Gary Gunn is an acclaimed composer and music producer/curator noted for his genre-defying musical aesthetic and forward-thinking application of sound. Probably the artist who is most involved in The 14th Factory next to Simon Birch, Gunn is the soundscape designer of the whole installation environment and created the soundtrack for all video works. Gunn and Birch have had a long friendship and collaborative partnership even prior to working on this project, having first worked together on Birch’s previous installation Hope and Glory in Hong Kong.
Outside of The 14th Factory, Gunn has collaborated on cutting-edge, interactive installations at TED, SXSW, Moogfest, & Palais de Tokyo. He has also been commissioned by brands such as Sonos, Nike, Puma, Google, and Dell for his singular sonic vision and has scored award-winning films, including official selections at Sundance, Tribeca, and Cannes film festivals, and has created original music for TV series, including Showtime’s Emmy-nominated Sleeper Cell and AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. Gunn’s most signature works are his musical portraits—compositions that sonically interpret the essence of handpicked subjects. In 2016, Oprah selected him for her inaugural Super Soul 100 list, honoring “the world’s biggest trailblazers, innovators, and visionaries”.
Recently, we get to ask Gary Gunn a few questions and learned that the creative journey is an ever evolving process and we will be expecting to hear a lot more from him. Check out the full soundtrack for The 14th Factory and the interview below!
As a self-taught Artist, when did you fall in love with composing or know that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
It’s fair to say I’m self-taught but I’ve had many teachers throughout my life; just no formal training.
Initially, I think it was less of me pursuing a career and more so realizing that it was possible to make a living doing something I was already actively engaged in. So, naturally, I continued on… In many ways, I’m doing the same thing I was when I was a kid, just in a more expansive way.
I’ve been immersed in music my entire life, both in my home and in my community. I started performing with local bands in DC’s Go-Go scene when I was about 12 years old. Mostly at block parties, high school functions, then eventually at spots like The Icebox and The Palace. Around 16, I started recording separate parts of our “songs” on cassette tapes to give to band members to practice individually before rehearsals and shows. That introduced me to the idea of producing/composing. Then I bought a multitrack recorder and started overdubbing tracks on my own. Once I understood the concept, I pretty much dropped everything else and was totally consumed with all aspects of the music making process.
Who were/are some of your biggest influences in the music industry and why?
There are way too many too list but some that come to mind are: Organzied Noize, Phillip Glass, Funkadelic, Jon Brion, Quincy Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, Johnny Greenwood, Rick Rubin, Bjork, Rap-A-Lot Records, Alice Coltrane, Lee Scratch Perry, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Sufjan Stevens, Tricky, Martina Topley Bird, Prince, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Dr. Dre, Stereolab, Cliff Martinez. I could go on and on…
My cousin, Michael Robinson, was the first person I saw making songs with minimal but “professional” production gear. That was big for me because it demystified the process into something tangible. At the time, I remember thinking “ohhh, I want to do that!”. He and his brother Keenan (also a bandmate) were both insanely talented and highly creative at a young age. Sadly, they’re both gone but I’d like to think some of their gifts rubbed off on me.
Another that comes to mind is “Doc” (Martin Mckinney). He produced this album Breath From Another (Esthero) that came out while I was in high school. I was obsessed with the production and starting following his work. Within a few years, I ended up meeting him at Chung King Studios in NYC after he heard some of my work and was into it, which meant a lot at the time. We’ve been in touch ever since and he’s always been a supportive, enthusiastic, and wise figure to me. It’s been inspiring to see his work/career evolve over the years.
What was your first job or foot in the door that really set you on the path towards where you are now?
In many ways, I think I’ll always feel like I’m at a “foot in the door” stage.
When I was about 18, I started working with Mahogany Beatz (Jay Z, Dr. Dre, M.O.P). He was the first full-time producer I had daily exposure to that already had a lot of success. So, again, it demystified how the process actually worked on a professional level—not just creatively and technically but also in terms of business/career. He had a amazing work ethic and would share gems he’d learned from the likes of Dr. Dre. At the time, being validated by people like him increased my confidence a bit. This is also the period I really learned to trust my own instincts and fully pursue my interests.
Did you have any major setbacks or ever contemplate switching fields along your journey? If you didn’t do music, what is something else that would make you happy?
Too many to mention. Setbacks are a big part of the process and more often than not have been really helpful in pointing me in the appropriate direction. Although I’m overly passionate about creating and ideas, I’m not a “driven at all cost” type of person about career stuff. I try to pay attention to the feedback loop and figure out what it’s trying to tell me.
I haven’t thought much about abandoning music. I think partially because I don’t necessarily think of my work in purely musical terms. On a practical level, I make music but I’m a lot of things — an ideas person, an experimenter, a storyteller, a curator. Ultimately, I’m an artist. If I could no longer make money making music, I’d just continue on creating, as I always have. I’d like to think I could find other ways to make a living being a working creative. Or at least, I’d hope to be so lucky. Maybe some kind of engineer, a creative advisor, some kind of scientist.
Can you describe your aesthetic and what the creative process is like for you?
I think it’s simple — My work is a culmination of my experiences, curiosities, perspective, etc. I typically gravitate towards art that has the ability to communicate unique/singular perspectives in a relatively accessible way. It’s all relative but I’d like to think I’m doing some of that. Whether it’s a score, a song, sound design, a playlist, etc I’d like to think you’d easily find my prints on it.
A friend recently told me — “Your music covers so much sonic territory, yet there’s always something soulful about it”. You’d have to ask him what that means but I like the sound of it.
My process changes drastically depending on the project and what’s going on in my life. The one thing that’s consistent is — I have to show up and do the work — which really just boils down to recording something even when I don’t feel like it. Following curiosities and thinking conceptually is often a big initiator for me, so I spend a lot of time taking in/seeking out inspiration wherever I can get it. With that said, I don’t always have the luxury to rely on inspiration to get things going.
Where did you meet Simon Birch and how did the two of you start collaborating?
He was really into an album I made called Destroying Beauty. I ended up performing songs from it at his first U.S. show in Miami, where I met him. We hung out later that night and clicked instantly. Soon after, he brought me into the fold to score/sound design his installation Hope & Glory in Hong Kong. Ever since, it’s been this ongoing conversation/collaboration/friendship that keeps evolving.
You’ve won numerous awards for you work, which was the most special/gratifying?
I wouldn’t say I’ve won a lot but I’ve been a part of many projects that have. So, I’m fortunate to have had these opportunities to work with so many talented people across different fields — many of whom are and have become friends. Hopefully my contributions had something to do with those successes.
Being selected by Oprah for her Super Soul 100 was inspiring on a lot of levels. So that stands out. It all happened at a crucial time, confirming a shift that needed to take place.
We see you’re very much a family man. Do you think your children will have similar passions?
I hope my kids will find many things they’re passionate about, whatever they may be. My role is to give them enough exposure and provide the space for that to happen. They’re growing up in a very creative environment, with an equally creative mother, so we’ll just have to see how it all unfolds.
What do you look forward to most in music, what’s next for your career?
The obvious stuff — Continuing to grow, surprises, familiar and unexpected collaborations…
I’m in the process now of creating more expansive projects that have music/sound at the core but encompass visuals, storytelling, etc. I feel like I’ve been in training for all these years and have just recently begun to create work that fully explores all of my interests. Basically, I’m just beginning to make the good shit which I’ll begin releasing very soon. Stay tuned…