“I had a plan, and that plan was simply to be inspired,” begins Pascal Gabriel. “I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but I was certainly feeling bored of pop, and bored of the tricks I’d learned. I wanted to unlearn all of that.”
For Gabriel to confess such a disdain for pop music at first sounds like he’s biting the very hand that has fed him for the best part of thirty years. From his pioneering work with samplers on tracks like ‘Theme From S’Express’ by S’Express and ‘Beat Dis’ by Bomb The Bass, Gabriel went on to write and produce countless pop hits, from Debbie Harry to Kylie Minogue to Will Young to Dido, and a cursory glance through the record collections of anyone who bought into pop music over the past three decades is highly likely to yield more than one Gabriel songwriting credit.
If that’s the Pascal Gabriel you think you know, his album Mountains And Plains – released last month by the legendary Belgian Crammed Discs imprint under his Stubbleman alias – represents an altogether unexpected proposition. Stubbleman was the nickname that the staff at Gabriel’s future wife Pippa Ungar’s Carnevale restaurant gave the unshaven patron that would generally turn up each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, evidently smitten by the owner. It immediately suggests something entirely distinct from Gabriel’s work in the pop field; something much more experimental; something altogether hairier.
Mountains And Plains is a quietly euphoric instrumental travelogue written by Gabriel while journeying across America from New York State to California. Its eleven geographically-informed pieces slot neatly into an electronically-infused modern classical canon, while also sounding only ever of themselves. They veer from wide-eyed wonder at America’s bountiful natural beauty to the ceaseless, intoxicating hum of downtown Los Angeles, containing musical gestures that are simultaneously serene and violent.
It is, in essence, the sound of a producer letting go of his inhibitions and moving in a new and rewarding direction.
Gabriel and his wife started their road-trip from the east coast of America to its most westerly points in October 2016. In among their luggage were two Brompton fold-up bicycles for exploring, a MacBook loaded with software synths, a small keyboard, a portable digital recorder and microphone (known as the Hairy Guys) and a playlist of eclectic music influenced by the trip they were taking.
At the start of the trip, the idea for what became Mountains And Plains hadn’t yet presented itself; the only thing Gabriel knew was that he wanted to do something that took him many thousands of miles away from his pop background. “I’d always loved American music,” he says. “Things like Memphis-based soul, stuff from New Orleans, jazz music and so on. I thought the trip would recharge my batteries and maybe something good would come out of it. As it progressed, I realised it was really working, and lots of great things were starting to emerge. Suddenly I had this little seed of an idea, and it got watered and it grew as the trip progressed. Just after we got to Central Texas, and then by the time we got to New Mexico, I had loads and loads of ideas.”
The concept that emerged was simple, but highly disciplined: using the Hairy Guys – a Sony PCM-M10 recorder with a Sony ECM-MS957 microphone, each equipped with a rumble-reducing windshield – Gabriel would capture the sounds of the natural environment in whatever places they’d been to that day and then write music in response to what he’d seen and heard. “We’d arrive somewhere, we’d have dinner and we’d probably be a little bit tired from the driving. We’d just hang out in town, walk round, and then I’d go home and faff around for an hour or maybe more. If an idea came to me, I’d work on that a bit more, and then if it didn’t I’d just go to bed. Generally, I would try and find an upright piano to play and sample, if there was one, really just to get an idea going. They were all sketches, basically. They weren’t finished pieces, but the melodies, the basic construction and the arrangements, were all written while we were on the road.”
Gabriel never really struggled with the composer’s equivalent of writer’s block. “It’s definitely easier to write if you experience a lot of incredible views and panoramas,” he reflects. “That’s probably why maybe some of the New Mexican and southern Coloradan days were so inspiring, because the vistas were just so incredible. In contrast, Texas is a bit flat and boring. I had to make musical decisions about what was working and what wasn’t working, regardless of the places that I loved. Some places I loved more than others. I mean, Memphis was an incredible place, I really loved it, but no piece made it from Memphis.
“It was scary at the same time as being liberating,” he admits. “For pretty much all of my musical career I’d been working with someone else, so I’d be able to turn to that person in the studio and go, ‘What do you think?’, and you’d get feedback and encouragement back. But with this project I was having a conversation with myself. I’d go, ‘What do you think Pasc?’ and sometimes I wouldn’t know the answer. Back when I still smoked, that’s the point where I’d have gone and had a cigarette and tried to figure the song out, but because I don’t smoke anymore, when I was making this album there was lots of cups of tea and walking around the block. It was a bit like Magritte: every morning, his wife would make him a lunchbox of sandwiches, and he’d go out of his front door, walk round the block, come back to his front door and go upstairs to where his studio was in the attic, and he’d do exactly the opposite in the evening. I did that a few times when I was writing this album, because I wanted to have the cigarette break, just without the cigarette.”
