Though typically only a few feet apart on stage, being a band leader and a band member are two vastly different things. A band leader is an author, a writer or performer with a distinct vision, while a band member is a key cog in the machine that makes the music go, an essential ingredient in the grander recipe that occasionally steals the show but is ultimately one of many moving parts in the act.
In spite of their differences, both the band leader and band member need each other to succeed. In order for one to do their best work, they are dependent on the other in some capacity. The sideman needs direction and the right material to lend their talents to. On the flipside, even the most controlling auteurs require the proper players to execute their artistic vision when their ambition exceeds their physical capabilities. This is why a band dynamic remains such a fascinating creative vehicle. Every musical group is filled with roles of varying responsibilities, all of which are vital to the final product.
For the past several years, Stephen Heath has inhabited one of those roles for many of Los Angeles’ most renown songwriters. The veteran guitarist has steadily become one of the most in-demand axe-masters in the city, playing in and alongside a variety of acts that includes L.A. Takedown, Death Valley Girls, and Weyes Blood, the latter of whom he spent most of 2019 touring the U.S. and Europe with.
As the early goings of 2020 unfolded, it was more of the same for Heath: new creative projects with L.A. Takedown, live shows, and potential touring with Jess Williamson. The pandemic quickly disheveled those plans, and like so many other locked-at-home artists at the time, the suddenly-stagnant Heath was forced to shift his attention inward. With ample free time and equipment at his disposal, he gave himself an ultimatum: to release his first solo album.
Turned off by the idea of laboring over songs and playing the waiting game with record labels, Heath established a set of working parameters to help him record quickly and effectively. He tracked everything on a 4-track app on his phone, using miscellaneous riffs, soundbite fragments, and instrumental ideas that had been in his repertoire for the past decade as the basis for a new set of songs that were written and produced with a freewheeling approach that favored performance over perfection. Vocals were recorded on earbud mics and through guitar amps, resulting in a warped and demented aesthetic further amplified by the 4-track’s natural hiss. Lyrics were largely improvised and conventional “errors” were left as is. In one instance, percussion was formulated using paper scraps and silverware.
The resulting album reflects the frenetic nature of Heath’s fruitful creative period. Gavin Gruesome, officially out yesterday on Perpetual Doom, is the aural equivalent of chemical warfare: often slow-burning, occasionally explosive, and dreadfully potent. Over 11 songs, Heath crafts a collage of distorted garage rock and noise-infused guitar tracks that veer on pure madness, a far cry from the ambient baroque pop and ethereal indie folk of peers Mering and Williamson.
Where the album truly shines is in its transformation of rough instrumental sketches and shoddily-recorded sounds into captivating songs and jarring musical moments. “I Can’t Take It” channels angst through an abrasive, uptempo chord progression that captures Heath’s frustrations over his own inability to see ideas through from start to finish. The jagged guitar lines on “I Really Lub You” and swells of noise on “Nothing Goes Away” are similarly evocative in their minimalist chaos. Heath even throws in a thunderous and scattered version of the Modern Lovers’ classic “I’m Straight” for good measure, the only track completed using traditional recording software.
While much of the record dwells in harsh and unbridled ruckus, it’s not short for sensual sounds either. The warlby tones on “Rockin'” offer a brief hazy respite from the album’s loud introduction, radiating with the warmth of a late-afternoon daydream. There is also “Just Dezzerts,” an instrumental jam inspired by a late-night desert drive spent listening Ash Ra Temple with a friend, and “Remember You,” which almost has a hypnotic quality amid its fuzzy crooning.
With all its inaudible sounds and grating sonic inquiries, Gavin Gruesome is one of most invigorating experiments you will hear this year. It shows Stephen Heath to be equally skilled at playing both hard-nosed, wide-eyed rock and roll and dreamy spacial textures. Most importantly, it affirms his prowess as a songwriter.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Stephen to chat about recording his first solo album, playing guitar for stalwart singer-songwriters, taking ownership of his ideas, and more. Check out their full conversation below.
You’ve spent years playing in different bands and lending your talents to performing other people’s material. For the first time, you’re releasing an album with solely your name on it. Was this an itch you’ve been wanting to scratch or more of a creative explosion?
Stephen: It’s definitely an itch I’ve wanted to scratch. It’s a lot easier to be in someone else’s band and fill a slot, much like it’s easier to go on a walk than lead a hike perhaps. For me, there’s a whole different set of stresses when it comes to saying something’s finished and deciding when it’s done. Those are the areas where I’ve always had a tough time as a songwriter, knowing when to put it down. I had to go hard the other way to undermine my perfectionist tendencies and say, ‘This is not going to be perfect.’
What was the general timeline for making the record? Was there any material you’d been sitting on from before this year?
