FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: The Gentleman Losers

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Interview with The Gentleman Losers.

“First there are the choices you make with the composition, the notes you choose. The silences you choose. You need to allow yourself to get into situations and moods where it’s possible for a thing to happen. Of course there’s a lot of work, and years of learning your craft. That you have to do, nothing is going to change that fact. And you need to keep refining your tastes – though taste is probably not something you can learn. The most important quality in an artist, to me, is the self-criticism. You have to set the bar high. You can’t be lazy. It isn’t easy, but the feeling, once you do succeed, is better than anything in this world.”

Samu Kuukka

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry

TGL_poster_3

The Gentleman Losers is an experimental musical group formed in 2004 by the brothers Samu and Ville Kuukka. Since then they’ve released spellbinding music on several labels including Büro, City Centre Offices, Warp, Nothings66 and Standard Form. Their two full-length releases – 2006’s self-titled debut album and 2009’s sophomore effort ‘Dustland’ – have been universally acclaimed, winning the hearts of many esteemed music-lovers worldwide. The forthcoming third record – the brothers’ latest venture into blissful instrumental music of unknown pleasures – is due to be released in 2014, in what is destined to become (just like the band’s first two albums) a timeless classic.

Talking with German pianist/composer Nils Frahm earlier in the year, The Gentleman Losers was the topic of conversation when concerned with influences and musical inspiration:

“They are really one of my favourites right now. I listen to their records all of the time. Their two albums, they’re both incredible. I feel like those are the only bands I would ask for helping me with my production because I love their sound. They’re getting so much and it sounds so wonderful. I feel like they are under-appreciated and nobody has really heard of them and I feel like that is unfair. It is one of the coolest music right now and one of my best musical influences.”

—Nils Frahm

A lovely parallel exists between the Finnish duo and the German composer. Both artists share an uncanny ability to capture unfathomable beauty through the art of sound, where endless subtle details are interwoven in the sonic tapestries of both artist’s shape-shifting compositions. To think of The Gentleman Losers, I’m immediately taken back to the summer of 2006. The duo’s debut album was released in May of that year (on the City Centre Office’s subsidiary label, Büro), and the significance of the rare find is – still to this day – incalculable and impossible to quantify. Furthermore, the brothers’ meticulous song-craft and divine use of instrumentation allows the music become more than mere musical notes, but large-scale movements of soul-stirring instrumental music that unleashes a wide palette of gorgeous shades, textures, warmth, and vivid colours. Their music is steeped in a magical sense of other-worldly dimensions that transcends space and time. A musical treasure; rare and divine.

A turning point represented itself for the Kuukka brothers upon the arrival of a Vincent Gallo record – 2004’s ‘When’ record released on the Warp label – whose mixture of instrumental and vocal tracks inspired the inception of The Gentleman Loser’s unique blend of sound. The maverick film-maker, producer, actor and musician had created a powerful record encompassing songs of love, regret and nostalgia. Such feelings are forever sweeping in the deeply affecting music of The Gentleman Losers and can be mapped back to the similarly alluring voice of Gallo. For despite the non-vocals of the Kuukka brothers’ work, there is indeed a captivating voice embedded in the rich musical framework of the band’s compositions. The band’s description of their own sound perfectly sets the tone: “one part 60s movie soundtracks, one part wooden electronica, all recorded through a 50s Telefunken mixer we found abandoned in a basement.”

My first introduction to The Gentleman Losers was the achingly beautiful ‘Laureline’. The atmospheric ballad (despite this being an instrumental piece of music it feels as if the melody was sung many lifetimes before, from another era or age) contains beguiling lap steel guitar, analog synths and guiding drum beats. The music evokes childhood nostalgia. The track opens part B of the self-titled debut record. I remember placing ‘Laureline’ on many mixtapes compiled during this time period – nervously handing them to musicians such as Kurt Wagner, Joey Burns and Stuart Staples during their Irish tour – and the choice of instrumental music was always a pre-requisite for the aesthetics of a successful (in the eyes of my brother and I) mixtape. Feel flows, so to speak. ‘Laureline’ – having that Nashville country-tinged sound – would be carefully placed between Lambchop and the likes of Calexico or M. Ward. Reminiscing further on that year (2006), the records I obsessed with the most were certainly The Gentleman Losers’ debut, in addition to ‘Yellow House’ by Grizzly Bear and ‘Ys’ by Joanna Newsom. Records that remain a vital cornerstone to my cherished record collection. The song ‘Laureline’ – as well as their other stunning creations – entrench themselves in your memory.

