photo courtesy of j scott kunkel
gabe larson is an amiable guy. the kind of guy who greets visitors with a smile and a hearty hug at the doorway; the kind of guy whose bevy of anecdotes are instantaneously vivid and relatable; the kind of guy whose sheer warmth is analogous to the steaming cup of coffee proffered ahead of a candid, hour-long interview.
larson was born in los angeles but has lived in eau claire, wisconsin, for much of his life, absorbing a midwestern culture and work ethic that permeates the gorgeous collages of sound he creates as waldemar. the sprawling, bucolic textures of his visions ep – self-released last friday – are populated by affecting guitar melodies, improvisatorial horn arrangements, and walls of layered vocals, but an intensely personal, familial story about grappling with mental wellness is what especially resonates.
waldemar was cautiously – and privately – culled from the ashes of larson’s previous project, reverii, whose unexpected and abrupt finality heavily shook his confidence as a songwriter. as he slowly reconstructed his artistry, larson also began confronting a multi-generational battle with depression, drawing parallels between the life of his paternal grandfather and his own.
what results is a mixture of confessional and observational; the four songs on visions build slowly and with purpose, an analog to larson’s own self-actualization as an artist and a reflection of how his outwardly genial personality can mesh with a more serious internal struggle. side one standout “brotherly” is constructed on a warm pad of choral harmonies before spilling over into something more percussive, while closing number “signe” is also the project’s most ambitious cut, swirling every aspect of the waldemar aesthetic into a dense, ever-evolving soundscape.
visions was recorded throughout the early months of 2016 in eau claire with the help of larson’s younger brother, nick, and a host of local producers and instrumentalists. in october, gabe and i sat in his kitchen for over an hour, nursing cups of coffee and tea while discussing all things waldemar. the partial transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
how soon after things with reverii wound down did you come to the realization that you wanted to do waldemar as a project? what was the impetus behind that concept?
reverii ended at this really brutal crux in my life; within that time period i hadn’t even been graduated from school for a year, didn’t really have much of a job – just bouncing around all of these different part-time jobs. i had a job as a painter for a guy in eau claire for awhile and i remember being in all of these houses staring longingly out the windows while i put tape on everything. it was this really difficult period of life where i was recently graduated and had no clue what i wanted to do; i knew i wanted to do music after i graduated, but then this band that was supposed to be the way i was going to do music ended and i was left with nothing.
that was the setting for everything, and i had to take time away from even touching music. eventually, i got to this point where i just had to write a song, and there were no expectations attached to it; i didn’t need to show it to anybody, no one had to know i was doing it. it was just for me.
the song that ended up coming out of that process was a song called “waldemar,” and it was a song about my grandpa, wally, who lived with my family for two or three years up until he died. he was a farmer who lived in minnesota, and he was this personification of depression for me. he was this very quiet guy who seemed, maybe not grumpy, but serious and sad – just kind of a hard person to be close to.
in stark contrast was my mother’s dad, my grandpa kermit, who was the most loving, friendliest guy ever; we spent tons of time with him, and he and i were very close. so, from a young age i could completely perceive this stark contrast between the two of them. i’d ask my dad why wally was the way he was, and he would respond, “oh, he has depression. he’s depressed.”
so i was this eight year-old kid getting my first example of this thing called “depression,” and i’d later learn that it’s this thing that runs in the family tree, like being prone to a heart attack or cancer – which my family is also prone to (laughs). i’ve got it on both sides; i’m probably going to die of a heart attack with diabetes and be clinically depressed. you have to laugh, or else you’ll cry.
i wrote this song about waldemar exploring ways you can be connected to people you were never close with, you know. i never wound up going to the doctor to figure out if i was clinically depressed – my dad was trying to get me to go – but for some reason i just wouldn’t. i think i just didn’t want to know. i wanted to have this hope that i’d come out of this funk and be okay, to not have to face any stark reality of having to carry this with me for the rest of my life.
