I’ve been a fan of Gold Dime‘s music ever since I came across them playing at the 2014 edition of Basilica Soundscape. Do you enjoy your music intense and rhythmic yet pushing towards transcendent moments of bliss? Well then. The group’s third album, No More Blue Skies, arrived on the scene last month, and it pulls off the impressive feat of retaining the group’s core sound while also finding intriguing ways to expand it. I spoke with Gold Dime founder Andrya Ambro to learn more about the album — and the band’s recent tour.
You recently returned from a tour; how did that go? Was there anything particularly challenging about this one?
Considering we put this tour together very last minute, the shows and reception felt great. The NYC release show was particularly powerful. It is always a beautiful thing when the ensemble rises to the occasion and the room is full of all of your supporting friends. Real magic.
I can’t say anything about this tour was particularly challenging… well maybe social media. I went deeper into the realms of the socials for this album cycle. So while on tour I was still in that zone. I wish I had been less enveloped and allowed myself to be more present for my bandmates. Don’t we all.
Relative to Gold Dime’s debut, My House was a more collaborative effort. Did your work on No More Blue Skies continue that approach?
I’d say the same amount of collaboration went into both My House & this new one — No More Blue Skies. So yes, I definitely continued that approach. To be clear, half the tracks on NMBS were written by me alone and the other half were written in collaboration with my bandmates.
When I write the songs on my own, generally I write all the parts, sometimes charting them to a neurotic degree – those parts being drums, bass, guitar, vocals, samples & arrangements. And it’s funny, for most listener’s brains, I feel it’s hard for them to understand that 1) the “drummer” can write all the parts and 2) I write them out so meticulously. That said, even if I write the song on my own, once we start rehearsing that song and playing it live, inevitably my bandmates insert themselves whether it’s how a part goes on their instrument or they weigh in on the grander arrangement. And I do consciously try to leave some freedom in the structure for most songs. So regardless if I write the song on my own, my bandmate’s collective spirits are always in there somewhere.
But again, about half the record was written in true collaboration. My collaborators on at least four songs were Ian Douglas-Moore (bass/vox), Brendan Winick (guitar) & John Bohannon (guitar). Although John Bohannon did not play on this album. Also Jeff Tobias’s alto sax on “Denise” is pretty extraordinary. This started off as me writing a loose chart with some harmonies in sections. He played all those parts then added so much more. I really love working with him.
Was there an overarching goal for No More Blue Skies relative to your earlier work?
Foremost, my guiding light is to write songs I like. So I guess that’s always an overarching goal.
In regards to mixing goals relative to my earlier work, I did consciously want No More Blue Skies to be more drum forward as well as capture our often galvanizing live performance experience, an energy that feels essential to my practice and what the band is. Sadly those two things got a bit buried/unemphasized on past albums due to my focus on production and detailed sound environments. And I would definitely say this record is the closest I’ve gotten to capturing the soundscape that lives inside of my head to date. So goals accomplished there!
With the drums specifically, Alexis Berthelot, who recorded the bulk of the live tracking at the now closed Strange Weather, nailed it. Like this might be my favorite capturing of my drums to date. And I did produce the album, and mixed it at different stages. So I was able to guide these mixing/production goals into existence. Specifically I did a tremendous amount of pre-production before I passed the rough mixes off to mixer Nicolas Vernhes whose studio Sand To Snow (formerly Rare Book Room) is just outside Joshua Tree. My previous band Talk Normal worked with Nicolas on our first record. I do think he understands me and the music so that felt like everything. I went out there for a few days to attend the initial mix sessions. Once he did his thing, he passed the mixes back to me and I further mixed the stems – it seemed like a much more efficient way to address revisions since we weren’t in the same city and I was very specific about what I wanted.
Another goal with this album — strings. No More Blue Skies was the first GD record to incorporate strings on a couple songs. My string arrangements were basic but I think they were effective. All the strings were played by violist/composer Jessica Pavone. Featured more prominently on “We Lose Again,” I did leave some room for her to be free and take the song to a new dimension. Her solo towards the end of “We Lose Again” is one of my favorite moments on the album.
Last goal! I love fascinating arrangements; or rather songs that take you on an unexpected and widescreen journey. Think Scott Walker meets Robert Wyatt but more cinematic. I definitely embraced the exploration of these songs as “mini symphonies,” more so than on previous records. I recognize this could be unusual for art rock. One review referred to the songs as “noirsterpieces.” I love this word and goal accomplished.
The length of time between albums is longer this time. Was that due to the pandemic, or did this collection of songs just require more time to perfect?
Definitely the pandemic and all the coinciding political and racial justice movements pulled me from focusing on music. My House had just come out at the tail of 2019. We were amidst our 2nd US tour for that album when we turned around in Athens, Georgia. It was extremely hard for me to care about music during this time, not just because of the virus as a dangerous thing, but also the ambivalence of what was happening, the heightened political dynamics, the 2020 election and the racial justice movements. I was so very impressed by all the people who were able to focus on music or whatever art they practiced during this time.
