Features Interviews

Kenneth James Gibson Interview: “Surroundings are important”

The songwriter/producer talks about his latest album, ‘Ssih Mountain’.

Different creative orbits are often spoken about. Artists creating their own sound world or, indeed, sound worlds.

Some may see it as multiple worlds; others merely a borderless terrain, forever striving for those once uninhabited landscapes.

Kenneth James Gibson is one of those artists. From the humble beginnings of noise-rock outfit, Furry Things, to the wistful Americana of Bell Gardens alongside Stars of the Lid’s Brian McBride, Gibson has been one of the leading lights where genre-hopping is concerned, carving out a stunning body of work both under his own name and through various other guises.

Through the prism of tech house ([a]pendics.shuffle, dubLoner), IDM freak-outs (Eight Frozen Modules), and a mixture of both (Reverse Commuter), Gibson has crashed through the ceilings of conventionality, spending years intersecting ideas through the world of experimentation, which has seen his music released by some of the most well-renowned labels around the world, not limited to Kompakt, Planet Mu and City Slang.

Whilst also prolific from behind the sound boards and constantly working on music for television via his Los Angeles studio (Gibson flits between here and his studio in Idyllwild, California), recently Gibson started his own label, Meadows Heavy Recorders.

Having released the Groundskeeping LP earlier this year through the label, the fearless creator returns with Ssih Mountain: an album filled with a new warmth through cascading soundscapes and luscious drones.

Comprising of six compositions, in fairness Ssih Mountain can almost be deemed as a singular far-reaching concern. One track effortlessly leaking into the next, while Ssih Mountain contains the cinematic drama of Groundskeeping, it’s only fleeting.

Ssih Mountain combats the dark frontiers with luminous drones and otherworldly ambience in what is yet another boon for Gibson. There is AM dread throughout these beautiful passages (Nasanica Point), however with pieces like Sandra Leans Toward Eternity parts One and Two, Gibson unlocks a new world of optimism with the kind of tenderness that tugs at the heartstrings.

Ssih Mountain rounds off yet another productive year for Gibson, and last week he kindly answered some of our questions, as well as providing the new standalone track, On A Fabricated Whim (She Left Him For Dead), which is exclusive to Sun 13. You can listen below.

Kenneth James Gibson: Groundskeeping

Sun 13: Do you remember the first time you listened to music?

Kenneth James Gibson: “That’s a tough one! Probably my dad playing songs on acoustic guitar. He did a great version of Marty Robbins’ El Paso.  My parents also played Leonard Cohen and Beatles records when I was a kid.”

S13: With the Americana influence of Bell Gardens and later throughout your electronic oeuvre, how much was growing up in Texas a big influence to your music?

KJG: “Well I think your surroundings definitely shape who you are and music is included in that. Obviously in Texas there’s the country music influence, although as a kid I didn’t like country much except for Willie Nelson. You just can’t be from Texas and not like Willie!

“As a young brat I was a break dancer then a skateboarder and at the time was interested in punk rock and hip-hop, then as an older teen getting into bands such as The Smiths, Dinosaur Jr., The Dammed, Sonic Youth and of course Texas band The Butthole Surfers. Later on, King Coffee of The Butthole Surfers released my first recordings with my band Furry Things and my solo experimental electronic stuff on his label Trance Syndicate. I owe a lot to him actually. 

“It wasn’t till a bit later in life when my musical tastes started to blossom that I started to really love and understand other music such as country and reggae. It’s not really kid music, at least the stuff I like. What I always loved though, even as a kid when I didn’t exactly get the lyrics in country music – was the sound of the pedal steel. It’s really one of the greatest and most unique sounds out there. So yes, Texas has definitely influenced me.”

S13: You’ve had a big year, firstly with the release Groundskeeping now Ssih Mountain, can you tell us the inspiration behind both records?

KJG: “Groundskeeping sort of started in 2018, but was mostly made during the early stages of the pandemic. I was hiding away in the studio with a lot of extra time, wine, and inspiration. A lot of it was made in the winter time. My main studio is in a cabin in Idyllwild, California. I’d get snowed in a bunch… It’s perfect for making ambient music.

Ssih Mountain was made during the later stages of this pandemic. I had gone though a pretty bad run of insomnia and the making of this record really was my therapy. I really just wanted to let the music drone on. It felt good to let it go.”

Kenneth James Gibson - Groundskeeping

S13: They are two vastly very different records. Ssih Mountain has a real warm to it, bearing real emotional weight. Was that something you were going for?

