There are occasions where a long-dormant artist resurfaces that genuinely surprise. Many bands split up, and in these nostalgic times, you can almost set your watch to them reforming at some point – but Numb is different. Despite being such an important project from their releases back in the nineties, Don Gordon clearly appeared to have moved on, without any interest in returning to Numb.
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So colour me very surprised indeed when the confirmation came through that Mortal Geometry was imminent, and then yet more shock that, when I heard it, the album was both a solid return to the intensity of the Numb of old, as well as looking forward into new realms, a reflection of where Gordon is twenty years on.
This, then, is as far as I’m aware the first interview with Don Gordon about Numb in a very long time, and he had quite a bit to say. Thanks to Don for talking to me, and also for providing the photos, which are by Khoi Nguyen.
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Don, it’s quite the surprise to be talking to you about a new Numb release in 2019. How does it feel to be releasing music under the title again?
Don Gordon: A bit like picking up a conversation with someone you haven’t seen in a few years…
I understand that you moved across to Vietnam after the original cessation of Numb. Was there a desire to totally remove yourself from music at the time, or was it just something that happened as a result of moving so far away?
Don Gordon: After the release of Blood Meridian I moved to London where I mixed Language of Silence, recorded the Halo_Gen album and a number of Numb tracks for compilations. While I had planned on taking a break from Numb at this time it wasn’t intended to be for quite so long…but when I got to Vietnam in late ’99 I found myself in this incredibly dynamic environment, in which I was presented with a number of really interesting and diverse opportunities. These included game development, tech startups, advertising production and as a university lecturer in sound production and media studies. On the music side I focused more on commissions, commercial sound design and production. A couple of highlights from the commissions included writing and performing the music for Missed Connections, a video installation work by artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran that is now part of the Singapore Art Museum permanent collection. The track The Waiting Room, which is on Mortal Geometry, had its origins as a short 30-second soundtrack for a YouTube promotional clip to the novella of the same name by the literary erotica author Remittance Girl. There were also a small number of Numb remixes for other artists over this period.
The new album Mortal Geometry feels like a natural successor – in a good way – to Language of Silence in particular, but clearly with a technology upgrade, as it absolutely roars out of the speakers on a good system. How long have you been working on the new release, and did you have specific aims in mind as to how you wanted it to sound?
Don Gordon: When I started on Mortal Geometry I had some very clear ideas about how it should sound and while it needed to feel contemporary, it also needed to evoke a sense of continuity with the previous recordings. Mortal Geometry was about 2 years in the making, with more of that time spent on production rather than composition. I find writing and recording quite fast but the technical side more time consuming. I also worked extensively with the mastering engineer Eric Van Wonterghem to get the mastered mixes as I heard them in my head. In some cases this meant going back and remixing…making subtle changes to levels and EQ to individual tracks in order to best optimize the mix for mastering.
The album was done with a combination of analog and digital hardware and a ‘in-the-box’ DAW and plugins running on a MacBook Pro. The quality and low cost of current software allows for an incredible level of control that was impossible without a mega-budget back at the time of Language of Silence.
You’ve also added your own vocals for the first time on a Numb record, to my knowledge. Was this just a result of circumstance, or did you decide to test yourself on that front?
Don Gordon: Initially I had thought about working with a vocalist but given the quite specific ideas about themes and the vocal delivery approach that I wanted to incorporate on Mortal Geometry I decided it made more sense to do the vocals myself. Also, this allowed me to bring the vocal/lyric development much earlier into the process, which has resulted in a much more, integrated feel to the songs. On previous Numb releases the vocals were usually one of the last elements added. While this approach has been quite effective it also has its own set of limitations.
Much is made of the “Vancouver sound” – I guess with a number of such influential groups all out of the city in a similar timeframe, they were always going to be lumped together – but the truth is that all of the groups so considered struck out on their own paths. Yours is an extraordinarily aggressive, harsh sound at points (Blood Meridian remains one of the harshest industrial albums I’ve ever heard – I talked about it with I Die: You Die on their podcast a while back). What were your inspirations in making music for Numb, both then and now?
Don Gordon: Inspirations for early Numb would have included Coil, early Wire, early Cabaret Voltaire, NEU!, Bowie’s Low, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Berlin phase Tangerine Dream, DAF and contemporaneous artists like Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept..
While I still listen to a lot of electronic music my preference for the more abstract instrumental works. Traditional Asian music timbres and forms have also influenced me as can be seen on tracks from the new album like The Waiting Room, Mortal Geometry and Hush.
Your career of course stretches back prior to Numb, to the earlier days of Images In Vogue. What are your memories of those early days? Was it easier to make music then, but harder to find an audience without the internet?
Don Gordon: In some ways it was easier, and in some ways more difficult to create music back at the ‘early days’….easier as the new musical technology (ie. polyphonic synths, drum machines, digital delay) of the era facilitated the creation of tonal possibilities that had never been heard before and which in turn contributed to the creation a new musical vocabulary, new timbres and new genres…more difficult as the equipment wasn’t particularly reliable and didn’t interact together very well, which could lead to some strange outcomes, some interesting and others an outright fail.
Certainly the internet does make it easier to connect with an audience at distance and faster but at the same time it has amplified the challenge of ‘rising above the noise floor’. The sheer volume of music (and other forms of entertainment and media) competing for your potential audiences attention is staggering. Social media and online music services amplify both aspects of this so, ironically given all the technology involved, it still comes down to the same thing…word of mouth.
You’ve re-entered the music industry at a time where looking back – or nostalgia, perhaps – seems to be the driver for an awful lot of sales. How do you feel about this? Would you rather we were talking more about your new material, or is it necessary to be considering it through the prism of both past and present?
Don Gordon: This ‘looking back/nostalgia’, not just in music but in society as a whole is something that I personally find problematic. This is one of the themes explored on Mortal Geometry, in particular in the track Hush. Rather than a dystopian cyberpunk expression of ‘no future’, Mortal Geometry instead questions a present that continually references and repeats the past and where the future doesn’t look significantly different than the present…a kind of ‘forever now’ loop. Mark Fisher and others have written about this this sense of being ‘haunted by lost futures’ and the ‘persistent recycling of the past’ and the ‘inability to escape old social forms’. The intentional corruption of language and meaning, the ongoing editing and redacting of the past and present, and the social media ‘echo chamber’ further reinforce this perpetual ‘now’.
I think that it makes sense to view new material through both the past and present. It gives audiences an opportunity to see the evolution of the artists’ narrative while at the same time putting it into the context of the ‘now’. In the case of Mortal Geometry, with the long gap from the preceding release, I anticipated this comparison and quite consciously referenced elements of some earlier Numb elements to act as a bridge. In a way it is like re-establishing a relationship with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time as the basis to begin new explorations.
What about the future? Will the reactivated Numb remain a studio-only project?
Don Gordon: No plans to tour in the immediate future but I am looking at this for 2020.
Mortal Geometry is out now on Metropolis Records.