Premiere + Interview: We’re Peeling Back the Layers of Those Darn Gnomes
Christian Molenaar and the arthouse freaks in Those Darn Gnomes are back with a brand new EP, a megalith composition of flayed skin and abrasive noise. Get in here to get a taste of the new terror and hear how it all goes down in Molenaar’s twisted mind.
Despite its atypical structure, caustic production, and generally bewildering weirdness, Those Darn Gnomes’ last album, The Zodiac, was a surprise hit here at the Toilet and parts abroad, catching the attention of Metalsucks, The Needle Drop, and Soundscape Magazine. The mixed appreciation and puzzlement was well warranted; The Zodiac is as beguiling as any dark ambient album yet as compositionally byzantine as any extreme metal record, deftly veering from genius to insanity to sheer ugliness in a way that revered weirdos like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and UneXpect can only dream.
Peeling, the new single-track EP from the avant-garde misfits, keeps the faith of The Zodiac alive and well. Featuring a scabrous production clashing with daring musicianship, it’s a nigh indigestible work of malice equal parts incoherent and brilliant. Even extreme metal fans will be tested by its sonic irregularities, its demanding song structure, and its refusal to play by the rules, but patient listeners will be rewarded with a texturally rich tapestry laced with intricate details cryptographers will be attempting to decipher for years to come.
I was fortunate enough to sit down (metaphorically) with Molenaar himself to get the skinny on Peeling.
W: To start, what the hell did I just listen to, haha?
CM: Good question! “Peeling” is a track we recorded during the sessions for our last album The Zodiac in April of 2016. The album featured a lot of guests and some substantial rehearsals, so sometimes when we were all together we’d just hit record and jam to blow off some steam from recording the more intense written parts.
Is Peeling an improvised piece or more of a planned composition?
The whole piece is improvised, though we did have a few ideas to run with throughout. Much of the song was built off a five note series (G, F, G#, F# and A#) which gets reharmonized and repeated and generally messed with throughout. The songs on The Zodiac feature a lot of serialist transformations and recontextualizing of tone rows so we were kind of still in that headspace. The “motto” theme from Shostakovich‘s 8th string quartet was definitely a big inspiration as far as taking a simple musical idea and presenting it in many different fashions.
Other than that, I just told Mark to try to avoid any straightup death metal vocals in the interest of trying something new. Mark is a genuinely exceptional singer in the bluesy hard rock vein and I sometimes feel guilty for writing nonsense music with no melodies but he still arrives at a very unique method of expression.
The recording is a little bit rough, and knowing you, I think that’s intentional. Would you mind shedding a little light on the recording process? What were you trying to achieve? Do you think you nailed it?
I’m definitely a noise guy and I love terrible lo-fi garbage, but I actually think this track is an easier listen than anything on The Zodiac! The album has so much layering and this was just the four of us in the room. Like I said, this was done at the same time so the sound is similar but I think this is easily one of our more listenable tracks.
As for the process itself, we recorded the album and this track with two iPhones placed on opposite ends of the room to get a stereo image. I lost a lot of gear when my old space flooded so I wasn’t equipped for much more and didn’t want to sit on the music until I had a better setup. The album was primarily done live in one take with various guitar and vocal overdubs after the fact, and “Peeling” is no exception save for the lack of editing or overdubbing. Both releases have a pretty ugly, trashy sound that I really enjoy, though I was a little worried before the album’s release that some listeners may mistake the music’s ugliness as a byproduct of the poor recording quality. Ultimately I think I succeeded in getting a pretty even mix in spite of having so many instruments competing for space. Our next album is still being recorded live, but I’ve managed to replace a lot of the gear I lost so the fidelity may be, uh, existent this time around. The music is harsher than ever though!
How many instruments were used to record Peeling (and Zodiac, I guess)? Also why did you want Mark to avoid death growls?
Peeling was a very straightforward recording by our core lineup; Bryon played drums, Russell played bass, Mark sang and I played guitar. This is actually our first recording on which I don’t play flute, which is somewhat strange; it was my first instrument and I use it quite a bit during our live improvisations as well as on every song on The Zodiac.
That album featured a number of guest instrumentalists to help bring the arrangements to life. At the time, Bryon would be pick me up from class and we’d head back to my house to begin learning the new material and recording various sessions as a band, either of the written parts or free improvisation. The instrumentation got sorta wild; “I Advanced, Masked” alone features the four of us (plus extra guitar and vocal overdubs) as well as Joe from Mortal Bicycle on second bass, a string trio and Kim Nakamura from AJ on saxophone, plus some heavily layered vocals at the end from Katie Walker and Roger Ralphs of Ahexadron. There’s some other ridiculous stuff as well; the solo acoustic guitar sections were recording by placing vibrators against the strings of a guitar prepared with paper clips and about two thirds of the way into the song is a drone section in which all four of us play drums.
