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Gabriel Berezin on Ragas, Bitches Brew and Inspiration

Gabriel Berezin of the Monuments, soundfly stories, megan teraveinen,

Gabriel Berezin is a guitarist, singer and the frontman of Brooklyn-based Monuments. I sat down with him at Manhattan Inn recently to pick his brain on his musical process over many rounds of Bulleit Old Fashioneds. His band’s sophomore album Brigadune, released last year, was an exploration in duality (as he explained in a great interview with Greenpointers), led by a heavy dose of searing guitar. Tragically, much of that conversation was lost to the whiskey tides when I accidentally deleted the recording from my phone! But thankfully we were able to catch up over email to fill in the blanks about where he finds his inspiration, his most life-altering musical influences, and stealing Miles Davis albums.

What would be the backing track to your life right now?

In college, I tried my hand at acting. I was learning lines for The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, a play about a schizophrenic guy (among other things). And in it, he has some great monologues–rhythmic and fragmented. I was working at the local coffee shop and someone left a copy of [Miles Davis’] Bitches Brew in the CD player and–I hate to admit–I totally stole it. I’d never heard it before, so I became obsessed and it was on all the time. I learned all my lines to it. It reminds me now of how they did all that jazz drumming in Birdman; an actor on the verge of a nervous a breakdown.

I still listen to “Spanish Key” probably a few times a month, especially when I’m feeling particularly crazy. I have no idea how they made that track. It’s totally chaotic but it has that crazy groove the whole time. Dave Holland, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, the double drumming… I’m gonna go listen right now. I think sometimes my brain likes to take ten different steps ahead of me, simultaneously and in different directions. Life tends to be pretty linear though, and “Spanish Key” always feels like the solution to that problem. Here’s a thousand ideas at once, but we’re on the train together and it’s moving forward. It makes me feel better somehow.

What was your most memorable musical experience?

My dad got me into classical Indian music when I was pretty young. I don’t know a ton of the music, but what I do know, I love. Indian ragas have odd time signatures and unique scales, so there’s a crazy structure to them, but inside that order the sitar player and tabla player are allowed to improvise, so it’s different every time. Plus ragas correspond with different times of the day, and even different emotional states–elation, mourning, etc.

One year for my dad’s birthday I got us tickets to see Ravi Shankar. What I didn’t know was how old he was at the time. He must have been pushing 80. He walked out on stage very slowly. And then his beautiful daughter, Anoushka, strolled out to meet him. I had no idea she was so deeply mentored by him. I figured Ravi would be rusty and, since she seemed so young, I figured she might be kind of basic, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ravi was on fire the whole time and she was matching him note for note; trading riffs, staring at each other intently, then laughing when one would elaborate on the theme the other had just established. They each had their own tabla player, who were both probably the best in the world I’m guessing. Some of that is playful showmanship I’d assume, but there were other moments the ragas really make you turn inward–childhood memories I hadn’t thought of in 20 years, emotions that had been broiling under the surface I didn’t know even know were there. And all this I’m sharing with my dad who was the one who introduced me to it.

The other memory is a little more intimate. My mother used to play a lot of piano when I was a kid and she has an incredible touch. I heard her playing “Send in the Clowns” once, I loved it. I hid behind the couch near the piano to listen. I was probably 8 years old, eating a popsicle, feeling my 8 year old feelings. She and I share a lot of the same taste, a lot of the sentimental, romantic stuff. I’m currently on a campaign to get her back playing, if, for nothing else, just to hear her again.

Do you have to work to find musical inspiration? Does inspiration find you?

Yes, you have to work. Obviously you can’t sit around and wait to be inspired. (There are, like, 100 TED videos about this and I cannot watch another one!) It is great to grind at it, but there has to be some meditation. Sometimes I sludge through hours, days, and weeks of god-awful ideas just to find one good nugget, and other times I’m about to go meet a friend for dinner with an hour to kill and something just sneaks out while I’m not paying attention. Obviously it’s great to be productive, set aside some time to write. But I don’t love [working to find inspiration] just for the sake of it–I think you lose something there. I’ve tried to tell myself not to follow an idea unless there’s something about it I really love or am addicted to. Otherwise, it feels like a waste of time.

What challenges do musicians face at the moment with music being distributed at little or no cost?

It’s really hard doing something that you basically know won’t make you any real money. Fortunately, I’m not sure I ever pretended it would, so that hasn’t stopped me. In the old days, there was the dream of getting rich and famous [being a musician], but the current version is just a joke.

It’s a pretty dismal list of options. 1) Make enough money from other sources to fund your music yourself. 2) Don’t spend any money, which is hard if you want anything that sounds halfway decent. Or 3) do Kickstarter-type crowdfunding. While I’m glad that option is out there, I have a hard time asking people to give me money. I’m sure there will be a time I’ll be forced to, but I’m going to look so shameful in the “please give me money” promo video.

But [from the distribution side] it is awesome to know you can sign up with a service and suddenly your music is everywhere. That technology ruined the ability to make money, but solved the problem of making music ubiquitous at no cost. One out of two ain’t bad?

What are your favorite guitars to play?

Back in the ’70s Fender wanted to make a guitar that competed with the Gibson Les Paul. So they put the Les Paul, Seth Lover humbuckers in a telecaster. I always played single coil Fender guitars, but I wanted the Les Paul sound. I had an SG for a while, and then a Les Paul. They sound amazing, but I didn’t like how they played. My body seems to like Fenders–uncomplicated bridges, big chunk of wood. Fender re-issued the Telecaster Deluxe, so I got one, and it didn’t play very well. Then my friend Gordon found an original on Craigslist and it was cheap! A 1972 black Tele Deluxe. It’s older than me and I’m obsessed with it.

If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?

Alain Johannes playing guitar and producing, with Daniel Lanois’ drummer Brian Blade on drums. Alain Johannes is a batshit-good guitar player. He had a band with his wife in the 90’s called Eleven which I always loved. His wife died of cancer a couple years ago and he made a solo album called Spark that is heavy and beautiful. He also produced Chris Cornell’s first solo album, which is incredibly good. He tours with Queens of the Stone Age a lot and also toured with Them Crooked Vultures. He is an incredible talent.

This is a very important question, Gabe. What are your five desert island albums?

I need to make this have context. On the dessert island do we have a record player? A cassette tape player? A Zune player that can only fit 5 albums’ worth of MP3s? How much time do I have?

I’ll go right off the top of my head. In my mind, most of the planet is probably on fire and we only have time to grab the essentials and get to the chopper which will take us to the island (which I hope has a generator that can recharge the Zune player). It’s tricky because if we’re to make it to this island to begin re-populating the human race, there’s gonna be a lot of different moods…

  1. The White Album, The Beatles (for all the time)
  2. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis (for Sunday morning)
  3. Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin (for the tropical storms)
  4. Bach Cello Suites, Yo Yo Ma (for the sunsets)
  5. Purple Rain, Prince (for Saturday nights with the tribe)

Check out Monuments’ guitar-led rock at monuments.bandcamp.com.

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Megan Teravainen
Megan Teravainen

Megan is originally from the great granite state of New Hampshire and moved to New York in 2000. A history major, she utilizes none of her collegiate education except to show off at cocktail parties. She is a music lover, aspiring pianist, and a terrible air drummer.

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