Probing the modern condition with the NY progressive electronic duo.
That's Gatekeeper on an escalator.
In a moment when tons of bands and artists are obsessed with retro-fetishism, or just rehashing the explosion of free data to create their “new” sounds and visuals, it’s refreshing to come across an act that's actually interested in the possible futures available at present. Enter Gatekeeper, the duo of Aaron David Ross and Matthew Arkell. The band plays forward-thinking progressive electronic music, but they aren't satisfied with just sound; they also take the way you experience their work visually to an exceedingly enjoyable extreme.
On Giza, Gatekeeper’s last EP, the band collaborated with to produce 3D videos for each of the record's six cinematic, shlock horror-fueled tracks. The videos reflect the EP's fuzzy VHS feel; the tracks are built around samples from soundtracks to forgotten Z-horror movies, molded into (slightly?) tongue-in-cheek dance tracks.
Tree Drum, a track of Gatekeeper's new record, Exo.
Their debut record, Exo, is out this month on Hippos in Tanks. On it, the band probes the predominance of hi-def screens in our lives, and what highly-defined possibilities might lie beyond this planet. The entire record is constructed from extremely high-quality samples, leading the band to describe it as an "HD album." For the visuals, the band teamed with artist Tabor Robak to create an immersive, first person gaming experience; this was the only way they could truly pull you into the worlds within the record.
NOISEY: What first inspired you to make an HD record? Anything in particular instigate the new direction?
Gatekeeper: I think we had a stroke of that inspiration why while we were in the UK last summer. We were visiting world heritage sites and feeling really spiritual and charged up. The first track we made was IMAX and we didn’t have any specific intention or direction for it. It just kind of came out of us having fun in the studio. We’d been playing around with sound library effects from commercial trailer sound effect packs. They’re made for IMAX bass canons so they’re really, really HD. Those were really inspiring tools. From there we sensed that extra depth and like you were saying the HD and that became a principle by which the rest of it was written under.
When did you know that you were going to present this record visually as a game? Did you know right away that videos wouldn’t be enough for the HD LP?
We started working with Tabor really early on, just sort of talking about ideas. He had every version of our recording after a couple of months in. So we were taking the idea along as we were writing the music. The finished concept for the game only emerged when we finished recording.
We’re obsessed with creating a visual context for what we do, but we'd maxed ourselves out on music videos. In our previous labor with Thunderhorse, we were very involved in the making of the videos, and so it was cool to think about a visual component that would be even more immersive for a user but didn’t immerse us as much. We really gave Tabor the artistic license to do what he wants, as we have so much respect for him as an artist in his own right, but we were all pulling from a really similar source of inspiration in the project as a whole.
With video you can just sense that it’s energy has just sort of been dissipated. I remember my first year or two of youtube was amazing, and then after a while you realize even this form can be exhausting and boring. Video’s a lot of work and it’s contained in this little window that’s so familiar that it reduces everything to the same droning playlist.
So how much can you talk about the game? Does it have a narrative?
Narrative’s really useful but we like to have ambiguity in it. The music is really visual and conjures up all these cinematic references, but what’s fun about that to us is the fact that those aren’t scripted and so people can kind of imagine their own narrative based on it.
For a lot of people that grew up in a similar generation to us, which is where we scrounged our references from, it could seem to exist within one general collective imagination.
For us, Exo, has always been this environment or planet or territory, so what Tabor is doing, what we could talk about a little, is that the levels consist of organic environments, beautiful CG renderings of them.
The cover of Exo, also by Tabor Robak.
So it’s not hyper futuristic?
There’s definitely a heavy natural influence, a bit new age, but ideally it’s a fusion of those. That’s what we were shooting for.
Have you worked out how you’re going to play this material live and still immerse people to a similar extent?
We’re working on it now yea. We collaborate with Thunderhorse for all our live shows and we’re going to build something for our record release with them. Touring’s always a little difficult as we’re touring budget style, so the effects rigs are kind of impossible, but we always like to make like a few things that are somewhat unique and easy to transport just to have with us to create that live experience. We both have lots of projects and jobs. So when we tour we want it to be really great, really grand fun shows. Go big or go home, otherwise it just feels like a pain in the ass if you can’t recreate it like you want it to be.
Would you ever want to be in a position with advancing technology where you could develop your own visuals through the music as you write?
I find that with the systems for music and aesthetics, they rely really heavily on each other, but don’t use the same process at all. I did some of that in grad school, generating visuals through music and it just looked really canned.
Tabor’s game does have music reactive elements. In the environments there are things that are mutating to the music and locked in that way. We’re actually going to do sound designing for another video game Tabor’s working on and I like the idea of creating something that’s like music generated by some activity. For Gatekeeper, the visuals really need to be approached with the same care that the music is in order for either to function.
Exo will be available worldwide July 17th, 2012, via Hippos In Tanks.