Progress Report: Rebecca Gates
Name: Rebecca Gates And The Consortium
Progress Report: Former Spinanes frontwoman Rebecca Gates talks about wrapping up work on The Float, her first release in over eleven years.
Most people of a certain age will first remember Rebecca Gates as the guitarist and vocalist for The Spinanes — a beloved boy/girl duo that released three excellent albums back if the crusty old ‘90s. After releasing a solo album of her own in 2001, Gates all but retired from indie rock, instead focusing her attention on the art world. Over the past ten years she’s done everything from co-curate exhibits of sonic land art in Texas, to edit an audiomagazine called The Relay Project, as well as exhibiting her own work in various galleries around the world. Now, over a decade after putting down her guitar, Gates returns with The Float, an album of folky pop music that brings to mind the best of her work with the Spinanes — intimate, jazz-inflected bedroom rock that sounds like it was being sung directly into your ear by your cool older sister who happens to know a thing or two about a thing or two.
STEREOGUM: I know that The Float was recorded in a bunch of different places. What was the time span over which these songs were recorded?
GATES: The first recording for the record was done in October of 2004, and that last overdubs were done in the spring of last year. All told, I recorded in about five different cities.
STEREOGUM: Wow. Are you sure you weren’t rushing just a little bit?
GATES: I wasn’t working on it the whole time, just so you know.
STEREOGUM: It wasn’t like your version of Chinese Democracy where you were recording thousands of versions of each song?
GATES: It took me a second to remember. I thought you meant actual Chinese democracy and was like “Yeah, they’ve been working on that for a long time.”
STEREOGUM: And it still hasn’t happened yet.
GATES: It still hasn’t happened. No, yeah, I think there’s all sorts of ways, all sorts of stories I could make up in terms of “Oh there’s so many iterations of each song.”But really I kept fine-tuning it, and I just kind of kept picking it up and putting it down and picking it up and putting it down. So a lot of the songs really are just sort of recorded in a day and overdubbed at some point and then mixed in six hours. I think that if I just put all the time together it would be sort of a normal recording schedule.
STEREOGUM: Was it just that you would work on these things here and there with the thinking that eventually you’d put it all together into a record?
GATES: Yeah, a little bit. Basically I think that … well, I know that I just wasn’t sure what it was. I’d pretty much stepped away from everything that working in the business of music required, but I realized that I was still writing. One of the things that I love about records is not necessarily just writing for the sake of writing and having a promotional-touring-business experience with it. I didn’t have a real structure and I had a lot of other things I was doing so I initially went into the studio in October of 2004 — I had gone on tour with my friend Amy Domingues who’s a cellist and a viola de gamba player and lives in DC and has a band, Garland of Hours, and she and I went out as a duo and opened for Califone for 4 or 5 weeks in June of 2004. I realized that I really liked playing and I had some songs, so I was living out in the Northeast at that point and just went back to Chicago for a week and did two days of recording with Califone and did a bit of recording at Mark Greenberg’s Mayfair Recording studio and two days at SOMA with John Herndon, Wayne Montana, Doug McCombs and John McEntire, so basically I think the intention at that point was “Well, I’ve got some money to pay for this and I’m gonna do it and then we’ll see where we end up.” And you know it was really fun but I basically kind of got in the cycle of working and trying to save some money and then going into the studio. I like doing little tiny demos at home, but I love studios and I love studio engineers. I might at some point make a little home recording record, but I think everyone would be sort of astonished at how terrible it sounds. I just love the space of really nice studios … but they are kind of hard to come by if you don’t have a label.
STEREOGUM: What was the impetus to wrap it up and say “OK, I’m gonna put it out now.”
GATES: That’s where the story gets really bad. [laughs] No no, but that moment was basically five years ago. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do and I got an email from out of the blue in 2007 from Howard Bilerman who runs Hotel2Tango studios. He had worked on the first Arcade Fire record and he had done a lot of the Godspeed stuff. He basically just sent me an email and said “You know, I don’t know where you are or if you’re playing anymore or if you’re trying to put out a record or not. If you’re not, I just want to let you know I really like your music … and if you are trying to work on a record I’d love to talk to you about it.” And it’s interesting looking back at this. I was wary about the whole process of playing and kind of the toll it had taken on me. When I stopped in 2001 I was a little bit tentative, so basically over the years whenever anyone kind of reached out and said “Hey, I’d like to help you do this” or ‘Have you thought about this” or “Here why don’t you come in and do a song” then the record would move forward. It wasn’t passive by any means — I was definitely shaping it — but it kind of took those sort of reminders I guess because I was doing so many other things. Once the record got to a certain point and then my friends started hearing it and I started getting feedback, which helped. To be honest, I had really lost a lot of confidence and it was really hard to believe. I wasn’t really sure I should be making records. I love playing and I love writing and I love touring, but I wasn’t really sure it was anything the world needed or that I needed to do.
