Goon’s Kenny Becker On Creating An Untouched Feeling For ‘Paint By Numbers Vol. 1’ (INTERVIEW)

The LA-based band Goon have recently released the EP Paint By Numbers Vol. 1, and have an LP waiting in the wings to arrive this summer, too, featuring the work of Kenny Becker, Andy Polito, Tamara Simons, Dillon Peralta, and Emily Elkin. Both collections are said to be a departure from Goon’s 2019 album, Heaven is Humming, in theme and sound. But Paint By Numbers, particularly, took a very different approach in moving towards a more of-the-moment recording style, avoiding overworking the tracks, and incorporating sounds from the natural world. The songs on the EP were influenced by Kenny Becker’s experiences as a visual artist, spending time outside painting in and around LA during the pandemic period and observing the relationship between man-made and natural elements. 

I spoke with Kenny Becker about the relationship between the Paint by Numbers EP and Goon’s live performance plans, how he pursued such an organic approach to these experimental songs, and why imperfection can be important, even necessary, to artists. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: What have Goon been playing for your past couple of shows? Were you bringing in material from this EP?

Kenny Becker: It’s definitely been focused on the newer stuff more. I’ve had a little conflict about that somewhat because we have a new direction these days, though it’s not totally new. I feel distant from our old stuff compared to newer things. So we’ve been playing several songs from the EP and a good handful of songs off the LP which will come out this summer. I’d say we play a few older songs, but are definitely favoring the newer stuff.

HMS: I’m glad to hear that since I didn’t know if the more experimental approach on the EP meant it might not get played live.

KB: It was really fun, actually, to figure that out. We wanted to play some of it, and largely the use of samplers became the way to pull that off live. I have one, and then Andy, our drummer, also has one, and we get them super loaded up with all the weird non-guitar sounds and go from there.

HMS: These seem like complex songs to play live but I love that you’re doing that. I can imagine how the vibe of the EP could be really good for people right now. It’s so mellow. 

KB: It definitely started off quite daunting, but we’ve been practicing a ton. I’m really happy with how it’s coming together. It’s definitely having a very warm reception recently. We’ve been very encouraged and feeling really grateful.

HMS: How much have you worked with traditional song structures in the past versus non-traditional song structures on this EP? Was that a big jump for you, or had you been exploring that before? 

KB: I have been thinking more about song structure. Every time I write a song, I try not to fall into a pattern of what I’ve done before, but if I follow my instincts, I usually end up creating something similar, like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and a jam at the end. But then once I had a full song written, with this EP, I tried to push it a little bit further and fuck with it a little bit more. That was a very intentional thing, trying to be playful with not only the use of synths and sounds, but also structure. That was very much a part of it.

HMS: So after finding things were a bit too structured, you would intentionally deconstruct things a little bit?

KB: Exactly, yes. In fact, on the song, “Paint By Numbers”, I basically deleted the last half of it and where the song currently has a piano ending, there was a whole other section that repeated back into a verse. I felt the impulse or desire to delete it, and just end the song there. It feels good to do that sometimes.

HMS: Do you feel like you need to be open to the idea that a certain amount of work that you create might not ever be used or make it onto an album? 

KB: Absolutely. My personal journey with music and art has been constantly reinforcing that idea. In a painting, if you totally fuck up an area, it’s a bummer, but then you can paint over it, and then you have a nice textured surface that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Back when I was first getting into painting, one of my mentors said something that I think is also true of music: it’s really a process of correction. Really any artistic process is about doing something, then reacting to it. You try not to allow yourself to treat any one thing as so precious that it can’t be touched. It can be exhilarating to think that way.

HMS: It almost proves that we have different parts to our personality. There’s the orderly one who lays it down and the next approach that wants to mess things up. 

KB: It’s so true! If you go into artistic endeavor and from the get-go feel like you know how it’s going to be good and why it’s going to be good, it actually probably won’t be that good. You have to get to a point where you can look at it again and wonder what’s going on. It’s the same methodology that allows you to keep mistakes in a work of art. Nobody responds to The Beatles because they are creating these perfect artefacts, exactly.

HMS: Like everyone, I watched the Get Back documentary, and I was struck by the fact that they weren’t doing fifty takes to get something perfect, but fifty takes to get it right. They were chasing something.

KB: Totally! It’s so weird and so awesome. 

HMS: I understand that you were doing a lot of open-air painting during the pandemic period. Is there a closer link than people might know between what you were painting and the music created for this EP?

