The flourishing noise act spoke to Jasper Willems about their formative stages
Recently, a friend of mine said something to me that not only made me laugh – it gave me pause to think. The gist of it was more or less this: “Of course certain artists can sometimes react strongly to what you’re writing about them. Music is basically a proxy for a relationship, and you as an outsider are basically addressing the sex.” In the formative phase Manchester outfit Gary, Indiana find themselves in, indeed, words might violate and taint the thrilling mystery of their internal dynamics.
The trio of Valentine Caulfield, Scott Fair and Liam Stewart seem to be content to blindside everyone – including themselves – by avidly embracing a state of flux. The four singles that resulted in this heedless creative plunge are all sonically distinct, inspiring comparisons to a broad range of artists, for example Factory Floor, Big Black, Beak> Marie Davidson and This Heat. But the moral of the story might be that Gary, Indiana are not quite sure yet what they are themselves, which might be the best place to be at the moment. Whenever an artist flourishes in that ‘big bang’ stage of their existence, it’s truly something to behold and cherish. This band is not swayed yet by expectations set by a previous record or EP, which allows their music to embrace a certain fluidity, a hex zone where extremes can be explored. “That’s the beauty of being somewhat amorphous. Every song can be something completely new,” Fair asserts. “That’s what keeps drawing me back in. Every song is just a completely blank sheet.”
Extremes can be found aplenty in Gary, Indiana. The Paris-born Caulfield has a background in opera, a grand art form that asks practitioners to convey emotions almost to the minutia. You’d think that would be the opposite of the impulsive nature of punk rock, but in Caulfield’s case, this transition actually makes a ton of sense. Indeed, naming a caustic Dionysian noise pop blitz after this elegant winged statue from the Hellenistic age not-so-subtlely makes a point of marrying stark opposites in radical ways. As is deliberately setting a limitation upon yourself to unlock something else from within, settling for spoken word and noises instead of brandishing the skills to belt out resplendent arias.
Indeed Gary, Indiana’s dark, primal noise seems to exist with a distinct and “deliberate purpose” in mind, as Fair affirms. The songs warp and contort like risqué images on xerox art, giving Caulfield the perfect echo chamber to act and react with abandon. Fair, meanwhile, runs a sync agency that helps license music for film, using a keen awareness of the relationship between sound and image within a commercial framework. Knowing that, it feels apt that the Mr. Hyde side of him manifests and unravels in such heavy, cinematic sounding music. Just watch the intoxicating 360 live session Gary, Indiana released recently, which approximates the thrill of a loud, gnarly band in a room as urgently as anything.
One of the more surprising revelations in this Q&A with Caulfield and Fair was the fact that Gary, Indiana isn’t a band formed during the COVID lockdown. They are actually the result of three years of patient, methodical exchange between Caulfield and Fair, with Stewart – who also plays drums for LoneLady – joining the fray down the line. I reckon that’s exactly what a lot of great bands in a similar phase need to hear right now: to be alright with the slow burn, and trust that it will pay off down the line. For Gary, Indiana it most definitely did: that mentality got them in cahoots with Brooklyn label Fire Talk.
Some early references you name for Gary, Indiana aren’t necessarily derived from pop music, but from film scores. What film scores did you bond over in the early going?
Scott: Most of that probably comes from me, I think. I don’t know much you listen to film scores, Val. But they are part of what I do for a living anyway. So it’s always been something I have paid attention to and been influenced by. But it wasn’t really something we talked about, no. Certainly at the start, I had all these ideas I was working on that I brought to Val, and basically asked ”What would you do with this?”, and she would bring her vocal parts into it. It sort of remained within a similar framework I think.
We’re all film fans for sure, and in terms of using specific cues from film scores, it’s usually something I’m trying to draw influence from. Specifically, the bassline from “Nike Of Samothrace” was influenced by the Irréversible score by Thomas Bangalter [of the recently defunct Daft Punk]. I was shocked by the film, which is obviously Gaspar Noé’s style, but I was shocked by the score as well. I found it to be really unsettling and nauseating. I read later on that Thomas was basically experimenting with frequencies that made people feel nauseous, and very deliberately tried to provoke a response in the listener. I thought that was really bold. As big as a ‘fuck you’ as the director is to his audiences, in every aspect, it’s because the composer is in the exact same headspace. He’s like: how far can we push you? How uncomfortable can we make you feel? I wanted to make a bass line that made people feel like being on a rollercoaster or something. So I was playing with pitch bending. It’s untethered and constantly moving.
How did you two meet?
Scott: I saw Valentine perform in a band called Melk.
Valentine: It’s the Danish word for ‘milk’.
Scott: It sounded really striking. The performance wasn’t really like anything else I’d seen in the local music circuit. Valentine was doing something different, like sitting down during the performance; not addressing the audience like an audience, but more wrapped up in her own thing. I’m really taken by performers that do that: they could be doing it everywhere, it doesn’t matter whether there is an audience present or not. They just do their thing instead of talking loads to the audience or trying to be funny or whatever. It was just a really confident performance. I was just like ‘wow, she is amazing’.
