Erik Wunder: It’s All About Gin

Nick: Hey Erik, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s go straight from the beginning to Man’s Gin. Tell me, how did forming the band go?

Erik: Hey no problem Nikola. I started Man’s Gin in 2005 with a friend of mine named Clint in Fort Collins, Colorado. I was already making the heavier, aggressive music with Cobalt, and I wanted to branch out and explore a different side of music. At the time I had been going back and listening to a lot of the 90s music that I had grown up on as a teenager. Bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and a bunch of others. I had been on this heavy music kick for several years and wanted to be able to chill out and sing a few songs with an acoustic guitar. The original concept of the band was to convey the harsh, aggressive attitude and message that I learned to work with in Cobalt and previous bands, but portray them in melodic, moody guitar songs. That was the basis of it. Same idea, different instrumentation.

Nick: Was your idea initially to start something totally different from Cobalt, without much brainstorming, just taking the guitar and letting the words come out? Man’s Gin is not a conventional singer/songwriter band, although we may conclude that many singer/songwriters are similar. What’s your take on this? What has inspired you to go on with it?

Erik: At the time we started Man’s Gin I was concentrating a lot more on melodies and creating songs that can hypnotize the listener into subliminally listening to the message the song is conveying. Or at least paint a picture with the lyrics that can help someone to think about the grand picture. The lyrics are very philosophical and written mostly in metaphors rather than direct songs that have a specific story. I like the lyrics to be open to interpretation. It has been extremely important for me over the years to listen to songs that you can take and relate to in your own personal way. I suppose it’s abstract singer/songwriter music, haha. But it has always been extremely important to me that a song captures the listener. I never wanted to make music that people just listen to while they’re doing something else, like vacuuming their house or any other passive jobs. My favorite music absorbs and overtakes the listener. Something powerful that lifts you up and takes you somewhere else for 5 minutes, or however long the song lasts.

Nick: What you brought with Man’s Gin is actually a shift from the complexity of Cobalt to something that does not have much to do with metal in general, although there’s a certain feeling that you participate in a black metal band. It’s sort of what Dax Riggs did back when he went on his solo-project leaving Acid Bath behind. Do you find this comparison fitting?

Erik: Yeah actually at that time Clint had introduced me to Deadboy and the Elephantmen, and I found a lot of common ground with what Dax was doing. And he was doing it respectively. He was saying, ‘yes I did this crazy psychedelic swamp doom music, but I can do this too.’ It takes a real, creative style to cross genres and make good music in various music genres. It keeps you healthy as well. It’s good to step away from one thing for a moment and give something else a try. It was actually that year (2005) that I went down to New Orleans, Louisiana with a couple of friends, and during our stay we happened to catch a Deadboy gig in Lafayette. After the gig we went back to this local guy’s apartment with a bunch of people and Mr. Riggs himself. We smoked a joint and jammed on acoustic guitars and a bunch of weird percussion instruments in this apartment living room and had a hell of a time. What inspired me about the night was that Dax was singing just as heart-felt and, strong sitting on a couch with 10 people in the room, as he did on the stage at the club. I thought, ‘hey this guy really believes in his message and his rhythms and his melodies’.

When I got back to Colorado I carried that feeling and tried to keep the flame going. I think that those who have a fire in them recognize each other, and it’s our duty to carry on the torch. I had already been delving into writing lyrics-based acoustic guitar music, so that was a real affirmation to what i was going for.

Nick: Smiling Dogs took a really long time for you to release. Why did it take almost 6 years to complete it? How did the overall creating and recording process for the album go?

Erik: Well when I was getting Man’s Gin going I was also writing Cobalt’s ‘Gin’ album, so Man’s Gin was basically a side project that I was getting going, while Cobalt was the main gig. There is a lot of cross-over between the two actually. But I was working with Phil, who was stationed in South Korea at the time, and getting the new Cobalt material together. We had a new record to record, and as you might know Cobalt records take a lot of time and effort to complete. So I was working all of the time on new Cobalt music, as well getting the Man’s Gin thing going. We actually recorded the first Man’s Gin demo during this period. It is called ‘The Rum Demos’. I recently listened to it, and it really is a great recording. Very cerebral. Something good to listen to at night if you’re sitting at home with a bit of weed or whisky, or of course some gin, and listening to music and pondering the meaning of life.

