Gun Outfit is a deeply human band, a reliable soundtrack to the weariness and wariness of my early twenties. Their records are like Tarkovsky polaroids, folk songs for the 21st century, meditative and psychedelic, simultaneously expansive and intimate. I encourage everyone to take LSD at least once in their lifetime. I demand that everyone listen to Gun Outfit.
Carrie Keith and Dylan Sharp are punks, but they don't play punk music. I run Maximum Rocknroll, a print fanzine focused on international punk and hardcore, historically both reviled and respected for being an arbiter of what is or is not "punk." I have to make decisions every month about what we can include in our pages. Carrie and Dylan are my fellow travelers, but I couldn't make an argument for printing this interview there. I'm thrilled that it could find a home in a publication as diverse and far-reaching as The Media, a project that I consider to be psychically and ideologically aligned with MRR in many ways.
Viktor Vargyai is one of our columnists. Based in Budapest, he's a punk poet and my favorite interviewer — I'd read his conversations with just about anyone. He spoke with Carrie and Dylan about memory, gardens, and the wisdom of dreams. Dispatches from Los Angeles lead me to believe that the band has just finished recording their new full-length record. My fractured heart and fragile mind eagerly await it. --Grace Ambrose
Viktor Vargyai: Why do I feel that Gun Outfit fits perfectly to Budapest?
Carrie: Oh, because Budapest is our beginning, where Dylan and I met.
Dylan: We met in Budapest ten years ago while we were both traveling there with our friend. Strange coincidences are not so strange.
What I love the most about your music is that I feel like I have already heard your songs before—but it’s more like I just wanted to hear them. They gather memories and desires of memories. As Henry Miller said, we dream the most when we know soon we will wake up. For me, this makes the power of your music kind of non-musical. In what state of mind do you like to write songs?
Dylan: The appeal of songwriting for me has always been that it doesn’t come from the harshly analytical and critical point of view that I find myself in as a default conscious state. I have always tried to write music intuitively and collaboratively and to let go of the rational ego (the urge to survive) as much as possible—which is sometimes not much! The process always begins with some mindless strumming or picking that morphs slowly into a pattern, and when that pattern gets shared with Dan and Carrie it gets shredded and put into a new one. Yes, there is that sense of loss that you are referencing, the dream that can only be dimly retained.
Music at its best for me is honoring the dead or the dying, remembering and expressing simultaneously with your body. Music always already possesses a familiarity and the language it speaks is emotional and exuberant. That is the feeling of some dreams, and also the repetitiveness... I have that in my dreams as well. As for the state of mind, I try to keep it as blank as possible in order to keep the possibility of freedom from my own maddening patterns and behaviors alive.
Are you influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky? I feel like you are creating feelings, not just songs. Sometimes listening to your music feels like dropping mushrooms, like what Jodorowsky aimed to achieve, replicating the effects of LSD without using the substance. The Milk Music video in which you both hugely participated also reminded me of his work. I recently saw his Dune documentary where he said he wanted to have a cast made up of Spiritual Warriors.
Dylan: I would say that I am greatly influenced by Jodorowsky and others like Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Herzog, and Godard, filmmakers with a spiritual and political edge to them. Holy Mountain blew my mind when I saw it. I was convinced that I would be a filmmaker because I admired the synesthetic and comprehensive effects people like Jodorowsky could get from the combination of words, music and images. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 25 and realized that I didn’t have the social prowess or desire to fundraise enough money to make the type of movie I’d like…
Psychedelics played a massive role in my desire to continue playing for all time and my belief in the therapeutic value of art and expression. This is a whole world attitude, it can’t be confined to a sound or a genre. There must be a depth to each element, and to me the psychedelic element is just understanding for a moment that there is an ocean of meaning coming from interpretation, history and perception beneath each act and effort at representation. The song “Songwriter" on Hard Coming Down was written while I was on acid at the horse ranch where Carrie used to live and work. That version had a lot more delay on the vocals, but the psychedelic element of anything for me comes less from sound effects than a kind dark introspection that becomes increasingly expansive in its descriptive capacity so that eventually it can describe numerous things at once. These days I only take psychedelics once or twice a year, but I still think the revelatory aspect of the experience is something very valuable. It’s a powerful experience that can make you very sad unless you have friends to share it with, at least for me.
As for Spiritual Warriors: this is a philosophy. There are artists all around, but those with the integrity and courage to work outside the realm of material and social justification for their work are rare. It’s quality over quantity. We’ve been fortunate enough to find a few to work with. The individual members of Milk Music and a few other bands across the country, Jean Nagai, Reid Urban, Lauren O’Connor (who’ve done art for us)—I would say they are spiritual warriors. Oh, and I had a fast hardcore band a couple years ago with that name...so I am beginning to doubt the coincidence of it all. I have to say that I’m amazed you came to this conclusion just based on a few songs.