the song was about my grandpa, but it was also about me and how i was wrestling this bout of depression. nobody knew that i wrote this song – i was writing it for me – but the song felt really good and honest because of that; it was a very pure writing experience. it’s very hard to write a song without thinking about your audience or how it will be critically received, but none of that was in my mind; it was just what felt right.
do you see a big difference between the music written for reverii and the music written for waldemar? what’s the biggest shift in your approach to songwriting?
both bands sound quite a bit different to me; even the way that i sang with reverii versus the way i sing with waldemar sounds like two different singers to me. which is weird, because i don’t feel like i was trying to do anything with my voice in either project.
i think the difference comes down to the songwriting process. i’ve relied on other people, up to this point, far less with waldemar than I did with reverii. i would come up with ideas but was pretty timid about them in a lot of ways; it would have to pass through a filter. with waldemar, i’m listening mostly just to myself with how the songs take shape.
but that’s been changing a lot lately, especially over the last six months when we started recording this record. my brother nick is a super gifted songwriter. he played bass in reverii, but wasn’t really part of the core group of songwriters. he was super young when he was in that band – i think a senior year in high school. he’s gotten more involved in the songwriting process at the ground level when i’m just starting to work on a song. he’ll be in the room with me and act as a sounding board, or just affirm an idea. sometimes it’s nice to have a person around whose musical opinion you trust. he and i have been treading into co-writing territory lately with waldemar stuff.
lyrically and conceptually, waldemar is mostly informed by personal and familial experiences, but aesthetically, there’s reference to a choral background; what else do you lean on? these songs are very ornately arranged and dense. what are you using as a jumping off or reference point?
when i’m really into writing mode i try to clear my palate and not listen to any music. there’s been times where i’ll listen to a song that inspires me to write, and the finished product clearly reflects that inspiration. so i try to clear my brain as much as possible to just be listening to myself, if that makes sense.
the way that i think about music is very much informed by my experience with classical and choral music. you’ll never catch me in the kitchen doing dishes to mozart, but my mom had me in piano lessons as a kid. piano always has so many parts working together to create one thing – even more so than a lot of other instruments. you have ten fingers that can play different notes at different times and be moving in melody and harmony – even more so than what you can do with a guitar.
i’ve been in a choir since i was six all the way through college. the past two years have been the first of my conscious life that i haven’t been in choir, and that’s shaped the way i think about music; i think in terms of layers, and the ways that different textures, timbres, pitches, melodies and harmonies can work together to create one sound.
i’ve performed way more with a choir than i ever have with a band, and have spent more hours in rehearsal with a choir than i ever have with a band, still, just because most of my life has been spent in a choir. i think that’s a pretty inescapable part of the way i think about music. it’s hard for me to say that it’s an influence, per se, but it’s the way i grew up thinking about music.
i think a lot of bands try not to list their influences because they want to be thought of as this total unique thing; i try to not shy away from that totally, just in the interest of recognizing that all of art is some sort of weird remix, in a way. you as an individual have this own unique collection of influences mixed with your own creativity, which then becomes your own contribution to the world.
i was pretty late to the game on the national. trouble will find me is now one of my favorite records, but i really only started getting into the national within the last year. i don’t think i’ve had enough time with that band to name it as an influence for me, but some things i hear in waldemar are these layers and depth that seem inspired by the national.
i also hear elements of my morning jacket’s the waterfall. something that i love about jim james’ vocal style is that there are times where he just doesn’t seem to care what he sounds like. he doesn’t mind the sound of clipped-out vocals, and there are times when the vocals just aren’t in tune. with my choral background, there are times where i just can’t stand that, but there’s something about the way jim james does it that i absolutely love. there are some vocals in “signe” that are totally inspired by what jim james does on the waterfall.
photo courtesy of j scott kunkel
who else was involved with the recording process?
both of our producers – evan middlesworth and brian joseph – were huge in the recording process in terms of refinement. my good friend andrew thoreen, who’s in this great minneapolis band har-di-har – as well as in j.e. sunde and just generally all over the place right now – recorded all the trombone arrangements that are on the record.
