Meet Wilder Maker the Brooklyn-based Cosmic Americana band composed of: Gabriel Birnbaum (guitar & vocals), Katie Von Schleicher (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Nick Jost (bass), Sean Mullins (drums) and Adam Brisbin (guitar). Wilder Maker has released the album 'Year of Endless Light,' and a series of EP's in the past few years, but most recently, the band has teamed up with Saddle Creek to release a new 7″ of two new tracks, “New Streets” and “Only Child,” as part of Saddle Creek's Document Series.
We chatted with the bands songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Gabriel Birnbaum about the role that music plays in his life and his biggest musical influences.
How did you get started as a musician?
My older siblings are both musicians, and I wanted to avoid the fate of being the tag-along younger sibling and play baseball instead, but my school had a mandatory instrument program, and after a few years I fell in love with the out-of-body space I could get to playing music, specifically in improvising/writing. I got obsessed with it and here I am. Nice try. Also I couldn’t hit.
You play multiple instruments and sing, is there one instrument in particular speaks more to you than the others?
Saxophone is my original instrument and the one that comes closest to being a pure voice for me, but I love words and expressing myself through them is necessary for me, which is what got me to learn guitar. Over time I’ve fallen more in love with what can be done on guitar. As someone who used to play jazz and read charts in big bands, I grew up feeling that notated music was the core of a piece of music, but learning about tone and effects and recording has taught me a lot about the intangible factors that are at least as important. The same two chords can be infinite songs.
What role does music making play in your life?
It’s an endless challenge, it brings me together with my favorite people and best friends, it’s a way to achieve a kind of intense focus which is absent from most of the rest of my life (running around, bartending, paying rent). At its best it can be an extremely transcendent and emotional thing, it can also just be unbelievably fun.
How did you and the rest of the members of the band form Wilder Maker?
The band has existed in various forms and with various names, but became Wilder Maker in 2012 officially. Katie I’d met in Boston when she sang on an older record I was making, Sean quit working at Trader Joe’s to tour with us after we’d known him for about 5 minutes (daring), and Nick was a friend of Sean’s. They’re all incredible musicians and like family to me.
You’re also part of the Ethiopian pop ensemble Debo Band, what’s it like to be in two bands at once, playing such different kinds of music – do you feel like you’re entertaining two different sides of your personality?
It’s really great, I learn so much from each that I apply to the other. Debo Band is a kinetic, high energy dance party, sometimes for 90 minute sets. Playing festivals with Debo hugely informed the upcoming Wilder Maker LP (Spring 2018, I think), picturing the kind of music I’d want WM to be playing on those stages. And then my ability to write music has grown so much through constantly writing for Wilder Maker, and I can bring that to composing for Debo Band, bring ideas about sound and space that I’ve learned working with my bandmates in Wilder Maker, all of whom have strong intuition about arrangement and sound.
You’ve described yourself as a shy person, does that make performing live difficult, or does all of that melt away when you’re onstage with the music?
I’ve always been happy when I’m onstage. I have never quite been able to figure out why it’s so different for me from, say, going to a party, which is fun but makes me very nervous. If everyone at a party was looking at me as they do at a show I’d probably just run for it.
I do want social contact very frequently, but social time goes hand in hand with a lot of anxiety about saying the wrong thing, huge empty silences, possible judgment. Being onstage puts a wall between me and everyone that makes it easier for me to carry their attention and give them love. The artificiality of the context liberates you to say all kinds of true things that you can’t just say at a bar.
You describe Wilder Maker’s sound as “cosmic Americana;” can you tell us a little bit more about the band’s sound and how that developed.
There’s been a bit of a backlash against that term lately but I still like it. My music feels very American to me, regardless of what genres we’re cribbing from (all of them).
I used to be a dude who recorded sad lo-fi songs alone in a closet in my bedroom, very 2000s style indie stuff, though there were curveballs via my jazz background. But I’m really happy to look over the ways that the project has evolved since. Sonically, my bandmates have pushed me forward a huge way, and our live sets have really crystallized at a place where I think they balance the weight of the songwriting with excitement and energy and fun. Ideas from music I’ve been exposed to via Debo Band permeate all of our new songs, ideas from minimal, repetitive music, from conceptual new music. I want to be open to everything, to be able to incorporate any idea, a total freedom. I want the band to have a very Walt Whitman feeling, a euphoric perspective, but also to make enjoyable music for people who want to listen purely musically and don’t care about concepts and lyrics. So I don’t really mean cosmic americana in the way many people do, as in “sounds like gram parsons” but more as a worldview. I should probably invent another term I guess, that’s confusing.
Who would you say are some of your biggest musical influences?
I have tons, but the sprawling songwriting of people like Bill Callahan and Joanna Newsom is a huge influence on the breadth of what I want to hit lyrically. They can write short heartbreakers, but they can also write about anything and make it stun. Callahan’s “the only words I’ve said today are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you’ / ‘beer’ ‘thank you’” is such a memorable lyric and says so much while saying almost nothing. I aspire to those heights. Newsom is also a master of working assonances and near-rhymes into the middles of lines rather than sticking to couplets, which feel so well worn that they often dull impact, to me.
The repetition of German Krautrock bands and also of a lot of bands I encounter when I’m playing with Debo Band or learning music for them has been really inspiring to me, a reminder that you don’t have to constantly caper and dance to keep people listening, confident constancy is also beautiful, a groove people can dance to is beautiful.
I grew up listening to a lot of spiritual seeking jazz by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp, the longer and more ambitious the form of the music the more I liked it. That’s still with me. The idea of music as an experience of religious ecstasy, a chase for euphoria.
I also love slick pop songwriting of a certain kind, soft rock like Bread or Steely Dan, philly soul legends like Gamble & Huff, Fleetwood Mac. The craft of that stuff, the clean lines, the clarity is all really beautiful to me.
Can you describe the process you go through from first conceptualizing an idea for a song to recording it?
I usually don’t conceptualize a song before I write it. The idea usually starts with a mood or a musical idea, or both. Then I try to sit and play it over and over, gradually expanding it until it starts to have a form. Then there’s usually a day or two listening to a recording of it that I make on my iPhone, during which more formal ideas appear to me. Then I try to sit down with the mood and do a free write, which I then try to cull into lyrics or at least a starting place. That’s just at the moment, it shifts all the time. Approaches tend not to work for too long, you have to constantly try new things to break new ground. Occasionally I write a full song on the spot, or the lyric comes first.
You recently released two new songs (‘New Streets’ and ‘Only Child’) how do you feel like your sound has developed since your last release, 2015’s EP ‘Everyday Crimes Against Objects of Desire.’ How do you feel like you’ve grown artistically since then?
Our sound has grown more than is really clear from those two songs, much as I love them. New Streets indicates some of the new lyrical direction. It’s both more specific and less personal than my previous songs. It’s interesting in that the songs have gotten louder and more energetic but also more focused on fingerpicking and less strummed. The full record that it comes from features two ten minute songs, a lot more active guitar work than in the past, a lot more steady rhythms, less obvious americana elements, though they’re still in there somewhere. We’re always on the move, I don’t ever want to get stuck.
Check out Wilder Maker's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Colin Hughes - @colinhughesphoto