INTERVIEW: CHRIS GIBBS, The Transmission & Graphic Fiction Heroes – April 2017
By Shane Pinnegar
Chris Gibbs has been a staple on the local music scene for some twenty years, and is now releasing two EPs in quick succession: one as Chris Gibbs & The Transmission, on 15th April, at The Henhouse; and one with his power pop rock trio Graphic Fiction Heroes, on 13th May, at The Indi Bar. Cue an illuminating conversation about the art of songwriting, and the local music business itself.
Gibbs is one of the precious few full-time musicians in our isolated city. He initially forged a name for himself as guitarist in the bands F.U.L.L. (with whom he was awarded WAM’s Most Popular Guitarist Award in 1997, and the 1998 Song Of The Year, Rock category) and Kingpin (2001 Song Of The Year, Rock category). Since then he’s forged a respected solo career; won a 2013 Song Of The Year, Country category gong with Graphic Fiction Heroes; drawn crowds with popular bands Axe Cane and tribute act KISStake; made innumerable guest and session appearances; worked as a producer through his own Noise-A-Thon Studio; and continues to lecture in songwriting and the music business at WAAPA. He’s also a damn nice guy – something of a rarity in this business – and through it all, considers himself a writer more than anything else.
Read on for bonus material from our interview:
Talking about the recording of the new Graphic Fiction Heroes EP:
“My parts are recorded at my place, and then Matt [Ferguson] recorded keys at his place, and then everything kind of culminated at the Noise-A-Thon studio at my place. So I guess the problem – or the challenge – with GFH is you’ve got to get everyone available at the same time. We do what we can with a very, very hectic schedule, because everyone is in demand in a lot of other groups at the same time.
“With the Chris Gibbs & The Transmission EP, that was just something I had always wanted to do. As you know, [my solo album] Big Appetite came out in 2014. It was created largely with percussion and loops because I’m not set up for recording live drums. So it wasn’t until the line-up of Chris Gibbs and The Transmission formed, about halfway through 2014, and we got some gigs under our belt, that we worked out that Josh Gallagher, our drummer, has his home studio. So I decided, ‘you know what, I would like to hear some of the songs from Big Appetite re-done as The Transmission.’ I did remixes, remastered, and added extra guitar and bits and pieces to create the first Chris Gibbs and The Transmission EP as an experiment to see what could be done with an album that already existed.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years, and it’s basically happened that it’s all just fallen into place not only at the right time, but almost the same time. We have the Chris Gibbs and The Transmission EP launching on Easter Saturday [15 April, at The Henhouse], and we’ve got the Graphic Fiction Heroes EP coming out in May [13 May at the Indi Bar].
On the art of writing a song:
“I think the idea of struggling to smash through and come up with songs when you really need them is probably not the best way to write your best work. Over the years, I’ve tried to get myself into the habit of just writing, whether there’s something coming up or not.
“However, as a counter to that, my creativity does naturally increase when I start to look at the calendar and realise, ‘wow, there’s an opportunity here to write a whole bunch of stuff and get this happening.’ And the creativity just goes up ten-fold. So, for example, with The Transmission demos that I’m doing at the moment for the next album, every time I go to record the song that I’ve written, something else pops out on the guitar or vocally and I end up demoing that, instead. So I’m coming up with songs in two and threes, when I’m intending to record one at a time.”
The art of songwriting – like any writing – is never a cut and dried formula. Gibbs explains that he works in a variety of ways in order to ensure the creative taps stay on.
“I have to admit, on my last solo album, Big Appetite, a lot of the lyrics were actually… you could almost call them exercises. They had an intent. And it was also the first time I had written songs completely devoid of an instrument or a melody. I was just writing lyrics to get them to work on the page. And I really enjoyed that, because it made me really focus on where the words were strong and where they were lacking.
“It’s something that I’ve worked into my songwriting since – even if I don’t write in exactly that way all the time, I always make sure there’s a period where I’m writing the song with a pen and piece of paper and nothing else. Because I think the thing is, if you are a good guitar player or you’re a good singer or you’re a good piano player or whatever it is, I think that sometimes you can actually mask a reasonably average idea with good playing.
“I don’t want my songs to rely on that. I want to be able to look at that page and go, ‘right, outside of melody, and with no concept of what this song is going to sound like, that is a decent set of lyrics.’ So sometimes, I’ll sit there and these lyrics will be coming out so fast that I’ve got five or six pieces of paper and I’ve got all those songs on the go at the same time. Sometimes, I might sit for a specific period of time – days or possibly even weeks – with an idea of a song just waiting for that next thing to happen, and then pushing it a little bit and working with it, because I know there’s something special that’s coming and it’s just not quite there yet. But I will go through periods where, once I get onto an idea of a song, I’m pretty good at associating. So I’ll go, ‘well, I really love that imagery – what else is associated with that imagery? Great – now we’ve got two verses, let’s go for it.’ That kind of thing.
“I guess I’m at the point where I’ve been writing for so long and I’ve been doing this for so long. The new Chris Gibbs and the Transmission is release number fifteen for me in my career, if you don’t count compilation CDs, and if you don’t count stuff that I’ve done for other people [Editor’s note – Gibbs estimates he’s done session work, produced or co-written tracks on another thirty or more releases]. So I’d like to think that at this point in time, the various systems I’ve put in place, at least give me a good shot of putting out decent songwriting over a fairly reasonable period of time.”
