An Interview with Ian Gothe
Written by Brooke Anderson
If you ask IAN GOTHE where he is from, he will tell you ‘IanLand.’ The facts are both more and less complicated, but the story of his journey, while laced with displacement and wandering, is one of him finding himself in his music.
Gothe and I meet on the canopy-covered deck he built himself outside of his LA bungalow. As we sit around a table he sawed by hand, he explains to me his careful method of ensuring that the ends of the boards were rounded in perfect symmetry to create a curved edge. This quiet space at the end of a tree-lined driveway is where Gothe has spent years carefully crafting not only furniture, but his new album, Memento (released February 7 via the California-based Blackbird Record Label), a masterpiece that echoes the themes of his life in recursive melodies that beckon listeners to sit still and hear the tale of a man who has finally let the music lead him home. But this quiet space has not always been home, and the journey to get here has been punctuated by the very things that have made him an artist.
Born in Iran into an Armenian family, Gothe grew up in a complicated world where he never felt that he belonged. Plagued by migraines and unbearable loss, he speaks intensely when he describes his childhood as horrible, and in a country where his family was already ostracized, their lives were upended, when Gothe was only five years old. His younger brother was killed in a tragic car accident that took place when the pair were walking down a sidewalk together. Gothe was not injured physically, but the emotional toll of watching his brother die in front of him is something he still carries today, and like many families who experience earthshattering tragedy, this unspoken loss wove itself silently into the background of his family’s story—ever present but never discussed, a memory to forget, and an emotional weight to bear. In the silence and the emotional vacuum, Gothe turned to music as a companion and a friend.
In the midst of a youth defined by sadness, young Gothe found inspiration at twelve years old in the haunting rifts of “Spanish Caravan.” An apropos icon for a boy who would spend his teens and early twenties traveling across several continents, he dreamed of playing the loping melodies as well as his idol, Robby Krieger. At the age of 14, he begged his parents for a guitar. He finally prevailed, and music became a place to feel the emotions that were never spoken and solace for a young soul grappling with the repetition of displacement and loss.
Gothe left Iran ahead of the revolution, when he was only fourteen years old, and those years of moving from home to home and across continents instilled in him a constant refrain of seeking a place where he belonged. As the themes of wandering and uncertainty followed him, both his life and his music fell prey to his displacement, and as he got older, he became a young man and self-taught musician who had to figure out guitar riffs and life on his own. After several years in Manchester, England and some time in Baltimore, Maryland, Gothe finally settled in Los Angeles.
As Gothe reminisces about his youth, he shares stories of his time in England, much of it happy but some defined by a sense of feeling out of place. Unlike youth who travel in search of themselves and to leave behind suburban malaise, Gothe’s wanderings were forced on him by a heritage beset by geographic uncertainty and a country in the throes of internal revision. As he sits back and contemplates those years, he recalls with a semi-detached sense of chagrin a moment when the anger of a tortured soul and all the things he couldn’t help but feel came out in aggression toward the thing he loved, and he smashed his beloved guitar into pieces. His youthful helplessness and grappling that turned his love to hate was not to be long lived, for he turned to music again and again during those years as a constant companion in a life constructed of mismatched moments and missed opportunities.
During his early years in LA, Gothe lived and worked different jobs as they came to him. One of his jobs was as a bartender in a dance club. He smiles as he tells me the story of his first musical success. “One night we were joking around about how it would be easy to write a high energy dance song, and a buddy challenged me to write one. I went home and recorded a demo without any vocals. I didn’t know what the song would be about then, but I gave the demo to the DJ the next night. He played it the same night to a packed dance floor. I remember standing there cleaning glasses as the bar was clearing out and some guy walked past me whistling my tune. We knew we had something. Later the DJ came over and said he wanted to produce the song, and then we decided it would be about Cleopatra. After production was done, we sent it to a long list of DJs, and soon after, it hit number one on the DJ pool dance club charts. Producer Christian De Walden released the song in Europe, and about nine months later, I started getting checks from BMI, when I found out that the song was a radio hit in Italy. All these years later, it’s still fun to read fan’s comments about the song,” he says as he smiles reflectively.
