Interview with Daniel Graham from Great Wide Nothing

Atlanta-based Great Wide Nothing appeared on my radar after the recommendation of a trusted musical friend. I checked out their latest album, Hymns for Hungry Spirits, and I heard a powerful and unique blend of influences, and obvious thematic depth in each of the songs I listened to. Great Wide Nothing features Daniel Graham on vocals/bass/guitars, Dylan Porper on keyboards/vocals, and Jeff Matthews on drums, and considers itself an “unorthodox power trio” due to the absence of guitar as the primary melodic driver in their sound.

We caught up with bandleader Daniel Graham to ask him about the history of the band Great Wide Nothing, the musical and lyrical influences that went into their latest album, Hymns for Hungry Spirits, Vol. 1, and what’s in store for this up-and-coming group.

Tell me about how you all met and how the band formed.

I met our drummer Jeff many years prior to forming Great Wide Nothing. He was in a local punk/alternative band called Abide by Lies (then known as That’s What She Said) at the same time that my old band from high school, Omnipresent, was still active. He was studying at AIMM (the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media) in the same class/program as our drummer, Kyle, and we ended up on several bills together around Atlanta and the suburbs thereof. Our two projects ended up crossing over a bit at times, too. I stepped in on bass for a while with ABL when they needed help finishing up their EP Monsters, and playing some shows in support of it. Jeff joined Omnipresent as a sometimes-drummer-sometimes-rhythm-guitarist during the last year or so of our existence and joined us in the studio to track the handful of songs we completed for a scrapped concept album (called Resonance). So you know, the history goes pretty far back. Probably 10 years or so now. After Omnipresent folded, I didn’t do much musically for a couple of years, but he and I kept in touch. He played on a single I recorded as a solo artist (which we’d later redo in Great Wide), and when I finally started looking for musicians – in mid-late 2017 if I remember correctly – to help record/perform some songs that I was hashing out which would eventually become the first Great Wide record, he was the first person I called.

Dylan was recommended to me by a mutual friend, when I told him I was looking for a keyboardist. I reached out to him via Facebook, and we met up and jammed a bit at his apartment. He was exactly the sort of player I was looking for, with a taste for the same “retro” sounds (analog synths, mellotrons, hammond organs) I was fixated on at the time. And he was, at this point, studying at AIMM too, so he and Jeff got on pretty well right off the bat. They had a somewhat similar musical vocabulary, having learned a lot of the same songs for graded performances and whatnot.

What were some of the musical intersections you all shared that bonded you initially?

We all shared a love of the big names in classic 70’s prog like Rush, Yes, Pink Floyd, etc. and cut our teeth as a unit doing a lot of cover gigs (as “Daniel Graham and the Cosmic Roadshow”) with material from bands like that, alongside more standard bar band fare (“Come Together” by the Beatles, “Shooting Star” by Bad Company, and so on).

Where did the name come from?

As to the name…when we started really solidifying the arrangements of the songs I had written, and as we bonded and the band became more than just a solo project with hired guns – and moreover as we started to focus more on actually being an original act – I knew a name change was necessary.

I had, by that point, started embarking on a sort of spiritual journey and was just getting into the writings of guys like Alan Watts (my first exposure to anything related to Zen Buddhism), who really shattered my extant notions of God and opened the door for a much greater appreciation of the fundamental ineffability of the Divine. I named the band “Great Wide Nothing”, inspired by that…by the idea that God is nothing we can grasp or conceive of. It sounded cool to the other guys, it wasn’t taken by anyone we could find online, and the mystique seemed to fit the music, so it stuck.

You describe yourself as an unorthodox power trio, due to your keys-bass-drums setup. What made you decide to go down that route, as opposed to finding a guitarist?

We actually did try for a while to find a suitable guitarist. We jammed with a few different guys, and each time, it would start off well enough, but they would end up having too many schedule conflicts, or struggle too much with the original material, or just not be communicative or reliable. Eventually, Dylan – possessing as he does a remarkable adeptness at multi-tasking and a thorough, almost instinctive understanding of programming & analog synthesis – took it upon himself to more or less combine the guitar and key parts I had written, reconfigure his rig to include some additional effects & midi controllers, and fill the roles of both keyboardist and guitarist all at once to the best of his ability…which is to say perfectly. The guy’s a monster.

Between that and my penchant for writing/playing really melodic, aggressive basslines, we discovered we didn’t really miss anything. And if a specific song called for guitar, I could just switch instruments and Dylan would be more than capable of covering that lower end frequency range with a synth of some sort. Plus, the fewer members, the less logistical/organizational difficulty, and the fewer egos in the room. So it really just ended up working out too well for any of us to want to change it.

Your 2020 album, Hymns for Hungry Spirits, Vol. 1 is about a cluster of different topics, such as “loss, longing, and the struggle to find inner peace”. How did this album come about? What were some of the sources of inspiration?

Some of the songs – like “Superhero”, which utilizes a loose narrative from the perspective of a washed-up TV star as a metaphor for wrestling with and deconstructing a savior complex, or “Vigil” which was written for a friend who was struggling with the effects of bipolar disorder – just came from my personal life. One – “Hymn for a Hungry Spirit” – was inspired by local folklore. Others were very much written in response to specific events/issues.

“Promised Land”, for example, I wrote late in 2019 when an El Salvadorian father named Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 2yo daughter Valeria were found washed up on the shores of the Rio Grande. Amidst one of the many border crackdowns that occurred under the Trump administration, they had tried to cross in the dead of night, and got swept up in the current. A new father myself at the time, the story and accompanying picture – along with the disturbing mix of apathy or outright hostility toward these people who lost their lives tragically and needlessly which I saw in various comments online – broke me. Were it me and my kids, I know I would have tried anything and everything – laws and borders be damned – to give them a chance for a happier, safer, better life. I would have done exactly what this man did. And I likely would have met the same fate. I tried to channel those thoughts and feelings into a song because it was the only way I could really process it all, and because I had some small hope that maybe by telling a story that at least somewhat resembled Óscar’s – of a desperate dad whose love for his child drives him to take great risks in the hope they are better off as a result – and by pointing to these feelings of selfless devotion to our kids’ welfare and happiness that generally all parents share, it could help generate a greater degree of empathy among people who otherwise wouldn’t give a shit or might think of immigrants as some kind of “other”, less entitled to happiness than themselves.

Whatever the source of inspiration, all of the songs I was writing seemed to take on a unifying emotional/existential slant – a question of where we go and what we do when the things we depend on and identify with in our lives are pulled out from underneath us; or I guess more broadly how we endure and how we cope with suffering and uncertainty. So it seemed natural to group them all together into an album. And I could sense that there would be more to come covering very similar, related thematic territory, so I knew this was going to be the first in a duo of albums that act as companions to each other and work together to communicate some of the same ideas.

How do you typically write as a band? What is your process?

Generally (though there are exceptions), I’ll write a song, demo it out as completely as I can, and send it over to Dylan. He’ll make suggestions, edits, and change things up where he hears the potential for something more…adventurous…than I might have initially thought of. A prime example of this is the mid section of “Stars Apart”. On my original demo, that whole bit was just straight Porcupine Tree worship – very rhythmic and heavy. Dylan expanded on that, and changed it into a (quite appropriately) spacey little jazz fusion odyssey. It still kicks ass, but it also goes more places and is more sophisticated, texturally and harmonically.

Once the structure of the song is solidified, Jeff goes through and has his way with the drum parts. I tend to have a basic groove or feel in mind when I write, but Jeff ultimately gets to make the final call where anything percussion-related is concerned.

We’ll occasionally all get in a room together and make tweaks and adjustments as we rehearse, but usually once Jeff has given a song his stamp of approval, it’s ready to be performed and/or tracked.

You mentioned your music is self produced, engineered, and mixed. What are some things you’ve learned as a group from taking this approach?

Yes. Hymns I was, and Hymns II will be. And I think it’s likely that most everything we do from here on out will be as well.

I can certainly say we’ve learned how invaluable having a band member with a solid grasp of the technical side of recording is. We’re very fortunate that Dylan – in addition to being a force of nature behind the keyboards – knows his way around Pro Tools, has a great ear, and has picked up a lot of engineering knowledge over the last several years purely to satisfy his own curiosity. Being able to record ourselves and achieve a respectable level of quality, all things considered, saves us a lot of money and time. And it allows for greater flexibility.

That being said, self-recording is something that I don’t think every band can – or should – do. There is always the temptation to give into perfectionism (you’re not paying for studio time, so why not record a thousand takes of the same two measure riff until you’re 100% certain it sounds exactly the way you want, right?), which can hamper – rather than help – the execution of an idea. There’s a lot of potential for infighting and indecisiveness in regards to possible points of contention (whether it be over what level of distortion on a guitar track is appropriate, or how loud the bass needs to be, or what effects to use on the vocals, or if the drums need to be tightened up in post, or whatever else), so all parties involved need to be either A. on the same page in regards to how they want their music to sound, or B. flexible and open-minded enough to try things out and compromise, or some combination thereof.

