Pearl Of Wisdom: An Interview With Gordon Raphael
Updated: Jul 11
Like a hardback book of enlightenment stood on its spine and left to drop open; between each page, light streaming out, cutting through dust particles in the room, listening to his life stories, equipped by his warm, approachable demeanour is a joy to behold. We appreciate that history-altering chapter well: you know, The Strokes chapter. And we respect it; shower it with adulation, we sincerely do. But amongst the instalments before and after, there is much to ascertain and gather about our torchbearer: Gordon Raphael.
Art makes up every fibre of his being; a bona fide flush of contentment from wearing his artisan title blazes upon all he graces. A short while ago, Gordon savoured a chat with his father, gathering enticing gems of his childhood and evoking memories of yesteryear.
He told me that I cried a lot as a baby (Still do, I just cry through my songs now, with loud guitars and synthesizers!). My mom noticed that if I cried, and she held me so that I could see a painting on our wall, I would suddenly become quiet. My grandma Minnie used to get so excited when I painted or drew something; she called me her Sunshine; that’s how I learned that making art could put smiles on people’s faces.
Then, when I was in kindergarten - around six years old - I won a Red Cross art contest with a painting of a birdhouse that had an entrance and exit, just like they had in our school. There was a party to celebrate this art contest; I wore a white shirt and a bow tie and got my picture taken in front of my painting. My art teacher, Mr Moody, was so happy and smiling, and so was my mom. He learned an esteemed lesson that may benefit us all: 'make art, and you get to dress up, have your picture taken, and everyone smiles at you'.
As far as he comprehends, no member of his family had a considerable liking for art. But Gordon recalls a consequence that 'blew his mind immediately': Around thirteen years of age when impressionable, he uncovered two paintings living inside a publication regarding the Prado Museum in Madrid. Firstly, The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted circa 1562, depicted a breathtaking world of fantasy and fiction that we had permission to study, to enter.
A perfectly painted portrait of a million skeletons attacking priests and peasants with swords and flames, with the whole countryside erupting in fire. Well, I never thought about any of that kind of stuff before, but there it was right in front of my eyes. It just tripped out my young imagination, incredibly.
The other painting in that book that drew me in, like a power-magnet, was The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch - created between 1490 and 1510. This was a triptych in which the left panel portrayed some ultra-detailed Hell scene in which musicians were being eternally tortured on various musical instruments, including a drum, a harp, a flute and a mandolin. That alone was perfectly satisfying to my rebellious rock ’n' roll mind.
In the right panel was a Garden of Eden scene with Jesus hanging out with Adam and Eve. It was a bit too peaceful for my liking, but next to it, in the centre, was the most fantastic orgy scene with masses of people in natural ponds, naked in the flowers, in strange bubbles and surrounded by mythical animals. What a magical and imaginative piece of art it is, and I’m still deeply affected by how those images nourished my artistic nature.
Strangely enough, two months later, when studying in a creative writing class, his teacher, Mr Bruce Saari, unveiled the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel to teach his impressionable youths about the topic of subjective reality.
In this painting, the ploughman, the sheep, the ship are all painted big, up close and personal while the main subject: poor Icarus falling out of the sky into the sea because he melted his wings by flying too close to the sun, well, that's painted as tiny as can be, in the background.
From aged ten onwards, Raphael feasted on 'new revolutionary rock and roll': Beatles, Mothers of Invention, Hendrix, Cream, The Doors. There was no turning back; he possessed an unshakable belief that this would be his fate: 'making poetry and loud, insane new sounds'; there was never doubt from him.
My best friend, Steve Kirk, asked me to join his band, again, age 13, as a piano player. We played shows, which led me to my second band, third band etc. Music didn’t come as naturally to me as painting, but it felt more urgent, and so I had to go through countless trials by fire to eventually find my own path into songwriting, singing, guitar playing and forming my own bands.
While making his way through high school, our philomath enriched his soul by playing in bands - nose stuck in books and lugs wrapped around records - which all fed into Gordon's natural ear for deciphering music. Records, records and more records never let him down, ole faithful vinyl friends; the songs and singers were precious friends and teachers, and by 19, he ventured into songwriting, recording the work a couple of years later.
Having three finished Gordon Raphael songs on a cassette tape was like a holy fire, which gave me the pure zeal to record the next ones and the next ones. Already by that time, I was only interested in really weird sounds, sounds that would hopefully convey the kind of qualities that I was having under the influence of Marijuana, LSD, Magic Mushrooms and Peyote. The goal: to induce a trip for listeners.