It has been many years since that first musical victory, but Gothe sheepishly confesses that for years he didn’t want to associate himself with that song, and he had even released Cleopatra under the artist name RSVP. “It wasn’t who I was as a musician,” he admits, “but as I got older, I realized that I didn’t need to be ashamed to say that it was my song. I needed to own it.”
That song was a watershed in Gothe’s career. It was the moment when he was getting his feet underneath him, and then in a moment it was gone. His parents who had lost so much in the aftermath of the revolution finally left Iran and landed on his doorstep. “It had been 10 years since I had seen them, and I was 24, just starting out my life as an adult, stepping into my own. With their move to LA, Gothe was responsible to take care of them.
Music faded into the background yet again for Gothe and his immigrant life, where starting over was the lynchpin of the cycle of being. And for twenty years, that is where music stayed. Love came and went, experiences and responsibilities piled up, and life was lived. Perhaps that is why on this foray back into the musical world, Gothe chose the Wheel of Eternity as the symbol on his new album cover, because it is truly the symbol of his life—a circling back, a remaking, a reliving until life becomes what it was perhaps meant to be.
Memento is a personal collection that was years in the making. As I listen to Gothe’s music, I hear haunting melodies and Armenian words foreign to me, but the truth of his experiences come through. Some of the songs are covers, one in particular a triumph, as Gothe deftly fingers the fretboard for his highly-personal rendition of “Spanish Caravan” with the dexterity and emotion of a master, his twelve-year-old longings realized in the song that he says started it all. But his album is no more a singular style of music than his journey has been a singular path. “I’ve listened to so many kinds of music, so how can I write just one type?” Gothe asks. And this thoughtful, intelligent album of soulful combinations of flamenco, pop rock, classical, and jazz genres, just to name a few, is evidence of Gothe’s breadth of musical awareness and love. In the spirit of Ray Manzarek of The Doors and the idea that the outside has to decide about our art, Gothe admits that he is too involved in his own music to label it. “It’s up to the listener to describe the sound,” he says, “but for the sake of business and categorization, I describe Memento as eclectic progressive folk, or eclectic Indo-European progressive folk.” Even in that definition, however, he knows that there is still room to wander.
Gothe talks about his musical influences with the passion of a reverent admirer until I almost wonder if the canvas ceiling we are sitting under has become a nave. Gothe’s reverence is not, however, shallow admiration, rather it is thoughtful and informed respect that has grown over the years that these musicians have served as both inspiration and constant companions. Steve Hackett, Camel, and Peter Gabriel, stand out among the many unknown bands that fill his listening repertoire. “Camel’s music is the soundtrack to my life,” he tells me, and ‘Airborne’, the seventh track on his album, “is my homage to Andrew Latimer.”
In such a decidedly personal album, it might be tempting to assume that the inspiration is potentially self-indulgence showcasing both victories and the drama of defeat, but Gothe’s personal album has no inkling of narcissism. His story and his journey are laid bare for the listener, not to wallow with Gothe, but to provide a view into his world and a chance to reflect. His songs step through significant moments in his life, whether they are original songs with rich narratives rooted in his story or covers of musical touchstones in his life, and the listener cannot help but follow along on this engaging lyrical and narrative journey that parallels his own.
The album begins with “Andalusian Moondance,” an instrumental piece that showcases the flute and Gothe’s ability to draw a listener in with lilting melodies and ethereal tones. This piece sets the stage for a journey and welcomes the listener to join Gothe as he tells his tale.
