Photo by Melissa Boshans

A Work Unfinished: Human Gun

by Justin Price

I’ll tear through any rock biography or music magazine I can get your hands on. What’s always of interest to me in a dissection of a band’s work was, not the landmark achievements and accessible documents, but the aborted ideas and unfinished projects that slipped from their creative grasp. While I thought I would love the details of the recording of Pets Sounds, rather, I was completely absorbed with the mystery that was the unfinished Smile. No matter how prolific their output, every band has at least one project that was abandoned due to unforeseen circumstances or artistic indecisiveness. Let’s be honest: No matter how much you love Rust Never Sleeps, you know that you’d do anything to have a finished version of Chrome Dreams in your possession.
Our approach to recorded music has evolved over the last few decades. What was once a laborious digestion process is now a quick, highly acidic dissolve. Music lovers could listen to a record for weeks, months, even changing their preception over multiple listens and repetitive flips of a vinyl record or worn-out cassette tape; Now, it’s just a snap judgement of compressed noise emitting from a minimized window on our desktop. The life of a record is over in a matter of seconds, and the expiration date of our interest in a band is measured in weeks (at best). But, more importantly, the way we create albums has changed. Prince probably has two decade’s worth of unfinished albums on analog tape in Paisley Park storage, the ability to create and store albums digitally has now caused artists to release music that would’ve been assigned to a similar fate 25 years ago. For instance: Imagine the saga of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot if it was 1982 instead of 2002. Would there have been the triumph and evolution of the Wilco we know and love today? Bradford Cox, and a host of others, are purging all their creations for your listening pleasure and consumption online. Yet, there are still albums that have gone unreleased. For that reason, http://musicofthehour.com is going to will some of these projects back into existence, all the while getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the pangs, trials, and results of the artistic process. We’re going to start with the album that was the inception of this project back in 2004: Human Gun. You can never underestimate the power of a teenager with a newly-minted broadband connection (and entirely too much time) on their hands. My voracious appetite for independent music inevitably lead me to www.stlpunk.com, where under the guise of notmuchmexican (the name under which my friends and I played music) I learned what my peers were listening to on their profile pages. Whenever said page was empty, save for a single phrase, you know that something of a serious nature was going down. I personally reserved that exercise for hyperbolic praise, and a like-minded individual used it in a similar way. All it read was… “Human Gun is the best album of 2004.” What?! If you want to get my heart racing, just send me a one-sentence e-mail, text, or tweet that exact phrase with a record I’ve never heard of. Human Gun was the project of Gareth William Schumacher from one of my favorite bands, The Floating City. So, that a friend whose recommendation I value had only that to say about, it’d be an understatement to say that Gareth had my full, undivided attention. All I needed was the word, and I’d do everything in my power to get a copy in my hands in NYC… And I never did. Until now. And you will too. Here’s where I would generally describe what Human Gun sounds like, but because of the grace and generosity of Mr. Schumacher, you can get a copy of the record for your listening pleasure exclusively through MOTH. Upon playing the first track “I Have Analyzed”, you’ll hear how the harmonies sway under the gauze of treated acoustics, and how it fades into a lone voice finger-picking and whispering as not to wake his South City neighbors, and how those harmonies come back shivering up your spine. And that’s the first track. And, as is the way with all good things in life, it’s best experienced with a good pair of headphones. I sat down with Gareth to talk about the creating of the record, and what it’s like revisiting one’s work after a considerable amount of time.

Can you talk about the inception, and artistic process, of the material on Human Gun?

I’d been writing the songs on the album for a couple years, not really for any purpose other than that I was in a band and music was something I was always scheming about in one way or another. I would record songs and ideas in demo form all the time, first on my four-track and then, after that bit the dust, on a portable minidisc recorder. When I finally bought a laptop in 2004 I started using Garageband for the same purpose. That was pretty revolutionary for me – suddenly I had all these tools for sound creation and manipulation that I’d never been able to get my hands on before. Almost instinctively I started playing with arrangements and textures, still working on “demos” but trying to make them interesting to listen to. Pretty much everything on the album was recorded in Garageband using my laptop’s built-in microphone. Some of the material (the recording of “Earth, You Swallow Everyone” and some of the weather samples, I think) came from my collection of mini-disc recordings. I didn’t care about sound fidelity, obviously, and unless a mistake really bugged me I would leave it alone and move on. At this time I was utterly obsessed with Phil Elvrum’s work as The Microphones, which seemed to allow some technical sloppiness for the sake of atmosphere and drama. Now that my ears are a little sharper, of course, I realize the level of craft going on in those Microphones records. But back then I was trying to borrow Elvrum’s lo-fi vision for my own songs.

