ABOVE: GARDENS & VILLA.
When we meet up with Gardens & Villa frontman Chris Lynch, it’s an 80-degree January afternoon, a prime indicator of the endless summer that is life in Santa Barbara, CA. Rewind almost exactly one year, though, and the picture is starkly different. At the start of 2013, Lynch and band members Levi Hayden, Dusty Ineman, Shane McKillop, and Adam Rasmussen were boarding a plane to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they would record the follow-up to their 2011 self-titled debut. The trip proved to be a long, claustrophobic, and at times arduous one for the California boys, who found themselves holed up alongside producer Tim Goldsworthy (Cut Copy, The Rapture) in a gear-packed studio that doubled as shelter amidst a month-long snow-in.
The result of their excursion is Dunes, out tomorrow via Secretly Canadian, a confident sophomore effort that finds the band skillfully toying with sonic tension amidst a sea of symbolic polarities. Here, elastic synths pulsate alongside Lynch’s arsenal of bansuri flutes; songs titles like “Bullet Train” and “Chrysanthemum” stand back to back; and images of purple mesas and automatic windows are uttered in the same hushed breath. Behind the scenes, Goldsworthy’s mix of analog and digital recording tactics gives the record a strikingly visceral feel, in line with the band’s all-instruments-must-be-played-live credo. As far as focal points go, Gardens & Villa’s proclivity towards juxtaposition extends even further. Their sound is a quirky hybrid of folk and synthesized ambiance. They dabble in the atmospheric, but gravitate towards bright, catchy melodies, Rasmussen’s kinetic synths providing the steely backbone for lyrics flecked with nods to nature, spirituality, and starry-eyed hippiedom.
There’s no doubt sunny SoCal has left its mark on Gardens & Villa, and now, fittingly, so has the wintry Midwest. Dunes pulls its title directly from the band’s blustery trip to the frozen shores of Lake Michigan, a day Lynch recalls as a major turning point in the album’s making, spurred by a scene far removed from the sun-dappled beaches of home. Stream the album in full below, and read on for our interview with Lynch.
ALY COMINGORE: You guys recorded with Tim Goldsworthy, who’s based in Bristol. Was Michigan just the most logical midway meeting point between the UK and California?
CHRIS LYNCH: That whole thing actually started with Tim. He originally found us through this live performance of “Orange Blossom” that we did for a blog called The Wild Honey Pie. He got in touch with us, told us he watched the video 50 times or something, then said he wanted to make a record with us. We realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t afford to go to England to record, so he recommended the Key Club in Benton Harbor. He told us they had this amazing Flickinger sound board that was custom made for Sly Stone, and a lot of gear nerdery and music exchanges ensued. Before we left, I remember him saying, “You Californians are going to trip out on this town, man. It’ll be like we’ve crash landed our spaceship on an ice planet.” And it was true; the studio felt and looked like a crashed Millennium Falcon. It was freezing the entire time we were there. Everything was covered in snow. It ended up being the perfect place to create the record.
COMINGORE: Prior to Michigan, though, you were writing out of your home in Santa Barbara. Looking back, was there a guiding force driving the process?
LYNCH: Well, there’s a lot that shaped the record, emotionally speaking. I think we feel a lot older than we did when we made the first album. We are a lot older than we were when we made the first album. Leading up to recording I was experimenting a lot with meditation, trying to dive into my subconscious and pull out a lot of things, and I feel like the record is full of that kind of stuff. It was a lot of figuring out the meanings of songs after they were written, whereas the first record was a lot more, “Let’s write a song about this.” The more I write, the more I find that I’m drawing things out of a place that I feel like isn’t necessarily from me. It’s more like a collective consciousness.
COMINGORE: How did you get into meditation?
LYNCH: I got interested in it mostly through reading books by Alan Watts and Hazrat Inayat Khan. I started because I wanted to find a way to deal with my anxiety, and because I felt like I was in kind of a creative slump. But now I do it because I like it. It’s sort of like surfing or yoga or playing music in that when you reach the state where you’re not thinking about what you’re doing you’re completely experiencing it as it unfolds.
