By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
An element of disbelief is inherent in the Gayngs project. Just the premise of the group sounds like a setup to the ultimate Midwest indie-rock punch line: What happens when you cross neo-folkies Bon Iver, Megafaun, and the Rosebuds; electro-dance-pop acts Solid Gold and Lookbook; Doomtree members Dessa and P.O.S.; and countless others with a tongue-in-cheek challenge to re-create the vibe of a much-loved but oh-so-cheesy lite-rock radio station?
The answer, which came as a surprise even to some of the musicians on the record, is the Gayngs debut, Relayted, which happens to be producer Ryan Olson's most ambitious and inventive project yet.
Relayted doesn't sound like any of its contributors' previous projects, and it doesn't really sound like anything Olson's ever done before, either. Songs drip by at a glacially cool pace, synthesizers glint and glisten, bass guitars are slyly slapped, and the vaguely recognizable vocal melodies of so many familiar singers fade in and out in snippets of imagined realities and dreamscapes. With the exception of one track, the pace-quickening "Faded High," the album creeps by ominously; even the record's only cover, Godley and Creme's "Cry," is slowed down and distorted into a bone-chilling homage that Kevin Godley himself called "haunting." And it all climaxes with the most ridiculously irresistible track on the record, closer "The Last Prom on Earth," which combines Labyrinth-era Bowie with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for an epic jam that's too good to be a joke.
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"It wasn't a joke for too long," Olson says, crouching in the back doorway of the "Gayngs safehouse," a.k.a. Nick and Eddie in Loring Park, and blowing cigarette smoke out into an empty cobblestone alleyway. Though the initial Gayngs concept was drafted during a late-night drinking session with longtime friends Adam Hurlburt and Zach Coulter of Solid Gold, Olson says it didn't take them long to turn it into a serious endeavor. "It's definitely got a sense of humor to it, but it's not a joke album," he says. "It's not a Weird Al record."
With so many names on the masthead, it can be easy to overlook Olson's role as mastermind behind the project, and his duties as producer are something even he tends to downplay. "I'm just a wrangler," Olson says modestly, but collaborator Stef Alexander (P.O.S) steps in to clarify. "Ryan is really terrible at telling people what he does," Alexander says. "If I wasn't around, people would not have any idea what was going on with Gayngs.
"Typically, what happens is, he has a skeleton of a song, which is a drum beat at a certain BPM, and maybe a couple little sparse synthesizer notes," Alexander explains. "And then, from there, he'll invite like two or three different bass players to come and play on top of it. He'll listen to it and go through and cut out the awesome parts, and then put them in where he thinks they should be. And then from there, he gives it to the vocalists to see what they want to do with it. And a lot of people came, and the same thing happened—they sang a bunch of parts, and they sang a bunch of words, and he cut it up and arranged them into what the song would end up sounding like. So a lot of people who are on this record didn't know exactly what they did on the record until after—like, oh yeah, I remember doing that."
"Yeah, a wrangler," Olson says, grinning.
Alexander says the result of all this "wrangling" is that each singer has to relearn her parts the way Olson arranged them, sometimes with different lyrics, melodies, and approaches all together. "We know how they came together, but now we have to learn how it goes," Alexander says. "It's not too different from how a lot of things come together, it's just a lot more free-form and based off of people getting out of their box and using all that talent that they've developed in their band and their styles and pushing past it, or just kind of getting out of their element to try other stuff, or try cornier stuff, try funner stuff, try whatever."
For his part on the record, Alexander explores a softer side of his singing voice with the Luther Vandross-channeling "No Sweat." Like many of the vocalists on the record, Alexander says he was inspired to try out a new voice on Relayted. "I've never sang like that in public before," he says. "I don't really intend on doing a lot of things that Ryan pulls out of me."
With Relayted being released on Jagjaguwar this week, Olson is gathering up all 24 Gayngs collaborators for a one-off performance dubbed, appropriately, "The Last Prom on Earth," which will take over First Avenue Friday night. "We've got a shitload of balloons, a shitload of gossamer, a shitload of streamers," he says, laughing. "We're just going to try to make it as gaudy as hell. Try to fuck that place up."
GAYNGS play two CD-release shows (one all-ages and one 21+) on FRIDAY, MAY 14, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775