Interview – The Gated Community’s Sumanth Gopinath

A year or two ago, I received a package at the coffee shop I co-own with my family that included a CD and some press information. It was from someone named Sumanth Gopinath, and the cover art was vague so I wasn’t sure of the style of music.
I gave a quick listen and was surprised that it was Americana music, but didn’t think too much about it. I added it to the Rift review list and made it available if someone wanted to review it.

Fast forward to last year, another CD was dropped off, so I decided to take a longer look and listen. Found out that the ringleader of The Gated Community, Gopinath was a professor at the  University of Minnesota, wrote a book for MIT press and it seemed interesting he was fronting an Americana / Country band.

This band has put out three albums and has been slowly garnering attention in the local scene. I was interested in getting Gopinath’s views on the scene and how music intertwines with him culturally and intellectually.

After I had sent him the questions, a tragedy struck.Johnny Becker, a member of The Gated Community, died unexpectedly. At the end of the interview, Gopinath has added an homage to Becker and info about a memorial show coming up this weekend.

Rift: What do you ultimately want people to get out of your music?

Sumanth: I guess I want people to get whatever they can out of it, whatever they want to get out of it. In many ways, our music is entertaining and fun, or, alternately, beautiful and perhaps soulful, but what people hear in it really depends on them.

Music can be nice as background, as something to dance to, as a vehicle for lyrics that listeners connect with, and as a set of sounding forms that amuse, intrigue, and move you. I’d like any music I make to have the capacity to do as many of those things as possible (and more), but I don’t expect listeners to get the same thing out of any particular song or album.

That said, if music can be said to lean towards being either contemplative vs. dance-/party-oriented, ours slightly favors being contemplative, in part because the lyrics are full of references and ideas and seem to demand one’s attention.

However, some of our listeners have noticed that there is a bit of a gap, if not exactly a contradiction, between the complexity of the lyrics and the mostly straightforward, non-experimental sound of the band. (This point goes to one of your questions below.)

Rift: The Gated Community has put out three releases now, what is next for the group?

Sumanth: We’re not entirely sure, especially now that our bandmate, Johnny Becker, just passed away. (More on this below.) We want to keep going and growing as a band, which could involve performing more and more out of town.

We have been gradually accumulating songs for a fourth album, and some of the material we have is very promising. Also, I have long wanted to produce a chapbook of e-mails from The Gated Community’s e-mail list—I send out lengthy, elaborate, bizarre, and sometimes inappropriate e-mails to those on our e-mail list (which can be subscribed to via thegatedcommunity [at] gmail.com).

We also have friends who are talented musicians in both Boston and Montreal, and we’re thinking of forming different branches of The Gated Community with these friends in these different cities, so that it becomes more feasible to perform in different parts of the country and continent (rather than tour with the same band, which is difficult since we all have demanding day jobs and don’t want to give those up).

Rift: When you were younger you dabbled in classical music and rock, did your parents go along with whatever you played or did they try to sway you to play other musical styles?

Sumanth: My parents were very supportive in my musical projects and never particularly pushed me to make one type of music vs. another. I did have exposure to a fair amount of Indian classical music as a kid, and although it interested me somewhat (and does even more nowadays), I wasn’t especially drawn to making that music myself. (However, this music does interest me even more nowadays—in part thanks to some friends in town who are wonderful Indian classical performers like Pooja Goswami Pavan, A. Pavan, and Matt Rahaim, and to the efforts of the Indian Music Society of Minnesota.)

More than anything, my parents saw that I was embarrassed about being a musician as a kid—it wasn’t a “cool” thing to do, where I grew up—and they knew that I loved music and strongly encouraged me to persevere, even though I contemplated quitting piano lessons on a weekly basis.

I’m eternally grateful for that and for all of the things my wonderful parents have done for me over the years (and continue to do).

Rift: Your songs have a political slant, has that became more important to you as the last few months have been a big change?

Sumanth: Oh, definitely. Until I started writing songs about Johnny (which has been a preoccupation as of the last couple of months), I’d been writing about the new president and the 2016 campaign, in veiled ways, for months. One recent song, called “Too Late,” tries to understand the perspective of a fed-up voter who voted for Trump/Pence.

The song is likely going to be on our new record and enter our repertoire. It was, coincidentally, also a song that Johnny recorded with us at a practice session shortly before he passed away, so I want to remember his beautiful mandolin contributions and have one of us (or someone else) play them when we record that song.

Rift: Being a music professor at the U. of M., was there ever a thought you needed to get into either more experimental, classical or something more traditional?

Sumanth: This is a great question, and the answer is yes—especially with experimental music. Because I write about 20th-c. and contemporary classical music as part of my own work (with a focus on the music of the composer Steve Reich), I have been asked before why I don’t compose classical music or get involved in more experimental music making. (I do, of course, in classes. In one of my classes, we have a weekly performance lab in which we perform music by minimalist composers, like Terry Riley, Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and others.) I also actively support some experimental groups in town, such as the 113 Composers Collective, which includes many former students of the U.’s emeritus professor of composition and renowned composer, James Dillon.) And, indeed, given that I do love contemporary classical music, I feel some pressure to create it myself. However, I really like the idea of being able to play music that I write, and the kind of classical music I’d like to write is really too difficult for me to perform, and so the familiar vernacular models (of bands, writing and performing their own music) are naturally appealing as a different approach to musical creativity that includes performing.

That said, I also do keep up, to some degree, with classical piano performance, and I do feel some pressure to do so, as a result of my teaching (much of which is focused on classical music). And, because my partner and bandmate Beth Hartman is a classically trained soprano, she and I will occasionally perform classical songs for voice and piano for friends and family. My brother is a cellist, so sometimes I play music for cello and piano with him. (In these cases, it’s usually older classical music—Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, etc.—but I really love that music, so it’s a treat when I have time to concentrate on it and learn to play it passably well.)

