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Sun Gods to Gamma Rays: Taking the Middle Way to A Ghost to Find

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Sun Gods to Gamma Rays Record Release Show | Icehouse | Friday, November 7
Following the release of Sun Gods to Gamma Rays' debut EP, The Water, The Wave, in late 2013, it didn't take long for the Minneapolis dream-pop quintet to start thinking about recording a full-length. The results of those creative aspirations can be found on their intoxicating new LP, A Ghost to Find, out today. The band is celebrating with a record release show at Icehouse on Friday night with Votel.

Ahead of their big show, Gimme Noise asked them how live performances shaped their studio sessions, the language barrier they had to overcome to get the rights to their cover art, and the balance between light and darkness that permeates their new material.

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Gimme Noise: How long after the recording and release of The Water, The Wave did you start setting your creative sights on putting together a full-length?

Paul Flynn (guitarist):
It was about two months. We released the EP in November last year and started writing the full length in January.

Brian Gollnick (bassist): We had a few songs that didn't make it on the EP, but only one of them made it on A Ghost to Find. After we finished TWTW, we had a much better idea of where our sound was going. We were all in agreement that we should keep the momentum going and get back to writing as soon as possible.

What musical lessons did you learn from your debut EP that you put into practice on A Ghost to Find?

Peter Bregman (keyboardist): I think we learned a lot of sonic lessons. We recorded the EP ourselves, which was fun (and cheap), but we knew we would get much better results if we weren't trying to be engineers and musicians. Joe Mabbott is a genius and a good friend, so he was the obvious choice to collaborate with on the full length.

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Brianna Kocka (vocalist): When we performed the EP live, I played keyboard for a while, and then synthesizer. People will notice now that I don't play any instruments on stage, I only sing. After making the first EP and playing it live I learned that if I want to sing well on stage in this genre of music, I really need to focus on my vocals only, so I dropped playing any instruments on the full length.

Your songs tend to find a hypnotic groove to lock in to that the rest of the track is built upon. How do you arrive at that point, creatively?

Brian: I think we arrived at groove-based songwriting very naturally. It just feels good. The foundation is drums and bass, but it's really the way that the guitar and keys transition from melodic, rhythmic parts within the groove into open, floating pads that really creates the movement and dynamics that is so important to our sound.

Brianna's vocals always seem to rise out of the ethereal shadows of the songs, and subsequently elevate each number when they euphoniously arrive. How do you all manage to highlight the vocals while also crafting your enthralling soundscapes underneath her voice?

Paul: I think we all try to be mindful of the what she's doing and stay out of the way. That and I use way too many effects pedals...

Peter: I think we're all very into how things sound, and we tend to naturally adjust our dynamics and the complexity of our parts to make room for Brianna and for each other. When you have five people making noise at the same time, each one has to think about how they fit into the full picture.

What was the Hideaway Studios experience like for you, and how long did the recording process take?

Peter: We recorded demos of all the songs a few times before we went into the studio to make sure we liked how everything sounded, but all of the final tracks (aside from some synth stuff and a few guitar overdubs) were done at the Hideaway.

Brianna: In terms of how long the recording process took, it's kind of in the eye of the beholder. We demoed the songs on the record twice before we brought them to Joe Mabbott, and then he sat with us at a practice and took notes on how he wanted to engineer the record. At that point we booked a weekend in early June and it was there that we laid down all of the basic tracks. Over the next month I would pop into the studio and record vocals. So you could say it took one month to track the record, or you could say it look three to four months to demo, track, and mix the album.

I recognize a few of the tracks from various performances I saw of yours over the summer. How did playing these songs in a live setting help them eventually take a distinctive shape in the studio?

Brianna: There are a few songs that changed the most since we began playing them live: "Simple Life" and "Make It Last." "Simple Life" is actually a pretty old song for us -- I think it was the second or third song we wrote as a band. It used to sound kind of like a Spoon rip-off, but one day in January 2014 we re-arranged it for a show at the Red Stag and it took on a whole new sound.

It was that show where we started incorporating the electronic drums that are all over this new record. We played "Make It Last" a few times over the summer, and it used to have a really wanky intro (I will take personal responsibility for making the band play it). After playing it live a few times we realized that the intro just didn't fit, so we changed it. Auditioning new songs live really gives you the chance to see how people respond to them, which makes getting into the studio and recording them a newer way all the more fun.