Elsewhere on the debut record, ‘Silver Mountain’ reaches new summits as new sonic terrain is ventured down, where comparisons can be made with Scottish duo Boards Of Canada, and particularly, their classic ‘Geogaddi’ album. A mesmerizing piano-led melody drifts along the vast seas of sound. The immaculate instrumentation is a joy to savour and relinquish in the loving detail. A pause in the piece occurs towards the song’s close – a marked silence before the enchanting strings soothe your well-being once more – that for me, is one of the (many) epiphanies of this special record. ‘Light Fandango’ evokes lost souls as a cinematic atmosphere reels you in deep and far. The drums and vibes/keys conjures up the sound of Blue Note jazz musicians and the smoky, audience-filled jazz clubs. Birth of the cool. The clean, fat guitar tones fills the air that serves the score to any vintage Louis Malle or Jean Luc Goddard film. ‘Slow Guitars’ is just that. ‘Gold Dust Afternoon’ contains enchanting sounds of woodwind and floating guitars that evokes a moment of transcendence. As the Kuukkas once said of the sound they create: “music from a past that hasn’t happened yet”, there is indeed this mysterious sense of floating and drifting that radiates from the embers of these recording sessions. The music captures that fleeting moment, as it hangs there in the air, and is recorded to tape.

Three years later, the follow-up ‘Dustland’ revealed more nuances and new cinematic delights to the band’s oeuvre. Some of the most compelling and utterly transcendent pieces of music are contained on the record, with the likes of folk etchings of ‘The Echoing Green’ and love-letter ‘Ballad Of Sparrow Young’. It is beyond me (to try to begin) to fathom just how music, delicately beautiful such as this, is created. ‘Ballad Of Sparrow Young’ undeniably belongs to a past that hasn’t happened yet, removed and swirling somewhere high in the upper reaches of the stratosphere. The slow burning gem of ‘Midnight In The Garden Trees’ shares the ambient qualities of UK producer Bibio (whose song ‘Haikuesque’ was re-interpreted by The Gentleman Losers with the aptly titled ‘Whispers In The Rain’ remix). ‘Farandole’ is yet another of the band’s towering achievements. Similar to the positioning of ‘Laureline’ on the debut record, ‘Farandole’ serves the vital pulse to the record. Divine guitar sounds and layers of bewitching instrumentation breathes new dimensions to the album’s resolutely unique universe. ‘Wind In Black Trees’ reveals the brothers’ bold artistic spirit with a brooding ambient tour de force that recalls other luminaries such as Stars Of The Lid and the output of labels such as Touch and Kranky. The piece belongs in the neo-classical realm of stellar modern compositions. Album closer ‘Pebble Beach’ marks the gradual dawning of a new day, as rays of light slowly diffuse through the shifting darkness. The use of percussion here works wonderfully, as a sense of new beginnings is etched on the sonic canvas, just as the album comes to a fitting close.

In the interim since 2009’s ‘Dustland’, the Kuukkas have been extremely busy. The brothers did a score – their first feature – for a Finnish feature film called ‘Ja Saapuu Oikea Yö’, resulting in an hour’s worth of music contained in the film. On top of other film-related projects, the band have begun work on a new Gentleman Losers record, due out sometime next year. The Kuukka brothers have also formed a new band – alongside singer Patrick Sudarski from Leipzig – called Lessons, whose debut single, entitled ‘Double Or Nothing’ was recently released on the Konkordski label, creating sublime synth pop music. 2014 will be a busy year for the Kuukkas with the eagerly awaited follow-up to ‘Dustland’ just some months away. The valve-powered heart of the record will undoubtedly set hearts aflutter, just as the previous two records have done.

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The Gentleman Losers’ self-titled debut album is available now on Büro. Follow-up “Dustland” is also available now on City Centre Offices.

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Interview with Samu and Ville Kuukka.

Please discuss for me the roots to your music? As two brothers growing up you must have been immersed in music so heavily. Please give me an insight into this special time of discovering music and what triggered you both to pursue making music together?

Samu: Playing music was always a natural way of expression for us because our dad is a musician by profession. Our family moved from the city to the country when I was about 11 and Ville was eight, and the only way we would agree to leave our friends and move, was that we were promised a drum kit. We had both been taking piano lessons before that, but it was the drums that really got us into music.

Ville: Soon after we got an electric guitar. An East German one, a horrible, horrible instrument.