Rift: You mentioned in an interview that you are not breaking big in the local scene for many reasons, including music not being a full-time endeavor for you and many of you in the band not being from Minnesota. Doesn’t it seem like music in general is harder to break into because of how the music business works these days?

Sumanth: Absolutely. There are so many talented individuals and remarkable bands in the Twin Cities alone, and so many of them deserve a break and the opportunity to “make it” in the music business if that’s what they want to do.

On the whole, though, I actually like the balance I currently have between my day job and performing, in part because I love my job. Primarily, I just want more people to get into what we’re doing, because I believe in it and think we’re making good music.

However, to reach a new level of audience interest requires stepping up one’s commitment to touring and performing, and although we are starting to gig more frequently, no one in the band is ready to take that leap in a really significant way—for now, anyway.

Rift: Does looking at music in a more mathematical or intellectual way ever get in the way of making music with feeling or emotion?

Sumanth: Not necessarily. It’s hard to intentionally create or directly convert emotion into song, and sometimes strong feelings don’t necessarily translate into compelling music. My habit is always to go back to basics, and focus on the form of a song: does it work, is the balance of the sections right, do the melodies fit together, are the words working?

Sometimes, the song will be more emotional, more sentimental, and at other times lighthearted or funny. What I try to do is stay true to the moment of inspiration—to hang on to what I think is good about the song idea I had—and then to work with it judiciously. Sometimes that can result in finishing a song in half a day; in other cases, it can take days, weeks, months, and even years.

Rift: Is there any advice you would like to give to someone who might feel their cultural background doesn’t fit a style of music they would like to play?

Sumanth: This is an interesting and complex question. I would say that it depends on to whom I’m talking. In general, at least in my experience, many US-American white men don’t have very strong fears about stepping across genre or stylistic boundaries and seeing what they can do in new aesthetic contexts. And, as long as the proper credit is given to sources, songwriters, etc., I generally don’t have a problem with that if they don’t themselves.

I would say that for people of color, though, it’s much more likely for us to fulfill expectations of the kind of music we’re “supposed” to make: African Americans and R&B or hip-hop, Latinx Americans and various Latinx genres, Asian Americans and the traditional and popular music practices of the respective Asian countries of an individual’s heritage. In part, this is due to cultural pressure to maintain traditions associated with ethno-racial minorities and/or immigrant communities.

So, in light of this, I suppose I feel more inclined to encourage people of color to adopt and adapt genres beyond the cultural expectations that they face. I particularly encourage them to explore genres and practices currently coded as “white”—in part because those genres usually have complex and (implicitly or explicitly) multiracial and multi-ethnic histories.

Rift: If there was one piece of advice you would give someone, what would it be?

Sumanth: Keep doing it, if it’s something you enjoy doing! (I’m thinking here of music and the arts, but it applies to any productive, healthy occupation or activity.) As long as one continues to work at something, one can improve, and with perseverance and a little luck, eventually, someone will take notice.

Also, secondarily, I like Alan Sparhawk’s advice that he recently gave to some students at the U. of M.: “say no to yourself for as long as you can stand it.” I don’t always follow that advice, but I do think about it a lot.

Sumanth on Johnny Becker.

I want to add a few words about our late, beloved bandmate, Johnny Becker. He was an incredibly talented and brilliant musician, the likes of whom I’d never encountered before meeting him (and haven’t since). He was a virtuoso on the piano (and other keyboards), guitar (electric and acoustic), and mandolin, he played electric bass and drum set at a professional level, and over the last several months began playing banjo and was already really good at it!

He had a unique, powerful singing voice and was a very talented songwriter—as can be heard in music by Hennepin County Millionaires Club, Baker London, and other musical projects of his.

His passing on March 18 is still very recent. For a while, I was just crying a lot and feeling mournful about his disappearance—for that’s what it feels like, since his death remains unexplained, though it was almost certainly of natural causes.

But nowadays, I’m just trying to remember all of the amazing, thoughtful, and generous things he did for me, personally, and for the band as a whole. I also want to stay true to the things he believed in very strongly, such as not allowing yourself to be underpaid as a musician (which hurts not only you but other musicians as well).

I would like to mention a few things, by way of closing. First, there will be a memorial gathering on the afternoon and early evening Sunday, May 21, at the Uptown VFW in Minneapolis. The Gated Community and Johnny’s band (Hennepin County Millionaires Club or HCMC), as well as some other excellent groups he knew well and/or with whom he worked (Tree Party, the Cactus Blossoms), will be performing, hanging out, and reminiscing about the remarkable life of Mr. Becker, along with family and friends.

Secondly, HCMC’s new album, called In Loving Memory of Johnny Becker has just been released and is now available in digital and physical copies. You can find Hennepin County Millionaires Club on Facebook to see more details or find it online at most digital outlets.

And, third, I should also mention that we have upcoming shows in Minneapolis on Thursday, June 15, at the Minneapolis Convention Center as part of the American Homebrewers Association convention; on Saturday, June 17, at Palmer’s Bar; and on Saturday morning, July 29, at the Midtown Farmers Market. We’ll also be playing in Hastings on July 9 at Vista Rio.

The Gated Community:
https://thegatedcommunity.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/thegatedcommunityband/

Hennepin County Millionaires Club:
https://www.facebook.com/hennepincountymillionairesclub
https://hcmc.bandcamp.com/releases

Baker London:
https://bakerlondon.bandcamp.com/

There’s also a link for the VFW event on Sunday here:
http://uptownvfw.ticketfly.com/event/1480452-celebrating-life-music-minneapolis/