From Here To Infinity: Gnod Interviewed
Killing off psych rock, Gnod have returned with their boldest statement to date. The Skinny taps into the infinity machine
It would’ve been hard to guess amidst 1000 or so revellers trading off slithers of their cerebrum at the altar of Gnod last September at Liverpool Psych Fest, but on the stage at least, a funeral was taking place. Joined by White Hills’ Dave W on guitar, the Salford collective tore through four cuts from their 2009 collaboration with the LA psych-rockers for what was to be the last time.
“We agreed that this would be the last time we’d do it. It was a lot of fun, really cathartic,” says Paddy Shine, coming to after a late night in Merseyside as part of This Heat drummer Charles Hayward’s Anonymous Bash live band. “But it felt like the end of a chapter for us.”
Along with Gnod co-founder Chris Haslam, we’re in Shine’s living space-cum-workshop for Gnod label Tesla Tapes, deep inside Salford venue and studio space Islington Mill. Records are stacked high behind us, analogue odds and ends scattered around the furniture, while a cat scuttles around the bare pipework; our conversation is punctuated by the hum of a fish tank and the outré jazz entanglements of Rocket Recordings labelmates Shit & Shine’s latest record. The Victorian-era Mill, with its Situationist-inspired aim to create an open-source environment for artists to practice away from conventional spaces, has recently held more influence over Gnod than anything else. “You just become part of the place,” Shine says. “We can invite whoever we want to come and stay, and 90% of the time these people will put some work on here or collaborate with an artist. It’s inspiring.”
“You just become part of the place” – Paddy Shine
Some bands will suddenly stamp their impact on a city; Gnod are of the other ilk, a presence lurking in the background for as long as anyone can remember. Their love affair with the Mill began towards the end of last decade; shows around the time drawing a pretty distinct heritage from the free travellers parties of the late 80s and early 90s, a free-for-all of looped riffs, spaced-out rhythmic passages and – depending on who turned up – demented vocal preachings. First Drop Out (with NYC space rockers White Hills) and then 2011’s Chaudelande saw critics edge them towards the burgeoning neo-psych revival. Even as demand rose though, new live audiences found a group already done with bonged-out guitar repetition, instead making forays into asphyxiating industrial beats, which would end up birthing not just a new direction, but also their own label and a club night at the Mill, Gesamkunstwerk.
“For me personally it felt like we’d hit a bit of a brick wall,” says Shine. “We’d met some great people, but it probably peaked when we played Roadburn Festival in 2012. After that it felt a bit flat. And then we came across these little nano synths and started pissing around on them.” Haslam had the idea of getting an MPC to become the focal point (“this fucking brain we could run all of these machines from”) and it evolved into the group working with friends to build their own sound system, enabling them to tour Europe off the beaten track. “The idea was to bypass the more traditional venues,” says Haslam, “because they’ve become more restrictive over the past few years, and the atmosphere on that circuit has generally deteriorated a little bit. So we just started looking for spaces where you wouldn’t get noise complaints and you didn’t have to worry about licensing so much… something a bit more guerrilla style, away from convention.”
Gnod have hitherto existed to document snapshots of their existence, a cursory glimpse at their Discogs profile alone revealing a litany of split singles, cassettes and CD-R releases between 2008-2012, and suggesting an insatiable thirst for self-exploration and experimentation. Yet three years on from their last full album release, new record Infinity Machines marks a sharp change in gear; sprawled across three slabs of vinyl, it’s a record that, maybe for the first time in their career, doesn’t feel hashed out in the heat of the moment, instead set out as a series of collages that work to twist the mind inside out methodically. Control Systems sets a template of sorts, allowing darkly meditative layers to build before snatching them away just as the listener’s head space is able to accommodate them. Sections collapse and give way to something new that often slithers off in a totally new direction.
It's an undeniable 'kitchen sink' record, everything thrown at the canvas from scorched space rock (Breaking The Hex) to bludgeoning industrial revolutions (Desire), along with spoken word intersections, passages of ambient uncertainty and – with the addition of Dave McLean on saxophone – a more freeform, brooding jazz-orientated sound, partly influenced by the mighty Bohren & Der Club of Gore. It’s the finalisation of a line in the sand they began drawing at Psych Fest. “The intention is always to get away from what’s expected of us. For ourselves too. We want to keep people on their toes,” says Shine. “Rocket said they wanted our Master of Puppets, and we spent ten days in the Mill’s live space and gave them it. Things like Dave's involvement are just part of a desire for a different sound. There’s no guitar on the record, instead there’s things we’ve never used before, like a Rhodes piano or a sax.”
And it all comes back to the Mill. Gnod never meant to become ingrained in its existence, but what started out simply as an offer of a rehearsal space, following some post-gig beers with the owners, has become the hive of their everyday existence. The four core members (Marlene Ribeiro and Alex Macarte complete the line-up) all live in and assist the upkeep of the space, “temporary custodians”, as Paddy puts it, of a place that is in constant flux. Swans' Michael Gira became a fan of the place after staying overnight, and a plethora of local promoters, labels, designers and illustrators are based there.
Infinity Machines, though is also a snapshot of the tensions felt within the space, the optimism of a recent Arts Council Capital grant balanced out by noise complaints that have threatened the Mill's future. It's a record that shoulders the increasing burden of responsibility that Gnod have taken on in the ceasless fight for survival. Escapist jams have given way to confrontational soundscapes. “The trials and tribulations of the Mill and seeing what our friends have to go through to keep a place like this running has shown us that you have to voice your opinions and stand up for what you believe in," Shine agrees, "There's an awareness of how important people are, maybe a slice of Gnod saying ‘you are not your fucking screen in your hand, you are not your screen on your tablet. You are an infinity machine.’"
To that end, collaborations on the album come entirely from those within the Mill, notably Tesla artist Michael O'Neill, who wrote lyrics about Shine for him to sing on Desire, while visual artist Maurice Carlin ruminates on ideas of privacy, surveillance and governance at the album's opening. "We're the government, we're all responsible," he utters at one point. "They just sit there as these hate figures for those who've no faith in politics." Haslam sees some truth in this statement. "It's realising that it’s not good to focus hate on something, to not just think 'everything's fucked' and instead realising 'yeah it is fucked, but the only way you’re going to get away from that is to work with other people, talking, changing others’ perspectives.'"
From other mouths such sentiment could come across as preaching, but for Gnod it's merely an extension of their own continual re-evaluation. Infinity Machines opens up more avenues to explore for this group, for whom the possibilities feel endless.