Two of the songs on this album are written in Armenian, and although I do not speak the language, the passion and yearning in both songs transcends language. I asked Gothe, an Armenian who has lived in Los Angeles for many years, what it was like to write in his childhood tongue. He laughed and admitted that these are the only two songs he has ever written in Armenian and much of the work was done with five dictionaries surrounding him as he was determined to get the right words and feelings conveyed. His foray into Armenian songwriting does more than lend an undisputed authenticity to the album. The choice of language is palpable in the second song on the album, “Take Me Home,” as Gothe negotiates the emergent emotions of longing for a place he has never physically been to, an anthem to one of the defining questions of his life, “Where do I belong?” His lyrical tribute to the universal longing of returning home is reminiscent of gospel music’s theme of homegoing, and Gothe joins in the circle as he looks back to precious days of long ago and the good times while attempting to navigate an emotional return to a place that lives across the globe and in his dreams.
The other Armenian song, “Tired Little Eyes,” is the last song on the album, and perhaps fittingly so as Gothe creates his own internal Wheel of Eternity, finishing the album where his life started. This lullaby, a tribute to the younger brother Gothe lost when he was only five years old, is the first time he has written about the tragedy that defined his youth with its intensity, loss, and silence. This song, delicately written and performed, walks us into Gothe’s past as we quietly listen in while he says goodbye to his dearly loved brother. The words are intended to remind his brother that he is not forgotten, and they give Gothe the chance to say a goodbye that has gone unsaid for over 40 years. Gothe tells me that he didn’t want this song to be sad, rather a memento and a space in the universe to let his brother know that he is remembered and loved. As I listen to the ethereal single piano notes pluck out a childlike yet profound melody, I am reminded that goodbyes are rarely without pain, but that does not mean that they cannot be beautiful. Gothe pauses as we talk about this song being in Armenian, a language that is well-suited to this enthralling lullaby, and then quietly explains that although his family spoke multiple languages, when his little brother died, he was only two and a half years old and only knew Armenian. He knew he couldn’t say goodbye any other way.
“Tired Little Eyes” is not the only goodbye song on the album, a theme that circles through Gothe’s life more than once. His rendition of “Final Hour” is dedicated to his cousin Narbeh who also left this world much too young. Gothe pauses for a reflective moment and then describes Narbeh as his sounding board, his true and honest friend. A few days before Narbeh passed, he tells me, they were at a concert where they heard Katherine Pawlak, an artist Narbeh loved, perform “Final Hour” as the last song of the night. This was the last song they heard together, and in that spirit, Gothe’s version is an emotionally personal reminder that loss changes us.
Gothe also covers the Bee Gees classic “Holiday.” He smiles as he talks about his love for this song and the way that it reminds him of a time in his life when he connected to the meaning of the song even though he didn’t speak English and the lyrics were still foreign to him. “The song,” he tells me, “had the same feeling without knowing the words.” Gothe describes the emotional feelings that were there, embedded for the listener in a whole that was greater than the lyrical parts, and I wonder if that is what he envisioned for his own music—Armenian and English songs, equally compelling in ways that the language becomes second to the emotion.
But Memento is not all contemplative ballads. Gothe’s jaunty cover of “Liezah” by The Coral is a welcome breath of levity that energizes the center of the album. I could see his youthful self come through in the way he talks about how this song reminds him of the freedom that he felt when he moved to England. Even though his life was shifting under him during those years, he felt a freedom he had not known before represented in the descriptions of England and the cheerful melody. But it is not all about cobblestones and freedom as Gothe wisely and maybe a bit ironically observes that this song, a tale of an untrue woman, resonates because everyone has had a few ‘Liezah’s’ in their lives.
And perhaps no one knows disappointment in love better than Gothe who came back to music after his 20-year marriage ended, and he was once again traveling, only this time his journey was not across continents but dishearteningly sailing through the emotional turmoil that comes when love is lost. In the wake of his marriage ending, he began visiting a local, weekly open mic where he connected with Manda Mosher. The two of them became fast friends, and he started playing with her on her shows. They also began writing songs together, and Gothe found that his long-lost friend, music, was still there, waiting for him, ready to provide the comfort it had all those years ago.