STEREOGUM: What shook your confidence? Was it just your previous experiences in dealing with the music business?
GATES: I don’t know because in a lot of ways it doesn’t make sense. We were very fortunate with the Spinanes and Scotty and I put out that first record and found a very healthy and connected response, which was one thing I love in music and had enjoyed as a fan. There were a couple of things that happened that jarred me a little bit towards the end of playing, but I don’t really know. Playing full-time became complicated and exhausting at a certain point and it was nice to step away from it, but I think in the past it was in the stepping away from it that I somehow lost the thread. I lost that connection to it and then looking at it I was like “Well, I’m not sure this is good enough to put out.” Not in a perfectionist sense, but just really like … I’d never actually been someone who made records and thought things like “This is my jam, my world needs to hear this!” Over the years as I’ve gotten more involved in the contemporary arts and design world, I find that I have a lot more in line with a lot of designers I know than a lot of songwriters I know. And one of the things that’s always driven me to finish a record is that when I wanna hear something and I don’t hear it, I start making myself. I knew that there was something that I wanted to hear that I wasn’t hearing — so I knew that I would finish this record someday, but being aware of the complications involved and being aware of the different ways that things could go … I was a little bit more wary.
STEREOGUM: As someone in their late 30s who kind of came of age with indie-rock in the early ’90s, I find myself having this same conversation over and over with people. For people who played in reasonably successful bands back then, there comes a time as you get older when the novelty of playing club shows and touring in a van and sleeping on couches really starts to wear off. You have to ask yourself — what am I really getting out of this? Several working musician friends have talked to me about this recently — the need to rethink one’s goals and expectations when it comes to making music for a living … or, rather, not for a living.
GATES: Right. The thing that’s funny is that I never got tired of that stuff and I to this day love touring and love sleeping on people’s floors. I actually love all of that, which may be an indicator of my accepting of my own needs. But I think that after a while if you are doing anything that’s all-encompassing — say, if you’re fortunate enough, as I was, to pretty much concentrate full-time on playing music — after a while you’re like “What am I getting out of this?/what am I not getting out of this?” And I felt like I really did need to step away and just look at life outside of being in that cycle. And I wanted to really engage with something else in my mind — something intellectually instead of my own navel-gazing world, which is sort of where you end up being forced a lot of the time as a musician. There’s a wide swath of how you can experience being in music and I don’t think I’m particularly self-obsessed at all, but it was nice to go off and help other people do their own projects. That’s something that’s refreshing. But yeah there comes a time that, quite frankly, I just wanted the cause and effect of a paycheck — just the idea that you can go to work for someone and they can say ‘Thank you and here’s some money’ that was really refreshing! You know, we were very fortunate to be involved with Sub Pop but the ending of that relationship. I mean, I fulfilled my contract, but that was not a very positive experience for me, and I think after a while you just wonder “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?” I guess my point is that there is that kind of reflection that comes with getting older but there’s also that need to address the issue of “Wow, I’m spending all my time doing this, is it actually something I want to be doing?” Whether that’s working in an office, whether that’s working in a sailboat, whether that’s driving in a van. Sometimes it’s good to just shift up problems.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s important to point out that in the interim since you put out the last record you have been highly involved in the world of fine art, and doing art-related things, so it wasn’t like you were temping in an office and typing. You were doing other stuff that was cool and culturally interesting that people may not know about.
