Jimmy Gnecco has been making uncompromising art rock as the leader of Ours and as a solo artist for the better part of two decades. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to speak with him in advance of his Buffalo, NY tour stop, and we chatted at length about his career, his songwriting process, and Ours' fabulous new album, the raw and emotional "Ballet the Boxer 1". Enjoy!
You’ve been at this for some time and I am sure have experienced ups and downs in your career. What keeps you motivated to make new music? Was there any specific inspiration for the new album, “Ballet the Boxer 1”?
Searching for the feeling that anyone who gets into music is looking for – that feeling that is tough to describe that is so magical. We still have the hunger to chase that down – it’s not about celebrity or money or numbers at this point.
What are some of those things, then, that do inspire you? Who do you keep going back to as an artist?
There is some stuff in pop music that is still inspiring like Rihanna, Beyonce, OneRepublic, but we often go back to Marvin (Gaye), the Doors – classic stuff. For this record we pulled from the excitement of rock and roll and pulled from a lot from the influence of soul and rhythm and blues. Music has lost some of that swing and swagger over the years and we wanted to make sure that this record had that. In addition to the rock, we wanted to make sure the roll was in there too.
We made some cerebral records in the past – we had so many songs to pick from and wanted to pick ones that were more immediate, where you could feel in your gut the grooves moving you along, while still lyrically still saying something.
Was it intentional for you to record it yourselves in order to get that rawer, more immediate feel to it?
We could very easily do something very lush, which we did with “Mercy” (the previous record), but for this specific set of songs we wanted to service the songs differently. I have worked with others in the past – Rick Rubin, Steve Lillywhite – but I have been the one making decisions about the sound or direction of the records. This is the result of us doing what we want – this is not necessarily the place we are always going to be in but sonically, we looked at THESE songs and said, “how can we service these songs the best”? A lot of them leant themselves to a more raw production and sound. Some people may think they sound a little trashy or garagey, but if you listen to old soul records, they weren’t slick at all. Even if you listen to something like “Revolution” or “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles, it’s surprising how crude or bold they sound. We didn’t record this on some computer – we went into a real recording studio with a renowned engineer, Henry Hirsch, who worked on the Lenny Kravitz records and recorded to tape on an old vintage Helios console. I mean, we did use the computer – it’s difficult these days to stay entirely on tape and it’s by no means an all-analogue recording, but we rolled tape to get the drum sounds and some of the other instruments. In order to do what we needed to do, budget-wise, we couldn’t stay entire on tape. We kept the integrity of the performances the best that we could – we weren’t tweaking vocals or drums. If you listen to an Al Green record and then listen to a Daft Punk record, different sounding records – we leaned more towards the Al Green record. We wanted to keep the slick thing at bay and hear the more mature sound of the instruments. Those were conscious decisions to use those sounds with these songs. We had a lot of songs that were very heavy emotionally that just didn’t fit the feel of this record.
Yeah, you can certainly tell listening to the record that the sounds that you’re hearing haven’t been overly processed and there is an immediacy to it.
We are still dealing with electronics – Henry got a tape machine from Motown that we recorded on and it’s just that we liked the sound of THOSE electronics. We love Beyonce records and some of the things that are run directly into Pro-Tools, but we were thinking about the spirit of rock and roll and how some of those old records sounded and connected. It’s a series of decisions that takes you were you are, and one different decision can lead to pretty drastic changes in the sound. One thing I keep telling people, is don’t listen to the record in the way that you are used to hearing modern records, because it doesn’t sound that way. Put it on next to a Doors record or a Queen record and it will make more sense to you.
Sure. Something that was recorded 30 years ago wouldn’t pass muster on the radio today next to songs that are brick-walled sonically.
Exactly! Everything gets bricked out and the dynamics are gone. Everyone just wants their records as loud as possible…how loud does a record have to be? Our mantra is we want you to turn our record UP, not turn it down. I think this record is one of our first to sound good at a low volume. We purposely made it to be a “warm” record. It still has sizzle to it, but it was a definite choice for it to sound that way.
It’s a fantastically recorded record. So, your songwriting process: do you start with a riff and build from there, do the lyrics come first – how does that work?
