Each generation is obsessed with the idea of legacy, the cultural artifacts it will box up and leave pristine in memoriam, but few have failed quite so abjectly to achieve it as ours. Following a correlative spike in nostalgia, we’ve been forced to watch a succession of rose-tinted discographies – including both Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins, though no word on a ‘Range Life’ duet yet – jacked open and stripped for parts, cobbled together in a grotesque, wrinkled parody of the Nineties. Charles Griffin Gibson, AKA New York-based DIY indie rocker CHUCK, hasn’t settled any expensive lawsuits with his work, but he still knows when to call it a day.
Not that he’s quitting music in order to fossilize a great body of work, although he has inadvertently done that as well. Since 2013’s Let’s Make Out EP, CHUCK has released three albums and a string of other releases that deal in heart-swelling lo-fi, his nasal singing voice and lyrical curveballs both recalling WHY?’s Yoni Wolf at his best. Alongside longtime collaborator Lou Waxman, Gibson has just gifted us Frankenstein Songs For The Grocery Store, his last and possibly best record. Above all else, we needed to find out why the world of Chuck was coming to an end. So we asked him.
DiS: Chuck, you’ve broken my heart. Frankenstein Songs for the Grocery Store is your swan song. Could you tell me a little bit about why you came to this decision?
Charles Griffin Gibson: I recently got married, and if you live with a significant other, you’ll know that the way you spend your time changes a little bit. So it’s hard to find that time; I can’t be sitting around smoking weed all night, thinking about what to write songs about and messing around with synthesizers. I don’t have that free space anymore.
So you’re not going to pull a James Murphy and reform after headlining Madison Square Gardens?
That was a pretty slick move. But he was honest about it, which I think is better than making up some weird excuse.
I gather filmmaking is your full-time job now. Do you prefer that as a creative process?
The thing about the music is that it’s become more collaborative each time. It used to just be me and that was it. But I started realising that you can’t do everything yourself, and you want to fuse different energies and different ideas into your work. On Frankenstein, for example, my friend Lou plays drums, and he played the horn parts on ‘New Yorker’ and stuff. I would just send stuff to him, and he’d record things and then just send it back, without direction; it was a nice Postal Service-style collaboration. For the music video, we just found people who seemed like they had good taste and would be interested, and I told them to do pretty much whatever they wanted. I think with film, I have more of the ability to collaborate in a fun way, where I can shoot stuff with different people, have more humour… I understand the medium a little bit more. Music is trickier, more elusive. It’s harder to find out.
And you don’t like being in front of the camera.
You want to use these artistic hobbies to make yourself a better person, to work on yourself a little bit. I think with the filmmaking I could get on camera and be a little more outside my comfort zone, easier than I could with the music videos. It’s very uncomfortable walking around New York City singing your song to the camera!
Do you have a book in you?
Well, I dabbled with poetry. I was going down that path for a while. I was working on a book, although it never really came together. But books are trickier than music. I don’t think I could write a novel. That’s quite an undertaking, and I’m not sure I’m made for that. But I think a book of poetry or something like that would definitely be up my alley. And screenwriting, of course.
And you’re writing a screenplay at the moment?
Yes, and now that the album’s out, I can go back to it – on the fourth draft, for some ungodly amount of rewrites. But all these things take a lot of time.
I know you’ve mentioned acts like Jonathan Richman and Pavement as heroes in the past. Is there a sort of ur-text you have in your mind for a DIY indie rock record?
I don’t know, I mean I’m not someone like Pharrell or Dr Dre, someone who has this masterful control of the production process. I just go for it, and sometimes it sounds a little different – a bit of it is just the magic of making music where its sound is based on how the performance goes, or whatever was happening that day. I will make a conscious effort to mimic things I like about certain bands or a vibe I’m getting from a certain song I really like. But then throughout the recording it ends up getting sort of… Chuckified. It turns out in my own crude, not-quite-as-good version of the music I’m trying to rip off.
But I do think there is a DIY, Bandcamp genre. A lot of those guys have a sound, but it’s kind of hard to describe – you know, like your Alex Gs, Elvis Depressedly, all these lo-fi buzz bands that have become more professional and got bigger on Bandcamp over the last five to eight years. You know, your Girlpools. You have a little scene of people who make this Bandcamp-y DIY music, but I can’t really describe what that is.
