Arriving onto the singer-songwriter/neo-folk landscape of the late 2000s and early 2010s with a series of EPs (Saints & Liars, Fearful Bones and Family), Seattle’s Noah Gundersen (along with his sister Abby Gundersen) hit the road and soon wowed audiences with their haunting opening sets for artists such as William Fitzsimmons. Gundersen gained more traction with his debut full-length, 2014’s Ledges, with its epic title track being played on stations across the country. The existentialism-influenced Carry The Ghost followed in 2015 on Dualtone Records. His latest release, White Noise, takes a significant left turn with more electric guitars, drums and synths than ever before as well as lyrics about the prevalence of technology in our everyday lives.
ALARM spoke with Gundersen about the new album, the “religiosity of technology” and the importance of a collaborative, creative community.
You started promoting the new record in July. Surprisingly, based on the season in which you started talking about the record, you didn’t choose “Number One Hit of The Summer (Fade Out)” as the first single. Why did you settle on “The Sound” as the song to introduce the public to the new album?
Noah Gundersen: That song [“Number One Hit”] was definitely in the running. We had a few picked out, and that was my manager’s favorite song. We talked about possibly making a music video for that one or as the official second single. “The Sound” was a little more immediate, and I think that’s why we chose it as the first single. But “Number One Hit of The Summer” is a good jammer, so I’m looking forward to playing that one on the road.
You and [Austin singer/songwriter] David Ramirez have toured a lot together, and you produced his album, Fables. You both recently released new albums with a few weeks of each other that were both left turns as to what you guys normally do. Did your friendship with David influence your writing in any way?
Gundersen: I’m really fortunate to have really talented friends. I was hanging out with some people the other day and they joked that I only listened to my friends’ music. But I like my friends’ music! I’m super proud of David and the record that he made [We’re Not Going Anywhere]. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. I know he’s pumped on it. I hope someday I can get back in the producer chair with him and we can do another record together. Mostly, I just love what he’s doing and I know he’s really happy with his new direction as well.
I think this record especially was a lesson in collaboration for me and a lesson in opening myself up to the creative people around me and allowing that input to influence my work. I think subconsciously being friends with people who are making cool stuff is a productive challenge to me. There is a little bit of competitiveness, but I think it’s friendly. We see each other making something cool, and then the bar has been raised. I think that’s awesome, and I think that’s one of the ways we grow as artists. We inspire each other and we challenge each other to not become sedentary and lazy. I think as long as we keep making good s—- and challenging each other to make good s—-, we’ll all grow.
What were some of the first songs that really got the record going?
Gundersen: It was a long process. I wrote about 20 songs before I started writing songs I was stoked on, and even then, the songs that I was stoked on went through many, many revisions. “The Sound” was one of the original tunes I had written. As I got further down into the writing process, I realized it had something slightly different than what I had done in the past, and that was a direction I wanted to explore.
The title of the record is White Noise, which is a term that can be associated with static and even relaxation to some people. But you used it as a title for a rock record. How did you come to that title?
Gundersen: There are couple of different places. For one, I feel like I’m personally constantly bombarded with data and information living in an era where everything is online always. We get constant updates on whatever the current crazy thing happening in the world is, and we are always looking at each other and getting feedback from all of these channels. There is always this noise happening in our world. There’s also a book by Don Dellilo called White Noise. That book was partially an influence because of its ideas on mortality and the absurdity of existence. But the record is really about an overwhelming sense of noise and feeling like you’re drowning in a sea of noise.
The song “Fear & Loathing” takes place in a small town bar, but is the title a reference to the Hunter S. Thompson novel/Johnny Depp film?
Gundersen: Totally. I’m a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan, and I feel like his commentary on America in the 70s and early 80s was a prelude to what we’re seeing now in the American subconscious. A lot of that feeling is encompassed in some of these small towns across America that are kind of isolated and live in this state of propaganda-fueled fear and distrust of the ambiguous Other, which embodied the town I grew up in.
Five or six years ago, your shows consisted of you on acoustic guitar and vocals and your sister Abby on violin and vocals. Since then, you’ve expanded the band to include more of your family members on other instruments. How does that family dynamic impact writing, recording and touring?