Samu: Oh yeah, that guitar was probably an evil plan by the Communist Party to discourage kids from playing rock ‘n’ roll. I used to imitate David Gilmour’s guitar solos note for note, or, well, the best I could. That was the good thing about living in a big house in the country, we could make all the racket we wanted. Remarkable patience from our folks, too!

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You have described your music before as “music from a past that hasn’t happened yet.” I think this is the perfect description of your music. The heavenly melodies and intricate layers of instrumentation forever illuminates and inspires. I would love to learn more about the creative process involved in creating art through sound?

Samu: It’s not an easy task to describe the process. It’s a bit of a mystery, to be honest. I mean, we write music professionally these days, and we can be very precise and produce whatever is needed for a commission, but when it comes to TGL, it’s always up to the spirits a little bit. It’s a very slow and toilsome process to write a TGL track. There has to be this deeper level of emotion in it. It either happens or it doesn’t.

Ville: All the aspects of a song might be perfect, on paper, but if it doesn’t touch us, it has to go. Might end up being used in a film score or something, but we really can’t fool ourselves. Sometimes the good ones just appear out of nowhere, sometimes there’s nothing for ages, and it can be frustrating.

Samu: Then there’s the whole thing with the sound, all the tweaks and the hours in the studio, adding layers of magic like on a Japanese lacquer box. In the end, music really is deliberate emotional manipulation. By whatever means it takes. The hard part is that you have to spill your soul into the music for it to be powerful. Which sort of leaves you exposed.

Ville: The funny thing is, we never have to talk about this between us. As long as the magic is not there, we’re not happy, and once it is there, we don’t need to talk about it. We both just know instinctively.

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My favourite track of yours is ‘Ballad Of Sparrow Young’ from ‘Dust Land’. The guitar melody is divine and the slow tempo exudes the ebb and flow of all life’s emotion. I have rarely heard a piece of music so sad yet uplifting; powerful and beautiful. Can you shed some light on the recording of this piece and the title used?

Samu: That one is mostly Ville’s doing. To me, that songs brings to mind a special time at the start of our sessions for Dustland when we were renting a studio by the river in Turku.

Ville: It’s in fact a very personal song to me. I wrote it as a love song to my girlfriend.

Samu: As for the title, it’s just something that popped into our heads. “Sparrow Young” might be the name of a character in a film, possibly an early ’70s revisionist western. Who knows. We don’t!

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I recently interviewed German composer Nils Frahm and he described to me his love for your music: “Their two albums, they’re both incredible. I feel those are the only bands I would ask for helping me with my production because I love their sound. They’re getting so much and it sounds so wonderful. It is one of my best musical influences.”
I think these words sum everything up for me when thinking about The Gentleman Losers. It’s a bit simplistic of me to ask but how do you both manage getting so much with your sound?

Samu: Like I said, it is a mystery to some extent. First there are the choices you make with the composition, the notes you choose. The silences you choose. You need to allow yourself to get into situations and moods where it’s possible for a thing to happen. Of course there’s a lot of work, and years of learning your craft. That you have to do, nothing is going to change that fact. And you need to keep refining your tastes – though taste is probably not something you can learn. The most important quality in an artist, to me, is the self-criticism. You have to set the bar high. You can’t be lazy. It isn’t easy, but the feeling, once you do succeed, is better than anything in this world. Including sex and charcoal grilled lamb burgers.

Ville: Then there’s the things you do with the sound. Plenty of tubes in the chain, some spring reverb, a bit of tape machine. We’ve collected some choice equipment along the way, but we will probably never be able to afford some of the really good stuff. But you pick up a knowledge of what works for what, which mics to choose, which brand of tape to put in the tape delay etc. Again, learning your craft little by little.

Samu: All of these things – the notes, and how you choose to play them, the way the recording sounds – carry with them layers of meaning; evocations of times and places and ideas and other works of art. So you make your art out of all this.

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In terms of musical influences, who do you see as inspiration?

Ville: Well there’s Pink Floyd, always a major influence. Mike Oldfield was huge when we were young, now perhaps not so much. But it’s artists like these who sort of gave us the idea of making music on our own terms and not paying too much attention to what others are saying. Vincent Gallo’s “When” was what showed us the way when we were trying to find our own sound with The Gentleman Losers. That, and Sparklehorse. And Daniel Lanois is one of the most amazing musicians on the planet, and if you’ve ever caught him live, you’ll agree.

