Finding the Future of Music, For Herself and Others
A funny thing happened on the way to Rebecca Gates’ fifth studio album – the music industry imploded, and real life intervened as well. Best known as the singer/guitarist for Portland indie duo the Spinanes (though neither of those descriptors are wholly accurate – more on that later), Gates wrapped up touring for her first solo title, an impressive LP called Ruby Series. That was in 2001.
Did she intend such a long hiatus between albums? “It was kind of indefinite, and just kept getting longer,” Gates sighs over the phone from Portland, where she’s recently resettled after a protracted absence. “I was kind of intent on setting aside the cycle of making and touring, making and touring. I started recording again in 2004, which was sort of on my normal schedule.” (Starting in 1993 Spinanes records appeared like clockwork every three years, and Ruby Series prolonged that pattern.) “I went to Chicago, definitely with the intent of starting a record, recorded five songs, but then just set them aside because I didn’t feel like I was ready to get back into it. I think I kind of just shifted away from dealing with the business, dealing with the songwriting.”
Those tracks, plus others recorded in fits and starts in Montreal (with Arcade Fire/Godspeed You! Black Emperor mainstay Howard Bilerman), Dallas and Portland over the past decade, finally see the light of day on The Float, a remarkably cohesive and enjoyable album given its wide stylistic and chronological range. “I hope it’s not obvious which songs are which – there was so much Jacob’s Laddering with this record. But even the 2004 stuff wasn’t mixed until last July,” she explains. Gates reached out to a few trusted friends for an honest assessment of her unfinished material. “I was really in the woods on this record for a while – I would have been fine with someone saying, ‘No, this should probably stay on your computer, you should continue following your career in advocacy and arts production’,” she laughs.
Fortunately those friends provided the encouragement necessary to put The Float into flight. One of them – Gerard Cosloy of Matador Records fame – is releasing the vinyl version on his 12XU imprint, while Gates handles the digital and CD editions herself. “I’ve always for better or worse done my business, like tour managing, which is one reason why I got really burned out.”
Gates always intended to keep playing, and she kept to her word. You can tell a lot about a woman by the company she keeps, and Gates spent her sabbatical singing on Mekons albums, touring with Califone, frequently jumping on stage with the Minus 5 and, more recently, doing solo sets opening for Portland homies the Decemberists. “When I started doing solo tours, I got to the point both in writing and performing where I was concerned with how little sound I could make. It wasn’t anything too avant-arch, because I was still presenting songs with guitar in a pop setting, but I was really interested in how little I could say or play and still do a light sketch of a song. I think some people liked it and some didn’t, but for me it was really important to get in touch with and it was really amazing to have that kind of quiet.”
Examples of this languorous approach can be heard on The Float in “Rose” and “The Curl of the Coast,” but more importantly these experiments also served to free Gates to pursue some of the most rocking material of her career. “I was also missing hearing a certain kind of rock and roll – so I really wanted to have the album represent that diversity,” she explains. Harder-edged tracks like “Tips on Spines” and “Harlesden to Vals” were recorded with the full Califone lineup, including frontman Tim Rutili. “We’ve been close friends since Tim’s Red Red Meat days – we were labelmates [on Sub Pop] and used to tour together. I still remember the first time I saw Red Red Meat my jaw just dropped – ‘My god, this is the Sex Pistols meets Faces!’ Tim and I are really different in a lot of ways, but there’s something there. I feel the same connection with Sam Prekop,” she adds, referring to the Sea and Cake frontman and indirectly explaining her first move when she decamped from Portland.
By the 1998 appearance of Spinanes’ swansong, Arches and Aisles (in actuality her first solo album since drummer Scott Plouf had split for Seattle and a still-running gig with Built to Spill) Gates was living in Chicago, where she had slotted nicely into that indie scene’s firmament. Two of Arches’ standouts were collaborations with Tortoise’s John McEntire, who plays a bit role on the new album as well. McEntire’s post-rock precision can occasionally veer toward the sterile but Gates’ voice provides the ideal offset – it’s sultry, earthy and warmly welcoming.
By 2003 Gates had left Chicago and became something of a nomad. She squatted at a friend’s remote place on the Rhode Island coast for a period, worked at an art gallery in New York, then split time in Texas between Austin and the artists’ community of Marfa. Through these years, she’s also traveled the globe doing freelance production for art fairs. “I was able to enter a new community of people who were crazy about sound and voice without all the ritual and business around it. In the Spinanes years I don’t recall if anyone ever asked me why I make music, but I doubt I ever said ‘I dunno, I just love to rock.’ I just come at it from a different approach – I think I have a really weird skew.
“I finally got everything I own back in one place just last month. It was exactly 15 years between Portland stints. I left in March of ’97, and got all my stuff back here this March. But I’ve always been coming back here.”
