After several years as one half of the successful sibling duo The Belle Brigade, Ethan Gruska has stepped out on his own, putting forth the beautifully complex record Slowmotionary, a 12-song exploration into Gruska’s childhood, thoughts, and sense of self. Since forming a strong bond with LA producer Tony Berg, who has worked with the likes of Andrew Bird, Blake Mills, Lucius, and Phantom Planet, just to name a few, Gruska has spent time in the studio, co-producing new projects with Berg and further developing his solo sound. I caught up with him over the phone about influential musicians, growing up in LA, current bands, and the intricacies of songwriting.
ETHAN GRUSKA INTERVIEW
SOFIA WOLFSON (HIGHLARK): How did you first get started in music and what was your first instrument?
ETHAN GRUSKA: My first instrument was piano. I guess I got started because a lot of my family is in the music business and are great musicians and my dad had a piano at the house. My older sister was a drummer and I just thought her and her friend group were really cool so I sort of just sat down at the piano at the house and started messing around. I was encouraged by my family and it was pretty natural. I just got more and more into it as I got older and older.
SOFIA: That’s great – and when did you start writing your own music?
ETHAN: That’s kind of how I started. I took a couple lessons when I was 8 or 9 just as a way for my parents to get me to focus on something, but I wasn’t really into it. So, really when I actually started playing music, it started with writing. I would just be reading a Beatles book, like a chord book, and then get stuck on the first three chords of a song and sort of start changing it up and writing my own thing, so it always started with me writing. That was the only thing I had the attention span for.
SOFIA: The Beatles thing is very relatable.
ETHAN: Yeah totally!
SOFIA: I feel like I learned pretty much everything from their chord books.
ETHAN: I know! It’s the best way as a kid when those songs are just completely magical and to see how they work is crazy.
SOFIA: Totally, I completely agree. So growing up, I mean you’ve talked about The Beatles, but were their other musicians around that time that were influential to you?
ETHAN: In my house when I was 13, 14 and 15, The Beatles were the most important thing. My dad was a big Steely Dan fan and so I grew up with records like that about precision and musicality. My mom really liked Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, so that was kind of what I was growing up with. Then my sister started introducing me to essentially everything that I like now. She showed me Elliot Smith, Bjork, and things like that. I would say Barbara, my sister, is kind of responsible for the maybe cooler, more current stuff, but my parents sort of brought me up with the classics. And then Paul Simon when I was 17 or 18 became my hero and still is a big influence. You know, it was kind of just a little bit of everything when I was growing up, mostly thanks to my sister Barbara.
SOFIA: That’s great. Going back to your songwriting, do you have a specified process or is it a little more undefined when you’re writing music?
ETHAN: It’s pretty undefined. It’s a waiting game for me. I guess the only thing that is defined is that I at least try every day. Whether it’s, you know, 10 minutes or 3 hours, I’ll give it a shot. More and more I’m getting better at if it doesn’t come, I just kind of relax and let it not happen, but still, it’s always hard to sit down and not get anything. Every song usually takes me a while; I’m not one of those people that writes a song in 10 minutes. I have the form but the good stuff usually is very labored. It always comes from making a mistake really, or a happy accident, and I think that comes from what I was saying earlier, the sort of playing other songs and then either screwing it up or realizing that the three chord changes of the bridge are the perfect way to start collaging stuff together. It’s totally all over the place, as you can tell by the way I’m talking about it, but I think that’s a good thing. I think if it was too strategic, I would lose that sort of mysterious aspect of the process.
SOFIA: Totally. Kind of moving into Slowmotionary, what was the studio process and collaboration like?
ETHAN: It was really cool because it was my first time working with Tony Berg who produced the record and Tony has, since we started making this record together, become a major mentor of mine and a really close friend. We’ve done a lot of other work together, co-producing records lately, which is really cool. I think the biggest part of the making of this record was the budding of my relationship with Tony. I kind of came to him with these 12 songs just for some advice, not expecting him to be a part of it or have time to be a part of it, but I went over to his house to just sort of play him what I had and he so generously said, let’s just do this and we will worry about money and time and everything as we go. So, I was really lucky to have him believe in it from such an early stage to where we could just sort of go into his studio at his house and experiment and not worry. That was the first time I’d ever made a record where I wasn’t worrying about studio time and it’s such a luxury. I wonder if I will be able to do that in the same way ever again. But Tony was huge in sort of being a deciding factor in every moment of the record. He just really guided me so much and still does. So that was really cool. And then it was really fun for me to make a record that was heavily piano-based because I had a band with my sister Barbara called the Belle Brigade for a while and most of those songs were written on guitar, played on guitar, and it was a very acoustic guitar and electric guitar-driven band. So with this record, being at its heart a piano/vocal record, it was really fun to be recording in that way. It’s been so long; the record has been done for a while to it’s hard to remember what the process was like but I know that it was really freeing for me.
