Interview: Ethan Gruska, on process, progress and his ‘schizophrenic’ new album ‘En Garde’

Ethan Gruska (Photo by Josh Rothstein)

A 2017 headline in the Los Angeles Times posed the question “L.A.’s next great singer-songwriter?” before answering, “It might be Ethan Gruska.”

It was a perfectly valid exploration. Gruska, the son of television composer Jay Gruska and grandson of film composer John Williams, already boasted several bona fides, not the least of which were the two albums he made with his sister, Barbara (now singing with the Foo Fighters), as the Belle Brigade. And Ethan’s solo debut, “Slowmotionary,” did not disappoint, offering a sophisticated and nuanced take on what is regarded “singer-songwriter” fare.

One thing is certain about Gruska’s follow-up album, “En Garde,” arriving Jan. 24 via Warner: He did not repeat himself.

Drenched in wobbly electronics and imbued with the mischievous spirit of an artist still trying to find his own footing (and determined not to retrace his own footsteps), “En Garde” parries the songwriter’s mood swings, reveals his complexities, shows off his newly honed production shops and embraces his ongoing love of collaboration. Moses Sumney, Phoebe Bridgers and Lianne La Havas appear as guest vocalists; guitarist/production whiz Blake Mills is among the players. And as with “Slowmotionary,” Gruska’s mentor, producer Tony Berg, offered steady advice from the sideline.

On Friday, Gruska released the latest single from album, “Enough for You,” which features Bridgers (whose albums he has produced) in what he described as sort of an oh-by-the-way collaboration.

||| Stream: “Enough for You” (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)

The new album, Gruska says, has “so much more information, so much more chaos, although I hope it’s controlled chaos. If you listen to the first record, you might think, ‘Oh, that’s a very clear-headed piece,’ because it was so functional. But this is more like I actually operate … a little schizophrenic.”

Maybe, as Gruska sings on “Event Horizon,” he is merely “sending signals out in the universe.” On “En Garde,” the universe seems to be answering; several of the songs were actually begun as tunes for other artists as part of Gruska’s labors as a co-writer and producer.

So Buzz Bands LA recently cornered Gruska to talk about “En Garde,” his creative and collaborative process and whether we could get our voices to sound like Moses Sumney’s. Here’s our conversation:

Buzz Bands LA: Where do we start with this? This doesn’t sound like the Ethan Gruska record that came out in 2017. It sounds like somebody locked you in a roomful of toys and said, “Don’t come out until you’ve done something amazing.”

Ethan Gruska: That’s basically what it was. I got to shack up with Tony Berg at his new digs, Sound City in the Valley, which he and Blake Mills have taken over, where there is an insane collection of gear. I was fortunate enough to do a big portion of the record there … surrounded by toys.

What about the creative part of the record? How skeletal were the songs when you arrived in the roomful of toys?

Ethan Gruska: This was interesting, because on the previous record everything was skeletal and remained skeletal. That was the ethos of the whole thing, to keep it minimal. This one was really varied. Half the songs of the record were not necessarily written for me, because that’s something I’ve been doing more — the “blind date” co-writing circuit. Some of these songs were written that way, and they sat around collecting dust as demos until I realized, “Hey, that’s cool, I can use that for me.” But all of these were written before the recording; none were written in the studio.

When you are writing something for yourself, you have to be able to own it.

How drastically different is your headspace when you’re writing something you know is going to be yours versus something where you’re going to be one of four names on the credit?

Ethan Gruska: Drastic. But I’m trying to make it less different. When you are writing something for yourself, you have to be able to own it — there are certain things that I can say that sound authentic, but from somebody else they might not. And there are certain things I might write that might only sound authentic in somebody else’s hands.

So in some ways, were you a co-writer for yourself?

Ethan Gruska: That is a thing that I think about, bringing in that spirit, being a little freer. This record has a lot of that, because I wasn’t necessarily writing for me until I realized I could re-purpose certain songs for myself. And that made some of the writing a little less dramatic in how true it had to be, or how “me” it had to me. It opened me up to how I could present myself.

Has it also opened you up to a lot of different styles, which seem to have come out of nowhere on this record?

Ethan Gruska: The record sounds completely schizophrenic, probably because that’s what I’ve been doing the past couple of years. I will always be an artist and always be making my own records, but at this point in my life I prefer just being a songwriter and a producer, helping other people’s projects. But having worked on so many different styles in the past few years either as a session player or producer or co-writer definitely influenced this record. It was a chance to take my songs and offer different sides of my production brain.

My style is to throw as much as I possibly can in there and then scrape away.

Within the context of the songs, though, right? There’s a lot of music made in a “roomful of toys” these days that sounds so much … “production-first.”