Along with her voice, the most distinctive aspect of Gates’ body of work is a forceful, slightly syncopated percussive style. “I think about drums a lot. I watch drummers when I go to shows – I’m kind of like lyrics and drums as a focus,” she explains. “It’s funny because Scotty [Plouf] and I kind of learned to play together, so there was this symbiotic approach to arranging, bringing the songs to fruition.” Although the Spinanes’ debut album Manos blazed a trail for the guitar/drums configuration in the indie world, Gates maintains, “Playing as a two-piece was sort of a mistake. We always intended to be more – I haven’t played as a two-piece since [the Spinanes’ 1996 album] Strand came out – but we were so prolific in those early years that it’s the impression we left. That said, no matter how many people are playing I still pay a lot of attention to drums.”
The Float is credited to Rebecca Gates and the Consortium, a name she gradually introduced beginning with Ruby Series. Said Consortium is a shape-shifting unit, although it’s most often a quartet and typically includes Joanna Bolme (best know from the Jicks), and Rebecca Cole when she’s not consumed by Wild Flag. Manning the all-important drum kit this time is Ji Tanzer. “I’m not in a position financially to put a lockdown on people. Keeping this loose allows me to do things that make sense and lets others do work too, whether for love or money.”
Those financial considerations explain a lot about Gates’ hiatus. Unlike the usual “let’s pile in the van and go broke together” model, Rebecca felt a moral obligation to pay her band an agreed amount. Consequently, she returned home from supporting Stereolab on a personally and artistically successful Ruby Series tour staring at a depleted bank account. Always big on grassroots activism (even before the Spinanes she was a behind-the-scenes fixture in Portland’s DIY scene), it perhaps spurred her engagement in a Future of Music Coalition research project on artist revenue streams. “The dominant narrative these days is that you don’t need to sell records anymore because you can go on tour, that we don’t need copyright protection anymore because you can establish your own audience, and it’s so frustrating because it’s hard to get to the specifics of experience, through data,” she spiels, audibly yet thoughtfully shifting into her role as advocate. “That’s why the survey was instigated, to see where musicians are actually receiving revenue. We started with 29 revenue sources, but by the time they started breaking down the responses we were up to forty. The takeaway is that it’s important to be flexible. Artists aren’t necessarily aware there are 40 revenue streams in front of them.”
The Future of Music Coalition is capably headed by Kristin Thomson (the Washington DC DIY icon of Simple Machines and Tsunami fame); Gates served as a consultant for the artist revenue project and volunteers when she can. But she’s since launched a likeminded organization, the Agency League of Musicians. “What I’m slowly developing in Portland is sort of a step off from FMC but inspired by them.” While per its charter FMC is at its core a lobbying group, Gates envisions the Agency League as a “by musicians, for musicians” vehicle to “share resources, create awareness, herd cats. About ten of us are workshopping it. Musicians tend to be great about activating around crisis – surgery, political decisions, etc. – but it’s important for me to be more infrastructure focused rather than reactive. Portland has a big advertising scene, so we’re looking into a connection there as well. Obviously I’m a big nerd about this.”
Given her analytic bent, I wondered if Gates now sees her earlier charges up the hill as youthful folly, or whether she believes the industry really changed that much. “When I decided I wanted to finish this record, I knew I had to think about how culture was changing and how musicians were working. I’m aware of my place – it’s not like the Pixies clearing their throats and saying they want to record again – but I did feel that if I was having this much trouble getting access to business opportunities given my background, I figured others must be having more. This is something the FMC survey confirms – there’s a lot of benefits to this new tech scene, and there’s a lot of negatives. Not right away, but by 2006 or 7 if someone had said to me, ‘Hey, I want to help you put out your record and we’ll help pay for recording,’ etc. I’d have been like, ‘OK.’ I have friends in their late twenties in bands now who are like, ‘Wow, you lived in the golden ages, people used to give you money to go record.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes I did. Sorry about that!’ [laughs] Sub Pop worked back then [in the Spinanes days] on a very much traditional business model. Some people still get that, some people never did.
“I love touring. If it made sense financially and it were healthy, I would be touring all the time. One of the things that finally got me off my ass to make a record was that people weren’t going to book me anymore. ‘So what do you do? Some ‘90s frock rock retro act?’” she adds self-effacingly.
Now that she’s broken the logjam, Gates doesn’t foresee another fallow period. “I have a pretty backlog of material, so it doesn’t look like another three-year recording cycle. It seems odd to say this so soon, but I’m about to do a Kickstarter campaign. If no one donates, I at least have the money to burn few CDs. It’s amazing how much things have spread instantly with this record, so hopefully we’ll have a little more traction.”
Gates’ fascination with music, technology and business converge on “&&&,” The Float’s most immediate track, an upbeat, skittering rhythm that provides the most direct connection to Arches and Aisles. “I pronounce it ‘and and and,’ as in, ‘and another thing… and another,’ like an argument with someone. I love how the ampersands look – people are so aware of fonts now, not that long ago most people didn’t know what an ampersand was. But now I’ve created a technology issue because it terms of file lading it appears differently on different units. How will ‘&&&’ come across in Belgium?”
Photo by Dan Sharp.