Solo albums come in many shapes and sizes. Some, like in the case Justin Timberlake, are fame grabs, attempts at being a star not tied down by any band mates (like Joey “Fat One” Fatone); some, like in the case of Albert Hammond Jr., are the result of sidemen looking for their shot at front-man perks; some are the result of a perfect blend of inspiration and accident. Kiss Full of Teeth the new album from Takka Takka’s Gabriel Levine is most definitely the latter. Performing under the name Gabriel & the Hounds, his solo effort marks the most personal music of his career. He told me, “the project started with a fake name but the songs were too close to the bone to release them under another name.”
The album, which will be released stateside on February 28th, is exactly to Levine’s vision. The albums quirks and off-center moments are what happen when an artist is allowed complete freedom to experiment. The most successful of which, is the surprising use of heavy classical arrangements. Songs will quickly move from soft guitar strums to chamber orchestra, all while never losing sight of his voice and lyric. His understated songwriting allows the record to remain grounded and feel personal.
I got to speak to Gabriel about writing and recording Kiss Full of Teeth with an all-star line-up made up of various members of the Brooklyn music scene and play a music version of the game fuck/marry/kill:
JESSE: Was there a specific moment or song that you realized what you were writing wasn’t Takka Takka music?
GABRIEL: “Lovely Thief” was definitely not a Takka song.
How would you describe this difference?
The batch of songs that became the Hounds record, pull from a different set of influences, a different palate, a different process, and a different group of musicians. They feel very different to me, approached in a more immediate and personal way. Is it like Pepsi and Coke? It’s more like grapefruits and calamari.
What made you decide that you wanted to continue down the path of this diversion?
Basically, I wanted to make a new Takka record about a specific thing. So, I set about writing songs around a set of rules, so of course, I ended up writing a ton that didn’t fit into the Takka mission statement. I shared those songs with some friends who wanted to play on them. One thing led to another, without a plan, or path and we ended up with the Hounds record.
With the new Takka Takka album set to come out soon as well, did you find yourself trying to write both at the same time?
I have written so much music in the past few years, it’s insane. It’s enough for 4+ albums worth. I hope to keep up the productivity. I am just now happy to share this music with others!
I think a song like “Lovely Thief” perfectly encapsulates the instrumentation of the record. It starts with just voice and guitar, and it sounds very much like the type of song someone would write and perform alone. But then as the song progresses, more and more orchestrated elements are introduced. When writing this song, and all the others, did you think they would have this added instrumentation?
No. Every song started out as just me and a guitar—I never anticipated the insane amount of arranging and instrumentation that would find its way into the songs in the end. As I said, I had no real plan other than to make a personal record that sounded like an [Roy] Orbison record. I guess that is a plan.
Who did the arrangements and how did you come about working together on the project?
Mike Atkinson. Our mutual friend (and my manager) Lisa Moran introduced us. They had worked together on other projects and when she heard my demos we thought some “real” instruments would sound nice on them.
How collaborative was the writing process between you two?
Mike fleshed out a lot of ideas I put together on synths or in Reason, using fake strings and horns. We worked closely on crafting the perfect orchestration. He’s amazing to work with. Having never studied music, I am always in awe of people who know what they’re doing!
The album starts and ends with what can best described as minimalist classic music. Where did this come from? What do you think it says about the rest of the record?
I was first introduced to Philip Glass in 1992 in a work called the The Voyage, commemorating Columbus’s arrival into the New World. The opera ends with a spaceship descending. Ever since that moment I have always wanted to make music like Mr. Glass. Of course I don’t and I can’t. This is my homage.
It is a solo record insomuch as it has your name on it and you wrote all the songs, but the album was made with a lot of collaborators. How did you go about finding people to work with? And what do you think it says about the camaraderie of the Brooklyn scene?
Many of the people on the record are friends and people whom I have played shows with, opened for, drank with, argued with, and love. There are so many amazing musicians here in Brooklyn and I am very lucky to have had them play on this album.
How important was it to maintain an intimacy to the recording, even when you have some many collaborators?
The core of the record is its intimacy. All the vocals and acoustic guitars were recorded in my home – in my living room (it sounds better than the bedroom). It started as “Gabe’s whisper in your ear” but with a little bombast.
Vulnerability is a major theme in the record both in terms of the lyrical content and just the fact that it’s your name on it. Was that something that you were conscious of or something that revealed itself afterwards?
I am never conscious of what I am doing. It is definitely something that is still revealing itself to me. Especially, as I prepare for shows!
Did you feel like there was less pressure with project because there are fewer expectations or more because it is you solo?
Yeah, I felt zero pressure to do anything above and beyond Takka. It was so freeing to just make music and not make a follow up record.
Where Takka Takka has explored African and World music influences, this project seems focused on Western tradition. Did you see that sonic theme working its way through the record?
I certainly tried to make a record that could sit next do Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison. It’s just where my ear was when I was recording. Just as African and Indonesian music was in my ear when I was into the last Takka record.
Was your willingness to experiment with this and in other ways a response to the freedom of being solo?
Yes, there was no “sound” that was established that I needed to think about when working on this record. The songs were what they were and the arrangements and additions were all decided by the songs themselves.
Were there certain former lead singers, whose solo records/careers you looked to for inspiration? Not just necessarily sonically but to get a sense of the psychology of releasing a side project.
No, I didn’t even think of it as a subset of music. That’s interesting. There are so many…. As I answer the obvious pops into my head. Peter Gabriel and Bryan Ferry.
Have you heard of the game Fuck/Marry/Kill?
It’s a game where you are presented three options and you have to decide which you’d fuck, which you’d marry, and which you’d kill. I wanted to try something similar but musical. It’s called Single/Album/Kill. I’ll give you three musicians and you have to decide which you’d want to record a single with, which you’d want to record and album with, and who’d you kill and why. This is a special solo projects addition.
We’ll start with an easy one: Sting, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel:
Kill Sting. Love him, but he’s too fit.
Single with Phil because he’s so pop-crafty.
Album with Peter Gabriel because that would be an experimental mindfuck.
Black Francis, Stephen Malkmus, Thurston Moore:
I will have to break the rules and say that we would have to form a Travelling Willburys style band and record at least two amazing albums together.
Chris Cornell, Darius “Hootie” Rucker, and Eddie Vedder (but he’s only going to play ukulele):
I think they already were killed off musically. No?
Last one. Gwen Stefani, Fergie, Beyonce:
Last question. I know you are finishing up the next Takka Takka album. What can we expect from it?
We just finished mixing the Takka record. It’s insane. I keep describing it as Metal Machine Music meets Burt Bacharach. But it’s more like a Pink Floyd record than anything else. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done.