Tucked away deep in Van Nuys, Calif., Ethan Gruska is working with members of Manchester Orchestra at the unassuming but historic Sound City recording studio, the analog birthplace of such iconic albums as Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-helmed 1996 comeback, “Unchained.”
Gruska’s name might not be immediately familiar, but he is one of the industry’s best kept secrets. Growing up the son of Emmy-winning film and TV composer Jay Gruska and grandson of Oscar-winning film composer John Williams, Gruska has managed to distinguish himself despite the looming shadow of family accolades through his work with artists like John Legend, Phoebe Bridgers, Kimbra and Joshua Radin.
After touring the world at 19 as half of the brother-sister duo The Belle Brigade, Gruska began working as a producer, session musician and writer. He released his first solo album, “Slowmotionry,” in 2017. Gruska’s long-awaited sophomore project, “En Garde,” featuring collaborations with Moses Sumney, Bridgers and Lianne La Havas, arrived at the top of 2020 via Warner Records to great critical acclaim.
Ahead of a hometown show at Los Angeles The Echo on March 4, Gruska sat with Variety to discuss the creation of “En Garde,” his first scoring project, dream collaborations and more.
What are you working on at Sound City?
I’m here with the guys in Manchester Orchestra just messing around, trying to work on some new music for them for the next few weeks. After that, I’m mostly doing production stuff which I really prefer — well, not prefer, but I really enjoy and feel most comfortable doing. I love studio stuff.
Why is producing more comfortable for you?
I feel the most excited and inspired [with production]. It really gets me back to my love of music. Being an artist does require a lot of other outside stuff besides the music. It is emotionally exhausting. But I still love that as well. Being an artist allows me to make my own records and produce for myself and then I can do whatever I want with [the songs].
Have you always been such a multitasker?
Yes, my idol growing up was Jon Brion. He was producing records, scoring movies, and writing his own songs… I just love Swiss Army Knife people.
Your family has a long history of working in film and TV scoring. Is this something you want to move into in the future?
Definitely. I scored a documentary last year and really enjoyed it. It was so different from making a record. Scoring is a service role. Not only are you serving the vision of the director, but the music is also so directly tied to the picture. I knew that before, but actually getting in and doing it is a whole other beast. So, I would love to do it more. But it is so time consuming. You have to put everything you have into it, and I’m not 100% ready to not be fully committed to record-making. But I do see myself, in the future, pivoting to that. I really enjoy it and love making classical and instrumental music.
“En Garde” was a bit of a departure from your first record, how did you approach this one differently?
The last one was more about boiling things down as much as possible and seeing how short and dense I can make a little piano and vocal piece. This is more, like, the songs are there, but I’m going to focus on how to dress them up. And there’s one or two on this record that are very bare and just focused on the song, but everything else is just more of a calling card to arranging and production than just songwriting. I still feel very proud and confident of the skeleton of the songs — hopefully [the new music] doesn’t feel like a kitchen sink mentality.
As “En Garde” continues there’s more experimentation towards the middle, the record has an arc and a climax to it. How important was the sequence of the songs?
While I was making it, I wasn’t thinking about it. I love records like Kendrick Lamar’s when you can tell that the whole thing was conceived together. Almost nobody can do that, and that’s why he’s one of my favorite artists ever. So originally, I was like, I’ll piece it together later. But eventually, track listing became very important because there’s so much variety in these songs. It’s almost like a non-record. There’s not really a through-line other than it’s just songs with colors, you know? The order became really important at the end, trying to create some sort of flow out of all this chaos happening.
You’ve had some really great collaborations on this project. When did the collaborators come into the process? Were they a part of it from the beginning or were they incorporated towards the end?
With Phoebe [Bridgers] it was slightly different than with Moses [Sumney] and Lianne [La Havas]. I co-produced Phoebe’s first record, and while I was working on my record, we were going back and forth on projects for her. So we were sort of collabing while I was in the middle of this stuff. There was a day where she was available to come in and just sing some backup stuff, and then I played her this song. There was kind of an opportunity for her to become a lead part, and she was down. But we work closely together and so it felt natural. With Moses and Lianne, both started as songs that were maybe originally intended for them. They are two of my favorite current artists. They’re just so f–king talented.
“Blood in Rain” with Moses Sumney really stands out in that Moses’ voice is more of an ornament than a centerpiece in the song. Could you speak to how this track came together?
Oh, he’s the coolest. We wrote that together in, like, three hours, but it was about two-and-a-half years ago. It was sat-on for a while. I think both of us were constantly going back to it, trying to make it work and finally I said, “I’m just going to go ahead and make a version. And make it cool and send it to him and see if he wants to do some stuff over it and if he’d be open to me using it.” And I sent it to him and he really liked it. … Working with him was so fun. He actually did it remotely. I just think he’s brilliant.
Who would you want to collaborated with in the future?
So many [people]. Justin Vernon is unbelievable. I really like the new Caroline Polachek record and would love to write with her or something. At this point, I just want to work with everybody. I love making my own projects because I get to go and be free, but I really love being helpful to someone else’s vision. I just like collaborating. I’ve always done it. My first band was with my sister [Barbara] and we wrote it all together, so that is how it all started for me.
What would you say is your favorite moment on the record? What are you most proud of?
I think the song with Lianne is so cool, mostly because I’m not singing on it. [Laughs] It’s just also such a weird, unique piece of music, and it surprises me a little that we did it. I like that feeling of making something — where you don’t quite understand how it happened, but it did. It’s a magical thing. I love some of the more bizarre ones on the record. Like track two, which is called “Event Horizon.” It’s probably the most polarizing one, and I can see how people would be a little wigged out by it just because it’s pretty frenetic. But it was a really fun track to make. There was just a lot of detailed work that went into it. I have a lot of nostalgia for the process of making that.