Gabriel Birnbaum :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Last November, on the eve of his solo debut release, I joined Gabriel Birnbaum at his Bedstuy apartment. We talked about the record, Not Alone, over some chili and beer, as well as Birnbaum’s heartworn highway experiences as a working musician; both as the frontman for Wilder Maker and a touring member of Debo Band. I remember the night as cold and rainy, but the atmosphere inside Gabe and his girlfriend Ellen’s apartment to be cozy and warm, their cat Diana wandering in and out of conversation. A blissful oblivion, compared to how eerily prescient our talk of the toll of the road, isolation, and ultimately togetherness would later come to feel. 

Apropo of its authors surroundings, Not Alone is itself warm and cozy. The unhurried grandeur of the opening title track unfurling at a languid and wholly self-assured pace, Birnbaum sings “I’ve been in love so long, I don’t remember the world before this song.” It’s deeply romantic, enraptured with being in love and alive, while not the least bit shy to exercise demons across stately ballads and plugged-in power pop prayers. It’s a terrific record, and one that holds up well in quarantine. Since its release, Birnbaum has been keeping busy creating linocut prints and making homemade recordings on a Tascam 4-track. You can catch up with his work here. words/c depasquale

Aquarium Drunkard: I read that you were inspired by John Phillip’s Wolf King of L.A. and Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. and other Wrecking Crew session-based records. What are some of those other records that inspired this, and what about that approach informed your making of this record?

Gabriel Birnbaum: Those were the big ones that I had on my mind. To be honest, I don’t know 100% what albums from that era are wrecking crew dudes and which are just other good session musicians. Like, Neil Young’s records are a lot looser, but they also feel somewhat immediate in certain ways. A lot of Neil Young stuff from that era was a big influence on this record. I actually made a playlist for myself that I listened to while I was making the record and finishing writing it. It was, like, Gram Parsons, Margo Guryan, U.F.O. is on there, a lot of solo Beatles. That spoke more to how I wanted the record to sound and feel. 

AD: Does it feel like the kind of record you wanted to make?

Gabriel Birnbaum: I have this idea about a thing that I call “Sunday morning records” in my head, which is pretty self-explanatory. You’re making pancakes, reading a book, drinking coffee. You don’t have to do anything. Wilder Maker is something I love doing, but I love records like that and wanted to make something people could just chill and relax to. There’s so much “chill” music now. I didn’t want something that was empty, but something that was simpler, clearer, and more natural. 

AD: Wilder Maker records, especially Zion, feel so dialed in. This definitely has a much looser approach. It’s just four of you here, but it sounds like an open ended session, like there could’ve been 12 or more session musicians in there.

Gabriel Birnbaum: Jason Nazary plays a lot of instruments on it. We rolled up to the studio in Maine, called Great North Sound Society, that I’d never been to. Someone I loosely knew was working there, and he offered me some free studio time. We rolled up and there was a marimba and a vibraphone in the live room, and Jason was like, “Oh sick, I can play these.” They ended up being on the record a lot.

AD: Your singing on this record does feel a little more personal and intimate and even experimental, in a way. Your highers are getting high, and your lowers almost remind me of “Lay, Lady, Lay.” I know you said it’s not much of a different feeling of a Wilder Maker record.

Gabriel Birnbaum: These songs feel really intimate, even though a lot of them are abstractions based on feelings that I have. I feel like for songs to land, people have to believe me. I guess Wilder Maker can be, I don’t want to say cartoonish, but I can’t think of a better word. That last record has a lot to do with this book, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford. It’s this one long, insane poem. The narrator is this kid, Francis, that’s obviously an alter ego for Frank Stanford, and he writes about a lot of literal stuff from his childhood, but it’s all through this really distorted lens that’s incredible. This record feels more exposed. 

AD: On some songs, most vividly on “Lose My Head,” you toe the line of giving into despair. You talk about drinking the golden afternoons and being driven around from club to club. At a certain point, is there an attractiveness to the inherent dangers and indulgences of that life? 

Gabriel Birnbaum: No comment. [Laughs] I’m kidding, I’ll comment. I also think when you’re struggling to pull yourself out of a bad place, but the bad stuff keeps coming after you. Sometimes the most freeing thing you can do is indulge it, but on a completely temporary basis. For me, it’s the more mundane stuff, like eating fast food and drinking all the time. 

AD: There’s a certain nowhereness to it. 

Gabriel Birnbaum: Yeah, the drinking stuff comes up a lot. A lot of climate anxiety stuff too.

