and guitar. With Man’s Gin, I could put my personal message in the lyrics and sing them in a melody. It was a good release and a good change. When you’re playing loud, angry music, sometimes it’s good to be able to sit back and mellow out, even though there is a lot of anger in the Man’s Gin stuff, it also explores a lot of other emotions. Sometimes it’s good to just sit down, drink a little whiskey, play guitar and sing out a song. That was the main idea. A little more “chill-out, sit back and philosophize” kind of vibe.
Deadboy and the Elephantmen is a great comparison point too. My mind didn’t go there listening, but that’s pretty dead on.
I guess I took a little of how Dax Riggs once Acid Bath broke up just started this random project that was totally not metal. I liked his confidence in doing that. “I did that and now I’m gonna do this and I don’t give a fuck.”
How long were you working on the material for Smiling Dogs?
I first started coming up with songs for Man’s Gin five years ago, when I was still living in Ft. Collins – this is even before I was in Denver. Some of these songs are five years old. The song “Smiling Dogs” is the first song I ever wrote, playing acoustic guitar and singing. That’s the oldest one. I wrote that in 2005, I think, in Ft. Collins. Half of these songs are four or five years old, and then two of the new songs, “Stone on My Head” and “Solid Gold Telephone” I wrote with my buddy Scott [Edward], who plays piano and some of the lead guitars on the album. We wrote those two just in the last year. I moved here officially a year and a half ago. I’ve been working with Scott and Josh [Lozano] on the songs I already had and writing those two new ones over the last year. We recorded in January, so really, I had to get those guys on the same page and we wrote those two new songs in six months. I find you work best when you have a deadline. When I moved here, Chris Bruni asked me if I wanted to do a Man’s Gin album, and I was almost on the edge of asking him also, but he mentioned it first. I jumped at that and we scheduled January for recording it, and I had to get my shit together by January, and that was it (laughs). But I think it’s really important to set deadlines and goals, and a time you have to have something done by, otherwise you can get really lackadaisical.
Especially when you’re coming up with the arrangements for these tracks, too. If you don’t have a deadline, you can pretty much just keep going.
Sometimes you just need to record something, instead of overthinking it. Just put it down how it sounded at that point in time.
Actually, “Solid Gold Telephone” was one of the songs I wanted to ask you about. I get the Godfather reference, but what was it about that image that brought about that song?
Scott came up with that piano part and he came up with the main theme of “Solid Gold Telephone.” We meant it in a philosophical way, like a communication device between you and god, or the spirit world or whatever. Some kind of metaphysical telephone thing. We were just jamming on it one night and he just started singing out “solid gold telephone.” He’s kind of a kooky guy – that’s why we get along; we’re both fairly eccentric people. He’s playing that and he starts singing out “solid gold telephone,” and we’re jamming that for the whole night. For the next week, we were playing on that riff, and he came up with “Solid Gold Telephone” out of nowhere, but as we were singing, we realized what it could mean. Yeah, there’s a Godfather reference, and then there’s also that Andy Warhol gave Jim Morrison a gold telephone back, well, back when Morrison was still alive, to talk to god with, and we realized out of the blue that’s kind of a cool comparison. It’s a philosophical song, and the last lines are “I can’t get through” (laughs), so it’s reaching for some ultimate truth that you might not ever find, but you’re still trying.
What’s the story behind “The Death of Jimmy Sturgis?”
That was something we conceptualized also just jamming. I had the main riff and the arrangements to that song, and it initially didn’t have a theme like that, it was going to be more of a philosophical song, with metaphors and such, and then we started coming up with this idea about a hit man. This is what happens when you’re sitting around in a room, smoking pot and playing guitar. You come up with these random things. Scott started being like, “Yeah, why don’t we make this song about a hit man?” So we started just riffing on the lyrics and coming up with this fictional story about this guy who finds his wife cheating on him and the hit man takes care of both of them. It’s kind of a murder ballad (laughs), and as we were rolling with it, I started digging it a lot more. I like those songs that tell a story, and I think it’s good to put it in there. Sometimes I can focus too much on painting pictures with words and being philosophical. Sometimes I think it’s okay for a song to just tell a straight story too. I always liked how Nick Cave had those kinds of songs too, like “O’Malley’s Bar,” that 13-minute song he has about that dude who loses it in a bar and goes around killing everybody. I think a good murder ballad is something to respect (laughs).
Is it a different mindset for you, writing a story with lyrics or describing an idea?
Yeah. I would never made the “Jimmy Sturgis” song just on my own. I find I write the best introspective things when I’m by myself and usually late at night, between 2AM and 6AM, when the whole world is quiet and you can just sit there by yourself and think about things. That’s when I write my best philosophical things, like the lyrics to “Doggamn” or “Smiling Dogs.” But the storyline of the “Jimmy Sturgis” song was definitely a group effort. Me and Scott sitting there and being like, “Well, we have the initial idea. What can happen next?” Just building and building, writing the story as we went along. That’s something I really haven’t attempted to do on my own. It just came out of the blue as we were working on it and we just ran with it. That’s something I could explore in the future. You can’t write every song about “What the hell does it all mean?”
The promo I got of the album was just the liner notes and the disc, so I wanted to ask you about the decision to not put the lyrics in the liner notes.
I think the plan is I’m going to send Chris the lyrics to put up on his website. I feel like a casual listener might get distracted from the music if they’re sitting there reading along with the booklet as the music plays. I like when somebody has to come to the music, give it some of their own time and listen to it. I like it when I’m listening to a record for six months and one day you hear a phrase and finally you hear what the lyrics are, when you never could understand them before. I like that aspect of it. I like to make it not too immediate, and I understand a lot of people won’t take the time to go check out the lyrics, but the people who care, I think it’s more rewarding for them listening to it without seeing exactly what it’s saying. Also, I think most of the words you can make out if you really listen to it. Generally that’s what we do with Cobalt too. We don’t put the lyrics in the album. People have to go either to the website or to Chris’ website to see exactly what we’re saying. We’ve had good response so far with this method, and I don’t know if it’s something I’ll stick with forever, but I like to make it more of a piece of art rather than a commercial item. I like just having art in the liner notes, having the cover, the band name, album name, who played on it and just the art.
Another thing about the liner notes is it says you were in the studio “three consecutive weeks.” Were you in there all three weeks straight?
Yeah. It was great. We recorded with Colin Marston, my buddy who plays in several metal bands around here. It was cool. It was three or four days every week for those consecutive three weeks. I’m a bartender in Manhattan – I use that to pay my bills – but we recorded in January with Colin. It was good. It’s always really strenuous being in the studio because I’m a perfectionist and also I’m working with new guys. With Cobalt, it’s just me in the studio with Dave Otero back in Denver. It’s just me and him, and I can make everything exactly how I want it. When you’re working with two other people who’ve only heard your songs for six months, it can be kind of frustrating, because you know exactly how you want it to sound, and they’re like, “Why don’t we try this idea?” and you know in your head you want it to just sound like it does. Sometimes working with other people can be frustrating, but it’s also rewarding, because if I wasn’t working with other people, “Solid Gold Telephone” wouldn’t be on there. It was good. I also played the drums on the record. The whole process was cool. We did all the drums analog, straight to tape, and then put that on the main drive and did the rest digitally. That was a cool experience also, because I had to play the drums perfectly. You can’t go back with ProTools and edit analog recordings. That was kind of cool thing, because I’d never done that before. With all the Cobalt records, everything’s digital. We try to make it sound analog, but it’s all digital so you can edit. But that was a really cool experience, doing analog like an old school records. With this kind of music, with rock music or whatever you want to call it – Americana, dark folk, or whatever – I think that style of recording definitely works when it’s just music that’s created with instruments, no electronics, no fake drum beats, no overdubs. But Colin was really great. He’s a patient guy, and the studio’s nice too. Overall, it was a really great experience. You start to get relieved on that third week, once you’re done tracking and you’re mixing. That’s the fun part. The tracking is fun too, but you have to get it right, so it’s also kind of stressful. But in the last week, you’re reaping the fruits of your labor and listening to it and mixing it all together. That’s where all the fun happens. We did a couple extra days in February, I think, doing final mixes and mastering. It was good.
Are there plans for more material? Is it going to be an ongoing project?
Definitely. I don’t know if it’s gonna be big enough, no matter what I’m still going to be doing this stuff, because it’s what I do to enjoy myself here in life. There’s definitely going to be continuing Man’s Gin. We played Webster Hall a couple weeks ago with Altar of Plagues and this band Castevet, which is interesting because I know we’re on a metal label, but it was funny having Man’s Gin open up for black metal. But the turnout was really great and people seemed to like it, and I really didn’t catch any guff from people being like, “Well, that wasn’t heavy.” “I told you it wasn’t heavy!”
It’s kind of heavy anyway.
Yeah, I guess it is. It’s like heavy metal folk. I guess it is heavy (laughs).
Do you have anything else coming up show-wise?
We’re getting something together here the next couple months at the Mercury Lounge. I’d like to start gigging out a couple times a month here in New York, and it’d be cool to find a tour to be on, start touring around and see what we can do. Everybody starts somewhere, and I feel like we definitely have some wind in our sails, so we should just ride it and see what happens. Even if band members quit, I came here with these songs I wrote and it was just me. If I was gonna record the album with a band or if it was just me playing everything, the record was going to happen anyway. Basically, I like to do a record every two years, and I have a stack of 20 cassette tapes of guitar parts and arrangements that I haven’t used yet, so I have plenty of material to work with. It’s just piecing it together and deciding which ones together would make a good album. Even if I don’t have a band, I’d still like to do one-off gigs, just me and a guitar. It’s good to get out there and just sing sometimes.
No reason not to do it. I think the material on the record would work.
Yeah, definitely. When I started the band, it was me and my buddy Clint, who’s a blues guitarist from Colorado. For the first couple years of the band, it was just two guitars on the stage. We’d just sit there in chairs and play acoustic guitars and sing these songs. Several of these songs are just full-band versions of songs we were doing exclusively as acoustic songs.
And is Cobalt done?
No, no, Cobalt’s not done. Working on new material for that as well. Cobalt is a very patient effort for me, as it is with Phil. I’m working on songs. I have a couple. I have two songs fully written and arranged for the new Cobalt record. As I said, I have stacks of tapes of guitar parts and stuff, both for Man’s Gin and for Cobalt. There’s definitely enough there to piece together this new record. Phil’s going back to Iraq in November for another year. Once he gets back from that tour… I’d like to fly back to Denver, do it with Dave Otero again, probably. His studio’s pretty cool these days. He’s got a guesthouse out back, so if you fly out to record with him, you can stay in the guesthouse, record during the daytime and crash at night. It’s a decent setup there, but yeah, we have the album name and we have some imagery we’re already using and some main themes. I feel like it’s my duty and our duty to lay this shit on the table while we’re still around. I think we have a pretty unique dynamic and it’s something I think deserves to be recorded. I feel like it’s a purpose.
Tags: Brooklyn, Man's Gin, New York, New York City, Profound Lore