Wilder Maker’s Gabriel Birnbaum On Zion, New York, and What’s Next

Like many Brooklynites, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Gabriel Birnbaum juggles a lot of projects at once. As he puts it, “almost always it’s either other people helping me realize my art, or me helping other people realize theirs.” Wilder Maker is what happens when Katie Von Schleicher, Nick Jost, Sean Mullins, and Adam Brisbin help Gabriel realize his music creations, and the group’s most recent creation is a full-length album named Zion, which came out on July 13 of this year.

Left to right: Sean Mullins, Adam Brisbin, Gabriel Birnbaum, Katie Von Schleicher, Nick Jost

When you consider the number of ideas and musical influences that comprise Zion, it seems like the album should fly apart in all directions. Instead, it is impossibly cohesive: each ambitious track is held together by the palpable chemistry among the group’s members, and from the album’s seven parts blossoms a realist document of one Brooklyn life: a swirling amalgam of tedium and excitement, transcendent joy and frustrated ennui.

As the proverbial dust settles in the months after Zion’s release, we asked Gabriel to reflect on what went into the album, what it’s like to live and work as musician in New York City, and what other projects he’s juggling at the moment.

You have a wide array of artistic influences. Which musical and literary influences do you see as especially important to the fabric of Zion in particular?

Musically, Zion incorporates ideas from Dr. John, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Thomas Mapfumo, Paul Simon, Curtis Mayfield, and many others. Dylan’s Desire and Dr. John’s Gris Gris were records I came back to over and over again, for their fearless repetition and the rhythm of their lyrics. I needed a new way to sing and write verses with all the words I had to fit onto this album, and they were my main models for how that could be possible, along with rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples, though obviously being a white male guitar songwriter, I’m going to sound like I’m thinking about Bob Dylan even when I’m thinking about Kendrick Lamar.

Content-wise, I was very influenced by Knausgaard’s My Struggle novels, and by Rachel Kushner and Ben Lerner’s fiction. They all struck me as successful efforts to turn contemporary experiences (which are usually digitally mediated and feel mostly disposable and superfluous, like echoes of important past events at best) into art. I want art to help you feel your life as something meaningful. Most new music I hear doesn’t do that for me, and so I saw an opportunity to give something to people who felt the same way. My life is not a string of moments of peak drama and intensity. Music that only reflects those things feels empty to me. I’m also not interested in nostalgia.

The other side of the lyrics is poet Frank Stanford, who I read before nearly every sitting when writing lyrics for this record. His The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You is one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read. My friend, the poet Alex Morris, turned me onto it. It’s like being sucked into someone’s dream every time you open it, and after I put it down, all I have to do is go outside and I see everything.

How do your lyrics usually come together? Do you take notes as you go about your day, or do you ever set time aside just to write?

Occasional gifts will float into my head via my subconscious, but most of my writing on Zion is reached through a door opened by effort: by sitting down to write, whatever my mood. Women Dancing Immortal was written almost unedited in one sitting, but that’s rare for me. Usually it’s work, and usually there’s a bunch of garbage attached to the stuff I need, and I have to write the garbage first to get to it.

The narrative in Zion seems personal, but you also include a lot of widely relatable Brooklyn imagery, like “the deli window with old sodas sitting sunbleached in the shimmering night” in Drunk Driver. How would you describe the album’s literary format? Do you think of it as a documentary, a memoir, or something else?

It’s a jumble of all of this stuff – I don’t really think about it or follow rules while I’m making the songs. I just do what feels right. Everyone tends to assume it’s memoir because that’s what people think songs are in 2018 – either you’re Randy Newman (who rules, don’t get me wrong) or you’re singing journal entries.

There’s a trend in lit to refer to things as Autofiction, fiction in which the narrator is strikingly similar to the author and shares their name. That’s kind of the closest analogue. The narrator is someone who has a lot in common with me but isn’t me, even though some details are clearly lifted from my life. Some are made up. Some are misremembered. Some are from other people’s lives. All the books I mentioned above basically do this as well.

