You Never Win, You Never Lose: Talking with Gabriel Birnbaum
Wilder Maker’s last album, Zion, was the first installment of a “musical novel” that intended to do for Brooklyn what James Joyce did for Dublin, reconstructing the city through a multifaceted web of narratives, circumstances and events both banal and breathtaking. The result was a picture of life in a time and place where mere living is not enough, where every soul is pushed to transcend themselves, to be more, to achieve recognition and acclaim even though the entire system is built in opposition to this. An exploration of the contemporary tension between what we want and what we get. Between who we are and who we feel we should be.
The experience is familiar to lead songwriter Gabriel Birnbaum. A performing musician since his teens, Birnbaum has played everywhere from DIY basement shows to mega-festivals like Bonnaroo, and in all manner of styles and genres, too. Aside from Wilder Maker, he works as a jazz and avant garde saxophonist, touring as a member of Debo Band and recording with the likes of Mutual Benefit, Sharon Van Etten, and Jens Lekman, among others. But despite all that, he found himself dejected when coming to record Zion, working in a café between tours and spending his nights alone in bars. He had never quite “made it,” and in an industry that bases itself entirely upon such a concept, it proved difficult to remain upbeat.
However, there is a silver lining to every cloud. Rather than giving up on art, Birnbaum embraced the lack of attention as a kind of freedom, deciding to record under his own name and push off in new directions that felt right to him and him alone. Only he wasn’t alone, as the resulting album, Not Alone, attests. Friends emerged, old and new, and together they nurtured a new chapter into being.
Released on Arrowhawk Records, Not Alone sees Birnbaum develop another side of his musical vision, swapping out the experimental complexity of Wilder Maker in favor of something more distilled. The record is marked by a warm aesthetic, its sound immediate yet comfortable, and influenced by a classic tradition of songwriters working under their own name—from Paul Simon and Neil Young to John Philips and Jim Sullivan. While the result clearly diverges from Wilder Maker, it possesses the same spirit—all the doubt and ambiguity, the human heart—though the real change is the light in which such phenomena are held. After years of railing against these troubles, or else hiding from their pull, Not Alone learns to accept their presence, to embrace them not as some adversarial force but as a natural and necessary function of living and making art.
I spoke with Birnbaum recently to delve a little deeper into the new record and to gain insight into what it means to be an artist in our present moment.
The Rumpus: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you choose the title Not Alone? What does it mean to you?
Gabriel Birnbaum: This record came along at a turning point for me. I find it difficult to talk about honestly without sounding melodramatic, but I suffer from pretty intense depression and have since I was a teenager, though I didn’t seek medical attention until recently. It has come to a head a few times in my life, as early as fifteen and as recently as last year, but the period where I planned this album was one of the darkest of my life. I was also finishing the songs on [Wilder Maker’s] Zion at the same time. In retrospect, I’m proud of all the work but at the time I was reeling. I’d been writing songs for a long time and no industry person had ever expressed an iota of interest or belief in me. Nothing had come except through sheer force of will and exhausting labor. I love Northern Spy Records and Arrowhawk Records for caring about my music; I’ll always be grateful to them, but I hadn’t then met any of them yet.
I was alone in yet another cheap room with nothing on the wall and three roommates and I was very damaged from an unhealthy relationship that had left me with newly sharpened self-hatred. I cried a lot, sometimes for no specific reason, sometimes because I opened my phone and saw my ex on Instagram or another friend announcing a success I coveted and would never reach. I would hide in my room for days. I don’t like saying all this because it feels like a plea for sympathy or pity for not having a successful music career. I don’t want that. I also don’t like saying it because it’s ugly. But it just is, it was. I lived like this.
I would avoid everyone I knew and go drink in bars alone, but never to get drunk. Just to nurse a beer and stare into space for hours. It was the only soothing activity for me. To be among people and the sound of people but also not speak to anyone. To me this image carries a lot of weight. Among others but fundamentally alone. It’s a common theme in my work (all over Zion, too) because it’s a nagging theme of my life.
It’s hard for me to say how scary this period was. I didn’t know if it would end or how. I was afraid, in some vague sense, that I would just die like this, either soon or in forty years. The reality of my life, the paltriness of it, the cheap texture, was apparent to me in a way that I had not experienced. Being loved and understood with kindness was a profound experience that led me past all of this. I met my current partner, and that relationship totally changed the trajectory of my life.
So Not Alone is for [my partner] Ellen, and for my closest friends, the people who helped save me from that blank bad time. But Not Alone also of course implies the looming possibility of aloneness. It contains both, the redemption and the fear.
Rumpus: Is it fair to say the concept of “making it” (or not) drove the despair of this period?
Birnbaum: That was definitely a major part of it. I felt I had failed thoroughly, as an artist and as a person. Sometimes I’d feel angry and bitter that I’d chosen to create art in a genre where everything is ephemeral and cool is the only value. I felt I had set myself up to fail, style never having been a strength. Sometimes I’d turn my anger inward and say that I wasn’t good enough, just didn’t have whatever that thing is that makes the difference between decent, workmanlike songs and songs that are truly great.
