At the time I wrote this in my apartment, in Los Angeles, Larry Gus was on the other side of the world, in Milan, his current home, catching up on some work. Before sitting down to face all my questions, Larry went for a stroll on his bike while listening to Brian Eno’s Before And After Science. He holds that album in such high regard that he couldn’t restrain himself and had to tell me twice. While you may not be able to directly hear the influence of Eno within Gus’ music, the parallels become clear when his personality is truly exposed. During our extended conversation, in a very Eno-like fashion, he maintained that the most significant part of a record is the months—or often years—spent leading up to it.
But, as you may have guessed, the story is just beginning and he wouldn’t be able to predict an ending if you asked for it. He has a new LP called Years Not Living coming out via DFA Records on August 19, which incorporates various styles, from 60s/70s psychedelia to hip-hop, pop to dub disco.
This interview was originally planned as a brief catch up, but evolved into an incredibly insightful and enthusiastic oral journey that touched on hardcore punk, pirate radio, the thrill of discovering dance music, great French literature, the magic of the MPC, the influence of paintings, and the bliss of solitude. In the style of a truly content and fulfilled artist, Gus reassures you that he’s not out there simply for fame and works for personal gratification and triumph. Case in point: when I asked why he’s chosen to stay in Milan, he quickly said, “I really love it here—nobody gives a fuck about me.”
Hey Larry, how’s it going? So the new LP is finished and comes out next month. I’ve really been enjoying it. Has your daily life been any different since completing the album, or are you already back to work?
It’s really funny, because I finished the actual recordings for the album back in June ’11. And for many, many months after that I was dealing with practical stuff mostly. I think I got back into writing again by July ’11, and I haven’t stopped since. I really admire Woody Allen’s words, in the sense that everything is about the actual creative work, and if you try not to spend time with the good and the bad stuff that happens peripherally to that, then you can be more calm and focused. I try to do that, but there still times that I lose control and get super stressed and anxious.
And you’re preparing to tour and head to the states for the Red Bull Music Academy DFA celebration. Are you changing your live setup at all for the new dates? As a one-man band, does your technical setup stay pretty simple, or do you like to switch it up often?
For many years I was doing live improv shows with more proper instrumentation, but in the last couple of years my live set is sampler based. I try to recreate the songs live, but without resorting to huge amounts of “backing tracks.” I don’t have pre-sequenced parts of the songs, let’s say that I have each element and trigger it real time. In that sense I can change the arrangements very easily, and with some effects I can do some kind of improv on top of that. I also try to push my limits with my voice, changing some melodies, adding different parts etc.
You’ve been working solo for a while, but years ago you played in bands growing up. Even though those bands may not sound like anything you do today, can you explain the difference in creativity when you’re making music with band mates vs. by yourself?
Oh man, this is a super big debate. I had this band back in 2003 – 2005, and I was extremely invested in it. We were playing like an aggressive version of Red Snapper, with many Load Records influences. We were rehearsing super often, and generally we were on a good path. And suddenly the drummer ditched me, just to finish his studies. It was devastating for me, I really liked working with him, and we even did electronic stuff together. He was extremely brilliant and talented, and I always felt intimidated in a way. But I grew dependent on him, and after we broke up the band, I literally had to walk from scratch.
It was like having a bad divorce; I just couldn’t trust anyone after that. I’ve spent so many years after that, working hard on my own and trying to improve on my skills, and I am at a point right now that I had to reconsider my whole stance. The thing is that I am extremely defensive regarding my material; I mean I just want to have total control and no input from any other musicians. I want to have 100% responsibility for the successes and failures. I have this thing as a closed system with no external factors influencing it, so when I tweak any parameter, I can get to see the results immediately.
Aesthetics is a really sensitive subject, and most of the times it’s very easy to exclude anyone that wants to bring something different on the table. And on top of that, i don’t like being in a competitive state of mind, so the easy way is continuing on my own. Imagine that there are times that I play some of my songs to some friends of mine who happen to be really really good musicians and whenever they try to suggest something, I just stop them on the spot.
Reading all the above I’m sure someone can easily draw the conclusion that I tend to have some deep unresolved stuff going on and I should start therapy ASAP. I agree with that guy.
Do you think that growing up in bands taught you the appropriate lessons in order to do music on your own, or did you always play music either way?