And I did already have a couple songs that made it onto No More Blue Skies (“Denise” and “Beneath Below”) already written by the time the pandemic happened. Other than that I only had scraps of ideas for new songs. I’d say for most of 2020, it only felt good to do “functional” things and I would just move when the spirit called me. Meaning I never forced myself to deliberately create until January 2021. Feeling I was at a bit of a crossroads, around early 2021 I asked a friend if I should just put out an EP of the few songs and then call it a day on either the project, or rather the particular way I conducted this project — like I was considering revamping it so I could perhaps perform solo and bring people in more modularly or fluidly.
So that friend said, “If you can write a full album, do it. No one pays attention to EPs.” So with that in mind, and to honor the songs I had already written as well as the bandmates with whom I wrote the songs, I started to write again. Then I brought Brendan Winick and Ian Douglas-Moore back into the writing and rehearsing mix and here we all are.
You described the song “Ronnie Desperation” as being “a sister poem” to Kate Mohanty’s “Johnny Panic” — a title that has its own literary connotations. How did the relationship between these two poems develop?
I’ve long enjoyed culling lyrical inspiration from others, whether in collaboration or that particular writer just sends over some text that I either use directly (crediting them of course) or as a starting point. Kate Mohanty is mostly known as an experimental improv alto sax player from NYC. But she is also a writer, mostly of poetry. Or at least generally that’s what she shares of her writing.
For our song “Ronnie Desperation,” the lyrics were a sister poem to Kate’s poem “Johnny Panic.” And yes, Kate’s poem references Sylvia Plath’s short story Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Kate has an extreme affinity for Sylvia Plath. Kate (and Sylvia) are dark and strike at the honesty of things. I gravitate to all of that.
Initially I thought Kate and I could write something together that I could put into a song. When I went to re-sculpt some of the words of her poem to fit into the song I had in mind, she wasn’t into it. So I came up with the idea of a “sister poem.” It is my sense that both these poems are about despair and some kind of inescapable habit. To add, this was the version Kate initially passed along. It’s possible her poem has evolved.
Here are the two poems back to back:
Days drag on in despair
Once vibrant places now silent
Wandering around aimlessly looking
At everything gone
Muted faces hard to recognize
Wearing your fear on your sleeve instead
Of your heart
Johnny Panic has everything you need
Ring the buzzer and up the stairs
Johnny Panic awaits you there
The harder we look
The higher we fall
No shape can replace the breath of your touch
The stench of wanting
Like a pathetic poem
A sister poem that mutes its muse
You can’t quit Ronnie Desperation
You can’t quit what’s been sold
You can’t quit talking and talking
You can’t quit that feeling
You can’t quit what’s not owed
You can’t quit
So ring the buzzer
Up the stairs
Past the first door
It’s on the left
Ronnie Desperation, he’ll be there
“Beneath Below” included a different kind of collaborative approach than most of the album. How did you, Sibyl Kempson, and Brandon Alex Oakes come to work together on it?
Yes, “Beneath Below” was definitely a merging of writers in regards to lyrics. Sibyl Kempson is a prominent playwright and performer. I absolutely adore her words and spirit. Sibyl was doing a series of Equinox and Solstice shows/rituals at the Whitney Museum from 2017-2018. I am in the AV department there, mostly as a sound engineer, so I was privy to a lot of her work during that time. For her final winter solstice piece, for a small segment of the work, Brandon Alex Oakes recited text Sibyl wrote just for him. She claims “It was like I channeled it through him, wrote it down, and then gave it to him to say.” Brandon did several daily performances of this text and it was quite profound every time.
Inspired by Sibyl’s words and Brandon’s performance, I leaned into some of Sibyl’s ideas that circled things like overlooking the magnanimous fortitude of nature when our gadgets are all gone and then tied it in with my pre-existing lyric idea of being at the end of things and feeling the weight of that. So from a very distant and raw room recording, I jotted down what I could decipher of Brandon’s text from the performance, as well as slightly modified some lines to fit with the song and my initial lyrical theme.
Before recording I reached out to Sibyl and asked how she felt about all of these words and ideas coalescing. And if she was OK with it, how did she want to go about giving credit being I wrote some sections, she wrote some sections, I borrowed imagery from her for other sections and she deliberately channeled her initial words through Brandon. Basically she was into what I had done and said let’s credit it as a collaboration between her, myself and Brandon. I recognize this was incredibly gracious of Sibyl and I’m grateful she was into it.
Here is Sibyl’s text from Brandon’s performance:
When the time comes
Where the mountain was cut away
To make way for the interstate (Running between states: states of mind, states of being) …
The veins of emotions running through the rock are interrupted
And the mountain’s emotions come spilling out.
They freeze on the cut-open rock face
In frozen cascades of interrupted feeling
When the time comes, they will melt and you can drink from them. They are pure and untouched and will sustain you.
… the time will come when you will turn away from the combustion engine.
The veil will be lifted and you will see an alternative
It’s right in front of you now,
But you can’t see it yet.
The veil is covering it.
Keep thinking about it.
The wind moves in the branches of lungs
And makes us all breathe
When the time comes
You will be forced to see it
All of the computers will be gone
All of the typewriters
Will be gone
You don’t need them anyway
You can use your mind
Love you guys
Call me if you need me
Photo: Lena Shkoda