What does a musician do after his band breaks up? The cliché response is that he focuses on his solo project. But just because something’s a cliché, doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Carson Cessna is a keyboard player who’s played with a bunch of Northern Nevada rock bands, including Beard the Lion and Blunderbusst. His main group was Nancy Plays Nurse, a band that pleasantly, and accidentally, combined contemporary Canadian indie rock and ’70s style Southern rock. But Nancy Plays Nurse broke up, as bands do.
So Cessna started focusing on his solo project, Oh Gnosis!, which, despite the egregious exclamation mark in the name, is a thoughtful musical exploration. Cessna uses the name for a variety of interconnected personal projects: his DJ sets, instrumental hip-hop productions, solo noise music improvisations, and his collaborations with other musicians.
“It’s kind of like an umbrella name for anything that I do,” he says.
The eclectic nature of Oh Gnosis! was partly a reaction against playing in a rock band. Nancy Plays Nurse was a good and innovative band, but a traditional rock band nonetheless.
“I didn’t want to stop working,” says Cessna. “I’d been playing rock music for nine years, but I’m a keyboard player. I work more in electronic textures and things like that, and so, before I could move on a keep doing the rock band thing, I had to prove to myself that I could hold a project down, and write music that I think is interesting.”
Cessna’s primary instruments are a synthesizer, a sampler and an iPad, and these tools have innumerable applications in different settings.
For his DJ sets, plays different sampled sound loops against one another, altering them and mixing in a lot of ambient and post-rock music
“I’m definitely not a dance floor DJ,” he says.
He’s also a regular performer at the Reno Noise Night events at Reno Art Works. Those sets are improvised.
“I’ll come up with a general idea while I’m setting up my equipment, but I don’t actually know what the fuck I’m playing,” he says. “I found that I work really well when I’m thinking on my feet, when I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen. I like to record what I’m doing throughout the night, and I always find really cool stuff during playback that I use later.”
Cessna will occasionally collaborate with other musicians for the improvisational performances, including bassist Eric Foreman, guitarist Jen Scaffidi, violinist Samantha Gates, drummer Bryan Cowell, and the members of Memory Motel, a band with whom he collaborates regularly and shares a rehearsal space.
Along with improvisation, collaboration is one of his core musical values.
“Working with people keeps me on my feet and yields the most interesting results,” he says. “What I like to do as a producer is get really into the bass and the drums of a track and let other people just go crazy for a while, just roll tape and let other musicians record whatever their idea is, and I’ll take it home and spend a lot of time chopping it up, altering it, and manipulating it.”
These improvisations and collaborations then become the basis of his instrumental hip-hop compositions.
“I follow the hip-hop philosophy … piecing things together, making a song from elements of other songs, other pieces of music, but rather than sampling other people’s shit, I like to sample improvisations from musicians I know,” he says.
Cessna’s approach to music is so multifaceted that it can be difficult to define, but he calls himself an electronic music producer
“I think a lot of people over-think music, and I think that’s where a lot of the stale, boring not-so-great musical ideas come from—thinking too much about it,” he says. “I think when you’re freed up, and it’s coming from your spirit or whatever rather than your brain, not only does it create really interesting things, it separates the musician from, like, the person who can play guitar.”