photo courtesy of the artist
last month, gabriel brenner released the latest extended play under his pastel moniker. the los angeles-based artist uses the five songs that span absent, just dust to examine a concept of native erasure that is both familial and personal, a desire that stemmed from myriad recent events.
those familiar with pastel’s earlier work might anticipate another offering of celestial r&b; instead, the intimacy and vulnerability of this project’s subject matter necessitated a shift into a more ambient, experimental realm. brenner’s commanding lead vocal still haunts tracks, like the standout cut “silhouette,” but absent, just dust is often shrouded in ominous pulses and static found sounds, a malleable canvas onto which brenner can interpret a bevy of emotions.
we were fortunate to catch up with brenner recently via e-mail and discuss all things absent, just dust: from compositional approach to an integration of visual art to brenner’s preference for shorter bodies of work. a lightly-edited transcript, along with a full stream of the extended play, is presented below.
this new ep is a pretty explicit exploration of erasure. what was the catalyst to delve into this personal topic?
i recently graduated from the art program at ucla, and i spent much of my last year there making video works largely surrounding my relationship with my native heritage. these were ideas that i had spent a few years trying to work out (i tried sculpture, poetry, etc), and it just seemed to click with video.
this also happened to be around the same time that the nodapl resistance started gaining national attention. there was a livestream video that a journalist had set up on facebook one night, showing militarized police cornering water protectors on a bridge, throwing tear gas at them, and spraying them with a water cannon in subzero temperatures. i felt such a multitude of emotions, but i couldn’t quite put them into words. or, rather, words just didn’t suffice.
in trying to understand my heritage, i’ve continually arrived at a similar loss. i’m pima on my mother’s side and cherokee on my father’s. neither side of my family knows much, if anything, about our people and culture, and it’s largely because of a long history of atrocities like this. at base, so much of art is about making new language, and when the language wasn’t there for me, it made sense to process this through art, and later, music.
absent, just dust is also a bit of a sonic departure for you. did the thematic material you explore necessitate the shift, or did the shift lead you to explore this thematic material?
it was a bit of both. i had made the foundation for “haunt” and “silhouette” 2 years prior to the release, and sat on the music for so long because it was such a sonic departure for me. it didn’t make sense with the rest of the music i had released prior and i didn’t know what to do with it. when i started making the videos, the music suddenly made sense when placed within a similar conceptual framework. from there, i started making the rest of the ep, and it continued to follow in the same sonic footsteps.
i think your project could be described as audio/visual, what with the photo book that accompanied bone-weary and the general thought and care that goes into the design of your cassettes. how do you approach integrating photography and fine art with your music to create a cohesive whole?
i think because i come from a contemporary art background, i tend to think of music projects as visual art projects, too. i think of the cassettes as art objects, and thus think it’s equally important that the visuals communicate nuanced, poetic ideas like the music. i want listeners to know what i’m talking about in my music, and they can’t know deeply if the visuals are communicating something different than the music.
many, if not all, of your releases have been either standalone singles or extended plays. do you find yourself gravitating towards a shorter format for any particular reason?
i’ve always been enamored by artists that can say a lot with very little. it’s the difference between félix gonzález-torres and someone like matthew barney. félix can communicate more to me with just a few light bulbs than barney can in five grandiose feature-length films because félix allows me ample space to sit with the particulars.
i think i always work towards a-lot-with-a-little because it’s so effective. i’m also aware that my music asks for quite a bit of patience from the listener because it doesn’t reveal itself all too quickly. i contemplated turning absent, just dust into a full length, but i couldn’t imagine asking a listener to sit even longer with a work that already felt a bit like an endurance piece at just five tracks.
to that end, do you anticipate releasing a full-length in the near future?
i guess it depends; if the work calls for a full-length, then it will be a full-length! but i do think it’s long overdue, so we’ll see.
this ep is very heavy thematically and that weight manifests itself frequently in the arrangements, but i get an occasional sense of serenity, at least musically. did making absent, just dust feel cathartic at any point?
“stammer” definitely felt cathartic to make. i basically just hit record and started singing, and then worked with what i had. the track is largely about the struggle to communicate without the right words, and letting my voice unfold to fill in the gaps was pretty freeing.
half of all proceeds made from absent, just dust will be donated to freshet collective, an organization providing legal services to the water protectors at standing rock. a handful of cassettes are still available for purchase through pastel’s bandcamp, where digital versions of his entire catalogue can also be procured.