My Arp Odyssey synthesizer, old Echoplex, phase shifters and flanger pedals- all helped me achieve my Day-Glo rainbow-tinted dreams. I had a weird ego problem that said I didn’t need a regular job nor money if I was making such cool sounds. This did annoy and irritate my close friends that saw me raiding their refrigerators and borrowing their recording equipment.
The plus side was, by obsessively recording five or six new songs per week, the tone blends and lyrics were becoming entirely magical. I would start the day with nothing in mind. Then layer brand new sounds and make stuff up. Until, by two in the morning, a few new songs were added to my cassette.
He never wished to lock down anyone else's work, not at all; he was giddy to see what would materialise on the tape the next day. Within those first three years of relentless writing and recording, music matured into an astral home from which he was whisked away on major escapades; this was not make-believe. By that time, people in my Seattle scene were aware that I was making many strange songs, and not everyone had the patience to check my work out, nor did everyone appreciate it. No. It didn’t bother me too much because I really felt that I was now a channel for new music and heavenly sounds: this was a source I could tap into seemingly, every time I played with my instruments.
In my Seattle music scene growing up, I was blessed to meet and work with a number of crazy, wild geniuses. Some of their names are Brian S. Phraner, who patiently helped my musical mind to grow, Steve Kirk, who could play guitar like Hendrix in early teen years, and then went on to compose like Stravinsky and Tor Midtskog, guitarist in my band Colour Twigs, he made fun of me a lot, but introduced me to so much important music and wrote incredible parts to some of my songs.
Oddly, there is a set of songs Gordon has written over the years that he has recorded and re-recorded up to seven times. Each version features different musicians and recorded in various places of vibrancy: Seattle, New York, Berlin, London, Corfu and Greece. The songs are Seven Stars, I Said, Substitute Music, Never Shoulda Started, Strong and View From Blue. I just started making EPs with all the versions of each song together in chronological order. Since I have heard each variant hundreds of times, I believe that a few hyper-focused followers of my musical output might actually enjoy these compilation EPs.
USA, Germany, UK, the list goes on and on. Numerous exotic locations have all illustrated their way of producing sound and art. With our cultured experimenter travelling often, he submerges himself in all offered, empowering it to colour his work. Sometimes found out where needed his purpose the most. Berlin I loved because I could ride my bicycle everywhere, which was a huge feature of my growing up years. On the other hand, that city had absolutely no need for my production skills, nor my actual songs. I played a total of three shows there in 15 years, which were muted, unexciting, small gigs.
On the other hand, I went to Argentina a few years back and played 20 shows over two months! They were so so rockin’, and the audience was sweaty and on fire: the way I need ‘em to be, for sure. In the early 2000s, I had some great shows in London when TobyL, founder of Transgressive Records, and I ran The Basement Club at Buffalo Bar. I was in a phenomenal band called Sky Cries Mary in Seattle during the grunge times, and we had sensational shows in the best theatres and venues in our city. That band and the one tour I did as keyboardist for The Psychedelic Furs was the only time I really saw HUGE audiences go mental while we were onstage; special highlights for sure.
By the time he was 23, Raphael was already trying everything he could to be noticed as a musician and concentrated on that rock star, eye-catching image. Off he went on a mission to investigate Goodwill thrift shop and purchased ice skates which he sawed off the blade and painted gold and black, and scored a small dog skull and mounted it on a rhinestone necklace that he twinned with a children’s plastic baseball jacket, the weirder, the better. One time I played my acoustic guitar out on my front lawn, shirtless, hoping someone might pass by in their car and talk with me. As August became October, I developed pneumonia from being so stupid!
Then I finally had a brilliant breakthrough when copy machines became available. I had my friend Kelly Gordon take hundreds of photos of me - on camera film back then - and I Xeroxed the best one and taped it to wooden telephone poles near my mom’s house thinking that people would see them and think I looked cool. But a rainy Seatle had other ideas: the Xerox copies- wet and weak - tore off and blew away into oblivion on the wind.
So you see, I’ve always been very desperate for attention for me and my music. Sometime after I discovered the internet, I thought if I put all 1000 of my songs, all my interviews, and photos and art up on my OWN website, I will SURELY become a discovered gem! People will go crazy when they see all that I have done in one place! Wow. So I started with a Shoplifter Records website and then hired five or six different web designers to try and make a GORDOTRONIC website. It was all slow and painful going until Cristovao Verstraeten from Amsterdam built my current website, as it is now.
I assure you I was crestfallen when I realised that even though my entire diamond mine of creativity is on the internet, nobody knew about it or seemed to hang out there enjoying the sounds and sights. For eight years, I abandoned this Gordotronic website, for it brought me no ecstatic joy. Friends told me to use a pure white minimal landing page with just my latest tweet and gig information; that way, I could join the European 21st century. I was miserable considering this.