GATES: Well I think one of the things that was huge for me is that I moved to Chicago and was living in a community in which there was this great intersection between the contemporary art world and the music world. I got involved with the production and curatorial side of art, which really opened me up to sound art and the history of sound art. I got to explore these different ways of thinking about sound and hearing that weren’t actually related to music or commercial music or any sort of classic pop, which is what I grew up with. I love soul music. My first memory is the Petula Clark’s “Downtown, for better or worse, and that’s what tends to come out of my hands but my interest is really wide-ranging. I got the opportunity to do music for a dance piece and I think there was just this opening up of all these possibilities of thinking about sound and space and listening and a community that didn’t have anything to do with what I’d been working in for a long time. And the thing that’s funny, talking about the timeline for this record and how crazy it is, and trying to kind of identify a couple of things that sort of pulled me back into making the record was that I took a class with Alvin Lucier at Brown. I was living in Rhode Island I kind of slipped in on the class, and to hear someone who is with a composer and sound artist and classically trained and did a complete left turn once he heard a John Cage concert — but how he thought about sound and how he thought about composing was a kind of illuminating moment for me and that he was so dedicated to what was important to him but he was also very whimsical about it and I think that was something I needed to be introduced to thinking about music and writing … because there’s often not much whimsy in rock and roll or indie rock, in terms of that kind of lightheartedness. It’s interesting for me that there was that kind of an arc into this record that there was that kind of detour from it into sound art and into curating and into that more academic space, and in the context of that it kind of got shot back into “Oh actually I love playing music and music is one of the most important things in my life and always has been” and that’s one reason I started playing is I wanted to be part of it in that way.
STEREOGUM: Listening to the record, it’s interesting to think of these songs coming together over such a long span of time. Vibe-wise, this record has a very cohesive feeling and sound. I would imagine that if you collected songs and recordings over the course of many years and put them all on a record, it would be easy for there to be this schizophrenic quality — sounds coming from different eras and different places. The record doesn’t feel that way though.
GATES: I’m really glad to hear that. That’s where I’ll sort of blow on my fingernails and puff up my chest. I love the idea of producing and that is one thing where I worked really hard to make sure that that worked as a whole. I mean I do believe in albums, but you know there’s so many different directions you can go in terms of what the end shape is. So many different ways you can use technology to achieve that. I love a lot of different ways of looking at it, but I love an album and I love things that have a very specific time-frame and I love when there is a very specific commitment to a mood … and I wanted to stay within that. And also Jeff Lipton and Jason Ward, who mastered the record, really helped us out. I think it could’ve easily gone very crazy. But that’s another thing that I thought about — a lot of times in terms of my experience, and my experience has not been active in a decade in terms of interviews or talking about it, but I feel like a lot of times there is this sort of monochromatic insistence on a story like this is your record, here is your moody breakup record, that was your rock and roll record. I love Neil Young but I’ve never been incredibly inspired by him. He’s not someone who just makes me wanna make things the way some other artists do, but I really kind of kept him in mind when thinking about this album and making music going forward. So many of the records he does are so varied — from acoustic to raging electric to Crazy Horse to solo stuff … that’s the model that I wanna work towards.
STEREOGUM: Well now that this record is done and the release date is set and the wheels are in motion, what do you anticipate happening? Do you want to tour and play shows?
GATES: Yeah, we’re touring. I don’t have a booking agent so everything’s slow-mo cause I’m doing it myself. That’s not out of choice, that’s just the state of the business and my place in it, but we’re actually gonna be touring as much as we can. I have a great band and I actually have a few more records half-written, so I’m hoping that the world will let me do this for a little bit longer again.
STEREOGUM: Well, I’m glad you are back at it. And the record is lovely.
GATES: Well thank you, I’m really happy to hear it.
STEREOGUM: I was just reading the announcements for all the big summer festivals. There’s such a fascination with getting bands back together to play their classic albums. Is that something you could ever imagine doing with The Spinanes?
GATES: Yeah. We haven’t been invited to do any of those, which is one reason it hasn’t happened. Also I’m really busy with this record and preparing the play shows again, but you know Manos — the Spinanes’ first album — is probably gonna be reissued at the end of next year. It will be 20 years old, which is … kinda unbelievable. I have to figure out the date and we have to figure out the direction it’s gonna take, and Scotty and I need to chat. We’ll see what happens with that. I think that is something that makes sense. The thing is that there are a lot of people who ended up playing with the Spinanes over the years and I would love to find a way to do something that brought all of them together. Scotty’s a great drummer and I love playing with him and it’ll be interesting to talk about seeing if we can do something that would make sense for us. I think it would be really fun.