When you play with someone else, you get double the motivation to keep going. When a show starts, you talk to your band-mates, and you feel the warmth of bonding, which is extremely invaluable. On your own, you just have the mirror for pep talk, and in that sense you grow to be your own motivator. And when things are going bad, you are fucked. That’s the most important thing for me when you are in a band. Support from other people. But you have to be completely immersed into communal feelings and be completely unselfish in order to achieve that. I can’t do that at this point, and I’ll try to change it.
Speaking of growing up, let’s talk about your time spent in your small hometown of Veria, Greece. Describe the vibe and music culture of the area. Were you big into local music as a kid, or were you more interested in your parent’s record collection?
Veria itself had a non-existent music community. The town itself is like 50,000 in population and let’s just say that in the mid 90s there were couple of punk bands, but not cool Dischord-like bands… more of a bad hardcore punk version of that. Near Veria is the second biggest city in Greece, Thessaloniki, which had quite a tradition with bands in the 80s and 90s, but I was too young to get a taste of all that.
I was extremely introverted during my school years, studying a lot and all that. Let’s say that I was the kid who went home alone with headphones after school, taping radio shows and spending too much time trying to understand the lyrics.
I was listening to an interview of Paul Scheer for Marc Maron and he was explaining how he was taping comedies in his Walkman to listen to them when he was on the school bus, and I literally started crying. I could identify 100% with that.
What kinds of music were your parents into when you were a kid? Did you like the stuff they would play around the house, or did you learn to appreciate it later? Would you say that any of those records still influence what you do today?
I owe most of my musical upbringing to my father, mostly for his record collection. He was also pushing me for music lessons when I was 8 years old, and that was a good move, although I stopped around 13. He was making tapes for me when I was 10, with Bowie, Pink Floyd, Yes, Beatles etc. And he made me watch the whole video of Pink Floyd live in Earl’s Court in ’94, which was a critical point for my taste.
I still find albums in his collection that i overlooked when younger. For instance he was the reason I discovered Lucio Battisti, because Greece had always been a huge market for Italian Music, and many homes are equipped with Italian albums. I got super lucky that we had a mint original copy of Anima Latina, my life changed with that album.
Did you have the chance to go to many concerts growing up? If so, can you name any shows that really inspired you?
Considering that Veria was essentially a big village, I didn’t see any concerts while growing up. I was watching that same tape of Nirvana in the Utero tour, over and over again.
But I went to some concerts in Thessaloniki. And some of them really sucked. For instance, I saw Ian Brown and Morrissey in the late 90′s and it was devastating. I stopped listening to the Smiths after that Morrissey gig, and they were my favorite band in high school, I was obsessed with them. I never listened to them after that, seriously, it was a huge bummer. I still cringe when I see his face… he destroyed everything. I also saw Death In Vegas (around the Contino Sessions tour, which was nice), and some Greek bands like Trypes. They were initially the Greek version of Gang of Four but they became extremely good after a few albums. I still like them.
Around what point in your life did you discover the art of sampling? Did you have any real intention of producing music seriously when you bought your first sampler? You note the legendary Lucio Battisti as a major influence; can you explain that as well?
I bought Endtroducing in the summer ’98, I was 15 back then. That same day I also bought Dummy and Garbage’s first albums. [Laughs]
I was extremely curious about DJ Shadow. I remember some articles where he was titled “The Hendrix of Samplers” and I was like, “WTF is a sampler.” Endtroducing by DJ Shadow was extremely influential for me, I tried to study his technique, but never having an actual hip-hop background I fell short. For many years I thought that samplers are machines that could among other things isolate parts out of arrangements. Yes, I was that naive and ignorant. After I discovered the legendary DJ Shadow’s mailing list with the Endtroducing samples, I started to understand what’s going on.
I bought my first sampler (Roland SP-404) in 2006, and I just couldn’t believe it when I held it in my hands. It was a dream of mine since ‘98, and I really hated working with samples on the computer. It took me some time to learn how to get the best out of it, but I can say that my most happy time imaginable is still when I listen to albums I bought, having the sampler armed, searching for those two seconds. I recently bought a better one, an MPC1000, and I try to rewire my brain from scratch.
Lucio Battisti was always an amazing songwriter; some of his early pop stuff is way too good to be true, really heartbreaking stuff (http://youtu.be/DXbTu8ymvEY). But in Anima Latina he pushed the envelope, he really fucked things up in there. The melodies are still stellar, but the rhythms and the arrangements… fuck fuck fuck, I still listen to that album after so many years and I get surprised every time. And the most funny thing is that I just managed to understand some of the lyrics, and that happened because I live in Milan.