Stephen: A lot of these riffs and melodies are things I have always played. It’s one of those perception things where I would never have considered them actual songs. I can be very rigid with myself. This album was me trying to recontextualize a lot of things I’ve dismissed as something I play to warm up and instead, think ‘No, this is a valid piece of music that I’ve been working on for years.’ I was able to work fast because large chunks of this were already in things I’d play every day. It was a lot of putting lyrics to this and throwing drums on that. I’ve learned so much over the last handful of years working with so many incredible songwriters. Paul Bergmann has these long sprawling songs that are very detailed and lyrically-oriented. The challenge there is to play for a long period of time and contribute something without detracting. Going in to L.A. Takedown with Aaron, he’s primarily a composer. The composition is crucial. Playing for Natalie, detracting from the vocals is not an option. Supporting that and playing the parts correctly is of the highest importance. I wanted to try and bring something from everything I’ve learned together.
What inspired the Gavin Gruesome concept?
Stephen: He [Gavin Newsom] actually grew up in the same town I did, before me, and went to a high school that I went to. He’s just such a weird figure. He looks like Patrick Bateman and is this slick politician who, on paper, views the world in a lot of the same ways I do, although anybody who chooses to style themselves in the same fashion as Patrick Bateman is a questionable person. I just always called him Gavin Gruesome. How could someone named Gavin Newsom not have his nickname immediately be that for all time? I also know a lot of people who view him in a decidedly negative light. It seemed a logical thing.
You’ve said, “Working fast and capturing energy and chaos was my state of mind and goal.” What do you find appealing about the imperfection and flawed takes?
Stephen: Those are usually my favorite moments. If you can hear the mistake, I feel like that’s the window in for a lot of people without even realizing it. If you go see a band live and they play a perfect set, that’s amazing. But when there’s a mistake or something funny happens and they have to restart a song, it’s like a palpable connection is established between the artist and the audience. Those are always the things you remember as a band member. I mean, Eddie Van Halen just passed away and he often gets referred to as this technically perfect guitar player, but, and I mean this as a compliment, if you listen to any of his live stuff, he’s blowing it left, right, and center, and it has no relevance on him being brilliant or not. I also have the added challenge of not being great with recording software. I’m not really good with Pro Tools editing and I don’t find it fun, so I had to find a way to work with that. There was a 4-track app that seemed like a good way to confine my options and give me a consistent direction. I had to make decisions based on simplification.
Recording on a 4-track is often symbolic of experimentation, writing in an isolated setting, or deep personal introspection. How was your experience using and recording on this app? Was there much of a learning curve?
Stephen: There wasn’t much because I still own my Tascam Portastudio 424 that I got when I was 14. The thing that’s great about any 4-track is they have a specific sound that you can’t do anything about, kind of a production value. One of the difficulties for me about Pro Tools and Logic is you need a certain element of skill to bring any sound to it because it’s so clean and neutral. The other thing about those platforms is the options paralysis. There’s so many ways to go there. I don’t find that helpful. I find limitations to be very mandatory for my creativity. I need someone to give me boundaries that I then feel necessary to step over or it gives me a nice corridor in which to work.
How did establishing those boundaries free up your creative and writing approach on the front end?
Stephen: Well, I think I’m a bit of a contrarian. I’ve always had an instinct to do something else. In high school art class, I’d get a painting assignment and turn in a sculpture. I guess it’s a form of rebelling. If you see an actor portray a character that’s already been portrayed on film, there’s one performance that’s legendary. That way of talking, that wardrobe, and that haircut for that character have already been taken. So on one hand, it’s going to be harder for the new actor to do something original because it’s already been done one way. On the other hand, it could free them up. There’s less real estate to look at. The hardest thing to do is to think of something completely original. I’m not there. I’ve got to give myself a marker for context, for relationship. If you’re in the middle of a big room, it’s hard to get perspective. But if you draw a line in the center, you go, ‘Okay, now I have a relative distance between me and that wall.’
The instrumental palette on this album is noisy, warped, and distorted. Just how far in the tool shed did you go to get these sounds? Was there any equipment you really latched onto during the recording process?
Stephen: The biggest contributor to the whole thing was this old Dunlop tremolo pedal. It’s on everything. That was probably most important element. Silverware was the only outside thing. There’s a whole feedback thing on “Ain’t Right” that was just me waving a mic around in front of the amp, feeding back my guitar. It’s just as a soundscape in the back to add texture. That was the first thing on that song, getting that sound. I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I started jamming out the riff, which I couldn’t think of any lyrics for. I couldn’t come up with a melody, so I just went for it and left it like it is.
Now that the album is out, how does it feel to take full ownership of your own work as a tangible product?
Stephen: It feels really good. My bandmate from L.A. Takedown, Miles Wintner, did the graphics and the layout. When I saw that, it seemed real in a way that I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to have the reaction to it. As an artist, they say the hardest thing is producing bodies of work. I’m not 18 or in my early twenties, so on one hand, I think about whether I should have been doing this the whole time. But then maybe this [album] wouldn’t have the power that it does. All the people who put the money and energy into making this see the light of day is kind of overwhelming. I’m incredibly grateful.