On having to be dysfunctional to a certain extent in order to write meaningful song lyrics:
“I should imagine that it would be quite a scary situation to feel like you could only create said output of work if other things were imbalanced or in some sort of flux. But I know a lot of people kind of run their careers that way… I don’t think I could relate to that as well.
“Let’s put it down to this: some of the stuff I write happens because something else has happened. There’s something going on and it has to be written about. Other things are written about because, as a songwriter, in a roundabout way, I’m a writer of fiction, like anyone who’s writing poems or novels or things like that. Not all of my stuff is autobiographical, but I do put a lot of myself in a lot of the non-autobiographical stuff. So I guess sometimes, from an outside perspective, it could all seem autobiographical. But I know [which] songs definitely mean something very personal, and are commenting on my life directly, versus things that are fictional with a basis in fact.”
Of the new tracks on the Graphic Fiction Heroes EP, Gibbs says they’re not as personal – to him – as we may have suspected.
“Vicious Valentine came out in 2016 – that is based on a person, based partially on an experience that I had, but it’s complete fiction. The Great Divide is more of an ‘us’ song. I got into those around the time [we made the album] Who Will Save Us Now, when I started writing from an ‘us’ perspective and a ‘we’ perspective, rather than a ‘me, you or I’ perspective. I feel like The Great Divide is almost a follow-up or a sequel to the song Who Will Save Us Now. It’s a little bit of positivity after the question of negativity in Who Will Save Us Now.
“And it opens this EP, as well, so I guess it’s a kind of companion piece to the previous record. Bundle Of Joy is probably the song that you’re referring to. Now that song is obviously quite personal – it’s clearly a song that’s about becoming a parent for the first time – but that song is largely driven by my co-writer, Matt Ferguson, in that band, purely because of the time it was written. I’ve been a father since 2001 and that’s a new song – the ideas are very new in terms of potential parenthood, and the things that are largely more a reflection on what the woman’s role is in the coming of a child into the world. I really enjoy that song because for my co-writing on that one, I had to delve back into feelings that were quite old. My eldest son is fourteen, so I had to go over a decade back to relate to what he was talking about. Whereas, between Who Will Save Us Now and this EP, Matt’s had two children, so that song is obviously a lot more personal for him than it is me. But I really enjoyed writing it because it made me go back and have a look and have a think about what did that feel like – what was that like fourteen years ago when my eldest was born? So it was an interesting one.
“And Our Libertine is a fictional song. In fact, I’ve got this habit, of every album I do, I tend to go back into the archive. That song could have become a Kingpin song back in 2004, but the band chose something else and I put it back into the files, and I think it works well as a GFH song.”
On struggling to make ends meet as a professional musician:
“Now there’s lots of different ways you can work in the industry: you could be the career musician like me, where long ago I decided I would rather work as a musician than anything else, so I take on many things. I have the solo shows, the duo shows, and the band shows, there’s cover shows, there’s original song releases, there’s tribute acts, there’s performing as a hired gun for other people. All of those things contribute to what you would call my music career.
“Because Western Australia, as we all know, is a very expensive place to live – but I don’t see anyone’s wages, especially people who are sole traders like myself, in any industry, I don’t see their work increasing significantly or their charges increasing significantly. If anything, because of increased competition, a lot of contractors and sole traders are having to become more competitive which means their bottom line is actually decreasing.”
With expenses up, and less money to go around, the practical upshot is that what used to be a band gig becomes a trio or a duo – or even a solo gig.
“That’s right,” he says ominously. “It’s a challenging situation. I’m in a show at the Ellington Jazz Club later on in May. It’s got some graduates of mine and some existing students of mine and it’s presenting a showcase of seventies music. And the gig actually does okay, and the Ellington shows do okay. We’ve sold out the first gig but the pay packets for each member will be reasonably small and not because of anything other than there are so many people in the band – because to get that to work, we’ve got vocalists and backing vocalists and sax players and piano players to present a show that works. But the reality is, if people can only afford to pay so much for a ticket, the pie stays the same size, and the personnel keep getting bigger.”
We can’t leave things on such a maudlin note, so I ask Gibbs if seeing his WAAPA students over the years develop in front of his eyes has been inspirational.
“Yeah, it’s great,” he gushes instantly. “I don’t make a big thing about the graduates because I don’t want to claim ownership, because a lot of these people are on a trajectory and you’re simply a person that assists. But most of the time when I’m sharing someone else’s EP or someone else’s album that is being released or something like that on one of my [social media] pages, it’s either a colleague that I’ve had a lot to do with, or it’s actually someone who has, in fact, come through our ranks and we’ve seen them grow from someone who’s reasonably green to someone who’s in control and releasing their music and doing well. You can’t help but be proud of that when you go back and remember those first stages when those students first come through the doors and they don’t know what to expect.
“And you don’t know what sort of pool of students you’ve got each year. To be part of that in some small way, is really the reason that I teach. Obviously, there’s no doubt that having a supplementary income from one of the most popular and revered schools of music is excellent – I’m not going to discount that in any way, shape, or form. But I have always felt that there is a responsibility from those of us that have gone through and done it, and are doing it, and have made the mistakes and had the successes, to pass that on. This is an excellent vehicle for me to pass that on to students so hopefully they can take and shape their career in a way that will get them up more rungs of the ladder, and they can maybe take on board some advice, and learn from someone who has learnt the hard way!”
Filed Under: Interviews
About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE