Future Yard- 21/11/21
Ahead of his headline show at Future Yard on Sunday 21st November, Wesley Gonzalez chats to Cath Holland about his upcoming third album, Wax Limousine, religious inspiration and the gulf between his stage persona and true self.
Once upon a time not long ago, WESLEY GONZALEZ worked nine-to-five in a record shop. His immediate reaction to a near miss with a car on the way there one morning was “quite dark…” he admits with an embarrassed smile. He was gutted to escape injury-free, not because of ambitions to go to a better place (“There is another song which is very much based in that. I was just hoping to get a broken leg on this one,” he laughs) but a longing for time off sick, respite from the daily grind.
It doesn’t come as too much of a shock to find Gonzalez so open and honest in conversation. It’s very much in step with his songwriting; on debut solo album Excellent Musician and last year’s follow up Appalling Human– he sugar coats nothing in both lyrics and performance, albeit both are shot through with wit and humour. Still, it’s a relief to learn Wesley no longer sells records over the counter these days. His publishing deal provides opportunity to write with other people, plus commercial writing work, and the freedom and headspace to concentrate on his own creative output.
We’ve got Wax Limousine a third album to look forward to next year, having already heard the title track, Greater Expectations written with Rose Elinor Dougall and A Taste of Something New which sees him navigating his way around the terrifying world of contemporary dating apps. The songs on Wax Limousine were written around an intense time emotionally. On the same day his long-term relationship ended he received news of his mother’s cancer diagnosis. “A heavy few weeks,” he comments, in an uncharacteristically understated manner. It was during this unexpectedly productive period he wrote the new record.
Asking Wesley Gonzalez if he’s found a friend in Jesus may seem odd at this point but bear with me. Wax Limousine’s title track is strongly informed by his love of gospel music; a daily playlist he made for himself had Prince adoration going on as per usual, principally Sign O’ The Times, but Aretha Franklin and the gospel backing vocals on Scritti Politti’s Faithless played on his mind. It’s not uncommon for those of a more secular disposition to consume religious music in larger quantities than one might expect, does he not agree? “Definitely. I’m really drawn to it. I don’t know if it’s just being so godless that you feel like you have to have something! I can’t latch onto any idea of religion. If I had a belief, it’s maybe nihilism,” he chuckles. “But it’s the closest thing I can see to how you could imagine there would be a higher being or some god or something. Basically, just the sounds on those records are so overwhelming.” So you haven’t found God, then. He barks out a laugh. “Not at all.” Pulls on his ciggie. “Not at all.”
Wax Limousine the single is more literal storytelling than we’ve come to expect from him. “I tend to not usually write about relationships or if I do, they’re in some sort of subverted way so this is a bit more on the nose. A Wax Limousine is like being as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike. Basically, saying I feel fucking useless.” It always feels he gives himself a hard time in his songwriting, is there any chance he does less of this on the new album? “Maybe lyrically it’s more decorative and less focussed on it. But I think that it is still going to be relatively omnipresent in my work. It’s my nature. That’s not going anywhere.” He pauses briefly. “Maybe when I start making some money!”
Wesley may have eschewed the guitar from his Let’s Wrestle days and ran instead into the loving arms of blessed synths, 1970s and 80s pop, sax and beats of differing flavours from hip hop to bossa nova in his first two solo albums, but now we find the instrument welcomed back. Returning to his mother’s home made him pick up again music enjoyed as an open-eyed fifteen-year-old. He lists The Birthday Party, Mclusky, Nile Rogers, T. Rex, but more than ever the new record was driven by wanting to write honestly about how he felt about his personal situation. “I didn’t put any rules in place as to how to do that. So there’s a surprising amount of distorted guitar on it, but not in a sludgy Let’s Wrestle way. It’s a very disparate gang of influences that comes through on this one. I must say I never stopped liking guitar music. I just said that because I’m a total bastard! And as a reactionary thing.”
He left retail before plague year, the pandemic good for him generally despite big bouts of depression and anxiety (“nothing hugely new”) and Appalling Human’s mid-summertime release. “I think I dealt with it quite well,” he says of the mistiming. “It was really gutting because I was so proud of that record. So ready to go and play shows. I was really confident, and then it went to shit. I had the first few weeks of the lockdown just spent basically teaching myself how to use green screen technology, how to film stuff, how to video edit all these things that I kind of half knew how to do but I needed to master because otherwise, I’ve got no way of promoting this whatsoever.”