Gundersen: It’s hard to say if it really made an influence. My brother [Jonny Gundersen] is the drummer in the band now, and [White Noise] is very much a drum-heavy record. His personality really shines through. Abby has been a central collaborator in the recording process since the beginning. She writes all of the string arrangements, and I think she’s helped my work stand out as something other than traditional singer-songwriter music. Her energy is really a positive force on stage.
The writing process itself has always been me. Starting out from nothing and trying to build it into something bigger. On this record, I incorporated the band a lot more, bringing them in and letting them share their ideas to see if we could make something bigger than what I could make on my own.
Your hometown, Centralia, WA, has a small, but vibrant hardcore scene. What was that like for you as a young artist?
Gundersen: When I was growing up, the hardcore scene was all we had. We’d have shows, and there’d be a few hundred kids that would come out. It was great and was really important. I think it was the only thing that kids could latch onto in that town. I’m not sure if it’s still around anymore, but I feel fortunate to have grown up in that.
Did you ever play in any of those bands or did you focus more on the acoustic music?
Gundersen: I had a band back then called Beneath Oceans that was a post-hardcore band. We were essentially trying to be Circa Survive and Saosin. But I would go to all of the shows in garages and crummy clubs.
You live in Seattle now, which is a town that got a lot of attention for the grunge scene of the 90s. Does that scene and reputation still haunt the city in a way?
Gundersen: Seattle’s music scene has always come and gone in waves. Obviously, the grunge scene was an important part of the city’s musical history. There was the indie rock scene in the early 2000s with Death Cab for Cutie and The Long Winters and Modest Mouse. Then that had a follow-up with bands like The Lonely Forest and the Gloves and Telekinesis. That died down for a bit and there was a neo-folk revival with The Head and the Heart and Pickwick. Allen Stone was doing the soul thing. And Macklemore has been in the mix as well. There has been quite a variety of music that has come out of this city. Right now, I think the city is in a bit of a flux because it’s one of the fastest growing and expensive places to live, so it’s difficult for young artists to survive here. That doesn’t mean the scene is dead. There are still plenty of bands doing cool s—- like Silver Torches and Ruler. My brother has a band called Clone Wolf and there’s this underground garage rock that’s been happening in house shows and DIY spaces. I think music is a part of this city and will always be a part of this city. I feel just glad to be a part of it and have witnessed things come and go and then see new bands take up the mantle to continue making art.
This album definitely takes your sound into a more alternative rock territory with louder guitars and even some synth elements. Do you still have to fight against any misconceptions of being a “singer-songwriter”?
Gundersen: I try not to think about it too much. I think my priority is just to make stuff I’m proud of and that I care about and that I’m excited to perform and record. I started out under my own name a long time ago and I put a lot into building that “brand” so it made the most sense just to stick with it. I have a bunch of side projects that I’m working on though, some that have been released and some that haven’t been released. To me, it’s just a waste of time to worry about perceptions and preconceived ideas about what I’m supposed to be. People are going to have their own opinions and I can’t really change that or control it. All I can do is make stuff I care about.
Questions about your doubts of the faith you grew up in have been asked of you since the song “Jesus, Jesus”. White Noise has a song called “New Religion” that addresses those doubts in a different way with more political imagery. How did that song come about?
Gunderson: Originally, the record was going to be a concept album about entertainment and cultural identity, and then Father John Misty made the record I was going to make [with this year’s Pure Comedy]. I ultimately felt that doing a concept record would be too limiting, but “New Religion” was one of the centerpieces of that original idea. It still fits with the record I ended up making. I think we have created this new religiosity around technology and around our online identity. There’s also a certain entitlement that comes from western culture, so I tried up a lot of those ideas into that song.
What are five albums you can listen to from start to finish at any point?
From Noah Gundersen:
Grace by Jeff Buckley
Quiet Is The New Loud by Kings of Convenience
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
Stranger in the Alps by Phoebe Bridgers (She’s actually coming out on part of the tour with us, and I have been listening to that album nonstop for the last two months.)
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
White Noise was released on September 22nd via Cooking Vinyl. Noah Gundersen will be promoting the record with a US tour this fall starting October 5th. Visit www.noahgundersenmusic.com for more info.