Our interview with Christian Molenaar, leader of Those Darn Gnomes, creators of "Calling Whitetails To A Tuned Bow", one of the loudest and most mysterious records of last year.
Where do Those Darn Gnomes come from?
Our band is from San Diego. We “flirted” with LA for a while when we had a sax player who lived in Pasadena but our home base has always been San Diego.
You started with a sort of avant-garde metal ("The Years"), later contaminated with noise-rock and more experimental stuff ("The Zodiac"), passing through the deathgrind of the EP "Peeling" and "All Tiny Breasts Crushed Beneath the Shadow" and reaching, therefore, on your most mature album, "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow". Have you finally found your way or are you still on the way?Our sound is always undergoing a constant evolution. Each album represents a different era of the band, and as we’ve developed as musicians so too has the music. The Years was written when I was still fresh out of high school, and while it contained the base elements of our sound (free improvisation and dense thematic development), I felt "The Zodiac" was when we truly started to build on that foundation. "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" definitely represents a new maturity and clarity of purpose in composing, though, and is much more indicative of where we’ll be headed in the future. Since the completion of that album we’ve been on a mad recording streak and with each new piece we complete, the vision for what will come next becomes more and more clear. We’ll have a number of smaller releases out in the next year or so while we complete our next album and I think each one represents a step in an easily traceable path as components of the music are added and refined.
The music of "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" is inspired by many different things. Was it a premeditated choice or were you guided by the inspiration of the moment?
Inspiration comes from many sources while trying to remain true to myself and my compositional goals. I enjoy listening to a wide range of music and allowing it to inform my own work, but when I’m writing I try not to channel any particular inspiration–I don’t think “here’s the metal riff, here’s the folk part” or anything like that. I just let the music flow naturally and see where it takes me by developing on a central idea, taking it through many permutations and variations so the finished piece ends up feeding on itself more than any outside influences.
Is there a concept behind "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow"?
There is! "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" was heavily inspired by the writings of Eugene Thacker and Thomas Ligotti as well as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. I’m drawn to the themes of an uncaring, indifferent universe illustrated in the works of the former and the portrayal of how that intersects with the lives of real (fictional) people in Danielewski’s book. I won’t go into too much detail here since I don’t want to give away too much and the form of the album makes it difficult to explain in the first place, but there is definitely a clear theme running behind these songs even if I wouldn’t call it a traditional “concept” album.
The album cover is very fascinating and, in my opinion, perfectly embodies the essence of your music. Who made It?
All the art for "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" was created by my good friend Robert Khasho, an incredibly talented artist from Portland, Oregon. His surreal, Jodorowsky-inspired work seemed like the perfect for the album’s themes of psychedelic cosmic horror. If you enjoy his artwork, I highly recommend following him on Instagram @robertkhasho.
Which are the bands and artists that inspired you most?
Early on I was inspired to write for this band by the more avant-garde end of extreme metal, such as Kayo Dot, Gorguts and Today Is the Day. Naturally, all the other music I enjoy made its way into the mix and influenced our sound. I’d call Shudder to Think, Khanate, Prince, Scott Walker, Bach, Ehnahre and Krallice some of my formative musical influences.
The overarching form of The Zodiac was inspired by George Crumb’s Makrokosmos and the arch form seen in Bartók’s work. Much of the content was inspired by Memphis rap (particularly Three 6 Mafia and Gangsta Pat’s "Deadly Verses"), 90s post-hardcore and brutal death-metal bands like Defeated Sanity. A few specific albums I was listening to for inspiration at the time include Mary Lou Williams’ "Black Christ of the Andes", Blut Aus Nord’s "MoRT", Jeff Buckley’s "Grace", Chris Isaak’s "Heart-Shaped World" and the Mermen’s "A Glorious Lethal Euphoria". "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" was mostly inspired by Stockhausen and older alternative metal like Living Colour and Jane’s Addiction. Bon Iver’s "22, A Million", Burial Hex’s "The Hierophant", and Ulver’s "Messe I.X-VI.X" were all on heavy rotation while working on that album.
