Dave Gutter tells a story about his experience getting COVID-19. He’s told it enough times that he’s conscious now of it sounding rehearsed, but he soldiers through.
“I was just out there with COVID, and was bored and posting videos on my Instagram, and all of a sudden my phone started blowing up,” he says. “All these numbers I didn’t know. People who must have found my number somehow and hadn’t seen me since high school. And they were just telling me they were really proud of me and how much they always respected my work.”
He’s only 46. Not even going gray. No bald spot. Still every bit the heartthrob. Keeps up with his teen daughter, no problem.
But, “I’m reading these messages thinking, ‘Oh, you guys think I’m not going to recover from this.’ I got an honest view of what people are seeing – Dave’s getting older – so I leaned into that.”
The result is among the most interesting and inventive works Gutter has ever created. Which is saying something for a guy who’s been releasing music – as part of Rustic Overtones, Paranoid Social Club, Armies, Gutter and Casas, Beards, Spose and the Humans, Dead in the Gutter – for more than 30 years.
“I’ve Been Here Awhile” is a five-song EP, yes, but it is best consumed as the “visual album” Gutter has created, an 18-minute video where he acts out the personas he’s created in these songs, donning and doffing costumes seemingly in real time as he transitions from one song to the next. It is Brechtian in the way we see black-clad “assistants” (partners and friends) tending to him without being distracted from the performance, Andy Kaufman-like in its uncomfortable intimacy, Pee-Wee Herman-like with its props and charm.
It’s also really the first time Gutter has let the world see him as a solo artist, put himself forward as the single performer and creator.
“I have 500 songs in my BMI publishing that I’ve written,” he says, “and these five songs are the first ones I’ve ever done by myself. I’ve never written any songs completely by myself.”
It’s sort of stunning to consider. No Maine musician has been as constantly in the public eye over the past three decades, been more often named as “best male vocalist” and countless other accolades, but in many ways, we’ve never been invited to know Gutter this closely before.
“It’s been really scary,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of anxiety about making a solo record, without having peers to bounce things off of.”
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t also been liberating.
“When you’re in a band, you’re speaking for everyone,” he says, “and you kind of think about that when you’re writing for a band. So for this, I was just speaking for myself, and if it sucked, it wasn’t like everyone in the band would be bummed out that now we have a goofy record that ruined our career.”
Really, though, it’s not that goofy. Or maybe it’s powerfully goofy.
There are any number of moments of self-deprecation and irony – Gutter mimicking the traditional awards acceptance speech as he mouths the words of the balladic “Loser of the Year” and gets smothered in whipped-cream pies and buckets of fake blood and feathers, for example — but the themes he explores are universal: self-doubt, fear of death, that old standby of wishing you knew then what you know now.
“When I told everyone about this project, everyone acted like I was losing my mind,” he says with a laugh. “On paper, it sounded really strange. But then when people were watching it, the whole time they were smiling, either at the quips in the lyrics or the stupid costumes.”
As a film, “I’ve Been Here Awhile” succeeds because it’s never trying to be something it’s not. By constantly pulling back the camera and letting us in on the production, it lets us see the choices Gutter is making and what’s important. It tries in the right way. It never disrespects the viewer or comes off as self-indulgent.
Rather, it’s self-reflective in a way that allows the viewer to see themselves in Gutter. He says he developed that third-party distance by writing for other people, especially the 2016 album “Apache,” where Gutter wrote for Aaron Neville.
“I wrote that whole album with him,” he says, “and I never played guitar or any of my band for him. My notepad was my instrument. I had to study New Orleans history for that; he sent me a bunch of poems. I had to write songs about other people – how they’re seen by their fans and listeners, spending all this time sizing them up and putting that into lyrics. It made me be able to turn that around and allowed me to look at myself.”
And the light under which he examines himself can be a harsh one.
The opening “Midlife Crisis,” a halting backing track of crashing piano chords and spare percussion that contrasts with Gutter’s almost-rapped verses, alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-evisceration: “At a hundred and one, I could still be the nicest/ Used to be young, now I don’t even look like the pic on my license.” He mocks himself for imagining he could still hook up with the girls who adored him in high school, looks one up only to discover she’s married to a banker who just bought his album.
It’s every middle-aged insecurity laid bare.
Of course, radical transparency is actually sort of cool now. From Phoebe Bridgers to Billie Eilish, an invitation into an artist’s rumpled bedroom of imperfection is sorta hot.
As is questioning the technological wonderland we’re all expected to live in nowadays.
In “The Poet,” sounding like a “Sgt. Pepper’s” outtake, Gutter explores his ever-present feeling that he was born at the wrong time, would have been better suited to the salons where Austrians enjoyed Mozart or the open-air theaters of Shakespeare. With the more alt-rock “All My Heroes Are Dead” (vampy enough to have been on a Paranoid Social Club record), he reflects on the hero worship Generation X experienced for the likes of the Beats and Hendrix-Joplin-Lennon, long dead before their time.