KJG: “I’m really glad you got that from it. I’m not sure if I was necessarily going for that exactly, it’s just what happened naturally. Ssih Mountain is a much more stripped down album. There’s no strings, synths, pedal steel or big arrangements. I wanted the music to be much more simple. Continuous sound. Keeping the original sound palettes to a minimum using only guitars and piano as sources – then making them into something that sounds not much like either of those instruments. Laying heavy into a more straight up drone album. Closer to the process of when I first started making experimental music in the ’90s and had very little gear.”

S13: There aren’t many artists who navigate across so many styles as effortlessly as you do. Does your approach differ from each project?

KJG: “The approach and process is definitely different for each project I work on. Whether it’s recording my band or working with a solo artist I’m producing or holed by myself making ambient music or music for TV and film. Vastly different approaches. It keeps things from getting boring. I’m not able to really just do one thing. Probably the worst thing for anyone’s ‘career’, but it’s who I am! I get restless doing one kind of music. There’s so much out there to be inspired by.”

S13: Given you have so much musical output, is it case of working on something all the time? What’s your daily routine look like?

KJG: “Yes, I am working on music constantly. My new label has taken a bit more of my time lately though. Which is actually a nice break from constantly creating. On a normal day I typically wake up around 9am and have coffee and eat a little bit of mushrooms then go for a run. When at my Idyllwild studio I love to do a walk then meditate in this big open field which stares at a beautiful mountain range. Good way to start the day if the weather is good! Then eat a late breakfast and take a bath and read a bit. I don’t really start working in the studio till about 1pm. That’s usually my go to hour. Then I’ll typically work till somewhere between 9pm and 12am with a dinner break in there. When I’m in my LA place I usually start and end a bit earlier because I’m mostly just working on music for TV and film so it’s a bit more structured. I have a very minimal studio set up there as well.”

Kenneth James Gibson - Ssih Mountain

S13: What would you consider to be the key ideas to your approach to writing and producing?

KJG: “When I enter the studio I’m really just making what I want to hear or searching for what I think the music calls for. There’s no real set of key ideas except for finding the magic. The music calls the shots. Deciding what sonic elements the music needs is always the hardest part as its really unlimited. What instrument will provide the best path to the magic is a very important factor. A Rhodes piano could tell vastly different story than an acoustic piano and a Moog will tell it much differently than guitar. And so on. Listening to a lot of music is key as well. Knowing a direction is important. When writing music with lyrics, I typically have a story to tell. It’s also a lot of times a collaborative effort.”

S13: How much do your current surroundings play a part in the music that you create?

KJG: “Quite a bit actually. When I’m in the studio in Idyllwild – I’m in the forest with a lot of nature. Wildlife, mountains, and fresh air. That’s a whole different thing than being in LA with helicopters and loud neighbours etc. That has its own kind of energy, which can definitely work for certain vibes as well. I was burnt the fuck out when I moved up to the Idyllwild in 2014. I thought I was just gonna be in my cabin working on TV music and meditating – then as soon as I got here my mind exploded with ideas and that’s when I finished my first record on Kompakt, The Evening Falls. Surroundings are important.”

Exclusive to Sun 13 - Kenneth James Gibson's 'On A Fabricated Whim (She Left Him For Dead)'

S13: Regarding your electronic works, as a producer has the progression of technology influenced your work?

KJG: “Absolutely. Although I love going backwards to find inspiration as well. I started out making music on 4 track then graduated to computers. I spent a while making music almost exclusively with computers. In the last few years I’ve gone back to adding old gear such 4 track tape machines back into the fold. I have an old Ramsa console I got about three years ago which I love tracking through. I have an old spring reverb that has a great and dirty sound to it. Tape echo etc. Stuff like this I have been finding inspirational.”

S13: You’ve released music on some of the great electronic labels of our time. What prompted you to start your own label?

KJG: “Meadows Heavy Recorders is the second label I’ve owned. The first label was Adjunct Audio and was run through Kompakt. When that label fizzled out after many years I did not plan on doing another one. Then I realised I’d rather just control all aspects of my music. I actually didn’t plan on releasing other peoples music until some friends and other artists I produced needed help. Music I really believe in. So I’m kinda back to being a real label.

“I am keeping the roster very small and it’s already booked up through 2023. We have some great music coming out! I’m releasing the ambient / modern classical duo Less Bells’ next album. Which is fantastic. I’ve been producing Francesca Brown’s beautiful country album which will come out next year. Vivian Bryce Jones is a great new artist I produced recently and her record also comes out next year. I’ll also be releasing my band Toler Gibson’s next record. I guess I just wanna do things my way at this point.”

Ssish Mountain and Groundskeeping are both out now via Meadows Heavy Recorders. Purchase from Bandcamp.

5 replies on “Kenneth James Gibson Interview: “Surroundings are important””

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