I read that you were really into punk and hardcore when you were younger. Although you don’t make anything close to that today, do you think that the punk rock mindset and DIY aesthetic played a role in all the music you produced after that phase? Do you feel it was important to develop that understanding of music early on?
The first two LPs that I bought were Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising and Minor Threat’s first compilation. I had some friends in high school with older brothers that knew their shit, and I tried to learn something from them. Unfortunately, my father’s definition of “heavy” was Uriah Heep. But there was a pirate radio called UTOPIA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32b2seIWYIs&list=PLEE8FCC1F1512AC19&index=1) filled with really active political overtones—it was run by anarchists—and I spent many nights recording tapes and asking those brothers of friends to tell me about those bands. I discovered many of the Greek hardcore punk scenes of the 90s through that.
I don’t know if it actually influenced me that much in my musical attitude (although I think it did, considering that still after all those years I try not to be too perfectionist in the way I record and produce) but mostly it helped me raise my awareness regarding social matters. That station for instance was hardcore anti-authoritarian, and all the bands that I laid my ears upon represented that attitude.
Was it ever a personal challenge to accept your wide range of taste when it comes to music you enjoy? From classic rock to electronic beats, to jazz and psychedelic…how did you learn to accept yourself as who you are and embrace all of these sounds as a representation of yourself?
I feel guilty when I comfort myself with listening the same old stuff. I have some soft spots regarding music that I like, and I hate it when I catch myself repeating listening patterns and getting in a habit.
I feel extremely uneducated regarding music. I try to be up-to-date, but somehow I get lost, and right now it’s even harder for me, because at the same time I realized that I was even more uneducated regarding literature and philosophy, and it’s a huge struggle trying to reach out for all that. And imagine that I just discovered the whole U.S. comedy scene, and this world is fucking huge. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. I get up in the morning, and I am always thinking: should I listen to the whole L.I.E.S SoundCloud and Ron Morelli’s mixes, read Ballard’s interviews or watch Jim Norton’s special? This is overwhelming. I will always keep feeling uneducated.
I recently decided to quit my pursue my actual degree and just focus on music, mostly for the fact that all this multitasking made me sick in the stomach every day I woke up.
I really admire musicians who can do all those things at the same time. For instance you get to see people like Dan Snaith. He is an amazing songwriter, an amazing DJ, he has a PhD in mathematics, he is athletic, and of course an amazing producer.
Perhaps coming from a rural location made it easier to explore all kinds of music without the influence of trendy cities…
I never wanted to be part of any scene, and in fact there is an amazing Kassem Mosse interview where he puts this very eloquently. I always think that if I was living in Berlin or London, I would try to be part of the scene and get to know the musicians and try to be active. And that will definitely kill me, because I am extremely insecure by nature. Competition always destroys me; I am the worst when things get down to that.
I always keep in mind the whole Borges approach to that, in the sense that the whole universe is infinite, but also your little tiny room can represent some kind of infinity on it’s own.
It’s also interesting how you credit music journalism as an influence on your creativity. A lot of people say that the art is dying, but I look at it completely opposite. How important is the beauty of perception to you and your work? Does reading about music keep you open-minded?
I never had the actual chance to buy so many albums when I was in school and all those reviews and interviews from NME, Uncut, Select, and some Greek mags were an amazing substitute. Later on, when I bought my first issue of The Wire, well, that was an actual revelation. It was just text! I was turning page after page, the reviews didn’t have any artwork. I was going bananas. Since 2002, The Wire has been an extreme influence on my creative process. I always loved the way people tried to be descriptive about sound, it instantly made me think about music making.
I was thinking at some point to do my master thesis on analyzing the influence of reviews and music writing on songwriting processes, but due to the more technical nature of the school I abandoned that.
What I like most about your unique musical style is that you can dance to it and sleep to it depending on your mood. I feel like that universal element is something that means a lot to you. Can you name a few favorite records that capture this idea?
Oh man that comment is amazing! For many many years, I always considered my favorite albums those that made me sleep when I first listened to them. (And I am talking about non-ambient albums of course!)
I get this feeling from albums such as… the Avalanches’ Since I left You, Drexciya’s The Quest, Jorge Ben’s Tabua Di Esmeralda, the Roots’ Things Fall Apart, and Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part 1.
