Gary Gritness: The French Artist on the Legend of Cherenkov Blue, Main Influences, Studio Approach

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

The stellar Gary Gritness live © Gary Gritness official/Facebook

Earlier this year, Electric Kingdom was pleased to review an amazing concept album by French Electro Funk name sake Gary Gritness. The album, "The Legend of Cherenkov Blue", is an auditory ride through a Cyber Punk world filled with daring, danger and debauchery.

Recently, Gary, real name Tim, sat down with E.K. to talk about his musical journey, Electro Funk production, and of course, what everyone is wondering about: "Cherenkov". Let's begin!

Lb.IP: Welcome to Electric Kingdom! Tell me a little about Gary Gritness and also about yourself as a person. What are some things you do when you're not in the studio?

Gary Gritness: Gary Gritness is a persona I created so I could have fun with Electro Funk music. My real name is Tim, and I'm known in the music scene as Slikk Tim as a session musician and sideman for many projects.

I've always been the kinda hyperactive type of person, so creating a persona concentrating on the funkster side of my personality allows me to be 200% into what I do when I do it, so I can keep the ego side of things at bay when creating: all those "I need to be good", or "what will people think of this?" type voices get much quieter this way. It lets me be whatever I wanna be, if you will.

When I write music, in my mind it's like Tim is producing or doing session work for Gary. Kind of schizophrenic I know, but it lets me focus on what the music should be. As for Gary-related past times, I love reading Seinen Manga like Apple Seed, Gunnm or Blame, reading Cyberpunk novels, playing violent video games, and enjoying the kinkier side of life! ;-)

What are some shows you've been to recently?

The good thing about being in the underground is you get to witness a lot of great acts up close. Last April I was booked with Mystic Jungle in London in a small room full of heads, and his set was amazing, so Lo-Fi, yet so refined with that inimitable Italian flair.

Another great surprise was OCB, the head of Casa Voyager Records, a dope producer and an even better DJ! I had packed my gear and was about to go, then I heard him fast mix "Shake It Baby" by Mr De into some Aux88! I got jumpin' all over the booth like a madman 'cause you rarely hear that type of stuff in a packed club. And as for concerts I've been to recently, highlights include John Scofield, 4tet, Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony and...Sepultura with Warbringer!

Nice one! Your music has an Electro Funk sound, but twists and turns into many different genres at times. What are some of your early inspirations?

My father, who's more of a straight ahead Jazz guy, had some good vinyl at home, and my very first remembrance of hearing something blatantly synthetic that captured my attention was that magic synth sequence on Pink Floyd's "On The Run". Hearing this at 5 years old got me like "what the hell is this?". He also had "Irrlicht" by Klaus Schulze, and "Albedo 0.39" by Vangelis. I loved the tune "Main Sequence" on that. There was also a lot of Stevie Wonder and Weather Report stuff with awesome synths everywhere.

Then I guess as a kid, the earliest thing I heard that was close to anything "Electro Funk" was "Daftendirekt" by Daft Punk. I was 8 when that record came out and that particular 2 minute thing, which is basically just a thick throwback LinnDrum groove I'd always put on loop.

The same year my old man taped a "serious" music show on public radio for me, and there was Jeff Mills, Rob Hood, Mantronix, Davy DMX, you name it. From that moment on...that's all she wrote! I just had to do something like this. I didn't even know Mills & Hood was supposed to be Techno, because as a kid, it felt to me like some of the James Brown or Latin Jazz CD's I had heard and loved, but through a wicked synthetic feel.

As for the different influences, being a session musician has exposed me to playing and enjoying so many different genres that eventually it rubs off on you. I think it just comes naturally after a while.

What are your favorite synths and gear you use when you're in the studio?

Back when I started doing Electronic Music, I was very frustrated because I really didn't have any money, and the synths I wanted where already hyped up and way too expensive. But then just thinking about having to buy hardware on top of that was completely out of reach. You got to realize I'm the type of dude who went to work at McDonald's as soon as I could so I could afford a decent microphone and 1 input soundcard to record some rap demoes with my friends.

For some reason my father had snatched out of his music school an old 70's Korg MicroPreset so I could toy with it as a teenager, but after a few months he had to give it back so it wouldn't be noticed. So, I knew from the get go the "feel" of analog synths, and that got further refined when I started doing studio works and actually seeing and using most of the classic pieces of gear here and there.

