INTERVIEW: Gabriel Birnbaum of Wilder Maker
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by Josh Milberg
I met Gabriel Birnbaum, the lead singer of Wilder Maker, through mutual friends, a year or two ago. This last summer the band played a show with Boatwater, cbend, and Nathan Xander on a roof in Bed-Stuy on one of those hot nights when the sun sets around 9:00 and the light hangs pink over Manhattan in what is probably enough smog, gray market perfume, and hot garbage-emissions to lessen your lifespan. You see the city ripple something unhealthy like Juicy Couture after legs have quit walking. Your friends say relax, that you’re just seeing heatwaves. It’s either that or you’re crazy. And maybe you are because the streets just below you aren’t so different from the ones you’ve been judging just over the river. They’re still filled with sweating cops and wafting garbage. But the real reason you’re crazy is you’ve decided there’s reward in the heat and harsh of the city You have bands playing on rooftops as loud as you need and, in between sets, you overhear them talking about the authors they crib and which of their words they’ve worked in. What you’re hearing is music and what you’re seeing is beautiful.
Wilder Maker’s new album, Year of Endless Light came out earlier this month. I asked Gabriel about the album’s literary influences. Below is his response.
“Around the time I was finishing ‘Song For The Singer,’ my roommate Alex Morris read me a poem called ‘Monologue For An Onion’ by Suji Kwock Kim. It’s a poem about how desire destroys the desirer, and it came back to me many times while writing Year of Endless Light, in which characters starving with desire again and again fail to love one another. ‘Singer’ is about many things, but one of the main influences was my brief affair with someone to whom I was clearly a symbol of escape from some much larger personal terror: ‘When she holds me in her arms I know it is not me at all.’ When the affair was all said and done I felt power and anger but I had a hard time finding the language to express it until I heard Kim’s poem. I stole the last line, ‘A heart that will one day beat you to death.’ I loved it for the heartbeat pun but it’s also one of the purest expressions of violence of the heart I’ve ever heard.
“While Kim’s poem unified a song that was nearly complete, a sentence from Isaak Babel’s Red Cavalry spawned an entire set of lyrics in ‘Invisible Order’. ‘The breath of an invisible order of things glimmered beneath the crumbling ruin of the priest’s house,’ his narrator says, half-drunk on rum, a moment so evocative for me that I lifted it from the First Cavalry Army and Polish-Soviet War and planted it on an ex-girlfriend’s sofa by NYU. I first wrote, ‘the breath of an invisible order of things shone beneath the ruin of your parents’ house,’ in which the priest’s house became a Manhattan townhouse but eventually that detail was spirited out as it was awkward to sing and didn’t really evoke the right image.
“Later in the same song, I tried to slip in a little Eliot during a section about the difficulty of touring. On tour, you live in a state of such transience that you almost don’t exist, which is also a pretty solid metaphor for the paltriness of most human endeavor. Eliot writes ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,’ which became ‘I see my life laid out in coffee spoons/from ship to shore to ship to shore to ship to shore.’ Something about the borrowed phrase was too conspicuous, though, and I had to cut it. The poem is too recognizable. It carries such referential weight that it would wash out the rest of the lyrics, turning them into a shadow of ‘Prufrock.’ Lyrics are all about conjuring a mood, and one misstep can destroy the whole thing.”
You can get a hold of Year of Endless Light here.
Photo by Devin Tepleski