(Photo: Charlie Shuck)
On Wednesday night, Noah Gundersen will be performing an early show at Skully’s Music Diner (doors at 6:30; show over by 9pm) in support of his breakthrough third solo album, White Noise, which was released late last year. The album marks a progression for the Seattle singer/songwriter who previously performed the type of music that is often associated with hip coffee shops. These days, Gundersen fills out the sound with the support of a plugged-in band and songs that bristle with energy, even the slow-building opener “After All (Everything All The Time)” which has been compared to Radiohead’s earlier work in some reviews. I didn’t hear White Noise until a few weeks ago but had I listened to it last year, it surely would have been on my “Favorites of 2017” list.
I had a chance to speak with Noah on a cold, snowy day in Columbus just days before he hit the road with his sister Lizzy who is the opening act on this leg of the tour. Note: While White Noise is a full-band effort, on this leg of the tour Noah is playing as a solo artist.
Sounds to my ears like there’s been … I wouldn’t call it an evolution but .. a progression in your music from sort of a folkie singer/songwriter to filling out the sound with a band. Is that fair to say?
I would hope it’s an evolution and progression because I just hope for that in everything I do, as I get older and grow, that it’s progressing and not reducing.
I didn’t want to say evolution because that, in a way, sounds like it’s discounting the earlier stuff.
Personally, I’m comfortable with the term evolution without it discounting other things because I think those other things were all steps and this current work is just another step in whatever comes next.
I know you’ve had songs in movies and on TV shows. When I listen to music, I try to fit it into a scene in my head. Do you have a vision in your head when you write songs about how they might translate on screen?
Um, not so much but I think we live in a pretty visual world and we’re used to attaching sound to visuals and things. I don’t really do that, I think when I’m writing I try to get as close as I can to expressing the things that I can’t express in any other medium, if that makes sense. I guess there is a bit of painting a picture but it’s more specifically how close can I accurately depict this kind of internal landscape as opposed to say I’m imagining a scene in a movie or show or whatever and soundtracking it.
I’m not great at interpreting lyrics and “Number One Hit of the Summer” isn’t meant to be taken literally but I am wondering, what was your favorite song either of last summer or of last year?
I don’t do so well with favorites and without sounding pretentious I just usually find them reductive just because that’s not how I really think about things. I don’t really have a hierarchy of things in my mind like that. I guess I would say … some music that I discovered last year that I love are Big Thief, I had heard of that band for a while and finally spent some time listening to the record and just fell in love with it. That record and Phoebe Bridgers record. Ironically, both female-fronted projects which I found myself drawn towards this year when I feel like I was a little inundated with the male perspective. It’s so refreshing to hear women being expressive, honest, vulnerable. There’s a level of empathy in some of that music that is really hard to find in male-driven songwriting.
And you’ve got sisters, right?
My closest sister plays`music with me and has been for over 10 years now. I have another sister, Lizzy, who actually just released her own debut EP which is really beautiful.
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ryan Adams and I can see why those comparisons make sense. Ryan has a not-so-secret obsession with heavy metal and has toyed around with a metal side project and metal covers. Do you have any not-so-secret music obsessions that people wouldn’t expect?
I listen to a lot of different music – I wouldn’t say any of it is secret. I like some black metal, a like a lot of hip-hop, I like a lot of electronic music, I love Massive Attack and some of that early ’90s down-tempo electronica stuff. I just dig music.
Plenty of tour miles under your belt over the years and I’m assuming you’ve done winter touring in the past. What’s your most harrowing tour travel story?
Not so much that but there’s been some really cold tours. I remember one, we were in the Midwest a couple years back and I think there was a week of sub-zero temperatures. Being from Washington, we’re all kind of wimps when it comes to cold weather. I just remember every time we’d leave the van for more than an hour we’d come back and all the water bottles would be frozen solid. So this year I finally caved and bought a real serious winter jacket, so watch out Midwest winter, I’m coming for you!
Keeping in the touring theme, do you typically go out with bands you know or do you go out with bands you don’t know personally?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taken out on tour with some really cool people that I didn’t know but I’ve been able to become friends with now. I’ve met a lot of really great people on the road. And then when I go out on my own headlining tours, I try to take my friends, mostly because I like hanging out with them and it’s an opportunity to introduce my fans to people whose music I enjoy.
When you’re opening for bands you don’t know, how long does it to build an on-the-road rapport? Or, have there been tours where that hasn’t happened?
Everyone I’ve toured with has been, for the most part, pretty cool. I think there’s a common understanding, something unspoken about touring musicians where we do kind of a strange job that most people don’t really understand how it feels to travel constantly. So there’s this kind of unspoken camaraderie between touring musicians. It’s really nice to be able to relate to other people about the strangeness of this job.
When you’re on the road, are you an obsessed music buyer who hits up record stores in the cities you’re in looking for a holy grail album or CD?
Not really. I don’t buy a ton of music. I try to limit how much stuff I pick up along the way because I come home and I just have a bunch of more stuff. I’m trying not to have too much stuff. I’m not really the obsessive vinyl collector though I do have vinyl and listen to vinyl. I was looking for Mezzanine (Massive Attack) for a while and I finally found that.
This week, one friend sent me a link to an article on Noisey titled “Science Says Regularly Attending Concerts Make You Happier” while another friend sent me a link to an article on Noisey titled “Live Shows Were Killing My Love for Music”. Which camp do you fall into?
I have a friend who is a chef at a really nice Michelin-rated restaurant. When he has time off, that’s not what he’s doing. He likes to make nachos and hang out at home which I think is a little bit analogous for me. It’s hard to attend concerts without being overly critical but I like to go see my friends play. There’s definitely been some standouts. Like, I’m really fascinated by these giant production shows. I got to see that Kanye tour last year before he canceled it and I think the mechanics of things like that are really interesting for me to go see. I also got to see Petty before he passed away on this last tour and that was really special because it’s Tom Petty. But, otherwise, I’m not an avid concertgoer.
I was playing “The Sound” the other day and my 12-year-old asked if I was listening to The Damnwells. Any chance you’re a fan of that band?
I know the name of that band but I’ve never listened to them but maybe I should.
Last question. If you had a DVR in your head and you could go back and play 2 hours of something either personal or band related from 2017, what 2 hours would you record to have and available for playback whenever you wanted?
I think I would put together a collection of snippets of moments from this last tour that we did. It was just super fun, we had a really great crew out with us and just a lot of wild nights. I wish I had documented more of that because it was a really special time and I’m realizing the more I do this, there are some many special moments that are fleeting. I think I’d like to be able to document them more and be able to remember them in the future. So much of the things that we record are just going on Instagram or on our phones which don’t have the same sense of permanence or importance that maybe other forms of documenting would. I’m trying to reconcile that.