Less of a side-project and more of a musical alter-ego for Erik Wunder of avant-garde black metal outfit Cobalt, the group Man’s Gin finds the multi-instrumentalist/vocalist exploring more songwriting based roots, be that in the form of a Nick Cave-style murder ballad or examining the emotionally-weighted dark folk roots of bands like 16 Horsepower. Wunder, who relocated from Denver, Colorado, to Brooklyn in order to pursue his band on a more serious level, recently released the first Man’s Gin album, Smiling Dogs, via Profound Lore. He’ll be playing in his (new) hometown borough on Oct. 27, opening for Eugene Robinson of Oxbow at Union Pool, and I was thrilled to recently have the chance to talk to him about his move, recording Smiling Dogs, and the differences in approach between the highly-structured Man’s Gin and Cobalt’s more ethereal vibrations. Please enjoy.
What brought about the move from Colorado to Brooklyn and when did all that go down?
That happened last Spring, actually. I was on tour with my friend Jarboe from Swans. I’d previously worked with her on the Cobalt album. She did guest appearances on our last two albums, and then I’d also done a couple guest appearances on her Stream Enterer series. I did some drums for her. So we’d been of working back and forth together when I was still in Denver, and then this tour came about last year, this European tour, and she asked me if I wanted to be the drummer, so I said yes, packed up my shit and crashed on a buddy’s couch here in Brooklyn, and ended up going on a tour with her last Spring.
When I got back, I realized that I kind of liked it here and thought it would be a good change of pace, and if I was really gonna get serious and push things to the limit, it was probably a good idea to come out to a place like New York and see how the magic unfolded.
What about going from Cobalt to Man’s Gin? Was there something behind that stylistic shift?
Yeah. With Cobalt, most of that music is about interaction between the drums and the guitars, and so I think the voice of the song is moving through the instruments. Phil [McSorley] obviously adds his vocals over that, and the message, but the songs from the ground up are mostly concentrating on the interaction of guitars and drums and the rhythm there. As I was working on that, I discovered Deadboy and the Elephantmen and I started going back to the ‘90s and listening to Soundgarden and things like that, and also guys like Will Oldham, Leonard Cohen. I started getting interested in writing lyrics and weaving those into guitar parts.
Man’s Gin works with guitar and voice as I felt Cobalt did with drums and guitar. With Man’s Gin, I could put my personal message in the lyrics and sing them in a melody. It was a good release and a good change. When you’re playing loud, angry music, sometimes it’s good to be able to sit back and mellow out, even though there is a lot of anger in the Man’s Gin stuff, it also explores a lot of other emotions. Sometimes it’s good to just sit down, drink a little whiskey, play guitar and sing out a song. That was the main idea. A little more “chill-out, sit back and philosophize” kind of vibe.
Deadboy and the Elephantmenis a great comparison point too. My mind didn’t go there listening, but that’s pretty dead on.
I guess I took a little of how Dax Riggs—once Acid Bath broke up—just started this random project that was totally not metal. I liked his confidence in doing that. “I did that and now I’m gonna do this, and I don’t give a fuck.”
How long were you working on the material for Smiling Dogs?
I first started coming up with songs for Man’s Gin five years ago, when I was still living in Ft. Collins—this is even before I was in Denver. Some of these songs are five years old. The song “Smiling Dogs” is the first song I ever wrote, playing acoustic guitar and singing. That’s the oldest one. I wrote that in 2005, I think, in Ft. Collins.
Half of these songs are four or five years old, and then two of the new songs, “Stone on My Head” and “Solid Gold Telephone” I wrote with my buddy Scott [Edward], who plays piano and some of the lead guitars on the album. We wrote those two just in the last year. I moved here officially a year and a half ago. I’ve been working with Scott and Josh [Lozano] on the songs I already had and writing those two new ones over the last year. We recorded in January, so really, I had to get those guys on the same page and we wrote those two new songs in six months. I find you work best when you have a deadline.
What’s the story behind “The Death of Jimmy Sturgis?”
That was something we conceptualized also just jamming. I had the main riff and the arrangements to that song, and it initially didn’t have a theme like that, it was going to be more of a philosophical song, with metaphors and such, and then we started coming up with this idea about a hit man. This is what happens when you’re sitting around in a room, smoking pot and playing guitar. You come up with these random things. Scott started being like, “Yeah, why don’t we make this song about a hit man?” So we started just riffing on the lyrics and coming up with this fictional story about this guy who finds his wife cheating on him and the hit man takes care of both of them. It’s kind of a murder ballad (laughs), and as we were rolling with it, I started digging it a lot more.
I like those songs that tell a story, and I think it’s good to put it in there. Sometimes I can focus too much on painting pictures with words and being philosophical. Sometimes I think it’s okay for a song to just tell a straight story too. I always liked how Nick Cave had those kinds of songs too, like “O’Malley’s Bar,” that 13-minute song he has about that dude who loses it in a bar and goes around killing everybody. I think a good murder ballad is something to respect (laughs).
Is it a different mindset for you, writing a story with lyrics or describing an idea?
Yeah. I would never made the “Jimmy Sturgis” song just on my own. I find I write the best introspective things when I’m by myself and usually late at night, between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., when the whole world is quiet and you can just sit there by yourself and think about things. That’s when I write my best philosophical things, like the lyrics to “Doggamn” or “Smiling Dogs.” But the storyline of the “Jimmy Sturgis” song was definitely a group effort. Me and Scott sitting there and being like, “Well, we have the initial idea. What can happen next?” Just building and building, writing the story as we went along.
That’s something I really haven’t attempted to do on my own. It just came out of the blue as we were working on it and we just ran with it. That’s something I could explore in the future. You can’t write every song about “What the hell does it all mean?”
Are there plans for more material? Is it going to be an ongoing project?
Definitely. I don’t know if it’s gonna be big enough, no matter what I’m still going to be doing this stuff, because it’s what I do to enjoy myself here in life. There’s definitely going to be continuing Man’s Gin.
We played Webster Hall a couple weeks ago with Altar of Plagues and this band Castevet, which is interesting because I know we’re on a metal label, but it was funny having Man’s Gin open up for black metal. But the turnout was really great and people seemed to like it, and I really didn’t catch any guff from people being like, “Well, that wasn’t heavy.” “I told you it wasn’t heavy!”
It’s kind of heavy anyway.
Yeah, I guess it is. It’s like heavy metal folk. I guess it is heavy (laughs).
And is Cobalt done?
No, no, Cobalt’s not done. Working on new material for that as well. Cobalt is a very patient effort for me, as it is with Phil. I’m working on songs. I have a couple. I have two songs fully written and arranged for the new Cobalt record. As I said, I have stacks of tapes of guitar parts and stuff, both for Man’s Gin and for Cobalt. There’s definitely enough there to piece together this new record.
Phil’s going back to Iraq in November for another year. Once he gets back from that tour… I feel like it’s my duty and our duty to lay this shit on the table while we’re still around. I think we have a pretty unique dynamic and it’s something I think deserves to be recorded. I feel like it’s a purpose.
Man’s Gin is opening for Eugene Robinson of Oxbow at Union Pool in Brooklyn on Oct. 27. Smiling Dogs is available now on Profound Lore. More info at myspace.com/mansgin.
JJ Koczan likes it when the timing works out. firstname.lastname@example.org.