Exploring Language and Alienation, Without Words: An Interview with M. Geddes Gengras


Ishi, the new album from M. Geddes Gengras, is a beautiful and melancholic work. Composed of three lengthy ambient compositions (four if you’re buying it digitally or on CD), Ishi summons up a host of complex emotions. I checked in with Gengras via email to learn more about the album’s origins (it’s named in tribute to Ishi, the last member of the Yahi people, who died in 1916), his collaborative process, and more.

When did you first learn about Ishi, and his historical and societal importance?

A history teacher in high school, he brought up the story as one of those sort of crazy historical trivia bits, but I was immediately struck by it & felt a deep empathy for Ishi.

What attracted you to him as the subject of the album?

The record, in a broad sense, is really about disconnection/alienation. Ishi serves as a metaphor for these ideas, one that is easily understood even all these years later, because in so many ways his struggle is ours, and as technology/surveillance/the pharmaceutical industry continues to run smaller and smaller rings around our lives and consciousness we are, day by day, awakening in a new world that we understand less and less. That’s the broad/impersonal angle on it. I guess I’d also say that so many of us never feel at home here, and that struggle can be one that lasts a lifetime and this record is for those people and the people they leave behind, an offering of solitude.

When making your music, how does having a subject affect your writing process?

Most of my music is composed from a place of no literal concept, which has been a very liberating way to create. However some events/states require documentation/exploration. It’s never really up to me, but some things just stick until i’ve been able to explore them satisfactorily. Ishi began as a visceral reaction to loss (esp. the bonus track “Vigil”), and in its evolution, began to spread into something wider, to become about a lot more. Again, I can guide these processes, but it impedes more than anything else. Usually things work out best when I allow the work to become more automatic and follow the spark.

Your Bandcamp page has a number of different albums listed. How do you view your work that might have a smaller run in relation to an album like Ishi? Is there a distinction?

With small run releases, I feel like there is more freedom to stretch out into individual ideas. the nice thing about tapes is that they can be 3 minutes or 120 and they basically look/feel the same, so you don’t have to work in such a strict time frame. pretty much all the tape releases were recorded live while the albums tend to have more editing/layering involved.

As a musician, you’ve also collaborated with Sun Araw and Akron/Family. Has this work had any effect on your solo work?

Collaboration unlocks the rooms inside of your instrument. I’ve been blessed to tour and jam with lots of great musicians over the years and every one of them has taught me something about how i make music. My style of creation is very hermetic & while I find that to be the best way for me personally, being in bands is like working an entirely different muscle. It takes you places you would never end up on yr own, so that alone makes it worthwhile.

Are there any musicians with whom you’d like to collaborate in the future?

I have a couple collaborations in the works that I’m very excited about, though since the form they will take is very much in the air I’d hate to spoil anything by speaking of them. My dream list would Steven Stapleton, Mikey Dread, and the Roots Radics, hopefully all in one session… but who knows? stranger things have happened…

What’s next for you?

Later this year, another archival LP from Umor Rex, the 2nd Personable LP on Peak Oil, west coast tour dates with Pure X in June/July. I’m working on a new record so I’m pretty deep down the rabbit hole but when I get out I’ll let you know what I find down there.

Is the new record as conceptually-driven as Ishi?

The new material shares the element of process-driven musics at it’s core that Ishi was based on. While Ishi is built around a modular synth patch of MAKE NOISE modules that randomly sample and degrade the main program material and the further processing through digital hardware pitch/delay/sampling units & tape echoes to create a sonic BLOOM of the overwhelming digitally down-sampled gestalt of existence, the stuff I’m working on now is really influenced by the Modcan dual frequency shifter and dual phaser modules. They respond best to simpler harmonic content, so the new music has more stillness and less of a torrential feel. As for what it’s all about, I’m not really sure yet and probably won’t be for some time, but it usually makes itself apparent eventually.

Photo: Caitlin Mitchell

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