Smiley Gatmouth tilts through the dark and playful
UW-Madison student Eli Lynch discusses his rap project’s new album.
Eli Lynch adopted the MC name Smiley Gatmouth after coming to UW-Madison from Denver, where he grew up in a fertile spoken-word and poetry scene. In UW’s First Wave program, he’s continued to explore beyond the bounds of rap music, with work including a one-man show at this year’s Line Breaks Festival and singing and rapping in the R&B ensemble ME eN You. But Smiley Gatmouth captures a distinct side of his personality, digging into Lynch’s inner life with a grim and mischievous bent.
Lynch recorded his verses for the project’s first release, 2013’s Ill Intentions, in a night or two in his dorm room. He had a lot more time and studio resources to use on the second album, Carousel, released in July. As a result, this project steps it up in sonic detail and strikes a refined balance of eccentricity and sincerity. On “Home (Forreal),” he reflects on coming home from college to see Denver’s rapid gentrification, with a distant wildfire providing the backdrop. He even speculates on what the ashes from the fire used to be: “Was it the cover of a journal full of dusty sheets / something tucked into the cupboard when the house had company?” On “Clown Car Tomfoolery,” he fondly recalls getting into trouble in a trailer park, in a series of charming exchanges with fellow First Wavers Hiwot Nesh and Otis Franklin. The album gets darker as it progresses, with frustrations and fears veering into a sort of delirium on the title track: “So what am I supposed to do? / Homie if you only knew / What my folks been goin’ through / I bet you’d shut the fuck up / you don’t though, you don’t know, you see me and smile / I told you, you motherfuckers don’t know my style.”
But the most interesting aspect of Carousel as a whole is how Lynch uses his vocal range, often layering a single line with multiple tracks of ghoulish baritones and and cracked high notes. Lynch says he doesn’t think of these vocal variations as affectations or character work, but just has a naturally wide range in both his speaking voice and his vocal performances.
Lynch is currently finishing up his UW degree with a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. After that trip, he may come back to Madison to finish some ongoing collaborations with artists including Madison-based producer *hitmayng and former Madisonian Coby Ashpis, and to work through the backlog of lyrics he has on a 16-gig thumb drive he carries around. He spoke with me last week before catching his flight to Italy.
Tone Madison: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to accomplish with Carousel when you began making it?
Eli Lynch: Not at first. I was going to make it for the winter of 2014, 2013, something like that, way back. And then I showed somebody the songs I had and they were like, "This sounds like more of a summer project."
Tone Madison: Why?
Eli Lynch: I don't know. She just said it seemed like the vibe was more fitting for the summer. Something about the music just seemed a little outdoor to me, just warmer. I was about to start working on it, and then randomly, this dude Ralph Lazo from Denver had just started a nonprofit and built a studio, and he offered me a production deal. Basically, he agreed to record the thing for me, so when I went back to Denver I just started laying down tracks. I had really limited time, so I started laying down tracks really fast. But the process took, god, crazy. It was really hard to work long-distance. I ended up recording the whole album and then re-recording it almost a year later. It was supposed to come out quite a while ago. I wish the drop had gone better, but I'm really happy with the music itself.
Tone Madison: I don't think the album as a whole has a "carousel" or "fair" theme, but there's at least a bit of that in the way you frame that at the beginning. What drew you to that idea?
Eli Lynch: Originally, I was with Ralph in the studio, and we were doing these long late-night sessions, and we'd be together for 24 hours to 48 hours at a time, so there'd be a lot of jokes and coffee and stuff like that. I was recording a song and I fucked it up and said "carousel" in the wrong place—there was a line, "life is like a ferris wheel," but I said "carousel"—and we started joking, and he started doing the whole verse with "carousel" at the end of every line.