New York has a reputation for being brutally competitive, and the theme of the daily grind is present throughout the album. How does that culture of competition affect your life as a musician? Have you found ways to distance yourself from it?

It’s tough. It’s a constant presence for most musicians I know here, though no one wants to talk about it publicly for obvious reasons. A customer at a service job I worked while writing this record asked my manager if I was mentally handicapped. Another cussed me out and then demanded I apologize to him in front of the entire cafe (I didn’t). Then he tried to get me fired on Yelp. That stuff takes a toll on you.

One way you deal with it is to bitch privately. Some of my friendships of mutual frustration have turned into real and good relationships as we’ve aged out of some of that anger and become more successful, and some have turned out to be circumstantial, just two people with a common enemy who want to talk shit for a while. Both are fine, really; you do what you need to do to get through the days feeling okay.

I’m really picky about people in general, and that naturally buffers me, and I’m also a homebody these days, which adds more distance. New York loves telling you how ordinary you are and how no one needs you, and you have to escape that in order to make anything. But then there’s always the fear that if you get too much distance from New York making you feel small and stupid then you’ll lose all perspective and become boring and lazy and irrelevant. So you can’t get away either. It’s like a really unhealthy relationship.

Also, you meet people in NYC, even if you are a homebody. Face-to-face time is more and more crucial as the internet takes over. It’s the only way to differentiate yourself from a mass of emails.

Left to right: Nick Jost, Katie Von Schleicher, Sean Mullins, Gabriel Birnbaum, Adam Brisbin

You play and write music with a lot of different people, not only in Wilder Maker, but in other ensembles as well. What attracts you to collaborative spaces? When do you think collaboration is at its best?

I do work with a lot of people in ways that are collaborative, but I rarely find myself in an open-ended collaboration. Almost always it’s either other people helping me realize my art, or me helping other people realize theirs. I do like working with anyone I can; you can always learn from how someone else works, how they think. It’s the best teacher.

In addition to your work as Wilder Maker, you play saxophone in Debo Band, an ensemble strongly influenced by Ethiopian musical traditions. Do you think that experience has influenced your songwriting as Wilder Maker, or the way you use the instrument in general?

Definitely. In a very specific way, I played a lot of music festivals with Debo Band and had the experience over and over again of imagining playing my older Wilder Maker songs up on those stages and just feeling like it wouldn’t work. The music I was making just wouldn’t shine in that space: lying in a grassy field in the sun, drinking beer, half paying attention. So the goal here was to make something inspired by all those festivals, music that you could half-ignore and enjoy, or focus on and have a deep experience with. There are also some time and feel things I learned playing with Debo that filtered into Cocaine Man in particular.

In Cocaine Man, you tell December “you’re a cruel month but I loved you so.” Is that about a specific December, or the month in general? What’s your favorite time of year in New York?

It reads both generally and specifically. As you like. I like to include details in lyrics, which I think gives the impression that they’re all ripped from my life, but they’re not and I don’t want people listening and thinking about me. December is actually a nice month in NYC if you can tough out the cold. The winter sours by February, but December still has a lot of magic to it – everyone’s wrapped up in big coats with flushed faces, all the Christmas lights are out. I like the way people hurry along the streets in the winter as it gets dark, you can almost see their warm apartments in thought bubbles above their heads. It feels more intimate than the summer, somehow. When you’re outside in winter you can feel the presence of everyone’s homes surrounding you.

What else are you working on right now? Any ideas what next year holds?

Man, a lot. I have a solo album called Not Alone I want to put out next year – a single announcing the project should be available next month. I’ve also been scoring a film by a filmmaker named Michael Irish, which is almost done. And I’m ready to make a second solo record and a new Wilder Maker record over the next 4-5 months. There are also several songs that got cut from Zion, which I’d like to finish and release. I also have a bunch of music for 4 guitars based on the art of Sol Lewitt that I would like to see performed but which has been on the backburner. So… lots of possibilities. Depends on time. We’ll see what happens.


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