In early 2017, singer/songwriter singer/songwriter Dylan Gilbert was at a crossroads. For the past few years, he’d poured his focus and energy into his genre-bending art punk band Hectorina, but he was feeling the pull to do a solo side project that reflected our times. The idea for what would eventually become his tenth solo album, I’ll be the Lakebed, was ruminating, but so much had to happen first.
Before all that, all he know was that he didn’t want to be just another angry white guy strumming an acoustic guitar and shouting.
“I wanted to do … something that had its own momentum, its own life, a different kind of feel,” Gilbert says.
With his tenth solo album, I’ll Be the Lakebed, he accomplishes those goals and so much more.
The 40-minute album, which we premiered on Oct. 2, combines each of Gilbert’s 10 new compositions with an accompanying video in a kind of visual record. It traces Dylan Gilbert’s personal journey to find balance in today’s fractious world, but does it in such a way that Gilbert’s vision quest resonates with viewers and listeners.
Entwining personal and universal strands is not the only instance of opposites attracting in I’ll Be the Lakebed. It’s Gilbert’s first electronic album, but it’s grounded in organic sounds.
Gilbert’s songs are coupled with diverse videos where eight different directors bring their own visions to the tunes, yet each video aligns seamlessly with Gilbert’s central concept that our peace of mind is invaded by our obsession with technology and our news feeds.
I’ll Be the Lakebed is a solo project, but it draws inspiration from collaboration. Its music is a complex blend of genres and techniques, but it can also be simple.
“I was going for how much can I do with a whole lot less, with a lot of space and a very minimalist attitude about it,” Gilbert says.
The seeds for I’ll Be the Lakebed started germinating in November and December 2016 when Gilbert began a residency at Goodyear Arts, where he created an interactive sound installation called The Forest.
Inspired by the poetry, plays and dance performances going on around him, Gilbert decided he wanted to incorporate performance art into the live shows that were going to accompany his forthcoming solo album.
But the conceptual stage shows never happened. Dylan canceled his solo tour this year when COVID-19 swept through America, shutting down performance venues. But instead of entirely scrapping the visual portion of the aborted I’ll Be the Lakebed tour; Gilbert and his collaborators rolled their scenic experimentation into a series of videos.
“We said, there’s not going to be a tour or anything, so why don’t we just keep making videos,” Gilbert offers.
Gilbert’s stagecraft has now been fed into a visual album that can nourish music and theater fans until live performances return. It’s perhaps the most important of the weave of complimentary contradictions that characterize I’ll Be the Lakebed.
“I was where I could spin this as its own world,” Gilbert says. “It’s not just a record. It expands out into its own little universe, instead of just being a collection of songs.”
Before videos could be added, Gilbert first had to compose and record the songs. In keeping with the project’s cutting edge yet minimalist approach, recording and production was for the most part mobile.
Gilbert drew on his experience recording a mixtape called Sweet Sweet Utopia Baby on his cellphone then piecing it together on the phone’s GarageBand app.
“That was a liberating experience,” Gilbert offers. “I didn’t have to pay for studio time. I could go out and meet my friends and we could record right there.”
With that in mind, Gilbert recorded some of the new project by phone, and some of it just sitting in bed in his pajamas at his laptop. Still more material was cut at Goodyear Arts’ rehearsal room.
“It’s this big open brick and concrete room,” Gilbert offers. “Many times, in this process, I would go back there with a couple of beers, blast music really loud and record in the middle of the night.”
The Songs of ‘I’ll Be the Lakedbed’
As much as he loved the DIY aesthetic, at the end of the recording process, Gilbert had over 30 tracks, and he was tasked with narrowing it down.
“I thought it would be great to have another set of ears,” Gilbert says. His criteria was that he wanted someone he had never worked with before who was also adept at electronic music. Justin Aswell was the first name that came up, Gilbert says. In fact, it was the only name on his list.
With Aswell on board as co-producer, and the first of the project’s many collaborators, Gilbert toiled to whip the songs into shape.
“I got a fresh perspective from Justin,” Gilbert says.
Then Gilbert dove into the process of producing videos for I’ll Be the Lakebed. Drawing directors from a pool of familiar friends or challenging himself by picking strangers, Gilbert decided how best to illustrate his 10-song cycle.
“I talked to each individual director about this idea of [the] natural and organic, whether it was a nature trail, water or a beautiful sky,” Gilbert says, “and how these little pleasures of our real life are obstructed by these digital things that are happening.”
“Stacked Howls” directed by Toby Shearer
With dulcet tones and the glitchy image of Gilbert singing emotively on an old school black and white TV, “Stacked Howls” opens the album. Gilbert says he feels the song is one of a handful of tracks on the record that play like prayers or meditations.
Gilbert says his vocals were influenced by the soaring, almost sacred singing of Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis, who passed away last year.
“I did [the performance] without any sort of loop or metronome,” Gilbert offers. The tune was an organic performance, he says, that tapped into the concept of leaving space in a composition.
