by Andrew Hertzberg (@and_hertz)
Every once in a while, a band comes along that is riveting, that is curious, that is playful, that sounds so damn good and puts on such a great show that they make all of the auditory dead-ends and wasted hours swimming up endless Bandcamp and Soundcloud streams worth it. On an unseasonably chilly night last August at a DIY venue on Chicago’s South Side, that band for me was Ganser. I was taken in by Charlie’s ferocious guitar, Alicia’s deadpan basslines, Brian’s dynamic drumming, Nadia’s stage presence, all of it feeding off the room’s energy and interacting with the crowd. They reminded me of Joy Division, Mission of Burma, The Birthday Party, Savages, Priests, and plenty of other post-punk RIYLs (but definitely NOT Sonic Youth). While there’s no shortage of bands with similar influences, Ganser manages to craft a sound familiar and refreshing at the same time, each member adding their own twisted bend to their songs where needed.
They’ve been kicking around the Chicago DIY scene for the past few years, originally forming in January 2014 when Nadia and Alicia were both students at the School of the Art Institute. “I couldn’t have picked a better partner to start a project like this with,” Nadia said of Alicia. “She’s the most driven and talented person I know.” The current rendition of the band was formed in the summer of 2015, when Charlie responded to a Facebook ad. “And in the ad, Alicia said, ‘Hey don’t message me directly, use this email.’ So I of course messaged Alicia directly,” he said. Nadia laughed. “Which has pretty much been our relationship ever since,” she said. “We say don’t do this thing and then we do that thing anyway.” Their debut LP Odd Talk is full of dissonant guitar, abstract lyrical segues, bassline hooks, and drumbeat sinkers, and never obvious how the band gets from track one to track ten. After plugging away for so long on the album, they’re ready for the world to listen.
Ganser isn’t the project of one person and some hired guns: they are a band that takes every angle into consideration. All four members met me at a Logan Square bar to talk about band’s history and new album. Nadia used the word “collaborative” many times throughout the interview, which is appropriate considering how often each member liked to jump in in response to the question, often leading to bizarre and unexpected tangents and detours. It also inconveniently turned into a way-too-loud “pop-punk” themed night just after starting the interview, but we still managed to talk about the songwriting process (or non-process), not taking post-punk too seriously, and how their name has been comically misconstrued. The interview has been edited down for length and clarity, despite how welcome the tangents and detours were.
Post-Trash: So Odd Talk is the first full length. On the Bandcamp it says “This is not the first time we’ve provided the answer to a question that no one was asking.”
Alicia: He read the credits! [table laughs] That will be on the physical too. We always try to hide Easter egg things. We have all this hidden art on the inside of cassettes. Growing up, some of my favorite bands would have hidden artwork. And [when we do it] it’s all kind of nonsense, which is really what we’re all about.
Nadia: It’s like our version of playing a record backwards to hear demons. Like read all the fine print to hear the nonsense.
Charlie: I’m not even sure that anything will ever lend itself to helping decipher what the fuck the record is about [laughs].
P-T: Well because that was going to be my question: what does it mean? But maybe it doesn’t mean anything then?
Alicia: I don’t know where that phrase came from exactly but it was something that might have been in one of our folders. We keep a morgue of random quotes and shit that we find on the Internet. I’m just waiting for the day when someone goes to look up one of our lyrics and they pull up a random Reddit thread and realize we got the line from a Reddit thread.
Nadia: And sometimes there’s just happy accidents of words coming together in a nice way. “An answer to a question that no one is asking.” Or answer to a question you didn’t know you were asking, I guess. Isn’t that just kind of the nature of being a creative artist in general?
Alicia: Sometimes it’s more about how words sound than what they actually mean. Sometimes we try to obfuscate the meaning of things. Sometimes we’ll just do it for aesthetic reasons for how words sound together. Or like semantic satiation, where you say a word enough times it loses meaning. Those kinds of interests that we have came together in an album.
P-T: That’s something I wanted to ask about was with listening to the album and reading the lyrics and seeing the song titles and there doesn’t always seem to be a direct connection between the two.
Nadia: Sometimes it’s the feeling it evokes. Or it’s even just nonsensical.
Brian: Sometimes a song just gets a name and the name sticks. Sometimes the lyrics follow that name.
Alicia: Sometimes we like how something sounds. Like Odd Talk, I remember the first time someone told me the name of the album sounds good coming out of their mouth. I thought, “Good, that’s exactly the point.” There’s really no more point than that.
