“Pretty Caveman-like, Actually:” The Rebecca Gates Interview
It’s been 11 years since former Spinanes frontwoman Rebecca Gates released a solo album, but she hasn’t been resting on her laurels in that time. Rather, between curating art shows and making sound installations, she’s been recording her new record The Float over the span of all these years and several cities. And finally we get to hear the result of that hard work.
Are you at home in Portland?
For the moment. We’re gonna go record for the public station in a little bit, but it’s good. It’s sunny. It’s nice.
What are you recording for public radio?
There’s a show on Satuday and Sunday nights called In House, and they have bands come in and record and play there.
Is it all the same people who were on the record with you? The consortium?
It’s the touring band right now. We all live here in town. The record was made with a lot of different people in a lot of different cities, so this is the current lineup.
I was wondering about that. Have you been recording over the years or did you spend your time just writing the songs and then find musicians and record once you had settled on how everything was going to be?
I recorded over the years, and I kind of recorded as I went in different places — Chicago, with friends who live there, and Montreal, with friends who live there, and Portland with friends who live here. It was a nice opportunity for me to to get to play with people who are really amazing, so it was good. That’s how I ended up making the record. It wasn’t just “I got my eleven songs” and now I’m gonna do this. It was more like “this one’s done. Let’s take care of this.”
Were there songs that didn’t make the final cut?
Not really. There were some that were getting close that I just didn’t finish. “And And And” was the last song to be finished. I had the record done — It wasn’t mastered done, but I felt like it needed one more song, and that one was lingering. I finished it and I’m happy I did. It rounded out the record a lot.
It sounds remarkably cohesive for something that was recorded the way it was.
Thank you. That was something that was important to me, so I thought about that as I made it over the years, making sure those things were taken care of and paid attention to.
I understand from your website, that you’re pretty much doing everything yourself aside from publicity and the actual pressing. How did you come to that decision?
It’s half and half. I’ve been doing it a little bit as an experiment because the way the business has shifted it allows artists to do their own releases. It makes a lot of sense for someone like me. That said, I didn’t really have much interest from labels or booking agents. So it was like, well, I do want to finish this record, I do want to tour. I know a lot about this business. I do want to tour. I’ve always been self-managed. I’ve always taken care of a lot of it, so I’ll just take more of it on. It’s a lot of work. I’m not sure how sustainable it is if there’s not a shift in one direction. I would love to be balls-to-the-wall one hundred percent doing this right now.
I was talking to someone yesterday, and I made a little more of an effort to be transparent with my business with friends, finances, ways that we’re all trying to solve problems as the music business changes. It’s a little bit weird to say in interviews, ‘No label made sense to me and nobody wants to book me.’ So it’s like ‘Hi, I’m a loser, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.’ I think the thing that’s interesting for me is that yeah, it’d be great if I had those resources, but if I’m having trouble like that, what does it mean for other artists? It’s an interesting time. I’m putting a whimsical eye on it.
I was interviewing someone yesterday and asking her about her tour, and she said she couldn’t afford to take a band out on the road with her. Hearing things like that breaks my heart, that artists have to change their aesthetic desires because of the way the economy works for musicians.
We had a really privileged time in the last twenty years. I was always amazed that someone wanted to give me money to put out a record. There are a lot of people I know that are touring solo, if not all the time, then part of the time, because they can’t afford to take out a band. I love playing solo, I love doing both, but it is an economic necessity. One of the things I wonder is if there will come a point when people who go to shows will want to see bands play and not solo artists. There certainly are a ton of bands on the road, so there’s people who are making it work or not, so it’s a challenge for me, for sure. I think it’s important sometimes to be, like, well if I had a shop and was selling flowers and hand-sewn tablecloths, there would probably be some hard weeks when people didn’t come into the store. So just putting it in perspective like that is important, I think.
How did you do your fund raising for the record?
Oh, the old-fashioned way.
No, I don’t mean that to be an asshole. I would work, and then I would go in the studio. And I would work and I would go in the studio. I was encouraged to do a Kickstarter, but I never did, because I was too busy, which I know sounds stupid. But I still might like to do one because there’s more I want to do around the record. I think that those sorts of solutions are working for friends of mine. I’m not sure how long they’ll work, but it’s a super great resource to have. I just never felt okay with doing that, and now I’m seeing that that might be the only way to work the record properly.
