Believer, the debut LP from Brooklyn solo endeavor Megafortress, has proven pretty difficult to categorize. Not quite the anguished, minimal electronics of The Antlers, and not quite an exclusively spoken-word piece, the album carves out a space that eludes easy comparisons. The results are brilliant.
I recently had a chance to talk to Bill Gillim, the brains of the operation, about the spiritual themes of the record, his songwriting and recording process, and where the hell he got the idea for such an incongruously aggressive name.
ThrdCoast: What's your musical background? How'd you get your start, and what led you to start recording as Megafortress?
Bill Gillim: Megafortress started as a solo experiment while I was in a band called Tigercity. The first Megafortress songs were pieces designed to sound like impossible field recordings. I used actual field recordings, re-edited them and added sparse instrumentation, to create audio documents from non-existent worlds. The first half of my song "Pilot" on Believer was one of the first things I made in that early phase. That was about 4 years ago now.
TC: While we're at it, where'd the name come from?
BG: The name came about pretty serendipitously. I was standing in front of my old practice space, when a forklift from the Acme smoked fish warehouse drove by and kicked up something that flew over and hit me. It was a gnarled plastic knob that said "mega fortress". I showed it to my bandmate at the time, Joel Ford (who co-produced and mixed Believer), and he said, "That should be the name of your new project."
TC: In all of your work (that I've heard, at least), there's a distinctive minimalism and a focus on highlighting smaller, more subtle musical gestures. Where did you get the inspiration for your sound, and how does it tie into the broader themes you like to explore with your lyrics?
BG: The EP I made for Software Records had a denser sound, with the vocals heavily affected and obscured. When I was working on the new songs, particularly the ones with vocals, I became more and more interested in stripping away the layers and leaving just a few basic elements. I was listening to a lot of Morton Feldman at one point while making the record. I fell in love with his use of simple repeating fragments that break apart and reform in different combinations. Just intensely beautiful, quiet music that carries such emotional weight. This influence is probably strongest in my song "Fear," with the repetitive saxophone lines and short piano runs looping over each other asynchronously.
Joel Ford's production and mixing on the album really opened up the songs, highlighting the spaces and silences. On the last song, "Long Hair," I had planned to have the vocals become increasingly fragmented and chopped up, making layers of shredded voice. But after I finished my last vocal take, we listened back and Joel said, "I think that's it. You're done with this one." We realized the stark simplicity was much more powerful.
TC: While we're on the subject of lyrics, much of Believer seems to be interested in questions of faith. Can you talk a bit about why you chose that concept for the album? Are the religious overtones meant to be taken literally, or do they deal with something else more indirectly?
BG: The lyrics come from my interest in the spiritualities that people create in order to make sense of the world. I didn't set out to make a concept record, but the theme of spiritual ambivalence kept making its way in. The songs are my way of trying on different spiritual ideas, and finding that none of them quite fit or feel right.
TC: Who's been seeing heavy rotation on your iPod recently?
BG: I've been listening a lot to the new Pharmakon record. And a great compilation on Social Music Records called Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies: A Treasury Of Caucasian-American Gospel.