I think a lot of people are attracted to your music because you’re unexpected and you don’t fit into what everyone is trying to be. Even though this is surely a part of your personality, I’m curious about how the Larry Gus material came to be. Did you ever find yourself trying to make music you didn’t like, or forcing things out under the assumption that you “had” to make certain types of music? What made you feel comfortable with being entirely you?
It’s needless to say that it feels extremely uncomfortable being me, and this mostly has to do with my actual shitty fat body and my obsessions and my stupid mind that keeps fucking up everything.
But, anyway, I have a huge issue, thinking that the music I enjoy making can be a little bit unfashionable, in the worst sense, the one that someone listening to it thinks that it’s 5 – 6 years old instead of contemporary or 50 years old.
I studied on a field that I fucking hated (computer and telecommunications engineering), and since I completely ditched that, I realize everyday that I can only do what I really enjoy, otherwise there is no meaning in anything.
Right now you’re living in Milan, which seems to be keeping you happy. What are some of your favorite things about living there, and how has traveling affected your music? Do you see yourself staying there for a while?
Milan is literally a dreamy place for me. It’s the first time that I am living under the same roof with my girlfriend after many years of long distance relationship. I really love it here, nobody gives a fuck about me, everything is almost grayscale in a way, even the pavements are all concrete, no fancy designs or anything. There is a huge history around the area, because this is where beats the heart of industrial Italy, and you get to feel that. After living in Greece and Barcelona, I feel at home in a place where it rains constantly, the winter is quite heavy, and there is no beach in sight.
Moving in and out of places has affected me a lot, in the sense that I have to always carry a really portable setup, but now it’s one of the first times that I decided to have everything here, even my proper drum set, guitars, amplifiers etc.
What’s the scene like there? Is there a nice balance of dance music and good underground rock?
Whenever I first moved, I tried to see what’s going on in the experimental/noise/electro-acoustic scene. Truth be told, I don’t have a clear view of anything else here in Milan so far. I’ve met some amazing people, like Giuseppe Ielasi for instance, who runs this extremely good label called Senufo Editions, and he keeps feeding me with music and inspiration.
Also, I am not much of a club kind of guy, I prefer going out for walks. I can’t even stay much long in bars, and when I am there, always somebody drags me reluctantly. I am all about food and walking, that’s that.
And back to the topic of the new album, explain the recording process of the whole thing? How long did it take, and what sorts of themes are most present in the songwriting? Do you feel that this record represents a new chapter in your life?
The writing process started way back in April, 2010, in Milan and Venice, went on for a bit in Barcelona, and resulted in Veria, where I relocated by August, 2010, where I stayed and continued working on until June, 2011.
I spent initially an extreme amount of time on the preproduction, in the sense that I was trying to lay down the very specific paths and rules that I will follow.
Those were indeed some really emotionally-charged days, because around that time I decided to forever ditch any prospective career that I might had with my studies and just focused on music. In way, I bet all my life in that album, I was thinking very specifically “if this doesn’t work out, this should be an indication about my actual skills.”
I am not a multitasking person, and I always used my studies and accompanying jobs as an excuse for not working harder with music. So I decided that I had to try and see what will happen if I focus full time on that. For the bulk of the sessions I had an extremely strict schedule, working from 8 AM – 10 PM daily. It was the best time of my life, because I was working with my mind in the expectations I was creating for the things that might come afterward. And this is always the best part, because reality tends to show its cruel face on any given occasion.
Tell me a little about the influence of great literary works on your writing process of the latest record. How about Georges Perec and the Oulipo movement? What role did these concepts play in your mind?
It was a very very specific influence. By the time I started working on the album, I was reading Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which was written by him, using very specific constraints. It was as if he created an algorithm that generated concepts for stories. This had a profound effect on me, because the book on first reading seemed just like any amazing written book. I was laughing, crying, getting extremely connected with the stories. But still, there was an ocean of possibilities and infinite connections beneath the surface, and this very notion blew my mind for months, I just couldn’t grasp it. Imagine that the book talks about a building, and for each room there are 4 – 5 separate stories, which are all interwoven by a big overarching story. Elements of one story would pop up in another, but they would have a different meaning/role in different contexts.
So I tried to adapt that in a way. I gathered lots and lots and lots of samples (third party and my own recordings), and I created some ground rules: I categorized the sounds according to different taxonomies, and I started playing with that… harmony, texture, era etc etc. In a sense I created a huge generative system that was giving me combinations and beats, and then I decided which of those I should refine to turn into proper songs and beats. In the beginning there were more that 300 of such combinations, all taken from a pool of more that 3000 sounds. And even in the songs that I used in YNL, someone can notice that there are many specific sounds or samples that appear in different songs, but they change according to the context.