More times than not it’s usually some musical thing that happens and I just build on that, constantly working on different parts and make sense of them. Over the last few years, more so, I’ve had vocal melodies come to me in the middle of the night and then I just play with it and find the right key or things to add to it. So, it’s probably like 75/25.
Cool. You released the first three OURS records through traditional label or distribution arrangements but decided to crowdsource through Pledge Music for the new record….what were the benefits of reaching out to your fanbase to realize your vision?
The benefit was that people love us enough to take a chance on us…that was very humbling to know that they were willing to help us with that. The negative is that there is always someone who thinks that because they are paying for it that they should have a say in what you are going to do. It’s only a couple and the good far outweighs the negative and it’s amazing that people trust us to go and make the music that WE want to make. It’s just like if we were to have to worry about what a label wanted us to do; it’s the same thing if you worry too much about pleasing the fans or if someone in your audience expects you to make the album they want. In order to follow the inspiration and make the album YOU want, you really have to kind of put a blanket on all of the voices and just say, “We don’t give a fuck about ANY of it”. That’s when the most honest expression comes across. You can’t get too worked up about someone wanting one thing or another from you.
At that point, you’re just serving another master.
Exactly! You hit the nail on the head. If you want us to be true to our vision, you have to just let us do what we are going to do and not worry about what people want from us.
Well, it seems like you are lucky enough to have a fanbase who trust you to take them on that journey, not dictate where that journey is going.
Yeah, we are…there are enough of them out there that allow us to do just that and the others just don’t really get what we are doing. They want us to make “Distorted Lullabies” over and over and that’s not where we are at. We made an honest record with a lot of heart with some of the most honest songs to date. I’ve worked for record labels that gave us $100,000 to make a record and I didn’t let them dictate the sound of the record, so if we were to do that with our fans, what good is that? It doesn’t make for good art. The arrangement with Pledge was that people paid us to make the record that WE wanted to make. They put that trust in us. We love going out and making meaningful relationships with people – it’s the most important thing we do. Our music may be for sale, but our souls aren’t. If we were to make the music that other people wanted us to make, that is the definition to me of selling out. We were grateful that people took the chance, but we didn’t feel obligated to deliver anything but what was in our hearts. We’re not in the customer service business…we are rock musicians.
Your fanbase is obviously very passionate and willing to go down that creative road with you – what’s the craziest thing a fan has ever tried to share with you?
It’s not necessarily crazy, but it’s heavy. There are a lot of people out there that are emotionally hurting, and they choose to share their stories with me. It’s very heavy and I am honored that they connect with something I sing or write so much that they feel comfortable doing that. There have been some, uh, creepy encounters, but it’s those heavy experiences and the letters they write that stick with me. Other than the searching we do for that feeling in the music, when you see that you have affected someone’s life in that way, that is incredibly rewarding. People have told us that they were suffering from physical ailments and that our music helped to ease their pain or make them better. It’s heavy.
How do you even process that?
If we take it too seriously, honestly we can get a little too full of ourselves. We try to keep in perspective. You can’t walk around feeling like you are a healer…you have to stay humble, but we are glad that a song has made them feel that way and has helped them through a tough time. Sometimes you tap into a universal voice where you speak in a way that people relate. When that happens it’s a magical thing, but that doesn’t always happen. I just try to wake up every day and be better than the day before. Like everyone else on the planet, we are all in this together.
The one place where we look at what people want is in the live set. We have a group of songs that people love and we don’t want to tire them out. We think, “what would move people here?” We want them to feel moved when they come to see us. When they spend their hard earned money at the show, what’s going to make them light up? We want to feel that energy from them.
There is an art to creating that live set I am sure, making it a series of peaks and valleys, rather than just a series of songs thrown together.
Exactly. We try to create an arch where the songs take people on a journey. The same with sequencing a record. You can have great songs but if they aren’t sequenced properly, then people think you have a shitty record.
You said that you had a lot of songs to draw from…does that mean we are going to get “Ballet the Boxer 2” at some point?
Yeah, maybe 2 and possibly 3.
Anything else you wanted to get out there?
Yeah, just give this record time and listen with an open mind. I think you will find that it has as much or more emotional content than any of our other records. It’s honest and there is a more evolved point of view and a much clearer approach.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jimmy.