INTERVIEW: Ethan Gold

Underground songmaker and music artist Ethan Gold has just (January 2020) wrapped recording for his upcoming record, a double-album Earth City which explores themes of longing — for human connection, for romance, for nightlife in the city, and ultimately for connection to the threatened natural world.  To coincide with the first climate strikes, he released an advance video for one of the environmental songs from the album, “Never Met a World Like You,” and performed for the first time after his 2013 head injury, at three Los Angeles rallies in the final months of 2019. 

During several years of convalescence, Ethan has been quietly making a lot of music, most recently, the glitchily gorgeous score to the Blumhouse supernatural thriller Don’t Let Go, released in autumn 2019 on Universal / Back Lot Music.  In late 2018 Ethan released a soundtrack to his brother Ari’s second feature, The Song of Sway Lake.  To match the tale of the decline of an aristocratic family and the golden light of late summer on an Adirondack lake, Ethan’s piano-driven score is an emotional force of water and silence, dreams and nostalgia.  The soundtrack album also features multiple renditions of Ethan’s original title song “Sway Lake,” including versions sung by John Grant and The Staves, arranged and produced utterly convincingly to sound like lost pop recordings from the late 1930s and ’40s.

Also released in 2018 while Ethan was not playing live shows was the much-praised naive electronic album Expanses (Teenage Synthstrumentals)  (“Primitive analogue instruments to their sound-warping limits” – Uncut; “Wildly diverting… by some wide-eyed, sun and acid-baked LA wunderkind” – Electronic Sound; “Records like these are my reason for getting into independent music in the first place” – Skope Mag; “I can say with complete confidence that I won’t hear anything quite as original… If you think it’s absurd to even suggest that a devotedly experimental, avant-garde artist could have such a reach, I would encourage you to have a listen to some of Lou Reed’s earlier solo work and reassess your opinion… More authentic than anything you’ve heard on FM radio in your life” – Vents Magazine.)  Gold also returned to early influences and completed an album of live covers of mostly new wave tracks, from New Order and Bauhaus to Of Montreal and The Knife, as Live Undead Bedroom Closet Covers (“Unhinged but weirdly compelling” – Uncut; “Brilliant cover versions” – Shindig!; “Rather fantastic” – The Crack). 

Gold first stepped into public consciousness when he produced and arranged his friend Elvis Perkins’ blog-hyped debut Ash Wednesday, one of the most influential albums of the modern folk-rock resurgence.  After moonlighting as bass player in his brother Ari’s New York folk party band the Honey Brothers, and scoring his twin’s debut feature, the epic air-drumming comedy Adventures of Power, Ethan began honing his intensely personal style while living in a dilapidated flat in Los Angeles.  He released his debut art-rock album Songs From A Toxic Apartment in 2011 to underground acclaim (“Emotions delivered with an unfiltered, glaring legibility”- Pitchfork; “The most interesting record I’ve listened to in the past 5 years”- Rock N Roll Experience.)  He then began rolling out a series of videos from the album showcasing his visceral approach, which led him to side work as a video director.  He was working on a film score and his follow-up album when he suffered the head injury in 2013.  Through a long recovery, he now credits the temporary dissolution of his cognitive ability with an upgraded inner power and creativity, and a clarified mission: in a world that seems more and more combative, bringing sensitive people and quieter things —  music and poetry and the living earth — back into their magnificence.  

Gold was raised in San Francisco, during the long extended hangover after hippie times in that city.  His father is Beat author Herbert Gold, and his mother Melissa was a collaborator and last girlfriend of legendary concert promoter Bill Graham, and was killed with Graham in a helicopter crash.  A childhood of constant change and chaos may have led Ethan to the unique way he approaches music as a balm and a life meaning-maker.  Today he lives and dreams songs, writing about half his music while asleep.  Earth City will be both a much-anticipated step forward for an artist whose path has been curved by inner impulse and by fate, and a return to the essential path of his original vision.  He jokes that his mission is to “make sensitivity cool again.”  But we can tell he’s actually not kidding.  He’s willing to be quiet enough to paint in songs the delicate details of the modern age, and willing to be strong enough to fight for the world as it could be.

Hi Ethan, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Nice to be back.

As someone who took on introversion probably before learning to talk, the quarantine era has been ok for me.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Our Love Is Beautiful”?

“Our Love is Beautiful” is a love song to humanity, to the best in all people — which for me is their sensitivity, their caring about others and themselves. It’s a romantic love song too, but simultaneously about love in the larger sense. It’s a plea to people to treat themselves like souls, and to treat the world that way too. And to take heart, even in dark times. I might answer this question a little differently every time someone asks me. They’d mostly all be correct.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

About half my songs start in dreams, and I think a part of the refrain towards the end of this one came from a dream. I was also at the end of a romantic relationship when I wrote it, and wanted to honor the person. I was also angry about a lot of political and environmental things, but felt a rush of hope coming through the music.

