Wilderman’s new album, Artiface, is out today, October 19. With a nod from Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste via Instagram, saying Wilderman is “so good,” the LP debuted on Spotify and will soon be everywhere.
The record premiered on Impose Magazine, who called the album a “masterpiece,” and said, “It’s an artist’s installation of ideas and sound that holds us accountable for our apathy as a society and an individual all at once.” In an interview, Rob Gungor of Wilderman said:
“I started this record 5 years ago, seeking to explore the impact of technology on our psyche and the new human experience. Since beginning this process, I’ve found more value in the time away from screens, but I’m starting to view it as a luxury. Screen time is unavoidable now. Social media numbers are important. We can’t opt out of the game. In this time span, we’ve seen how information can be manipulated for our feeds. Digital perception has relativized everything to the point of insanity. Empathy is nearly impossible. K*vanaugh, Tr*mp, Milo Whatever His Name Was, digital bullying, flat-earthers. Life is now lived in the digital space. Identity and truth are shapeshifting and amorphous.
I would like to say that I found some hope in digging deep into the digital, but I’ve actually become complacent, and I think we all have. I was hoping to be a whistleblower, but it will mostly fall on deaf ears. We are in a stadium full of people, screaming to be heard. And yet everyone has headphones on and screens up, filtering through the noise to only consume the content they curate for themselves. Art is content. Tragedy is content.
But I still dream that we can remember ourselves, empathy, the human touch – it’s in the songs.
I hope that this album will somehow lead the listener back to a version of themselves that’s in the here and now, without comparison to others, without self-judgment.
It’s a mirror that can also be a gateway to another reality, the one we used to live in.”
In some ways, it might seem counterintuitive that Rob Gungor’s new Wilderman record deals with the increasing rift between lived experience and its digital approximation, given Gungor’s current base of operations in Marfa, Texas. Marfa is about as far as one can get — both metaphorically and literally — from coastal tech capitals, a place where a strong wind can knock the whole town offline for hours. Gungor and his partner, Simone Rubi, moved there in 2013 to start a decidedly low-fi cafe, Do Your Thing, where the patient customer will be rewarded with some of the finest coffee the Southwest has to offer.
But it’s more complicated than that, as a conversation with Gungor about the album’s recording revealed one sunny July afternoon. A deeper listen to Artifice, this new collection of yearning, polyrhythmic pop music, reveals the influence of other unexpected intersections: the digital African psychedelia explored by David Byrne, Talking Heads, and Brian Eno, the cut-and-pasted township anthems of Paul Simon’s Graceland, and the quiet resonance of Donald Judd’s permanently installed works.
Gungor decamped from Marfa to the legendary Sonic Ranch — a residential studio embedded in Chihuahuan desert, just outside of the border town of Tornillo, to start the jam sessions that would eventually become Artifice. Sonic Ranch has a reputation for producing such fascinating albums as this one, it has served as the incubator for tremendous records from Animal Collective, Beach House, The Mountain Goats, and Swans, among many others.
The list of players on the record includes members of the burgeoning Marfa community (Andy Stack of Wye Oak) old friend John Arndt (The Brilliance), Gungor’s Grammy-nominated brother Michael, McKenzie Smith (Midlake), Jeremy Harris, and Andrew McGuire. Hugo Nicholson (Radiohead, Father John Misty, Primal Scream) sat in as an engineer.
Gungor and his band spent a week at Sonic Ranch taking a hybrid of processes used for Remain in Light and Graceland as a blueprint. They recorded live improvisations with the idea in mind that Gungor would later recombine and rearrange these sounds into tangible songs. Sessions happened in a call-and-response mode, with Gungor looping a phrase on synth, and then being passed as a musical chalice through the circle of electric guitar, the percussion and drum players and finally back to Gungor to meditate on in his home studio. The end result is a complex work of digital existentialism that brings to mind Peter Gabriel’s Passion work, Joel Ford and Daniel Lopatin’s Games project and any number of pop groups that are undergirded with deep sociopolitical concerns.
Gungor has walked a winding path to this album, stopping off at the University of North Texas and Oral Roberts University, giving some hint to his unexpected background touring with Christian bands. After college he moved to California, where he produced the album Beautiful Thing by the musical collective Gungor, lead by his brother Michael. He later formed the indie-rock band OK Sweetheart with Erin Kathleen Austin.
Gungor’s first Wilderman album, 2013’s Learn to Feel, was recorded in an entirely analog setting; this collection is the opposite. As Gungor says, “That last record was me being like ‘fuck digital technology. Let’s keep things analog. There’s something between ones and zeroes that gets lost from our human spark.’”
But spending time with the work of Judd and James Turrell — two artists with deeply personal work that does not bear the mark of the artist’s hand — changed his outlook. “While it’s amazing to see the Mona Lisa and know that Da Vinci’s hands touched that, there’s something equally transcendent in Turrell’s works. Something about that made me say okay: Art is a medium and an affectation. It doesn’t have to be me coming directly through it to be connected.”
As Wilderman wrapped up the listening session, Gungor made his way around the house he shares with Simone Rubi, and through a mellow afternoon party scene that summed up the sound of Artifice: Earlier in the day, Rubi had procured a load of surplus sand from a local construction site, and had spread it out on the hard dirt and scrub brush of their front yard. A simulacra of beach life laid out under the high desert sun, complete with a kiddie pool brimming with water, an umbrella planted in between colorful towels and with a digital projection of waves visible through the front window, the sound the ocean looping through the house’s sound system, harmonizing with the high lonesome sound of the occasional gust of Far West Texas wind.
BIO by Ben Kaye of Consequence of Sound:
Enjoying a natural state of disconnection has become a nearly unattainable ideal in this increasingly digital age. Down in the Far West Texas town of Marfa, Rob Gungor did his best to unplug on the 2013 debut from Wilderman, Learn to Feel, an entirely analog album that saw its author chasing raw viscerality. Just as modish artists are drawn to recycled wood and organic material, Learn to Feel was a reaction to a world inundated with the artificial. Gungor soon realized, however, that anti-technological sentiments in a quest for neo-spiritualism only empower the very thing you’re trying to oppose. Besides, even the most primal humanity has a symbiosis with modern tools.
“A piano is a pretty advanced piece of technology when you think about it,” Gungor explains. “As a musician, we rely on technology. Before guitar was invented, we didn’t play guitar. Before auto-tune was invented, we didn’t have all this new music. It’s an interesting dynamic to me as a musician.”
Thus, where Wilderman’s previous album rejected an environment of ones and zeros, his sophomore effort, Artifice, reclaims it. In doing so, the collection of hyper-realized art pop doesn’t seek solutions like its stripped-down precursor; it only poses questions as it balances the humanistic with the computerized. Compromise, says Gungor, is how we’ll keep ourselves from getting lost in the hum. “Being completely counter-cultural, being a Luddite, doesn’t necessarily change anything. Sure, you can not use electricity or anything, but that just means you’ll sit in your house the rest of your life and nobody will hear about it.”
Instead, he decamped to the Chihuahuan Desert’s legendary Sonic Ranch studio with a team of musicians ready to embrace contemporary recording methods. Joining him to experiment with a songwriting process he once resisted were Andy Stack of Wye Oak, McKenzie Smith from Midlake, The Brillance’s John Arndt, Jeremy Harris, Andrew McGuire, and his own Grammy-nominated brother Michael. Compositions came together as a series of “call-and-response jams” where the only rule was “try to be polyrhythmic and leave space.” Gungor would start a synth loop and pass it off to someone on electric guitar, who would add their own sequence before handing it to a percussionist. Back in his home studio, Gungor would rearrange the results and manifest a fully constructed song.
As much as the techniques were Gungor reevaluating the world in which he lives, they were also a path to a more profound understanding of his musical influences. An education in jazz, The Zombies, and The Beatles led to Learn to Feel, a blues record at its core. Considering the deeper roots of that music inevitably brought Gungor to African styles and, in turn, polyrhythms. Reacquainting himself with pop music inspired by those layered sounds meant taking in the likes of Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and Vampire Weekend. He explored the collaborations of David Byrne and Brian Eno while studying the cut-and-paste style of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Remain in Light, and Paul Simon’s Graceland.
While these forebears of electronic manipulations can be heard in every looped chord of Artifice, the underlying digital existentialism is purely Wilderman. Gungor wields the full potential of technology only to obscure it with scrutiny. Lead single “Cog” moves sonically along a conveyor belt of Merrill Garbus-like vocals to cast suspicion on the algorithmic homogenization of identity: “Everybody’s moving in line/ And I can see the day when we’re all moving as one/ It’s the sad death of the individual.” Meanwhile, “Stop the Noise” is a cacophony of synthetic sounds, as if you could hear So being uploaded at 50 Mbps before it’s silenced by Gungor singing, “Can I unplug from input/ Stop the noise?”
Wilderman isn’t purporting to have any answers, and neither is Artifice. Gungor has accepted there is no escaping the Matrix; he’s merely hoping to find harmony between our human spark and the ever-prevalent electrical one. “The crux is that humans are both defined by and can be lost in technology,” Gungor says. “I’m starting to be afraid of how much our consciousness has shifted just in my lifetime. Where’s the line? It’s ultimately a question I’m asking: What can be done? Should anything be done?”
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the themes of Artifice than the gentle determination of its closing track, “Human Race”:
“Do you believe in the human race?/ I’m not sure we’ll ever change/ But as I feel your hand on my face/ I believe that love is worth the pain.