Scott Gagner blends power-pop, synth-pop, psychedelia, alt-country, rock, and heartfelt balladry into a cohesive whole.
Sweet Sweet Music talked to him about the Talking Heads, an African Tongue Drum, moving back to live in Minnesota, the yearly wildfires, and the complicated world we live in. And about how he made BloodMoon, his fourth, and most personal, release.
You use many different musical styles. “Twice in a Lifetime” even made me think of Yello. Does the song dictate the style, or do you consciously work in a particular style when you start a song?
I’m not too familiar with Yello, but you’re in the right decade! “Twice in a Lifetime” has a slight tip of the hat to Talking Heads, one of my all-time favorites. But I digress. I’d say that the song dictates the style as it evolves organically.
Using that song as an example, it all started because I spotted an African Tongue Drum at my friend Haris’ house. I picked up the accompanying mallets and immediately played the pattern that you hear on the recording. It grew from there, adding drums, bass, Organelle pocket synthesizer, kitchen knives, etcetera.
It sat as a polished demo for a long time, as I struggled to find ways to sing over the odd 11/4 time signature dictated by the layout of the Tongue Drum. Frustrated, and with the album mix deadline only one week away, I tried the “spoken word” approach, having never done it before. We were in the middle of trying to buy a house in Minnesota (see below), so I tried reciting a “wish list” of everything I wanted in our new location. I called it “Twice in a Lifetime” for two reasons: in honor of the Talking Heads classic “Once in a Lifetime,” and because the song is about moving back to live in Minnesota for the second time in my life.
Orion is a tour de force. How did you find the suitable form here (textually and musically) to convey your message?
Thank you. Well, given that the song has three distinct sections, I’m not sure that I succeeded in finding a suitable form. But I did narrow it down to three! And if you count “Orion (Reprise),” then there are actually five sections (ahem).
Musically, I knew that I wanted the song to be built upon the descending piano motif (I was playing lots of piano during the writing of this record). Acoustic pianos are naturally very grounded and earthy, so I needed something to keep us aloft in space to fit the concept; hence the buzzing, growling vintage synthesizers that add a generous dose of “Bladerunner” retro-futurism to the mix. The violins — played beautifully by Alisa Rose — seemed to glue the two extremes together.
As for the lyrics, the concept came to me during the darkest days of the Trump administration. I was standing on my back deck one night, gazing at the stars, and I began fantasizing about Orion descending down to Earth and, well, drawing his sword on all the craven, oil-thirsty, pig-men who were busy tearing the world apart. Perhaps writing a seven-minute Celestial-Greek-Mythology-Revenge-Fantasy is not the healthiest human impulse I’ve ever had? But hey, I was feeling desperate.
BloodMoon has become a highly personal work. Was your creativity driven by personal circumstances or by your view of earthly matters? Reading back on the question, I can also imagine that many of us couldn’t separate the two in the past year.
Excellent question. For my family and me, the “earthly matters” became highly personal. Our specific location in California was close enough to the yearly wildfires that we knew we needed to make a significant change. The breaking point came on September 9, 2020, when most of us Californians woke to an ominous pink-orange sky, choked with smoke, completely blotting out the sun.
I started evaluating our options in much more primal, caveman-like terms. “Fire bad. Get family away from fire.” We sold our house in California and bought one in my native Minnesota without being able to see it in person (thanks, COVID!). Now, even though we miss our California friends terribly, we are close to my immediate family, and our lives are much less stressful overall. I’ve even stopped grunting like a caveman and carrying a femur bone as a makeshift weapon. Evolution!
And then the release is there, and people are going to like it, or not. That doesn’t seem very easy to me. How do you hope this record can be an inspiration to others?
Once you release a record, you have to be prepared for people to love it, hate it, be indifferent, or, most likely, never hear it. Aside from doing your best to get the word out, it’s largely out of your control, and therefore, not worth stressing about too much.
I write songs and make records for myself, first and foremost. I am compelled to do so whether anyone is listening or not. I do it because A) I’m in love with all aspects of the process, B) I want to grow as an artist and as a human being, and C) connecting with people through music is extremely gratifying.
As for inspiration, my goals are more modest — I just want people to hear the songs. If someone is inspired in any way after listening, that would just be icing on the cake.
We live in a complicated world. Trying to make sense of it, for ourselves and the ones we love, that, to me, is what your new record is about. Would you agree?
Complicated feels like the perfect word. Our ancestors have obviously lived through more difficult chapters in history, but those chapters may not have been more complicated. BloodMoon was only written to reflect my personal journey over these past few years. Which, though highly complicated on a personal level, was never intended as a way to untangle the “ball of snakes” that is this moment in history. It is likely true, however, that I write songs to make sense of my world. I think most artists do that to some degree.