Finding Something Meaningful | An Interview With David Algrim Of Gentle Heat

Defining what truly makes the Chicago quartet Gentle Heat’s everlasting sound is one of the brightest and most welcoming characteristics to them. Steeped in a swarming evasion of post-punk, indie, and shoegaze only pushes their agenda of controlling their narrative on their terms. In other words, Gentle Heat is refreshing in its purpose and consistency. 

Sheer, Gentle Heat’s latest effort (and first under the Flesh & Bone Record’s umbrella) highlights an ensemble looking to break out of conformity with blazing feedback and a deeper knotted cohesion. Having Sarah Clausen join Gentle Heat adds warmth where it’s needed. Sheer’s opener “Closer” is a breezy jaunt that then propels to the electrifying track “Total Orbit.” “On Display” offers fuzzed-out guitars and striking drums that present Sonic Youth-like vibes. Margaret McCarthy lends airy companionship with the soft “Closer II.” The energy in Sheer’s tracks sways with vibrancy and gallops with effortlessness.  

I can’t help but look at Chicago as this grandiose vessel of eclectic artists and bands like yourselves. What would you say makes the city so rich in talent?

Thanks. Chicago is a great place for people making music in particular because it’s a big enough city that more people want to come here and the shows are usually better for that reason. Still, it also has this energy that could most easily be compared to the experience of going to your favorite shot & a beer bar. It’s also a somewhat larger city that isn’t outrageously expensive so people are able to go out and engage with what’s going on throughout the city and can afford to live here without working all the time to afford the cost of living. 

How did Gentle Heat come about?

Gentle Heat started when I moved from Milwaukee to Chicago in 2017. When I lived in MKE, I played in a louder hardcore band that I loved but by the end of it, I was interested in starting a project that would let me sing and write melody-driven music while still keeping the feeling and energy of louder music. Gentle Heat grew from that idea and has been shaped by what I’ve listened to and who has come and gone from the project.

Having not released much since 2019’s Phase and Liminal, how has the time away been?

The time we’ve spent away has been mostly spent refining and retooling the project to fit the group of people who are now playing in it. The EP’s listed above had different members and felt like different phases of the band. Liminal was the last record of what I would call the first version of this project with my initial collaborator Eli playing guitar, while Phase was the first record with Joe playing guitar, and this direction for the project we’ve been building on. Phase was our first attempt to make a shorter release that felt like one cohesive piece rather than a series of unrelated songs, and we made our new record Sheer in a way that is informed by and builds on that concept of consciously weaving the songs together.

Adding Sarah into the fold feels like another level has been unlocked in terms of possibilities. What would you say has been different?

Sarah is a wizard when it comes to synth sounds and is generally an extremely talented musician. She can take an idea and expand it in ways that I would not be able to do without her. She and Joe both come from jazz backgrounds so they’re technicians when it comes to music theory and generally being pros as musicians.

When did the band start to see the skeleton of Sheer start to take shape?

I believe we started writing these songs in 2019? I don’t write a song a day or really rush through the process of songwriting, so I usually try to turn around a newly finished song with lyrics written, melodies done, and a blueprint of the structure every month. From there, everyone has to learn the songs and I will re-write parts with Joe first. I do the same thing with everyone individually, and then we get together as a group where the songs grow in that setting as well. It sounds like a slow process, but by the time an album is recorded, mixed, mastered, etc., we usually have our next record written (as we currently do.)

What is the meaning behind naming the new effort?

Simply put, Sheer is about something personally deemed to be valuable that is obscured to the point that you know what it is and can long for it but aren’t fully able to assess its value because it’s not something tangible; it’s another. It’s less so about striving for perfection or a higher ideal and more about looking for an idiosyncratic version of the ideal and deciding whether or not that is even personally meaningful to you as a thing to strive for. 

I started thinking about this concept when I went to a cave in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they had all of these imperfect stones that aren’t meant to be perfectly displayed like a diamond or a pearl. The stones were all oddly shaped and rough in a way that I thought was more interesting than having something that was meant to be preserved and treated like a jewel. The idea spun, and we ended up using that image of the obscured stone on the album cover designed by Nat Pyper.

During the recording process for the new album, what were some of the significant components that you wanted to establish that you haven’t in previous efforts?

Sheer is the first full-length we’ve made since our first release, Dissolve, which came out in 2017 and represents a different version of the band to me. I’ve been writing in this style for a while longer now, so I think I’ve learned more about what does and doesn’t work within the context of this style of music. I think we have a better understanding of how to weave sound into our music and where to take time for interludes in a way that we weren’t thinking about with previous records. In a way, Sheer is meant to be more immediate and pop-oriented structurally than our earlier releases.

Being extremely focused on crafting layers of sound to perfection, did you find yourself overwhelmed at times trying to reach that goal?

No, but admittedly I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist when it comes to raw sound and its role in our music. I feel like we go into a recording knowing where things need to be and how they fit together, but I’m not a huge proponent of there being only one way to convey a certain idea or weave sound into a piece. I write the blueprints and we rehearse everything to the point that we know the songs and everything is structurally nailed down. Still, I like to leave room for certain pieces sound-wise because, even though I am the principal songwriter, I don’t think of Gentle Heat as a solo project where my input is the only one that matters. Everyone puts in their flair unless I have an extra specific idea in mind, which more often than not makes the finished songs more interesting than my initial idea. 

What are some of the favorite tracks that the band collectively enjoys on Sheer?

In a live format, right now, I like playing “A Reprieve” & “Dull” the most. They’re both a bit more dynamic, which makes them more fun for me to sing and play. On the record, I’m happy with the way “Closer II” came out and like “Total Orbit” as well. After sending this question to the band, I got two votes for “Jerk Reactions,” one for “Dull” and one for “A Reprieve.”

I have seen that with each effort, the band looks toward different voices in terms of production. Is this by design?

Good question. Yes, I try to work with different people for each record because I don’t want any of our records to sound identical production-wise. I enjoy being in a studio and am always interested in seeing how each sound engineer operates in their space because their process dictates so much of how the final product comes to be. They’re usually drastically different from one to the next. We’ve worked with people who are very much perfectionists in setting up mics for hours to get a specific tonal idea, and we’ve worked with people who have their system set up to the point that there are fewer moving parts for them and it’s relatively quick. Studios are such weirdly personal spaces that when you walk into a studio, especially when you are working with someone who works out of that space on a regular basis, you get a glimpse of who that person is and how they operate on a regular basis. We got to record Sheer with Greg Norman mostly at Electrical Audio, with vocals and overdubs done at his house and a few overdubs done separately by Greg Obis. 

Photo Courtesy: Vanessa Valadez