“Anything I can do!”
Shortly before Covid-19 took over our world and turned everything upside down, I met New York-based experimental guitarist and composer Sally Gates in late December 2019 for an interview for Chain D.L.K. after seeing one of her shows with Titan To Tachyons (her trio with Matt Hollenberg and Kenny Grohowski). I noticed her love for intense, rich guitar sounds, for improvisation, odd meters, and unconventional song structures, and I hoped to find out more about this talented and versatile guitarist. We talked about her background, her work in music and about her album production.
Many things have changed since then and I was keen to get back in touch with Sally for updates about her album and how she’s been doing since we last met. So, this interview is a mix of a portrait about Sally Gates from when we met in person in December 2019 and an email interview from mid-August 2020.
Interview for Portrait: December 26, 2019
Email Interview: August 22, 2020
Where is Sally Gates from and how did she become a musician?
At 33, Sally Gates can look back on a long musical journey that stretched from New Zealand via Miami to New York. She followed various musical paths: from tours with extreme metal bands to excursions to blues music, to unexpected noise concerts, to experimental, improvised and jazz music. A journey marked by her passion for musical intensity and by her curiosity and courage to try things out and see what happens. A journey full of various challenges and surprises that she dared to dive into.
A change of location also brought about continuous changes in musical forms of expression and interests: learning by doing!
Sally was born and raised in New Zealand and started to play music when she was five years old, trying out different instruments such as piano, violin and saxophone. When she was 14 years old, she started to play guitar. She recounted that it “clicked” and that she “stuck with it”.
Sally grew up with classic rock music (such as Queen, Led Zeppelin, Rush) and music of David Bowie. Because she spent a lot of time hanging out in record stores, she discovered bands with “heavy music” such as Emperor, Morbid Angel, Cryptopsy and many other metal bands that she still enjoys listening to. From there, she rolled the history of metal music backwards, checking out Slayer, Metallica etc. Sally said that she had always loved intense guitar sounds. (Later during the interview, she also mentioned Mr. Bungle, King Crimson, John Zorn, Mike Patton, Today Is The Day as some of her biggest influences.)
About her music education background she summarized that she had a really good music teacher in high school and private lessons that helped her develop her playing. Sally joined metal bands relatively quickly, not really thinking about what to expect after she was 20. At that time she was fully committed to the experience of making music, playing shows, touring…
Sally likes to be outside of her comfort zones: finding new forms of musical expression, exploring and expanding its reach, often with possibilities she did not expect, always driven by the intention to immerse into the given experience.
Her musicality expanded with every new opportunity and she wanted to reach new horizons – away from New Zealand – and so she moved to the United States, to Miami.
Once in Miami, Sally toured with various metal bands: she played bass for Gigan and guitar for Orbweaver, performed with Goatwhore and Success Will Write Apocalypse Across the Sky. With a background in playing and writing for extreme metal bands and with an interest in speed and shredding, Sally said that at some point “things evolved” and that she started to get more and more interested in the work of musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Gary Moore, which added more feeling and emotion to her guitar playing.
One day, Miami’s big noise scene opened up a new travel route for her. At first, she wasn’t really interested in it, until one day an organizer asked her to play a solo show with noise music and she accepted the challenge. This was her first experience as a soloist with experimental / improvised noise music, and to her own surprise she really enjoyed it.
Sally also mentioned another opportunity when asked to play a small free improvised set – (on the exact day she was asked to do so). She called up a drummer she had never played with before, Davin Sosa. They went up on stage and jammed. That was when it all began for her with what she’s now doing in New York: choosing an interesting combination of people who are available to play. “Improvise and see what happens!”
In total, Sally lived in Miami for about 10 years before moving to New York in 2017.
What brought her to New York and at what moment of her musical journey is she right here and now?
In New York, Sally absorbs everything around her and learns from the people she plays with and from all kinds of music styles …
Sally already flew regularly between Miami and New York to play shows and got a glimpse of the scene here. She thought New York was “amazing” and the place she needed to be – also because she had “more friends up here than in any other city”. Everyone she admires plays in this town; She loves New York’s avant-garde and experimental music scene.
In New York, Sally is now building up a jazz vocabulary and also teaches at music schools. Learning jazz vocabulary was a new challenge for her and she said that it would be a necessity for a musician who works here. Sally explains that it was a couple of years ago that extreme metal was her “main thing”, that was “really technical, fast and crazy …”. Learning jazz would be an entirely different skill for her, and she also found that changes in her musical tastes had emerged after moving to New York.
What are Sally’s New York projects?
Her main project in New York is the aforementioned mentioned trio called Titan to Tachyons together with Matt Hollenberg (John Zorn, Cleric) and Kenny Grohowski (Secret Chiefs 3, Imperial Triumphant, John Zorn, Kilter, Brand-X).