Nadia: It does also fit the theme, like the over-arching theme of the album, the idea of communication.
Charlie: It’s not necessarily about…like using a word that is in anyway related to the lyrics. It could be naming something in a way that conveys the overall concept of the song in both sound and content, sometimes that’s the case, sometimes it’s just random.
Nadia: Or an obscure reference that might be something you thought of in your head that doesn’t really make sense outside of your head and to explain it would make you seem like a crazy person.
Alicia: It’s nice that the same way that I think how we like the music that we like, we’ll come to each other. For example, we find stuff on the Internet or have lines that we come up with that don’t have a home and sometimes it can be really personal, and I might be attracted to it because it fits with something that I’m already writing but will carry with it a meaning that hopefully comes through in some way as a whole. It doesn’t necessarily need to mean something that is a story-song or anything like that. If we can, we actually try to avoid that.
Nadia: I think we operate more on the realm of feelings and aesthetics that things evoke in that nebulous world of sensory stories, inner-space sensory stories. Not necessarily storytelling.
Charlie: I don’t think it’s necessarily about wanting to avoid a narrative, at least on my end. But what I feel what I want to write about, how would I possibly fit that in to a story of any kind?
Nadia: Sometimes we can communicate something so much more with feeling rather than literal storytelling. Sensory storytelling can give you so much more work to go from especially from the perspective of a listener or consumer you get to add your own experience to it so that your views of communication creates your own other story that we didn’t even think of.
P-T: With Nadia and Alicia sharing vocal duties, how does that affect the songwriting process?
Alicia: It’s been a slow learning process. We’ve found that sometimes people like to write alone, or if someone comes up with a good melody that’s king. There’s things that we’ve identified like [points to Brian and Nadia] these two are a great songwriting pair, [points to herself and Charlie] we tend to work well as a songwriting pair. Lyrics tend to be collaborative between Nadia and myself with sprinkles thrown in but then when it comes to who sings it, it’s kind of which weapon is best for the fight. There are definitely things that her voice fits more, that mine does not. That learning process probably took us like a year to figure out.
Nadia: There’s also the performative quality to it as well because for me if you think about the performance, Alicia and I both bring to the table a very different performance style. It’s nice to have this to work with when you’re writing songs, that you don’t have to fit one performance style or another.
P-T: So I’ve seen you three times now. But three very different spaces. The first time was at Archer Ballroom, Nadia was very getting into the crowd, it was very interactive, especially when you’re performing on the floor. Then at the Empty Bottle with Nots, there’s a stage and more of a separation. And Ian’s Party is sort of in between, this DIY-ish festival.
Charlie: It’s pretty fucking DIY [laughs].
P-T: True, the vibe of it, for sure is. But as far as the interactive part of the show, is it a feeling during the show?
Nadia: I try to read the crowd. I think it’s a dialogue between me and the audience. I’m pretty cognizant of who the audience is or who the other bands are. Ian’s Party is a little all over, like let’s just do whatever. It’s instinctual. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just the nature of performance. At the end of the day I try to have a really great time on stage and express what I’m trying to express. The performance part for me is a large part of my part of contributing the band. Everything is collaborative, but for me, the performance is where I can express a lot of my energy. That’s why I get physical, that’s why I tend to interact. For me that’s where my art is.
Alicia: For the live show, I think the same thing that is maybe a learning process in terms of who sings what, or do we use backup tracks, or fuck the backup tracks? A lot of those decisions kind of evolved through playing live. It’s nice to have all those tools to play with because if there wasn’t two vocalists or if we didn’t have the instrumentation we have we wouldn’t have the same opportunities to have a wide set of songs. We joke about it but if we’re gonna play Ian’s Party, there’s probably certain slower songs we’re not going to play and somewhere that has a really nice sound set-up, we don’t want to play a down and dirty punk set.
Charlie: There’s definitely a time and a place for both.
Alicia: And when we recorded and we did it live, that probably came out of playing live.
P-T: So the new album was recorded live?
Charlie: Pretty much. Most of it was done in a couple of takes. I want to say we knocked out at least two songs on the second take.
Nadia: That creates a different energy too. That lends itself to the feeling of Odd Talk is that you do have this element of doing a lot of the instrumentation live. The keyboards parts are largely MIDI and that comes in post later as opposed to when I’m playing live, it’s just a different performance. Or an actual performance and not a computer program. But that’s even another thing that’s fun is that you get to work with it differently and it comes out differently.