(On a side note, I also gave a copy of it to my buddy Matt Pike from Sleep and High on Fire, and later on he told me how much he liked it and had actually listened to it while tripping on some acid, haha)

I sent the demo to my friend Chris Bruni from Profound Lore records at the time, and that’s what later led to him wanting to do a Man’s Gin full-length album. When Cobalt ‘Gin’ was done I came out to New York to tour as a drummer with Jarboe. Subsequently I moved here, and upon my arrival, Bruni asked if I wanted to make a Man’s Gin record. It was perfect for me because I didn’t have any immediate projects to focus on. It gave me a new mountain to climb. A new beast to tackle.

But you know, life comes in waves. You just have to learn to be a good surfer.

Nick: Solid Gold Telephone is a pretty crazy song off the album, that twisted piano boogie in the middle gives me a chills. Are the song’s name and the song in general perhaps a reference to The Doors movie? There’s a scene when Andy Warhol gives Morrison a telephone telling him “now you can talk to God”. The song appears very easy, I would say, but its message is rather deep. Would you mind telling a bit more about it?

Erik: Solid Gold Telephone was written basically by Scott, who is now the Man’s Gin lead guitar player/pianist. I happened upon Scott one night in Brooklyn, when my friend Josh and I were at a gathering called ‘Clutter’. The whole premise of the gathering is to get a bunch of musicians together in one place and freestyle for a couple of hours. They have guitars and drums and percussion instruments and whistles and bells and everything on the stage. So anyone in the audience can pick up any instrument and be a part of the night. Anyway, a few of us ended up sitting on the curb outside of the place and playing old Metallica songs on acoustic guitars, and Scott was one of them. I noticed that he was a very good guitarist, and asked him to jam on some of my songs.

So we started jamming at his space for a bit, he, Josh and I. I learned that he was also a piano player, and one night he was showing me this piano jam he was working on. I sat behind the drums with some brushes, and we started jamming. I don’t even remember exactly how it came about, but we started singing ‘Riiiinnng, solid gold telephone’ and we just kept running with it.

Then we started thinking about the concept that we were working with in hind-site, and we realized that, yes, as you said, it does relate to Andy Warhol giving Jim Morrison a gold telephone by which he could talk to god. And besides the Doors movie, Warhol did give Morrison a phone in real life. But yeah, it’s sort of an eerie throw back to 70s rock n roll and a lot of the concepts there. It’s this whole idea (if you listen closely to the lyrics, it’s all about this great telephone that you can use to find some kind of meaning… but you can’t get through. It’s a magic phone that doesn’t actually work) that you’ve found Aladdin’s lamp, but no genie comes out.

Nick: Who is Jimmy Sturgis? The song on the album called “The Death of Jimmy Sturgis” makes me feel like I’ve known this song for a whole lifetime. Pretty familiar, but still unknown. What was your inspiration?

Erik: That whole song started with a couple of riffs that I was working on, and then one night Scott and I were jamming, and he came up with the idea to make the song a murder ballad. We decided to make a whole story out of the riffs we had and expand on them.

Jimmy Sturgis is a fictional character, and the tragic brunt of the story. It’s all about a man who hires a hit-man to take care of (erase) his woman and the man she is having an affair with. It’s a story of jealousy and murder basically, haha. It’s a very Nick Cave style of song. And it’s also a medium that isn’t really used any more. Nowadays with pop songs and with everything being so immediate all of the time, there is a different listening environment than there was in the era of classic rock or punk or the genres in between. I always liked that Nick Cave song O’malley’s Bar, where the main character goes through the place and methodically kills everyone.

But in the end, that’s the story-telling song of the album. Something like a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Nick: Which is harder for you, coming up with lyrics or going over riffs and melodies? Which song from the album required the most effort and which ones were easy? Also, how much did your moving from Colorado to New Your help or distract you when it comes to making something new? Did something change?

Erik: It kind of depends. Sometimes I’m more hell-bent on writing guitar parts and drum rhythms, and at other times I’d rather write some thoughts down on paper. It comes and it goes. So far I’ve paved my way doing whatever comes naturally to me, so I just go with it. But yeah, there is certainly a difference between writing Cobalt songs and Man’s Gin songs. When I write Cobalt songs I put everything I have into the instrumentation and the relationship between guitars and drums, and then I leave the vocal parts and the message up to Phil. It’s a different process.