Carrie: Wow, thank you, I like the conclusion you have come to. I’ve been asked before if the music is attempting to put the listener into a metaphysical state and I guess I don’t plan for the listener’s response. I wouldn’t know how to and still actually have a difficult time comprehending that people are listening. We have written so many songs in different styles and experimented with LSD, mushrooms. I recently saw the Dune doc as well—it’s awesome, I loved it. Such a beautiful mind and soul with a little bit perverted humor. Filmmaking is a constant influence on my life I am thinking about it all the time. Just today Dylan gave me Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.
Some of your lyrics are so down to earth, as if they were average stories of your daily lives, told to a friend. But the music is so magical. Is this a conscious balance to make reality better? Do you try to maintain a connection between the subject of the lyrics with the sound of the music? I feel that it’s more interesting when those two are in disharmony.
Dylan: I definitely want reality to be better. I want the lyrics to have multiple meanings, so there are subtle syntax and grammar shifts to try to keep them open to interpretation or applicable to multiple scenarios even if they are about something specific. I want them to be descriptive and to be able to be interpreted as ideology, but I never want to lose sight of the reality that I am a compromised individual fumbling with strange tools I’ll never be able to fully understand within a rapidly shifting context.
There is disharmony at the center of our existence, so I just feel like the manifestation of it in our songs keeps us grounded and slightly more relevant. I do wish I could sing better though, like really croon sometimes and make the voice blend in a little more. But I’ll never be able to sing the “baby baby oh yeah oooh," although I love it in other people’s songs, because irony has been bred in the bone and I don’t always want to be sarcastically mocking something. There is an element of mistake to Gun Outfit—disharmony between music and lyrics, imperfect execution, garbled aesthetic presentation. This is an important element. When things attempt to be too perfect I don’t trust them completely. And when things are imperfect people will never buy tons of your records.
I realized that your lyrics deal often with spaces. The world, the beach, message boards, workplaces. Why is it important to connect your sounds to places and spaces?
Dylan: Spaces have their own possibilities of freedom. Within confined spaces, like the workplace (the most horrible little mental jail, at least for people with no skills like myself), the possibilities of freedom are very limited. The social spaces in which the performance of music occurs contain a possibility of freedom within shared experience. Loud music saturates space—it is an immersive experience that is slightly inarticulate. Our music isn’t very descriptive, but it is “environmentally friendly." The connection happens on its own and we choose to honor it because it is one of the most obvious things that is going on.
You are obsessed with the ocean.
Carrie: I’m a Pisces.
Dylan: The ocean is a mystical place because it is the historical source of all life on earth that emits a mind blowing sound and can accommodate total submersion. In Washington, the ocean is dark and cold, and rich people don’t build their houses there. It is just about the heaviest thing I can imagine—a swathe of human nothingness that connects and creates the world. It is the limit of freedom, and it will make you feel good or kill you.
I have just vague ideas of what Olympia looks like but I envision it being closer to nature than a big city. Through your music it felt like it has many gardens. Now you are in LA. Will you find a garden there? Are you looking for one? Has the city changed you and will it change your music?
Dylan: The nature in LA takes a different form. It is much more marginal (beautiful flowers at the edges of a lawn) but is no farther away. In Olympia, nature has a way of punishing you for believing in it, with its incessant light rainfall, and LA encourages a more superficial relationship. It is something to be cultivated. I moved to LA to escape an encroaching feeling of isolation, but of course that feeling returns, taking other forms. I don’t know about a garden—Carrie’s growing one but it dies a lot—but I have found a slight relief from thoughts that that had begun seeming dull and repetitive.
The city really only makes me understand better my specific way of relating to nature, the vaguely ritualistic wandering around outside alone or with friends and very few others, and what I value about it; its revelation of the absurdity of technology and the innate connections between all organic matter. I hesitate to attribute anything to nature itself, because it is so big and vague a concept that I can’t even begin to say something coherent about it.
The city will change our music in that it gives us opportunities to work with different people and perform in different environments. Shows in general I would say are more irrelevant to me in LA, either because I don’t care as much anymore or because they lack a coherent community behind them. I can’t tell which. But we’ve been able to record in a great environment with our friend Cundo so it has helped our music in that regard.
People seem to abandon their music after it’s written and recorded, as if it was a message in a bottle thrown into the ocean. Do you ever intend to guide your songs?
Dylan: It’s too difficult to guide the songs. All efforts at controlling presentation and reception of music seem either feeble or manipulative to me. That’s not to say I don’t want to do it, I just don’t know how. We try to make a lot of songs with different moods so the most controlling thing we can do is decide which ones to release and which sequence to put them on the record. Hopefully that suggests motion and movement through space.
Nowadays punk seems to devolve into new territories—more bands are stretching the limits of punk musically just as Swell Maps, Pere Ubu, and the Clean once did. If playing music is something one wants to keep doing as long as possible then they might need different sounds with more space in them in order to keep making records that are interesting. I know Dylan has other project that are closer to punk / hardcore, in the sense they are short, loud and noisy. Was there anything conscious about the difference in the music that you are playing?
