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Arcade Fire's Jeremy Gara Trades His Drum Kit for Ambient Music on Debut Solo Album

The drummer of one of the 21st century's biggest indie rock bands on breaking away from his day job.

by Max Mertens
29 June 2016, 1:01am

Photo by Cindy Lopez

He's the drummer for one of the 21st century's biggest indie rock bands, but when it came time to release his first solo album this past spring, Arcade Fire's Jeremy Gara found himself in an unfamiliar position. For his debut record Limn, which consists of ten ambient tracks recorded in "little bits and bobs" following the Canadian group's last tour, the veteran musician chose to do everything alone. From the cover artwork to organizing the vinyl pressing, other than Norwegian artist Helge Sten mastering the album, Gara was involved in every step of the process.

"If you don't tell people it exists, nobody will hear it, if you want it to get played on the college radio stations, you have to send it with an email or a letter. I had kind of forgotten those details," the artist tells THUMP. "I feel like I've always remained close to people who work like that but I haven't done it myself. It's a ton of work but it felt really good."

We recently sat down with Gara during this year's MUTEK festival in Montreal, where he performed his abstract, often claustrophobic compositions to a rapt (albeit smaller) audience, to find out how it feels to break away from his day job, why he wants to make "My Bloody Valentine aggressive" music, and more.

THUMP: Rather than having one consistent theme throughout the album, to me it feels like you've created a series of vignettes, whether they be specific places ("Chicago") or more general locales ("The Desert"). Was this a conscious decision?

Jeremy Gara: It kind of just came together that way. I had a collection of songs ready and rather than frame it with a title or storyline, because it's instrumental music, it doesn't say much, once each piece was getting close to being done I just let it give me a title. I was thinking about being in Chicago, but I have no idea why it's called "Chicago." ["The Desert"] felt windy and bleak to me.

There's an aggressive quality to some of the songs which reminds me of what artists like Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never are doing with electronic music right now. Were you listening to any acts while working on this album that might surprise people?
I love both of those dudes. I love Grouper and Laurel Halo, she's doing straight techno, and I love all the different things she does. I wasn't aiming for it to be aggressive, I like that it envelops you a little bit. That's kind of the thing I'm struggling with now presenting it live, I don't want it to be aggressive, and I think there's a bit too much of that for my taste.

Don't get me wrong, I love aggressive music, but there's something different about being aggressive for the sake of being aggressive, and being aggressive and artful or meaningful. I definitely lean towards the latter. I like aggressive like My Bloody Valentine aggressive, like sad aggressive, rather than aggressive to knock people's socks off.

With the handful of shows you've played so far, how do you adapt the material for a live setting?
I didn't want to just sit in front of a laptop and manipulate sounds that already existed, so I've managed to make it so I can perform it on a couple synths with a variety of effects and stuff like that. My whole philosophy is to prepare some instruments that have most of the sounds there and then kind of improvise my way through the different things on the album.

You also played on [cellist] Sarah Neufield's 2016 solo album The Ridge, while other members of Arcade Fire have been involved in various side projects. Do you think it's important for your respective sanities to make music outside of the group?
The thing is we've all been doing it the whole time. Originally, Sarah and Richard [Reed Parry] were in a band called Bell Orchestre, which actually existed even before Arcade Fire. I've been playing with a variety of different people on the side. I think with the way life moves us forward, we're just working a little harder at those things. It's a little new for us to have solo solo things, but we've always been interested in music outside of the band.

Are there any new studio tricks or recording influences that you've picked up making Limn that you could see bringing to a new Arcade Fire album?
Maybe not so literally, but certainly subconsciously, it can't not influence the way I approach the band or what I bring to the band. It's the same with everybody I think to feel a different sort of fulfillment from pursuing one's personal goals. I've seen Will [Butler] do it and Sarah too, it just ticks off boxes that can't get ticked off working in a collaborative environment. For me it doesn't pull away or take away energy from the bigger thing, it just complements and adds to it, it probably makes everyone a little more confidant which is healthy.

Jeremy Gara will be playing Ottawa's Arboretum Festival on August 18, get tickets here.

Max Mertens is on Twitter.