The best musical chemistry is often accidental. A wrong note played at a right time can bear opportunities in ingenuity otherwise missed. It’s about experimentation and filling in the gap with something unexpected, something complementary. As I write this, I realize I could easily be talking just as much about what works in music as I could about the band Smoke Season itself. The Los Angeles duo, Gabrielle Wortman and Jason Rosen, came together by chance in 2013 and have been riffing off each other ever since.
I sat down with the band backstage before they played The Hi Hat in Highland Park last month. When I meet for the interview, Gabrielle is wearing an oversized, olive green military jacket, Jason’s in a faded denim jacket tattered at the shoulders. By the time they take the stage, they’ve switched. The pair functions with an incredible unity, on and off the stage. There’s a certain amount of fusion between them, and if their shared wardrobe is any indication, I shouldn't have been surprised by the way they finished each other’s thoughts in our interview below.
How did you meet? What brought you together to start making music?
Rosen: We shared a rehearsal space together. I had an old band I was playing with, and one night I stayed late after rehearsal and she was coming in with her band. We just started jamming on some stuff and we realized we started writing a song [laughs]. That song was called Soleil, and that’s the first song off the first EP. It all sort of mushroomed from there. We started doing some more songs and we realized, “Oh wait, I think we formed a band.”
Wortman: It was an accidental band!
Did you guys say goodbye to the bands you were playing in before, or did they eventually fall by the wayside?
Wortman: It’s funny because actually that decision was made for us. I think I was the more stubborn one with my old band. We were thinking Smoke Season was a side project, and then it just seemed fans and press and everybody else liked Smoke Season better than our old bands. So we just made the decision to give it a chance. And that was back in 2013—a long, long time ago!
Rosen: Ages ago.
So it was pretty much a fast rate of success once you guys came together, is that right? It just took off, or did it take a bit to get that momentum going?
Wortman: Well it depends on whether you’re talking internally or externally. I think it’s been a long three years, and just now we’re starting to get a little bit of relief in terms of the team we’re working with. But we… internally, it’s just so much easier for us to write together. It’s like, for me I’ve always been keys and more acoustic, slap guitar kind of thing. And all of a sudden there’s this person who has… it’s like being a painter and having a whole new palette of paints to work with. Because he can write through his hands on a guitar! And he can play bass and just create so much. I think it was so much easier to create music when we were working together as a team.
Rosen: Yeah, it was cool for me because I can be like playing some riffs, doing some guitar stuff, and then the chords that she plays I would never play. Sometimes there’s an interesting thing—musicians we’ve played with joke around with us about it, because I’ll be playing one chord and she’s playing a totally different chord. And I’m like, “This is what I’m playing!” And she’s like, “Wait, but I’m playing this!” And it doesn’t make sense maybe, but it sounds interesting… The interplay of what I would play and what she layers on top of it brings out the sound that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
The juxtaposition is complementary.
Wortman: Well, on purpose, too, because we’re both conservatory babies and we made a decision to play by ear with each other, so it’s sort of a game. Like, can you keep up?
Nice, you’re riffing with each other.
Wortman: [Laughs] Can you tell what key we’re in without me telling you what key we’re in?
Rosen: Yeah, exactly.
Would you call yourselves musical kindred spirits?
Rosen: I think so, definitely.
When you’re writing, are both of you equally involved or does one person take the lead here or there?
Rosen: I think it’s a give and take. The interplay happens. Sometimes I’ll have a guitar riff, and then she’ll start doing some chords. She kind of comes up with these interesting, poetic ways of saying things. I’m always surprised like, “Oh, where did that come from?” Really cool stuff. But yeah, it’s definitely symbiotic.
Wortman: Lately we’ve been trying to get songs started with beats, so he’ll just start beat boxing whatever beat we want to go with. We’re very much in love with the percussive elements of our songwriting, so it’s nice to have that be the floor and then build from there.
Absolutely. I'm going in a different direction with this one, but what are you guys super into right now? Anything particularly geeky even, just day-to-day pastimes outside of the band?
Rosen: Oh man, that’s hard. I’ll need to think about that for a second. I guess I’ve been really geeking out about guitar pedals and things like that, but that’s sort of ongoing. We’re both kind of geeky and very into techy stuff.
Wortman: We’re pretty into web design, like the synergy between the Internet experience, and that translates into our web presence a lot for the band. But we keep our ear to the floor on a lot of the trends on apps and tech and stuff like that.
Rosen: We also made candles though! We made some new merch.
Wortman: We did! We did make candles recently.
That’s a good one. You guys are nerds.
Wortman: Yeah! Super geeky. We’re also big travelers though. We just got back from Alaska.
Did you go on a whim?
Wortman: Yeah, just to say, fuck it, let’s go to Alaska!
Rosen: We just went to see the Aurora Borealis and all that stuff.
That’s awesome! Everything you thought it would be?
Wortman: It was amazing. I wept. I literally wept. Jason thought something was wrong with me.
Rosen: I did. I was like, what’s going on. Definitely go in the winter—it’s a magical time.
Is much of what you do all band-related at this point or do you guys ever get a day off to just hang out? What would you be doing then?
Rosen: House of Cards, we definitely watch some House of Cards.
Wortman: The thing is our “business,” Smoke Season as a brand, really makes it so that our hands are in so many pots right now. Jason’s been producing other artists, I’ve been helping other bands program lights. So, in some way we’re one degree of separation away from Smoke Season at all times, no matter what we’re doing with business.
So you’ve really integrated the band into your life on all levels.
Rosen: Yeah, and we’ve been doing film scoring too, of course [referencing Ouroboros project]. We actually took elements of all the songs and used it to score the films, so it was really cool to use all of those different parts in a different way, to reimagine it, in ways we never thought it would have been.
Very cool. Okay, so let’s talk about Ouroboros then. You’ve been working with Aplusfilmz on the video series with a continuous story arc. You’ve released “Loose” and “When the Smoke Clears,” and they’re each very politically based. Is expressing a political message through your work something that’s important for you?
Wortman: Yeah. It’s funny because the last two [yet to release] are more personal to Jason, and the videos already released are more related to me. I’m openly bisexual so the story behind the video for “Loose” really touched my heart and it’s a story we’ve been wanting to tell for a long time. And my father, he’s a Vietnam vet who suffered horrible PTSD, and so we wanted to speak to that story too, and “When the Smoke Clears” is based on that. But we felt it was really poignant, I mean obviously with the 2016 election we just wanted to put a face to some of the political issues and make them more human. We felt the best way to do that was through the film.
What’s the story behind the director (Scott Fleishman) who worked with you on the series?
Wortman: Scott is funny, he’s been a best friend of mine for a very long time. But he’s a good soundboard for me. I’ll call him with all these ridiculous ideas, so I know when it’s a bad idea. One time I called him and was like, “I think for our next music video we should have drones and I should base jump off the tallest bridge in America!” And he’s like, “Yeah, so I’m gonna have to call you back...” And then when I called him about this idea he said, “No, no, this could work.” He’s usually my gauge of this is fucking insane or this might work. We both wanted to do it so we put the pieces together. About a year ago is when we started working on it.
That’s awesome, so I’m not going to ask you about the next two videos in the series…
Rosen: It’s top secret. [Laughs]
Of course. But when can we expect the next release?
Wortman: The third video of the series, “Emilia,” is targeted to come out mid-May.
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