Skip to main content
A Magazine for

The Manchester edition of Now Then is no longer publishing content. Visit the Sheffield edition.

Gareth Smith Haunting Narratives

We met after Gareth Smith had just returned from the Netherlands, playing a few dates as guest vocalist with the band Gnod. Having been in the country for only about two hours, one of the first things he said to me when we met is that he likes to cram things in and this comes across when you research his activities. It seems that there’s little he hasn’t been involved in, and it becomes an ever growing wormhole of different projects, though all lyrically driven and brought together by working with a certain group of people.

His latest project, Vanishing, is a meeting of many different parts. The music is used as a way to give place to vocals, which is the punctum of the project. There is a strange similarity in this way of working that parallels many other acts by using something closer to spoken word than sung lyrics, a slight jarring between lyrics and music in the mix as if each is fighting for a little more space. This dichotomy creates something interesting entirely within that space in between – a claustrophobia, a clinging, that brings an intensity and discomfort to the record. At times, the music and the lyrics seem to come together, and this brings forward an incredible ability to create music almost in disharmony while also pushing the listener into these places that are hard to reach, in turn pushing you further as a listener. The writing comes from an initial prompt from the sound collection of Gnod’s Paddy Shine, which then begins to form the basis of tracks, and this collaboration quickens the process, almost diffusing the intensity of working alone. Abstracted sounds thrust into the premise of a loosely defined song. Don’t mistake this for a pop record.

Like Smith himself, the lyrics are direct and honest. There’s no vagueness, something that probably comes from a working class background growing up in East Hull. This honest engagement with the listener is integral to the work. There are no smoke and mirrors. It may be slightly abstract, but that down-to-Earth, to-the-point attitude creates many access points and broadens the idea of what the avant-garde can be and who it can appeal to. Smith relocated to Manchester around 15 years ago after finding that Hull didn’t have a place for what he was trying to do, instead being incredibly bound by guitar-based music. This year saw a return for Smith, who still has family in Hull, and was part of the COUM Transmissions events which were held in the city earlier this year at Humber Street Gallery and Fruit.

He’s someone who, like many of the most interesting musicians, is very cautious about where he takes influences from, only buying a handful of records per year. It’s easy to get bogged down in a creative process by taking small parts from everywhere, eventually diluting the sound. Perhaps producers should own all the records and musicians should only have a few. This also helps the tracks to avoid becoming reactive to everything around him, which is important when creating something undoubtedly standalone, arguably avant-garde, but definitely away from the trend. He seems to do this by operating around an array of people, from working with Gnod both on musical input and as a guest vocalist for them, to playing in LoneLady’s band, as well as fostering close links with Islington Mill without really being a completely constant part of any of the projects. By being on the outskirts of so many things, this complex layer of sound seems to come from his writing and composition, both sure of itself and aware of what is around it.

Over time, Smith says his music has become more personal and through that closer to him and more of a form of expression than anything else. When asked how he would describe himself, he uses the one term that allows anything, without carrying the baggage of needing to fit into a specific place or time: artist. It’s easy to see this. The music isn’t designed to fit into any journo-dictated genre, but neither is it really difficult to access. Lyrics are imaginative and dark, but without using the usual tropes to get across the ideas, which aren’t overly complex, but are natural and at no point dumbed down in order to create a certain track. Part of this must come from the tracks being written in a way responsive to the stimulus, which allows for a natural order and composition to be curated from both parts.

Movement is another constant within the album, which may be a result of ideas coming to him whilst walking, something that gives space and time to think without being bogged down in the trivialities of the world around you. This movement, whether the constancy of the percussive attacks or those fleeting glimpses of synth swinging into the track as they fade in and out of prominence, is key to allowing the words to fall easily away into the album with the music mirroring the pace and insistency within his writing. There is something a little strange about a record which has such a strong driving force but no full band, yet it works incredibly well to create an intimacy to the work which otherwise wouldn’t have been there. But at the same time, this is always an attacking intimacy.

With Vanishing gigs rare, but on the horizon, this is another one of those rare albums, projects or acts, or whatever you want to call it, that comes along every once in a while and does something really special, creating a record which just fits into a space where there was previously a void. It isn’t for everyone, and the intensity that the project has can be unsettling at times, but that’s what it’s designed to be, and through that design there is something masterful.

Filed under: 

More Music

30 Years on Oldham Street

As the Night and Day Cafe reaches a landmark birthday, we ask those who know it well for their memories and cherished moments.

More Music