When I write Man’s Gin songs it’s me and my guitar and whatever words are flying through my head. And then I hone them in and try to make sense of it.

Moving from Colorado to New York was certainly a big change. It was a change that I needed. As I undertook the endeavor of moving to ‘the big city’, I also accepted that there would constantly be people around me everywhere and that my personal thoughts and my personal being might not be so personal.

And so the idea of writing from an individualistic standpoint entered into a more communal situation. Which has been good and bad. I would prefer to come up with ideas and write and relish on my own terms. But this city has taught me to get along with other people, even though they might be strangers. I have learned that you can’t ignore the people you are working with, and the overall aura of the place has certainly inspired a new thing for me. The city life has taught me a thing or two, and it has also given me introspection. But the overall experience has been positive, and it has also learned me in the lesson of the dog-eat-dog world. Very Nietzsche.

Nick: How would you describe Man’s Gin music? Sorry for asking that, but I would love to hear your take on it. Certainly, you employ vast a field of influences from Americana, folk, country, even blues. Is there any single word you could describe Smiling Dogs?

Erik: I would like to think of it as a cross between Johnny Cash and Soundgarden. But I don’t really have a specific term to call our music. I would describe our music in general as ‘Man’s Gin music’. That also allows for us to take new avenues and go freely in different directions sonically. But yeah, I’m trying to make timeless music. I want the listener to hear a song and not be able to pinpoint the era in which it happened. I want to make classic music that can carry over the shitty trends and the terrible pop sensations. Basically we’re making music for real people with real problems who need raw music to relate to.

Nick: The album is released on Profound Lore Records, which is known mostly for releasing black metal oriented albums, which is once again not so unfamiliar regarding Cobalt. How are you satisfied with the whole thing when it comes to promotion?

Erik: Bruni (Profound Lore) did a great job of promoting the album and getting it out there. Yes, his label is mostly metal, but the man has good taste in music. As I read in an old interview with him, he said something like, ‘I would like to be able to release music ranging from black metal to Nick Cave and Tom Waits’. Profound Lore is a pretty diverse and adventurous label.

Nick: Promotional photos for Smiling Dogs are pretty interesting. Are those dogs all yours?

Erik: Those dogs belong to Josh. He is a powerful dog enthusiast, and he keeps his pitbulls close to heart. We took those photos on the roof of Scott’s apartment last summer. Scott lives in this big building full of creative folks and artists and musicians. We took all of the Man’s Gin photos on August 1st of this last year, 2010. We planned it out. My downstairs neighbor Miller is a good friend of mine, and also a great photographer. He took those photos. We planned it so that we could all sit on the roof and drink some Maker’s Mark and take some pictures. Josh brought along his dogs, and it turned out to be a really cool shoot. The Manhattan sky-line in the back, and the characters of Man’s Gin on the Brooklyn roof. It’s a good documentation of that place in time.

Nick: From what I understand, Man’s Gin was and is very active when it comes to gigs. What is the feedback of the audience like? Are you satisfied with how it goes? Can you say that playing live makes you want to produce more material for Man’s Gin in the future?

Erik: Yes it does. We opened for Scott Kelly and Wino last month at the Mercury Lounge here in NY, and Josh and I recently did a show with our good friend Jarboe at Europa in Brooklyn. After the show my buddy Joey, who had flown in from Chicago, and I went over to Duff’s bar in lower Williamsburg and listened to some old speed metal. Sepultura and shit. It was Awesome. But right now we’re setting up a gig for next month, again at the Mercury Lounge, on May 6th opening for Dax Riggs. It’s gonna be a killer show.

Nick: What happens with Cobalt? It’s been said that you started working on a new album. Where did you get on this? Do you already have anything like the album’s name, songs, the story? What can we expect?

Erik: The last time Phil and I hung out we went to Las Vegas and spent too much money and yelled at locals and basically created havoc in the state of Nevada. I was on the brink of a royal flush, playing video poker on the last day we were there, and we came up with some of the concepts for the new Cobalt album. There was a serious realization, and playing on the excess of the Las Vegas world, we came up with some prototypes for the new Cobalt record. It will be called ‘Slow Forever’.

