Kenneth James Gibson returns to ambient music with “Groundskeeping”

Kenneth James Gibson returns to ambient music with “Groundskeeping”
Photo by Eddie Alcazar.

Since emerging in the ‘90s, Kenneth James Gibson has been extremely prolific and varied with his music. He has now returned to ambient with his third full length-album in that style, Groundskeeping (out May 6, 2022.) Gibson recorded the album in his secluded mountain cabin/studio in Idyllwild, California. It has a very organic feel, thanks to the creative recording and production techniques behind it.

Gibson’s long career includes founding the noise rock band Furry Things and releasing music as Eight Frozen Modules, dubLoner, and Hiss & Buzz (with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto). He formed Bell Gardens with Brian McBride (of drone-based ambient music duo Stars of the Lid) in 2009. Under the alias Reverse Commuter, Gibson collaborated with Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb on the 2014 track “Whispers In”. In 2016, Gibson released his first full-length ambient album under his real name, The Evening Falls. He also has a country/psychedelic, Toler Gibson, with Gavin Toler of The Winter Flowers. In addition, Gibson also composes music for TV and film.     

In the following interview, Gibson discusses the making of Groundskeeping.

Could you discuss your creative process behind this album?

Kenneth James Gibson: It wasn’t entirely different from how I’ve made other records, but it came out of the craziness that the world has been in during the last two years. And spending a lot of time in my cabin/studio. Being locked up and just kind of trying to put a lot of those feelings into music, into sound. It was done at various times, and there were a few things that were started before COVID.

One thing about this record is that I wanted it to have more of a loose feel and be more organic. I basically recorded everything through … I got an old console, about two years ago, which is a Ramsa console. And I wanted that to be a big part of the sound of this record. Now, other people might not notice or know about that. But it was running everything through that console which gave the record a big part of the feel. And that was recording either piano, guitars, choral vocals, or old organs. I used this old Magnus organ that I’ve been actually sitting on probably for 15 years, and never used it in the track. So things of that nature, different ways of mixing things. My cabin is kind of a strange place; it’s almost kind of lost in time. You can do different things, mic things, different ways in the cabin and even outside the cabin, and there are ways of getting natural reverb and naturally fucked up sounds, I guess you could say. So there was a lot of experimenting with the sound of the actual cabin where I live.

To what degree is it driven by the sounds versus having a concept and seeking the sounds that you want? How does it tend to evolve into the finished tracks?

Kenneth James Gibson: A lot of this record was done where I kind of had … I don’t know if it was a concept, but I had kind of a feel in my mind, which went along with a title of a track, for example. And it could be anything: I could have just a guitar tone or guitar loop or a synth sound or … ‘The Groundskeeper,’ for example, started with vocals, a choral kind of harmonic vocals that I basically took and layered multiple different ways and built a song around. I built strings around that. So, for example, with that piece, I had these great vocals, which I took and actually re-pitched and re-timed to make this gigantic vocal sound. And then, I sent that to a string player I work with in Vienna. I had a rough idea of like a string pattern to go on top of that, to build with that. And he played the strings on top of the choral pattern, and then there [were] some really drone-like guitars and synthesizers behind it, and we kind of built it that way.

Do you feel the tracks fed off each other in any way? While working on a song, would you get an idea for a change or addition to a different song? Or do you really see them as isolated pieces?

Kenneth James Gibson: For the most part, I wanted it to be more of a ‘whole piece’ kind of thing. I mean, they were separate isolated tracks, but when I was working on them and finding… because I basically had multiple things going on at once, all the tracks going on at once. And the way I wanted them to string together is how I finished them, if that makes any sense. So, for example, say I had, we’ll say four or five tracks that were half-way done, and as I’m finishing one, it’s kind of giving me ideas of how I want the other one to sound next to it or in a sequence near it. So it did: the answer is yes. Each track affected the next track, and I wanted it all to tell a story of some sort. I don’t want to tell the story, I want the music to tell a story. It built from track to track and sound to sound in that way.

What recording tools did you use to put it all together?

Kenneth James Gibson: It’s a little bit different for each one, but my main DAW is Cubase. I mix everything, and all the final stuff goes into Cubase. I used a lot of outboard gear and outboard synthesizers, such as a Moog Prodigy, an old Roland string synthesizer, to run things through. I have an old delay unit, an old reverb unit, running things out of the computer in through the board back through different effects and kind of mixing that way, and kind of building that way, kind of in a circle. So basically running things in and out of the computer into various hardware effects. Not a ton, but going back into the board and back into the computer, and kind of getting the sound that way and doing some live mixing that way as well. And remixing sounds for more texture and stuff like that.

Many artists I’ve interviewed who made albums during the pandemic have said they spent more time on them than they normally would. Do you think it affected you this way, and if so, what effect did it have on the final album?

Kenneth James Gibson: I feel like it’s always a challenge for me because I could just go on and on. A lot of time it’ll feel it’s almost there, and I’ll give it a break and then I’ll listen to it. And a lot of times I’ll expand on it yet again, give it some time, then I’ll go back and take out a lot. So, later, I’m taking out stuff that I did, and basically it’s shaping and reshaping constantly, but finally I just tell myself, “That’s it, you’re done.” Or I get to a point where I just have nothing more to give emotionally to the song, to the piece. But it is hard. Probably the hardest thing is knowing when you’re done, especially when you’re working by yourself. You’re not collaborating, the final piece is in your hands, and it’s kind of like, you know, you gotta be your own dictator, if you will.

You mentioned you recorded other artists during the timeframe of making this album?

Kenneth James Gibson: Yeah, I’ve been recording a few people this last year. I’ve been recording this new up-and-coming songwriter named Vivian Jones. I’ve been working with her record off and on for about a year. I’d call it like folk pop, kind of psychedelic experimental, but with lots of beautiful vocals and vocal harmonies. Kind of folk, psych, indie rock, if you will. It’s kind of all over the map. That was a big project that took up a lot of time this year. And I also do stuff for TV and film, production libraries and stuff like that.

Do you keep things separate, or do projects bleed over into each other? For example, perhaps an idea comes up but isn’t appropriate for a particular project and ends up being used elsewhere?

Kenneth James Gibson: Absolutely, it does bleed into each other; for example, [on] the track “The Groundskeeper” I was producing [for] a guy by the name of Headshoppe. I was producing his record, and his wife, Victoria Harding, came in and did some backing harmonies on one of his songs. And we didn’t end up using them. But as soon as I heard it, and he was gone, it was like the next day, I’d taken what she did on those vocals and essentially kind of built a track around it, which was “The Groundskeeper.” So I got that idea from working on his track and then created something new around what we didn’t use in that piece of music. So, yeah, it does bleed, and it is separate as well. I typically work on things in chunks. Days at a time I’ll work on one project and then work on another project, come back to the ambient stuff, yada yada, work on somebody else’s music and then come back.

You’ve worked with a variety of different musical styles. Do you have a favorite?

Kenneth James Gibson: I like so many different kinds of music, and I feel attracted to so many different kinds of music, which makes me want to do it all. But the most consistent in the last few years has been the ambient stuff. This is my third album. But you know, I don’t really have a favorite. It’s just kind of whatever is speaking to me at the time. I hadn’t finished and released an ambient record since 2018. It was time, and right around the beginning of the pandemic is when I knew it was time to get that going. I mean, I’ve worked on lots of different things, and it really is all depending on what is speaking to me at that moment.

Do you feel there are common threads between your work in different styles?

Kenneth James Gibson: I do. I mean, I can hear it. I don’t know if anyone else can, but I can hear the thin line that crosses between all the stuff that I do. A lot of the styles are different, but I think there is a thread, and there is a technique of the way I mix things and the way I hear things. That definitely affects all the different kinds of music. I know I can hear the similarities in some of the ways things are mixed from record to record, even if they’re drastically different kinds of music. I don’t know if anyone else can. I feel like I definitely can.

To purchase Groundskeeping, visit kennethjamesgibson.bandcamp.com.
For more info on Kenneth James Gibson, visit worldofkennethjamesgibson.com.

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