Waldemar’s Gabe Larson Talks Life, Writing, And Going Down The Rabbit Hole For ‘Ruthless’

[Cover photo credit to Andrew Nepsund]

Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based Indie Rock outfit Waldemar will be releasing their debut album, Ruthless, on May 5th, 2023. This week, they released a new single from the album, “Limbo”. The album has been in the works for over five years and represents a kind of parallel growth and development for mastermind Gabe Larson as he personally built and furnished the studio in which the album was recorded.

In part, it was also a parallel development for the whole Waldemar project since it represents a return to songwriting and recording for Larson following a period of being in other bands. This more personal projects allows him to go down the rabbit hole not only on songwriting, but on recording and mixing, since Larson oversaw every stage of the process on this collection of songs. Add to that course of development of the project, the studio, and the album, the fact that we went through a global pandemic during the same period of time and that Larson welcomed his first child into the world, and you begin to see a lot of reflections from life in these new tracks.

Larson loads the songs with intricate lyrics but vocals are as much a part of the songs as the instrumentation, creating layers of mood. Then there’s an almost aquatic blending of instrument layers that takes you into a very specific sonic world with each track. Through these techniques, Larson blends realism and heightened emotion drawn from life with a meditative quality. I spoke with Gabe Larson about a wide range of things from ideas of parenting, to gratefulness in life, why older artists are an inspiration, and the level of detail we find on the album Ruthless.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know that this album took shape over a long period of time for you, but I also know that we’ve been through a global disruption, and I think you have had a child in the meantime, so it may all have seemed to go quickly for you.

Gabe Larson: I think people like bonding and commiserating over suffering, and new parents tend to do that, but actually we haven’t been suffering that much, so maybe we’re kind of killing it at this whole parenting thing!

HMS: It seems particular to America that here we like to make a big deal out of parental suffering. In other countries, people seem to celebrate things going smoothly more. Maybe Americans think that their lives are their own and if they make room for a child, it’s a big sacrificial thing.

GL: It’s the next step in what you should be doing. It’s not this heroic thing!

HMS: Something else occurs to me that the global situation recently might have helped put things in perspective, like don’t sweat the small stuff. My grandmother said that raising children during World War II was like that. Parenting looked easy by comparison. It’s not a crisis if your child won’t go to sleep immediately.

GL: [Laughs] That’s so true! That’s something I’ve heard people talking about, [Maslow’s] Hierarchy of Needs. If you’re living a life where your basic needs are covered, things that are not as big a deal all of the sudden become a big deal to you. But for people whose basic needs are not secure, they see things differently.

Gratitude has been a theme for lately, trying to focus on it. Some of that comes from reflecting on a year of having a kid, now. My daughter is one year old, and the only thing is that realizing that it’s been a year already makes me realize that I won’t get that back. I can be a little sad about that, there’s a place for that, but if I spend all my time doing that, I’m missing all the moments now.

HMS: It’s like when people get upset on their birthday, that they are one year older, but really, they are never going to be so young again, so celebrate the coming year! Also, we realize later that we looked great and cool when we were younger, when we felt that we weren’t.

GL: Yes! I’m simultaneously confronted, when I look at old photos, with how much of an idiot I was.

HMS: That’s probably untrue.

GL: When you’re in college and look back at yourself in high school, you think “I didn’t know anything.” Then when you graduate college, you think, “Man, I thought I knew a lot of stuff!” I just entered my 30s last year, and was reflecting on the past decade. It occurred to me that so far the entire trend of my life was looking back and realizing that I didn’t know anything. When I call myself an “idiot”, that’s what I mean by that. I didn’t know myself or understand the world. Since that’s been the trend, I thought, “Let’s just assume that trend continues. Right now, by my future self’s standards, don’t know anything.” For some reason, that warms my heart and helps me be okay with things.

HMS: That can be reassuring.

GL: It shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s kind of thrilling.

HMS: As much as it might be scary to realize that I have a limited understanding right now, I find the idea that there might not be anything left to learn scarier. I want there to be more mysteries to life and the universe, I guess.

GL: Yes. Even beyond knowing, there’s personal growth. The stuff that I was into, and the skills that I developed, for instance, in music, will have growth. Music has been the dominating force in my life and when I look back at myself as a songwriter ten years ago, I realize that I was energized by what I was doing as a songwriter ten years ago. Now I can see adolescent aspects to that work. I’m even more excited about the work I’m doing now, so what will I be doing ten years from now? Where will I have grown to? That feels really exciting. In the context of gratitude, it’s fun to chart the course of growth in your life and play it out into the future.

HMS: Something that comes up talking with older musicians is that we need the sweep of time to be fully developed. We don’t often get to see a complete life in music and the ones that we can see are so meaningful. The work does change the whole time and develop. But a lot of time musicians don’t get to reach those stages.

GL: There’s also the market, especially in the West. We are so obsessed with youth and newness. It’s very rare to see an older artist because the market drives them out. It predetermines shelf-life. It’s such an amazing perspective that older artists have. Willie Nelson is one of my all-time favorite artists.

HMS: He’s the best!