Ethan Gruska: If you heard the record a month before I called it done, you might have thought that. Muting is the biggest thing you can do as a producer. My style is to throw as much as I possibly can in there and then scrape away. It’s hard to do the kitchen sink and not have it sound like a clusterfuck.

How important was Tony Berg in that “scraping” process?

Ethan Gruska: When I first met Tony, he told me to read the biography of Max Perkins [the legendary book editor for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe], a guy who helped people find their truer voice. And one way was just by deleting stuff. On this record, Tony was like, “Just do you.” But by the end of the process he proved to be incredible with his instinct and opinion to be able to guide me towards not being overwrought and not having too much going on.

What cocktails were you drinking before the instrumental “Nervous System?”

Ethan Gruska: That was definitely a meditation on just letting thoughts roll through … I started it with my friend Gabe Noel, a great L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist, and I initially thought it would be a nice interlude. Tony and I then had the idea of making it an “end credits.” A lot of this record was made by collaging — it was made by having instrumentalists come in and play 10 takes, not having to learn the song and trusting that I wouldn’t make them sound shitty. For that song, we had everybody who had played come in and just do a pass or two over the song. And then I picked and chose … so it’s like a little revue of everybody on the record.

Speaking of everybody, there are some pretty special special guests on this record …

Ethan Gruska: Well, Phoebe obviously happened because I co-produced her first record and just finished her next one — and I’m very excited about that — so that was more of a natural. I had her in to sing backgrounds on a couple things and asked her if she’d like to sing on “Enough for Now” and she said yes.

The one with Lianne La Havas was interesting because “Haiku4U” originated as a song we were writing for her. I had played her this kind of eccentric piano piece that she gravitated to, and she had some great ideas about the form of the instrumental. After that was solidified we got together for two days and she sang over it. She was cool enough to let me use the song.

And Moses Sumney is truly amazing in every way. We had gotten together to write for his first record and we made half of the song “Blood in Rain.” For whatever reason, it sat around for a while, and when I started working on my record, I realized I loved that song and wanted to take a stab at it. I still think it would be better, of course, if Moses sang it. But I sort of made it, finished it and sent it to him, asking him if I could use it and would he be on it. And he was down. So I had three super-lucky scenarios of my having worked with people I love and being able to “repossess” things we had worked on.

Yeah, I’ve often thought, “Is there a way Moses’ voice can come out of my mouth?” Can technology do that? An implant or something?

Ethan Gruska: I’m counting on you to come up with it.

That first record was all about vulnerability and openness, but there’s always another side to everything.

You said in the album notes that some of the music reveals your “aggressive and unruly side,” which is something the first record really kept under wraps.

Ethan Gruska: I think I have an extreme emotional life internally. There’s not a ton of middle ground, although the older I get the better I’ve gotten at evening things out. That first record was all about vulnerability and openness, but there’s always another side to everything. I generally avoid confrontation, but I’ve learned it’s important to show when you’re upset. Because if you don’t, it turns into something way worse and more complicated.

You mean the part of you that shouts “Bleep you, I’m not a wimp?”

Ethan Gruska: That too, absolutely. Overall, I just wanted it to be more dynamic. I gravitate to soft ballad and intimate things, but I also want to open up the side of me that’s a little bit more boisterous.

Yet as shocked as I was to get an electronic sound bath from you, the album still has a warm feel …

Ethan Gruska: I like pillowed, enveloping sounds, and that combined with having Tchad Blake– who has a very earthtone palette– mix the record means you won’t find a lot of high-end sparkle, even when it does sound futuristic.

There are moments where it’s hard to tell whether the instrumentation is organic or electronic.

Ethan Gruska: That’s because I mangled them.

Which of the songs speak most to the aggressive, unruly Ethan?

Ethan Gruska: The second song “Event Horizon” has some jarring things. That’s about those times when I can get overwhelmed and lost in my own shit very quickly. That song has these drastic changes and feelings. And “Another Animal” is just trying to go all the way with the buzzy electronic pop, because I’m a fan of that stuff. It’s my love for Peter Gabriel meets modern EDM, even though after what I did to it, it ended up being neither of those things.

Are are any things or series of things that happened in your life that might have sent you in that direction?

Ethan Gruska: I think I have just have drastic mood swings in my DNA.

Well, I haven’t met a stable creative yet. But you’ve said that you were a different person after you finished this record than when you started it. Is that true?

Ethan Gruska: I feel that way about every record. It’s a big undertaking to make a record — it requires a lot of searching. It’s a reckoning. You start with this idea of what you want to make, and it’s never what it ends up being. Along the way you discover so many things. There are hopes and dreams that get shattered, and there are things that happen that are life-changing for your creative side. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. It’s larger than you. Half of the process for me is about tricking myself. … If you’re not surprised by what you made, it was too engineered.”