COMINGORE: So when you’re writing lyrics, do you have characters in mind?
LYNCH: Definitely. But I find myself in all the characters, just like I find details to my life in all of the lyrics. I tend to find a lot of hidden meanings in random bits of lyrics that start out as little free writes.
COMINGORE: Do you see themes that run throughout the record, then?
LYNCH: I think so. I feel like some of the themes from the first record carried over, like the bits of nature worship. But I think the thing that really dominates this record is the pairing of nature and man-made architecture. It’s kind of a dystopian commentary on the weirdness of those two worlds.
COMINGORE: I know you guys named the album after exploring around Lake Michigan. What about that experience lent itself to becoming the title of the record?
LYNCH: It’s funny. It’s really hard to describe the energy that we felt being cooped up in that little studio space for three straight weeks after living in California our whole lives. On the day we went out, the guy that owned the studio gave us these rough coordinates and we drove for like an hour into the woods and ended up at this fucking fantastical sand dune. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, like Pismo Beach mixed with Death Valley or something. There was this fierce wind blowing, and when we got there the sun came out for the first time in a month. That afternoon all of the stress of everything just kind of fell away. We had the studio owner’s dog with us and we were sledding and jumping off stuff and playing like a bunch of kids. It was impossible to understand, but it meant a lot to us. I really do like the name quite a bit. I like what it conjures up, and that it was a really significant experience that triggered the idea.
COMINGORE: As far as musical influences go, you guys have drawn comparisons to Prince, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan. Do you feel like there are particular records or artists that had an impact on Dunes?
LYNCH: Definitely. While we were recording, pretty much every night when I went to bed I listened to Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda. We also listened to a lot of Daryl Hall’s solo stuff, and quite a bit of Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian. Tim was just a gold mine for music, though. Anytime we mentioned a band, he knew of 30 other bands that we’d never heard of.
COMINGORE: Your last producer, Richard Swift, was the same way. Are you guys picking who you work with based on the size of their record collections?
LYNCH: Totally! I feel like if Swift and Goldsworthy went head to head over who knows more about obscure music, it might never end. They could argue forever. I mean, Tim might have the upper hand because he’s a few years older—and he’s British, so he sounds like he knows more. I think that was one of the best parts about having a British producer, though; everything just sounds cooler. When he says certain words—like “rawk” or “punk” or “acid house”—you’re just like, “Ooooh. Yeah. Say it again.”
COMINGORE: Aside from accents and killer DJ sets, how did working with Tim compare to working with Swift?
LYNCH: Very different. Richard is all about establishing vibe and single takes and nailing shit. You don’t turn on the tape machine until you’re ready, and when you do, it’s a sacred zone. But he also loves mistakes. It’s kind of like Zen art, like the drunken painter that whips his hair onto the canvas and says, “Oh, it’s a mountain!” I feel like where Richard was searching for that classic vibe, Tim was searching for an otherworldly portal. He wanted to find a way for us to take ourselves out of Michigan and into this other outer universe. I’d say, if Swift is the spontaneous Zen master, then Tim is the bodhisattva who will sit and meditate on stuff for years and take his time.
COMINGORE: The album comes out tomorrow. What do you hope people take away from it?
LYNCH: I really hope they feel transported by it. I hope they can fall into it and go somewhere else in their minds, and ideally it ends up being a good place, even though sometimes it might be kind of heavy. But if people get just a tiny glimmer of someone special, or a sacred space, I’d be pretty happy to hear that.
DUNES IS OUT TOMORROW, FEBRUARY 4, VIA SECRETLY CANADIAN. GARDENS & VILLA WILL BE TOURING STARTING THIS WEEK, INCLUDING A SHOW AT MUSIC HALL OF WILLIAMSBURG ON FEBRUARY 25. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.