Six Sci-Fi Secrets from the Wooden Sky's 'Swimming in Strange Waters'

Six Sci-Fi Secrets from the Wooden Sky's 'Swimming in Strange Waters'
Photo: Sarah Creskey

Gavin Gardiner admits that he's relatively "new to the sci-fi world," but the Wooden Sky's Swimming in Strange Waters (out now on Nevado) does get its name from Frank Herbert's Dune: "Survival is the ability to swim in strange waters." The 1965 novel is a rich entry point, with a lot to chew on for any artist. Gardiner had plenty to tell Exclaim! about the bending and/or fluidity of time. Here are some unexpected ideas, influences and techniques that went into the new album.
 
1 The notion that time is not linear.
 
"One of the things that I felt the most inspired by in [Dune] was the way it dealt with time and how it broke down the notion that time is linear," Gardiner says. "There's that drug that they take that allows them to see the future or the past as if they were the same moment. That exists in multiple religions as well, and I just thought it was beautiful. So that definitely made its way into the record. I think it's kind of reflected in a lot of the lyrics actually, and sometimes I don't realize that until I step back, like 'Oh yeah, there's this thing and this thing and so on.' So I think the book was important in that respect for me. It sort of opened up new ways of seeing."
 
2 Art should challenge your perceptions.
 
In discussing how Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival also challenge the notion that time is linear, Gardiner mentions "those ideas that allow you to break down the notions of everything that you know. 'This is how you know it, but that's not how it has to be.' I feel like that's a big part of the responsibility of artists: to try to give people new ways of seeing, and then you take those little tidbits of knowledge and expand them and adapt them for your life, and then you can help somebody else see something differently too."
 
3 Time can be "bent" by manipulating the speed of recordings.
 
When asked about the strangest thing that went into this record, Gardiner offers: "I think the biggest thing, that maybe isn't that strange, but it's strange because in my world, everyone is so used to recording on computers, that you forget about variable speed on tape machines. We recorded this on an old tape machine that I had at my studio. So, again, like fucking with the fabric of time, the moment happened at this speed, but what does it sound like if you play it at this speed? And what happens if you start to bend the notes by slowing them down and changing the speed? We were using tape flanging on this Farfisa organ that we have — maybe this is too nerdy — but we'd record the band live, and then I'd take the Farfisa track, record it out to another tape machine, and then I would try to sync it up as best I could, and then I would speed the other tape machine up and then slow it down on long sustained notes so it actually almost felt like the organ was bending within itself. I pictured [a scene] in a movie where a body lies down and then its spirit sort of leaves its body, and then comes back to its body… that's pretty strange I guess."
 
4 A "snippet of someone's childhood" can also be revisited with dated instruments.
 
There's a weird little organ solo at the outro of "Swimming In Strange Waters." "That's from a keyboard that I've had since I was probably 3 or 4 years old," Gardiner reveals. "It's called a Casio SK-1, you've probably seen them around. We were recording this ring mod solo essentially — Simon was playing it — and then at the end of it… we were like 'Well that's so weird, we gotta put it in there." So it was a little snippet of my childhood and maybe a lot of other '80s kids' childhoods in there."
 
5 Childhood obsessions still reveal themselves.
 
Gardiner has talked in past interviews about how the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba influenced him to play guitar, but that swinging '50s rock sound seems to come through in some of his songwriting as well. "It's interesting how much your early childhood… you read and hear about how formative those years are, and then sometimes you forget. I was obsessed with Ritchie Valens when I was probably 3 or 4 or 5 years old, and then I just begged my parents to watch that movie over and over again. For some reason I'm still drawn to that sound. So I think that's also where my obsession with slap-back echo and that kind of guitar playing comes from, like not super flashy but there's a melodic [element]."
 
6 The Space Echo Box
 
One studio secret Gardiner shared has a cool sci-fi-sounding name: the Space Echo Box. "Well I have this box — you know the Space Echo, the Roland 201 — I have this box called the 501. It's a tape echo made by Roland and it has reverb and chorus. One thing I love to do is turn the chorus on and record with it, but then don't use the dry signal, so there's nothing to chorus against so it's just the sound of the actual little shitty tape. It sounds so good. It has this quality that I don't know how else to get it. So that would be one little thing."