How did you form your relationship with DFA Records? Even though your music isn’t too much like most records on the label, it is their similar view of music that makes the connection I feel.
It is extremely funny because DFA always used to be one of my top three labels whenever I had discussions with friends about labels that I would ideally like to put out some of my stuff. And most of those discussions were extremely hypothetical: I could never imagine that such a thing would ever happen to me. I fell in love with DFA when I started listening to Black Dice. I was a Black Dice fan boy for many yearss—in fact I still am, they influenced me in more ways than I can imagine.
I was extremely in love with Echoes by the Rapture, back in 2003, and when I listened to Creature Comforts by Black Dice, I was like, “who the fuck has those huge balls to release such amazing and disparate music?” Then, around 2005, I read an interview by Jonathan Galkin, and he was talking about listening to Jaylib’s Champion Sound and Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, and I was literally blown away. I was obsessed with the first LCD album, and it still remains my favorite. Then, when I was serving my compulsory military service, around 2007, I was listening a lot to Shocking Pinks and the first Holy Ghost 12″, along with the amazing album that is Days of Mars by Delia and Gavin Russom. And much much, much more.
Jon Galkin listened to YNL and Stitches and told me to remix “I Walked Alone” by YACHT. He initially passed on the album, and this made sense, because this hasn’t so much to do with the “iconic DFA sound.” But, after a couple of months, he told me that he was up for it, and that we should do it. He is quite a big Vangelis and Aphrodite’s Child fan, and who knows? Something clicked in him! I put Big Star’s Radio City on my headphones and I spent the day walking around and laughing like crazy. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed unreal, it still is. I sometimes wake up in the night and I feel that all that is a dream, and is happening to somebody else and not me.
Did you want to capture a particular message or feeling when you were in the writing process, or does it contain multiple intentions?
Thing is that i never write lyrics, only recently I decided to give it a try, but I am really bad at it. So generally, I don’t think that I could convey a specific emotion, even if I wanted to. It seems to me like if there’s a big semantic gap between what I feel, and what the listener feels. It is always so objective and ambiguous. But I have to admit that I really like the non-deterministic aspect of that, you never know how somebody else perceives something that you created having something completely different in mind.
I also heard that there will be a documentary coming out about the album…
Yes, the initial trigger was the making of the album while I was in Veria, but then it expanded a little bit, and is also about my friends and their own stories. It’s quite weird in a way, but I think that it will turn out super nice. The director is my very good friend Vasilis Katsoupis (aka Dipyadeep), and he’s been also making all the videos for my songs so far. He is one of my favorite people in the world, I owe him so much!
You’ve been putting out more remixes lately, which must be a really fun assignment for someone like you. What are the biggest goals for you when doing a remix of another song? What sort of things do you look for in existing songs before re-working it in your own way? Is it refreshing to handle remixes in between working on your own stuff?
I really enjoy it, but the problem is that it really takes too much time, because I try to be exhaustive when working. This remains from the YNL recording days. I always want to explore all the possibilities before settling down to a combination of sounds and rhythms. In that way I could spend a week trying out stuff before I actually start working on structure of the remix. But it’s always fun, because in a way it’s like throwing dice, I never actually know what exactly will happen.
Can you name a few artists of today’s current generation that we should be listening to?
Shackleton, Burnt Friedman, Edan, Madteo, Kurt Vile, Eric Copeland, Jar Moff, Mo Kolours, Sandro Perri, Sandro Perri, Sandro Perri.
And how about some advice for up and coming artists?
I don’t think that I can give any advice; I don’t consider myself close to a position to do that. I can only say that in the past few months that I’m obsessed with the comedians’ and actors’ struggle stories I hear in Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast (and with his own life story, of course). There are so many examples in there of people that kept being motivated for a long time, and managed to achieve great things despite some really fucked up circumstances. I always look up to those people.
Alright man, thanks so much for chatting. Hope to see you soon. How about leaving us with some photos that inspire you at the moment?
Non Parto Non Resto is a painting by Alighiero Boetti, which literally translates as “Never Start Never Rest.” It’s extremely descriptive of my actual state of mind of the past months.
Larry Gus’ album, Years Not Living, is via DFA Records on August 19; the documentary, My Friend Larry Gus, directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, is expected to be released later this year.