“Stacked Howls” was also the first video made for the project. The shoot kicked off in March when quarantine first began. With his partner Sarah Ingel running camera, the pair shot footage of Gilbert singing. Then he recruited his friend Toby Shearer to direct the video. Shearer subsequently edited the entire project, including all 10 videos, together.
“[Toby] wrangled with it and created something completely beautiful,” Gilbert says. “I teared up when I first saw it.”
“Moving Foward” directed by Jordan Parker Hoban
The initial spark for the album’s second tune, the electro swamp blues “Moving Forward,” reaches back furthest in time, Gilbert maintains. He had recorded a demo drum pattern years ago and didn’t know what to do with it.
“It’s a bare-bones track,” Gilbert says, “a kick drum and a snare and a little bit of bass winding around. That’s pretty much it.”
For a director to complement the stripped-down track, Gilbert called on one of his oldest friends, Jordan Parker Hoban.
“We ended up shooting hours of footage all over the place — in fields, forests and Goodyear,” Gilbert remembers. “We had this surplus of footage.”
Hoban took the raw footage and zeroed in on a single uninterrupted take of Gilbert performing the song. The shot became the bedrock of the video, Gilbert says, which is otherwise dominated by dark digital shapes.
“Arlington Hotel” directed by Jeremy Arrington
“Arlington Hotel,” directed by Jeremy Arrington, takes the rock ‘n’ roll cliché of the road song and turns it on its head.
Instead of footage of rockers hitting the highway, Arrington shows viewers a landscape of sea and marshes, colorized with psychedelic hues.
“I thought it was more appropriate to do a band-on-the-road song [without showing] the band,” Gilbert says.
He did not know Arrington well when they jumped into the project together, but Gilbert maintains that he wanted to work with somebody he didn’t know so he could get an outsider’s perspective.
“Jeremy is a little more experimental,” Gilbert offers. “I love his idea of natural and beautiful visuals that are being distorted and warped. He took that idea and came up with something incredible for us.”
“Boneyard” directed by Reuben Bloom
The song that follows, “Boneyard,” hits viewers and listeners like a punch in the gut.
Clad in an oversized blue suit, Gilbert steps slowly and unsteadily across cracked blacktop like a shell-shocked man navigating a minefield. As a whirring siren, like an electric drill, punctuates a thudding zombie stomp, Gilbert’s slurred guttural street preacher vocals match the unsettling visuals.
“The flag’s always at half-mast now/I don’t know why.”
Gilbert says the song’s opening is drawn from personal observation.
“Driving around for a good year or so, it felt like every flag was at half-mast,” he says. “I couldn’t keep up with it — this tragedy or that tragedy or this school shooting or that crime.”
While he was workshopping the song, Gilbert ripped out newspaper headlines from each week’s papers and shouted them out.
“I don’t have to imagine horrible things that are happening. They are happening every day,” Gilbert says of the song’s harrowing lyrics.
He offers that the 2016 Charlotte Uprising, sparked by the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, inspired the song. Gilbert was giving a friend a ride home at the time, and they started talking about Justin Carr, a 26-year-old man that CMPD officers say was shot and killed by a fellow protesters in Uptown.
Though Raymond Borum was tried and convicted for the killing, many folks in the crowd that night maintain that the police fired the shot that took Carr’s life.
“My friend said something along the lines of, ‘I’ll never be able to trust our local government again because I saw the cops kill that person,’” Gilbert says.
To illustrate someone going from a zen state to panic, Gilbert and director Reuben Bloom had developed a highly conceptual idea with several different shots. They even planned to use a wind machine.
But with the sun going down and light fading, the two decided they liked a crumbling patch of blacktop surrounding a flagpole flying the stars and stripes, so they decided to do a pickup shot there and have fun with it.
“It ended up being the only footage that we really liked,” Gilbert says.
“[People are] essentially tranquil but we’re still terrified about what’s happening,” Gilbert says of the song’s and video’s message. He offers that he likes how the tune shifts the record’s dynamics; a few quiet meditative tunes are followed by frightening ones. It was one of the fastest songs written for the record.
“New Prayer” directed by Jordan Parker Hoban
The beleaguered American flag continues to fly in the stark piano-led tone poem “New Prayer” which follows.
“Again, I was thinking about how much can I do with almost nothing,” Gilbert says of the track that reunited him with Hoban.
The song is so minimal that the prominent piano is not even a piano. It’s actually Gilbert tapping on his laptop keyboard and using various effects to make the laptop sound like a piano.
Hoban manipulated the flag footage so that it morphs into abstract and suggestive shapes, like faces emerging from a campfire.
“Good News” directed by Sarah Ingel
“Good News” brings back Gilbert’s blue-suited character from “Boneyard,” but this time the protagonist is played by Ingel, who also directs.