KB: I think that’s true. I really like painting outside and during the heavy lockdown days, I would go out and it was a perfect activity. Even when it’s not a pandemic, painting outside is a solo thing. I got back into that a lot more, having done a lot of it from 2013 to 2015. It became a meditative practice that definitely started to inform the new [musical] aesthetic. Painting out in LA, you can find some very secluded, natural places, but there’s always some concrete structure nearby. I try to avoid the cliché of saying that the man-made and the natural look beautiful together, but I think I really fell in love with that through that process.

HMS: I feel like when you can see some elements of nature and also manmade structures, it suggests a kind of permeability there. I heard that you wanted to create a kind of atmosphere like that for this EP, like an echoey overlap between these elements.

KB: Absolutely. I think that says it very well, that things become more permeable, and not just in a cabin in the woods kind of way, but in terms of brutal concrete structures like the Los Angeles river and stuff like that. 

HMS: Did you find that you were paying more attention to the sounds outside? I know you used some outside elements on the EP.

KB: Yes, and that will show up on the LP as well. I love how, if you want to make a really weird or interesting sound, sometimes you don’t need to manipulate it or run it through all kinds of effects, but actually highlighting the sound by itself is interest enough. It’s kind of like how they created the sound for the Millennium Falcon with a washing machine, and stacking sounds together made something way cooler than you could make on a synth. 

HMS: I get that, it has a physicality to it. When you all were recording the EP, I know you intentionally didn’t do a million takes. Was there a desire to capture a live feel?

KB: Yes, and I think it was mainly wanting to make something that doesn’t feel too messed with. I think it was informed a lot by our first LP, Heaven is Humming, which ended up being overworked in the process of making it. By the end of it, I hardly liked it that much anymore. Not that you’re always supposed to love an album as long as you make it good for other people, but I think it got some of the life squashed out of it. The decision to be decidedly un-precious about things on the EP came from that experience wanting it to be perfect. For the EP, we did quick takes, and if we needed to adjust it, we’d do little edits. But for the most part, we kept it pretty untouched. 

HMS: is the overall experience more important than the individual elements?

KB: Yes, exactly. I think another guiding principle we tried to abide by, and still do, is that if something feels good and is fun, just do it. We didn’t have to look at every scenario about which mic to use or which compressor to use. That was the vibe. 

HMS: I think that’s really captured on the EP as it stands, and I think that’s something that audiences really respond to. It almost encourages the audience to participate, in a way, rather than just listen to something. A more open piece allows you to enter into the world of that song.

KB: It’s a very human and real thing. It’s true that if you make a recording that’s too cool and perfect, you end up making something that the audience looks at but is removed from.

HMS: I feel like this EP is a kind of nature psychedelia, like “What’s the mind of plants? What’s the state of being of water?” 

KB: That’s very much what I’m interested in, however you get there. It’s very much what the music is about. I think that all came about through the painting connection, spending so much time outdoors. It made me realize what I was most interested in.

HMS: How do lyrics relate to the music writing process on the songs?

KB: It was a little different every time. If there’s any kind of formula, it’s having a singing melody and liking to end on a certain vowel with a certain number of syllables. I sometimes go from there. It tends to be in the moment. Like for “Garden of Our Neighbor”, when I was winging it vocally to come up with a melody, that line “Somewhere in the ocean” came up first. That became the launchpad to try to figure out what I was trying to say. I do tend to try to avoid narrative and keep it vibe-based if possible, without going too far in that direction. I want to give a sense that there’s some intention there. 

HMS: I listen to a fair amount of music from other countries where they are singing in other languages, and I find it interesting how that affects me, even if I don’t understand the lyrics. I heard that Sigur Ros has a new album coming up, so I was thinking about the way they have always mixed their English and Icelandic lyrics together.

KB: I saw they had new music coming out. Sigur Ros was a pretty big band for me in formative years and put a desire to go to Iceland in me. I served Jonsi and his partner a cappuccino one time a long time ago. There’s a thing called Echo Park Rising in LA, and it’s like a tiny version of SXSW. He happened to come into a coffee shop I worked in at the time, and my band were going to play that night. 

I gave him everything for free, like, “You’re my fucking hero, dude.” Then he asked if I was a musician and I tried to explain that we were playing at Echo Park Rising. I was very star-struck, and not explaining it very well, but he was so endearing about it. When they left, they looked inside at me at the espresso bar and waved at me. It looked like a picture of your parents waving to you as you leave for college. It was so sweet of them. 

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