When I first heard Los Angeles group Gamble House’s music, I was vaguely reminded of the soft yet driving acoustic folk-pop of Grizzly Bear. But the group is so much more than just akin to an already-established band: what started as a one-man endeavor by Ben Becker (pictured third from left) has now blossomed into a four-piece ensemble whose sprawling, ambrosial melodies would make Sufjan Stevens cry. Their eponymous album was released May 4th of this year, and after a month straight of touring the band is now back in Los Angeles. I sat down with Ben Becker at a coffee shop, anxious to know how Gamble House began:
BNB: How did Gamble House form?
BB: I started the project alone awhile ago, just writing songs in New York after I’d finished school and recording them here and there. It got to a point where I had enough material and enough ideas that I felt like I wanted to put some of them down. I decided to take a break from the city and originally, it wasn’t supposed to be for as long as it’s been. I got back here and I was mutltracking everything myself, just playing all of the intstruments and laying all of the groundwork for the songs. I spent maybe…I don’t know, three or months alone in a room, just recording myself playing the instruments and flushing the songs out. When I decided to come back here to LA, I met some people in the area who I could work with, and I ended up re-recording and developing new material and expanding upon the material that I had, and that eventually became the album.
When you were re-tooling the album, was it difficult collaborating with other musicans after working alone for so long? Or did you maintain most of the creative control?
It was predominantly oriented in that direction. For the most part, the four months I spent alone working on material served as a pretty strong catalyst for where the project was going to go. It made it more simple to lay the foundation for working with other people. I’ve played in a lot of bands, and in a lot of different contexts: anything from bass to guitar to saxophone. For this project, I think that given it was the first time I had really wanted to record my own songs and it was the first time I wanted to make a proper album of my own material, I was pretty particular about what I was going for. But now? Considering the people I’m playing with, I’m looking forward to trying a different approach with this next album. We’ve been playing together for quite a while now. I’ve never really been into the idea of ‘the band, and the dude’. I prefer to be in a band and just be part of a band. That’s why there’s a name for the project. I’ve never had a strong affinity for that style-I like being part of a group.
How do you recreate the lushly textured, almost cinematic quality of your album live?
Slowly (laughs). The people that I play with all have pretty strong backgrounds in jazz; we all grew up playing jazz at some point. I grew up here in LA, and I went to this arts high school with the bass player Keith. The other guys grew up in other parts of the country-Philly and Florida actually-but they played jazz as well, and everyone has this background in improvisation. Everyone has the capability for embellishment and understands how to create sort of impressionistic-sounding music. And the record is a pretty strong guide for how to craft the songs live. But obviously, on the record I played flute and sax and other wind instruments, and there’s trombone and cello and tons of other live sounds that we can’t possibly re-create that with only four people. So we sort of take a more streamlined route and pick key sounds or elements of the arrangements and draw them out. We use a lot of effects, in terms of the guitar and vocals. I think we’re also trying to do a different presentation of the music when we do it live versus on the album.
What do you mean?
Well, my approach to the album is strongly focused on creating a much more acoustic, orchestral, and also electronic bent. Whereas live, I think I wanted to make the music feel very cathartic; a heavier, more electric experience. For the band and for the audience. I also think that doing a more stripped-down, rock-oriented presentation is just more fun. And also less difficult to execute versus trying to incorporate all of the different elements of the album.
How did you come up with the name ‘Gamble House’?
I was driving around this area and passed by The Gamble House, and I realized that would be a perfect name for the project. The house where I was recording the tunes is very reminiscent of the Greene brothers-style, the architects that designed The Gamble House. So there was an aesthetic reference there, and some parallels to the place I was recording in. The Greene brothers moved out here from the Midwest to practice their craft, to develop their aesthetic ideas and concepts of what they wanted to do with their architechture. I kind of identified with their movement: it sort of reinfornced my rationale for choosing to name the project Gamble House.
I appreciate your time, Ben, and I only have one last question for you: do you have any pre-show rituals as a band? Anything that you do to rev you up for the performance?
Awesome. At least you’re honest!
Well, it’s true. Shots. They’re quick.
Gamble House performs next on Friday, September 17th at Grand Star Jazz Club in Los Angeles, and their self-titled debut is now available on iTunes and Amazon. For more information, visit Gamble House’s website or Myspace Page.