Gabriel (and the Hounds) Levine on His New Project, Mortality, and Lana del Rey Versus the 99%

While the music career of Gabe Levine -- frontman for Takka Takka -- has markedly evolved since his collegiate Krishna-core venture, music has been his constant. The Pitchfork review for Takka Takka's first EP in 2006 was so horrible, said Levine, "it should've been enough to stop me from ever making any music ever again," but after academic and professional forays into philosophy, painting, magazine industry graphic design, and legwork for multiple New York political campaigns, he has always come back to bands.

For years, Takka Takka has been chipping away at their gradually forthcoming album. They've lost two band members and a much-loved working title (due to the new Common album's dangerously similar name) in the process. In the meantime, Levine has branched out with a new project under the name Gabriel and the Hounds. At the outset, Kiss Full of Teeth (out today on Ernest Jennings Records) was intended to sound like a Roy Orbison album crafted by a Philip Glass enthusiast. But after Levine decided to track a fair share of its content on a field recorder, and introduce a network of Julliard-trained string arrangers and players alongside his Brooklyn music-scene constituency (musicians who've played with the National, Beirut, Björk, Jonsi, and more), something unexpected -- something baroque, symphonic, sultry, and very good -- has come about.

Levine took a few minutes between plugging away at the Takka record in the basement of a Dumbo studio and training for Prospect Park's Valentine's 5K to discuss the new album as a small, personal gesture at expanding his musical canon. We also touched on Heidegger, Murikami, Sofia Coppola, and -- when off-record chit-chat about his background in politics evoked a comparison between Sarah Palin and Lana del Rey -- his theory about Occupy Interscope.

Do you have music in your head that you try to make, and it just materializes as some totally different thing?
All the time.

Do you ever make the music you set out to make?
Never. It's never happened. Actually I've never done anything that I've set out to do.

Honestly. Except maybe a run. But even then! I can come up with a million different plans and none of them work out. I've resigned myself to the process just deciding everything.

What plan did you begin with for Kiss Full of Teeth?
It started out as a record called Supreme Memorials. I live near a cemetery. It's closer to me than Prospect Park, just two blocks from my house, so I walk around there for my nature fix. And there's a headstone shop near me called Supreme Memorials. It was sort of fitting, the record became about loss in a way. It was a memorial for these relationships I've had that have collapsed on me. These songs were the tombstones for those. So, really I worked for a long time under that title, but it just didn't stick for some reason.

You can't blame this one on Common though.
Not this time...

Speaking of titles, the track "When We Die in South America": Prophetic?
No. It just sounds so romantic to die in South America. I don't even think that song talks about South America. Wow, that one started out as something completely different...

How do you think you'll die, then?
I always thought I would die by now, but it hasn't happened. I haven't thought about that in a long time...

That's probably healthy.
Right, probably good. Clearly you've thought about it.

No, honestly I haven't thought much about how you're going to die.
I studied Heidegger in college, and death was such a major proponent of my thinking then. We're living in relation to our own death! And mortality! And I feel like I've just finally gotten over that, after dwelling on it for so long. I'm embracing life now! Running! I'm a whole new Gabe than I was, well, two months ago.

Things change so quickly. Did you read Haruki Murakami's book on running?
I'm reading it right now, actually. It's so Japanese in a way. It's just like his stream of consciousness, zen meditiation on running. And it's not really about running. But, I'm trying to read things that inspire me to run, trying to keep this thing up, because I feel like if I stop I'm just going to stop. Because I've hated running in the past. And I'm sure if you talk to me a month from now I'm sure I'll be like, I don't know what I was thinking. What the fuck was I thinking?

Why did you found a new musical identity for this record, as opposed to releasing it as a Takka Takka project?
With Takka, we have set some kind of specific parameters for writing, very specific sonic sound goals. I feel like I make rules so I can break my own rules. So I thought, "I'm going to write a whole other record--the kind I made myself not write." And I had a bunch of friendships that just didn't work out, and some of them were in Takka, and a batch of songs came out of that. And it's weird; I just didn't want to use the songs in that setting. So I decided to make Hounds. In a way they're more personal songs.

Does your vision for the trajectory of the Hounds record seem very different than when you were recording Takka Takka's debut?
Definitely. I was so young then! Now I'm at the point in my life where I just want to keep doing this thing, and have a body of work to show for it. It's kind of like a long run. I feel like I'm just honing a craft. I hope to be really good by the end of the journey, or the end of the run, whatever it is. And I hope people like the records I end up making, but, I just want to keep moving forward. A solo record can be an ego thing, but for me, I feel almost like I'm just blue-collar clocking in my time to put in hours on making a work of art, in album form. Sometimes it takes years.

I both love and hate to ask this, but, what are your thoughts on Lana del Rey?
Oh, man, it's so fascinating. Music careers are so fascinating to me in general, but the amount of anger that she has inspired in people is kind of crazy. Her music not that great, it's not necessarily artful, but neither is 99% of what's put out on major labels. New York is filled with bad musicians. I don't know what the big deal is. But, I think it's tied into the Occupy Wall Street movement. We're in this societal moment where we have a knee-jerk reaction to major corporations. It's part of that attitude: You're trying to sell me this thing, but I don't want it. And it's not that good, on top of that! So she's become this lightning rod. I mean, Interscope -- who is that? They're probably owned by Monsanto or Halliburton or something.

So, the outrageous controversy is because she's our number one example of a corporate venture.
Right. And we hate her. Because she's part of the One Percent. I heard her dad's, like, some big internet domain name owner. What is that? The new Internet real estate mogul? I don't even understand how the Internet works. People own Internet real estate? Does he own GoDaddy or something? Is that her dad -- the daddy of GoDaddy?

You heard it here first, folks. But Lana conspiracies aside, I assume you're in a pretty different world with Hounds. What do you hope for this record?
I just saw Sofia Coppola's movie Somewhere, and it made me think about independent film, and making a small film just for the sake of making something small. Hounds was this really personal, small idea that became this record, and it felt great to do that.

Films like Somewhere aren't meant to be 2012 -- some giant blockbuster. The filmmaker's original intentions probably have nothing to do with the number of people who are ultimately going to come see it. And I feel like we've gotten away from that -- indie rock has. For example, right outside there's a Justin Vernon [Bon Iver] Bushmills ad. We are here, in a studio in Brooklyn, making a record literally in the shadow of a guy who made a record in his cabin. Something weird is happening. I want to keep things in perspective. The Hounds record is just a small record. It's meant to be small.