Alicia: On ‘Satsuma’ when I play it live, I’m also playing bass. Recording that our producer Donnie Moore [of Absolutely Not] was like I’m going to off all the lights, there’s like maybe one red light in the corner, and he’s like face away from me. Don’t look at us. And I was like, ‘Oh, I can use my hands?’ It was fun. It was a completely different thing.
P-T: How did you decide to work with Donnie?
Alicia: Donnie had been to our shows before. We played Glitter Creeps. And he was kind of throwing a couple references at us, like “you kind of remind of this band” and he didn’t name, I don’t know, what’s some of the dumb stuff we’ve gotten in the past?
Nadia: Oh my God. A lot of people will say Sonic Youth, we’ve gotten them a couple times. Which is…fine.
Alicia: Donnie named some bands I hadn’t even heard of and looked up. I thought ‘these are great music recommendations.’
Nadia: He kind of approached us. He heard we were in the works of the album and wanted to produce it. Working with someone who’s enthused about what you’re doing is great, it brings this really great energy to the whole situation.
Charlie: Working with Brian Fox as well, the engineer, I had some very specific ideas, and he executed them, he took my ideas and made them good [table laughs]. Like he made them so that people would want to listen to them. I think the record sounds great
Alicia: It’s been so long, we’ve never done a full length, we’ve done the EPs and singles. Because it’s all self-released, all DIY. When we were ready to do an LP, we were like ‘no fucking around.”
Nadia: But also keep in mind that we’ve been playing these songs for a while before. We’ve had the benefit of being able to develop them in a live setting before going into the studio or in our practice space, that was something we never had the benefit of doing before. We were just ready to create a body of work that was a full album.
P-T: I was surprised to hear that this was mostly recorded live. The record sounds super crisp.
Charlie: It’s great.
Nadia: Brian Fox is really amazing.
P-T: I loved the last EP but it’s a very different sorta sound than the last EP.
Nadia: Our Brian recorded the last EP. And that’s just a different situation and a different setup. It was more DIY, you do what you can, we’ve had the benefit of having a lot of supportive friends, having really talented bandmates, or friends having studio space, and friends donating time. And things start to happen organically, like when Donnie came up to us.
Brian: We had a demo of every song before we went in. We just started playing it the way we demoed it. We needed some backup vocals while we were playing without having actual vocals. We were highly prepared going in which really helped. It can be frustrating in the studio when you’re not prepared because there’s so much pressure to do it right.
Nadia: I don’t know if it was over-preparedness or just preparedness. Just having everything, we’re all just very anxious people, we can’t come in here half baked, we’ve got to have everything lined up.
Alicia: That’s just kind of our mindset typically.
Nadia: You like to go into something knowing what you’re doing.
P-T: Is the record self-released?
Nadia: Odd Talk is released through No Trend. They’re a local label. They’ve been really great and supportive and have taken some of that weight off of us, but we still do have creative control. Alicia’s an amazing graphic designer and we utilize that. And me doing the directing and a lot of the treatment writing for the music videos that are live-action shot. We all come to the table with different backgrounds of knowledge that we put towards the band.
Alicia: There’s a line that a lot of people are towing right now that are in bands. I think people are realizing, especially when you do a lot of things yourself, that you can’t just focus on the music, you have to do a lot of things at once. There’s choices that you make like how much do you throw into the social media hole and all that kind of stuff. So we always have to check ourselves. Like none of us is an amazing photographer. It’s not a skill we have. One of the most amazing things you can do is to tell yourself you suck at something and find someone that is good at it. We’re good at identifying what we are good at, being honest with ourselves, and curating the world around us, to sort of bring it together.
Nadia: We’re also really lucky that we have so many talented friends who are so willing to work with us and help us out who are generous with their time and their skills and equipment. It’s a great community and with other bands. …what you put in you get out, posters for local shows and stuff like that.
Alicia: It’s outside of any one of us, in the same way that songs aren’t particularly autobiographical. It’s nice that we can all contribute skills to this thing that’s kind of outside of us. There’s a lot of filtering that goes on and a lot of time. We started writing this album about December 2016, we recorded in July, and it’s now coming out [this] month.
Charlie: I think the first two songs we wrote for Odd Talk are not on Odd Talk.
P-T: Are you planning on releasing them?
Charlie: I sure hope not [table laughs].
