Artists-On-Albums: AOA #5 (Wes Willenbring on When)

Wes Willenbring on…

Vincent Gallo’s When (Warp Records, 2001)

Vincent Gallo - When

I think whether or not an album becomes a “favorite” is often dependent on the environment in which one first hears it.  Not just the where and the when but also what, stylistically, the listener had been listening to previously. It may be a musician seemingly perfecting a form or genre the listener already likes, or it may be the exact opposite—something so drastically different from what the listener had previously been listening to that it challenges their beliefs about music and their own personal taste by making them question why they like it. This initial new path can then lead to the discovery of new musical styles and also help in the development of their own personal sense of aesthetics. Vincent Gallo’s When was one of these albums for me.

In the early 2000’s I was mostly listening to and interested in the Warp Records output, specifically artists like Autechre and Aphex Twin. Since my primary instrument is piano and I owned a synthesizer at the time, and was very interested in technology and recording, I was naturally drawn to this form of music. At that time a lot of electronic music was trying to be as busy as possible—the fastest tempo with the most sounds stuffed into the song as possible. This was closely tied to the rapidly developing technology- computers were getting faster and faster and at the time many were racing to see who could push them the hardest, who could make the fastest and most complicated songs possible. So for me at that time complexity was analogous with the cutting edge and thus it seemed essential.

In 2001 Warp released Vincent Gallo’s solo album When. I had seen his (brilliant) first film Buffalo ’66 but knew very little about him, and had no idea he was a musician. A friend of mine who was a collector of all things Warp played it for me and I was instantly struck by it’s beauty, though somewhat hesitant to listen—this was the exact opposite of what Warp had been releasing and what I thought I liked. It was beautiful, quiet, stark, and minimal. My friend would play it a couple of more times for me over the following weeks and eventually I was hooked and bought a copy for myself.

As I listened to it over and over I was struck by the aesthetics of the recording. This was no harsh album that, typical of the time, was recorded directly onto a hard drive, but a very organic and warm album recorded on world-class vintage instruments and tape-machines. There were no harshly edited cuts and sounds stuffed everywhere possible but instead there was silence and space.  Instead of an “ambience” created out of a rapid blur of sounds there was an ambience of silence punctuated with simple and beautiful melodies. It had an understated, subtle minimalism that seduced me into listening closer and closer instead of trying to push me away with it’s complexity. When I listened I could see the sounds as different colors, mostly whites with slightly varying shades of pale blue, cream, and grey.

Gallo’s When made me reconsider why and how I was listening to music at that time, which eventually pointed me in an entirely different direction from where I had been previously. I began searching for more and more music that used space, that favored clarity, and that paid attention to aesthetics – not only in the recording itself, but in the way the individual instruments interacted with one another, mixed together like colors in a painting.  For me it was an entirely new way of looking at how to use sound within the context of a song.

Notes on the Artist:

Wes Willenbring

Wes Willenbring was forced into taking piano lessons at the age of seven, and after years of arduous practice he eventually turned to the guitar so he could learn the chord progression to “Lay Lady Lay.” An obsession with recording techniques and aesthetics then led to a disturbingly large collection of equipment and microphones. After years of writing and recording music both solo and in a variety of collaborations he has now set up home and studio in San Francisco.

Wes has released two albums on Australian based label Hidden Shoal Recordings.