“We’re Trying To Break The Mould”: A Year In The Life Of Gone Is Gone, A Band Without Boundaries
November 30, 2019. A line of eager punters snakes down the long stairwell and out the side door of a nondescript ex-warehouse in the Rothenburgsort district of east Hamburg, Germany. Braving this chilly Saturday evening, they are eager not to miss a moment of the Clouds Hill festival – an intimate gathering taking place amongst the vintage amps, mixing desks and studio spaces of Clouds Hill Recordings, the studio/label run by charismatic local and confessed audiophile Johann Scheerer.
On the bustling upper floor, an eclectic collective scramble for space. Scottish indie-rock legends Teenage Fanclub rub shoulders with New York-based avant-garde solo percussionist Deantoni Parks. English brother-sister blues-rockers (and Nick Cave favourites) Joe Gideon & The Shark swap stories with Faroe Islands songstress Konni Kass. Most notably, however, the members of experimental hard rock project Gone Is Gone have assembled for their first European (and only fourth-ever) live performance as a band.
“The day before yesterday was Thanksgiving in the United States,” grins Mastodon bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, wryly. “Rather than sit down with our ladies and kids, the four of us took 15-hour flights to be here. That should tell you something. Either this thing we’re doing is really cool, fuelled by friendship and creativity, or we’re fuckin’ crazy…”
The rest of the group nod enthusiastically. Queens Of The Stone Age six-stringer Troy Van Leeuwen (‘TVL’ to these particular bandmates), At The Drive-In drummer Tony Hajjar, and multi-instrumentalist/founder of movie trailer soundtrack specialists Sencit Music Mike Zarin have crossed an ocean for one show – driven not by obligation, but excitement.
Having gravitated together through a shared desire to craft broader, more experimental sounds than those of their ‘main’ outfits, the aforementioned Los Angeles-based trio were joined by Troy Sanders in 2015, and the nebulous collaboration quickly became a band. Summer 2016 saw the release of an eight-track self-titled EP before their first album proper, the excellent Echolocation, arrived in February the following year. On the live front, they are averaging just over one show per release. Momentum, however, is picking up.
“Gone Is Gone is the kind of project that none of us need or have time for, but which we really love to do,” explains Tony, as ATD‑I co-conspirator Omar Rodríguez-López, whose ties to Clouds Hill go back years, loiters approvingly in the background. “We’re all lucky to have those ‘first homes’ of the other bands we play in, or businesses that we’re part of, but this band feels like home, too. That’s hard to find. It’s something that we’ve been feeling since Sanders first flew in. We knew right from the start that we’d found something we were gonna enjoy.”
Many musicians refer to an extra-curricular endeavour like this as the ‘affair’ to their main project’s more committed ‘marriage’. Extending the metaphor to its limits, the members of Gone Is Gone are more comfortably polyamorous.
“I feel that this has kinda been serious since the first date,” Troy laughs. “You get that spark and understand that you can have a future together. First and foremost you have to like the people in any relationship. There has to be a healthy connection. That was evident the first time we all met and made noise together in 2015. Since we committed to making that first self-titled record, there’s never been a moment of feeling like we’d run our course or asking, ‘Okay, is that it?!’
“I’ve said before that creating art needs to stem from a selfish place. In Gone Is Gone, we genuinely don’t have any boundaries. We get to make the music in this band that we don’t in our others. It’s a different musical experiment. It’s invigorating. It’s authentic. It’s sincere. We enjoy the hell out of it, and each other. You put all that together and it’s a giant desire that we want to do this band.”
It’s a desire that pulsates through their performance this evening. Playing on the floor in the corner of one of Clouds Hill’s largest rooms, they welcome 150-odd fans craning necks at close-quarters for a nine song set that veers from the ponderously atmospheric near-prog of Sentient, via the anthemic strangeness of Starlight, to the probing urgency of Echolocation. There are no airs and graces. These modern rock royals relish having something left to prove.
“People use that word ‘supergroup’,” TVL cuts in. “We’ve been running from that term ever since we did our first interview. It’s got this implication that things are just handed to you. We’re three guys in three bands and we’re on tour at different festivals, often competing with each other for top-billing! But you can’t just walk into a record label with a swinging dick and say, ‘Let’s do this!’ anymore. The business has changed so much. This is still a new project to a lot of people even though we’re on our third release. We have to work double-hard at it compared to our day jobs.”
Tony smiles in agreement.
