In 2009 Grayson Gilmour was awarded a $12,000 APRA Professional Development Grant, which he used to further his compositional studies overseas. In the years since, he has largely put his career as a musician aside, in favour of making good use of that grant and training, scoring soundtracks for several Kiwi films including The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, Existence and Shopping. But now, as he tells James Manning, he is ready to once again play the role of the musician – to present himself in a new musical light and promote his seventh album, ‘Infinite Life’.
Clad in black and wielding a sword, Grayson Gilmour approaches a dragon for battle and loses, his limbs torn from his body and thrown into a bloody creek. He lays defenceless in agony, blood smeared over his face, as the dragon swims off.
This may sound gruesome but it’s actually quite hilarious. It’s the music video for Gilmour’s recently released single Minus Times Infinity, which has been included in the prestigious BBC Music Video Festival, with praise given in particular to the fact director Jessie Taylor Smith hand-painted each frame, lending a fairytale sense to the piece.
Filmed in the Australian outback and based on the old Fritz Lang film Siegfried, the fate of the Wellington multi-instrumentalist offers more than comic relief, and acts a metaphor for his reinvention as Gilmour explains.
“It was [Jessie’s] idea, because I was telling him how this album and a lot of where I was creatively, was doing away with any former notion of myself. So he was like, “Why don’t we kill you in the video?’ And I’m into that,” he laughs. “‘Do me in any way you want.’”
It’s an overcast Monday afternoon in Wellington, and the recently released Orchestra of Sphere’s record is playing in the living room of Grayson Gilmour’s flat. Sitting at the dining table with a cup of coffee, I find the prolific 28-year old in a cheerful manner as he describes the background of ‘Infinite Life’, his seventh solo album, due to be released in March.
His first album since 2010’s critically acclaimed ‘No Constellations’ and second on NZ label Flying Nun, ‘Infinite Life’ is a record that finds Gilmour plunging into a world of found sounds and experimenting with rhythmic noises and textures.
A progression from the orchestral chamber pop stylings of his back catalogue, it still retains the trademark lush arrangements and lucid tendencies, and is a process of re-invention that Gilmour found all too enticing.
“I like that ability to re-invent yourself, while still keeping the essence of yourself intact. I was trying to push it in that direction; to still keep resemblance of song structure and keep those ideas intact, but invert them and push all the interesting textural sounds forward, and push the bones – the drums, bass, piano and guitar – to the back, [letting] the weird stuff engage in front.”
Pitched in a melodic and rhythmic manner, the ‘weird stuff’ ranges from collages of strange warbling tape, hypnosis blips, light house sirens, human heartbeats and weird noises of vinyl glitchy bips and bobs.
It also features more human samples, including a recording of a fortune teller and perhaps most intriguingly, the sound of a woman being exorcised – fed through an echo chamber.
“The exorcism was funny. It’s a weird old recording of this Evangelist preacher who went around America exorcising people in the southern States, and the woman sounds like she’s totally putting it on, and it was already distorted so it must have been old equipment.”
Of course, Gilmour has been pushing sonic boundaries for years as a member of schizophrenic dance punk trio So So Modern. Since their last release, 2010’s stunning ‘Crude Futures’, the multi-instrumentalist has been kept busy writing music for film.
Three years on and after scoring for NZ films Existence, Shopping and The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, Gilmour admits hopping from one project to the next is what put the sketches of ‘Infinite Life’ on hold.
“The film stuff just took over my life. It was a welcome change – I had always wanted to get into film scoring, which is why a lot of other stuff went on hold for three years . I just got caught up with too many finer details.
While that keen eye for the finer details has acted a strength in his musical guises, it also helps in distinguishing the differences between film and album music, as Gilmour contrasts the two sonic mediums with ease.
“Doing film music is the polar opposite of music for an album, or music for music’s sake. When you’re doing music for film it’s almost counter-intuitive, it’s supposed to be a supporting factor rather than taking the limelight.
“You pick up on the psycho-acoustic side of it – like a certain texture or sound [would] make [the audience] feel this way or that way – there’s so much subliminal stuff going on.”
It is easy to draw connections between Gilmour’s film training and its influence on the album. Each noise, texture and layer within every track is composed with specific intention, the lucidity with which it flows a testament to his ability to engage with the listener through a full album body.
On standout track Pareidolia, a half-electric and half-acoustic piano is run through a pitch bender, for the specific reason that it evokes the tone of what Gilmour considers the afterlife.
“It sounds like it’s been played by a whammy bar, and for me it was a really euphoric, spiritual sound, the afterlife kind’a sound right there.”
Eerie and unnerving tones begin the track before a pitter-patter drum beat flows around the vocals, melancholic and melodic at once.
Pareidolia is a term used to describe seeing an uncanny pattern of something turn up where you wouldn’t expect it. For example, say, animals in the clouds, or a black dog in your tea cup, or a face on Mars. On ‘Infinite Life’, it deals with seeing deceased family members in other, uhhh, older folk.
“When I was young my grandparents passed away, and in recent years I’ve had these funny instances where I’m dealing with someone that might be 60, 70, or 80 years old, and I’m like, ‘Man, is this what having a grandparent is like,’ – you know? It might just be a lady at the post office, something really fleeting, and it’s so strange to see something in this person that they’d never expect. Those uncanny moments are what charged that song – and the spirituality of occurrence.”
I enquire about the recording and mastering of the record, and Gilmour leads the way upstairs to a triangular attic full of various keyboards, effects peddles, musicology books, computers and other recording equipment.
A complete DIY project, everything was recorded in the confines of this attic, including the demos. He teamed up with James Goldsmith to do the final mix – “Where he’d undo all my ‘unconventional’ mixing techniques and make it sound the way it should. ‘Infinite Life’ was later mastered with Mike Gibson, who Gilmour has frequently worked with. Like many other musicians struggling in a market dominated by digital fraud, the multi-instrumentalist has learnt on the job.
Clocking in at just over 43 minutes, the 13 tracks of ‘Infinite Life’ were written between the film scoring and his solo travelling expeditions around Asia. On some trips, he’d bring along a field recorder instead of an iPod to pick up strange street ambiences and other obscure life sounds.
“Just reverse psychology, I’m going there to listen.”
Gilmour is particularly proud that the album feels like a journey that features an arc, a direction. He likens it to a snapshot of a unique time period.
“It’s a journey, and you don’t get people writing fully-fledged albums that have an arc, a direction. I feel writing an album is like taking a picture of yourself at a certain stage of your life, it’s like finishing a diary.”
And so with one diary completed, the future is looking just as busy, with Grayson Gilmour determined to push the boundaries even further with his next release, which he is already thinking of.
“It’s like a blessing and a curse – I can never sit still for long enough,” he laughs.
In the meantime, a nationwide tour is in the works to showcase the album in a live setting, and with the subject matter and reputations of both So So Modern and his solo live performances, it is sure to provide very engaging performances.