Chris Gibbs has been a staple on the local music scene for some 20 years, and is now releasing two EPs in quick succession: one as Chris Gibbs & The Transmission, on April 15, at The Henhouse Live; and one with his power pop rock trio Graphic Fiction Heroes, on May 13, at the Indi Bar.
Gibbs is one of the precious few full-time musicians in our isolated city. He initially forged a name for himself as guitarist in the bands F.U.L.L. and Kingpin, picking up three WAM Awards on the way. Since then he’s built a respected solo career; won a WAM Song Of The Year award (First And Last took out 2013’s Country category) with Graphic Fiction Heroes; drawn crowds with popular bands Axe Cane and tribute act KISStake; made innumerable guest and session appearances; worked as a producer through his own Noise-A-Thon Studio; and continues to lecture in songwriting and the music business at WAAPA.
And through it all, Gibbs considers himself dedicated to the craft of writing songs, more than anything else.
“For years now, I have definitely been a songwriter, rather than a person in a band who writes songs,” he declares. “I'm writing songs all the time, as a writer. Some of them present to one band, some of them present to another band, some of them present to neither, so they go into the catalogue, and one day they might make sense in something else that I'm doing.”
The emphasis of being a songwriter first is an important one to note where Gibbs is concerned. As mentioned above, he lectures on songwriting: this is his focus, and his bands are the vehicles for presenting those songs. The actual writing is a near-daily imperative, rather than a chore for a specific project or release.
“It's something in my songwriting classes at WAAPA that I encourage - exercising the actual ability,” he describes passionately. “Just like you would practise a guitar, or your drum kit, or your vocals, I think that songwriting can be practised and honed.
“It’s about the discipline of realising you should sit down and write a song with no agenda: ‘I don't know what band this is for. I don't have a deadline. I'm writing because I need to get better at the craft of writing’. I think that creates a habit of productivity. And that's what you need if you're going to make records, otherwise, you're always going to come up short and you're probably going to end up using that song that you weren't quite sure about.”
For an insight into the philosophical reasoning behind what creatively fuels songwriting, I pose Gibbs a question: Is it necessary to be a little bit dysfunctional to write meaningful song lyrics?
“That's a great question,” laughs Gibbs. “I mean, do you have to have something happening in your life, do you have to have something out of the ordinary going on, in order to create lyrics? I've often posed that question not only to colleagues and students, but to myself. What sort of career are you in, if it relies on some sort of dysfunction? That's a pretty scary prospect in itself.
“And yet, a lot of great work has come from that very singular notion that something has to be happening to inspire those lyrics and inspire that writing. I think that I have written that way in the past, no doubt about that. But I think that I've also developed a technique of being able to develop ideas devoid of real life experience and devoid of outside conditions because it's the only way I think I could survive because I like to have a reasonably high output of work.”
With such a prolific career in the rear-view mirror, is earning a living as a full-time musician in Perth harder to do today than it was 10 years ago? Gibbs paints an unpleasant picture of an economic reality which is certainly not confined solely to the music industry.
“On the one hand, you could argue that the opportunities continue to present themselves - so that's good. On the other hand, although the opportunities tend to go up depending on how versatile you are, what also goes up is the amount of people doing it - but what seems to float is the amount of people that consume it. But I think that you could definitely argue that with the increased cost of living, there's not necessarily an increase across all industries in salaries and wages. So yeah, things can get tight.
“So, I've often had to make the hard decision to go out and work by myself - rather than hiring my fellow musicians – in order to pay the bills. But I think I could be sitting here as a plumber, as an electrician, as a builder, as a caterer, and basically have exactly the same conversation. You just do what you can do.”
For the past couple of years Chris Gibbs & The Transmission, and Graphic Fiction Heroes have been the primary focus for Gibbs’ original work. He describes GFH as having, “that influence of not only guitar bands, but also bands like The Police and groups like that,” whereas The Transmission is more about a “rootsy, guitar rock swagger, and maybe a little bit of a lighter feel.”
The main deciding factor for which material goes to which band, currently, is whether he writes it himself or not.
“I'm probably the driving force of both bands, creatively,” he says thoughtfully, “but the majority of GFH’s stuff is co-written with at least one other band member, but for Chris Gibbs & The Transmission, the difference at this point in time is, it's only songs that are written by me.”
Both of the new EPs were primarily recorded at his own Noise-A-Thon Studios, with only the drums recorded elsewhere – at Soundbaker Studios for the GFH release, using proceeds from their 2013 WAM Song Of The Year prize; whilst The Transmission drummer Josh Gallagher recorded drums for that EP in his own home studio.
“That win was a long time ago - it's 2017 now!” Gibbs admits. “But to put it in perspective, we did sit on the GFH songs a while because our bassist, Joe Southwell, is now so in demand that he's often out of the country playing shows with many acts and recording on many albums. So, it became a situation where Joe was actually recording the basslines on a cruise ship off the coast of Iceland!”
The new releases are similar but different: The Transmission’s EP, News Of The Day, features five songs reworked from Gibbs’s 2014 solo album Big Appetite; whilst the GFH offering, Dreams Of A Libertine, features one track released as a single last year (Vicious Valentine), and four completely new songs. Both have Gibbs as their fulcrum, but while The Transmission are rootsy and a little mellow, GFH are riffier, with a power pop edge.
“And I've already demoed up all the brand-new songs for the Chris Gibbs & The Transmission’s full-length album that will come out in November,” he adds. “So this will be the first time in history that I'll have put out three releases in one year, which is pretty good!”