With your excellent work in The Floating City corresponding to this time period, how would you say the lack of multiple expectations from fellow band members effect your solo work?

I decided to start the solo thing in 2004 out of frustration, partly, because I couldn’t get certain songs played and I wanted to do something with them anyway. The Floating City was a very collaborative effort, even though I tended to be the most forceful member when it came to writing songs and presenting ideas to the band; and if we couldn’t come to a consensus on a song, like if somebody really hated it or none of our arrangements were any good, we would drop it and move on. Looking back, we were never the kind of group that could have convincingly played songs like “It All Comes Down To This” or “Final Moment” – stylistically we were heading somewhere else. With a solo outlet I could stop getting hung up on how songs would be played by the band, indulge all my weird genre exercises and musique concrete impulses, and let the band be its own thing. It definitely freed me up to start thinking of music and sound as a limitless, endlessly manipulable world, which is both terrifying and exciting to contemplate.

Did any of this material ever get played live in front of an audience in a live setting?

Yes, I played some of the songs pretty regularly from maybe late 2003 to mid-2006, at little solo shows that I was almost afraid to let anyone know about. A good part of the album I’ve either forgotten how to play or never learned in the first place, but other tunes (“Final Moment,” “It All Comes Down to This,” “Earth…” and some others) I’ve played a lot, and are pretty solid parts of my repertoire.

What contributed to the record not getting released back in 2004?

Technically I did “release” Human Gun, but it was definitely not a proper event: I just showed up for a solo gig with fifteen or so hand-labeled CD-R copies on hand. A couple of my friends might have known beforehand that I was planning to release an album but for the most part I kept it top secret (the existence of the album as well as my plans to release it). I guess I was a little insecure about it. I sold the CDs for five dollars until they were gone, and after that if someone asked me for a copy I would try to get it to them somehow. But I didn’t pay much attention to it, and The Floating City was getting ready to record our album so I moved on to that right away.

You recently did some work on the album again. Between what you had recorded initially, and the work that you did on Human Gun recently, how much of the album’s material changed shape?

There were some significant changes in the new revision. Mostly I wanted to make it easier to listen to, so I smoothed out a few of the more speaker-shredding noise moments, tightened the transitions and adjusted the levels to be more consistent. All very basic things that should have been done in the first place. I also made a few creative calls in cases where I felt it needed it. There are new effects in places, and I cut out some material in the name of pacing and concision. This kind of self-editing is a tricky issue, and I’m still ambivalent about whether I should have just left it alone, but the bottom line is that it probably sounds a lot better than it did originally, which was my intention.

Photo by Melissa Boshans

How do you feel your matured artistic perspective influenced how you approached the material?

Over the last several years I’ve been improving incrementally as an engineer, so when I listened to the recordings recently it was easier for me to identify problems and know how to fix them. In its original form the album is really a very difficult listen with all the sudden shifts in volume, poor editing, digital clipping, etc. And as far as cutting material, it may be artistically fraught, but I honestly doubt those tracks will be missed. Back then I was trying to fill time, and I’ve since learned that a record doesn’t need to be 35 to 40 minutes long in order to say what it needs to say.

What stood out upon my first listen of the album was the balance between traditional songwriting and experimental, instrumental work. It reminded me of the sequencing of David Bowie’s Low, and you mentioned the influence of Phil Elvrum. What led to that sense of exploration in your work?

In 2004 I hadn’t yet opened my mind to Bowie, but Elvrum was profoundly influential. Up until I heard The Microphones I don’t think I had ever thought about putting straightforward songs alongside more far out stuff and calling it an album. Around that time I was listening to a lot of Deerhoof too, mostly the album Reveille. I admired their willingness to keep the songs short (or long), their free use of interludes, and how they constructed a sound environment that was totally unique and far removed from typical band production. Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different if I’d had a drum kit and a compressor.

Is there a chance that this material will see some sort of formal release?

There’s always a chance! I kinda shy away from doing physical self-releases these days because of the cost; it’s a lot easier to make things available digitally, because it’s so much easier to share. So far I’ve been satisfied that some people know about the record and enjoy it, and that somehow my “passive distribution” methods have been enough to spread it around.

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