Samu: Duncan Browne’s 1968 baroque pop album Give Me, Take You, has been getting a lot of plays lately. Browne later formed Metro, which was a great band, too. He passed away rather young in the early nineties. Then lots of artists where you can’t probably discern a direct influence: Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel’s film music, John Cale. Mark Mothersbaugh’s film music – that’s big. Thing as diverse as Nico, John Foxx, Lee Hazlewood. Maher Shalal Hash Baz; John Lurie; Can; Italian pop from the ’60s like Patty Pravo; Scott Walker’s old albums and the new frightening stuff; Shriekback.

Ville: While making the new album, I’ve been listening to lots of “art” music: chamber music by Shostakovich and Schnittke, Finnish composers Aulis Sallinen and Joonas Kokkonen.

Samu: There are going to be some soul influences, too. I’ve always been a big fan of classic soul, Motown stuff, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. And then there’s Arthur Russell. He was in a class of his own. And old music (as in medieval and renaissance) has actually always been a big influence for me. The modality of medieval music often seems to find its way into our melodies.

Ville: Of the more “contemporary” artists, Bibio certainly inspires us. He keeps releasing excellent albums. Stina Nordenstam, Lambchop, Bat For Lashes, El Perro Del Mar, Fever Ray come to mind. We like Nils Frahm’s stuff a lot. We’ve talked about doing a collaboration of some sort, but haven’t found the right thing, or the time yet.

Samu: As you can see, this is an eclectic list. We don’t actually much listen to the type of music that we make, funnily enough.

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In terms of instrumentation, you play many instruments: keys, bass, harpsichord, vibraphone, glockenspiel, drums, guitars, bass, magic boxes to name but a few. Please discuss your love for collecting instruments and what were the instruments you first began to play? Also, what musical instrument are you fascinated most by?

Samu: It’s always fun to pick up a new instrument see what kind of sounds are hidden inside. Even with guitars, you get totally different music out of different ones. Not to mention synths. The harpsichord and vibraphone that we’ve used were on loan, but I guess we have been hoarding up instruments over the years.

Ville: The lap steel guitar that we use has been a source of inspiration. It’s a Fender from 1954 and I’ve never heard an instrument with such a sound. The notes seem to emanate from another world.

Samu: One instrument that I play that never ended up on a record, is the saxophone. We’ll have to see if that will change now. We will have a string section on the new one, and that’s something that we’re very excited about right now.

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My first introduction to your music was your self-titled debut record. What an album it is. Please discuss the recording of this album and take me back to this particular space and time for you? I was interested to read it was recorded at night in a reputedly haunted house in Finland’s medieval district?

Ville: The first TGL album came after a long period of writing music and trying to find our own voice. We had already recorded an album’s worth of this sort of synth-driven electronic music that we hoped to get released. But eventually we just tossed it out – it wasn’t good enough, and we just didn’t want to do it anymore. This was in May 2004. We decided we need to start looking at completely different directions. We wanted to be quiet, atmospheric, cinematic. And a bit alt-country, too. That was the original plan. We took a lot of influence from Daniel Lanois’ production, especially his own music. And then we heard the Vincent Gallo album and something clicked. By the end of the summer we had an album’s worth of music done.

Samu: It was a very special time, for sure. Then it took almost two years to release it, even if we did find a label quite soon. City Centre Offices actually started a new sub-label just to release our album, so it took a long time to set it up.

Ville: We recorded it in Turku, which is our original home town, and the oldest city in Finland. Our studio at the time was located in the medieval quarter. Lovely studio, but hot as hell. It was in this old building that housed the city cultural offices, so at night it was empty except for us. Which suited us fine, because we are serious night owls. So we started at around five, six in the evening and worked until the sun came up. And yes, the house is said to be haunted. Certainly that sort of an ambience influences you, even if you don’t believe in ghosts!

Samu: Didn’t see any ghosts, but every morning, when we dragged ourselves home after working 10-12 hours in that 30+ degree heat, we were zombies for sure!

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‘Laureline’ is perhaps my favourite on the album. I also love the Bibio remix of this gorgeous instrumental. I would love to hear how this track came together; did it originate from the lap steel melody?

Samu: Laureline originated from this sequence of chords that I was playing on an electric piano. Ville started playing the lap steel guitar over it. Then I had another chord progression for the middle part and we put those together. It was probably one of the most important songs for us in the sense that it of opened a lot of locked doors in the creative process and pointed us down the right path. It is a very personal piece of music, and we’re so glad that so many people seem to like it. An American couple recently told us that they played it as their wedding song. That was amazing to hear.

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How has your hometown of Helsinki inspired you as musicians and composers?