I have a few acquaintances who have become famous (relatively speaking), and I have many more acquaintances who are very talented and hover in the same kind of minor zone of success as me. I find myself asking whether there is a fundamental difference between the people who succeed and those who are merely good, in terms of talent or some intangible quality? Is there a quality of ruthlessness, or hardness, or at the least an aggressive pursuit of social capital that you must have to succeed on the professional side of the industry?
Rumpus: I think those questions are important. Art has likely never functioned as a pure meritocracy, and talent has never been directly proportional to success, but now more than ever it seems there are other factors at play. You have to be able to create a “brand” to push your work, and figure out how to please the gods of the algorithms in order to be heard.
Birnbaum: Right. I often think of myself as praying to the corporate gods when I open the Spotify for Artists app to see if I have been granted extra plays beyond my natural allotment. It’s nice when Spotify decides to funnel plays to your song but extremely weird to think how seriously that’s taken as a success metric, given how it’s controlled by a handful of people at one company in a totally opaque process. I’ve watched industry people pull up an artist profile and check numbers when first hearing of a band.
I think about this in relation to music’s giant problem with sexual assault, too. The structure of the industry is all about hiding power: everything happens in a forced atmosphere of casualness, often in spaces that are not clearly social or work spaces but somewhere in the middle. Of course, this casualness is only casual for the people in power. I had a business meeting once where the other person refused to talk unless I ordered a beer. This kind of thing paves the way for all of these transgressions, because everything happens in private ambiguous spaces and no one knows what is normal.
Even when conducted in good faith, the networking approach can be problematic. In the arts, everyone is helping out their friends in small ways that don’t seem nefarious, but if you add them all up into a giant network, it turns out the main thing an artist can do for their career is… have friends. This is why systemic structural problems are so hard to correct. Everyone is behaving reasonably, and that’s what perpetuates the issue. We fetishize artistic purity, but we don’t reward artists for living that way.
Rumpus: There’s a quote from Rachel Kushner that I think about a lot. “It is deeply tempting to count oneself among the good,” she wrote, responding to her Booker Prize shortlisting. “To see goodness as goodness, and not as luck. But that is an illusion. In a modern, stratified, bourgeois society, life mostly goes how it goes due to circumstance. You aren’t good. You’re lucky.”
Birnbaum: I love Rachel Kushner. I think she has an incredibly perceptive read on this. I can’t tell you how many friends I have who have gotten even the tiniest measure of success and immediately accepted it as ordained and started subtly blaming all their friends for not matching it. I mean I know we all have giant egos but come on.
Lawrence Weschler is another favorite writer of mine and there’s something from a long piece he did about the Polish Revolution (bear with me) that I think of often in terms of work and reward. Hopefully I haven’t distorted it in memory, but basically: people organized and struggled with little progress for twenty years, and then finally the revolution happened and it all broke open in a matter of days. Can you imagine the shift in the way they saw their lives and work over those few days?
He refers to this idea as “grace,” and I think it’s incredibly relevant to making art—you put the work in over so many years regardless of whether anything comes of it. It’s only at certain moments in life that you have the chance to make a huge step forward in your career or in the public perception of your art. The work is all about being as ready as possible, so that when those moments do come, even if they take twenty years, you will live up to them.
Rumpus: To get back to the record, the decision for songwriters to “go solo” is always interesting to me. What does the change mean to you?
Birnbaum: Yeah, it’s extra funny here because I am the only songwriter in Wilder Maker. Wilder Maker will also be continuing, so this is a parallel project, rather than a name change.
In the last few years, after a lot of experimenting, Wilder Maker has achieved a very specific sound and lyrical style that feels whole to me, and the downside of that is that the band can no longer be a catch-all for my songwriting. Wilder Maker is a project where I push myself to try and reinvent and stretch the music you can make with a band that’s still fundamentally a few people playing instruments and singing, mostly live. The goal is to make something that will surprise people musically as well as move them, and push the boundaries of the listeners.
That said, music functions in many ways in people’s lives and I have a desire to make what I think of as Sunday morning records. LPs I’d put on around the house on a slow morning sipping coffee and reading or making pancakes or something like that. Still with depth of feeling but without demanding as much attention as a record like Zion does.
Rumpus: Despite being solo, the record features a number of other musicians. How much of a collaboration was the end result?
Birnbaum: It’s pretty substantially collaborative. I think the “solo” name came more from a desire to make something that went in a different direction from Zion without confusing people about the identity of the band. I also wanted flexibility in my live presentation, the option to play solo or duo without being seen as a let-down for audiences coming out to see the full band.
But all my records are collaborative. At times I have wished my aesthetic was more obviously modern, but I genuinely love and thrive on the experience of playing music with people, in an actual captured moment. “I Got Friends” for example is a complete live take, no overdubs at all, not even the vocal. It felt really magical.
