Keeping up with the Ganglians
Sacramento four-piece retains its California cool on new album
Sacramento, CA 95814
When the indie-music gatekeepers at Pitchfork bestowed an 8.1 rating to the Ganglians’ debut full-length, Monster Head Room, in the summer of 2009, it propelled the local four-piece on a sudden and wild journey. No Sacramento band had—or to this day has—received as high a ranking, and the fruits of such accolades included multiple European jaunts, major-label carrot dangling and tour offers from the likes of big-timers such as Florence and the Machine and Wavves.
But when the ride ended last year, the young 20-somethings—Alex Sowles on drums, Kyle Hoover on guitar, Adrian Comenzind on bass and vocalist/songwriter Ryan Grubbs—found themselves back where they’d started: in Sacramento, working paycheck to paycheck, hustling for cheap practice spaces and devoid of new songs, and possibly inspiration, for an already hotly anticipated sophomore release.
It proved to be a frustrating middle ground: not making enough money with music to quit working their day jobs, but needing to quit their day jobs to tour, record and earn a living with music.
As singer Grubbs put it, “We did go through some shit between this album and the last.”
“This album” is Still Living, a marathon full-length follow-up to the band’s ’09 breakthrough which, after nearly two years in the making, will finally drop on August 23.
And by “some shit,” Grubbs is talking about band drama: his temporary move to San Francisco earlier this year, bassist Comenzind’s decision to quit the band for a few months, and Hoover and Sowles’ side project, Fine Steps—with former Mayyors drummer Julian Elorduy—while on Ganglians hiatus.
Now, however, the four are reunited, reinvigorated and ready to embark on some serious work—first a West Coast run, then a full-on U.S. jaunt this fall. Comenzind and Grubbs recently dotted Europe to do press junkets, too.
The entire band sat down with SN&R last week at a Midtown bar to hash out the finer points of their sonic travails, emotional tribulations—and future trepidations.
After a false start with Death Grips producer Andy Morin, the 12-track Still Living was laid down at downtown’s Hangar studios by Robby Moncrieff between August 2010 and February 2011. It was an atypically protracted studio session for any band, let alone one with scant financial support (European label Souterrain Transmissions financed the album’s production).
Moncrieff, an electronic and hip-hop producer, says he agreed to do the album because he was “attracted to the idea of making a rock band’s record into something more than a rock band’s record.” Ganglians, too, were on board with his plan of attack. Guitarist Hoover wanted to shed the band’s surf-rock and lo-fi image—a sound that thrust them onto the national stage in ’09, via the dream-pop stylings of such ’60s acts as the Millennium and also the playful, poppy West Coast garage vibe of contemporaries such as the Fresh & Onlys.
They also wanted to distance themselves from any rock ’n’ roll singer-songwriter malapropism. “We’re not a folk band,” Hoover said. “After this album, I know we’re not going to get booked with some weird folk acoustic guy anymore.”
Certainly Still Living is at once a departure and a familiar place. “Evil Weave,” “Jungle,” and “My House” speak to the guys’ instincts for shorter, even cartoony acoustic-pop power jams—but with more polished, cleaner, and in-stereo production this go around.
Lengthier, more complex songs, such as “Sleep” and “Bradley”—two of the album’s more memorable tracks—come from a newfound, deeper, even overcast artistic bone. Grubbs says he wrote down most of the lyrics while burning through cigarettes in the Hangar’s cavernous main room, and his words echo confessions. He sings, “Oh no, here we go, I’m alone again,” on rocker “The Toad,” and his words are fraught with loneliness and aggravation, a 20-something in a world of catastrophic unemployment and widespread disillusion.
“If you’re not struggling, then you’re not going to make good music,” Grubbs argued.
On the flip side, the band still hasn’t shaken its lackadaisical West Coast cool. The album’s finest track, “That’s What I Want”—a slow-jam ode to attraction and social awkwardness—is a catchy amalgam of Hoover’s dreamy Fender tone, Grubbs’ beachcomber Brian Wilson alto, and Sowles and Comenzind’s Highway 1 bumping backbeat—complete with Fisher-Price xylophone flourishes, for good trademark Ganglians fun.
This said, Still Living is disengaging at first listen—much like Ariel Pink’s most recent, and excellent, full-length—and could be dangerously unfriendly to critics, who without a doubt spend increasingly less time coddling new releases as a glut of records inundates their inboxes. It’s probably “not cool” for a band to worry about such things, but, as the Ganglians note, if their follow-up is not warmly embraced, it will have an effect.
“I hate it, but I worry about it,” Hoover conceded of reviews. “Because, let’s face it, if we get a bad review on Pitchfork, it impacts how much we get paid at a show.”
“You have to be aware of it,” Comenzind added. “And then you have to say, ‘Fuck it.’”
This of course is a healthy, and sage, compromise. While local bands over the years have approached the four guys, coveting their critical praise, the Ganglians—especially on the heels of their so-called “reunion”—seem more enthused than ever about the prospects of simply being a band and making music they love.
Comenzind is refreshed, wanting to create a “magical space” where he can jam and create for 24 hours a day. Grubbs yearns to explore a “more futuristic” sound—so long as it’s not “in a trans-Neil Young way,” Hoover objected. The guys hope to recruit a fifth member to richen the live versions of their songs.
And, as Sowles put it, everyone just feels a little more “yeah!”
It’s uncertain, their future, but it’s welcome.
“At this point, we have no idea,” Grubbs confessed.
“But I’m kind of excited to find out,” said Hoover.