I thought the whole band was good, and one song I felt was particularly good: one where Val was singing in French. It stuck with me and since I saw that it sort of stayed in my mind. I was in another band at the time, so nothing really happened – but as soon as I wasn’t in a band, I was like ‘Hey! Let’s start a band together!’
Valentine: Scott’s band and my band were supporting a band from Newcastle called Mouses. Scott and I just kept in touch on social media and stuff ever since really. I liked your band as well Scott, which is why I was trying to arrange for you to support another band. There was a mutual appreciation between us and that’s kind of how Gary, Indiana got started.
The way you described Valentine’s old band, Scott, I thought about Jenny Hval or maybe even the Fluxus movement, where the performance itself creates a different dynamic with the audience without necessarily interacting with them directly. I’m kind of curious about what your early common interests are.
Scott: I love Jenny Hval, first of all, and I’ve seen her several times. Definitely an artist I like as a performer too, because she is all about theatricality. The first time I saw Jenny Hval coincidentally, she was wearing this long pink wig. And I remember seeing a photo of Valentine wearing a very similar long big wig. I don’t even know if you’re a fan of Jenny Hval? Do you listen to her, Valentine?
Valentine: No, not really no.
Scott: I’ve never seen them in the same room. In terms of common influences: in some of our early meet-ups, Valentine and myself were talking about certain artists neither one of us knew. Valentine was probably the first person to mention Life Without Buildings, a band that I really enjoy now. I think it was a great way of getting to know each other, to just talk about music. There probably is some crossover in there.
Valentine: There definitely is, because when we first started playing, we used to send each other loads of playlists as well. There is some overlap in there. But Gary, Indiana started working from completely different points of view and brought everything together in a way that made sense to us.
Scott: Our understanding was always more about what our intentions were for this project rather than pointing at something specific and saying ‘We want to do that’. It’s kind of frustrating because we haven’t been able to play any gigs yet, and I feel that is going to become a big part of the band’s personality. It’s going to take a while for that to take its true form, and I feel that will definitely influence the sound as well going forward. Even though we have Liam in the band now, who is an incredibly talented drummer, we’re not really a band that gets into a room and writes together. The songs are fragmented and pieces together, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I would argue that that’s the best thing, to be able to work on music without any sort of expectation of what the band should become.
Scott: Yeah, you’re right, it’s sort of like the honeymoon period, isn’t it? It’s weird because Valentine and I have been working on music for a few years at least.
Valentine: Three years, I think.
Scott: Yeah, it was just me and Val for a very long time. And I think it was just lying in wait. We knew that we wanted to share this project with a lot of people; it wasn’t going to be like a bedroom project. We definitely had big ambitions for Gary, Indiana in terms of reaching people in other countries, which is amazing, because that’s something that our label, Fire Talk, is helping us to do. So we’re working towards that really, and lining everything up and gathering what press we could. Obviously, with a label like Fire Talk, things have started picking up a lot quicker now. The plan now is to work on some more releases for the next year.
This is inspiring to hear. In this age of accessibility and quick palatable content, I feel a lot of bands have a tendency to scramble for notoriety. This sort of even-keeled, organic creative pace seems like a very healthy environment to live in.
Scott: We’ve both been in bands before, and I think there is a temptation to do that. As you said, it’s so easy now to communicate with an audience, and you can have your music on DSPs [Digital Service Providers, i.e. Spotify] almost overnight. You can write something and release it immediately. Some people take advantage of that in really interesting ways. What we’re trying to do is something we ourselves would be excited about. That’s how I feel about it, I don’t want to speak for everyone else.
Valentine: There was always this idea about us taking the time to work on something we would be very proud of to release. There was never a need to put out music very quickly. Each song as well: the way we’ve written all of our songs – they have all taken us a fair amount of time. To take time to put something out there that we are all really happy with. We started working like that from the beginning. We’ve abandoned so many songs along the way as well. At the moment, we’re just refining the sound.
Maybe it takes being in a couple of bands to get to that point, understanding the cautionary tales so to speak.
Scott: Some of my own biggest influences are musicians with a reputation of being selective and guarded about what they do. Deliberately doing things over and over. Some bands want to make a buck. Then there are bands like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard who are actively releasing as much music at as high volume as possible. I totally understand and respect that both. The music that is the most arresting to me – when I dig into it and find out more about it – takes a fair amount of time to make. That’s harder to do in the age of streaming if you want to become a career musician.
We have no illusions about quitting our day jobs to do this and being able to earn a living from it. It’s just not possible really. And it’s only going to get harder post-COVID and post-Brexit as well. Valentine is studying journalism, I’m doing my thing, and Liam does his thing. We just do it because we love doing it. And the label is very understanding about things like that as well. They always mention that there is no rush to do anything, and no pressure.