I had toyed with Rebirth and softsynths, desperately hoping to find something that would sound remotely close to real synths, but everything I was trying just didn't give me that feel, so I was doing other music genres instead for a while. Then it all changed for me when TAL released the second version of the Juno 60 plugin. I had used that particular hardware synth a few times in studio sessions, so I knew its sonic signature rather well, and to me the sound and the feeling of their plugin was spot on.

From that moment on I decided that I'd use only this one and only synth for everything, and continuing that idea, only using a 606 plugin by D16 because again, it felt like the real thing to me. It was a personal challenge, and also to eschew the ever classic mind-trap of thinking more about gear than music. Lastly, I decided I'd just use a few basic effects, like phaser, flanger, some delay here and there. Guitar pedal type-stuff, really.

In hindsight, I think I followed the path of your typical blues player, like say, BB King or Albert Collins: One is a Gibson 335, the other a Fender Tele, and that's their guitar, their sound. They committed to it for life and pushed the limitations of that one sound they'd chosen. It's limiting, but the good side is you can instantly identify them. I felt I had to do the same thing with a synth.

One last thing is working all in software allows me to go exactly from what I hear in my mind to the sequence. If I want to have a little tom fill there, or play a new chord change here, it's instantaneous and so easy to input. Doing this in hardware would be a nightmare. On the Gary Gritness releases, I don't want to be influenced by the "hardware", I just hear the sounds and think of the whole groove like a synthetic funk band of sorts.

Hard at work! © Gary Gritness official/Facebook

That makes sense, there's a lot of spontaneity in your music. Where does that groove come from for you?

Thanks, I appreciate you. Well, as I said, I think it comes from that whole "band" way of composing. One of the greatest Electro Funk beats I know of is "Intimate Connection" by Kleeer, and it's just a couple Oberheim synths to a mean 808 pattern. The production on this song was actually the foundation on how I approach the way I do Gary Gritness tunes. Even if I will sequence stuff I've played to make it sound more machine like, it's still a very instinctive, "regular music" way of composing.

Many times I'll be working on a session, and while searching for an idea, I'll be like, "shit, that's a Gary G thing right there". So I'll just create a new project, record whatever part it is and use that later. That's the beauty of working all "in the box", I only work on tunes when I feel the right inspiration for it. Sometimes I'll open up a project that's one year old and find that one little detail that makes the whole thing come together. Working in this way you can even be spontaneous when polishing the mix at the very end, which is really awesome as you never have to force things or worse, get tired of your own music!

As I said before, I'm a session musician, so it can be weeks or months until I'm like, "OK, time to do some Gary G stuff for the next record". I guess when I've been completely out of the "Electro Funk" thing for a minute, it lets me come back to it with that much more freshness and drive.

How did producing "The Adventures of Gary Gritness", out on Clone Records, and some of your earlier works get you ready to construct your concept album "The Legend of Cherenkov Blue"?

The "Adventures of Gary Gritness'" releases on Clone were actually a full album, I intended it to be a complete musical ride as well. The thing was, I played it to Orlando Voorn, who played it to Mike Banks, who eventually told me the UR implant was in hiatus, but he'd ask Serge over at Clone to release it. It all was great until Clone told me they didn't want to do an LP and offered to do it as two separate EP's back to back.

I thought it was a great opportunity to have this out on Clone, and as much as it pained me to splice the album in two, I think it was the right decision eventually. It's still supposed to be viewed and listened as one album though!

When I met the Hypercolour people, I knew I'd have a lot of artistic freedom, so I envisioned a proper LP flow with all the transitions I'd want to put in there. I just shipped it to 'em as I wanted it to sound, and that was it. They loved it, and got some great mastering from Shawn Joseph, who did some of my favorite records like Dilla's "Welcome To Detroit".

On that subject, I got really lucky on one thing: For some reason, I didn't think it'd appeal to DJ's that much, so in my head, I had constructed the album to be released as a single 33rpm 12", so 24 minutes on each side, with tons of sleek transitions. When Hypercolour heard it, they told me "are you crazy? there's lots of bangers in there, we've got to make it a proper 2x12" at 45rpm". And on the one hand I was honored, on the other that meant 4 sides that were 12 minutes long. I was like "fucking hell, there goes all the nifty transitions, I'm gonna have to hack out the stuff so it fits on the sides!". And very luckily, I only had to do the odd shorter fade here and there and it all fit... like it was meant to be!

Great it worked out like that. Where were you when Cherenkov first popped in your mind?

