From Dadaism to autism, Gus Englehorn’s debut ‘Death & Transfiguration’ is an explosive release of the mind’s goings-on.
Stream: ‘Death & Transfiguration’ – Gus Englehorn
In the song “Stay Little” by singer/songwriter Gus Englehorn, rambling thoughts are followed by a burst of catchy emotion and then the repetitive cries of ‘stay little/ stay little/ stay little…’ It’s short, just over two minutes, and backed by grungy guitars. One gets an impression of unsteadiness, of desperation and the mind of a troubled creative. Not that this is Gus Englehorn but the narrators, the characters in his songs, seem to lurk in dark places.
In “Dead Swan,” the opening lines go, ‘A dead swan looked down at me/ I could see through a hole in his wing turned his head began to sing, Ahh ahh ahh ah ahh ahh ahh aha aha,’ alternating between slow, elongated speech and a kind of a playful skipping rhythm as though part nightmare and part children’s tale. This is before the chorus, a bolt of emotion stating it was all a dream.
In “Okavanga,” the innocent skipping rhythm continues before breaking away into heavy guitar and drums and a momentary repeating of the word ‘hell’. It has the aura of schoolgirls playing on the side of quiet street lined with picket fence houses, thick ominous clouds overhead, and their care-free games suddenly ending due to a murderous event. But the lyrics are a lot more bizarre, about dogs chasing leopards and using the imagination to keep warm while wandering in a desert.
Born in Alaska but now residing in Québec, Gus Englehorn formed his self-titled band a year ago when wife Estée took on role as drummer. Death & Transfiguration (relesed January 24) is the debut album and subsequent introduction. Drawing upon the supernatural as well as personal experiences from the perspective of himself and his brother, the collection of songs is an explosive release of the mind’s goings-on with screams and incessant musings mixed with lo-fi singing and punk-delivered energy.
I had an out of body experience when I was a child
I was up on the ceiling, I thought of nothing for a while
And my mother was there and my brother was there
My mother was there, my brother was there
I had an out of body experience when I was child
All my worries and cares went out the window for a while
And my mother was there and my brother was there
My mother was there, my brother was there
And my mother was scared, my brother was scared
Now you see me, now you don’t
– “Transform,” Gus Englehorn
Sometimes, the most instant way to connect is through disconnect, the weirdness drawing you in. The lyrics of Gus Englehorn are like snippets from surrealist short stories, the darkish DIY delivery sustaining a fantastical atmosphere. ‘But lately I’ve been longing to believe/ My whole life / Is just one / Big bad dream’ he muses in “Visions”, summing up the album perhaps.
Performing live at URSA (an intimate venue in Montreal owned by Martha Wainwright) on 24th January, in a joint release show alongside local artist Jed Arbour, the introductory atmosphere was set. The venue’s cosiness, with lit candles and a carpeted stage backed by a curtain, alongside Englehorn’s endearingly sweet and slightly awkward personality had the effect of engaging in bedtime stories on a chilling winter’s night. But those in the front row danced and let themselves loose, allowing the general force of music to take control.
Following this, Atwood Magazine caught up with Gus Englehorn to find out more about the person and the music.
A CONVERSATION WITH GUS ENGLEHORN
Atwood Magazine: I love your lyrics and the way they’re delivered - they’re like snippets from spooky, surrealist stories. What was the concept behind Death & Transfiguration?
Gus Englehorn: Thank you! I like working in Dadaism and story telling which are a little bit at odds with one another. But I find that if you try placing enough unrelated snippets together for a long enough period of time, eventually you will find a series of snippets that match up and read like a story. The album title came from a symphonic poem written in 1889 by Richard Strauss which describes the death of an artist: ”the man lies dying, thoughts of his life pass through his head: his childhood innocence, the struggles of his manhood, the attainment of his worldly goals; and at the end, he receives the longed-for transfiguration “from the infinite reaches of heaven”.
It’s said that some of them are sung from the perspective of your autistic brother. Could you give examples of songs that this applies to and why you felt it important to take on this narrative?
Gus Englehorn: For example, the line in ‘’My Own Paradise’’ that goes ‘’All those years in the belly of the seven and you brought me back again” is sung from his point of view. He didn’t say a single word for the first seven years of his life. His first words were in a hospital bed, after he was in a car accident. He said ”I don’t want to die”.
