PEELING BACK LAYERS Todd Gautreau

The Sonogram/Crushed
Stars/Tear Ceremony musician stares at his arm for a really long time. The
music world’s the better for it.

 

BY MARY LEARY

 

Why does “The Knack and How to Get It” feel so good? Is it
the way the track’s energy mounts, then resolves? The key the song’s in? Some
sort of subliminal trickery?

 

Had I anything like definitive answers to those questions, I
might be able to give Todd Gautreau a run for the modest pile of dollars he
says he accumulates for electronically-informed sound creation. Gautreau’s work
(as Sonogram or as the somewhat more pop-oriented Crushed Stars – his earlier
project was Tear Ceremony) tends to build and inhabit a precariously-maintained
universe. It’s a place where intellectual stimulation meets spiritual and/or
emotional solace. The world created through Sonogram, in particular, is not one
given to easy or simplistic answers.

Still, the gateway provided by Apparent
Microdots: An Introduction to Sonogram
, reaffirms something I’ve felt about
Gautreau all along – that his love of lyricism at least equals his entrancement
with digital possibilities. A heart beats clearly through nearly everything he
does. It’s part of what makes Sonogram recommended listening for connoisseurs
of fine melodies, immersive textures, and masterful electronica – with this
disclaimer: once submerged in Gautreau’s addicting world, it can be hard to
disengage.

 

Among this two-CD set’s revelations is a marvel of  jazzy atmospherics, “Mute Pixel,” and a
bright percolator called “Blinker and Star” (both originally on Pixels). Gautreau’s dry humor is evident
on the latter and in “Mood Ring,” from Arrival
Lounge
. Others, such as the Tear Ceremony track “Sleep in the Eyes,” elicit
giggles simply through consideration of their names next to the sounds that
follow.  I’m thoroughly absorbed by the
title track from Heartbeat Submarines,
which commences with a woman’s sensual murmurs, gives a little nod to the
Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” and peels back layers varied and thick enough to
fascinate a Jungian psychologist.

 

For anyone who likes to cook up a few mushrooms or brownies
before donning headphones, tracks such as “Departure Lounge” aren’t just
whistling “Dixie.” Taken from the album of the
same name, the first few bars (well-spaced, funky keyboards with opening trills
signaling tension) of “Arrival Lounge” could shadow a ‘70s Blaxploitation flick
sequence. Gradually, other sounds join or replace the basic motif.
Higher-pitched notes convey motion – then, a few minutes further in, imply the
passage of bodies, or aircraft, that then trail away. Hints of emotion are
overcome by a sort of sterile abstraction.

Life can be full of irony. I have a lot of questions for and about Todd
Gautreau’s work – too many, really, for the stilted, almost tentative interview
I can only do, at the moment, through machines.

 

Sonogram: “Soul
Brother”

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT:  Why are you putting Apparent Microdots: An Introduction to Sonogram out now?
TODD GAUTREAU: There are a number of reasons, really. The unexpected success of
“Soul Brother,” and “Anise Gumdrops,” from last year’s Cubists, brought a number of new fans who hadn’t heard the five
earlier records. Since a couple of those are out of print or generally hard to
find, I thought it would be a good time to assemble a collection to make it easier
to navigate the back catalog. I also have a much better studio than I did in
the early days, so many of the tracks were remixed. And everything was
remastered for better sound quality.

 

How did you choose
the tracks for the anthology?

I wanted to include not only the best-known, but also some
of the more obscure/ambient stuff, which is why we had to do two discs. I
wanted to show the more experimental side of Sonogram to those who only know
the more beat-oriented tracks. Some songs are there because I felt they really
deserved another chance to be heard. A few others were included mainly because
people will expect them to be. And there are probably lots of Crushed Stars
fans who are still unaware of Sonogram – another reason to put out this compilation.

        Since there
probably won’t be a Tear Ceremony anthology, I thought it would interesting to
include a couple of TC tracks – either to confuse people or provide a bread
crumb to lead them to the Tear Ceremony records. “Sleep in the Eyes” and “Brill Building,
4 AM” are two of my favorite TC tracks. “Sleep in the Eyes” was actually one of
the first things I ever recorded on four-track, many years ago. I think it’s
just two guitars and a delay pedal, because that’s about all I had at the time,
but it creates a nice, otherworldly atmosphere with very little.

Which tracks deserve another chance to
be heard, and why?

I think “Mute Pixel” was one that needed another chance – that’s one of my
favorites. Also, “The Knack and How to Get It” –  this mix features a new piano part. Another
would be the cover of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which is the only
Sonogram track to ever feature a vocal. I thought that one had a lot of potential.
It came about when an agent alerted me to an opportunity for a Mad Men remix project. We were given a
list of songs to choose from and this was the one that I thought I could do the
most with. I had never done a remix before, and generally don’t like them, so
it was a challenge. But I thought the results were interesting. The song made
it to the final cut, but apparently the project lost its funding. Since I could
no longer use any elements of the original recording, I stripped those out,
leaving just my own instrumentation, and had a new vocalist sing it; turning it
into a cover.

Why are you especially fond of “Mute
Pixel” and your other favorites?

“Mute Pixel” was approached differently from the way I
usually work. It combined elements from a number of different sources and I
thought the result was surprisingly cohesive. It starts rather ambient, then
goes to a jazz drum beat – then, later, the drums get glitchy and keep things
interesting. I think it’s one of the longest Sonogram tracks, as well.

        My favorites
tend to change depending on my mood. “Certainly Obscured” is a favorite. It’s a
track I barely remember composing. When I played it back a few days later I had
no memory of working on it or where it had come from. I only remembered playing
the synth line. So it’s nice when these mysterious things happen. “This Place
Has No Memories” is an early track which has always resonated deeply for some
reason. Sometimes the simplest tracks are the most effective. Other tracks,
like “Soul Brother,” I like because they were more challenging to create, and
took me out of my comfort zone.

 

Re: “having no
memory of working on it or where it came from,” do you tend to pull long
shifts, and/or end up working into the wee hours?

I used to work late into the evening, for eight hours or so. Lately, I tend to
work earlier in the evening, and for shorter periods – maybe four hours. But I
think “Certainly Obscured” must have come about when I took a break from
working on another piece. Sometimes when I am looking for sounds for one track
I will stumble upon a new melody and record a brief portion to come back to
later.

 

Do you work best on
coffee, alcohol, herbal substances, or some combination?

I usually work with nothing – maybe a little coffee
beforehand. Then, if things are going well, I forget to eat –  but usually drink afterwards. I don’t think I
have ever recorded under the influence of anything, although that can influence
the writing.

What about your location (Dallas, Texas)
adds or doesn’t add to your artistic process?

I used to think a different location would have its advantages, but now I don’t
think it’s as relevant. I stay in most of the time now anyway, so I don’t get
exposed to many local influences, but I don’t really need much in the way of
outside stimulus. Just being in the studio is all I need to come up with
something.

 

Do you go out and see
live music? If so, what have you seen in the last year or so that you’ve liked?

I only see a couple of shows a year, usually a road show. The last one was
Joseph Arthur. It was really impressive the way he worked with loops alone on
stage.

What are you listening to lately, in
terms of music by others? And of those, do you think any are going to stand the
test of time?

I find it harder finding new things I am interested in. I think Daughn Gibson
is very interesting and original. But some of the younger bands I listen to I
recognize are very derivative, so, no, I don’t think those will stand the test
of time. Lately I have been listening to the obscure R&B of the Numero
label, which is totally unrelated to my own work. Most of what I buy is stuff I
missed earlier, like Can, Kevin Ayers, Felt, Dave Kusworth, Dusty Springfield,
Neu… just filling in the gaps of my record collection with records that used to
be difficult to find but which, of course, you can now download.

 

Do you have other
creative interests or pursuits? Do you feel that they affect the sounds you
make?

My degree is in literature, so I read a lot for inspiration.
But it all manifests itself in music. And I’ve done a few Crushed Stars videos,
which are fun, but I have limited skills and resources to pursue that much
further. Sometimes the world of a book or a film will provide a grain of
inspiration. Jean Cocteau and the films of Ingmar Bergman were a big influence
early on, but I have probably exhausted that influence by now.

 

How did you determine
track placement for the anthology?

I deliberated quite a bit on that. The temptation was to do
it chronologically, but that would have put the stronger, more recent material
last – and people have short attention spans these days. So the first disc
pulls heavily from the last two records (Cubists and Pixels), and tends to be more
upbeat. Disc Two delves further into the back catalog. It is almost a backwards
chronology, but there are exceptions to keep things interesting. And sometimes
a song will make it onto a record to balance it out. “Anise Gumdrops” is an
example. I felt Cubists just needed a
little lift towards the end, so that track served that purpose. Ironically, it
was the track that got the most airplay. For the compilation, it was more
important to provide a broad overview, showing an overall trajectory over a
span of time. So it was like working with larger blocks.

 

When you mention
listeners who’re new to your work, you’re talking about satellite radio, yes?

Satellite radio has been the most influential. Sirius XM
airplay has brought Sonogram more exposure than anything else has.

 

Which music has been
getting the most airplay?

“Soul Brother” and “Anise Gumdrops” from Cubists have received the most airplay.
From the previous record, Pixels,
it’s been “Beatnik” and “Wayfare.”

 

While airplay helps
get your work out, do you notice it contributing to sales?

It influences sales slightly, but not nearly as much as one might think. It
hasn’t led to a significant increase in record sales, but it certainly has
brought a new level of awareness. And those royalties will make the cost of the
next couple of records easier to absorb. Sonogram doesn’t get as much press as
Crushed Stars, but record sales are comparable. The iTunes generation tends to
cherry-pick, buying the songs they are familiar with instead of experiencing
the entire album as a whole. It’s unfortunate for the album as an art form, but
it is how most people experience music now.

 

Have any of the
tracks for which you wanted more exposure turned out to be radio hits?

The more beat-oriented ones seem to get the most airplay. And I tend to be more
partial to the moodier ones, which don’t get as much airplay. But there are
also radio-friendly tracks, like “The Knack and How to Get It,” and
“Lift,” that I expected would get more airplay and did not.

 

Is new Sonogram
material in the offing?

There is a new Sonogram, which is pretty much finished – it
just needs to be mixed. The plan was to put the compilation out earlier this
year, and the new one, later this year. The compilation took a little longer
than planned so the new one will probably be out around March. It’s on its
third working title, which is currently “How We Saw Tomorrow,” loosely based on
the concept of how we once imagined the future would be versus how things have
turned out. There are fewer beats and more textures. It’s a very
organic-sounding record, with fewer synths, and more low frequency loops
including some field recordings. The percussion is glitchier, or just a minimal
pulse instead of a drum machine or drum loops. I’m excited about it. I think
it’s a leap forward.

 

Anything else you’d
like to tell BLURT’s readers?

I will start working on the next Crushed Stars record early next year. As most
people know, it is a difficult time for small labels and indie artists. We have
taken quite a hit from people streaming music instead of purchasing it. The
revenue from streaming is virtually non-existent, so we keep our records
off  Spotify. I encourage people to limit
their reliance on streaming and YouTube and to support the indie artists they
listen to by actually buying their music. It can literally determine whether
some artists will be able to afford to make their next record.

 

I have one more
question. As a former fan of 
hallucinogenics, I could probably answer “What are microdots?” myself.
And “apparent microdots” has a nice assonance. But what are they, to you? And
why did you choose that name, one that you apparently liked enough to use for
both the original album of that name and the anthology?

Your first guess is correct. I also like it because it has other meanings. For me,
it implies a number of pieces coming together in unison, like this compilation. But it
also reminds me of this thing I used to do as a kid where I would push my eyes
against my forearm really hard until all I could see was gray, then slowly
these tiny colored dots would appear as I became dizzy.
Plus I just liked the way the words sounded – and it lent itself to a nice
graphic design concept.

 

 

Apparent Microdots: An
Introduction to Sonogram
was released on October 2, by Gautreau’s label,
Simulacra Records: www.simulacrarecords.com

 

 

Leave a Reply