The very first time I've heard of the word was reading Walter Jon Williams' "Hardwired", a classic cyberpunk novel. In it, there's this super slick, former-fighter-jet-pilot-turned-big-time-smuggler cyborg that has a druglord type villa, in which the lights are actual Cherenkov blue effect. Being 12 when I read that, I thought that was cool as hell, and that picture kind of stuck to me.

As for the album concept proper, I was on a late-night bus ride in the winter, listening to Currensy's tape "The Legend of Harvard Blue". It's a killer rap mixtape about the main character of the Blaxploitation flick. And suddenly it all clicked: what if the Blue in Cherenkov was both an effect and a man's name? I knew I was on to something then: a new Gary G adventure with a new character.

A true Electro warrior and his axe © Gary Gritness official/Facebook

When you listen to "The Legend of Cherenkov blue", it's just vague enough you can't really tell if Cherenkov is the good guy or the bad guy. Want to elaborate on the legend a little?

Legends need some mystery and mystique to be legends, otherwise they're just folklore. What I always liked in true cyberpunk novels and also some noir stuff, is there's never really "good guys" and "bad guys". The choice is not pre-made for you. The main character is the main character because he lets the writer convey his ideas with a certain amount of depth, but most of the morality aspects are in shades of gray.

I've had folks come up with some fun scenarios. Someone told me: "Oh yeah, so Gary Gritness turns into Cherenkov Blue because he wants revenge". Someone else was like: "oh, so Cherenkov Blue is Gary Gritness' nemesis just like in Terminator, right?", and that's precisely what I intended to do.

I have my own idea on the subject, which I then turn into something very impressionistic, so people can morph their own subconscious on top of it and make it their own. I was influenced by some Steely Dan or Pink Floyd songs on that matter. They're full of scenery and detail, but everyone "gets" them in a different fashion, and nobody can agree exactly what the song is about, which I think is brilliant.

You can still tell the music conveys many images and feelings, but it's blurred just enough so you can create your own meaning to it, and actually not be distracted too much. Music has to be the most important focus, otherwise you'd better write fiction.

Tell us about making "Fish Nets and a 9", the most pure Electro sounding tune on the LP. It seems to be a turning point in the story.

Fishnets and a nine is actually about a femme fatale tricking our hero with some sex. It's got a vocal sample from "The Ninth Gate". In the movie, the character says: "She had an automatic in her stocking", when some shady lady tries to corrupt him with sex, and she then replies: "No automatic", and flashes her lingerie-clad thighs.

I decided, hey, that'd be cool to cut off that reply and make her some badass bitch assassin or something. It's basically a vibe of, "I know I shouldn't fuck with this person 'cause some bad shit gonna happen, but I'm gonna do it anyway, and then I'll just pick up the pieces". An older tune of mine, "Poisonous Hoes", takes a different perspective on that same subject.

Musically, it's funny you should say to you it's the most pure Electro sounding tune on the LP, as it was actually made upon listening to the classic Oakland Rap album by Mac Dre, "Heart of a Gangsta, Mind of a Hustler, Tongue of a Pimp" . The song "Hy Phy" on that is very representative of the whole Hyphy movement out of Oakland, which features those super funked up beats. I based "Fishnets" upon that type of vibe and then ran away with it.

"I don't think there is such a thing as "self taught". You can only learn from others..."

Do you mind sharing where the opening vocal sample came from on track 6, "Enter Cherenkov"? Or, is it an original recording? This song reminds me of that movie "Heavy Metal", if you've ever seen that.

I was talking about "Hardwired" by Walter Jon Williams, and it's actually a mashup of several lines from that book describing that character in the villa who's been significally augmented through cybernetics, and some of my own prose to make it fit with what I wanted. So that would actually be my own voice on that particular voice sample.

I'm honored you mention Heavy Metal. I actually never saw the film, but when you're French and you're into comics and sci-fi, of course you gonna know about Métal Hurlant. I love the Druillet stuff, but for some reason when I read this I wanna do something that would be more like some wicked Death Metal, some occult type stuff. For Gary Gritness my images come much more from the Japanese Cyberpunk manga stuff, which for my own inspiration fits better with electronic instrumentation.

Great, you definitely captured that Cyberpunk sound. Are you performing the entire album live?

I performed some parts of it when I played Dimensions Festival in 2017. Some of those songs where actually finished by the time, and Dimensions got me to play a big stage at 3am between Dopplereffekt and RadioActive man, so I was like, that's the perfect opportunity to rock those. I assembled a set featuring some of those tunes, plus sped-up reworks of stuff I love like Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars", Prince's "Housequake", Drexciya's "Undersea Disturbances", and Miles Davis' "What It Is".

