photos: Autumn Andel
Northern Ireland suffers from the lowest arts funding in the UK, mixed that factor with the looming shadow of its troubled past, the enduring sectarianism, the bleak weather, and so on… an ideal breeding ground for the latest musical venture of Philip Quinn: Gross Net. The obsidian-esque project has been brewing since his teens, but only now in 2016, with the monumental consequences of Brexit and US presidential election, the perfect storm has finally unleashed Philip’s alter ego in totality.
Best known for his work with Girls Names, Quinn was on double-duty as the quartet’s guitarist and as their opening act, during the Belfast band’s tour earlier this year. Those who came to the show were introduced to few tracks from what would be his debut full-length, Quantitative Easing. Yet, they would have to wait nine months to hear the rest; it only seemed fitting that an album revolting against complacency by an artist named, Gross Net, would be released on Black Friday. We reached out to Philip over the cyberspace to give you some introduction into his world.
Could you describe the road to Gross Net? Because your earlier solo work is divergent from the current sound.
To be honest, I’ve always had ideas to make music which was a bit darker and weirder than most, I was asked this same question recently and I found it quite funny! The poppier more indie guitar stuff I did as Charles Hurts was more a diversion from what I’d done previously and was as cynical as it was naive on my part as I thought it would be a fast track to ‘stardom’ whatever that is. That’s not to say that I don’t also enjoy pop music or the music I made as Charles Hurts, on the contrary, I wish I did manage to find a larger audience for that. That being said, as a teenager, I was recording ten-minute guitar soundscapes or banging on cans which I ran through effects pedals and screamed over the top whilst also playing in post-punk bands. If anything I feel like Gross Net is a return to my true self!
Charles Hurts “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”
Once you joined Girls Names, you were still making your own music, but being part of that band seemed to take priority over your own project. What fueled you to fully commit to Gross Net?
Well, ever since Gross Net became a solo thing and not a duo, I found it much easier to get things done. I’ve been the leader of many bands in my time, but I guess I’ve never made a great leader. I’ve been too sympathetic and understanding when I should’ve put pressure on to make sure shit got done. I can be a workaholic when it comes to music so working alone allows me to make the most of my time when I’m not on tour or whatever with Girls Names. It’s not at all that I’ve not had the fuel to commit to my own projects before, I did try, but usually there were interferences from other people, band members who couldn’t commit enough time or effort to the project. Besides, I’ve been in the “industry” for a few years now and I know a little better how to go about things. I’m still learning though.
Do you approach the creation of an LP as pieces of one puzzle or as a collection of music exploring a concept/theme?
It’s a little bit of both. You start off with one or two tracks and see where it leads you, it’s then that you might see a pattern form either musically or thematically that you can start following. I like to work with mistakes and spontaneity, I’m pragmatic. I don’t set out with a master plan or blueprint showing the different working parts, though I do sometimes have a grand sort of idea…I mean you can look at the titles of my releases Outstanding Debt, Quantitative Easing and get some sort of idea straight off the bat as to what I’m thinking. For City of London / Love Precursor / E-Banking from Outstanding Debt, I originally wanted that to be on an EP of improvised music which I was going to call Bank of England. However, I sent it to the guy that wanted to release it and he wasn’t entirely sure if it was even music! That kind of killed off that idea…
What was the first song and last you wrote for the album, and what was the time difference?
The first things recorded were the three instrumental tracks; “Shave with a Cold Blade”, “Data Transfer”, and “Dead Industry”. They were recorded for fun primarily, as experiments in January 2015. I think the idea was that they could act as transition pieces between tracks live to give time for me to drink or tune or whatever. I can’t really speak in terms of which was ‘written’ last as all were written and recorded simultaneously. The last recorded though was “Currency Transfer” in January 2016, so a year of a difference. That being said those instrumentals feel like they’re even older than that…
Eh…I didn’t really work with a rigid set-up and recorded different bits and pieces at different times and in different places. Sometimes I used synth software on my laptop, other times I used ‘real life’ synthesisers and drum machines, then I’ve my guitar and effects. Live I’d just been using the rough mixed tracks from the album without vocals and guitar and I’d do that live. I find that incredibly tedious though. I recently did an almost 100% live show with parts arranged for guitar/bass/drum machine with some samples. I found that a lot more enjoyable but it made it too…punk or something, which is not something I’,m interested in going back down. It’s been hard, but basically, I don’t have a rigid set-up and I’m always looking to try something new. I’m currently on tour in Germany and I’m using a sampler with my guitar. However, I feel like that lacks a certain energy or something….I’d like to completely do away with guitar, if only to have less to carry with me on tour! I like to limit my options so I’m forced to come up with another solution.
How important is the visual factor to your music & identity?
It’s very important though still secondary to the music. I like to portray a unified image as much as possible, and I suppose I’ve taken greater care with Gross Net than other projects I’ve been involved in. I’ve been more hands on, acting more like an art director, and very rarely a visual artist than I have in the past. I think that if something looks ‘off’ with the music or the image of the artist it can turn people away when the whole point of it is to drive people towards the music, to create some sort of aura or mystery. In effect, the idea is to distill the music down to visual signifiers that someone can identify how the music might sound without perhaps having the immediate opportunity to hear it. An advertisement so to speak.
What was the first instrument you learned to play and what is your favourite?
The first instrument I played was either keyboard or guitar as a young child. We had a tiny Casio and my father had an acoustic guitar from the 60s or 70s that I enjoyed making a tuneless atonal din on while plucking the open strings. I’d end up entranced for hours doing that, it probably seems more probable how I’ve ended up doing this! I don’t necessarily have a favourite, I really enjoy synths lately but guitar or bass still feels the most natural to play. It’s like an extension of my body in that regard. It depends what task I need them to play; for instance, if you need to saw a piece of wood you wouldn’t use a wrench to do so. I’d rather play bass live, but it might require too much of me while trying to set samples off etc. That could be something I can work on in the future though.
What do you think the role of an artist is if any?
The role of the artist is communication. Communication of feelings, of ideas, of protest. I think if you’re not trying to share a feeling or propose an idea or to offend you’re not really an artist. Artists are far more important in this day and age than ever before I think. In particular, many musicians seem to set out with the goal of just making the nicest or best music they can, but I think that means nothing today. I liken myself to being on the front line of a war, at least that’s what I imagine when I take the stage. I’m pleased if half the audience has left by the time I’ve finished playing, all that means is that the chaff has been separated from the wheat.
I would argue I still have a slim to no chance of being heard even within my circle! I feel the music I make doesn’t garner much interest, and were it not for the internet it would probably only be a private hobby. There’s barely a music scene at home and the existence of Gross Net goes largely unknown. There have always been good artists who didn’t have their music heard at the time only to be discovered years later, and there have always been artists who were a bit different who still managed to cut a niche through to an audience. However, if it were the 80’s and I was only making music as a hobby I’d probably just kill myself. I’ve no interest in propping up Capitalism through working a 9-5 job so I can buy all the things I’m told to buy. I also think I’d have the option of greater ‘success’ in the 80’s with the possibility of selling more records and bringing in more income that way. If I sold 100 records, or a few hundred records today that would count as success, whereas in the 80’s that would be considered a massive failure.
Nada! by Death in June. It’s from 1985, and I’m amazed I’d not managed to hear it until recently. It’s the perfect mix of drum machine/synth with an acoustic guitar. It’s like some weird electro-folk-dance-post punk music with spooky samples.
Do you think the world has gone mad after Brexit and US presidential election?