ESCAPE TO SOMEWHERE
Aaron David Ross and Matthew Arkell are two college graduates from Chicago. They live in New York now and make electronic, lyric-less music. It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? All very hip and standard. But Aaron and Matthew are a pair obsessed with fantasy and escapism. Physically they might be Brooklyn, but mentally they’re of some odd dimension where no idea is too cosmic to be entertained. They’ve been making twisted, weird dance music as Gatekeeper (the most fitting name ever once you hear their possessed songs for demons of another world) since 2008 when Matthew’s love for techno collided with Aaron’s skills in experimental soundscapes. And as new EP ‘Giza’ attests, there’s plenty hip but nothing standard about them.
Their tracks – which are equal parts Italo disco, industrial, techno and Chicago house – ask one thing of any listener – to use their imagination. And so vivid are Gatekeeper’s darkly camp horror scores that it’s easily done. Even if you’ve never seen dated scare movies like Candyman or It you can imagine that ‘Giza’ would perfectly sink with their most fantastic moments.
“We are definitely inspired by film scores,” says Aaron of an observation that has been levelled at Gatekeeper before now, “but I think it’s more generic than specifically horror b-movies. Beyond horror we’re inspired by sci-fi and fantasy and a lot of other types of films that create these worlds that are inhabited by fictional characters but are supported by the music. For us, the music completes the illusion. So it’s not just a horror movie influence but it’s like this idea of music supporting an imaginary narrative. We want the listeners to invent their own narrative too – that’s how we want people to interact with our music.”
“We drew a little bit more from horror scores on our first EP, I think,” adds Matthew, “more so than on this new one.”
‘Giza’ remains a dark record though. It’s like Salem’s ‘King Knight’ with a sense of humour, from the opening ‘Chains’ that pitches a menacing, motorik, arcade game hum next to X Files UFO wails and the disturbing semi-vocals of some poor female, to ‘Serpent’’s good-cop-bad-cop approach of flitting between a comic panpipe riff, the rush of bellowing flames and Gregorian chants that are far too sinister to not mean any harm.
Maybe that’s what happens when you name your second EP after one of our most ancient cities, where the pyramids have haunted the desert for centuries and strange goings on have always felt at home.
“Somehow we started watching tonnes of documentaries on the Internet about ancient astronauts,” says Aaron, “about ancient Egyptian civilisations being engineered by aliens and all of this over the top, kinda ridiculous stuff. And it kinda changed all of our views of our music. It made it more exotic…”
“I think we’re also inspired by how unable we are to know the true answers to these great questions posed by crappy YouTube documentaries,” interrupts Matthew. “So it’s like there are these ideas that aliens came down and built the Egyptian pyramids, and there’s pretty substantial evidence against that, but obviously there’s no way to know that for sure, and we’re really attracted to that mystery.”
As you can probably already guess, the recent supernatural holiday of Halloween is a time that Gatekeeper like to embrace. Aaron says: “It’s a time like New Year’s, when you can go wild and feel like anything is possible.” This year he and Matthew spent October 31st going wilder than was ever imaginable back in Chicago, even for their open minds. They played a show in Mexico City, dressed as UFOs, naturally. “It was like the coolest weekend in paradise imaginable,” confirms Aaron. “We played that show and visited the pyramids there too.”
But before Mexico City, a tonne of YouTube documentaries on ancient astronauts and ‘Giza’, Gatekeeper released their first EP, ‘Optimus Maximus’, in 2009.
“That EP was more like a haunted forest in Italy whereas this new one, ‘Giza’, feels like it’s happening amidst some ancient desert ruins,” says Aaron. “It’s a change of scenery for us but it’s still coming from the same supernatural point of view.”
So this sense of the macabre – this joy for the sinister that makes a track like ‘Storm Column’ as daunting, dramatic and as dangerously sexy as it is – that’s here to stay, is it? That’s always been at the heart of Gatekeeper?
“Yeaaaah,” says Aaron, who, like Matthew, is a man almost too affable and ‘normal’ to be responsible for some of this music. “We like to try to communicate the over the top, epic feelings, and we feel it can be communicated pretty well through these darker sounds.”
“But I don’t think we’re intentionally dark,” adds his partner. “It just seems like the by-product of us working together. A lot of the music we’re inspired by that isn’t film scores, like industrial, techno and Italo disco, is pretty dark too, so the music we make is a natural meeting place for that and the visual imagery we’re inspired by.”
For all their spooking, though, the bread and butter trick of any extraterrestrial is time manipulation. It’s how they beam us up, touch us up and dump us in a field somewhere without us knowing what the hell happened. Has a day gone by, a year or a second? Gatekeeper’s music has a similar, dazzling effect.
An odd one perhaps, they remain a dance act, and dance acts like their tracks long and repetitive. But the six songs of ‘Giza’ only give that endless impression; none of them actually breach three-and-a-half minutes; the closing ‘Oracle’ – the most conventionally Italo disco in sound, once it gets going – fails to bother two minutes fifty. It could of course be the lack of vocals that make Gatekeeper’s eerie tracks feel longer than they are, but there’s a good chance that it has more to do with the duo’s catching sense of the unexplained. It’s certainly more fun to not bother questioning it.
“We’re just not following the conventions of dance music,” says Matthew, “even though we’re using their sounds. Ultimately for us, the ideal listening time for our EP would be two in the morning while you’re on the Internet on your own.”
That Aaron and Matthew are “gigantic media consumers” goes some way to explaining why they like to keep their songs uncharacteristically short. Classic house lives for the drop, which is worth the wait if you have the time, but Gatekeeper simply don’t. That’s why Gregorian chants, tortured cries and nutty panpipes will all live in a three-minute radius – to keep things from getting stale. And that feeling extends to the band’s love for EPs over LPs.
“We really like EPs because, as we were saying, we consume culture really fast,” explains Aaron, “and typically we’ll get sick of something pretty quickly. So it’s good to make four, six or eight track offerings because if we made twelve tracks the chances are that we’d be sick of the first two by the time we did the last two.”
“We’re control freaks too,” confesses Matthew, “so unfortunately it takes us a really long time to produce our music.”
“A really long time” could of course mean anything from ten whole minutes to a year in Gatekeepers universe, but that’s the bread and butter trick of any extraterrestrial – time manipulation. And this duo’s fantasy electronics can have you believing that Brooklyn is a town in another fascinatingly warped dimension.
By Stuart Stubbs
Originally published in issue 23 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2010