Mosher and Gothe have written many songs together. One of their songs, “Cold, Cold Love” was recorded by Mosher and has been placed in both the movie, Please Stand By and the TV series, NCIS: Los Angeles. “One of These Days” is another one of their co-writes and is featured on this album. The song is a rather unexpected, all-too-truthful ballad that will resonate with anyone who has ever had to let go but is not quite ready. The undulating rhythms underscore the tension of holding on while trying to let go, and the slightly mournful bridge has an air of freedom woven into it. While the song ends with the letting go still undone, the melody’s wishful tone gives the listener hope that freedom will come.
Gothe has written many of these songs in his home, and as he tells me about his creative collaboration with Mosher, he ponders the quandary of creating alone. Like many artists, Gothe admits that he can fall prey to the creative dilemma of writing what you want and still wanting to write better. We laugh together about the reality that when you are alone you are apt to second-guess even your good stuff, and you may be prone to rework things into oblivion until they sound stale to your ears. Such is the creative process, and we are both quick to agree that it is often greatly aided by productive collaborations.
Such was his collaboration with multi-Grammy winner Jim Scott. When I asked Gothe why after all these years he wanted to make this album, he quickly answers that he did it for himself. “I wanted to create something I am proud of—something that I love. I wanted to find the right person to co-produce the album with, and thanks to Mosher, the opportunity came to work with Jim Scott. I got a call from Manda that the legendary Jim Scott was mixing Calico the Band’s album Under Blue Skies, and she invited me to go to the studio.” Gothe reflects on the sheer serendipity of the invitation as he tells me that on the night he met Scott, three of the five CD’s in his car were actually ones that Scott had produced or mixed.
“I met Jim in the studio, and a week later, I saw him at the Hotel Café for a Tom Petty tribute show. We started talking, and I got up the nerve to ask him if he might be interested in working on my project. He gave me his email and told me to send him my material. I emailed him 17 demos, but when about ten days had passed and I did not hear from him, I said to myself at least I tried. The very next day Jim called and told me he was impressed and wanted to have a meeting.”
In a world where many musicians crave the face time of the stage, Gothe, had known for years that he had never seen himself as a performing musician, although he admits that at times it can be fun and the stage has it’s own magic. He instead craved the creativity that the studio environment offered and dove in headlong. With the wait, however, expectations can mount, and Gothe knew that he was no stranger to perfection. But this album, motivated by passion and personal desire, was worth the negotiation. Having worked commercially before, Gothe knew that in that environment you always have someone to answer to, but in this world of the personal album, he was free to create.
Gothe and Scott, both aware of the pitfalls of personality and opinions in music production, developed a way of working together that fostered open communication and honesty. Gothe describes himself as nervous before they began working together, but goes on to explain, “I said to myself, Ian, communicate. Ian, accept. If something bothers you, don’t judge right away. I prepared myself to handle what might come up.” And at the same time, Scott remained open to Gothe’s vision and story. He encouraged him to be forthcoming and say why he did or did not like something so that they could work together to fix it all while encouraging Gothe to wait and let some choices age before they made changes.
When Gothe reflects on his time in the studio, he is unendingly grateful to Scott for his direction and acceptance. “Jim Scott and his gang Kevin Dean and Neil Baldock made me feel at home from day one,” he tells me. He is also quick to laud the musicians that surrounded him in this creative process, praising both their musical skill and their humanity. “I am fortunate to have worked with such gifted musicians, he tells me wholeheartedly and with obvious thanks in his voice, “and I want to give a shout out to Fernando Perdomo, Sam Babayan, Derek Frank, and Tamir Barzilay.” Together Scott, Gothe, and an impressive group of musicians have created a masterpiece that is situated between genres and worlds.
