“We’d never been on the road; we’d never really gone anywhere to make a record before. We’d never heard of Pitchfork or any blogs,” explains vocalist and guitarist Chris Lynch. “Our vision of making music was, ‘You make a record, and then it blows up, and then you’re on the radio, and then you’re huge!’ And the reality of it was: some people like you, some people don’t like you, and you have to tour for two years. There’s no really ‘making it’ anymore, unless you’re part of 1% of 1%.”
Photo by Neil Favila
2014 has seen the release of Gardens & Villa’s second full-length record, Dunes — and while these same themes of life, love, nostalgia, and nature still resonate heavily with the band of brothers, months of relentless touring and eye-opening experiences have brought them to this current point, which is philosophically and musically evolved from where they were three years ago. They have matured — and this maturation can be found in the change from the barebones simplicity of the first to the layered complexities of the second, as well as in the lyrical content, which is now far more difficult to decrypt. Both records still contain much that is celebratory and have a similar thread of emotional honesty — but the difference is that on Dunes, what is honest, and what is real, feels less dedicated to enclosed emotions and memories, but more to how one interfaces with the multi-colored pastiche of interconnected human experience, on a larger scale.
“The second record is a lot more realistic, I guess, and there’s a little bit of melancholy in the record that kind of came out of so much time on the road and missing home. But there’s also some beautiful elements on both the records that also came out of that time,” explains Lynch. “Basically, I’m trying to say that getting older and touring a bunch wasn’t all a bad thing; it was actually a good thing. It’s kind of us discovering how we’re going to do this and survive.”
“The time on the road [was us] realizing our dream,” Lynch continues, “but at the same time, seeing our dream as this long, arduous journey that’s not what we thought it was.”
Generations Lost & Found
Few bands tour with such dedication as Gardens & Villa, who spent the bulk of 2011 and 2012 traveling across North America and Europe, playing to wider and wider audiences along the way. All of this growth has been incorporated into the themes of Dunes, and like the real world, such growth is as many parts gloomy as it is glorious.
“The second album has… my reflections and subconscious images from my childhood, growing up in a very, very suburban area. The first record was breaking out of that world, and being like, ‘No! Nature is so beautiful!’ and the second record is kind of like, ‘No, but all this is so weird…'” Lynch explains. “It’s more of a reflection of feeling like it’s definitely a part of me that I will never let go of… and some of it is just straight evil, I feel like, but some of it is also just a reality that we have to work with.”
This reality that Lynch speaks of can be found in the simultaneous destitution and wonder of what he calls the “lost generation” — a generation that is Gardens & Villa’s age, sandwiched between the digital and the analog, the freedom of the internet age and the restriction of established infrastructures. Themes related to this lost generation resound heavily throughout Dunes — found, for example, in the secretive debauchery of “Colony Glen”, the societal critiques of “Bullet Train”, and the indecisive confusion of “Echosassy”.
“I think there’s a lot of wasted talent [in our generation], but I also think we’re one of the most talented slash productive-in-different-ways generations in a long time, and… we might even be destined for greatness,” says Lynch. “I think we’re going to change some shit — but I think it’s been kind of a rough start, because we’re kind of shedding all of the fake skin that our grandparents and parents built… and we’re trying to figure out how we’re actually going to make it into something rad, before we destroy the whole system, the planet.”
Gardens & Villa see this contrast between the wasted and the productive every day of their lives on the road, but perhaps most notably in the rigidity of the music industry versus the freedom of actually playing music; the crowded cityscapes versus the open landscapes; the discomforts versus the comforts. And with three of the band’s five members possessing astrological sun signs in the twin faces of Gemini, this tendency towards duality is very, very fundamental to their shared view of the world.
“It’s funky… just going from hotel to hotel on tour, and just all of them are like crackdens, and there’s rocks and trash and prostitutes, and it’s pretty crazy. You see this underbelly of America, constantly. It can definitely influence the way that you’re thinking. But, you know, that’s contrasted with getting home and going to Big Sur, and eating an organic meal,” Lynch remarks, giving some insight into the experiences that has led to the band’s growth in the past few years. “[G&V] definitely will always have a super polarized [dynamic of] natural versus unnatural or synthetic.”
Gardens & Villa – Dunes Full Album Stream
Although most of Dunes‘ lyrics were written by Lynch, they do incorporate elements from the band’s other four members, and tracks like “Minnesota” were collectively written to recall powerful experiences. “Bullet Train”, the album’s funky first single, gives the impression of celebrating a life lived to its fullest — but its inspiration actually comes from a combination of musical influences and personal anecdotes.
“The initial idea for ‘Bullet Train’ came up [after] listening to Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express,” Lynch recalls. “We thought it was pretty awesome they made a song about the train that was being built in Europe, so we wanted to make a song about the high-speed rail in California that’s probably never going to be built.”