Aside from having someone to turn to and bounce ideas off, Gabriel admits that producing the tracks at his studios in London and France also presented unique challenges. “It was a bit more difficult, because, as a producer and a pop writer, I was very much inclined to think, ‘Let’s go really big. Let’s go Sigur Rós on this and bring on the strings!’ I realised that I needed to set myself parameters. With any project I’ve worked on, I always write down what I call the Ten Commandments – the rules of the project. It’ll be things like staying minimal, using short reverbs, smooth bass and so on. I like to think that it stops me from getting lost. I can break those rules, and that’s okay, because I’m breaking them with intent. It just limits your framework, which I think creates a kind of coherence to the work.” His Commandments for what became Mountains And Plains included phrases like ‘purposefully unrefined’, ‘minimal dynamic shifts’, ‘frame a place and a moment’, ‘sound as a memory’ and ‘say much with very little’; in aggregate, those rules have given the album the fragile, transcendent, impressionistic tone it possesses.
One manifestation of those parameters Gabriel wrote for himself was that the album would not use strings, even though their inclusion would have perhaps been entirely logical. “I love strings, and I think that there’s wonderful, wonderful music made with strings, but I just didn’t want any on this album, because I thought it would be too easy,” he confesses. “When you use strings they glue everything together, and I just wanted space. And if I didn’t want the space, I didn’t want strings to be there – I wanted something else to be there.”
Nevertheless, true to his mantra that rules can also be broken, Gabriel did add a string passage to ‘Griffith Park’, named for the landmark observatory building on Mount Hollywood that looks down on Los Angeles, a site beloved by film directors, and an important backdrop for James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. A frantic string arrangement was added to the track, designed to evoke the waking LA dawn visible from the observatory’s commanding – yet tranquil – vantage point, but in the end Gabriel reverted to his firm desire to leave the strings out. “There’s probably as much music on the album that you can hear as there was that was rejected,” he explains.
During the course of the road-trip, Gabriel accumulated some forty sketches, a testament to how excited he was by what he was experiencing each day. Sometimes his Hairy Guy recordings would feature in the tracks with prominence; on other occasions they’d be processed, stretched and altered, providing a kind of imperceptible resonance alongside Gabriel’s synths, guitars or toy drums. “On each piece they were a little bit fiddled with,” he says. “I would generally filter the rumble, otherwise you’d get this droning sound which is pretty annoying on recordings of the waves, for instance. On ‘Piety Wharf’, which is the last track on the album, it was a mixture of both processed and unprocessed field recordings from an area of New Orleans that we really liked. There’s birds, which were some of the field recordings that were there, and there’s also a kind of sound that’s also the atmosphere slowed down and stretched a lot to make the length of a recognisable note. I synced that up to the piano part, so then it’s almost like a ghost piano part behind the piano. I think it gives that melody a kind of underwater quality.”
Fourteen of the forty tracks were mixed by Gabriel with his friend Gareth Jones, but only eleven feature on Mountains And Plains. Gabriel remains unconvinced as to what he should do with the remaining mixed and unmixed pieces, namely whether they should be given away as free tracks after an unspecified period of time has elapsed, or simply left gathering digital dust on his hard drive, never seeing the light of day. “I don’t like to go back too much,” he muses. “The ones I rejected – they bore me already. It’s hard to kill your babies, but for me they devalued the others, even though some of them were more complex, or more grand, than the ones we kept. For instance, ‘Great River Road’, recorded along the Mississippi, is three chords repeated at different intervals, but it has something about it that’s special. And the others just didn’t quite have that.”
Mountains And Plains navigates us through some of America’s most incredible landscapes, along the dramatic Californian coast, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, across the unforgiving barren plains of Texas and beyond, following paths cut by America’s earliest inhabitants and new roads built to replace older ones which are left unused, abandoned and hauntingly visible from the modern freeways. Each piece was accompanied by suggested reading material that Gabriel had used when he began researching his road-trip – the poem that appends Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur (‘Sea: Sounds Of The Pacific Ocean At Big Sur’), socio-geographic maps by Rebecca Solnit, books of Ansel Adams photography, books on trains in America. Alongside the sounds he had recorded and the images he accumulated, these books added another evocative input to the moods of these pieces.
At times those moods can be uplifting, at others there seems to be a certain disappointment in the tone that Gabriel presents. “I’m quite a melancholic person,” he explains, “but I find joy in melancholy as well. I am genuinely a positive person, and I don’t revel in the past. As with everyone, some things upset me and some things touch me, but I always try to think that there is redemption, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Life isn’t an easy ride for most people, especially in some of the poorest parts of America that we visited, like Alabama. I’ve only just started to analyse it now, but if I go back to my pop work, things like the Peach album, there wasn’t that many tracks that were completely euphoric. There’s always been a little bit of a questioning quality, and I think it’s the same in this project.”
