Interview

The Rates – Wesley Gonzalez’s underrated artists are about groove, humour and a hedgehog man

Each month we ask an artist to tell us about the 3 artists they think have gone underappreciated, and 3 new names who they hope will avoid a similar fate

Since disbanding lo-fi trio Let’s Wrestle in 2015, Wesley Gonzalez has released two solo albums: 2017’s Excellent Musician and this month’s Appalling Human. Both records have seen him run a mile from his indie rock past; the first purposefully written without guitar, the second leaning even further into an exploration of disco, funk, soul and house music.

Wesley’s lyrics remain at the heart of his songs, making sense of things when he describes Appalling Human as the “post-therapy” accompaniment to the “pre-therapy” coke times of Excellent Musician. It’s a record about reflection, closure, being too hard on yourself and then not being too hard on yourself. Its saddest tracks are often the ones that make you want to dance the most. Then it’s time to pick back over the lyrics and relate to what Gonzalez has been singing about, check that he did just sing that line, and revel in the absurdity of modern life.

His choices for The Rates tell the story of how Appalling Human came to be such a complete body of work.

Denim
1992-1997

The story of this is that Lawrence lived with me when I was teenager, when I was starting Let’s Wrestle. He used to drive us around. He’d drive us to Birmingham and give us a tour of where he used to hang out and show us where Swell Maps lived. It was great having him as a resource, but I never really got Felt at that time. The first thing that I heard of Lawrence’s was the second Go-Kart Mozart album, which was his most recent record when he moved in. I loved it. There was a line that just killed me: “I’m going to open your jeans/ I’m going to put myself in/ We’re going to fly off on a cloud of white.” And it was so vile. It’s such a disgusting line, and Denim had that too – this fearlessness of putting in horrific lines. “You suck me off, but I can’t cum in your mouth.” I love that he goes everywhere.

I’ve taken a lot of influence in what I concentrate on in society in my songs. Class issues, drug addiction, the darker side of things.

Your songs have a similar way of deploying double-take lyrics, where you might be listening to a track for the fifth time before you realise what it is that you’ve been singing along to.

I had that on the new record. Cullum who plays key for me, I sent him the demos over to learn the parts and he texted me to say, “Did you just say, ‘this beer costs just £2.99’ in a fucking song!?’ I’ve got so much of that learning from Lawrence. He’s a space cadet, but he’s really together, he knows what he likes, and he’s a true artist. And I feel like during a time of Brit Pop, Denim were the perfect band, because they were so extreme. They’re like the black metal of Brit Pop. You could see them like Pulp, but Pulp were a real band, and Denim were almost this imagined entity. Like, he paid loads of money to have the Glitter Band (pre the Gary Glitter stuff, obviously) as his backing band. I mean, no one would have noticed. It’s fucking hilarious.

But it’s all so thoughts out – the look of it, the fashion, the videos – and that’s another thing I’ve taken from Lawrence. I remember when Let’s Wrestle first got in the NME and he said, “You know you can’t ever go out not dressed proper anymore. You always have to be wearing your best clothes all the time because you never know when there’s a paparazzi from the NME.”  I was like, “What on earth are you talking about?”. And he’d say, “Y’know, someone could just come out of a bush and take a photo of you.” I said, “Have you ever had that happen to you?” And he said, “No. One day though… one day.”

Did you ever play music with him?

I don’t think I’ve ever even seen him play music. I lived with him for years, and I remember once going through some keyboard chords with him, because he said he wanted to get better at keyboard, but it lasted for two minutes and he said, “Nah, I can’t be bothered”, and that was that.

George McCrae
1973-Present

I’ve only really listened to his Rock Your Baby record but it’s had such a big affect on how I think about music over the last few years. It seems quite throwaway, and every track on that record is quite similar, but it’s got such a tone to it. Also, it’s 1973, so it’s years before disco got into its full swing, but it’s really got that vibe to it. And if feels like sort of alien disco, because it’s half cocked, in a way. I’ve been caning that record. And I didn’t know that ‘You Can Have It All’ by Yo La Tengo is a cover from that record.

I can put that record on at any time and it always makes me feel calm and centered. It’s not pumping enough to be a full-on disco record, but it’s got that never-ending groove thing going on. Tracks on Appalling Human like ‘Fault of the Family’ are totally based on that ‘Rock Your Baby’ 78 drum machine sound and early disco. And weirdly George McCrae fits into the forgotten ’70s singer-songwriter that I was enjoying on Excellent Musician.

An album where you featured a selfie stick on the cover in protest that nobody features zeitgeist junk on their sleeves – however omnipresent at the time – for fear of it looking out of date later on

That was my favourite thing about it. I’m so pleased with that. The selfie stick is already outdated. People are striving to be immortal, or be remembered beyond their years, and a lot less focus is put on what’s happening right now. I like the idea of something that ruins the allure of something being a timeless piece of work. Ruin it whilst you’re doing it.

Slapp Happy
1972-1975

Slapp Happy just don’t get enough credit. The first album they did is a bit too Velvets for me, but the second one goes a bit mental.