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There seems to be a duality of both light and darkness that courses through the album -- both in a musical and lyrical sense.

Peter: I think it was both intentional and accidental. The way we write music collaboratively, songs can have a mind of their own. When different people combine their ideas, things can suddenly take a turn that none of us saw coming. I think that a lot of these themes naturally emerged, but then Brianna took them and ran with them for the lyrics.

Brianna: I studied philosophy and myth in my undergrad, and during that time I cultivated a worldview that I call the middle way (not to be confused with the middle way of many Eastern religions). It's this idea that we embrace living in a world that has obvious binaries in order to create a middle path to follow. Because of these ideas, I often tend toward thinking about the world, and subsequently writing about the world from that perspective. I truly believe that we need both light and dark, good and bad, hot and cold, et al., in order to truly understand the world we live in. So, these things tend to come out in my lyrics more often than not.

Brian: We wrote the songs in the winter (as we tend to do), fine-tuned them during the spring, and then recorded the record in the summer. I like to think that the seasonal amounts of actual light and darkness in our daily lives through that process really influenced how the album turned out.

You produced the record along with Joe Mabbott and Joe Johnson. How did they help you capture the sound and tone you were looking for?

Peter: Both Joes are awesome. Joe Johnson is someone I've spent a huge amount of time with (we lived together for years) and I love the guy. He's brilliant at a ton of different things, and one of them happens to be '90s R&B-style vocal harmonies. He's also a fantastic audio engineer in his own right, and he always brings the party. Joe Mabbott is also amazing. He has a knack for adding in things that you would never expect and making them work. He's also an incredible mixer and has a way of shaping songs just by mixing them differently. He's one of the most talented audio professionals in the Twin Cities.

Brianna: This really was a co-produced record. The awesome tones that are all over the record come from Brian, Paul, and Peter's arsenal. That's what happens when you have audio engineers and producers in a band, they make really great sounds. Joe Johnson and Joe Mabbott were instrumental in vocal production. I remember being in the vocal box and Mabbott would pull up these weird harmonies in his Melodyne plug in and he'd say, "just trust me." I was leery at first, but damn, the record sounds awesome vocally. And Joe Johnson had all these sick R&B harmonies he had me trying out. Mabbott also snuck in some drum stuff that we didn't expect, which in the end sounded awesome. On top of that he really focused on the lows and sub-lows on this record, something that I really wanted to bring forward production wise.

Who did the cover, and what does it signify to you?

Peter: I have a weird habit of scanning Flickr for cool pictures by amateur photographers from around the world. When I first saw this image (by user hainevir). I was blown away. The tricky part is all I knew was their Flickr username and that they were in Russia. I had to track them down via social media to get permission to use the image. We managed to work through the language barrier and Sun Gods got to use the image for our record. I'm really glad it worked out.

Brianna: Peter did an awesome job finding the cover image, and he also did an amazing job doing the layout for the entire album. We are so thankful that hainevir gave us permission to use their photo, and I'm even more thankful that Peter spent so much time in Photoshop making sure our album art looked as sharp as possible.

Your record release show is with Votel, another band who released a truly lavish, textured record similar to your own. How did you all initially cross paths and how psyched are you for them to set the stage for you on your big night?

Peter: Votel is great. Brian and I have known Maggie for a while, and we were excited to do something with her new group. Mark has always been awesome to us, and did an amazing remix of one of the songs off the EP. I'm super excited to play with these guys.

Brianna: When Votel dropped their record a number of months back, I sat at work listening to the entire thing on YouTube like three times in a row. I immediately messaged Sun Gods and said, "We have to play a show with these guys, and I think it should be the record release." Luckily when I asked Maggie, she said yes. It was really that simple, and I am super excited to share a stage with them. They are making some of the best music in the Twin Cities right now.

What do you envision 2015 to be like for the band, and what are your aspirations for the group going forward?

Brianna: Our plan as a band is to play some shows locally to promote the new record over the next month, and then work on content generation for film and media over the winter. Come summer we plan on playing some bigger shows, and hopefully get hooked into the festival circuit for the summer. But who knows what'll happen, really. We're just keeping our chins up and enjoying doing what we love.

Brian: Even though this album is just being released, I think that we are all itching to get back to writing new material.

Sun Gods To Gamma Rays record release show is Friday, November 7 at Icehouse, along with openers, Votel. 21+, $8, 10:30 doors.

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