Gus Englehorn 2

Gus Englehorn aims hi-fi with his new record Dungeon Master

We spoke to the Montreal-based former snowboarder about emulating Leonard Cohen, city life vs. living in the woods and more.

Sometimes, you have to leave your home environment for uncharted territory to discover who you really are. For Gus Englehorn, that’s pretty much what he’s done — and so far, it’s working beautifully.

Though he calls Alaska home (and has also spent time based in Salt Lake City), he’s lived in Quebec for quite some time now — first moving to Quebec City in 2016 before relocating to Montreal. He has since recently moved back to the provincial capital with his wife and drummer Estée Prada (a Quebecer who he met in Salt Lake), and the two have enjoyed a long-standing creative partnership as well as a romantic one.

Englehorn’s sophomore LP Dungeon Master dropped April 29 on Secret City Records. The professional snowboarder-turned-musician’s second album is a surreal, 10-track garage rock opus with elements of synth-heavy avant-pop, indie rock and outsider music rounding it out — all with a paranoid, off-kilter, and Dadaist feel. It’s also a project he realizes will have more ears on it than his 2020 debut, Death & Transfiguration.

“I kind of just slapped [my first album] on the Internet, and my snowboard friends were like, ‘Cool!” he admits. “This one’s a little bit more official, so it’s definitely different.”

“Run Rabbit Run” by Gus Englehorn

In any case, Englehorn’s got more than just his pals on the slopes to play for now. When asked what most separates his second LP from his first one, Englehorn feels as if he let loose with song structures a bit more, letting the songs chart their own course. As a result, the recording quality has improved this time around.

“On the first one, I was trying to do a really hi-fi, slick recording,” he adds. “That’s what I wanted, because so many people are making stuff in their bedroom.”

“I feel like my kind of music is usually presented in a lo-fi way. But I went to the studio [for Death & Transfiguration] and I was like, ‘I’m going to try recording it as hi-fi as I can.’ Then the reviews came out, and everybody’s like, ‘It’s super gritty and lo-fi.’ I was like, ‘Oh man! I tried!’ But I think this one turned out more hi-fi than the last one.”

If you want to see first-hand how much of a mark the city of Montreal has left on Englehorn, look no further than his recent mini-documentary, A Brief History of Gus Englehorn. Directed by Prada, the mini-doc highlights his transition from snowboarding to music, and draws heavy inspiration from Leonard Cohen’s National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen.

A Brief History of Gus Englehorn

Though he’s been a fan of Cohen for many years, Englehorn says living in his hometown is inspiring — even more so after Prada introduced him to eras of Cohen’s career he’d never previously listened to.

“My dad’s a Leonard Cohen fan, too, but he likes more ‘80s Leonard,” he says. “[Estée] introduced me to his ‘60s and ‘70s stuff. He’s one of my favourites. He’s definitely another big influence, and one of those artists who’s always in the permanent rotation for me.”

Having just come off a tour with fellow Montreal indie stalwarts Plants and Animals, Englehorn is getting ready to play headlining shows and festivals in Canada — including an album launch in Montreal tomorrow, May 7, at L’Escogriffe — later this year in support of Dungeon Master.

Performing as a duo with Prada on drums with a very White Stripes-ish live dynamic, Englehorn’s music centres around his endearingly idiosyncratic Daniel Johnston-meets-Black Francis singing voice (he considers Johnston his hero) with a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band touch. First-wave punk (e.g. the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization), the Germs, Roy Orbison, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe were also influential guideposts for the new album.

Though this album was recorded in his friend’s basement studio in Cap-Rouge (near Quebec City) just like his debut, Dungeon Master’s demos were made while Englehorn was living at Prada’s parents’ cabin in Fossambault-sur-le-Lac, about 45 minutes northwest of the capital.

“I realized how focused I’d been for a couple years when I moved down to the city. Having no distractions is pretty powerful,” he says when asked how the rural setting influenced the demos versus making them in a big city.

“You wake up and you know every day is going to be exactly the same. Which is really maddening, but also, I think you can attain a pretty high level of focus in those settings. As I’ve moved to Montreal, now I feel I actually have a little bit more of a life and see people, but it does distract you a little bit. It’s hard to attain that same level of focus in the city — a lot of noise and distractions compared to the woods.”

While he’s gearing up to play shows outside of Canada (including the Great Escape festival in Brighton, England, as well as shows in Paris and Berlin), his new video for “Run Rabbit Run” features footage of him skateboarding and touring the United States. Englehorn also recently traveled to Austin, TX to play SXSW. Though he admits he wasn’t sure whether people liked his set or not (and he also got COVID while in Austin), the experience was nonetheless a positive one.

“Exercise Your Demons” by Gus Englehorn

“People come to your show [there], but they don’t clap,” he adds. “They’ll stay, though! They looked like they were having a good time. But some shows are really early in the morning, and no one came. I felt like it was a little bit designed to break your spirit, putting you through the wringer. But I still had a good time, and I’m excited to go back.”

Other than moving back to Quebec City, Englehorn will be spending the rest of 2022 trying to write a third album. As far as Dungeon Master goes, he hopes listeners are able to feel more stimulated to create art of their own, and that the album makes them happy and “doesn’t bum them out too much” with its occasionally dark subject matter.

“I really tried to make it as fun as I can,” he says. “I think it’s funny to match something really demented with something really funny. I like matching those kinds of contrasting emotions together. But I hope people see the humour in it, and that it puts a smile on people’s faces.” ■

Gus Englehorn launches his new album Dungeon Master at l’Escogriffe (4461 St-Denis) on Saturday, May 7, 9 p.m. Tickets are available here.

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