Dylan: Songs and LPs are different and have different criteria for greatness. I think right now we are focused on putting together a diverse LP that shifts a lot between kinds of songs. Punk, to me, has always been more of an aesthetic choice about being humble and resisting the illusion that everything’s fine than it has been a coherent political statement. As a descriptive term for a sound it lost its meaning in like 1978, but it is still used to describe a tempo and a guitar tone. We are not a punk band, but because Dan and I played in hardcore bands for ten years we will never be purely a pop band either. I love playing hardcore music but it’s fun to be out of my comfort zone and to be kind of awkward. Often it felt more ‘punk’ to me to not be the band everyone loves and is moshing to, but the band that people were like “what is this shit?" about.
I want to do it for as long as possible, I think we are always going in slightly different directions. But it is so fun to play music with the people in Gun Outfit and it is so easy I don’t think it will ever stop.
Could you talk a bit about Pig’s Meat, and your relation to writing and literature and making videos and short films? I think punks are shyer about expressing their capabilities that are not connected to music, despite the fact that the fundamental idea of it is that we can do whatever we like to do. Are movies and books more sacred than music for you? Since you do these things but not as loudly as you do music?
Dylan: I actually was making zines before I was doing music seriously and writing was a much bigger form of expression for me, but yes, I was shy about it in the punk scene and would only make like ten- fifteen copies of the zines and give them to my friends. Movies and writing have different methods of distribution that end up defining the experience you have of creating them. For movies, there is not as strong of an underground community where people can tour with their crude films and make enough gas money to go to the next town. You can pay to submit to film festivals for some ineffable sense of prestige but the idea is not that appealing to most people I know who make movies. Writing is alone, read alone.
Now that I look back on it I kind of think Pig’s Meat as a blog is a slight mistake...it just doesn’t have the physical power of something you hold in your hands and it made me into an amateur blogger which is something I’m not sure I want to be, but I suppose if people in Hungary are able to read my random reflections on the shitty jobs I work it’s worth it. There’re so many ways to express the same fundamental ideas, and you can probably tell from this interview already that I’ve only got like three. Part of the appeal in working in different mediums is resisting the notion that you find a career or something you are good at and stick with it. Being good at something is only a matter of prolonged attention, and paying attention to the different restraints of the kinds of materials you’re working with can yield interesting ways to say the same kinds of things you’ve said before in other forms. The reason I do music louder is because people have generally been more interested in it and the path to take is clearer. Touring is its own reward if you like to travel, and that’s probably the main reason why I’ve put more time into music than other things, because you can travel for cheap. And there’s less talk in music—the voice I’m writing in now makes me annoyed and I want to replace it with an expressive tone or something that sounds intuitively good and cannot be broken down.
What does Gun Outfit mean?
Dylan: The words themselves have almost lost meaning. We’ve been together for around eight years, so it has changed so much that now it in a large part represents the social aspect of my identity. I’m not sure I’m completely into that, but I accept it. I am an earnest rocker or whatever. I do like that it can be interpreted in a couple ways. During our first show Carrie forgot our band name and introduced us as Gun Club. That was funny. After naming so many songs I now realize that I absolutely hate naming things and I just accept it as a name, a placeholder for the ambiguous thing inside.
Let’s say you just met and think you wanna do a band together. What were the ideas, dreams, influences you would tell, show, and tape for the other? Did such a thing happen? Like drunk e-mails saying we should make a band and sound like watching the rain on a summer weekend midday after a raging punk show drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and reading about teenagers while spinning Can records over Das Damen?
Dylan: Well our first show was just one inept Neil Young cover, “Natural Anthem." We’ve always been really into the idea of collaborating to get out of the isolated little world of your own insecurities and the familiar themes of your life...it’s so hard to actually work together. This is why we didn’t have a bass player for like four years, because it has always been more about the people involved than the sound, and we couldn’t find the right person who had the right vibe. What you said about watching the rain, drinking coffee and cigarettes is pretty right on, but also smoking marijuana and jamming is a good way to release the creativity of the stoned state, which will often recede into the background of disconnected sensuality and silence unless you give it a task.
Reading about teenagers though…more like reading eighteenth century memoirs of brash courtesans or legends, or looking at maps. We love to drive around, Gun Outfit has served as a way to open up the world for us because we can drive around it with something to do. And so many records and bands have been inspiring...hearing music coming in through the cracks in the walls, echoing distorted from another person’s room, hard rock played on a record player quietly at night, country through the windows of a parked car while sitting in the grass at a rest stop. I made so many mixtapes for the car and for Carrie, but no matter how good the songs are they get old and lost. I think she only made me one mixtape—it was Patti Smith live. Daniel has never made a mixtape for us but I always ask his opinion on the various songs.
Lots of influences, the visionary songwriters who chose rock, but Carrie and I were influenced at the beginning more by movies like McCabe and Mrs. Miller where Leonard Cohen songs creep in and then fade away. Music incorporated into a larger whole, a fragment of meaning from another stage of existence that you can’t possibly participate in all the time.
Dreams? Yes the dream of making your life into a dream, a series of vivid scenes that seem laden with a very serious meaning, but the meaning escapes first, and the images quickly after, but the emotions remain for slightly longer. All you remember is a hallway in a house that was supposed to be yours and wasn’t, and your friends acting strangely but you not thinking they were then. And love, the cliché that must not be mentioned, but the only thing that makes any experience relevant.