I think Mark comes up with some very unique methods of vocalizing which fit our music well. I’m a big fan of death metal vocals but I often find them to lack much expression, since they are by nature rather monotonous. I prefer something with more dynamics, but I still wanted it to sound harsh and not be straightforward singing. This recording, like all of ours, was an experiment in which we tried new things, some of which we’re certainly going to revisit in the future. I think this EP makes for an excellent bridge between The Zodiac and our upcoming third album.
Is Mark screaming something about a cat at the beginning of Peeling?
It’s entirely possible! None of the lyrics were written beforehand so you have about as good an idea as I what they might be, haha. I know at the time of the recording we were reading about and frequently discussing portrayals of extreme violence and its intersections with conceptions of gender in various media, especially TV shows and video games. We’re a lot of fun to hang out with, I swear!
One of the things I’m getting from this is that Those Darn Gnomes does everything in a manner atypical of metal. Do you honestly consider yourselves a metal band, or would you say you’re more of an art project? Somewhere in between?
I definitely don’t think we’re a metal band, though that music is obviously a huge part of our DNA as a group – of course, so is free jazz, baroque music, hip-hop, noise and whatever else we’re into. We certainly incorporate elements of performance art and actionism into what we do but I’d say we’re a band releasing records first and foremost. Still, I’d love to branch out further and do more art outside of music or performance. We’re planning some video installations for our next album but that’s still a ways off.
And how has your reception been in the metal community?
I think by and large the metal community is completely unaware of us and what we’re doing. Again, our music is far from strictly metal but I think there’s enough within for fans of some of the more out-there stuff like Pyrrhon, Ehnahre or Kayo Dot to get something from it, though of course the artist’s perception of their own work is generally of no import. I knew the influences I was working from on our first album but I still thought when people heard it they’d consider it within the lineage of, say, Gorguts or Human Remains. Of course we were then hilariously rejected from just about anywhere even associated with metal, so as I said, it doesn’t matter what the artist thinks!
For whatever reason we seem to have struck a chord with fans of indie and electronic music. Early on, some of the people who bought The Zodiac on Bandcamp had collections filled with similarly scummy metal and gross power electronics, which was cool. After we were featured on The Needle Drop, suddenly everyone’s collections were full of vaporwave and Lil Ugly Mane, which is still cool! I like that kind of genre crossover and I think it’s awesome our music is one of those intersections. Someone on that video called us the anti-Deafheaven, presumably for our apparent lack of melody, but I would love to be as alternately adulated and reviled as those guys!
Can you tell me more about those video installations?
Our third album is still only about a quarter to a third completed and nothing is set in stone so forgive me if I speak only in very vague terms… Two of the songs on the next album have planned multimedia projects associated with them. I’ve written some choreography and the final pieces will incorporate music, poetry, dance and visual art in a typically nasty, Gnomes-y manner. I’m very fortunate to be close with some extremely talented, creative artists; our drummer Bryon works as a video editor and our mutual pal Sam Hinsvark (who has assisted with the layout for all our releases) is equally well-versed in filmmaking. Again, the album isn’t even close to completed yet and these things are still entirely in the planning stages but I’m nonetheless excited to see how they turn out.
If you got as big as Deafheaven, what life-ruining vice would you pick up?
Tough call! Probably Ray-Bans.
How metropolitan. So if you could get any guest artists on the next Gnomes album, who would they be?
Oh man, there are a million people with whom I’d love to work. Toby Driver, Alan Dubin, Christian Fennesz, Ephemeral Domignostika, Troy Schafer, Colin Marston, Clay Ruby, Ryan McGuire and Charlie Looker all come to mind. I’m really down to work with whoever though. Anyoen reading this should hit me up! I’d like to do more short releases between albums, be they splits, EPs or collaborations. We’re working on a collaborative full-length with Gridfailure as well as some kind of conceptual split sort of thing with Mortal Bicycle. Hopefully Peeling is just the first of many! I feel very fortunate to have worked with the people we have, and I’m looking forward to revealing who’s on the next album.
I can see it now, you and Charlie Looker shrieking about the Cremation of Care!
Hell yeah, I’d love to get into some Bohemian Grooves with the man himself! There are so many other people with whom I’d leap at the chance to work with. Kate Soper, Matana Roberts, Ravi Kitappa, Clarence Clarity, Blanck Mass… Any one of these would be a dream come true.
I think that about covers all our bases. Anything else you’d like to add?
Everyone reading this: buy my shit! And thank you so much for your time and all the thoughtful questions!
Thanks so much to Christian Molenaar for the insightful look behind the chaos. It certainly makes it easier to appreciate something so eccentric; those percussive cascades and sustained notes take on a whole new meaning when you find out it’s all improvised!