Are your influences only musical or are you also inspired by other forms of art?
These days I’m more likely to draw influence from outside of music than within. Film and literature have always been big parts of what we do; "The Years’" title comes from Kim Stanley Robinson’s "The Years of Rice and Salt", to name one example, and “Seinfeld” off "The Zodiac" was inspired by the film "Radiant City". "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow" was heavily influenced by "The Deer Hunter", and its primary concept comes from a VHS tape I found after my house was broken into. The way directors like David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman articulate thematic abstractions is a big influence on how I marry our musical and lyrical concepts. Our next album has been heavily inspired by Reza Negarestani’s "Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials" and James Hampton’s "Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly".
Can you elaborate a little on the link with "The Deer Hunter"? What was so interesting about that VHS?
My house was broken into very early in the writing of "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow", before this album had a title or concept. I came home from work to find my front door wide open, but whoever came in actually hadn't taken anything. Instead, they left a home-dubbed VHS tape labelled "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow." On the tape was an hour-long video collage cut together from footage of bowhunters catching and skinning deer. The video left an immediate impression and the surreal, frightening nature of the event made it an obvious fit for our music, which sets out to do the same.
As for "The Deer Hunter", it's been a longtime favorite movie of mine and the original "Calling Whitetails" tape inspired me to rewatch it. It's a brutal film; it opens with beautifully-drawn portraits of each character and their lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, culminating in a group hunting trip before they're shipped off to Vietnam, upon which the movie cuts to a horrific torture scene where half the cast has already been murdered. And that's only the first twenty minutes! "The Deer Hunter" touches on a lot of themes I try to channel in my own work, either directly or indirectly, and it communicates them in a violent, even sadistic manner that I find inspiring. It's certainly not a perfect film and problematic in its own right in many ways but I find it to possess incredible staying power even years after my initial viewing.
How important is improvisation in your music?
Improvisation is a huge element of our music. I compose all of the written parts of our music but it’s very important to me to preserve communication within the group dynamic by allowing moments of absolute spontaneity. I view music as a very direct method of communicating emotion; unlike film, poetry or visual art, all of which must necessarily exist within predefined dimensions like words or images, music allows its creator to abstract ideas beyond any idiom. Because of this, it’s important to me my music allows for each player to step forward and communicate with the rest of the group. We seek to reach the ecstatic vertigo described by Bataille and to meet the bracing horror of the erotic through moments of transcendent rapture. There’s a kind of ascendent, mystical euphoria that can only be reached through a totally open communication that occurs at the intersection of tightly practiced, rigidly composed music and sublime improvisation.
Occasionally - I think of the Ep "Peeling" and "All Tiny Breasts Crushed Beneath the Shadow" - you move to the deathgrind side. Is it a way to vent your wildest instinct or does it reflect one of your deepest passions?
I suppose in a way each of those EPs represents a more “instinctual” take on our sound. "Peeling" was recorded during the sessions for "The Zodiac" as a way to let off some steam while recording the album’s complex material. In contrast to the densely layered material written for the record, "Peeling" was improvised around a simple five-note motif taken through many transformations and variations. "All Tiny Breasts Crushed Beneath the Shadow" similarly arose as a reaction to the complexity of "Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow". That album took over two years to complete and is easily our densest, most ornate material, so in response it felt natural to bounce back with something much shorter and more freeform. We have more material in that vein slated for release but I think our discography is wide enough it would be hard to label any individual release as wholly representative of “our sound.”
Am I wrong, or has the band's line-up changed several times over the years?
Yeah, our lineup has shifted quite a bit, though it has a few distinct periods. We initially had a regular quartet lineup with which we recorded everything from "The Years to Calling Whitetails to a Tuned Bow", until we parted ways with our drummer and vocalist. After that we added Noah Souza on sax and occasionally guitar until he left the band last year to go to school. We’ve had a revolving door of drummers until just recently when we recruited my Fadrait bandmate Alex Simsay. We’ll be continuing in power trio form for the foreseeable future.