Anyway, I lost the video poker hand that would have made me 10,000 dollars, we discussed album concepts, and then we drank a bunch of gin and boarded a plane back to Denver. If you don’t spend too much, then you haven’t lost too much. All in accordance with the Great Magnet.

Nick: Gin has blown me away since the first time I heard it and I will go as far as to say that the it is probably one of the greatest records in the last ten years. What was working on it like?

Erik: That’s a secret. haha. The overall meaning is something you have to come to while listening to the record. If you know everything, then there’s nothing you have to speculate about. My favorite albums are the ones you have to meet up with by giving them attention and effort. The ones you have to give enough time to understand.

I worked on that bastard album (Gin) for a long time the whole time through, and I carried it with me through thick and thin. I was working shit jobs like the Pepsi headquarters in shit-town Denver, where I had to show up at 5am after doing all-nighters at the Dirty Duck bar near our house, and then I was working dipping big pieces of oblong metal into chemicals for this company that built corporate electric-hazard-free building roofs for nameless conglomerates. I had to pay rent, and I had the dream. I had the music with me, but had to put it in my pocket and face the immediate world.

Nick: It’s absolutely clear to see and hear through the album’s playtime how it flows naturally, nothing is emphasized too much, nothing is lacking. It makes me think that you didn’t only invest your blood, tears & sweat, but also a soul, as this album is a soulful achievement too. And that’s all the effort of two men digging the magnificent work of Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson. In general, what the lyrics reveal is a kind of bitter feeling. What are your thoughts on this after a two-year distance?

Erik: I am extremely proud of it. And I’m very happy that people have connected with it. That was the original intention. My favorite music has always been something that you had to personally investigate and come to and become personal with. Music anymore is just too immediate. I feel like everything is a free download and the infrastructure of being creative is down-played by pop-related tunes that are immediately accessible, and there is no seeking out. I remember being a teenager and sending out for a rare recording or a 7 inch or a live video, and I would send out a personal check to the record company and then wait for a month before it arrived. And when it finally did arrive it would seem that much better because I took the time and effort to seek out that recording and I cared about it, rather than being able to youtube it on the spot and stream everything anyone ever wanted to see without any personal effort at all.

Nick: What lies down in Cobalt’s core is certainly black metal, but in my opinion Gin separates Cobalt from the the rest of so-called USBM scene. Where do you find that Cobalt belongs?

Erik: In the individualistic spirit. Phil and I are both extreme individualists, and that’s why we found a home in writing and the ‘great writers’. Being American, we always gravitated toward the most influential writers of our own time, Hemingway being the older one, and Thompson being a more recent one, respectively. Cobalt is all about ambivalence toward morality and living your life exactly as you want to. We aren’t really interested in fitting in with any scene. Our main point is to leave behind an original message. A message that allows any one individual to live life to the fullest, regardless of rules, and not be afraid of philosophical consequence.

Nick: In comparison with Eater of Birds, Gin comes as more eclectic by any segments. Where does this shift come from?

Erik: Interesting question, because in my mind Eater of Birds is the more eclectic of the two records. It’s always funny because the album you mean to make is the never the album that is actually recorded. When we recorded Eater of Birds, the circumstances were more ‘in the air’ than they were with Gin. I always thought Eater… was the more contemplative album, and that Gin was the more high-energy, kick ass thing.

But thinking back: I had written a lot of the parts for Gin while writing Eater, and going into the studio I thought Gin would be a more progressive album, with more cerebral parts and song structures. In the end, Gin turned out to be more of a straight-forward rocker, while in my mind I was thinking it would be the most technical thing ever, or at least the slower progressive record between the two.

Nick: How hard is it to work with Cobalt due to Phil’s commitments as a Sergeant in the Army. Is he still there in Iraq?

Erik: Yes, Phil is still in Baghdad, but he will be returning home in few months, and we will keep pushing the envelope further. Phil and I have a good working relationship regarding personal duty and the music we make, so it’s not that hard anymore. It works toward our benefit. It’s the raw, primitive instinct that drives us. The noble savage.

Nick: What comes next?

More music.

Nick: If there’s anything you would like to add to this interview, now’s the time for that.

Erik: I appreciate the thoughtful questions, Nikola, and I suppose all I can say is that we try to keep the flame alive and inspire others to do the same. And also read Hemingway and Thompson if you know what’s good for you.

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.
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