More than two years have passed since Goner released its last record, Faking the Wisdom. But do not expect an album-release party in the near future from the keyboard-led Raleigh trio, which has crafted Springsteen-like rock epics without so much as a guitar for the last decade. Goner is done.
Well, kind of: With the same three members, Goner has rebuilt and rechristened itself as GNØER, pronounced "knower." Though the group will soon issue its excellent debut EP, Tethers Down, the members are less concerned with celebrating those five songs in public than with creating new ones and side-stepping traditional band roles—like record-release shows or familiar rock 'n' roll instruments. Where Goner was a drums-bass-and-keys band, GNØER consists only of sequencers, synthesizers and laptops.
"We're having so much fun in here that, at the end of the day, we're like, 'Should we do a show?'" says singer and keyboardist Scott Phillips inside the band's rectangular, poster-lined, cord-strewn practice space just outside downtown Raleigh. "The focus of the band has become so much more about how much fun we're having in here, which might not be very career-oriented."
"We used to joke about having a castle to go record in for weeks at a time—something that someone who had a lot of money to spend would have the luxury of doing," bassist-turned-producer Greg Eyman adds. "This is kind of like our weird version of that. We come here, and we're creating new stuff every single practice."
After almost 15 years as Goner, Phillips, Eyman and drummer Chris Dalton decided to reconfigure the band, thanks, in part, to a financial motivation. During a spring 2012 Kickstarter campaign meant to finance much of Faking The Wisdom, its fourth LP, Goner raised more than $8,500. More than a dozen backers ponied up $100 for Phillips to record a cover song of their choice; another half-dozen paid $200 for Goner to write and record their personal theme song.
That meant a lot of work, so Phillips needed a little help and ingenuity to write and record those songs without much time and money. Goner couldn't afford a proper studio treatment for the sponsored recordings and the 10 tracks that ended up on Wisdom; that would deplete the capital the band had raised.
"Greg came up with the idea of doing some of them right here in the practice space," Phillips recalls. "He had GarageBand and could produce beats, so we started doing stuff like that."
For years, Eyman had been making tracks by himself at home, influenced by the rhythmic work of European electronic acts Joakim, Hot Chip and Mitch Murder, plus stateside counterparts such as LCD Soundsystem and Lazerhawk. At first, Eyman's productions had nothing to do with the band.
"Occasionally, we would try to throw them into something," Eyman says. "This process really brought that to the forefront, as far as using a lot of those beats in what we were recording."
Eyman initially tried to use an Akai MPX8 for samples, but he became frustrated by how long it took to load each beat into the system. He spent as much time tinkering with the instrument as he did playing it. After observing the way Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn incorporated electronics into live performances, Eyman rigged up an old Mac Mini to use with the more advanced Akai APC40 controller. The approach suddenly started to bleed into everything Goner touched.
"We got good at it near the last half [of those recordings]," Dalton chimes in.
Once dominated by drums, his corner of the practice space now includes both microKORG and Alesis Micron synthesizers. The hardware reveals the more recent inspirations that Dalton—a heavy-metal obsessive who often played Goner's drums like he was backing a much heavier band—found in the vintage sounds of modern electronic acts like M83 and The Knife. He also rediscovered the work of German electronic composer Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. But really, it was the pop of Haim that pushed him to the microKORG.
"This [instrument] is horrible, cheesy and not cool at all—it's not a Moog or anything fancy," he says. "But I'd seen a live video of Haim and one of the Haim sisters was playing a microKORG. She'd go do her parts and I'd hear all those sounds that I wanted to hear in my head. I thought, 'That's got to be an easy way of getting my foot in the door and fiddling around.'"
After only a few practices, Eyman and Dalton fully shifted from a traditional rhythm section to one of electronic experimentation. They never openly discussed the transition as a trio; it's just that their momentum didn't stall. And for Phillips, the move has also meant a new, more collaborative songwriting method for the three-piece.
"It's a lot more democratic. For me, I like that because a lot of the pressure is off," he says. "We get along very well, and we always have. We can withstand some changes creatively."
While "Reunion Show"—a holdover from the end of Goner's run—follows Phillips' preferred narrative structure, the four other tracks on GNØER's debut EP are still rife with imagery, but more abstract than his writing in Goner. Like Dalton (who also drums in metal duo New Light Choir), Phillips maintains another project, the solo act Monologue Bombs. It's an outlet for work more in line with Goner's prior songs.
"The stuff we're doing is a lot denser and more expansive, so I was inspired to write more impressionistically," he says. "The hope is that I can get my more overtly character-driven, singer-songwriter tics out via Monologue Bombs, and I can have a tabula rasa when I come in here, so I'm not as tethered."
GNØER manages to avoid being confined by genre rules or restrictions, too. For Dalton, that comes from not carrying the baggage of being huge electronic music fans in the distant past. Their expectations are open, their possibilities endless. When they step into this practice space now as GNØER, they can simply explore. The five tracks on the new Tethers Down never feel circumscribed, instead bounding between the twinkling pop of "Unpreventable Crash" and the industrial thrum of "Reunion Show."
"We just started building songs from scratch, which was something we had never really done before," Eyman says. "The ability to come in here with nothing, or just a couple of beats, and start layering stuff on top and building these songs collaboratively, it just became so immediately fun."
Phillips echoes the sentiment, describing how much it excites him now to layer "weird sounds" atop Eyman's beats for a quarter-hour during GNØER's twice-weekly rehearsals.
"I used to make fun of bands that jammed. It seemed so silly. Do your songs, you know?" he confesses. "But this is great. I guess it just took the change in instrumentation for me to see the joy in it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Jammed signal"