He tells a story of going off to the woods on Appalling Human’s release day, miserably drinking alone in a clearing in the woods only to be confronted by a celebrity off the telly complete with designer dog. “It was really surreal. He looked really disturbed to see me, with a bunch of Polish lagers.” No conversation, just a silent standard bloke to bloke nod over a plastic bag from the off-licence with ‘have a nice day’ printed on it. “I was too depressed, I was in a catatonic state.” Despite unfortunate circumstances, the record was warmly received, the online show from London’s Paper Dress Vintage the following month with us the audience watching at home miles away handing some gratification.
“When we finished playing, there was nothing to do. It was weird just getting the cab home. Often the most fun part is once it’s done and you sort of feel the relief, you can have a drink with your friends.” Responding to the online audience was different. “You’re instantly on Instagram to see what people have said about it and you’re chatting to people on that, which was really great. It was really lovely, really nice as well in a weird way, probably get more of a direct response than you would do a gig. There’s probably a lot of people who are more comfortable with sending you a message saying I really like this about it or whatever, who wouldn’t be comfortable going up and saying that to you. Some elements were highly endearing and nice.”
It’s worth noting the aggressive Gonzalez persona we see onstage could not be more different to the charming and affable man chatting on the other end of this zoom call. “The way that I am when I perform is very different to how I am. It’s getting into a state of being a heightened version of yourself. The reason I created a sort of a persona was because I used to get so nervous about playing. It was my way of dealing with stage fright, it’s my way of dealing with anything if something makes me anxious. I have to do the most extreme version of that thing to get past the anxiety of doing it.”
He does worry he’s bit overbearing or slightly intimidating. But the artists he admires are like that, the notorious Mark E Smith and John Lennon gave off an edginess. There’d be room for concern if people believed he was like that in day-to-day life, “but I don’t think they do.” Gonzalez often describes Excellent Musician as pre therapy and Appalling Human post therapy. What is Wax Limousine?
“It’s a record I wouldn’t have been able to write without therapy, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if I was five years younger. It’s being connected with how you feel about a really drastic situation and being able to be honest about it. I was taking my mum to radiation therapy every day, such a bleak environment and really heavy. I could go and work in the studio a couple of times a week, my only time where I can actually process things. So, if it was to be categorized as anything, then maybe the record itself was the therapy.”
There’s a definite feeling of helplessness when you’re supporting someone with cancer or serious illness. “It’s a funny thing, when you first experience something like that you feel like, ‘oh, I have no idea how to cope or handle it’. But having the rug pulled out from under you sort of makes it quite comforting that in the future, you know how to deal with it a bit better.”
Men in particular feel like they’ve got to do something physical and practical in response to rectify the situation. As if it’s your job to fix things. Or find the solution somehow. “There’s a lot of that on the record. When you’re in a situation like that, people who you haven’t spoken to in a long time they come back. I’ve been estranged from almost all the male members of my family for years, and one in particular came back so there are songs about that, dealing with their masculinity and how they dealt with it. And how I struggled to see that masculine energy. The #metoo movement was going on around the time I was writing it. Ideas of toxic masculinity have really fed into this record. And the idea that I’m grateful I’m not suffering from that in this situation. At least I can talk about it or know how to talk about it or process it. That seems like a big thematic part.”
The pandemic served as a palate cleanser around his music consumption, he’s excited and open for live and new music now and even has a podcast Recent Peal, for which he consults Brooklyn Vegan’s regular list of new tunes. “I was a bit of a grouch before the pandemic and just going, I can’t be bothered, or I’ve heard the record so I don’t need to go see him or whatever. And also it puts it in perspective not seeing the people who passed away.” He cites the example of missing the opportunity to be fully present at a performance by high intensity avant-pop producer SOPHIE, “now no longer around to play those shows anymore. It’s really heartbreaking. I fucked it up.”
Plans going forward involve doing as much touring and playing as possible over the next year. During his solo career, all things balanced, live shows are the thing he’s done the least. In some respects, Wesley Gonzalez is continuing as how we know him, Appalling Human and Excellent Musician were written during a difficult time, as is the forthcoming record. We all live sometimes in such reality; and besides, a happy go lucky album from him would be alarming. His renewed sense of optimism is wonderful and infectious however, the sign of an artist gearing up to share more of the difficulties life brings with it, experiences universally felt.