Detailing Memories, Dust, & Ghosts With Ross Gentry

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Ross Gentry’s music has been on my radar for well over a decade now, first as Villages and now under his given name. Last year’s Prism of Dust left an indelible impression with its lush soundscapes and focused compositions, but he pushes into new territory on his latest, Apparitional, out now on American Dreams

Listening to his work and taking the time to absorb all its facets reveals how much Gentry loves the details. There’s a richness to his work that is impossible to ignore as it shades every surface and heightens the emotions of his music. This interview was done in early 2022. Ross Gentry can be reached vis his Bandcamp site.

First, as we’re still at the front end of 2022, how was last year for you, and what were some of the positive things that helped you through it?

Last year is a bit of a blur, to be honest. Lots of stress, uncertainty, and overall concern for the state of the world. It can be quite emotionally fatiguing at times. Very depleting. Everyone can attest to that. We’ve all had our lives interrupted and perhaps even changed by the pandemic. Finding the motivation to sit down, turn everything on and create new work wasn’t always easy. But, seeing others persevere, push through and continue to evolve is truly inspiring. 

Last year was a revelation in so many ways for me. Creatively, and maybe even more so, on a human level, I was able to stop for a bit and spend real, purposeful time on the things I love. For the first time I was able to be home for an extended amount of time and solely focus and commit most of my time to recording. The majority of 2020 and 2021, for me, was completely dedicated to recording. I was able to finish two albums and my first feature film score. It was a majorly positive, personal thing that kept my spirits up and helped me through such a devastating time.

Okay, let’s go back to when you were a kid… What were some early memories or experiences with music that really connected with you and made you feel something memorable or unexpected?

I have vivid memories of being very young and sitting next to my grandmother on her piano bench while she played. She had this uncanny ability to play from memory, to sit down and pick out melodies and songs from her past. It always struck me as incredibly natural and beautifully flawed. Like these songs existed as memories within her. And they would evolve a little differently each time she would play. She was never traditionally trained or anything and that has always resonated with me. I think I’ve unconsciously held on to similar ideas with my music ever since and her approach has genuinely influenced how I work. 

When and how did that progress into you starting to learn to play and create your own music?

I never would have known at the time, but seeing a natural love and approach to playing music, regardless of training or expertise was massive for me. Those moments with her shaped my early interest and love for music. My progression into being a teenager, listening to rock and punk bands and wanting to start a band of my own is a very common story. My parents bought me a guitar and I enjoyed trying to learn to play, but I never really had the drive to try to perfect the instrument, learn lead guitar stuff, or learn other songs. What really set me on the path to creating my own music was when I found a floor model Tascam Portastudio 414 at Mars Music for a discounted price. It was my first dive into recording, and I was hooked. I’ve always been pretty shy and introverted, so discovering this tool that gave me the ability to layer sounds and build ideas by myself was pivotal, and the beginning of my lifelong obsession with home recording. And, I still use that same Tascam tape recorder all the time.

As far as experimental sound and music go, my first exposure to your work was when you were working under the moniker Villages, which goes back to the late 00s/early 10s if my memory is right. What prompted you to drop the pseudonym and start releasing music under your own name?

When I dropped the Villages moniker, in 2016, I had been recording and releasing music under that name for 10 years. It felt like a milestone and time to move on. Also, a few other ‘Villages’ projects started popping up and I started getting emails asking me to play folk festivals in Saskatchewan and metal shows in Richmond so the timing felt right. Haha!! 

The original idea was always to record this triptych of albums about memories, life, and death for Bathetic Records and then bury the project. So when my third Bathetic LP ‘Procession Acts’ was released, it felt like the perfect ending to the project. That album still stands out and feels like a true Villages funeral album to me. 

One thing that immediately jumps out on all the ‘solo’ records is the use of strings and the excellent playing of Emmalee Hunnicutt and Megan Drollinger (and Gretchen Caverly on Memory & Passage – don’t want to forget her). I’d love to hear more about these parts and how you use them. My understanding is that most of (if not all?) the string parts from these various records were recorded some years ago and you’ve used them in the intervening years in various ways. Can you kind of walk me through it?

As long as I have been recording I had always wanted to find a way to incorporate string arrangements into my work. I don’t have a traditional background in music. I never learned theory or how to read music. So after I stopped releasing music as Villages I decided to take a break from releasing recordings and take the time to try to teach myself how to read and write music. I bought a few books and started sketching out string arrangements using MIDI string samples and hand notating the things I liked until I had cobbled together enough material and the confidence to approach some real, trained string players to try to bring some of these ideas to life. I had hours of small pieces and was tentatively working towards this bigger project that I was calling ‘Barrier’ with this idea of overcoming some massive creative challenge to make something entirely new to me. I’m still working on and learning notation. I’m not great at it, but I love it as a means to communicate ideas to people who have a deeper understanding of the process. 

Emmalee, Megan, and Gretchen play together in a string trio called Mountain Bitters. They perform these beautifully haunting versions of traditional folk songs. Cello, violin, and viola with incredible three-part vocal harmonies. I discovered some of their recordings and then went to see Emmalee perform a solo cello set and was completely enthralled with her style and technique. I asked if they would be interested in helping bring some of these ideas into a studio setting and they agreed. We decided to do one long day session, in my friend Patrick Kukucka’s home studio, to try to get as much recorded as we could. We ended up tracking hours of music. Much more than I could fit into one album. And by the time I finished editing all of the material down, I had kind of abandoned the ‘Barrier’ idea and decided to distill the material into something smaller and that’s how Memory & Passage came to be. I ended up with this wonderful cache of beautifully played string compositions that I have returned to, manipulated, and processed in different ways over the past few years to use as a building block for other recordings. Apparitional is actually the fourth release that I’ve used these recordings for, and I think I’ve officially stretched those recordings about as far as they can go. Ha! It’ll be time to do it again soon. 