“When I was a kid listening to a lot of metal – and bands that formed like this – I was of the opinion that a ‘supergroup’ was a thing where a group of people get together one time to do one record and that’s it. For the most part, that’s what supergroups do. If we just did the EP, I would accept the label. But, musically and artistically, we just keep going.”
True to that, new song No One Ever Walked On Water is a focal point of tonight’s performance: immediately bracing, but unapologetically odd and with none of the commercial compromise one might expect from a single release from a band of this stature. They explain it is the first slice of a new body of work that will see them reach back to their very beginnings.
While the last two records were written and recorded relatively conventionally, with players clashing ideas and shards of inspiration together in a room, a deep pool of instrumental and electronic tracks with a “different vibe” – dating back to those first experiments in sound before Troy Sanders arrived – had been held aside, constantly being layered up and pared down to form a denser, more detailed picture than anything that had come before.
“We’re quite meticulous now about trying not to do the same stuff we do elsewhere,” Tony explains. “The EP featured elements, compositionally, of our other bands. The second record was a growth on that. This is us going further again, further than ever, stripping back the big drums and hundreds of notes people might expect to create something completely new.”
“We’re like sculptors chipping away at a fine stone over a long, long period of time,” TVL continues. “We’re now at the stage where we’re using the fine chisel and the sanding tools. Every time I would get on a plane ride to Europe or Australia, I would listen back to those ideas that started out as interludes – but kept growing – to try and figure them out.”
“This ‘new’ material was the massive glacier gliding along in the background while we were on a speedboat with the other releases,” Troy grins. “Good music, in our opinion, is always worth holding onto. Expect to see the new record next year…”
Fast forward 12 months and the world is a very different place. By the end of last November’s German sojourn, the final vision was shifting into focus, with only a final veneer still to be applied. Two weeks had been allotted in April, and airfare was booked to return to Hamburg to finalise recording with the benefit of Clouds Hill’s top-end set-up. 2020, though, has made a mockery of even the best laid plans. In a twist unimaginable amongst Hamburg’s sweat and sound, the four members of Gone Is Gone have not been together in the same room since.
“It definitely affected us,” Troy shrugs, now between takes for Mastodon demo recordings in Atlanta. “We were disappointed – as was the whole world – when everything fell through. Although this music stems back over five years, with Mastodon and QOTSA revving back up, there was a sense of urgency to get it wrapped up in 2020, by any means and at any costs.”
Fortunately, Gone Is Gone are better equipped to adapt than most.
Comparing this band to his other non-Mastodon project Killer Be Killed (whose own second LP Reluctant Hero just dropped), Troy sees the latter as having a “caveman” mentality compared to GIG’s technodextrous gang surfing the cutting edge. Further, the fragmented, layered nature of these songs were better suited than most to being assembled from home.
“The other three guys are very tech-savvy,” he laughs, with an air of relief. “They can engineer their records. They’ve engineered other bands. They all have production credits under their belts. We’re willing and able to file-share and work remotely, even if it’s not our first choice. When March hit, even I dove into ProTools and Logic and began to learn how to record. I crawled out from under my rock.”
Indeed, Troy shoulders a burden in Gone Is Gone that makes it impossible to hide. Although the ‘bassist/vocalist’ tag remains the same on his other bands, only here he is the sole vocalist. Adding to the pressure, this is their most vocal-driven record to date. “To be allowed to to be that main lyricist and vocalist is an absolute privilege and joy,” he grins. “But it’s the greatest weight on my shoulders that those guys trust me to be the voice of the band.”
With Troy “chipping away” lyrically at a song roughly every two weeks over the summer, the finished 12-track collection was rounded out at Tony’s backyard LA studio in September before being mixed and finalised by local producer Norm Block, overseen by band members on video-link. The album is still dropping through Clouds Hill, mind, with all involved “honoured” to be part of that “unique-sounding” roster.
The finished work – If Everything Happens For A Reason… Then Nothing Really Matters At All – pulls off an impressive tightrope act, as rich and meticulous as one would expect from its half-decade gestation, but dextrous enough to surf the tossing sea of emotions within. There are elements of the concentrated, synth-stained textures of latter-day Nine Inch Nails, the semi-ambient post-rock of bands like Mogwai, and – as Troy acknowledges – just a little of the gothy swagger of ’80s pop outfits like Talk Talk, Depeche Mode and The Human League.
“The way this whole record is formed is also very different,” Mike says, dissecting the process with forensic glee. “We started this by sampling guitars, but we chopped them up and refined them in a way that it often doesn’t sound like that at all.”