I was wondering about that, like if there’d be videos, or how much else would happen about their record.
I wanted to see what level of interest there was at all. I’m at that point. We’ve sold some digitally through Cash Music, which is amazing. It’s just a rolling release. Vinyl’s been out for a while, digital’s been out for a while, cd is coming out this week. So we’ll see what happens. We want to do videos, and I’d like to do ads.
Switching subjects, I was reading about the panel you did at the Portland art museum. Can you tell me more about that?
I’ve been working with the Future Music Coalition and with ATC, which is Air Traffic Control San Francisco, which is the group that came out of the Beastie Boys concert for Tibet. I’ve been working with them in a volunteer capacity in different ways. Partially because when I was not putting out records, one of the things that I did was I curated art shows. I have a real strong interest in cities and in artists working in cities and the business of music and the business of arts. There’s such an interesting intersection right now between tech development and musicians and money. It’s a really difficult thing to talk about. I thought the Emily White and David Lowery hoo-ha of last week was great because it really expanded the vocabulary to talk about it, and that’s really what I’m trying to do. So I worked with PICA, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and they did a whole symposium with choreographers, dancers, visual artists, and filmmakers from New York. The theme without was sharing economies and new economies. I just basically got together four musicians who are working musicians and run their own businesses basically, and they were coming from four different ways of raising money and thinking about music. It was just a chance for us all to come together and talk a tiny bit about these questions of how we do business. We had Cool Nutz. He’s this hiphop guy who’s been working in Portland for 2O years on his own music and doing a festival and doing management and tour management. He’s just been involved in every aspect of the business. He has his own record label. Holcombe Waller, who’s been working on a theatrical music piece, though at heart he’s a singer-songwriter. Laura Gibson, who works about half the time in Europe and half the time in the US. John Savage, who’s this amazing flute player here in town and makes avant garde music.
Do you do any visual art yourself?
I do photography, and I’ve had a couple little shows. I love design and I am always involbed in the design of anything that comes out, like records. But I’m not like, a painter or a graphic designer.
Who are some of your favorite visual artists?
So many! There is a photographer named Walter Niedermeyer who I love. He’s from the Italian part of Switzerland. There’s this South African artist named Gego who’s no longer alive. She’s a sculptor and did some print work.
What was your songwriting process like for this record?
I realize when you take this long to put out a record, everyone thinks, oh, you’ve scrapped it four or five times and re-recorded it. I really didn’t. It’s just like a regular recording schedule spread out over a long period of time. But it’s just sitting down, playing guitar, and starting to put something together. Because I was driving a lot from Austin to Marfa in west Texas a lot, which is seven hours, I did a lot of writing in the car. There’s a lot of different iterations, like me singing with a cd in the background. Pretty caveman-like, actually.
What was your Marfa experience like?
It was great. I loved it. I love that time there. We worked with a great institution, Ballroom Marfa, and I worked with two other curators, and we had a ball. It was a lot of work. It was nice to live in that town, but it was also nice to have a really insane project. We comissioned six new sound installations and then we did a group show — we had about six art pieces that were already made.
Do you ever do any sound installations yourself?
Yeah. I haven’t for a while because I’ve been working on the record and focusing more on music. I did one at a gallery in New York. A lot of times someone will come to you and say ‘we want to do this theme.’ And this theme was a garage, so I put together — it wasn’t only sound, it was people responding to the idea of a garage — so we asked people to do recordings in garages all over New York, mostly Brooklyn, so we built a player mechanism for that. We did a mobile audio truck. A lot of them were sound editing. We put together this audio magazine, which was sort of a combination of radio producing and just basic sound design. I really loved that. It was called the Relay Project.
Can you tell me about some of your favorite writers or your favorite books?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Cynthia Shearer wrote a book called the Celestial Jukebox. I love Barry Hannah, who’s a writer from Mississippi who passed away a couple years ago. There’s a woman called Thalia Field, and she just put out a new book which I love. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction, a lot of tech books, a lot of sound and listening books. I’m kind of getting back into a phase about that.