Looking at the photos, it seems that your concerts are very wild...
Oh yeah, our shows can get pretty wild. I grew up going to a lot of hardcore shows and audience participation is very important to me. Ideally I like the performance to match the overwhelming intensity of the music, akin to a kind of physical loudness. I want the spirit of the music to fill the room so the audience has no choice but to engage. There have been some drawbacks–broken ribs, ruined gear, pissed-off venues–but I’d certainly prefer that to mediocrity and indifference.
California's experimental rock scene has a glorious tradition. Do you feel part of it?
We’re very fortunate to feel at home in California and be given the opportunity to play with a lot of legends from throughout the state like Bastard Noise and Amps for Christ. Every pocket of the state is packed with talented artists: all throughout SoCal and the Inland Empire we have Sprain, Pure Shit, Rat God, JC Meyer, endometrium cuntplow, Christian Lovers, In the Womb, Dendera Bloodbath and a ton more; further up in NorCal there’s Car Made of Glass and Potion plus a super active scene in Sacramento including Holiday Special, Chopstick and Instagon (plus many more centered around NorCal NoiseFest) and of course the Bay Area is packed with talented artists like Malocculsion, Headboggle, Warrior Apprentice, Pandiscordian Necrogenesis and Tyler Holmes.
Are there any other bands from the San Diego scene you want to report?
San Diego is full of great bands and artists, but to shout out a few: Year of the Dead Bird, Necking, Tall Can, ALX, Secret Fun Club, Sister Schools, INUS, Dr3ambr05, Pruitt Igoe, Perpetrator, Blood Ponies, SOLV, Monochromacy, Plunger, Rivalry, Peymaar, Bae Window, Ingonoir & Snapghost and plenty more! The scene here is vibrant and buzzing with undiscovered bands waiting to receive their due.
Which are the ten records of 2019 that have most impressed you?
This year was a pretty busy one in my personal life so I didn’t get to keep up with many new releases. That said, a few of my favorites include:
Azar Swan – The Hissing of a Paper Crane
Primeval Well – Primeval Well
Vinny Golia/Steuart Liebig/Nathan Hubbard – Next Outpost
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Endon – Boy Meets Girl
Oort Smog – Smeared Pulse Transfers
Feast of the Epiphany – Practicing Loss
Car Made of Glass – Every Song Is A Good Song
The Holy Circle – Sick With Love
All Your Sisters – Trust Ruins
Some other favorites include the new Denzel Curry, Drowse and The Sorcerer Family albums.
In this period, it is fashionable to make lists relating to the most important discs of the last decade. Do you also want to participate in this little game? What are your favorite albums of the last decade?
A decade is a long time but some of my favorites would have to include Gorguts’ "Colored Sands", Cleric’s "Regressions" and "Retrocausal", Matana Roberts’ "Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres", Scott Walker’s "Bish Bosch" and "Soused", Ehnahre’s "Douve", Among the Rocks and Roots’ "Raga", Westside Gunn’s "Supreme Blientele", Bon Iver’s "22, A Million", Björk’s "Vulnicura" and "Utopia", Burial Hex’s "The Hierophant" and Krallice’s "Ygg huur", "Prelapsarian" and "Years Past Matter".
What should we expect from your next album?
Our next album will be called E. The musical material has all been laid out and a decent chunk has been recorded but the album itself is only one part of a larger project that’ll take more time to complete. I don’t want to give away too much information this early on but I feel this is the strongest material I’ve ever written, simultaneously more cohesive and more expansive and unhinged, drawing on and synthesizing from a wide swath of musical traditions while walking a new path as well. If you couldn’t tell, I’m very excited to finish it.
In the meantime, we have a number of intermediary releases planned, including several EPs, splits with Car Made of Glass and Potion and collaborative full-lengths with our friends Willowbrook, Lucas Broyles, Gridfailure and Warrior Smile. We’ve recorded a lot of material of which I’m very proud in the last year and I’m stoked for it to see the light of day, so don’t worry about not hearing from us.