“It’s a little bit more minimalist,” laughs TVL. “A little bit more expressive. A little bit more outside of the box. We’re trying to make art and music that sounds good to us. Hopefully it sounds good to listeners as well. Sure, my wife listens to it and asks, ‘Where’s the giant chorus?!’ but we’re trying to break the mould.”
Inspired by the scope and sweep of what they’ve created, Troy thinks it would be “the greatest honour” for Gone Is Gone to be asked to soundtrack a movie. It’s interesting to ponder what sort of scenes might play out against this particular sonic backdrop. “Dark is good,” he smiles. “It’s probably no surprise that we’re all fans of sci-fi. I believe this music would work well with anything other than a romantic comedy…”
Indeed, scratching beneath the surface, the record is stubbornly tough to pin down, but there is a constant air of unease: a tension between luxuriating in the shadows and seeking out the sun.
“I keep having this dystopian nightmare scenario,” nods TVL. “That’s not some distant future, either, it’s right now. If there is a theme to this album, it’s pretty dark. We’re comfortable in the dark… but we’re always trying to find the light.”
Pulling on the thematic thread, we can’t help but wonder about that title. Is the message that everything does happen for a reason? Or is it that we humans needs to face up to our own responsibilities? Troy smiles, reluctant to give away too much, as he tries to distil the big – and potentially controversial – ideas at play.
“TVL and I share this fascination with the perplexity of the contrasts around us: the confusion and beauty of things in juxtaposition with themselves. We’re baffled by the ability of humans to inflict the worst imaginable acts on one and other, then for the victim – or the victim’s family – to say that it’s all part of God’s plan. Sometimes I feel myself levitating in a cloud of contrast that I can’t wrap my head around.”
The singer pauses again, stressing a desire not to “degrade” anyone’s deeply-held religious beliefs. We counter that the title of No One Ever Walked On Water was fairly on-the-nose.
“It stemmed from a trip I took to Jerusalem last year,” he remembers. “Getting to explore the Holy Lands brought into focus this fascination I have with Christianity. I’ve never been a believer of the bible stories verbatim but, as I looked down from the Mount Of Olives, that was the [first] point I told myself that no-one every really walked on water…”
The concept refused to leave him, but only really crystallised while the singer was floating in the Gulf Of Mexico close to his Florida home.
“I was just staring at the clouds as the sun was turning orange then red in the early evening. It was one of those comforting moments when you remember that you’re just a speck of sand in the grand scheme of things: a body floating in the ocean is nothing compared to the vastness of existence. It tied back to that question of whether we’re at the whims of fate, controlled by some higher power? I personally believe not.”
Atheistic internalisations aside, that base blend of wonder and dread spills throughout the album.
Force Of A Feather examines the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Wings Of Hope, a TVL composition, imagines the despairing perspective of an addict hanging on. Troy pinpoints Say Nothing, with its ‘Silence has a sound’ lyrical hook, as one of his darkest-ever musical moments. ‘Due diligence / To break the cycle… Make sure there are no breaks,’ stresses latest single Breaks, evoking the image of someone frantically trying to break free from life’s preset patterns. Some titles speak for themselves: Death Of A Dream, Dirge For Delusions.
On the other hand, there are cracks of light from the darkness. Crimson, Chaos And You references those people who exist beyond the pandemonium of life in a band, making the struggle worth it. (“That songs still makes the hair on my arms stand up when I hear it,” says Troy.) Payoff goes further still, reckoning on how life as a touring musician makes time with family all the more special. “I play that song to my son,” the frontman continues, “and I explain how it’s for him.”
Through it all, this is the sound of four artists willing to be the masters of their own fate, reaffirming their understanding that life is there for the taking. Even as other commitments encroach, there is an enthusiasm to add to their four shows thus far (“The UK is at the top of our list of places to visit,” Troy teases) and to continue adding to what has become one of the most intriguing catalogues in modern heavy music.
“Gone Is Gone will absolutely continue to stay active – no matter what’s happening with our other bands,” the singer stresses. “Hell, there’s material left in the slow-cooker from these sessions. We want to see it all come to fruition. It’s still cookin’ and it’s going to be delicious!”
“The to-do list is constantly being checked off,” TVL hammers home. “Being busy is a wonderful problem to have, and we’re certainly not going to be slowing down. It’s about grabbing that time together when we find it, taking every opportunity – and making them count. There are a million things we’d like to achieve, for sure.
“In that same way we make music, we’re just going to keep chipping away…”
If Everything Happens For A Reason… Then Nothing Really Matters At All is out December 4 via Clouds Hill
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