As she watches a TV, Ingel performs a slow, abstract dance in front of a blue curtain that suggests a pensive and serene counterpart to the red room in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
“Sarah and I are painfully nerdy about David Lynch,” Gilbert offers.
He says the sleek and soulful sounds of Motown artists like Marvin Gaye also influenced the tune and its accompanying visuals, which were shot in a backyard garden shed.
“We thought it would be cool to slowly zoom into this pocket universe where … the ‘Boneyard’ character is less angry and a little more emotional.”
The lyrics sound sweetly optimistic, but couplets like, “Ice caps refreezing/War ending across our planet” are not news at all, Gilbert says, but a beautiful dream.
“What’s so sad about it is that it’s very much out of reach.”
“Scrolling” directed by Reuben and Kathleen Bloom
Bloom returns with his wife Kathleen to direct the video for “Scrolling.”
The Blooms, who run a production company called Basic Cable, had strung together visual elements for the album, including blue sky, clouds and ocean waves. Sifting through the footage, Gilbert was struck by the image of a kitschy framed waterfall lamp hanging on a red wall. It turns out that Reuben had bought the lamp at a thrift store and was displaying it in his home.
As a result, the video for “Scrolling” may be the most minimal of the project’s handful of minimalist visuals. The camera slowly pushes into the framed waterfall lamp as the song’s lyrics scroll across the screen like in a karaoke stream.
As coils of rebounding guitar snake through the tune’s dubstep pop, Gilbert sings about scrolling through the news feed on his phone.
It’s a topic that came up from talking with other artists about how much time they were spending on their phones, Gilbert says.
“How much time am I spending trying to get my social media engaged and active, promoting an event, or my work?” Gilbert queries. “Most creative people I know would love to go off-grid and live in the woods to make their art. But everybody is on their phones right now.”
“Untethered” directed by Denissa Young
Speaking of artists going off-grid into the woods, director Dennissa Young’s dance performance in the “Untethered” video depicts exactly that.
In a bucolic forest littered with pink technological artifacts like phones and laptops, a pink-suited Young follows a ritualistic choreography strikingly similar to dance moves made by Gilbert and Ingel in I’ll Be the Lakebed’s other videos.
It’s serendipity, says Gilbert. He explains that Young had been developing a project, previewed in her Ladyfest performance at Goodyear Arts early this year, that tapped into imagery and performances that are in sync with Gilbert’s vision.
He says Young had more autonomy than the other I’ll Be the Lakebed directors.
“Dennissa took this and ran with it,” Gilbert says. “She had her own team, her own cinematographer, Josiah Blevins, and her own wardrobe crew.”
The music for “Untethered” supports the disconnected quality of the visuals. Gilbert found an old drum loop, and then warped, stretched and reverberated it beyond recognition.
“It’s a completely different rhythm over the top of what was there originally,” Gilbert offers. “It’s unfettered to the beat, unfettered to the key of the song, [and] very free-floating.”
“Epochs” directed by Sarah Ingel
The video for “Epochs,” directed by Ingel, returns to the water imagery and Gilbert’s blue suit, although now the pants have been replaced with cut-offs as Gilberts submerges himself in a swimming pool. The baptism parallel is intentional, he says.
“It’s the same character from ‘Boneyard,’ but he’s burned out and exhausted,” Gilbert says.
For the music, he turned to the “take your notebook, chop it up and rearrange it” methodology of dada. The approach makes the tune lighter than others on the album, Gilbert offers, because it’s a little scatterbrained.
“[The song] feels like a proper ending, because it has a little bit of the ambient qualities from some of the more prayer-like tracks,” Gilbert maintains. “But it has the big drums and scary monster vocals that link it to “Boneyard.” I think it’s the best combination of all the [album’s] ideas in one single track.”
“Adrift” directed by Kadey Ballard and Matt Cosper
If “Epochs” is culmination, then the final song on the album, “Adrift,” is coda.
When Gilbert met with director Kadey Ballard and videographer Matt Cosper, a husband-and-wife duo who are both members of experimental theater troupe XOXO, he told them the song related to the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life.
The blue-suited character’s journey is at the same point reached by George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1946 cinema classic.
He’s at the end of his rope and at the very last minute he realizes maybe he’s been on the right track all along. Maybe he had to slog through the shit in order to attain enlightenment and a kind of peace.
Ballard and Cosper came back with a beautiful compendium of nature footage, shot in a raw DIY style.
The music, combined with the elemental montage of sea, storms and clouds represents letting go, Gilbert says. But it’s not saying, “Fuck it,” he offers. It’s coming to acceptance.
“Adrift” is the hard-won tranquil end point to the often perilous journey depicted by I’ll Be the Lakebed in both sound and vision.
In a world shot through with racism, unrest, economic stress, rising authoritarianism and climate change, it’s a personal process Gilbert had to undertake himself.
“I wanted to make a piece of art that talks about the time period that we’re living in, but in a way that portrays hope and humility,” he says. “Maybe whenever somebody listens to the record in full, they can feel that trajectory.”