Rumpus: Do you think the immediacy of recording that way makes for a better sound?
Birnbaum: It makes a sound that I like and which suits my music. For Not Alone we only had two and a half days to make the whole record, which put me in mind of the old Wrecking Crew days, where they’d just churn out hits for random songwriters all day, and of Neil Young’s process, where he’d teach people songs in the studio while surreptitiously recording them, often using a take from before they felt they’d really learned the song. The moment when a song first coheres is one of the best times to capture it.
So, we learned each song and tracked it immediately, just as we were getting it, crafting the arrangement on the fly. Then we overdubbed any ideas immediately before moving on. I was cooking all the meals, so I wouldn’t always be in the room for overdubs, but Adam [Brisbin], Will [Graefe], and Jason [Nazary] are all just incredible musicians. There was a lot of trust in this LP, trust in my simpler songs, trust in the band, trust in first intuition. It was all about quick, flowing work. No getting hung up.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the portrayal of touring on the record, and the idea of it being a kind peace for the outsider. That paradox where you’re meeting lots of people but knowing none. Is it a strange headspace to occupy?
Birnbaum: It is, yes. It’s paradoxical in many ways. Both freeing and numbing, exciting and tedious. I’m very shy, but I love to spend time with new people on tour. I have a context in which to exist, a role to play. It’s easier.
It ties into the aloneness idea as well—many of my most profoundly beautiful experiences have happened in places I’d never been before, while surrounded by strangers, sometimes people I didn’t even speak to or didn’t see again. Just being in a new place is charged and feels special, free of the accumulated grime of my own experiences and self.
I book my own tours so I’m usually obligated to hang with whoever it is I’ve been emailing, and I generally enjoy and embrace that. It allows me to be social but in a safe way—everyone is nice but I am not really known and don’t need to be especially vulnerable. I get to socialize and swap stories and I am not often bored, and I am forced to open myself at least a little to new people and new experiences.
Rumpus: I’ve just read Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World, and there’s an essay where he talks to bands about the discomfort of touring, and how the reward isn’t really fit for the risk and pain. It got me thinking about the purpose behind it all. I mean, the stories about wacky hosts and terrible dive bars and those shows where no one turns up because like Fleet Foxes are playing across town and there’s football on, they’re all things to be enjoyed in the warm retrospect of success, right? They’re like an initiation, trials to be endured because there’s something at the end. But if there’s nothing at the end—no money or success or stability, then it’s just what, masochism?
Birnbaum: So this question really gets at one of my obsessions which is as you said—with artists we retroactively ascribe a certain meaning to their struggle and suffering because it allows us to justify that suffering by folding it into a narrative that ends in success (and to justify continuing to treat artists like second-class citizens who don’t deserve healthcare or provide value to society unless they’re rich!).
Making some assumptions here but I think it’s more punishing to be in the kind of bands Luke was in because they feel like they have a short shelf life. I have bands but I am primarily a songwriter and composer and there are many other avenues for me as a musician beyond being in a rock band, so I’m not stressed about this going any particular place, it’s all part of my lifelong path making art.
But, as far as I can see it suffering is essentially meaningless (one of the things that most agonizes me about depression is how fucking stupid it is) and I think that idea is fascinating for how desperately people will jump through hoops to avoid it! Suffering is not beautiful, and it may not mean anything or be necessary. It may, in fact, grind humans down and take away their ability to believe in themselves and feel optimism.
Rumpus: So why continue? What keeps you in the touring game?
Birnbaum: For me first and foremost, playing music live is a profound experience which gives me life. No masochism here. I love it; nothing is more beautiful. This is why I tour, more than selling records or trying to make it or whatever that means in 2019, which I can’t imagine involves playing lots of small regional shows.
I also find it to be affirming, as a weirdo. I have consistently met wonderful fellow outsiders through DIY touring, people who are just helplessly themselves, building their odd lives outside of typical standards of what constitutes a good life. They don’t give a shit. They are a good reminder that you don’t have to give a shit. I will always be off on my own in the same way and my heart will always be with anyone who doesn’t fit.
Having these stories is a kind of initiation for some, that’s true, but I don’t care much about that. I don’t idealize being a scrappy touring band; rock mythology is not particularly meaningful to me. I don’t want to struggle and I don’t want fame. Also, a tour story is always as fun to hear as it was awful to experience, and stories about great moments are generally dull, so some of it is like that Tolstoy quote about happy families and unhappy families.
Nothing is at the end of this because nothing is at the end of anything. You can get laid off from your job, you can go back to school and still not find work. There is no ultimate security. You might as well do what is meaningful to you. I love making art because it’s never-ending. You never win; you never lose. You just keep following the path into new and strange places, with enough new problems and challenges to last you a lifetime, all uniquely yours. Who could ask for more than that?
Photographs of Gabriel Birnbaum by Ellen Askonas. Not Alone cover art by Darryl Norsen.