It wasn't like the driving force, but it made sense in my mind for what the album was about, as a fitting metaphor. So we sprinkled a little bit of that stuff to strengthen the theme, like the stuff at the beginning. We probably could have done a little more at the end. But anyway, we just kind of ran with that idea for the artwork. But yeah, it just started as a joke. But it also made sense to me, because a lot of it is about going back and forth between different places. It's about the dissonance of juxtaposing my experiences in these two different places. That wasn't the only theme of the album, but it came out as somewhat of a driving force.
Tone Madison: And you just mean going back and forth between Madison and Denver?
Eli Lynch: Yeah. I just feel a lot more at home [in Denver]. But it's especially a strange contrast because I had applied for the scholarship program on a whim. I wasn't really planning on going to school. It was just really fitting because I was doing a lot of stuff in the arts, and I went to a crazy hippie school with no grades and stuff, and I wasn't really cut out for this school at all. If you asked me all the places that I would expect to live in high school, I never would have mentioned Madison, because I didn't even know it existed. So then I got the scholarship, and a week after I got out of high school I had to get here and start these summer classes. I didn't know anything about it. That was around when Occupy was pretty big. My impression of [Madison] was that it was just gonna be a lot of white people with dreadlocks, picket signs, stuff like that. And then I got here and I looked around, especially on the campus, and I was like, "Well, this is not what I was expecting." And it was a totally different world. I had never experienced anything like it before.
Right when I left Denver is when things started to really change in Denver. And if you talk to locals in Denver now, anyone will tell you that it's crazy how fast the city is changing. But I remember when I was a freshman—I love to flame people and roast people and stuff—there'd be these roasting sessions, and it happened a lot where the scholarship kids would be coming at each other's cities, because you have a bunch of people in the room from Milwaukee, a bunch from Chicago, maybe some from New York, whatever, so that's just a common thing that people can gang up on each other about. I remember hopping in on one of these little back-and-forths, and I probably came for Milwaukee or Chicago, but then I remember one of my friends said, "Dude, you're from Denver, where even is that?" Which was funny, because I felt like in the same way, I had no idea what Milwaukee was before I came here, and he probably felt the same way about Denver.
Now a lot of people are moving to Denver. It's a really quickly growing city, so the rent is going up really fast. It's a great place, but I meet a lot of people [who say], "My cousin just moved to Denver!" And I know that they're really excited about it and they're really just trying to bond with me and tell me how cool it is, but I just don't know how to tell them, like, "Everyone I know fucking hates your cousin." [Laughs.] So how fast it's changing, that kind of came out in the music a little. The first song that I wrote for it was "Home (Forreal)." I was at this [event] called Slam Nuba, at this historic Five Points intersection, which was historically the main black neighborhood in Denver, but it's been a pretty stark change. I remember on the trip back when I wrote that song, there was a pretty huge wildfire in, I think, southern Colorado. It was so big that there were actually ashes falling [in Denver]—not like Pompeii, but there'd be sprinkles of ashes. And one of the first lines is, "I see some yuppies walking puppies and exchanging glances / somebody pointed out the fact that it was raining ashes." So that was actually something that happened. It was really strange to see.
Tone Madison: For me, the mood of this music is playful but also a bit grim, which creates this sort of off-kilter effect.
Eli Lynch: And that's definitely me. I'm definitely a dark dude, but I'm also making a lot of jokes all the time. Especially a lot of dark jokes. The people that I'm closest with are often the people that we just make really self-deprecating jokes, or jokes that would be wildly inappropriate in the context of other people hearing them.
Tone Madison: The song "Clown Car Tomfoolery" feels a bit like an extension of ME eN You's work, because you have Hiwot Nesh and Otis Franklin from the group on there, and the three of you have this really playful back-and-forth going on the song. How did that track come together?
