It seems like Janek Gwizdala is always a few strides ahead when it comes to his music and marketing. That certainly holds true on his latest, One Way Out, a departure sonically and in delivery method (the record and accompanying documentary is available exclusvely at janekgwizdala.com). The 12-track trio effort features keyboardist Tom Cawley (Peter Gabriel, Ronnie Scott’s House Band) and drummer Nicolas Viccaro (John McLaughlin, Bill Evans), and is almost entirely improvised. But the catalyst for the cinematic, ambient soundscape the three create is Gwizdala’s mammoth effects pedal setup. His painstakingly prepared floor array allows his bass to fly free, taking on multiple roles and visiting other dimensions. We checked in with Janek on the eve of his first tour with the project.
What was your vision for this record, considering it was almost entirely improvised?
My main goal was for the music to be honest, and that meant not doing anything the same way I’ve done it before. It was also about finding the right musicians who could improvise at a high level, and who I trusted. It’s always a roll of the dice when you go into the studio with almost no music written down. So I wanted to make it a little less risky by hiring Tom and Nico, as well as my engineer, Juan Pablo Alcaro, and our film crew; very important people to me who have been in my life for a long time. I felt that gave me the best chance for success.
You say in the accompanying 44-minute film documentary that you only had only a few short phone demos going in to the session.
Yes, but only to say, Hey, this is a potential direction we might end up in, sonically, but it’s totally okay if we don’t. We were at the studio—which is in a beautiful 12th Century Spanish castle—for three days, so what you’re hearing is maybe an hour of six hours of recorded material. As soon as everything was set up we started recording, with zero rehearsal time.
What was the starting point?
Well, as I say in the film, the fourth member of the band is my insane pedal setup, which is two suitcases with 45 pedals. A lot of it was coming from that. I started manipulating sounds and improvising; looping and sequencing, using pitchy kinds of ambient delays, with the three of us improvising off of those sounds. I had been working on my pedal setup through the pandemic, trying to find new sounds and eventually getting a rough idea of what my signal path was.
What was your original connection to Tom and Nico?
Tom I’ve known since 1996. We went to school together and he played in my band in the mid-’90s around London. Last summer I found a box of old cassette tapes with bootlegs of that band and it was eye-opening. Here we were kids in our late teens who didn’t know our ass from our elbow but there were a lot of great moments of communication. Nico is younger but I’ve known him for 15 years, having done tours and recordings with him. I knew there were nuances to his playing with regard to sensitivity and touch that would work well in this situation. I always bookmark people when I work with them, with the intention of doing something together later. We did a trio gig in Rotterdam last fall and it was awesome. I knew this was the band for the record.
How would you describe the role of the bass on the record?
It was almost secondary because there are some pieces where I don’t even play the bass, it’s all generated from pedals and the focus is the music, not the instruments. I was using my bass like five different instruments: as a trigger, as a compositional tool in the moment, at times as a melodic instrument, as a percussive instrument, and of course as a bass. But I never really thought about my role as “the bass player.” The most important thing was the ensemble and the music as a unit. I told the guys up front, everyone has an equal say in this, musically. And they were good about speaking up, they weren’t silent, they were artists within the ensemble, which is fantastic.
What music and musicians inform the record?
Mainly it was one of my key musical influences, the late trumpet player Jon Hassell. He was known for combining primitive world music with modern electronic sounds, and he was true innovator when it came to harmonizers and pitch shifting. I’ve always had that sound in the back of my head and wondered if I could do something with it on the bass. I’ve been doing a lot of programming around chord voicing with harmonizer and pitch shifting, so that’s a big part of the sound of the record. Another part of my preparation was to chack out a lot of new music in the six months leading up to the recording. I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks and ambient and soundscape music, compiling a playlist and sending it to Tom and Nico. On the film side it ranged from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to Hildur Guonadottir, a female Icelandic composer who did the music for the movie Joker and the TV show Chernobyl. On the soundscape side it was artists like Abdul Mogard, Niklas Paschburg, and hip hop producer Mike Dean.
Among the vast pedal array in your setup were there key core sounds for the recording?