Because he is a dedicated musician, it might be easy to assume that the sound of the music is of the utmost importance to Gothe, but I discovered in our time together and in listening to his album that his passion for this art form is determinedly nuanced. “There is beauty in silence,” Gothe tells me as we reflect on the intersection between creating sound and putting it out into the world. “Silence,” he is quick to explain, “is part of the music.” Gothe hearkens back to the time when vinyl was king (a format that is increasingly more popular these days perhaps for the reason Gothe highlights). Like a person driven solely by a true connection to art as a whole, he explains that the time to flip the record was part of the experience of hearing the songs. It is this passion for listening with intention and authenticity, in recognizing the reality that sound is both in what we hear and in what we do not, that sets Gothe apart as both a musician and a human. His thoughtful approach to the music and the songs individually, and as a whole, are evidenced as he explains his choice to include three to four seconds between tracks to let the music breathe. He also finishes the album with the goodbye to his late brother, “Tired Little Eyes,” and concludes with a full 10 seconds of silence. Gothe sits back in his seat, his love of the art coming through as he ponders contentedly, his face thoughtful, resting in the conversation and illustrating his theory that beauty is also in the things left unsaid.
Gothe tells me that most of his songs came at night. “Nighttime is magic,” he wistfully declares as we sit outside in the shade of his patio porch beset by the southern California sun. He looks overhead and wryly says that the sun kills, burns and dries our skin. “No one has ever heard of moonburn,” he laughs. He posits that perhaps the moon got so disgusted with the Earth that it spun off, and it sheds light that doesn’t blind you. His love of the moon is fitting. He talks about it as relaxing and nice, and I can hear the contemplative calm of the moon glow echo in the flute lines and lyrical melodies throughout his songs, especially in the instrumental piece written about his current home, “Blood On The Rooftops In Montrose,” his homage to Steve Hackett. The intro to the song is by Hackett paired with an original piece by Gothe. The original song is about a couch potato, and Gothe keeps the theme of televisions as he uses classical guitar lines to reflect our connection to technology. Despite being a sleepy town, Gothe considers Montrose and the reality that while sitting in his back yard, he can see satellite dishes covering the roofs around his home. Struck with the barrage of negativity and commercial poisoning that enters the homes around him through the plethora of technological devices dotting the roofs, he has written intense melodic lines that build with our collective technological angst, until they once more settle almost peacefully with a trill back into the quiet with the moon overhead.
After a couple of hours together, I cannot help but comprehend that Gothe’s album is a personal reflection, but I want to know more. I want to know what his dream for this creation is. His answer surprises me. “The whole reason for art is to inspire,” he says, “because otherwise, what’s the point?” As an artist, Gothe is aware that his music is a part of the larger creative universe. He reflects on his album, and says that if the listeners are inspired, “then I’ve done my job.” This album is a “dream come true,” Gothe says, and I am reminded of his song, “Take Me Home,” a dreamlike lyrical creation that yearns for home. Despite all the wanderings in his journey, there were also dreams. “I wanted to create something that is timeless,” he says, and I hear in his voice the confidence that comes with waiting for your break and an awareness that good work is a reward in and of itself.
As our interview winds down and I ask Gothe about the instruments he is using now, he jumps up like an excited teenager and says, “Wait a second, you need to smell this.” He emerges from his sparsely, yet artistically, well-kept home to bring me a handmade A.J. Lucas guitar that he puts in my face and urges me to smell. It smells like cedar and age and longing, and I feel the inspiration and the love. Its’ smell begs to be played by a true artist who knows that the sound is only one part of the experience of creating.
For someone who has traveled across the globe, sustained unimaginable loss, and finally made his way home, I wondered if perhaps that was the end of the journey. But like many artists, Gothe is already thinking about his next creation. “It will be about water,” he says, “atmospheric,” and it is not a surprise to hear him say that it will have some element of voyage woven into it.
In a world where uncertainty has become the concept de jour, Gothe’s journey informs and elevates us as a people and individuals in search of a home. His traveling and displacement have changed him, his experiences have shaped him, and the result is beauty and inspiration tinged with the pain of reality. If only we could all transform our moments into lyrical masterpieces through which others could view both themselves and the world more clearly.
“Music is the love of my life,” Gothe reflects. And in the most authentic tautology possible he goes on to explain that music itself is also his greatest inspiration. It is in music that Gothe reveals the questions that have defined his life since childhood. Where do I belong? Where is home? And it is in music that he searches for their answers, finally discovering that music is his home. Music and ‘Ianland.’ “Finally,” he says, “I realized that the whole thing has been with me all my life.”