Gwenifer Raymond – Interview

Gwenifer RaymondI stumbled upon Gwenifer Raymond when I came across a glowing review of her debut album, the 100% instrumental You Never Were Much Of A Dancer, released last year. I had no idea she was Brighton-based and, later on, during the course of a conversation with an old friend, it transpired that he knew her, and was a big reason why she was eventually picked up by the esteemed American record label, Tompkins Square. Subsequently, she has been announced for this year’s The Great Escape festival. A highly accomplished guitarist, who plays in the so-called ‘American primitive’ style, I caught up with her on her lunch break.

So, you’re on a lunch break!
Yes, I am. I have a job. I make video games for a living. It pays the bills.

Your music is centred around just you, on a guitar, with no vocals, right?
Yes, it’s instrumental, with a guitar or banjo. Nothing else.

Tell me about how you got into music
I started playing when I was pretty young, about eight or nine. My nan bought me a cassette of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, which changed my life. That year I asked for a guitar. I then played guitar until my teenage years, and started playing with a lot of punk and grunge bands in the Welsh Rhondda valleys, which is where I am originally from.

What other music were you into?
My parents had pretty good taste. They had a lot of pretty cool 60s and 70s New York Greenwich Village stuff: Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and all that. I noticed that they sounded quite similar to what are disparate forms of music, punk and grunge. Actually, I don’t believe that, but to most ears they sound disparate. I know it’s a very common influence amongst those people for pre-war American blues, and Appalachian mountain music, people like Skip James, Blind Boy Fuller, Roscoe Holcombe. I was seriously into that stuff. And my favourite rock guitarist is Joey Santiago. I also love incoherent dirge. One of my biggest influences are the Butthole Surfers. I saw them play All Tomorrow’s Parties, when it was still a thing. Bloody fantastic! I like people who lie on the outside a bit, who sound like their own thing, and sound like they can’t help sounding like that.

I started to teach myself, and at some point I found a local guitar teacher, who was a shit hot blues picker. I’d been playing the guitar a long time at that point, I just wanted someone who could show me new stuff. He sort of introduced me to the American primitive thing, and played me some John Fahey records and it went from there.

You still into punk and grunge?
I still am. I play in some local bands. It’s fun. I think it’s all the same. It’s urban folk music, it has that primitive urgency.

What is American primitive?
It’s actually a phrase that John Fahey coined himself. He had no way to describe what he was playing, and it’s been taken up by anyone who plays in that style, even though it is a lot more than just American, like klezmer, and Greek folk music. It’s international primitive music really, but with the American style at the core.

Do you just perform original songs?
On the album I do one interpretation of an old Sacred Harp tune, on a dumia, but with a banjo. I play it in the banjo style. It’s a Sacred Harp song, which means it’s entirely choral. It’s the opposite of instrumental. It has no instrumentation. That’s an interpretation of a traditional tune.

Would you describe what you do as essentially a fusion of different styles and genres?
If there were infinite musical elements going into a song, it would be a bit of a mess. Every tune has its own thing which may be tied to some existing tradition. Although, to be honest, this is never consciously thought. The songs just tend to appear in whatever form they decided to.

Not a purist then!?

Tell me the story about how you ended up on the Tomkins Square label…
It’s a weird, roundabout story. It actually starts with Simon Ounsworth (our mutual friend). He was one of the original people who came to see me play in Brighton. And then he sent some of my tracks to Jeff Davison, who does the Shrunken Planet radio show on WFMU, a New Jersey-based radio station. It’s the coolest radio station in the world, some great programmes on there. Jeff liked it, and he sent it on to Josh Rosenthal, who runs Tompkins Square. He got in contact and asked me if I want to make a record. He has no impulse control! I was aware of them beforehand, because they put out some fucking great records. I have some of them. So, when he got in contact with me, I was pretty shocked.

Before this happened, was the plan to try and get your music out there?
Everyone does, but we’re all pretty bad at it. It was fortuitous for me, as I am not good at PR.

How did you end up in Brighton?
Brighton is a hub for video game development, so I came here for work. Brighton is an interesting place.

What’s the plan now?
I’m just about to go to Finland to do some shows, and some shows in London. I’m also playing in February at The Prince Albert, a matinee show, followed by a show at Green Door Store, with one of my bands, Weekend Death Cult! And I’m currently composing. A lot, but not sure when I’ll be ready for another release.

I read that you have a PhD in Astrophysics! Is that something you didn’t want to carry on with?
I got burnt out on academia, to be honest. I’m not one who has a great attention span.

Jeff Hemmings