AD: The record feels very much like it has an emotional arc to it that feels like it could’ve only been gained by real experience. It feels like you’re singing while you’re behind the wheel driving from one city to the next, kind of taking an acceptance in the grind. Maybe it’s not necessarily going anywhere, but you seem to have come to terms with it and come to peace with it. A lot of that is expressed in “Blue Kentucky Mile,” especially the video for it with the diners, bars, the endless stretch of road. That’s just part of your life.

Gabriel Birnbaum: No, it’s not just that. It’s always been a part of my life. I’ve always liked traveling a lot. There’s some quote that I’ll probably butcher because I’m not sure where it’s from, but it pops into my head from time to time. “The remedy for someone who feels uneasy but doesn’t know why is always a change of place.” Obviously, that’s not 100% true in all situations, but it does work pretty well for me as someone who deals with pretty intense depression. Travelling, I generally don’t feel depressed. I feel really stimulated and interested. I also have a kind of love for the crappy American landscape that we’ve made over the last 80 years. It’s kind of terrible, but I love it. I love driving by a club and seeing “Tuesday night is burger night!” I know it’s terrible, but I love it.

AD: You have to love it to keep yourself from hating it. It’s finding a middle between hopelessness and hysteria. But just a middle ground between work. Sometimes people forget that it’s work.

Gabriel Birnbaum: Have you seen the Thor Harris thing about touring? He wrote rules for touring, and one of the rules is “Don’t evaluate your life when you’re sitting in a fucking janitor’s closet waiting to go on.” This is your job. You’re having a bad day at work. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean you’re above having a bad day at work. Suck it up and go play your show. I also think the landscape thing reminds me of a more optimistic time in America where we didn’t know how fucked up everything was. Not necessarily the strip malls and fast food joints, but certain things about the American landscape. I think it’s nice to be in touch with some kind of optimism anywhere you can find it.

AD: It’s a hopeful record. That’s why I love it so much. It exudes hopefulness not just in the personal strife, but it feels like it has larger implications.

Gabriel Birnbaum: That’s awesome to hear. That’s how it feels to me, and it feels special for those reasons. It comes out of a very unhopeful time in my life, but it also comes from finding hope after that and realizing how hard it is to live without that. I’m glad it feels hopeful. 

AD: Almost jarringly so. On the last song, and I might be reading into it too literally, but you very much seem to be speaking to a higher power. Are you at all spiritual or religious?

Gabriel Birnbaum: No, I’m not religious. I’m interested in religion though. I think about religion a lot. The idea of God is pretty interesting to me and historically important to humans. There’s a reason why it has dictated so much of the awful things we’ve done. I guess I’m technically agnostic. I don’t believe in God, but I acknowledge that I don’t know. I think about it a lot. My dad jokingly called me a negative theologian which is like the theologian of the absence of God. I think that’s my relationship to it. I’m obsessed with the idea of God, but not from a vantage point of believing. I don’t know. It’s such an intoxicating idea.

AD: It speaks to the idea that it’s such a fine line. You could be saying “Oh, Jesus.” Or you could be saying “Oh, Jesus.” 

Gabriel Birnbaum: The fact that that’s the lyric, it just came out of my mouth. It was like the dummy lyric that I sang on that melody, and it just stayed there. I built the song around it, but I didn’t expect it necessarily.

AD: A lot of the record feels like a love letter. One that sort of looks back on all the miles. 

Gabriel Birnbaum: It is. Another thing that I’ve experienced a lot of the time – this is all over the Wilder Maker record too – is the most profound experiences I’ve had in life have been around other people, but not with them really. We’ve been kind of alone. I did an artist residency a few years ago, and on my way back from it I was travelling by myself and sitting in a bar in Charlottesville. I was supposed to stay there, but there wound up being nowhere to stay. I got dinner and then was going to drive myself home from Virginia, which is a long drive. I was eating dinner in this bar. It was a grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and a whiskey. Because I had been sitting and living in a cabin by myself for two or three weeks, coming back into the world was one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had. I actually came back to New York and played a show, and I cried. It was so overwhelming to be around people.

But back in the bar in Charlottesville, emotionally I had been rubbed raw. Everything I saw was so beautiful. I talked to so many strangers for some reason. I felt like there were no boundaries between me and anyone else. It was this insanely intense experience. I’ve never experienced anything as profoundly beautiful as that. It’s always been alone. I wondered if it was possible for me to experience things like that with other people, or if the only way I could be myself was to be alone. That subject has been a huge preoccupation for me for a long time. I was afraid that I would have to be alone forever. There’s still a part of me that fears that and thinks it might happen somehow. I don’t see how it would. It’s a scary thought to me. There are certain ways where I am off from other people and don’t connect right.

AD: That goes back to the idea of this record having an emotional arc with you having some realization that you are, in fact, not alone.

Gabriel Birnbaum: Now I’m not, at least. I’m very grateful. 

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