Yes, there are the time-based effects, like the delays and the reverb; the harmonizer element from the Line 6 HX Stomp; and the loopers—I could loop something I played, put the bass down, and literally be on my knees for five minutes processing what I had played into it through other effects. Beyond that there are different options if a want to play a super phat groove, or some harmonic stuff, or add some distortion or bit crushing. Plus the fact that I’m now playing with a stereo setup. All of it has become a massive extension of my natural acoustic sound. The flaw there is I have to take the two suitcases of pedals on the road if I want to recreate those sounds.
It seems like having the stereo dimension added a great deal.
For sure. You can do so much more with these effects because many are stereo pedals. When you plug them in and split them left and right between two different amps or two different sides you get this image that’s twice the size. There are things that move between left and right, and there’s granular stuff that moves around and makes weird sounds. As a musician and a composer I’ve always tried to think as symphonically as possible. In this setting, having the space and the width afforded by a stereo setting goes a long way.
Another new component for you was the interesting path you took in releasing the record.
When I looked at my entire 12-album catalog I realized that I’ve never broken even on a record when it comes to cost versus sales. I’m not complaining, money was never the reason I made the albums, and I’m happy to have them, but I thought to myself, I can change this. So I did a pre-order on the record that let people know about it and the accompanying documentary. I offered five different ordering levels, and I made it clear that this was the only way to get the music. I wasn’t going to release it on Spotify or other streaming services that take the bulk of the profits through unfair deals with the artists. And the good news is I made back the cost of the record before I even released it. If you’re honest your true fans will follow.
Listeners accustomed to your previous recordings won’t hear the bass in that way until the seventh track, “Northern Line.” What was your thinking when it came to the order of the tracks?
What happened was unexpected delays screwed up my release schedule. I was planning on releasing the music as four three-song EPs leading up to the start of our tour at the end of August. Now it will just come out as an entire 12-song record. But my original thinking was to have three-song chunks that made sense together. The first would be the more electronic-sounding stuff, the second would be the more ambient tracks, the third would be the more melodic tracks, starting with “Northern Line,” and lastly the more groove-oriented tracks. The record ends with “Better Tomorrow,” a solo piano piece I composed that Tom plays as-written. I thought it would be a good idea to end with something calm, given how chaotic it is throughout the album.
What about the accompanying film aspect?
Because the record is such a departure for me, musically, I felt like the documentary was a good way to introduce the music and perhaps help people understand where I was coming from by giving them a look at the process. People are very visual these days when it comes to music. I don’t necessarily agree with that, I like to sit down and listen to and experience music as it’s intended. In that sense I maybe pandered a little bit by providing a visual representation, but hopefully it’s an interesting story to see, as well.
What do you foresee musically on the tour?
Basically we will be creating a new record every night because it’s totally improvised. Of course it will be similar conceptually, and we’ll probably play “Northern Line,” which has some structure. But I look forward to the music developing and growing spontaneously with each set.
What else do you have coming up?
I just put out a new book called Bass Player’s Guide to Altered Chords & Scales [https://janekgwizdala.com/store]. I’m doing a tour with [saxophonist] Bob Reynolds. And in September and into 2023 I’m doing dates with Steve Smith’s Vital Information in a trio lineup with keyboardist Manuel Valera, to celebrate the band’s 40th Anniversary. I also hope to do some more live shows and another record in 2023 with Tom and Nico. To do a project like this and hit 50-60% of your goals would be a win. But to hit 100% of them and then be musically surprised by the results on top of that, well you can’t ask for anything more. –BM
Basses: Signature Mattisson 5-string; F-Bass 5-string (both tuned E-A-D-G-C, low-to high)
Strings: DR Hi-Beams [.32-.45-.65-.85-.105]
Amp: Two Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 heads with two Aguilar SL-212 cabinets
Main Effects: “For this record my core pedals were the Caveman Audio BP1 Bass Preamp—it’s like a Neve 1073 in a pedal; the Line 6 HX Stomp, which is the nucleus of all the harmonizer stuff; a Rainger Effects Snare Trap, which is a beatbox; a TC Electronic Ditto Looper; a Meris Ottobit Jr. bitcrusher; an Eventide H9 MaxHarmonizer; and an assortment of Chase Bliss pedals and Iron Ether pedals.”