Do you think the Internet has mainly been a good thing for the modern musician?
I think so. I mean I personally struggle with it, because you have to promote yourself, but you have to do it in a sly way that makes it look like you’re not doing it. There’s this fake authenticity thing – maybe some people aren’t trying and are genuinely funny, or interesting, or just magnetic, and that might be an aspect of why some bands sink and some don’t. I’m sure Mitski has a big following on Twitter because she says stuff that’s either funny or personal, and she doesn’t come across like, “Listen to my music!” So she’s an example of someone who’s probably doing it right. But it’s hard to do that if it doesn’t come naturally. It’s work. So I think the Internet is good overall if you can work it, and it works for you. For me, I find it difficult to promote myself on Twitter. I don’t want to be worrying about whether I’m coming across as low-key or off the cuff. But there’s a world of PR marketing, and you can’t totally avoid it.
Let’s talk about the record. I wanted to tell you that ‘Oceans – Electric’ is one of my favourite songs of the year, but honestly I think it’s now one of my favourite love songs of all time. Have you ever felt like, in an alternate reality, you could have been huge? Would you have wanted that?
That’s a tough question. I do think music is a young man’s game, and there’s a reason why most people quit around 30. There are a million bands with 22 to 24-year-olds, and it starts to thin out as you get older. Most of the bands that you would see in Fader or DIY Magazine, obviously these are young people who have time to create, to tap into youth culture and all that. I don’t know. I just played a show for the record, and it was my first show in years – I don’t really play live, which has been kind of my problem. And it was actually the first time I’ve had fun doing it. Part of me walked away thinking, “Man, I wish I could have clicked into that feeling earlier,” because touring just used to be an awful, nerve-wracking experience. I do think the live show, and the general IRL interaction with people who might like your music, is crucial in that sense. I personally feel I’ve got the success I’ve deserved, with the energy I’ve lacked. But I don’t know if I would have wanted it. It’s hard to imagine getting a Mac DeMarco level of success. I don’t know what that would be like.
Was there a reason why you didn’t play live so much?
I’m just not the most confident in my musical abilities. I think I can write pretty good songs, but as far as the technical side goes – playing guitar really well, or improvising – those aren’t things I personally excel at. For this show, for example, it went really well, played everything well, felt good about it. But it’s hard, a lot of my songs are built out of production, so if I just turn up in a room with a guitar and play crude versions of them, it’s like… I’ve never had much confidence in my live show. Obviously, the smart thing would be to just put yourself out there and do it, and you’ll get better at it. But I just avoided it. It’s kind of terrifying.
‘New Yorker’ seems like an affectionate jab at NY life, like it’s taking the piss out of that lifestyle, but also kind of tender too. Is that how you see the city?
Yeah, I think it’s an exact combination of what you said. Obviously, everyone talks about it like it’s the greatest place on earth, and there is a lot of fun stuff about it. Certainly, that song was me trying to give one final shout out to it in music form. And as you say, there is a tenderness – when I eventually leave New York, as most people do, I know I’ll miss it. It will always mean something and represent a part of my life. There’s a lot of comforting stuff about it. But on the other angle, I am taking the piss out of it a little bit. I haven’t lived here long enough to compare it to old New York, but when you hear about the 1960s, 70s, 80s New York, you hear all these crazy stories about it, it was such an urban jungle. But now it’s just a de facto college graduation destination for Americans. I think a lot of people have an identical experience with the city, but they feel like it’s unique. ‘Ah, New York, I’m in the movies!’ This kind of magical thing. And it is magical, to you. But everyone has a very similar experience when they move here.
Is this the record you want people to remember you by?
Yeah, I think so. Whatever your hobby is, you always want to do it better on the next one. Whatever your art is, you want to achieve something greater, to push yourself further with the next piece. And there’s not one thing on the album that bothered me. I’m proud of it. And of course, then you think, “Well, now I could really make a great album…” But you have to cut yourself off. I’m never completely satisfied, I’m always thinking about the next one, but this is the first time where I feel like there shouldn’t be a next one. I would consider making music anonymously as an older person, but not CHUCK music. I think this is definitely the final CHUCK album. And I think it’s the best one.
Photo Credit: Charlie Rubin