Alicia: It’s so funny that, for all different steps, you try to do cool things as much as you can. There’s so many happy little accidents that happen in the recording process. We had this title potentially for our last EP and we’re like ‘save it, save it’ and then we wrote all these songs, and were like ‘this all fits.’ There’s elements that contribute to what this album is all about.
Charlie: One of the nice things is that particularly with this last album, is that we don’t have a formula for it, for writing.
Nadia: It’s a really great collaborative process and it’s nice to see how everyone brings their own style and their own skills to the table. There’s a lot of different elements but it’s all pretty cohesive. It definitely makes us weird though, a lot times people don’t know where to place us. Not that we’re so strange and unusual, but it’s nice not to be pinned down by one sound. Working in post-punk is nice because it is such a big umbrella, there so many ways you can interpret that.
Alicia: I would like to think that post-punk as a whole, someone can come forward with something that if they can give us justification about why it is post-punk and we’ll be fine.
Nadia: Does it speak to my inner ennui? [laughs]
P-T: Is that what you’re going for?
Nadia: No, I’m just making fun of sad post-punk bands.
P-T: With post-punk, it can sometimes come off as a serious or cold genre sometimes. Some of your own self-descriptions include sarcasm and absurdity. Just even talking to you here, everyone has a sense of humor. How necessary is humor for the band?
Nadia: It’s essential. You can’t take yourself too serious, especially in a genre like this.
Alicia: You can get boring.
Nadia: I don’t know if it’s boring.
Charlie: I think people that take themselves too seriously are boring.
Nadia: At some point you have to laugh at yourself. Life is shit sometimes and isn’t that hilarious also? And isn’t that something you kind of roll with? I think the humor makes it human.
Charlie: My therapist calls it dissociation [table laughs].
Nadia: We don’t dissociate though…
Alicia: We are named after a dissociative disorder [laughs].
Nadia: We are, we are. What it is, is dissociating and finding humor in it and kind of rolling with that and making it more personal. Because we are kind of laughing at ourselves. At one point we were worried that people weren’t getting the humor. And the more we brought in visual elements and the more people get to see us, I think they kind of get that a little bit more. When you look at our albums and our pictures, it does look a little serious, but it’s also not the whole picture.
Charlie: I think it’s funny to have somebody look at our online presence and think ‘Wow, these are some serious motherfuckers,’ but then go see us live and get the complete opposite of that.
Nadia: But we’re not looking to be like the Ween of post-punk.
P-T: Who came up with the name Ganser?
Nadia: Alicia did.
Alicia: I trust my gut a lot and when I saw it, it felt right. But everybody thinks that our name is Cancer.
Charlie: One time we were loading into a student radio station in Olympia and we’re in this fucking elevator with this guy.
Nadia: Like a custodian or something. He was riding the elevator with us.
Charlie: …or something. And he was looking at our instruments. And he’s like ‘oh are you guys in a band?’ And we’re all like yeah and he’s like ‘what’s your name’ and I forget who said it but someone said ‘Ganser.’ And then he just stops talking and looks at the ground. And then he looks at whoever said it and then he says ‘My dog died of cancer.’ And we’re all like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And then he got off the fucking elevator and we’re like ‘Wait a minute? Did he think our name was Cancer?’ [table laughs]
Nadia: It’s kind of funny, but also cancer is not funny at all, it’s terrible and there’s nothing funny about it, but also funny that people think that’s our name.
P-T: So new album’s coming out, you’re going on tour, what are the other plans?
Alicia: We can’t really talk about any of them right now.
Nadia: Two tree festivals.
Alicia: We’re gonna play a couple two tree festivals.
Nadia: I think the plan is just sort of expand on that. We’re just gonna keep going. We’re writing new stuff. Art in general is a reaction to the world around you whether or not you like it. We’re certainly not a political band and trying to spread any messages, but this is how we’re feeling and we’re trying to communicate that one way or another.
Alicia: The thing you don’t appreciate when you first start out is that the cycle is so much behind what you think it is. We’re really excited about this [release of Odd Talk] but we’re already thinking about what’s next. Odd Talk was a response to This Feels Like Living, and you can only go so far down the sad rabbit-hole before you start laughing at it, there’s that moment where everyone is crying before it’s ‘this is actually funny.’ And now we’ve made that turn and it’s like where do we go from here? We’re gonna try to enjoy the moment which is not really our natural state of things.