Valentine, you have had an extensive background in opera and now you’re in a weird noise band: one is very dogmatic and the other very impulsive. Are those worlds polar opposites to you, or do you occupy a space which you can reconcile them?
Valentine: I don’t know. I got out of that opera world right around the time I started listening to music that’s much closer to what Gary, Indiana does nowadays. I’ll always have a soft spot for classical music and opera. Moving into different directions allowed me to make my own music, because if you’re singing opera, you’re singing someone else’s music obviously. I do obviously enjoy that. There is an element of theatre that definitely comes through, and I still channel that into what I do now. Musically speaking, they are pretty much polar opposites.
On “Pashto” there’s this end part where you veer from pure anguish to an almost hysterical super villain cackle, and I couldn’t help but be disturbed. In a good way, I mean.
Valentine: A hundred percent. This has absolutely a lot to do with Gary, Indiana as a project. It’s more spoken word than singing to begin with; which is very much out of my own comfort zone. But it’s also in French, so no one really understands what I’m saying. It kind of allows me to use everything within my vocal ability to try and convey emotions. Which is why I use things like heavy breathing or hysterical laughter.
I’m quite happy I disturbed the fuck out of you. It’s about trying to take everything within my reach to convey something people wouldn’t necessarily understand, because people don’t understand what I’m saying anyway. Gary, Indiana has been the project that has allowed me to do that the most in my entire life. I can do what I want: I’m not constricted by the rules of classical singing – or to just even be a singer. I’m barely a singer at this point. I am someone who makes noises. I intentionally write lyrics with alliterations and very strong consonants, so I sound angry. My vocals are also very downplayed in the mix: they are super obvious, I’m not screaming, but I do sound angry. I’m really proud of that.
For some reason, I have to think about that iconic Mulholland Drive scene.
Valentine, has opera helped you skilfully navigate emotions, but also the means to detach from them?
Valentine: Definitely. There is a theatrical element of that to opera and singing classical music that comes from your ability to reflect the emotion in the music. Which is obviously the way I write music for this project. Performing it is very much ‘a performance’, because I try to put myself in that emotional state. That is one of the reasons I manage to laugh hysterically every time we play “Pashto” even though I’m not having a full mental breakdown. Go and take some opera classes, it will change your life.
I think Gary, Indiana writes, unironically speaking, very pretty music. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. It’s kind of like being in a shark cage: you see this force of nature that makes you feel both small and insignificant, and therefore incites awe and admiration. Or, to quote the Alien films: “It’s the perfect organism.”
Scott: I agree, I think there is a lot of beauty in the music as well. I think you could throw a lot of different words at our music and many things stick to it. I feel all sorts of emotions when I listen to it. I haven’t heard anyone say anything about our music yet that I disagreed with. Any kind of pushback I’ve heard so far has been about our name, which was just a misunderstanding. [The band is named after a Shellac song]
Going back to film music that inspired you. Irréversible or maybe Mother are films that do elicit strong reactions, partly because of the disturbing imagery attached to them, which makes everything really concrete. But if you transmute that sensibility to just music and spoken word, it becomes maybe a little more abstract, which allows you to confront people without immediately invoking disgust. It can also be a vital tool for the exploration of the self and the human condition in general. Is that more or less the main imperative of Gary, Indiana right now?
Scott: Definitely. A lot of what you just said resonates with this project. We write music to explore emotions, and communicate them to other people. It’s always about trying to make somebody feel something. And if you place your own experiences and mental state into things, you can share that emotion. It’s cheesy, but music is a language anyone can speak. You don’t need to understand what Valentine is saying, to feel her emotion when she is saying it. You don’t need to have experienced the same thing as the artist to get a sense of what that feeling is.
The more powerfully, and the more viscerally you can do that, the more successful the thing is. That’s why I am attracted to a filmmaker like Gaspar Noé, or anyone that’s doing something unconventional. It may make 50 percent of the audience sick, and 50 percent of the people feel alive for the first time in years. It’s not about shock value; even some of the darker and more macabre elements of our music aren’t about shock value. It’s more theatrical; it’s always more about entertainment as well for us, and simply enjoying what we do. To awaken emotions within an audience for sure.
Valentine: I was just thinking about what you’re saying about cinematography as an influence. Gasper Noé is a name that comes back quite a lot. Or even the second Blade Runner film, those names are being thrown at us quite a lot, especially in regards to more recent material. It’s not necessarily writing music that reflects those films. But movies that have a very specific atmosphere to them, that’s something I think our music very much transcribes. My writing process has always been to sit down with ideas Scott sends me and figure out how they make me feel. That’s how I come up with lyrics and everything that goes on in the songs. It’s never an attempt to figure out what sounds the best. It’s always what viscerally comes over me… it’s very much like transcribing my own emotions.