I got the opportunity to do that same set a few months later at Unibeat Festival in Italy as there was Aux88 that night, so it was a great fit. That's where all the dope pictures used as stylized drawings of the album come from as well, the VJ'ing was intense and most of the shots were with that great, cold blue light, and I was donning a blue Dickies outfit. That just confirmed my idea of doing that Cherenkov Blue thing.

Having said that, the music on this album is pretty demanding and apart from bigger festivals that take a gamble on a Electro approach, you have to realize that style goes over most regular people who go to the club on a Friday or Saturday night to have a good time and dance to familiar, not too fast, 4x4 House or Techno. You add to that the whole "performance" thing of me being up there with a keytar and a mic, and it makes it even more specific. The good part of it is whenever I get to perform it live, I always have some folks telling me how dope it was, which is very humbling to me.

In hindsight, many of the textures and ideas that are present in that album have found their way in my hardware improvisations (that are better suited to a club environment); especially on meaner tunes like "The Hitlist" or "Ambush on 149th Street", so I can honestly say there's still a part of that album that's present when I perform live.

Bathing in pure Cherenkov Blue © Gary Gritness official/Facebook

I hear a fair amount of Detroit Techno/Electro influence on "The Legend of Cherenkov Blue". Is that just me, or is it really there? Want to talk about those influences?

I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for Model 500, plain and simple. I remember being a kid and leeching off "Night Drive" off Kazaa, and that was it. From then on I listened to a ton of Detroit music, and I think the one record that struck me most profoundly is Underground Resistance's 1998 "Interstellar Fugitives". That record is the shit, it just blew my mind when first listened to it.

I actually got into Drexciya much later, going thru the UR catalog. I had listened to a lot of UR and Model 500, and Aux88 before that, not to mention all the Techno and House cats from Jeff Mills to Eddie Fowlkes to Kenny Larkin, so I could see how it all fit into the picture. In a way, they were already doing a retrofuturistic thing by refusing to use the modern sounds of the time yet still coming up with fresh grooves. My favorite stuff from that camp are the Dataphysix releases from the mid 90s, super soulful stuff.

And then, I really love the whole Electrofunk Records stuff that came in the 2000's, for example B. Calloway's "Black Grooves" is one of the best Detroit Electro-Funk albums to me. You really can feel the street edge in it. It's got much more of a visceral rap thing to it, rather than your regular Kraftwerkish "Man-Machine" rhetoric. I mean, stuff like "Training Day"...that shit kills!

How did you learn how to play the keyboard like you do? Lessons? Self taught?

My current style is a mixture of George Duke, Don Blackman, Bernie Worrell, Larry Dunn, Hubert Eaves III, Junie Morrison, Bernard Wright. As you can tell, it comes from Afro-American Jazz and Funk players.

I did go to classical music school for a few years, playing piano and clarinet for like 5 or 6 years. After that I wanted to be a professional bass player, so I learned to do that, played tons of Jazz, and also got around to playing drums and guitar in various bands, from Afro-Cuban music to Hardcore Punk, all mostly self taught. I started playing keys again later for the needs of the Gary Gritness project, so you could say it's a mix of both trained and self taught, like any self-respecting musician I think, because you keep on learning as you go.

I don't really think there is such a thing as "self taught" anyway. My teachers are the musicians I chose to transcribe and the books I read. You can't "teach yourself" anything, you can only learn from others, whether it's a musician on a record, on stage, or in a classroom, don't make much difference to me.

Bottom line, it's cool to take a few lessons at first so you know the basics, but after that if you truly wanna be good at music, you just listen to the artists you like and fuck around on your instrument until it sounds like the damn record ;-)

As the old timer DJ's used to say: "practice and enjoy"...

What's next for the Legend? Will there be a part 2?

There will be more Adventures for sure, but if you pay attention to the title of the last tune, I don't intend to resurrect someone that received a shotgun blast between the eyes as a farewell!

But I'll for sure come up with another Electro Funk musical story. Only time will tell what it will be about! I'm having too much fun imagining some scenes, and the nice thing about not fussing over with the whole "what synth am I going to use" thing, is I can go straight to the writing and arranging. I'm gonna take a little break from writing Adventures stuff though, as you said before, it needs to be fresh and a lot of work came into that album, so...the next ride will hit hard, but I can't tell you when!

Looking forward to it, thank you for your time!