Eli Lynch: I tend to take a very long time to finish shit in general, but music especially. I started this one a long time ago, a couple years before it came out. Maybe even longer. In terms of writing, it was somewhat collaborative. Hiwot Nesh and I kind of co-write the parts she sang. She definitely had an influence on the writing of that. Otis comes in at the end—it wasn't really even planned. We were recording Nate France on the saxophone and Otis jumped in and started doing some stuff and it was great. He did that Lil Jon-sounding "what" that I just copied and pasted throughout the whole thing. So what I ended up going for in the whole construction of it was, that song was really kind of rooted in my childhood and teenage years, just about the ratchery that would occur, when I was running around being a little no-goodnik. The group dynamic was kind of important to that. It needed voices, because I can't think back on that time and those activities without there being a very clear presence of my friends around me.
Tone Madison: "Dying II" on Carousel is kind of a companion to an earlier song called "Dying," which you wrote about your friend John Vietnam. How did your thoughts about loss and mortality change between the writing of those two songs?
Eli Lynch: Well, the first one's about John Vietnam. There's maybe a verse and a half of him in this one too. Neither song is exclusively about him, although he's definitely a big factor in both of them. We were really best friends here in Madison and he died all of the sudden. I've had people die before, but no one that I was ever that close to in that way. Even family members who had died, it would be like out-of-state people that I had a familial bond with, but I used to hang out with Vietnam pretty much all day every day. We'd wake up in the same place, we would hang out until we slept. That was a crazy experience for everybody when he died, because it was out of nowhere. I came here the next day, and moved into my new house, which is right on the lake that he drowned in.
It's a little bit less clear [in "Dying II"]. There's a line in there, "We used to joke about death / always smoked cigarettes / shrug our shoulders and jet." That was just over at the Memorial Union, maybe a block from where he ended up dying. I remember a couple of jokes. One was like, we had both been up all night, as we often were, and when you stay up for a long time you tend to get in this other kind of reality, a little bit of a haze, a little zany. What I found, and he did too, is I'd make a lot of jokes, where it's not clear you're joking, really, um…
Tone Madison: Deadpan?
Eli Lynch: Deadpan. Whenever all the concerts came out, we were smoking cigarettes out there... and he said, "The best thing that Eli and Vietnam the people ever did for Eli and Vietnam the artists was die." I thought that was hilarious. Another one we used to say a lot was "everybody quits eventually." There's another one I remember, we were walking back from somewhere late at night, and I had cigarettes and he didn't—we both smoked a lot of cigarettes, that might have been a reason we were such good friends—and I gave him a cigarette and we both smoked a cigarette, and right after that he asked for another one, and I'm like, "Ugh, you're gonna chain-smoke?" And he was like, "Well, you don't have to smoke another one if you don't want." And I said, "No, I gotta catch up with you, because I have to make sure that we die at the exact same time." Anyway, there'd be all kinds of shit like that. But you don't actually die, you just think about shit like that!
I think the songs kind of explore different sides of me about [death]. I think the original song "Dying" is a lot more at peace with death and not really scared of it, just kind of accepting it, which is often how I am. And then "Dying II" was more about the fear and sorrow that also comes up sometimes. But I'm sure it's going to come up again, because death just tends to be a pretty fascinating thing to talk about and make art about, in my opinion. That being said, the song wasn't written intended to be "Dying II." I decided to name it that after it was done. It wasn't an intentional sequel—it was just thematically very similar.
Tone Madison: How did you develop your approach to layering vocals on your recordings? I mean, people in rap use harmonies and multi-track vocals, but you're doing it in a very distinctive way.
Eli Lynch: It developed naturally. I mean, a lot of work went into the process of that developing, but it wasn't intentional-intentional. It also has to do with the fact that I have a really wide range, even in my speaking voice. If I get excited about something, my voice goes way up high, but in other situations it'll be really low and I'll sound like a different person. For some reason, when I talk to strangers sometimes, I often just, not even intentionally, speak in a very low voice. I think that that was somewhat natural, because I tend to rap with a pretty distinctive voice. I think some people maybe interpreted it as not my real voice, but it wasn't so much not my real voice, because there's such a range in the way that I naturally speak. It was just that I kind of had a natural inclination to talk in different ways in different circumstances.