GL: He’s one of those people that we’ve been fortunate to receive a lifetime of music from him. Though his career didn’t take off until he was in his mid to late 40s and a lot of his early work was due to Nashville trying to make him into a different version of himself. His early work may not be the truest reflection of who he was. It almost makes me sad that we don’t get to hear from many older voices within music. It’s so skewed.

HMS: Something that older artists have a great handle on is not censoring yourself when you’re songwriting and leaving that kind of editing to a later stage. That’s often how they continue to be creative and productive so long.

GL: That’s something that it has taken me getting older to get over. I was too obsessed with music to be kept from making my own. In recent years, something I’ve gotten into is listening to or reading other songwriters talk about their lives. I love music autobiographies. Listening to other songwriters talking about songwriting, now that I’ve been at this for over a decade, it feels like everybody is basically the same, even if their process is different.

These prolific songwriters have something in common, which is that every time they finish a song, they don’t know if they have another song left in them. Was that the last one? I’ve thought that exact same thing. It’s a thing. To create is to struggle with these doubts. There’s also the feeling of having no idea what you’re doing as you’re creating. These great songwriters say, “I don’t know. I just started playing and tried something.” They aren’t exactly sure how it works. That’s my internal life.

HMS: I laugh about that on documentaries all the time because incredibly famous guitarists explain how they wrote something and it’s basically, “I just did it. I don’t know.”

GL: Exactly! I do wonder what it’s like to create something wildly famous. Do they spend the rest of their life thinking, “If only people knew how little thought went into that, or how lucky I was to happen to come up with that…” Is Imposter Syndrome even greater if you find widespread success. The Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, made me and a buddy laugh because fans would ask Bob, “What did you mean by this line in this song?” Then Bob would respond with basically no answer, like, “What do you think it means?” We wondered if he was feigning coolness but was relieved after every interview was done.

HMS: I’m pretty sure that Bob Dylan has expressed some elements of anxiety about his music and creativity at different points, though he does try to keep things cool. He’s someone who definitely doesn’t know when and where the next album is coming from. Bruce Springsteen too! He’s recently said that in interviews.

GL: It’s a process of continuing to be lucky. I’ve continued to sit down at the piano or with my guitar, or with my iPhone to write lyrics, and something has happened multiple times. But it’s so mysterious going from nothing to something. There’s such a feeling of magic imbued into it.

HMS: I saw that you’re something who’s open to writing at times when you’re doing other things in life. You are kind of writing when you’re running your flooring business, when you’re doing other tasks, right? Maybe your mindset is why you’re able to keep writing.

GL: Absolutely. The one way to not write a song for me is to sit down and try to write. But I’m positive other people have written that way, like with Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls”. He was in a songwriting house and was alone, sitting. He was looking at the walls and just started writing. He had the intention to write. I think from a very young age, I’ve always moved through the world looking for metaphors in my daily life. It’s a habit that I’ve developed. I actually wrote many lyrics before I ever learned an instrument to put music to those songs. I guess I was a lyric writer before I was a music writer.

HMS: Do you write in other ways and formats, like journal writing?

GL: Yes, I think it can be helpful to write down the bullet points of your life and think about it in terms of a narrative. People in the past wrote memoirs, and I wonder how knowing that they were going to do that affected them.

It’s pretty close to 30 minutes or an hour a day that I write, and I don’t mean writing songs. I’m just journaling. A lot of times it’s about what happened yesterday. I finish up by thinking about today. I write about whatever’s on my mind.

HMS: I think that kind of activity adds positive value to the day. It changes the climate of the day.

GL: Yes. Do you feel that you get a build-up of words and writing is a form of release?

HMS: There’s definitely an in-flow and out-flow to these things. Something I struggle with regarding journaling is making sure I don’t stop or edit details out because that interrupts the flow. You include a lot of journal-detail in your lyrics, actually. How closely do you want people to listen to those details?

GL: I love it when the songwriters, or producers, or mixers include things that only people who go in really deep are going to notice. It feels like a specific, intentional gift for me and maybe the ten other people who are going to notice it. The super-fans may form a deep connection with the song. I get really obsessed with music in that way, so I think that’s why I like creating in that same spirit.

I create a lot of depth in my songs and that’s a very instinctual form of creating music for me. The thing that I’m inspired by and I’m reaching for all the time is creating layers and being okay with the fact that there’s a really little detail that I find amazing but probably no one else is going to notice. Or maybe the person who is going to hear it is really deep down the rabbit hole.

I wrote all the songs, and I recorded all the songs in my studio, and I also mixed them as well. The only thing I didn’t do was master the record. I had my buddy Mike master it. I felt like there needed to be at least one thing where I was not in the driver’s seat. The funny thing is that I still had him do three revisions on the masters for me, which is atypical. Usually, with mastering, that’s sent away, it comes back, and it’s done. Maybe there’s one revision. I was scared I was going to piss Mike off because I was being ridiculous.

There are so many decisions that go on in all the stages of the production process, so when you’re involved with all of them, you inevitably go down the rabbit hole on the songs. If you’re passionate about it, you do that. That ends up coming out in these songs.

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