Q&A with Ethan Ward of Gangcharger
Gangcharger's Ethan Ward at the Meadowlark
Gangcharger started out as something of a side-project Ethan Ward did with a few friends. Few probably saw or remember the earliest incarnation of the band, but when it started up full force at the end of 2008, even if you didn't like the act's music, it was hard to remain in the same room and ignore the brutal beauty of Gangcharger, whose blistering volume, fragmented sounds and melodies, coupled with relentless rhythms, drew immediate comparisons to Sonic Youth and Isn't Anything-era My Bloody Valentine.
We recently spoke at length with Ward about the roots of Gangcharger, his love of '90s hip-hop, his utter fascination with Denver underground music, and the unspoken glass ceiling for such bands given the climate of our city's music industry, and how that sometimes warps expectations and aspirations.
Westword: You were in the experimental band Mansfield Ghost. Did Gangcharger start after that band was over, and how does your songwriting differ between both projects?
Ethan Ward: Gangcharger as it is now, started after that project was over. But once, during my time with Mansfield Ghost, we had been invited to play a show at the Fox for a skate video release party - for Meta and Null. We didn't have a drummer so we decided to do another band anyway.
We had three weeks to put it together, and we had a buddy in the neighborhood named Gordon Koch - he's a crazy metal drummer. He lived behind us, and we asked him to play the show, and it worked out; we recorded two songs, and played the Fox. Another guy, Jim Murray, played that show, too, on guitar.
Gangcharger started being my name for other stuff I was doing that wasn't Mansfield Ghost. Mansfield Ghost was always supposed to be much noisier and more messed up than it was. I think we just weren't good enough to pull that off, or it just didn't happen that way. Most of the drummers we played with were more into more traditional rock, and didn't like that as much.
When we started doing Gangcharger the way it is now, it was closer to a noise band. We weren't trying to be like Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. It's probably way less noisy than I wanted it to be. My original vision was for it to be three minute long songs comprised of static, fucked-up, noise-assault craziness -- like old Magik Markers. No one would do that with me, so it didn't end up being that. I was trying to make it as noisy and as messed up as possible but that's not where everyone wanted to go.
WW: You use Fender Jaguars, and have kind of a gritty sound. How did you come to learn about and cultivate that sort of sound in your music?
EW: The first guitar I had was a Les Paul. This girl I was dating years ago bought it for me, and I hadn't been playing guitar at that point - in 2002 or 2003. When I started learning about sounds and how guitar sounds I realized, "Oh, this guitar sounds like Pearl Jam!" I hated it. I went to Robb's Music in Boulder, and I was looking at a Fender Stratocaster, but I didn't really like it.
But they had a Jaguar, and I got it. I got into that and got another one because I didn't want to switch guitars and have to switch settings on the amp, when I switch guitars. It made me understand why Sonic Youth has twenty of the same guitar - Jazzmasters. Playing those guitars force their sound on your music a tiny bit.
Long before I ever played guitar, the first thing I'd be listening for in music was the guitar sound, and I got into making different sounds right away, before actually learning to play the guitar. I was never interested in being good at playing guitar; all I ever cared about was making songs that had cool sounds.
WW: When did you first get exposed to underground and experimental music?
EW: From skate videos when I was really young. From 1992-1994 - right around when I first started getting into music. All the classic indie stuff from that time period -- I heard it all. And on the back of Thrasher magazine. There were ads for whatever music, and I thought, "If it's in Thrasher it's probably cool." I'm from Brooklyn, and you hear different kinds of music in bigger cities.
WW: You're known for being outspokenly picky about music. Is there anything you've been really into of late?
EW: I'm bad about listening to new music in general but I pretty much just listen to '90s hip-hop at my house -- old Wu-Tang stuff, all their solo projects, Mobb Deep, Ghostface, Capone and Noriega. New York City, '90s rap stuff. RZA is a genius. He pretty much did the production on those solo albums. Sometimes he'll rap about some new beat making machine he just got, what new recording he got -- names of microphones. The point being is that I just listen to that on Pandora or to Denver bands.
The most important music, what made me want to do it, if I hadn't seen it I wouldn't be doing this, is all those Denver bands from 2002-2004: Bright Channel, Tarmints, Hot IQs, Nightingale, Matson Jones, Monofog -- a lot of those bands you've referred to as "The Class of 2002."
I didn't even know how to play music then, really. I saw Bright Channel play at Bender's with Matson Jones in front of like fifteen people, and everyone left after Matson Jones played. Nobody was there.
I started going to shows and I didn't care if people were there, because I was so far removed from whether or not a band was "doing well." Instead, it was just like, "Whoa, there are bands this good around here." It just blew my mind and I thought, "I'm going to get a fucking guitar.
I always wanted to do this, and I'm going to play in a band!" If I hadn't been influenced by them, I would probably be playing rap. I'm just really into Denver music so fucking much. I listen to Rabbit is a Sphere more than I try to find out what hot music is on Pitchfork right now.
WW: Why are you calling your album Metal Sun?
EW: It's from one of the lyrics from one of the songs. It's kind of from a dream. It's also kind of a reference to harsh cubical lighting. In the song it says, "metal sun is currency." All the rest of the lyrics in that song are from a dream I had.
It fit really well with the imagery, as well, and it ties back into the concept of Gangcharger, the name, as a commentary on the hidden waste, corruption and dehumanization that permeates certain sectors of our society. It's from the song "Apparition." On the recording it sounds like I'm saying, "Metal Sun is coming soon."
WW: You've mentioned to me before something about there being a ceiling Denver if you're in a band. Can you talk about that?
EW: There's a ceiling here you can hit pretty quickly. You zip straight up to the ceiling, and spend a couple of years pushing the ceiling up a little bit at a time. That's where you get tons and tons of people, and do much better in Denver. But for most of the bands I've watched do it, it's over years of playing here. There are obvious exceptions.
You end up opening at larger venues for bands you love, and you think you're really on your way up, and then you realize there's nowhere else to go in Denver. Then you spend the next two or three before you can headline that venue. That's not really an accomplishment -- that's a symptom of how things are here.
It's stupid to think, "I'm going to work really hard for the next two years until my band can sell out The Bluebird." That's a dumb goal. It's just something that should happen, and I think it should happen a little sooner for most bands here, if they're already at the point where they're doing well.
But for me, I'd rather play the equivalent of the hi-dive all over the country, in front of thirty, forty or fifty people, than stick here, working in Denver until two years from now I can play in front of three hundred people.
Gangcharger CD-release show, with Overcasters, 9 p.m. Saturday, December 19, Weather Center, 1401 Zuni Street, free, www.myspace.com/thesoakingquiet.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.