SOFIA: Talking a little more lyrically, there are songs on the record, like “The Valley,” that speak of growing up in LA. Could you talk a little about growing up here, its influence on you, and how musicians in LA influenced you?
ETHAN: Yeah, totally. I mean it’s definitely an experience. A lot of people when I tell them I was born and raised in LA, they’re like, that’s weird, and I think it kind of is. It’s such a specific upbringing because you’re around the entertainment business like no other upbringing is. Not only that, but my family was really heavily in music, so I was just very influenced by my family and how natural it felt to go into music growing up here. My family had so many friends that are in the business so I’ve always been able to ask for advice easily, which is really helpful. But I guess lyrically for this record, it could have been about growing up anywhere because the setting wasn’t as important as the early memories of my parents and how I grew up as a soul and less about the culture surrounding it. It’s hard to say because it’s the only place I’ve ever lived so I guess I don’t have much to compare it to. But because of that, it must have played a large role.
SOFIA: It’s true. I’ve lived in LA my whole life, so I’ve only known this city and I’m about to move to Boston. It feels like a little bit of a culture shock in a sense.
ETHAN: But that’s going to be fun! Boston is really cool.
SOFIA: Yeah! It’s going to be cold.
ETHAN: Yes, it’s going to be cool and freezing but that’s going to be an adventure. That’s awesome.
SOFIA: Thank you so much! And a new music scene and all.
ETHAN: The music scene is so interesting because of all of the schools there.
SOFIA: Totally! So you mentioned Tony Berg, who I was going to bring up, and you said that since the making of your album, you’re working on other albums with him. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re currently producing? This is actually a question from me and my friend Charlie, who wanted to know more about what you’re working on.
ETHAN: Oh sure! Is it Charlie Hickey?
SOFIA: It is Charlie Hickey!
ETHAN: Oh cool! That’s awesome. He’s such a sweet guy. So I co-produced with Tony a record by a girl named Phoebe Bridgers, which I’m really stoked about.
SOFIA: She’s a friend of mine! She’s great.
ETHAN: Oh cool! Well the fact that I got to work on that record is crazy because I’m such a fan of her writing, her voice, her guitar playing. And the fact that that was the first record that I got to be called a producer on is such an honor because a lot of people have to pay their dues in production, which I absolutely have to do and I am doing, but the fact that the first record that I got to work on was something that I truly loved is a total blessing to me. So I did that and that comes out in September I think.
SOFIA: I’m so excited to hear it!
ETHAN: Me too. She’s incredible, so that’s really cool. And then Tony and I are working on Z Berg’s record, who is actually Tony’s daughter, but she is an amazing songwriter and singer. She has had several bands in the past but this is her first solo record and it’s turning out really cool. Z’s taste is rad and it kind of feels like an old movie from the 50’s or something, so lots of strings and lots of weird lyrical homages. I’m really excited about that; that’s almost done. And then, you know, I’m writing for other artists and sometimes I’ll do stuff at Tony’s studio with other musicians in terms of writing. Definitely lots of stuff on the horizon but I’m still organizing all those eggs.
SOFIA: It’s cool too that you work on your own stuff but then you also get to have your hand in a lot of other projects as well.
ETHAN: Thank you. I had that band with Barbara and that was an incredible experience for me and definitely my most successful experience in music, but it was the only thing we did for 5 or 6 years, which is the only way it could have been. We had to put all of our energy into that and luckily we were brother and sister and best friends so it was easy to put all of our focus in. But after 5 or 6 years of only doing one thing, for both of us, there was sort of this realization that I can’t have all my eggs in one basket. So making my own records and working on other people’s stuff, I really hope that I can make that last because to me it feels like the only way I can stay fulfilled.
SOFIA: Totally. Kind of a fun closing question: any local, up-and-coming bands you want to give a shout out to? I mean, we’ve talked about Phoebe Bridgers, but anybody else you’re listening to currently?
ETHAN: Well Phoebe of course and Z of course. My friends have a great band called Superet that are in Los Angeles and they’re an amazing live show. They are coming out with new music more and more. Christian Lee Hutson is a guy also that I’ve been writing with who’s an amazing songwriter and incredible lyricist, just kind of jaw-dropping lyrics, so look out for those two people. Those are friends of mine and I’m a big fan of theirs as well.