I will say this, too: sometimes it’s wonderful to get an outside perspective.

Our first album The View From Olympus and the one-off single “Color” (the reworking of that solo single I recorded with Jeff before the band came together), both of which we recorded & released in early-mid 2019, were done at Broadway Barnes Productions, with mine and Jeff’s old friend Kyle (yes, the drummer from Omnipresent) co-producing with us and handling engineering and mixing. Though I’m quite happy doing everything DIY at this point in time, and I think we’ve figured out an ideal process for us as we are now, having a non-band member in the room to bounce ideas off of (and contribute some of their own) was nice. And having gotten to know a lot of other really top-notch producers in the Atlanta area (Corey Bautista, Greg Hendler, Aaron Pace, and Ian Riley to name a few) over the last few years and having followed their work with various artists at all sorts of levels…far be it from me to suggest DIY methods are inherently better in any way than the more traditional, collaborative approach.

I love when bands use local folk legends to inspire their music. Tell us about your track, “Hymn for a Hungry Spirit”, and how you got that story.

Lake Lanier – which sits in the middle of a few different northeast GA cities including Gainesville, where I currently live – has long been rumored to be cursed/haunted, as evidenced by the high number of drownings & disappearances associated with it. The stories have been kind of all over the place, and my understanding of the events that generated the supposed curse has changed as I’ve learned more, but what can be historically verified is that the lake was created by flooding the once prosperous, predominantly black, town of Oscarville. A lot of racial violence had already occurred in and around that area which had driven folks out before the Army Corps of Engineers bought up the town and built Buford Dam, creating a reservoir that eventually grew into the lake, consuming Oscarville. But as if that weren’t enough, a lot of graves of former Oscarville residents remained unmoved, and were essentially lost to history and cut off from the world when the waters rose.

I wrote “Hymn for a Hungry Spirit” from the perspective of one of the ghosts I imagined might haunt the lake. It explores their anguish at being left behind without any connection to their descendents, their confusion at everything they knew being abandoned and submerged, and to some extent their anger at the injustices committed on the land, conveniently buried out of sight and mind by a body of water.

You all are working on a follow up album to Hymns for Hungry Spirits, Vol.1. How is that going? What are you trying to say with this album that you felt like you weren’t able to say with your first?

It’s going quite well. Everything is written, and we’ve even debuted a couple of the new songs live already. It all just has to be tracked. Then it’s onto mixing/mastering. We’re shooting for a release date no later than this fall (fingers crossed)

On Hymns II, I think there’s a bit harder of an edge to some of the songs…the opening track takes aim at those in power – particularly here in the US – over what I consider to be dangerous complacency in regards to issues like climate change, racial injustice, and socio-economic inequality on all sorts of levels. The second serves as an urgent, dramatic prequel of sorts to “Stars Apart” – it analyzes the moment where a relationship is crumbling and you’re acutely aware that how you speak and act can have dramatic consequences and spawn a multitude of possible futures. The third is another of those more personal songs…it’s essentially an intense, deeply cathartic rebuke of someone who abused me as a teenager and tried to sneak their way back into my life recently as an adult. The fourth uses post-apocalyptic imagery as a backdrop against which a character questions whether life is worth living when you feel you’ve lost everything.

The final song is a sprawling twenty minute epic that seeks to resolve the central questions at the heart of all the songs that have come before it – both in this volume and its predecessor. It’s a very spiritual sort of thing…and musically it bookends the whole cycle so well. I think it really does a good job of imbuing the entire project with a sense of hope, by emphasizing that it’s through pain that we discover what isn’t lasting, eternal, and integral to who and what we are and what life is about…and that through learning what isn’t all of those things, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what truly is, and such glimpses can free us from cycles of regret, pain, trauma, etc, empowering us to live and act with greater freedom and happiness.

Where can we catch your band live? Will you be planning to take these albums on the road?

We mainly play around the Atlanta area at the moment. However, we will be embarking on a short little mini-tour this May. Monday 5/2 we’ll be in Richmond, VA. Tuesday 5/3 we’ll be in Charlotte, NC. And we’ll wrap things up in Columbia, SC on Wednesday 5/4.

We’re hoping to do something a bit bigger and get out to more cities early in 2023.

Lastly, is Bandcamp the best place to buy a copy of your latest album?

Short of being at a show and buying directly from us in person, yes it is!

Like so many other independent artists, I absolutely love Bandcamp. You can find us on there at https://greatwidenothing.bandcamp.com

You can purchase digital files or grab a CD.

Thanks so much, Daniel! Please check out Great Wide Nothing if you’re in the area, and stay tuned for more music from this awesome group.

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