I took on his narrative simply because he’s a very inspiring and unusual person. When he discovered The Incredible Hulk, he decided he would start talking like him and he kept talking like him for the next 3 years, never breaking character once. He became obsessed with finding the perfect color of green face paint and much to my mother’s chagrin begin ripping t-shirt after t-shirt off his body. Actually, he still rips the occasional t-shirt to this day.
A lot of the lyrics seem to come from distressing places, for example ‘I want to stay down inside my house/ Stay inside and never go out’ (“Stay Little”), ‘When my eyes see what they want to see/ Hell/ Hell/ Hell/ Hell’ (“Okavanga”), ‘Those who have heard the holy word/ The holy spirit and those who fear it/ Get me out of here’ (“My Own Paradise”), and the out of body experience of “Transform”. Where do these songs come from? Are they personal experiences or examples of the ones from the perspective of your brother?
Gus Englehorn: I always think I’m writing from pure imagination but I always end up realizing my imagination is being fed by things in my life past and present. Not that my life is particularly distressing but for some reason I find a lot of humour in distressing situations and enjoy writing about them. I always like to walk the line between tragedy and absurdity. I try to include a lot of humour in my work and I hope it comes through. Art feels the most powerful to me when it overwhelms the listeners with opposing emotions that mix together and leaves you not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
During your set you performed a song called “Girls” which you said you had just written. Had you literally just written it recently? If so, what does your songwriting process tend to be like? Do songs come really naturally and spontaneously to you?
Gus Englehorn: I wrote that song last month. It tells the story of Billy Mae, a sex crazed youth, and an overprotective mother at her wits’ end. It was fun to write because the first verse is written from the son’s perspective and the second from the mother’s. Songs usually take me a long time to write but at times they come very quickly. “Stay Little” took 5 minutes. I write exclusively with an acoustic guitar. I’m a staunch believer in limitations. It seems the more limitations you apply, the more creativity it brings out.
What was the recording process of Death & Transfiguration? I imagine it to be a real hands-on, DIY production which comes across with the sound’s grunginess.
Gus Englehorn: We recorded the basic tracks live (drums, vocals and guitar) and we dubbed the bass, 12 strings guitar, violin and back vocals. It was recorded in Québec city at Le Magnétophone at our friend Alex Ouzilleau’s home studio in 6 days. Estée and I recorded demos at home and wrote the arrangements together. We told Alex we wanted it to sound like a Jean Cocteau movie and he worked really hard at making it sound as surreal as possible.
Could you give a little background information into Gus Englehorn, person and band. You were born in Alaska but now live in Quebec. What was the reason for the move and how does Quebec influence your work?
Gus Englehorn: I was born in a small fishing town named Homer. I grew up in an even smaller fishing village of about 400 people in an area of 200 square miles. In the village proper, there were less than 10 people. I lived between Alaska and Hawaii until I was 8 years old at which time I moved to Anchorage, Alaska full time. I became a professional snowboarder at the age of 18. I met my wife Estée (who’s French Canadian) at 22 years old and moved to Québec when I was 26. We had an opportunity to rent a cabin outside of a small town from Estée’s parents and we took the opportunity and started writing songs in earnest. The rent was so cheap. Estée could support us with her job as a freelance illustrator so it allowed me to work full time on writing songs. The themes of isolation and alienation that are sometimes present in my work are largely due to my expatriation and the self-imposed remoteness I put myself through living out in the Quebec countryside. I find Quebec to be a very inspiring, romantic and above all spooky place.
Do you have any musical inspirations behind your songs or this album? I get that this kind of question can be annoying but it can also be a good insight!
Gus Englehorn: My all time biggest musical heroes are Frank Black and Daniel Johnston! But the list is long and diverse and I’m a huge fan of music and I’m always obsessed with some band I discovered somehow just about every week.
Finally, when did you begin performing as Gus Englehorn and, because this the debut album, what do you hope will come from it/ what do you hope listeners will take away?
Gus Englehorn: The band only came together about a year ago when Estée started drumming in the band. Our first real show was last year with the band Lemongrab from Montreal. We got nervous and played the songs really fast. Someone wrote a review of the show and they said we played a 6 minutes set. Lemongrab invited us to play two more times after that and that’s really what started it off.
I hope people are entertained by Death & Transfiguration and above all, I hope to provide an appropriate soundtrack for down-on-their-luck insurance salesmen making surreal paintings in their motel rooms.
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📸 © Ariane Moisan
Death & Transfiguration
an album by Gus Englehorn