In addition to Titan To Tachyons, she has also played improvised music with the following constellations:
Sally Gates/John Longstreth/Matt Hollenberg Trio
Sally Gates/Greg Fox/Trevor Dunn Trio
Sally Gates/Greg Fox/Shahzad Ismaily Trio
Triphammer (Trio with Johnny DeBlase, Larry Kwartowitz)
“I was always being told my timing didn’t work.”
Step by step, and with the continued support and encouragement of bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer John Longstreth, guitarist Matt Hollenberg and drummer Kenny Grohowski, Sally Gates became more confident to work on her own compositions and visions in music.
Sally started composing the music for Titan to Tachyons while she was still in Miami playing with Orbweaver. She felt that she wanted to do something that was really her own and that she wanted to compose what she wants without the restrictions of an established sound. Although she didn’t know who she was going to play this music with, she began to write her compositions the way she heard and felt that they should sound – without compromise and or rhythmic adjustments. She continued playing with Davin Sosa in Miami, who supported her ambitions and was actually the first person to play her compositions. He helped her build confidence in what she was doing and they recorded an initial demo of one of tracks.
When Sally moved to New York, she was soon asked to do a show. She asked Kenny Grohowski and Trevor Dunn to join her, and gave them the demo of one of her compositions, which was about 10 minutes long: “half of the set was this one song and then the rest of it we just kind of jammed… This was a really awesome experience!” She kept playing with Kenny and eventually booked another show. Trevor was out of town during this time and Kenny helped her out with a whole list of possible bassists to ask to join. At the time, she also jammed regularly with Matt Hollenberg and told him that she was looking for a bass player. Matt offered to play Bass VI: “So it worked out kind of perfectly!”
“It’s basically going in with the intent of just pure, creative freedom and… just kinda combine… everything that you like and put in your own voice… kinda like playing around with some different techniques… “
Although the band plays her original compositions, they also have improvised elements. Sally explained that this is inevitable when working in a band with musicians like Kenny Grohowski and Matt Hollenberg. Since Matt and Kenny were very helpful in analyzing her compositions, she had a better understanding of what exactly she was composing (for example, when it comes to odd time signatures, or as she put it, her “strange timing”). This whole process allowed her to define the musical language in her compositions and led to the final trio constellation with Matt and Kenny as Titan To Tachyons. Her fellow musicians also added their own individual parts and “cool little things” as suggestions – so, all three of them contributed to the growth of the songs by “building on layers”.
While working on compositions for Titan To Tachyons, Sally Gates came to a point in her musical journey where she could bring all of her experience, skills and expression to her first project as a band leader and producer. She got a great opportunity to grow as a musician while staying true to her own musical ideas.
Looking back on her musical journey, what were her three personal highlights?
1. To produce the debut-album with Titan To Tachyons as it is really her own work.
2. When she was invited by John Zorn to participate at an “Improv Benefit Night“.
3. When she met Regi Wooten and was invited to play with his band in Nashville, and later getting to jam with his brother, Victor Wooten, and his students.
And where does Sally see herself in the future?
She would like to get to a point where this work will be a full time job: she would love to write, compose, keep doing what she does on a larger scale, and she would like to tour again. I asked her if there were any musicians she would like to work with in the future and she said that of course she would love to play with her favorite musicians, and she specifically mentioned John Zorn, a musician from Norway named Kaada, Mike Patton and Steve Austin from Today Is The Day.
What else does she like besides music?
While she was talking about painting, she got up and showed me an acrylic painting that she had just started working on. I saw a strong connection between the music she creates and the paintings she draws: versatile styles, experimental, a great feel for colors and details. There is also an unmistakable psychedelic component in her artistic expression.
Sally told me that she likes films (Kubrick and Lynch in particular) and the connection between film composition and music composition. She also paints and does graphic design and says she can relate anything to painting, even improvised / experimental music. When asked who was her favorite painter, she answered Salvador Dali. She also does graphic design for bands she’s a part in (logos, t-shirt art, etc) and for other people. Sally also enjoys being outside, hiking, swimming, horse riding, skiing, surfing and she even had a few lessons on how to fly in helicopters: “Anything I can do!”
Since the last meeting, many things have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, including Sally’s plans for the album to be released and my plans for when to release this interview / portrait. In the meantime, she found a label for her album: Nefarious Industries. She also created the cover artwork for the LP and called the album title “Cactides“. It was released on August 14, 2020. I sent her an email to see how she was doing and asked for news and updates regarding Titan To Tachyons and “Cactides“.
Chain D.L.K.: First of all: How are you doing?
Sally Gates: Pretty good, considering. I’m grateful to be in a good living situation, with friends around, and to have access to parks and beaches in the area, and most importantly, the time to work on music and art.
Chain D.L.K.: The pandemic has a huge impact on musicians, venues, record labels and music stores all over the world. How has it affected your work/band/album release? How did you experience the lockdown and the last couple of months?