It’s got a strong cabaret vibe to it

Yeah, big time. I’m weirdly into that, in a lot of that experimental European music. Faust is backing them on Casablanca Moon and Henry Cow is backing them on the second one, and I like both of them too, because it’s not anything like the type of music I make. It’s an immediate stop to me thinking about work, because there are concepts in it that I will just never explore. But it is very music hall – that weird world of dark arts and this European sense of itself. I find that appealing. There’s a track called ‘Charlie ’n Charlie’: “Charlie ‘n’ Charlie are friends/ You don’t know where one begins and the other one ends.” It reminds me of Aesop’s Fables. Some weird donkey boy. There’s a darkness to it without the music sounding dark.

It sounds like it could soundtrack this old kid’s show from the ’80s called The Storyteller by Jim Henson. The episode I’ve seen was about a man who was born a hedgehog and is hounded by the villagers.

That sounds fabulous. Right up my street. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there – the imagery of that suits Slapp Happy even without seeing it. I think me being godless and not religious in any way, I gravitate to that. Like, the other day I took loads of magic mushrooms and was listening to gospel music for hours. It’s my favourite thing to do. I’m constantly thinking, ‘this is bullshit, this is bullshit’, but I’m fascinated by it as a concept.

I mean, Slapp Happy fucking grates on people. I put it on with the wrong people and they fucking hate it. From all my selections here, I think the least amount of people will like Slapp Happy.

Christian Fitness
2014-Present

I only discovered this recently, and it’s a bit of a cheat because it’s Falco from Mclusky, who were Let’s Wrestle’s biggest influence. We always said it was Swell Maps, but we all loved Mclusky, and we’d get really high on the Heath [Hampstead] and bring a little boombox and play the three Mclusky albums all the time.

I was listening to him on a podcast and they played this, but I must have been stoned because I didn’t clock it was him singing. It was a track called ‘Bruce Hated Puppies’ and it really made me laugh. “Bruce hates puppies/ He thinks they’re fannies!”. It fucking killed me. I’ve taken a lot from Falco in his bastardised, nihilistic way. He’s very smart and very funny, but you’re never comfortable with it being funny. I never see it as some sort of novelty. [With his songs] it was the first time I thought, oh, you can completely be yourself in what you’re doing, as long as you know that you’re not a fucking joke. And that’s always been my worry with my reviews. People were always talking about the humour in it. Now that doesn’t bother me at all because I’m probably saying the same thing about Falco.

Golden Teacher
2013-Present

I can hear a lot of Golden Teacher in Appalling Human.

Oh yes. That last album [No Luscious Life, 2017], I was obsessed with it. This choice and Oliver Coates are what I was listening to when I was making Appalling Human. I was reading that oral history of the New York scene, Meet Me In The Bathroom, and all the bits about how LCD Soundsystem were listening to Liquid Liquid and ESG, and I was thinking how it’s a shame that there aren’t more full bands that do good dance music. A week after thinking that I heard Golden Teacher for the first time and was like, “oh fuck, this is exactly what I wanted to come out.” It’s just so fucking groovy, that whole record. They’ve got such a good idea of funk and rhythm that I can stay locked on it for fucking hours. And coming back to LCD Soundsystem, their new album came out the same year as Golden Teacher’s, and it’s so drab a derivative in comparison.

Oliver Coates
2013-Present

I first got introduced to Oliver Coates by Mica Levi. We’ve been friends for years and we’d done some work together on her second record. And it just kept coming up in conversation because I was asking what classical musicians she knew who I could ask to do something. She kept saying Oliver Coates. I kept an eye on him from then, and then Stephen [Bass] who puts out my records was releasing his record Upstepping and gave me a really early copy of it. I just locked into it.

Right at the point of me beginning to write this record was my explosion of taste in everything. It was Aaliyah, UK garage, lots of hip-hop, lots of disco, lots of house music. Upstepping mixed with everything I liked: it’s got a bit of two-step going on; it’s got a bit of experimental cellist shit going on; the synths sound amazing; the cover’s fucking beautiful as well. It was like, ‘I wanna do shit like that!’. And it’s never going to be the music I make, because that’s not my way of writing. But I find that I listen to a lot of music that I can’t do, rather than stuff that I feel is achievable.

So you find that inspiring rather than frustrating?  

There’s a track on the record called ‘Used to Love You’ which is about this and working in a record shop. It’s hard to listen to music when you’re constantly making music, and I am obsessive with it. Even when I try to not listen to music it always creeps in. So I do understand the idea of it being frustrating. But I’ve become a lot less bitter over the years.

Did you like Coate’s follow-up to Upstepping, Shelly’s On Zenn-la?

Yes. I thought that was really great too, although I didn’t like it as much Upstepping. I think Upstepping is flawless. I never get tired of it. And it is an easy comparison because he’s a cellist but it is that excitement of perhaps we’ve got a new Arthur Russell here. Oliver Coates is in the mold where he’s not a pop musician, he’s not an electronic musician, and he’s not a classical musician; he’s all three of them, so he’ll always be interesting no matter what he does next.

Come see Wesley play Appalling Human in full as his virtual gig on 16 July 2020. Ticket from Bird on the Wire.

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