He evaluates the past year by looking at the bright side of things: the pandemic bestowed a substantial gift to him; endless, uninterrupted time to fixate, obsess and devise projects, all for himself. First thing I did was write my first book, a memoir about my musical times with The Strokes, including copious flashbacks, of course. Then I pulled all my music off the streaming services and started mixing 30 songs that I want to release as soon as possible.
Then I got a brainwave: what if instead of giving up on my website, or making it nice and bite-sized for short attention spanned human beings, what if I just add more and more! I set about intensifying my own webspace by tightening up the writing - news, stories, interviews - making the photo and painting galleries load quicker, filling up every nook and cranny with videos, and finally, making all the menu images move, so it looks like a psychedelic light show! YEAH.... it was SO satisfying, and that's what up there now. It’s basically the same thing as Cellotaping my black and white photo onto a phone pole in the rain, but it’s with computers.
His painting leans towards neon colouring, layers upon layers of detail and a graphic, contemporary attitude. Today we shall present 'Pink Elephant with Ice Cream Cones'. Consider this bright pink elephant, the very symbol of hopeful hallucination. Here is the representation of multiple forms of happiness. The elephant, not one but TWO ice cream cones, a rainbow of sorts spraying out of his/her/their trunk. The soft eyes and the calm smile reinforcing happy times. The green cloud matches the mint-chocolate ice cream; the orange with raspberry sorbet mirrors the mini-rainbow above. Finally, the nice eyelashes and well-manicured toenails complete this Gordon Raphael pen and felt pen piece. Do also check out 'Baby With Pocket Protector and Pen Coming Home from the Office.'
Channelling energies into studying synthesizers, piano, analogue recording and Pro Tools software, at first, the certainty to start making videos again was doubted. I made the video about my awesome seven-room apartment in Berlin using iMovie while I was recording Ricky Berger up in the Tehachapi mountains of California. I laughed so hard cause I used a fake Texan accent to narrate moving to Berlin! I’d actually just spent five months living and working in San Antonio, Texas, and so both Berlin and Texas were occupying my brain simultaneously. Then I did a few Absinthe - one of my best bands- videos struggling with Final Cut software.
I had a breakthrough when my bestie Graeme Maguire gave me Adobe Premier. That software was so intuitive for me, just move stuff, and it seems to know where you want it to go. Then echo it, reverse colour it, put on a ridiculous soundtrack or robot monologue, and BOOM, you get a Gordotronic meister-werk pretty darn FAST! Now, he has littered his website, Vimeo and Youtube with insane amounts of handmade video stuff. I absolutely LOVE combining sound and poetry and images that way. About A Time - the one showing off my cute Berlin apartment - speaks for itself using its faux-Texas accent. There are nine snippets of my songs in that seven-minute story!
Mulling over music that our vivid character admires but has not created, he selects the BBC series Can’t Get You Out Of My Head to commence proceedings. I enjoyed that experience so much that I watched all six twice! My Goals Beyond by Mahavishnu John McLaughlin features Johnny M going lightning berserk on an Ovation acoustic guitar. The chords he shows and thick chaos he creates by double picking thick steel strings are awe-inspiring. There are eight beautiful, jazz coloured songs on one side and then two epic long Indian style jams on the other, which force you to levitate or meditate even if you don’t already know how.
Owning a producer and audio engineer status, Gordon can proclaim with knowledge that In A Silent Way by Miles Davis is a remarkably recorded work. It’s like hearing all the instruments breathing together in the room with you. The interactions of the musicians also show what can happen when everyone is a true star, yet no one’s ego gets in the way. A rare experience. In A Glass House by Gentle Giant is a perfect and obscure nugget from the British progressive rock movement in the early 1970s.
I am in love with their keyboardist Kerry Minnear, as he could do everything that I could never figure out AND sing very wonderfully at the same time. Each member of the band can play rock and classical instruments and sing great harmonies. This is featured in the cover art and makes this band one of the most multi-talented I have ever heard. Very expressive, unusual music.
After he was the synth wizard in Roxy Music and before he became a super famous producer, Eno released a series of spellbinding solo albums. Another Green World, his third, contains novel instrumental songs and a few with his unusual singing style, which I love. Excellent combination of skill and chance on display here!
So, for now, we place this ever-expanding book back home on its shelf, and we are left with plenty to digest, uncover and commend of his adventures. But friends, we are unequivocally sure that this novel of wonder will not be closed for long as our skilful artist advances on his calling. Watch this space; we salute you, Gordon Raphael.
Article by Beverley Knight