So let’s talk about Prism of Dust, your album from last year, for a second before getting into the new one. While I think this is true of the two albums preceding it, it felt like a big step forward in the way it creates this full, engaging sound world. Your work often sets itself apart in the details, but it’s especially the case here. What I wonder, though, is when you were writing this album, were there specific images or ideas you had in mind you were trying to convey? The whole thing – and even the title – has such a visual, tactile feeling to it that I can’t get enough of.

Prism Of Dust wasn’t meant to be a quarantine album, but the whole thing was recorded during the deepest part of lockdown, and at the time I was re-reading White Noise by Don Delillo and watching The Leftovers for the first time. Both of those stories explore the existential dread and confusion that ensues when a massive mysterious event shakes the foundation of what we perceive as normality and how these events can damage, reshape and reform the human psyche. I highly recommend both. So, I guess I was kind of leaning into these stories that paralleled what was happening in the world. I think maybe it became a way to process what was happening all around us. Recording as therapy. I wanted to create something cinematic in scope with a strong sense of compositional tension. Something with a solid narrative or arc for the listener to get lost in. 

Along with the string recordings I had, I approached this one with the idea of using older recordings as a starting place to make something new. Digging through old recordings from old hard drives. I had borrowed a friend’s mellotron some years back and I had tons of samples and sketches from that time. It almost felt as if I scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas initially, but it’s crazy how coming back to forgotten ideas became so inspiring. You know those moments where you listen to old recordings you may have hated at one point or forgotten about, and you have no recollection of how you made it? And it actually doesn’t sound that terrible? It’s pretty cool. 

Apparitional feels like a continuation or sequel, in some ways, to Prism of Dust, though very much its own thing. Where Prism of Dust felt very focused in on these smaller moments, Apparitional is like pulling the camera back and seeing a wider picture. I know it’s mentioned in the album description about writing this album during a time when you were struggling to sleep – how did that impact your mindset and approach when writing? 

I like to think of Apparitional as a meditation on restlessness and recurring dreams. A purge of ideas during an intense bout of insomnia. So many of the initial ideas on this album are very immediate, almost improvised, which is something I’ve never felt comfortable pursuing in the past. I never considered myself an improvising musician. I listen back and honestly don’t know how I achieved some of the sounds, and the whole thing came together very quickly. It all feels very stream of consciousness to me. 

I was home constantly, unable to sleep, and I spent most of my days recording and piecing together this album. The goal was to utilize my entire studio setup. Hardware, software, acoustic instruments, piano, synths and drum machines, digital and tape recording equipment. I wanted to have everything at arm’s reach. To be able to turn everything on, hit record, and go. I think my exhausted state of mind allowed me to fully commit myself to that way of working. In many ways, I was less immediately judgmental of my work and just let everything naturally transpire. It was a very fluid process. I think it was this mindset and approach makes the album a very fluid listen. It seems very momentary. I feel like it all makes sense together, like a photo album. At least, I hope it does. Haha. 

You also mentioned this music existing in the space between being awake and being asleep. The last couple of years I feel like I’ve permanently existed in that space so it makes sense this album has really resonated with me. But can you expand on how that space feels to you and how this music speaks to that feeling?

Yeah, I imagine it’s very common and easy to get stuck in that space when your entire world is turned upside down and every day starts to feel the exact same. I’m a very spacey person in general but this felt different. I often felt ‘out of body’ or distant and cloudy. Very detached from reality. Almost emotionless for extended amounts of time. I know it was basically sleep deprivation and exhaustion but it really opened up the process when it came to recording. I was talking to Eli from American Dreams about this and he described it as a ‘threshold’, and I think that describes the space perfectly. It’s very hard to explain. It’s just existing. It’s a grey area. It’s hovering in between spaces. Ultimately, I think that particular headspace allowed these recordings to feel more meditative and hopefully transportive for the listener. The music is composed but not exact or rigid. Dark and tense but full of moments of relief and light. 

Also, one of the first words that comes to mind when I hear your work is ‘textures.’ Your music is so rich and intricately detailed – there’s a precision to it, but it never comes off as mechanical or anything like that. Where does this ear for texture and these details come from?

I think it comes from a love of listening and editing. It’s all about scope for me, and being aware of the sonic space that each individual sound inhabits in the stereo field. I’ve always loved layering a lot of small sounds to make a larger one. Maybe too many sometimes? But, the best textures always reveal themselves when I start removing things. 

Okay, changing course with something easy… since it’s still early in 2022, what were some of your favorite albums from last year?

There are so many! I think I have to start with Silvercoat The Throng by Hiro Kone. Probably my favorite release from last year. It’s a stunning album and a true masterclass of production prowess. That album basically contains everything I love in music. Walt McClements’ A Hole In The Fence is another fantastic one that really sticks with me. While we’re in the American Dreams zone I have to mention Devin Shaffer’s beautiful album In My Dreams I’m There. Thom Nguyen’s Imago Ossuary was a personal favorite for sure. The score for the film Zola by Mica Levi as well as Colourgrade by Tirzah, which was produced by Mica Levi. I adore their work. 

Obviously Apparitional is on the way and that’s exciting, but what else are you working on these days?

I’ve been making significant progress on a new album. I’m very happy with the way it’s sounding so far. I feel like each album I make leans more into rhythmic elements and further away from the ambient scope. I think the next one will be rather beat-heavy, and that’s very exciting to me. 

Last year I completed work on my first feature film score. It has been in the works for nearly four years! The movie is officially finished and I think this year it’ll finally see the light of day. 

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