To listen to the songs on Gang Signs’ recently released full-length debut, Geist, you’d never guess what inspired them. The slightly detached, reverb-treated vocals; the skeletal guitar lines; the digital rhythms bolstered by powerful live drumming—it all adds up to something eminently danceable and slightly dark, but certainly not bat-cave black.
You might be surprised to learn, though, that most of the LP’s lyrics started out as Peter Ricq’s ruminations on ’80s horror films. Gang Signs’ main songwriter and singer (he shares vocal duties with Matea Sarenac) has done his share of writing for the screen, as the creator of the animated series The League of Super Evil and Freaktown. Who better, then, to explore the themes found in classic fright flicks?
“ ‘Antidote’ is about The Fly,” Ricq reveals during a conference call with the Straight and Gang Signs drummer Adam Fink. “ ‘Stay Awake’ is obviously about Nightmare on Elm Street. They’re all sort of adaptations of what the story could have been, or the way I would have liked them to be. They’re not, like, straightforward, exactly what happens in the movie.”
“Peter’s take on them comes not so much from the horror aspect of it, but the relationship aspect of it,” notes Fink. “In these extreme situations, the kinds of things that people would do for each other in those situations, which I always thought was an interesting look at it.”
Ricq does all of the songwriting, with the exception of the haunting “Tonight”, to which Sarenac contributed lyrics and vocal melodies.
Between his TV projects, his work as a visual artist, and his membership in the popular electro-pop duo Humans, Ricq admits that he doesn’t have much time left over for collaborative writing sessions. Most of Gang Signs’ songs start life as his home demos. He makes it clear, however, that Geist was very much a group effort, giving much of the credit to his bandmates and to producer Hayz Fisher, who lent his six-string skills to the project.
“I’m not the best guitarist,” Ricq insists. “At the studio, Hayz just being that much better—like, more precise than me—just makes the song clearer. When I write the songs, I do it with a sampler and a guitar. And then adding Adam’s drumming, the real drums on top of the synthetic drum machines, it just makes it way bigger, and it achieves things that I would not be able to do personally, because of my limitations as a producer. When I sing my parts, I also kind of sing in a higher voice, and I tell Matea, ‘Okay, that’s what you’re going to be doing.’ And to actually hear her sing her parts, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, this is way better than how I sing.’ ”
Geist is the long-awaited follow-up to the self-titled Gang Signs EP released in 2012. According to Fink, the band took a very DIY approach to that recording.
“When we did the EP, it was done really quickly,” he recalls. “Peter did a lot of the tracking at home, and then we basically took all the tracks that he did and spent a day in the studio and laid down a ton of drum parts. And we really liked how that came out. It was a really simple setup. It was two mikes on the drums, and then we had a room mike that we compressed the shit out of.”
“And another mike in the hallway,” Ricq adds.
“For something that we at the time felt was a little more electronic,” Fink continues, “I really liked the fact that it was aesthetically kind of lo-fi, not like something that you would really hear in nightclubs.”
Geist ups the stakes in terms of fidelity, but it retains the crucial balance that makes Gang Signs what it is: not quite an EDM act, but not exactly an indie-rock band either.
“I think we’re lucky in that we fall in between those two things fairly organically,” Fink says. “We’ve done shows with the Ballantynes and Fucked Up and Owen Pallett—more of a band situation. And we’ve done shows with more of that EDM-producer-type vibe—guys with synths and laptops. I’ve felt pretty lucky that, for some reason, both of those audiences seem to respond to the aspect of the band that they want to respond to, be it the live-band thing or the more electronic side to it.”
Gang Signs will have more opportunities to make connections with audiences, with some dates in Montreal and Toronto later this month and a U.S. tour in the works. All that time on the road should give Ricq plenty of time to catch a few more ’80s thrillers on Netflix.
Gang Signs plays Fortune Sound Club next Thursday (November 5).