Monday, March 28, 2011

Chicagoan Greg Gibbs balances making sandwiches, music

When he is not behind the counter making sandwiches at the Chicago Bagel Authority, Chicagoan Greg Gibbs is crafting delicious ditties.

I had the chance to talk to Gibbs,, about his latest album, and his bid to make his song "Raincoat" the official rain delay song of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Q - How do you juggle being the owner of a sandwich shop and being a musician?
I make music when I have time. The shop comes first... at least that's what I tell myself. I have a small practice space in the basement of my store, so I'm never too far away from some sort of noise maker.

Music is really a way of turning off the store anxiety in my head.  I'll spend half a day here and there completely absorbed in some aspect of making music.  It's refreshing. A lot of stuff gets worked out while I'm off on my binge.
Q - How has being a sandwich shop owner inspired your music?

Since CBA is as much a culture as it is a business, I'd say the influence is immeasurable.  

I have always isolated my music. With CBA, I started occasionally writing a bit more for an intended audience; sometimes a specific person or two. I guess the business has helped to cracked open my shell a bit.

I'm also continuously being bombarded by new music that my employees bring in. That's helped to expand my musical vocabulary and refine my taste.  

Just when I think I've found my voice, I hear something new that blows my mind. Time for new chops. 

That's a really nice struggle to have - always trying to create a sound or style that pushes that envelope rather than sealing it.

Q - How would you describe your music? What artists have been the most influential in the music you make?

I guess I'm always trying to tap the confluence of Zappa/Ween/Deerhoof boundless spirit with a Elliot Smith/Sufjan sincerity.

There is a piece by Frank Zappa called "Sleep Dirt" that kinda nails what I'm looking for. It's the side that Zappa has a difficult side showing, but easily one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created.

Zappa's spider-like guitar pyrotechnics (acoustic mind you) dripping with so much soul and passion that you're left with just enough breath to say, "somebody's a genius."

Best of all, the album version sounds like an jam session or outtake replete with the accompanying guitarist lamenting, "my fingers got stuck."

The take was too good and too perfect to bury. I'm actually surprised it saw the light of day in his lifetime, seeing as it it is so contrary to his persona.  

So I guess it sounds like all of my musical efforts are an attempt to create a "Sleep Dirt." Maybe I set the bar too high.

Q - What were your goals for "The Lights?" Do you think you accomplished all of your goals?
To make a more or less cohesive album.  My previous albums, "Raincoat" and "Hemoglobin," were both just a hodgepodge of song styles and mixing/mastering techniques.

I don't even remember trying to set reference levels other than making sure they weren't clipping. I also wanted to make a more thematically cohesive album - I know, songs about air conditioners and celiacs make cohesion a real challenge.

For the most part I'm satisfied.  It's the best I could do with what I knew how to do at the time. When you're grinding away at something for a long time, it's almost impossible to step back and look at the big picture. Many decisions are really just struggles to come up and get some air.

Q - How do you think your music has evolved over the years?
I'm taking it seriously.  I made a commitment in 2004 to start singing and writing songs. I was constantly "scoring" my life with instrumental tracks because I though I had little to say that anyone would really care about.

Most of my earlier song attempts were insincere and abrupt - I was aiming at absurd. I love working in the absurd because absurd does what it wants when it wants.

But sometimes I used it as an excuse for not finished or refining it. It was kept away somewhere outside of the sphere of judgement.  Impersonal and immature.

I think I slowly started working through it. I was maturing emotionally and I could find absurd metaphors that were actually quite sincere.

I need both to feel comfortable not throwing shit it the face of the listener. That's how I got to the existential first person writing style that I use frequently.  

It's absurd to write a love song about hemoglobin or my social security number, but I've done it. Sincerely. The social security number song actually makes me well up a bit.

Q - Where do you see yourself fitting into the Chicago music scene?
Somewhere in the audience.  I think what I do will always be more of a sideshow, but I'm aiming to be a big sideshow.  

I'd like to be a big enough sideshow that if I asked someone to pose semi-nude for my album cover, they'd at least consider it and not slap me. That's not a lot to ask. I'm thinking Ohio Players-esque.

Q - Your music has been featured on National Public Radio and Comedy Central. Has that expanded your audience base?
Not really.  I hope people heard it, but it was so sibilant that it fatigued the ears after a minute or so.  It was a piece called "Rock, Paper, Scissors" played on guitar, sheet paper, and a pair of scissors.

The scissors sound really rips the top end out of your day if listen too intently. The piece was conceived by my friend, Hugh Musick.  He asked me to compose it.

Q - It seems like technology has made it easier to make music and get it out to people. How have you tried to use technology to get your music out to more people?
I'm constantly looking for new distribution techniques to get my music onto the iPods of potential fans. I've uploaded my songs to Jango,, Soudcloud, Reverbnation, etc. I've seen limited success with each. 

Soundcloud is probably the easiest to connect and distribute. You can collaborate easily, and make new fan/friends without much effort. The industry seems to change weekly.  

Every time you find a decent distribution method, the format changes.  It's at the point where artists are paying to give there music away... literally.  It's not that it's not worth buying, but that nobody does.  

The effort, risk, and investment to try something new is outweighed by the convenience and assurance of an iPod Classic with 160 gbs of music you already love anyway. I know it's true because I live that way myself.
Q - Any dream projects? Any dream collaborations?
My dream project is an album of aleatoric compositions. Right now I don't have the focus or the guts to pull it off, but it is something I'm always working on in the back of my mind.

Look for it in the next few years when I have time for the challenge. I don't have a dream collaboration.

I wouldn't mind having an orchestrator work through some of my old melodies, but other than that I'm pretty excited for the alone time.

Q - How many people have signed your petition so far to make "Raincoat" the official rain delay song of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field? How did you come up with the idea?
As of today, I'm at 182 signatures!  I was watching a Cubs game with friends one rainy day a few years ago. I needed an idea for my CBA "Five Minute Film Festival" submission.

It just came to me - Pretend like it is your dream to have "Raincoat" played as the rain delay song at Wrigley Field. That was all it took. I ran with it.

I cobbled together the video in a few days - Kerry Wood showed up one day by chance and agreed to appear in it. Chuck Garfein was a frequent customer and I bribed him.

All the pieces fell into place and added to the legitimacy of the farce. People still believe the "Lesson 14 - The Ice Walk" breakdancing lesson is real.

I have the phony VHS tape on a shelf in the store milk the mystery. Three years later, people still ask how it's going and I still tell them I'm plugging away.  

I guess I should start by contacting the Cubs. Now that Kerry is back on the team, I have an in :) 

Who knows, maybe I'll make a sequel this year.

Q - What are your short-term and long-term goals?

My short term goals are to open my second store. That's coming up. Hopefully we'll be open in early June. 

My long term goal is the keep that store open. Overall, I just hope I'm capable of coordinating two stores and still having enough free time to enjoy fruitful relationships with friends and family while still having a place for music... breathe.