by Michael McCarthy
I recently came across the music of Gumshen when their publicist E-mailed me a link to their most recent album, 2015’s DigiBites. It proved to be one of those albums that I fell in love with from the first time I listened to it. From ultra-catchy songs like “A Scene Like That” and “Don’t Stop the Music” to the eerie ballad “I Need A Friend,” all of their songs provoked a reaction from me. Some made me want to dance, others chilled my spine. Their sound is a strange hybrid of electro-pop and Progtronica, the latter being what they named their album before DigiBites. The best way to describe them might be indie-tronica. Imagine if Interpol and Chromeo collaborated, if you will. Or if The Killers met with Hot Chip or Cut Copy. Or if someone blended all five of these groups together. Add a dash of Pink Floyd and you’ve got Gumshen. In the following interview, I chat with bassist, backing vocalist and soft synth player Chip Reno.
MM: I read that you handle bass, vocals and soft synth. At the risk of sounding stupid, what is soft synth, as opposed to regular synth?
CR: [Laughs] I know, right? That was a term that Gumshen used. I’ve been in Gumshen for the past three years. They’ve been together for ten years. And then I saw them using the term soft synth. It means synthesizers in software. There are those keyboards you can buy at Guitar Center that have all those sounds on board. Then there’s like all the synthesizers you can just have like in it that you control in a computer. Software synthesizers.
MM: Ah, OK. So, how old were you when you started singing in bands?
CR: Well, I, as I said, I’ve been in Gumshen for the past three years or so. I’m kind of like the marketing guy of the group, being a little bit younger. But, anyway, I started playing piano when I was three and I started playing in bands and singing stuff when I was probably about nine or ten. Ron, who’s the lead singer, probably about the same thing. He was an actor and comedian and improv singer. He’s a full-time musician, an actor, artist, I would say, and I work in corporate America, hence the long meeting. [Ed: Chip had to call me back as he was stuck in a meeting when I first called him.]
MM: How many bands were you in before Gumshen?
CR: I used to be a touring musician when I was in my early ’20’s. A lot of different bands. Everything from jazz, blues – I played stand-up bass in a jazz band – I’d say at least a dozen.
MM: Have you ever taken music lessons of any sort?
CR: Yeah, my grandma was a professional piano player and I took lessons from her when I was about three, but I am a bit rebellious in the way I play music. I had more fun making up songs – making up my own songs on the keyboard and stuff like that. Also, Ron, the lead singer, he’s taken a fair amount of music lessons but he’s kind of learned by ear, you could say. He plays random songs and he can even think of it and start playing it. And then Jan, the guitarist, is a totally classically trained guitarist, can do that kind of virtuoso, nylon string type of guitar. We all have definitely have solid fundamentals in music theory, but we don’t let it inhibit us. Some people, say, who have been music majors their entire lives, have a really focused way of bearing it or composing music, but we try to do it more free form. That’s how we approach writing music now.
MM: I noticed that some of you wear clothing that lights up in some of your photos and in the video for “A Scene Like That.” Did you make those outfits yourself?
CR: We’ve done both. The ones that were in “A Scene Like That,” a friend made them for me and they have since fallen apart. We’ve gone through a few iterations of light up clothing. It was just something – like we have an electronic, funky sound – with our couple of albums ago and then I go to a lot of shows and I’ve seen a lot of like cool bands out here get these L.E.D or L wire suits with a bunch of glow sticks. So, like every show now I’ll spend whatever and add a crap ton of glow sticks and little finger things and balloons and hand them out to the audience and it’s a good way to get them into the show, too, because now you have a glow stick in your hand and you’re glowing, too, and you’re dancing. Then for the last song, I usually bring up a couple people from the audience that are the most glowing of all and have them dance and sing.
MM: So, that’s all glow sticks that are inside that clothing?
CR: They’re actually electro-luminescent tape. I’ll just call it like L tape or L wire. Electro-luminescent wire. I think, actually, the one in “A Scene Like That” might’ve been straight up L.E.D lights but now we’re onto the more advanced, modern electro-luminescent.
MM: At what point did you introduce that to your image?
CR: So, I was there, like I said, three years ago and it was pretty soon since I got in the band. Gumshen before me had a little more kind of like an electronic rock sound and I kind of pushed them into a little more electronic-y kind of sound and thought to do the outfits and shit like that.
MM: So, DigiBites is the third full-length album from the band?
CR: Actually, it’s the eighth. So, Gumshen’s been around for ten years and every single year pretty much they’ve done an album. This year we’re releasing an album that’s gonna be the ninth album. DigiBites is the first one that I was a part of. They had just finished the one that was before that, Progtronica, right when I joined.
MM: DigiBites came out in 2015?
MM: I was surprised when I read that where I had just heard about it from your publicist now in 2017. Usually, when publicists contact you it’s about something that just, just came out.
CR: It was supposed to be in contact for the music video, which would be “Fallacy.”
MM: In 2016, you posted a video for a song called “Head’s A Window.” Was that a one-off single or will it be on the next album?
CR: It’s gonna be on the upcoming album. Both that song, “Head’s A Window” and “Fallacy” are going to be on the upcoming album that we’re finishing up right now. There’s like the last song we’re finishing and there’s another music video coming out for a song called “Bumps,” so there will be at least three music videos for the upcoming album.
MM: Cool. What’s the album gonna be called?
CR: One Time Super-show is the working title as of now.
MM: Who’s producing it?
CR: So, we do all of our production in house. We have a really awesome recording studio the guitarist has pretty much made. And we have someone do the final mixing then send it off for mastering. We do about 95 percent in our studio and then send it off for the mastering, mixing ears to finish up.
MM: Will the new album be in the electro-pop vein of the last album or is it going more in the prog direction?
CR: It’s also electro-pop. It’s a little bit funky. Some songs are kind of more artsy. So, a little bit of artsy, indie electronica. Kind of our typical, fun, funky electro-pop.
MM: Are you a big prog fan?
CR: I do like prog. Yes. I’m probably not as into prog, or as knowledgeable about prog, [as the rest of the band]. The prog bands I listen to are a little bit more modern, but, yeah, for Gumshen they’re very into prog. You can kind of hear it a little bit in our songs where we’ll change keys and tempos and do minute and a half and two minute guitar solos and things like that. That was one thing that really turned me on with Gumshen when I was out there looking for bands, hearing the complex chord changes. And once I started playing the songs I was like, crap, this actually is really thoughtful and unique, the way they do these chord changes, you don’t see that as much these days.
MM: So, how did you come to be in Gumshen?
CR: Craigslist. The last bassist wasn’t working out as well so then they posted on Craigslist that they were looking for a bassist then I came and played and it just worked out really well. We totally vibed and if you’ve ever been out there on Craigslist looking for bands the majority of them are usually garage bands and stuff like that. So, I could tell they were a very professional band.
MM: How does the songwriting process usually work in the band?
CR: Ron, the lead singer, is definitely a savant of music and he has ideas just spewing out of him constantly. So, he comes up with the raw materials. The melody and everything. He’ll bring it to us in the studio and then we’ll say this is really awesome, I love that part, or just, like, that part kind of sucks, what were you thinking? And then format the song, change around the parts and then give our ideas and play our instruments on it and sometimes the song will take a couple weeks, a few weeks, or sometimes the song will just drag on and drag on. We’re just trying to finish it and things aren’t sounding right. But Ron’s definitely the songwriter and coming up with a lot of the raw materials. There’s been instances of other people bringing in their ideas for songs, too.
MM: Do you record demos before you record the albums or do you just go into your studio and make the final versions?
CR: Right into the studio. That’s the advantage of having an adequate studio at your fingertips where you can just be there and start doing songs. A lot of bands will do demos recording on an eight track or something, but since we have a studio that has 36 different inputs and great software, we can just go right into production songwriting.
MM: Do you guys ever work with loops or samples or is it all live instruments?
CR: We use a crap ton of samples. When we’re playing live. We’ll write a song and it’ll have 100 tracks on it and then we’ll be like, OK, how the hell are we gonna do this live? Bounce out into our sampler and then our poor drummer has to sit there with headphones on and get all the cues for when to trigger stuff. He works really hard back there. Every song maps out to a Roland sampler. It’s an electronic drum kit so you go to the next song and then it has all new sounds for the toms and the kicks and changes all the samples. And so he triggers the samples and starts playing and then he’ll have to trigger other samples throughout the song. We know it’s more about the live song than trying to sound exactly like the album. So, if we put a sample down and it isn’t really working sometimes, or sometimes you’ll feel like you’re too mechanical, we don’t try to replicate it live. There’s not a lot of free space when you’re playing to a sampler. So, there are times where we’ve gotta figure out ways to not use a sampler in the songs, just playing with the four of us.
MM: Who are your influences right now and do they differ from who your influences were when you were younger?
CR: I think, for me, my influences change like every year. I listen to a lot of Spotify and modern playlists and stuff like that. I think the cross for all of us is Pink Floyd. They’re the influence that has stayed consistent for us. With DigiBites, Chromeo had a big influence on that synth pop sound. We’ll all listen to random songs here and there and kind of find stuff we find inspirational.
MM: What, for you, are the three most personal Gumshen songs and what do they mean to you in terms of what they’re about?
CR: So, “Fallacy” – I think that you saw that video?
CR: That one is really personal. It has a lot of meaning, especially to Ron, so that one’s pretty personal. I mean, I really like “Bumps,” but that one isn’t out yet. That one is really cool, really fun. I’m trying to think… “Jag it Up,” that one’s a really cool video and a great song. Very pro-rock-ish. I think “A Scene Like That” was pretty big as far as a music video that has a visual element. I am the rhythm guy. So, Ron would definitely be the one to talk more to the meaning behind the songs and what they mean to him. For me, I almost don’t listen to the lyrics sometimes.
MM: If you could have one artist cover one of your songs, who would you like to cover you and which song would you like them to do?
CR: [Laughs] Um, God. That’s a good question. I think “Fallacy” would be a good one and I think, God, who would I like to do “Fallacy”? There’s Cool Company. They’re a band I like a lot right now so I would say “Fallacy” and Cool Company.
MM: Have you ever had to check into a hotel under a fake name to avoid fans?
CR: [Laughs] No, no I haven’t.
MM: What was the first concert you attended?
CR: I think it was The Rolling Stones. When I was probably in fifth grade or something.
MM: Who were your childhood heroes?
CR: My childhood heroes… That’s a good question. I did like Ozzy Osbourne a lot in Black Sabbath. When I was even younger I’d have to say Tom Cruise from Top Gun was a big one.
MM: Who are your heroes today?
CR: Um, I’d have to say my sister would be a big hero of mine, to be corny about it. And Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO.
MM: Tell us three things from your bucket list that you have yet to do?
CR: I haven’t been to Amsterdam yet. I’m doing that pretty soon. I want to dive with the sharks. And I want to kayak with whales.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
CR: I think it was AC/DC’s Back in Black.
MM: What was the last album you bought and what format was it?
CR: [Laughs] I was at a Robert DeLong show and I bought his CD at the show.
MM: What’s the next album you intend to buy?
CR: Do I buy albums? If I go to a show I might buy a CD while I’m there, but it’s very rare that I buy a CD. I’m definitely all Spotify these days.
MM: What do you think about Spotify as it relates to your band?
CR: We get royalty checks here and there from people playing music on Spotify. I think you have to get up to 500 followers – active followers – before you even start getting on their playlists and start getting on the different ways you get recognized on the algorithms. It’s a little bit disappointing. It can be a little hard if you’re not somewhat well known to even get in the mix on Spotify. It’s hard to get up there, too. But as a user, I frickin’ love Spotify.
MM: If you could resurrect one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
CR: I would like to bring back Beethoven so he could just play on modern synthesizers. I’ve actually had dreams about that. What would it be like if you brought back Beethoven and showed him all the different types of synths? Even like cool analog synths that we have and modern day recording technology, if he’d be like, what the hell is this? This is just stupid. Or if he’d totally embrace it and write some cool shit.
MM: What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
CR: Jesus Christ… [Laughs] He didn’t give it to me. No. That’s a hard question. Fuck.
MM: Well, if not the most useful, a useful piece of advice?
CR: I think my Dad told me the most important decision you’re gonna make is who you marry. That’s a good one.
MM: Name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you actually liked?
CR: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Cars.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
CR: Well, right now, when I woke up it was Moon Bounce, was the artist, I’m trying to think of the name of the song. It’s not stuck in my head right now but it was this morning. It was “Empty Hole” by Moon Bounce. It’s a fun song.
MM: What is your biggest pet peeve?
CR: When people get on an elevator before letting other people off.
MM: Yeah, that one’s annoying. That’s a good one.
CR: I guess being inconsiderate.
Special thanks to Chip for chatting with us and to James of Independent Music Promotions for introducing us!
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