evan performed some minor parts – well, i shouldn’t say minor – he wrote some bass lines on the record that are just creamy. he’s great at being like “hey, this isn’t working; you should try this” and doing it in a way that doesn’t make you feel stupid. and his suggestions are spot-on. prior to recording with evan, he had hired me on as an engineer out at pine hollow, so we had gotten the chance to work on records and develop some artistic chemistry together. it’s so important to have a great level of trust with the person you’re working with.
brian has his own studio called the hive, and it’s gorgeous. brian and evan are both two different types of musicians and producers; evan is very instinctual with decisions, which is super helpful, while brian really saturates himself in the sound and really thinks through the nitty-gritty. that’s how i think, so going through the mixes was a really long process. we went through mix revisions for awhile.
did you record some tracks with evan and some with brian, or were they taking independent looks at the same tracks?
evan engineered everything – well, almost everything. ten percent of the tracking actually happened here at home, mostly vocals and some random guitar bits as well. all of the tracking was done before it ever went to brian; evan did some standard reference mixes, and it was sounding great before it ever hit brian, who then took over and the songs came to life even more.
i basically handed over the reference mixes to brian and gave him zero direction. i wanted him to really approach it with an artist’s mind and not be thinking about what i wanted it to sound like. i wanted him to present me with different ideas for how everything can sound, and then i’d listen and pick and choose. i had my idea of how everything should sound, and i wanted his work to either confirm the ideas i originally had or to present me with something i never would have thought of. we went back and forth with that model for about two and a half months.
the four songs on this release are kind of long. it feels like a more significant body of work than just your customary introductory ep.
yeah, visions tops out at just about thirty minutes. track-wise, it looks like an ep; lengthwise, it’s toeing the line between ep and lp.
the ep itself is split into two halves, in a lot of ways. “totem” and “brotherly” are pretty old songs; they were kind of from the reverii days. “visions” and “signe” were written within six to eight months of recording.
the last two are much more in the vein of where waldemar is headed, whereas “totem” and “brotherly” are kind of these artifacts, the skeleton of reverii. the sound of reverii with a waldemar spin. i’m not trying to distance myself from them, but they don’t feel like waldemar songs as much, in a way. i don’t think they’d work in the context of a waldemar full-length.
when did you switch from calling the initial song “waldemar” to ascribing that name to the project itself? was there a specific moment, or was it more of a gradual absorption?
that’s a great question. i’m not trying to be some sort of mysterious artist, but honestly, i’m still trying to figure out the answer to that question myself. the short of it is that somehow, at some point, it just felt like that’s what it had to be called; this is what it needs to be. there’s something under the surface within me now that feels drawn towards this name, that feels that this is what the project needs to be called.
it feels strange that this band isn’t called kermit, after the grandfather i’m super close with. he was dying of cancer during the first tour we did with waldemar, and we had to cancel one of our last shows to go be with him. he ended up dying a week later. it was strange being on that tour – named after a guy we weren’t close with – meanwhile, the other grandfather – who we were close with – was dying.
in some ways, i wonder if i’m trying to reclaim this legacy of my grandpa wally that feels not anywhere close to the legacy kermit left. am i trying to redefine what his name means to me? i don’t know.
when i hear the name wally – or waldemar – i see the face of depression, in a weird way. i currently battle depression all the time, so sometimes i wonder if the reason i named my band after him was some way of facing one of my greatest vices. in some way, the name “waldemar” describes me; it’s like looking at your vice square in the face.
i think we carry with us a lot of hurt, shame, and problems, and the only way to heal from those is to bring them to light and call them what they are. for me, it’s depression, but there’s a myriad of things that other people wrestle with. a lot of times i think we just silently carry those around, and i’m of the opinion that true healing can only take place when things are brought to light,talked about, and wrested with intentionally. maybe naming the band waldemar is some sort of therapeutic way of naming this struggle overall, of looking at it straight in the face and doing battle with.
that’s one thing i’ve been pondering.