Samu: Helsinki has been my hometown for fifteen years, and Ville’s for some time now. It’s a funny thing, to think about how it has inspired me, because on a conscious level it probably hasn’t very much. But I think it does have a way of affecting us. The word that comes to mind is “isolation”. It’s a fairly small city, about 600,000 people, and it actually feels even smaller. Every time you spend time abroad and return to Helsinki, it’s like you’re in a slow-motion film. It’s very quiet, almost eerily so, and there seems to be no one around. So you get to focus on your own things.

Ville: Then there’s the northern climate. I love the summer dearly, and although the summers can be gorgeous, they’re also short, and the winters are gruesome and go on forever. The nice thing about this is that winter is a time of introspection and that suits us perfectly. It’s a time of creating your own worlds inside your head.

Samu: Another thing is that Helsinki is on the periphery of Europe, both geographically and culturally, which means that you kind of get to do your own thing in peace, without new influences constantly being crammed down your throat. I choose to see this isolation as a good thing, but it can be bad, too. The Finnish society is very homogenic and can be extremely suffocating.

Ville: But we tend to live on the outside of it anyway, very consciously. Which is probably the reason why we’re not really known in our own country. But the Finns aren’t big on music, anyway.

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How does the recording and process itself change from album to album, for example from the debut record to the follow-up ‘Dust Land’?

Ville: The gaps between our albums are always so long (and this is not by our own volition, we just need to do paying jobs in the interim to save enough money to have free the months needed for the recording) that we sort of have to relearn the process each time.

Samu: In the last few years we have developed better routines. But, even so, making our own music is again different from commissions. It’s a lot more delicate process, and we don’t actually want to get too “professional” about it.

Ville: The way it usually happens is we both come up with ideas on our own, then present them to the other, and if it gets an OK, then we get to work on it together. That basic method hasn’t really changed.

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Remixing other artist’s work must be a pleasure for you to do. I love your remix of an old Bibio song. Similarly, Bibio remixed your own work. Discuss the remixing side of your work and how this develops you as artists?

Samu: Remixing certainly has given us new insights into our own music. There are so many levels of remixing, from just fooling around with some tracks to doing a complete reworking, like what we did on that Bibio song.

Ville: It’s a nice way of experimenting and getting new ideas. We certainly have some new tricks up our sleeve for the next album, and we’ve been itching to do it for many years now. Luckily, I can now say that it is finally happening.

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You are currently working on some film music where you have been commissioned to write a feature film score. Can you tell me a bit about this particular project please? How does the process differ from working on a Gentleman Losers record?

Ville: We did a score for a Finnish feature film called Ja Saapuu Oikea Yö. The director loved our albums and wanted us to do the score, even if it wasn’t exactly TGL type music that the film required.

Samu: It was our first feature, and it was a lot of work. In the end, there was about 60 minutes of music in it, which is a crazy amount for a non-musical film. It took us about four months of work, every single day. A lot of string arrangements and so on. But, you want to deliver what the director asks for, and that, of course, is the main difference. You don’t get to make the big decisions yourself. Film music is great, but I don’t think we would cope, as musicians, if we didn’t get to do our own thing, too.

Ville: There’s also a Swiss/French film called Left Foot, Right Foot coming out soon which features our tracks. And an Armenian film called “I’m Going To Change My Name” has some music by us.

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It’s very exciting to hear that there is a new Gentleman Losers record in the works. Can you discuss please the sonic avenues and themes this particular journey descends on? Any working titles?

Ville: The album is getting along nicely, and despite all the compulsory breaks in the process, we have some wonderful things lined up. No titles at this point, but what I can say is that there will be some surprises in store.

Samu: Years have passed and time has come once again for some new directions, but there will also be familiar things.

I’ll mention the other reason why the GL album has been delayed so much: it’s called Lessons, and it’s our pop project that we’ve been working on for the last months. The idea is to do some tasty, clever pop music. We had been thinking about it for years and now was the time to go ahead with it. We released our first single Double Or Nothing on the Konkordski label a few weeks ago, and we have an album nearly done. Lessons is the two of us and singer Patrick Sudarski from Leipzig. So next year is looking to be very busy for us, with two album releases.

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TGL_poster_2

The Gentleman Losers’ self-titled debut album is available now on Büro. Follow-up “Dustland” is also available now on City Centre Offices.

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http://gentlemanlosers.wordpress.com
https://soundcloud.com/the-gentleman-losers

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September 23, 2013 at 10:05 am

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  1. […] Illustration: Craig Carry […]

  2. […] Read the full article here: Chosen One: The Gentleman Losers […]


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