Ever since Justin Broadrick brought his noise tinged rage to Napalm Death’s Scum 30 years ago, noise and extreme metal have been kindred brethren. Extreme metal ‘cleaned up’ as it were in the late ’90s and ‘00s, resulting in a still ongoing slew of clean, frigid strains of death and black metal, easily digestible by the masses, but ultimately symbolic of stagnation. Thankfully, in recent years a slew of artists have led a resistance against this clean interpretation of extreme metal, innovating whilst also refusing to get in line and shred atop finely honed blastbeats.
An excellent example of extreme metal’s refusal to clean up – Brooklyn experimentalist collective Gnaw have returned after four years, with a revitalized lineup and a brand new release. Cutting Pieces is a sinister slab of primal extremity, with a wide variety of instrumentation – including lap steel guitar, homemade light oscillator, a small child, and a 2002 Toshiba laptop – lending the release a distinctive character.
We caught up with Carter Thornton, one of the collective’s main meddlers, to discuss the role of noise music in Gnaw’s sound, the group’s origins and what might be lurking in the trees.
The music on your latest release seems to have a lot in common within the primal origins of black metal. Is this something that’s come about incidentally?
Whether you can overtly hear it or not, some of the songs have touch points in hardcore, which certainly has a dialogue with black metal. Is that what you’re referring to? Speaking for myself, hardcore was the first non-popular music I ever encountered, so I can’t escape it. It’s safe to say that all of us enjoy some corners of black metal, but we don’t look to it for a conscious influence and the thematic content is not that similar other than it has hopelessness and despair as some of its major ingredients. We get invited to play on black metal bills sometimes but they never end up liking us very much. Despite the weird, weird corners of that genre the majority of fans tend to be pretty orthodox.
It’s arguable that a lot of early extreme metal was influenced by noise music, how are you guys pushing the boundaries of extreme music?
There are no boundaries of extreme music. All that went out the window with musique concrète, John Cage etc. before any of us were even born. As far as how we’re different from early extreme metal, 35 years of history have occurred since the foundations were put down in the early 80s. The space shuttle exploded. Ornette Coleman died. The internet happened. We went through 3 popes. The European Union exists. We lived through 9/11. Britney Spears had a nervous breakdown. Isis cuts people’s heads off on TV. Pro Tools was invented. Billy Ocean doesn’t have any current hits on the radio. Bees are becoming extinct. All of this affects who we are and the music we make.
What we’re doing incorporates noise, but it’s not “noise” as in the genre. I’ve done some more “noise” oriented stuff in my solo material and have put out some releases on more traditional noise labels. Noise has its own culture, which we all have respect for. But in Gnaw we conceive of the non-instrumental elements as sound design, as opposed to noise.
Some members of the band are professional sound designers for TV, planetariums, etc. so they know their stuff in terms of imagining and creating specific sound environments. Like black metal, we all like certain corners of the pure/orthodox noise genre, but about 85% of noise and black metal is super boring, like anything with strict rules. There’s certainly good stuff in there but it‘s hard to find with so many thousands of copycat releases. I spend a lot of time digging. Never give up!
How did Gnaw come together originally?
Alan (Dubin, founding member, formerly of Khanate and OLD) and I knew each other from about 2000, through something unrelated to music, and one day he was wearing custom Nikes with “Khanate” embossed on the side (I’m not kidding). That was just as their first record was released. I asked if Khanate was a specialty brand of running shoes, we started talking about music and…
What is the creative process behind Gnaw – it must be difficult with the collective being formed of disparate members – how do you guys work Together?
The process is extremely varied depending on the song. We take a really long time to write and record. Sometimes it happens in a room together, working on parts and ideas like a real band, but that’s not all that frequent. We all have a lot of things in our lives aside from Gnaw and we don’t live close to each other, so we tend to make pieces/elements independently in our own zones and then figure out how they fit together.
I’ll make a lot of demos in my basement, which sometimes end up as completed songs. ‘Prowled Mary’ is one of those. Brian fits all of the elements into one mosaic and then we argue a lot about it. We usually get the basic skeleton, hound Alan to add vocals and then build around that. Brian also emerges from his studio with some monolithic elements. Dana (Schecter, of Insect Ark and formerly of Angels Of Light) will also be in the mix in terms of writing from now on. Eric really helps to turn the recordings into do-able live material.
Is there a particular narrative behind the new release?
Yes. Alan Dubin (founding member) is in the tree outside your window.
What instrumentation is present on your new release? How does it differ from your previous opus?
Take a look at the instruments list in the liner notes. We didn’t make any of that up. On all of the albums we always just use whatever is available to us. Some of it is found garbage and some of it is half million dollar recording/mixing equipment. For the first and second records, we built some instruments and oscillators, not so much this time around.
How is the Brooklyn noise scene doing at the moment?
No clue. I think it’s generally been over on a large organized scale since the No Fun Fests ended.
Cutting Pieces is out now on Translation Loss, get your copy here.
Words: Richard Lowe