Sally Gates: It’s definitely been a challenging and weird time to put out an album. After putting years into the process, it’s very disappointingnot to be able to play shows and tour in support of it, but on the flip side, we’ve still received a ton of support and a lot of positive feedback from the release. Not counting the inability to play shows, I think it hasn’t affected online promotion too much, and causes you to be more resourceful in creating content and marketing strategies.
Lockdown was full of ups and downs. It was almost a novelty at the beginning – to see the city completelydeserted was very surreal, but there was so much uncertainty and accumulating risks, which made things pretty stressful. I was also debating whether it would be safer to return to New Zealand, or remain in New York, which was quickly becoming the epicentre.
Once I got more settled into things, I was really grateful for thetime tocatch up on an array of freelance projects that had been stacking up. Once I’d knocked out all that, it was very weird not to have anything on the calendar, no deadlines, no gigs. It’s definitely been challenging to stay motivated and inspired, when any future career in livemusic has been indefinitely cut off, and even basic things like interacting with other musicians were out of the question.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you tell us a bit more about your album “Cactides” and about the tracks on the album?
Sally Gates: Writing for ‘Cactides‘ began a few years ago, when I felt that I needed a vehicle to express my ideas in their entirety. In most of my previous bands, I had come into an existing situation, so anything I wrote had to fall into an established sound. When I first started formulating these ideas, I was back home in NZ, with just a notebook, and no guitar. Arriving back in Miami, I was able to start hashing out the ideas with drummer Davin Sosa. We recorded a demo of ‘The Starthinker is Obsolete‘ a month or two before I moved to NY. When I got booked for my first show up here, Kenny Grohowski and Trevor Dunn joined me as an improv trio, and we ended up including ‘Starthinker’ in our set, which they learnt from that demo track.
When it came time to book a second show, Matt Hollenberg volunteered to play bass VI with us, as Trevor’s schedule was too tight to fit in anything more at the time. From there things really clicked, and we kept writing, and played just one more show before entering the studio with Colin Marston.
About the tracks:
‘Morphing Machineminds‘ and ‘The Starthinker is Obsolete‘ were the first two tracks I wrote for the album, before there was even a glimmer of a band. These pieces explore more jarring elements of psychedelic, surrealistic themes. Overall, I took a lot of inspiration from Lynch, Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, Phillip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, and Red Dwarf. Obviously, none of these are musical influences. It was more about using storylines to flesh out song structures and create musical pictures.
‘Tycho Magnetic‘ began when I wrote three of the core parts whilst hungover on New Year’s Day, 2018. (I’m glad I powered through that one!) This song focused more on developing themes and variations, compared to something like ‘Starthinker’, which bombards you with idea after idea. The piece took a lot of inspiration from Baltic music, with the intro originally written on a classical guitar, and the solo approached with the qualities of a violin in mind.
‘Earth, and Squidless‘ was written after we’d played a couple of shows together as a trio, so it turned out a little different to the other songs,as there was now amore developed idea of the band in place. Matt and Kenny were more involved in the arrangement process, and gave me valuable tips for the solo sections as well.
Recording ‘Everybody’s Dead, Dave‘ was probably one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling musical experiences I’ve had. Leading a four-piece band through an improvised track for the first time in the studio was a rush, and I feel we were well able to capture an atmosphere and magic from that spontaneity. Not too mention getting to work with some of the most bad-ass musicians on the planet – my favourite part was where I got to cue Kenny and Trevor to solo together, just watching those two go off together was amazing.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you come up with the album title?
Sally Gates: ‘Cactides’ is a coined term, that alludes to journeys through hallucinogens and nature.
Chain D.L.K.: I saw your album cover artwork, you painted it by yourself, right? Can you tell us about it?
Sally Gates: Yes, both the front and back covers are 16×16″ pieces of board with acrylic, that I painted over the Christmas/New Years period while house-sitting in Greenpoint. The change of scene and isolation werevery welcome for getting into a creative mode. I’d done a lot of sketching and graphic design leading up to that, but hadn’t painted anything in years, so this was a rather daunting task at the time, as I didn’t feel I could reach my own standards for the album cover. It took about two weeks of full time work to complete, and I’m very glad I pushed through that mountain of self-doubt todo so. My method for creating abstract art like this is to essentially allow the painting to unfold without too much of a plan; painting whatever feels and looks right as I go.
Chain D.L.K.: What are your future plans for Titan To Tachyons?
Sally Gates: Writing, first and foremost. Which I guess is really the only thing most musicians can focus on now. Until we’re able to play shows and tour, I’m planning on putting out a few videos. The first will be a liveset, shot at the Sultan Room in Brooklyn, with Ghost and Cow films, sponsored by Orange Amps. We played a couple of tracks from the album, then had Trevor Dunn join us for ‘Everybody’s Dead, Dave‘. This was the first time we’ve performed it since the studio, so it was a lot of fun to revisit the piece. More info on the other videos in good time…
Visit Sally Gates on the web: