For his first proper full-length in several years, Chicago’s Matt Arbogast, who performs under the moniker The Gunshy, assembled a robust cast of collaborators and pulled out all the stops for his fifth record, Silent Songs.
A bit of a departure from his Waits-leaning, barroom-prophet past, Silent Songs offers swells of strings, horns, gang vocals and tracks with a much quicker pace than the finger-picked ballads he’s known for. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, Silent Songs isn’t a fix, but a reinvigoration of a powerhouse songwriter with time-tested chops.
You Indie recently caught up with Arbogast, discussing the difficulties of touring life, new horizons and his brilliant new record.
What was your approach or mindset during the development and production of this record? Were there game changers that forced the tide of the record in certain directions?
The process of making Silent Songs was a long one. After finishing the last record, There’s No Love In This War, I wanted to make a louder, thicker album. I started playing live with a pretty steady four-piece line up and we worked on some of the songs that would eventually end of up Silent Songs. I then realized that I’m kind of addicted to having a ton of different instruments on my recordings. Recording as a straight up four piece wasn’t feeling right. At about the same time my wife and I bought an old house here in Chicago. I built a studio in the basement. The construction and set up of the studio took about six months. When it was done I had a majority of the songs for the record finished. I started tracking the album with a bunch of friends and eventually completed it. Everything was tracked and mixed at my place except for sax. Jeff Rosenstock recorded that at his place in NYC.
You had a lot of help from friends on this record? What importance did you put on making this a collaborative group project and how did it pay out?
Once I decided that I wasn’t going to record the record as a four-piece rock band, it made sense to make it a collaborative effort. Many of the songs deal with second guessing music, but ultimately relying on it. Having friends help to create a big sound for many of the songs reinforces the community aspect of music that has really structured my life. I live in Chicago because of friends I made on tour. I met my wife at a show. Just about everyone I know is a musician.
Having a decent sounding studio space makes collaboration much easier. My friend Sean Bonnette plays in an awesome band called Andrew Jackson Jihad. He lived in the second floor of our place for 9 months while I was recording the record, so he played some guitar, bass and did some singing on it. One of my favorite guitar players is my friend Mike Huguenor. He was living in Chicago for a while when I was recording the record too. We actually recorded his solo 10″ at my place. After finishing up his record, he added some guitar parts to my songs. Most of the other players were Chicago friends who offered their talents.
What are the predominant lessons you’ve learned about yourself and songwriting over the course of five full lengths?
Not to overthink it and not to force it. Most of the songs I’m the most proud of were written quickly and came out pretty easily.
I’ve also realized that writing songs is going to be a part of me for my entire life. Getting through some of the late-twenty/early thirty junk and still being motivated to tour and write music is kind of a relief. I’m always afraid that I’m going to lose it.
This is your first record in seven years, and it seems that your last was picking up serious steam with features on NPR and other exposure. What happened during those years?
I got a little burnt out on touring. While tours were slowly starting to get better, it can be tough playing to empty rooms most nights for 7-8 years. I just kind of realized that if I was going to play music forever, I needed to figure out a way to do it that was sustainable. So I stopped touring for a bit, started a graphic design company, and worked on putting together a life that centers on music but not always my own. I started recording other bands in my studio and we built a 75 person acoustic show space in the attic of our house. I’m also going to start releasing records for other people and bands next year. I’ve always wanted to affect as many people with music. I just realized that my own songs don’t necessarily have wide appeal. I write these dark, often uncomfortable songs. Forcing them on people all of the time just doesn’t seem right. If I can continue to get the personal fulfillment out of my own songs and maybe have a few people that appreciate them, I can be content. I can use my studio, show space and label to help spread the gospel of rock music.
We did put out an EP, split 7-inch with Andrew Jackson Jihad and a couple of other random things after the last full length though.
Is this your first tour with a proper band and who will be on the road with you?
We’ve toured as a four-piece a few times in the past. It’s been almost five years though. We’ve done a couple of tours as a five-piece too (with trumpet).
You’ve played with a wide variety of artists, everyone from Elliott Smith to Andrew W.K. What have your favorite shows been?
Right now the show I’ve been thinking of the most though was with Magnolia Electric Company in Lexington, KY a while back. I think it was 2003. Jason Molina is one of my favorite songwriters. That show had stuck with me as one of my favorites prior to his passing, but even more so since. They had just recently changed their name from Songs: Ohia and were touring in support of one of my favorite records (called “Magnolia Electric Company”). Such a great, great show.
I just recently played a solo show with King Buzzo from The Melvins, which was a pretty incredible evening. Buzzo was a sweetheart and his fans were some of the best I’ve ever come across.
(Catch The Gunshy at Canal Public House on Wednesday, July 23 with Joe Anderl, Mean Mug, and The Florals.)