I first had the pleasure of hearing Gun Lake during CMJ 2011 when they were one of the featured acts of the “Lovely Hearts Club Showcase” that Paper Garden Records hosted. From practically the first note of their set, I was on the edge of my seat, trying to distinguish if these perfectly balanced harmonies and lush instrumentation could actually be happening live.
Listening to their album Balfour throughout the autumn has been a wonderful experience, but it was seeing them live that really revealed to me the brilliance of this group. They have an incredible synergy and the energy they maintain even during their slower numbers is impeccable. I definitely see these guys going places in 2012.
Mark Fain – lead singer and the brain behind most of Gun Lake’s lyrics – took the opportunity to share a bit more with GoldFlakePaint about his visions of music and the world, along with some background about his life…
What is the process of writing for you? Some of your songs seem so layered, do you write the words & melody separately?
Mark: The problem for me with regards to writing lyrics is that I love words so much that I take a very long time selecting the right ones, and am never fully satisfied by them. Melody comes more naturally to me, which seems appropriate for music writing. So that usually comes first. However, with Balfour, a lot of the lyrics were an ongoing imaginary conversation I was having with the person of whom I was struggling to let go. Snippets of that conversation would fit into a melody that I was working on at the same time, and in those cases the lyrics came first.
How did you begin songwriting at all?
Mark: I started playing music in about 5th grade and always worshipped good songwriting, and as I look back I’m happy to say I haven’t had to drastically change my definition of “good songwriting.” Though I certainly have grown a lot as a songwriter, myself. I started trying to write songs when I was 16, and have a cd of songs I recorded when I was 17. There might be 2 that I’ll admit to liking, but the rest seem very silly to me now. I had a couple songs about social injustice that were just awful. Those were the Bush years, you know.
What elements of culture in your Michigan upbringing affected you?
Mark: I was raised in a small mostly conservative town in Northern Michigan, went to a Catholic school K-12, but had an amazing family. I could have ended up really messed up if my family wasn’t awesome because I reacted against that other stuff in my introverted, pissed-off way. I didn’t feel socially comfortable there, so I’m sure that has impacted how I am today. But then there’s all the great stuff about being from Northern Michigan like knowing how to hunt/fish/climb/hike/boat/ski/kayak/play hockey/canoe/snowshoe/drive in snow/etc. I learned I was capable of doing a lot of things myself, and that is certainly part of my character.
Do you think Balfour would still be what it is/could have occurred if you weren’t in a rural environment?
Mark: Maybe it would have been the most hardcore hip-hop album ever. Haha…I don’t know. A lot of the imagery and the name ‘Balfour’ is from Northern Ontario, where I’ve gone almost every year for as long as I can remember, and it’s all tinged by being surrounded by wilderness for most of my life. But it mostly just relates to the emotions I was feeling, so while the imagery might have been different, it would have been conveying the same emotions.
What do you think the rural vs urban affect is on music or do you think there is one?
Mark: You’re tickling my dichotomy (I now live near Detroit, MI). One could probably write a thesis on this subject, but I’ll just relate it to my personal experience. A big thing is that in cities, there’s built-in eclecticism. Bands from everywhere actually go to cities to play shows. That was a completely foreign concept to me growing up. There weren’t cool shows within a 2 hour driving radius. I had to search for music to love because most of what my friends listened to was shit. Fortunately, I got a Radiohead cd when I was in 9th grade and that sent me on a pretty good path. Still, I was missing a lot of new bands. Being in an urban environment, for better or (sometimes) worse, keeps you more aware of what’s happening in music.
You once mentioned empathy having the ability to “save” us, or help the world work again… how do you think that ties into music?
Mark: I think I’m trying to balance what I see as a disappointing world with optimism. It probably doesn’t relate to music as much as we’d like it to. If it did, the Beatles would have ended War years ago. With my music, even when it’s dark, I want there to be a consistent pathos as a reminder for compassion. That said, I’m not writing music to try to change the world. Changing the world should probably be an extracurricular activity. I have Eric Clapton in my head now.
Is music always an empathetic process to you? Tying into that, what parts of the world specifically do you think aren’t working and why?
Republicans are assholes. Democrats blow it every time. Two parties for fifty states. Corporations run everything. Everything is manufactured to become pollution. So much in society lacks basis in human empathy. This all gets dumped on the Third World. Rules is rules and greed makes rules. Hold on–I have to go get my hot chemical pizza pocket out of the toaster oven… Writing music isn’t empathetic. It makes me feel better so it’s kind of selfish actually. But it’s not worse than playing video games or watching football (american or otherwise) all day.
There is a very physical presence in your music, a deep sense of outdoor space. Does this come from where you were raised, where you live now, or some combination of the two?
I come from a town called ‘Subtle Reverb’.
Okay, so the entire album is infused with sadness and seems to be addressed to one person, is this just my romanticizing brain? Do you want to touch on this?
Her name is Patty Mayonnaise. She broke my heart and wasn’t very honest as to why. It could have been an angrier album, but I wasn’t aware.
How does it work to add different musicians into songs that were originally conceived individually? Do you have those harmony parts in your head or do the other musicians add them?
Mark: When you play with good musicians, they know what to do instrumentally and then I just steer them or they steer me. I usually do really rough demos of my songs which is the point at which I write and record harmonies. Melody and harmony are my strengths. I suck at rhythm. We were always playing with new and different voice leading in the studio too. Ryan added some brilliant stuff.That low note in Trials where everything sort of unfolds and opens up is him. It’s one of my favorite moments on the album.
What is your day job? Is it solely a day job or do you enjoy it?
I’m an animator for Hook Studios (http://byhook.com). It’s an interactive animation company that does a lot of work for big ad agencies. It’s a good job and sometimes it’s cool, but it’s not a passion. I just did sound design for this which was pretty fun: http://devastatingexplosions.com
Do you plan to continue living in Michigan? Let me be more clear, when are you moving to NYC?!
What is a band/artist/influence on your music that you think would shock people or be unexpected?
Nirvana is huge. The Stranglers. Babyshambles. The Shins. Maybe that’s not as shocking. Queens of the Stone Age. Fiona Apple.
Do you tend to write songs in the same place or different ones?
Wherever I have some time alone – preferably with a guitar.
Words by Caitlin White
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