Music Features

Meet... Wilder Maker

Wilder Maker, the band led by Brooklyn’s Gabriel Birnbaum, have been picking up some serious heat in the latter half of 2013 thanks to the release of their Years of Endless Light LP. What might sound like a normal folk-influenced rock record to begin with gradually reveals itself to be a multi-layered tour de force, drawing on elements from widespread and disparate genres. While not yet a household name, Wilder Maker have been featured on many blogs and even attracted a lot of love from Consequence of Sound towards the back end of 2013.

Gabriel Birnbaum spoke to No Ripcord’s James McKenna – a self-affirmed Years of Endless Light fan.

James: I was wondering if your background as a jazz musician influenced and changed how you approached writing a folk album?

Gabe: I don't think about genres while I'm writing, but I do have a taste for unpredictable long forms that I think comes from my jazz background. When I started writing music I was writing these long instrumentals for jazz ensembles in high school with tons of different sections and shifting meters. I was trying out all the new ideas I was learning in theory class and imitating the writing on records by a trumpet player named Dave Douglas, which is very cinematic and linear. I didn't listen to rock music at all and was disdainful of it.

Then, I have a distinct memory of hearing the Wilco song Misunderstood in a friend's car (trivia: I'm pretty sure members of the band SKATERS were in the car too) and seeing that you could do the same thing with pop music. Harmonically it's simple and direct, but formally it's huge and abstract. You have this scary thundering intro that bleeds out into a nostalgic acoustic pop song, and then through the whole song the violent intro keeps bubbling back up, almost like the music is happening on two layers at once and you can only perceive one at a time, until at the end you have Tweedy screaming “Nothing at all” over and over. I was like, “Whoa, I want to do that.” Plus there are words. I love words and there aren't many in jazz.

J: In the press notes, there's something about a will to sever ties with New York, do you think this helped the feel of the album? I'm thinking of records like Harvest or Joni Mitchell's 70s albums, those records that feel far away from busy bustling cities, and tend to focus on personal discovery.

G: I think my feelings about New York are crucial to what the album became, but I'm not sure if I'd say they helped. I was pretty miserable and stagnant here, but rather than taking myself out of the city, I carved out a dark, personal space within the city. Does that make sense? This record is still very much an NYC record to me, in spite of the fact that acoustic guitars are associated with the pastoral. The only songs that don't take place in NYC in my mind are Hangs Hooks and Slow Life, and the latter definitely plays out in the shadow of the city.

Those records are an appropriate touchstone, though. Harvest and John Phillips’ John The Wolfking of LA were both big influences. There's something about those Wrecking Crew records that really does it for me. The playing is so brilliant, and the songs are moody but they also have this beautiful open feeling.

Also in a very literal way we lifted the Out On The Weekend drumbeat for Invisible Order, so there's that.

J: Again in the press notes was a mention of Bill Callahan, someone who seems a definite influence. It's often used by critics and I think this is a really reductive way of looking at music, comparing musicians to one another, but does this change your approach to music when there seems to be such a clear influence on your music? (Personally I think the comparison is mainly due to the tone of your deep folky voice)

G: It is reductive, but also inevitable. Readers virtually demand it. Most publications ask for it specifically. People are doing vast amounts of unpaid work creating perpetual content for the internet; it's no surprise they get lazy and copy/paste press releases.

I don't worry about the Callahan thing much, though the parallel is definitely clear and he is an influence. Our voices have a similar tone and range. We're both pretty lyrically focused, and if the vibe on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is any indication, he's a fan of those early 70s records too.

It's fine by me for several reasons. First, because it's accurate. Influence is not an embarrassment, though everyone forgets that in a novelty-chasing culture. Second, because I really admire him and find it flattering. Third, because our music is different at enough substantial levels that I have no fear of being mistaken for a poor man's Bill Callahan, or what have you.

Also, the music that got me into songwriting is almost entirely composed of high-voiced singers who I used to strain my voice to emulate. It was really important to hear someone like Callahan and realize how powerful it could be to sing low in my range.

J: Finally for now, there's one thing I thought was really interesting. Myself, I'm a creative writing student at university, and I find it so much easier to write when I'm in a terrible mood, do you ever worry about getting happy? That old phrase that happiness writes white comes to mind, especially seeing as the album has this optimistic bent to it, is feeling happier something that, somewhat ridiculously, you're starting to worry about?

G: Ha! I've thought about this a lot. There's also Tolstoy's “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don't think I believe in it, in the end. I think it's a failure of imagination not to be able to conjure up any human mood, but I think we're in different boats here a bit, you being a writer and me being a songwriter. I concede that verbally there is less to communicate in a joyful mode, but I have sounds to substitute. Pleasure is non-verbal, which is I think why so much writing about it is so silly sounding and overly serious. But it's not impossible.

This album is an odd mash of optimism and despair. A song like Wasting My Time is so goofy and bouncy and it has that amazing country guitar solo, but if you listen to the lyrics it's one of the bleakest songs I've ever written. And then Slow Life is very pretty and nostalgic, but it's largely about how cold a person ambition can turn you into. I mean, sometimes life is incredibly painful, and sometimes that lasts for a long period. But it's important to me that in reflecting that I transform it into something true, and truth is always positive in some way, no matter how rough it is.

Outside the creative elements of this question – I've been in dark places and I never want to go back to them. I probably won't have a choice, but if I do, I will choose light.

Years of Endless Light, the second album by Wilder Maker, is available now through the group’s Bandcamp site.