“My guideline for making music is ‘Do I like it or not?’,” he continues. “In the past I’ve worked with people who say ‘Would the A&R guy like this?’ or ‘Would the record label like this?’ or ‘Will the publisher like this?’ I can’t do that. I’ve never been very good at doing that. I can’t work by formula. I just work by feeling. That’s my compass when I’m making music.”
Pascal Gabriel will perform the tracks from Mountains And Plains at London’s Purcell Rooms on November 20, with support from Simon Fisher Turner. Not a seasoned live performer, Gabriel was faced with a difficult decision over how to present the Stubbleman tracks. “I didn’t want people to look at me too much, and so I didn’t just want to go onstage with a keyboard and a laptop. But on the other hand, to perform these pieces like they are on the album, I’d need six or seven musicians, maybe even more. I obviously physically can’t play everything myself at once.”
Instead, Gabriel alighted upon a novel idea, but one that, perhaps more than anything else, illustrates his firm commitment to the Stubbleman project and its music. “I’d heard about this guy in Berlin who designed little MIDI-to-voltage boxes,” he explains. “The boxes fire up little electric motors, and that pulls a hammer down. You give it a little impulse, it pulls the hammer down, and it’ll hit whatever instrument you attach to it.”
Gabriel spent most of summer 2018 in his shed in France building a number of instruments using these motors, each one housed in an old-fashioned hard trunk Globe Trotter suitcase, which will play alongside himself, a bassist and other musicians at the Purcell Room show. “I’m quite good at DIY,” he says, modestly. “I enjoyed making them. I bought a job lot of piano hammers from the States to get me started with a first set of vibraphones, and then I decided to make another set, this time with xylophones.” Because of their construction, and the space available to him within the Purcell Rooms, the instruments can be spread out across the stage, rather than being confined to a specific place. The result is nothing short of a theatrical, visually interesting means of presenting Mountains And Plains, somewhere between the primitive punch-card automated music of Victorian fairgrounds and the elaborate, often audacious work of Luigi Russolo’s Futurists.
Talking to Pascal Gabriel and being caught up in his enthusiastic interest for this entirely new direction, it would be tempting to think that he’d throw himself headlong into other road-trips across other countries, repeating the approach taken on Mountains And Plains. Nothing could be further from reality right now. A return to pop writing and production isn’t on the cards, however.
Instead, he has taken his enthusiasm for road cycling and used that as the basis for his next project. Titled 1:46:43, his next Stubbleman album will be an auditory evocation of his best time on the punishing Mont Ventoux in Provence. “It’s very selfish,” he laughs. “It’s not a bad time. It’s an acceptable time. I’d like to beat 1:45 but I’m not sure I’ll do it this year.”
Not for Gabriel, however, the twee concept album approach taken by Kraftwerk on Tour De France Soundtracks; instead, he used the various statistics about his performance recorded by his on-bike computer – heart rate, cadence, gradient and speed – and converted that data into four modular synth sequences derived from the length of his climb to the end of the route up Ventoux.
“You could do it on any mountain, really,” he says. “Like the US road trip Pippa and I did, it’s another journey. With this, you really push yourself to the limit, and every corner becomes an entire state, if you compare it to my current album. Essentially it’s going to be made up of different events along the climb that inspired me differently, and themes that reoccur through the whole thing – for example, something that evokes the feeling of your legs being completely dead and like you can’t go on! I can write themes for those kinds of feelings and then bring them in at different points.
“To me, it’s the same way as how Max Richter’s Sleep is made up of lots of different elements,” he continues. “It’s not a single piece. For example, there’s a few times on the climb up Ventoux where you have these very sharp turns, and I can write for those events, and allow them to repeat at different points during the whole piece.” I’m treated to a brief snippet of this work in progress as our interview concludes; at this early stage the first gestures of what will become 1:46:43 are inextricably recognisable as being Gabriel’s work, but are entirely different to the album he’s just released.
Mountains And Plains, the forthcoming live show and his new work all find Pascal Gabriel enthused and enlivened in a way that he recognises he hasn’t been for some years. “I’m really fired up right now,” he agrees. “I’m mixing different artforms and I find that really interesting after years of observing other people doing interesting things in other places from the pop world I was in.
“When I first came to London in the late 70s I mixed with lots of people from St. Martin’s College Of Art,” he recalls. “I always loved the free thinking they brought. I came from a small town in Belgium and when I came to London and I hung around with them, it was like everything was possible. They were great artists that went on to do many, many brilliant things. I’ve always wanted to do something more artistic, but, over time, pop became my raison d’etre. So what I’m working on right now is a very, very liberating thing for me.”
Mountains And Plains by Stubbleman is out now on Crammed Discs and can be purchased from the Stubbleman website. Tickets for the Stubbleman and Simon Fisher Turner show at the Purcell Rooms on November 20 2019 can be purchased from the EFG London Jazz Festival website.
Stubbleman is published by Mute Song.
All photos used with the permission of Pascal Gabriel and Pippa Ungar.
Documentary Evidence album review: here
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence