In many ways, Los Angeles-based musician, Ethan Gruska, considers himself a creator of collages more than he does a songwriter. And perhaps this is most evident on the second track of his forthcoming album, EN GARDE (out Jan. 24th).
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The song, “Nervous System,” first began as a lark, an ambient bit of music made with a friend. But as EN GARDE progressed, the track soon became an essential aspect to the album – it’s credits, so to speak – emblematic of its quintessential collaborative essence.
“I had every player do a take, or max two, on that song,” Gruska says of the eerie-yet-frenetic track. “Everyone that came to bless the record, everybody’s on there.”
Gruska comes from a musical family. His grandfather is the famed composer, John Williams. His father, Jay, is a film and television composer and Gruska has collaborated with his sister, Barbara, to form the pristine duo, The Belle Brigade. But his writing techniques often differ from their more rooted methods. He samples, sifts and chops. He’s a prospector of sounds, working with granular bits rather than acting as a traditional composer.
“That was my ethos during every session for this album,” Gruska says. “I didn’t want the musicians to learn the songs. I wanted them to just play and be free. I had faith in my ability to sift through everything. It yielded a lot of really happy accidents.”
Gruska doesn’t shy away from imperfections. In fact, he says, they often provide more interesting opportunities when sampling than something played perfectly. The mistakes are like blissful musical Freudian slips.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I love straight-ahead stuff and current pop music and songs with two chords, they kill me too. But I think my soul is always looking for a tangled up thing.”
The title of the new album speaks to a challenge Gruska posed to himself. En garde, of course, is what one says just before a dual. But, Gruska says, he is at the other end of that musical sabre, not any other foe. Because self-doubt is a major factor in his life, to create the record was an imperative, to conquer the maze of it and come out the other side.
“A lot of these songs are about being your own enemy and battling with all the things that happen when you don’t believe in yourself,” the musician says. “Your own voice can take you down a lot quicker than somebody else giving you a hard time.”
En Garde is a 12-track record rich in scope. It’s part-Elliot Smith (“Attacker”), part-Paul Simon (“Dialing Drunk”) and part-Kanye West (“Blood In Rain”). It utilizes Hip-Hop percussion and it sings like a whetted index finger circling the rim of a crystal glass. It’s an example of an artist mastering the craft of selection as much as any instrument.
“By sampling sounds and reversing them and sampling a whole song over itself, that does something you could never do on purpose,” Gruska says. “I’ve always been magnetized to that. What I’m doing is just choosing where something speaks.”
In many ways, Gruska breaks traditional songwriting rules. But he is no newcomer, whimsically doing what he wants. He’s studied, practiced. He’s worked with some of the world’s most accomplished musicians, including Matt Berninger of The National and Fiona Apple. These experiences, which include both playing and production, have grown his palate. He knows not to leave any take unchecked.
“’Honor thy error as hidden intention,’” he says, quoting the famed producer, Brian Eno.
The cover for En Garde is an awkwardly-humorous picture of Gruska at an early age. It’s nerdy, like a school photo you’d like to forget from middle school. But the intentional image reminds the artist of who he was when he fell in love with music, when he started to write little 8-bar songs at 12- and 13-years-old, when he first looked to other musicians for inspiration and their creativity as both a source of identity and relief.
“I can only liken it to someone like Jon Brion,” Gruska says, reflecting on his hopes for his own future. “Someone who writes songs and produces and scores and does all that stuff. I’ve always admired those people who are capable of having their own projects, their own points of view, but who are also essential behind the scenes for others.”