The dizzying hook, which sings, “The young die young, if they work too hard”, actually refers to the death of a friend on a set of train tracks. And in this way, tracks like “Bullet Train” and “Purple Mesas” are unique to Dunes in that they have origins that the band can easily reference. The remainder of the record is more of an amalgam of influences, in part due to the contribution of multiple members and the wealth of experience shared amongst them — but also because of the creative process behind them, which often pull from the subconscious and collective unconscious. This technique is not new to Gardens & Villa, who had impromptu creations during their first album as well, but the skill of mining this store of knowledge does seem more honed in on Dunes.
“The songs sort of wrote themselves, if you know what I mean,” says Lynch, who says that he often “figures out” what a song was about years after its creation, especially with relation to the tracks from their debut record. “It’s revealed way later what I was actually thinking and kind of communicating.”
Part of this is because Gardens & Villa’s initial creative process is quite spontaneous and fluid, with tracks generally emerging out of lengthy jam sessions. The music is then molded to form concise pop songs, and the lyrics are revised hundreds of times, only to sometimes morph unexpectedly in the heat of recording.
“I rarely sit down with a really solid, concrete idea and chisel a song out,” says Lynch. “It’s usually kind of more of a collage — like a magazine cut-out collage — and at the end, you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s a giant butterfly!’ and then three years later, you realize it was a dragon.”
That initial clarity is sometimes even further muddled by the emergence of unexpected but better-suited modifications.
“You’ll be revising, and then you’ll figure out, ‘Whoa, this whole section fits actually more with this song,’ and then, ‘Oh wow, the lyrics actually fit better in this song,’ and then you mold the whole song to fit that section,” Lynch explains.
By the time Gardens & Villa entered the studio, they had written thirty tracks to present to producer Tim Goldsworthy. After hearing G&V run through the entire selection, Goldsworthy whittled the sample size down to fifteen tracks, which were then narrowed down further to create a cohesive album. Recording Dunes became quite an experiment, its form and execution differing greatly from that of the band’s self-titled release.
“The first record we did all live and all to tape, and most of the whole record is the first one or two takes, so it’s a lot more loosely recorded. It was all super on a whim,” Lynch recalls. “[For] the second record, we had a month in this really awesome studio, kind of with cabin fever… so we kind of — not over-did some things, but spent a lot of time just on getting sounds. We spent a lot more time on the sonic quality of the material, and it was all track-on-track… there was a lot of messing around with pre-amps and compression and putting different digital machines through analog machines, and vice versa.”
Dunes was also an attempt for Gardens & Villa to pull themselves out of the generic indie rock universe that they became associated with after the release of their first record.
“We actually, in a lot of ways, have been lumped into a category with a lot of music that we don’t like,” Lynch explains bluntly, “so the second record was in a lot of ways us a little bit trying to detach from some of [that] music… And we were listening to a lot more post-punky stuff. [With] the first record, we were listening to a lot more Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club.”
A throwback performance of “Avalanche” from tours for Gardens & Villa’s self-titled record
At surface level, the album title, Dunes, is a reverent naturalistic homage — but what is particularly significant is how the name ties in with the band’s perception of who they are and what they are doing with their lives. Dunes was named following a particularly stressful time; Gardens & Villa had only one week remaining to complete their record, but the vocals had yet to be recorded and the songs were only 60% done. Crisis struck, then, when a last-minute emergency exiled them into the freezing Michigan winter, to the added stress of all involved.
“Everybody was kind of like, ‘We have so much work to do! We’re not going to be able to finish the record!'” Lynch remembers, “And that’s when we drove to the dunes. When we got to there, it was just kind of this huge eye-opener… a really heavy playful experience where we all kind of fell in love with each other again, and realized that it was bigger than just the record.”
As any true creator knows, the beauty of making anything artistic is, perhaps first and foremost, selfish and self-gratifying. Yet to succeed does require sacrifice, and as a result, reminders of shared end goals can be important.
“We have little rituals,” Lynch explains. “We usually have a pre-show pow-wow where we all kind of check in with each other and give high-fives and hug, center ourselves for a little bit.”
These check-ins are just miniscule connections in time, but they are symbolically important to sustaining a creative path between five different people. By acknowledging their mythology on a grandiose scale, Gardens & Villa are able to work harder to achieve what they want, even if the timeline is probably one they don’t prefer.
“Getting up every morning and getting to do what you want to do — getting to follow your dream is, I think, so cool. And it’s totally worth it for the baggage. And everything’s hard. Every walk of life is hard and has its ups and downs. It’s all kind of how you look at it,” Lynch muses. “I could be really pissed and be like, ‘Man, we don’t make any money, and we’re staying at crackhead hotels, and man, we’re not selling any records. If we were out fifteen years ago, we’d be millionaires.’ But I could also be like, ‘This is the best thing ever! I get to be on tour, see America! I get to play music every night!” and it’s kind a choice that I have to make.'”
In closing, Lynch speaks of the ways that meditation helps balance out the quick pace of touring life, and of making conscious decisions to choose the positive over the negative. They are words that seem useful not only for personal fulfillment, but for an entire “lost generation”, to acknowledge and embrace what might be “lost” as a jump-off point for manifesting the good.
“A lot of times you have to forgive yourself time and time again,” he says, “to be able to love other things.”