When I started talking to Nate Rappole, the man behind the mask of Gull, I realized I’ve been watching him perform for close to a decade. I was 18 when his three-piece post-hardcore outfit, Ultra Dolphins, stopped by a basement in Blacksburg. “This is a song you can’t say ‘No’ to,” I remember Nate saying probably close to ten times before the band ripped into a cover of the Yes classic “Heart of the Sunrise.” I stood there, a goofy smile on my face, thinking, “What the hell am I watching right now?”
Since then, I’ve seen Gull play over a dozen times, opening up for DJs before dance parties, commanding the stage at sold out theatres, or standing shoulder to shoulder with awed audience members stacked around his drum kit in dark, shitty basements. He frets his guitar with one hand, bangs a cymbal with another, flicking his head back and forth trance-like, the sounds coming from his mask recalling something mystic. I’m 26 now, but the grin on my face is still the same as it was when I was a teenager. “What the hell am I watching right now?”
Rappole started tinkering around as Gull in 2000 in between playing with Ultra Dolphins and his other two-piece, Snack Truck, while attending school at James Madison University. At that point, Gull incorporated guitar hammer-ons and one-hand hits on a shockingly spare drum kit consisting only of a snare, bass, and high hat. It wasn’t until a few years later while living in Philadelphia that the final phase of the act came into play.
While drumming and singing with Snack Truck, Rappole found himself pushing the microphone out of his way, screaming into the crowd instead of keeping his head in one position. The habit reminded him of a problem he was having with Gull: he couldn’t figure out how to incorporate vocals with all the other stuff he had going on simultaneously. “It would be cool if I could find something to fix to my face,” Rappole remembers thinking.
It took inspiration from another creative pursuit to finally arrive to the solution. In 2003, Rappole spent a couple of years in a Bunraku puppetry group. The performers wore black masks on black backdrops to force the audience to focus on the puppets on stage. The anonymity appealed to him and he decided to try the approach with Gull. With the help of friends, Rappole affixed an old telephone microphone onto a skull mask his buddy had recently picked up in Chinatown. “It’s taken on a character all its own that’s out of my control,” said Rappole about the mask, which has turned from a piece of practical necessity to an audience-ascribed persona. “I’m just sort of a part of it. I’m along for the ride.”
That ride took Rappole to Richmond after his stint in Philadelphia, and Gull took to the streets in 2006, busking outside of Chop Suey Books in Carytown. “I wanted to play in a space that was available to people walking by,” he said, “I was attracted to seeing what would happen.” Four years and a few noise complaints later, Rappole quit his job so that he could drive to Mexico to attend a wedding that included a 500-mile bike trip with the wedding party. His car served as a support vehicle and carried his Gull gear, so each night, Rappole would set up and play in whatever town they landed in.
“Even though my Spanish is terrible, I was still forging some bonds with people just through music,” he said. “It’s a remarkable way in which to meet people.” From there, Rappole “rode the wave,” playing throughout the United States and Canada for three years without a fixed home or schedule. The experience in Mexico stayed with him, however, and he wanted to continue using music as a vehicle for cultural expression and exchange. “I truly believe, and that experience in Mexico drove it home, there’s real power in it,” Rappole said. “If you’re doing something in a public place and giving something of yourself and a piece of your culture, it’s an offering. It is universal, you can feel it.”
In 2012, with the help of his friend Len Albright, Rappole set off for Nairobi, Kenya to perform impromptu shows and film the documentary, Street Muse: Kenya. Meryl O’Connor directed the piece while Imgard Rop was his local guide. Rappole went into the country “innocently ignorant,” and was quickly forced to face the reality of Kenya’s colonial past, the fallout from post-election violence, and his privilege as a white performer in the global south. “Very quickly we realized how fragile a thing this was that we were working with,” he said. “We had to take a step back and think clearly about the kind of movie we wanted to make. We really wanted to present something that was from the Kenyan perspective as much as it could be.”
The film has had two premieres, one at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and more recently at Hardywood Craft Brewery in Richmond. Rappole hopes he can use the documentary to kickstart a career out of using music as a universal language in order to tackle questions of poverty, identity, and cultural understanding. “Music has this capacity to at least begin the discussion to unwrap some of these complicated issues. I by no means think it’s a cure-all or that I have all the answers (or any of the answers), but I think that using music as a starting point can help to ease some of those initial fears that exist and get the conversation rolling.”
The best place to see Gull is on the streets of Richmond, but you can also catch his videos online at gullface.com.
Photography by Brittany Justice