Is hero worship over? Are kids smart enough now to unmask the past and revel in the current wider pool of talent?
“They can’t watch our generation for what to do,” Gutter says. “Because it’s obvious it didn’t work. It didn’t work socially. It didn’t work mentally – we’re all very tortured. What do you do then? … They had to make their own idols instead.”
Or maybe today’s heroes are just a lot kinder. Gutter is kinder – to himself and others – than he was in his youth. He knows that. “It was almost revered,” he remembers of the way stars used to be made, “to be this, ‘I’m not like you and I’m a shithead; I’m this tortured genius that you don’t understand.’”
I offer that that doesn’t really fly anymore.
“I’m glad it doesn’t fly,” he says quickly. “I’m glad it doesn’t.”
As someone who has clearly contemplated his legacy, Gutter may resent most of all the things he thought he was supposed to be, or that he wanted to be. But by the closing “The End,” featuring current collaborator Bensbeendead., where he quickly strums an acoustic guitar and layers angelic harmonies alongside Jamie Colpoys trombone (herself a proxy for dead hero Dave Noyes), Gutter knows “there’s no picking trash from our littered past/ There’s no going back/ There’s no prequel.”
Laid bare? By the finish of the video, Gutter is literally stripping off his clothes. “Buried alive,” he wonders, “can they hear you?”
Like so many of his heroes, Gutter has already lived a life that will resonate from beyond the grave. But he ain’t dead yet.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
Behind the camera with Sarah Violette
Dave Gutter may have provided the songs and vision and performance for “I’ve Been Here Awhile,” but he couldn’t do it alone.
Not only did he bring in old friends like Tony McNaboe to play piano and Mike Koharian to program drums, but he also called on Sarah Violette – an accomplished rapper and performer – to capture the video.
Not direct, mind you. Or edit. In the credits, her name rolls by as “Camera Person.”
Gutter says he loves her because “she was more just like the meat and potatoes of getting the shots the way you want to, not like, ‘I have this whole vision!’ … She was my favorite person to work with behind a camera, and I’ve worked with tons of people over the years.”
Violette laughs when I recount this. It could be insulting, obviously, to someone who does, in fact, direct and make videos.
“I guess I get it because I’ve been an artist and I’ve been so let down by people having their own vision and it ends up being not what you wanted at all,” she says.
When she works with people like Gutter or Spose, who can see it all in their heads from start to finish, she says she’s “letting them direct. I’m letting them edit. I put the camera where they want it and I film it and I say things like, ‘Do you want it in 60 frames per second or 40?’”
I refuse to believe there isn’t talent in what she’s doing.
“Maybe I’m being too humble,” Violette says, “but it was really all Dave’s idea. I was a conduit. I think that’s honestly what I’m bringing, that trust in them to know what they want.”
She says Gutter didn’t even want to do a dry run. He wanted to just go for it, all in one shot. “But we were like, ‘No, we’re going to do a quick dry run just to make sure.’ And it was very quick, and then we just went for it.”
That the confetti and the tarp and the lights and the costume changes all worked so well was maybe equal parts Gutter’s vision and divine intervention.
“There was a shared Notes app,” Violette says, “where he had a treatment for the whole thing. But I looked at that maybe twice. I was like, whatever is going to happen is going to happen. He had it so well thought out in his head, I knew he’d be able to pull something off that was close to what he wanted. He’d really thought about it hard.”
At the end, she just pulled the SD cards from the three cameras she used and handed them to Gutter. He did the rest.
“It was such a funny day,” Violette says, laughing. “Dave’s a genius and he did a great job. That’s really it.”
— Sam Pfeifle
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Mads Francis, “Beyond the Pines” — Another entry in the pop-punk revival we seem to be having here in Portland, this is the lead single from the new EP, “The Violet Crown,” from one half of the former Kid’s Gotta Do. Pleased to hear that “What if you read Sartre?” is still relevant.
• Spose and Dominic Lavoie, “Self Destruct” — The second single from the upcoming double album, this leverages Lavoie’s talent for psychedelia, leaning in heavily to Spose’s reputation for humility: “They don’t make meds for imposter syndrome.”
• Crystal Canyon, “Haunt You” — Bouncing back and forth between guitar chords, Lynda Mandolyn lulls you to sleep until the wash of noise slaps you awake.
• Martin Sexton, “Hold On” — A soul-fueled rave-up, Sexton tries to infuse positivity into the summer of 2020. He’ll be at Aura on Oct. 23; let him know if you’re in agreement that there were silver linings to the pandemic.
• Chris Robley, “Lotus Eaters” — One of seven songs on the Lewiston transplant’s new “A Filament in the Wilderness of What Comes Next,” this is a true headphones tune, with programmed cadences shooting through the channels, Robley’s rough tenor cutting through like a prog Springsteen.
— Sam Pfeifle