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 here 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 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 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 we wrapped up our listening session, I made my way of of the house he shares with 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.