My meaning is best expressed in the song itself, the mixture of words and music. If I could answer those questions simply, there would be no song. It would be essays, or plays, or memoirs. I consider what I do a kind of collaboration with spirits. It’s from the earth and from my life and also from other realms.

How was the filming process and experience behind the video?

I had a fairly significant head injury a few years ago, and was unable to do a lot of things, including engineering my own music. Actually I couldn’t look at computer screens, couldn’t make sense of the text, and it made me nauseous. For a short while actually I couldn’t make sentences at all. For a while longer, I couldn’t make jokes, and had trouble following conversations. Gatherings of multiple people was like being inside a pinball machine when the bonus balls all come out. Crossing streets was terrifying, confusing, and overwhelming. I lost a lot of friends who basically couldn’t deal with it. They’d talk about me in my presence like I was a non-person. At the same time, I knew I was still 100% here, 100% myself. Even if my wit and my “intelligence” seemed wiped out. And I was still writing lots of music, and lyrics too. I just couldn’t do any of it in real time.

As part of my recovery, I decided to make a video of a song I knew had lots of fans around the world. And to challenge myself a lot. I rented my place out, and got one of those round-the-world tickets the airlines offer with a big discount if you go one direction around the globe. And then I was forced by this concept I had for the video to allow the song to be in their mouths, to meet all these people I’d never met before. Leaving isolation and saying hello to all of humanity, despite fear.

The single comes off your new album Earth City – what’s the story behind the title?

Earth City isn’t out just yet, by the way. I’m working on the release part, building a team to do it right. But the songs are ready.

The title tells you a little about what the album is about… longing for connection in this modern world, nightlife and romance-hunting, and the mystic power of the living planet.

How was the recording and writing process?

The writing came from life, dreams, late night writing after being out at bars and parties, and morning clarity and purity. And self-soothing. Most often really I start with a seed from a dream, and plant it in my awake realm and see what sprouts. You’d be surprised which ones come from dreams, actually. It’s often not people might say sound ‘dreamy’.

The recording part was torturous, but I’m now faster than I used to be. I’d played and recorded and mixed my record Songs from a Toxic Apartment on my own, other than leaning too hard on friends so I didn’t completely lose perspective. Matthew B – thanks. Earth City was my first time having other musicians to play some of the guitars, and most of the rhythm section. And I brought in people I like as mixers as well. This open approach fits this music since Earth City is for the people.

How has your upbringing influenced your music?

I grew up with my mother and siblings and various other characters who came and went, and there was a lot of chaos, and nowhere for me to escape to, due to sharing my bedroom with several others as a kid. Music was my private escape realm. Maybe that’s why some of my music has some flavor of the lullaby. I did that for myself.

My father, who I didn’t live with but is still alive, is a writer, so the notion of creativity wasn’t strange to me, especially growing up in San Francisco, where a lot of the parents took drugs or otherwise were trying out lifestyles. It made for more chaos in the culture, but at least the notion of expressing yourself wasn’t looked down on like it is for some people who then sometimes spend their lives trying to learn to express themselves creatively.

Do you tend to take a different approach when scoring a film rather than working on your own original music for your solo work?

At the center, it’s the same — inspiration, voices in the ether. I don’t bother writing something if there isn’t a kernel that comes out of thin air. I’ve got to feel like there’s heart in the music.

Yet after that kernel, it does get rather different from songwriting or solo instrumental things I’ve done, because in film scoring I’m there to enhance the vision of the director, even if or especially if their vision has become lost to them. I try to provide memorable thematic material which can transform throughout the scenes, and deepen the resonances of the lives on screen as the film goes on. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s obvious. But I personally only work on films that actually want what I call music. I prefer the music and sound design to be distinct from each other, rather than melded into one blob, which seems to be a trend in Hollywood.

What aspect of human connection and romance did you get to explore on this record?

Longing. Nightlife. And then blasting through to global consciousness.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

I don’t find inspiration. It finds me.

Any plans to hit the road?

Absolutely. Before the coronavirus, I was planning a European tour for this summer. The time will come again.

For now, I’ve been playing very simply online, mostly on Instagram but I’m planning to do more on Facebook and Youtube and others too. Join me! It’s fun and very casual. As someone who obsesses about all the details in recording, and loves arranging songs with the ebb and flow of instruments, it’s been nice to just play the songs in the bone-simple form of just my voice, unadorned, and a guitar or piano. I don’t even use a mic, just the phone itself. Completely naked in a way… not literally. I talk to people watching and they write back on screen. I do something I call ‘Jukebox Roulette’, where fans can request older songs of mine they know, or, they can pick numbers at random, and I’ll play one of the twenty Earth City songs, based on the song order which they don’t know since they haven’t heard the recorded album. Though they’re starting to know some of the songs because I have regulars who are paying attention.

What else is happening next in Ethan Gold’s world?

More singles, and a lot more ‘official music videos’ too — such a silly term — which I’ve been calling upon people around the world to help make by bringing themselves. Earth City is for every isolated soul in this strange moment in history, and it will come. Track me and you’ll know.

Our Love Is Beautiful is available now on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music & wherever else you stream your music.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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