So here’s what happened…
Back in March this year, yours truly attended the Tectonics Festival at Harpa where, on a whim, i thought it would be a great idea to interview on of the main performers at the festival, Oren Ambarchi. A few quick enquiries (basically Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson going “Oi! Oren! Bob here wants to interview you!”) and we set up a time to have a chat. It ended up with myself having dinner with him, John Tilbury and his wife, as well as Gylfi and Benedikt from Gogoyoko. Nice!
The interview was filed, but after a month, it hadn’t been published by the Grapevine. This isn’t their fault to be honest. A 3000+ word interview on a non-Icelandic, non-mainstream artist probably wasn’t going to fly. Also there wasn’t enough budget to have it online. The piece was shopped to a few other publications, but i guess that the ship had passed and it wasn´t taken up by anyone.
Well i for one HATE WASTE! and I’m sure that most of you (even a few Icelanders) agree. So today i post the interview in all it’s glory. Read and Enjoy…
The Perpetual Minimalist: Oren Ambarchi Interviewed
The avant-garde guitarist Oren Ambarchi talks to Bob Cluness about John Cage, working with Sunn o))) and his love of KISS guitarist Ace Frehley
By Bob Cluness
If you come to Reykjavik on holiday these days, there’s one structure in particular that you will not fail to miss. Located down in the city centre by the old harbour, The Harpa concert halls exerts a domineering presence to the skyline of Downtown Reykjavik, dwarfing most of the local buildings in its wake. Conceived to be a shining beacon of the Icelandic economic boom years of the last decade, it became more akin to a millstone of debt and hubris following the collapse of the country’s banking system in 2008, for years the half-built site resembling an apt metaphor for Iceland’s troubles.
But since the building was completed and opened in 2011, it has enjoyed a huge measure of success, with packed shows and attendances exceeding all expectations. The building’s imposing structure of concrete and glass is also an apt setting for the inaugural Tectonics music festival, which was held there last month.
Devised and curated by the newly appointed conductor of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra Ilan Volkov, Tectonics is a 3-day event to bring some of the world’s most innovative contemporary musicians to Iceland to perform under one roof. Those performing this year included the pianists John Tilbury and Frank Denyer, local electronic musicians Kira Kira, Ghostigital and Stilluppsteypa, and Australian musician Oren Ambarchi.
In the world of contemporary music, few have the sound or drive to match that of Ambarchi. For over 20 years, the Australian drummer-turned-guitarist has looked to break and remould the traditional sounds afforded to the electric guitar, producing pieces known for their stark minimalism and clarity. He is also known for his extraordinary level of collaboration with other artists, from doom metallers Sunn O))), to experimental musicians such as Keith Rowe, Jim O´Rourke, and Keiji Haino.
Ambarchi’s recent album ‘An Audience Of One’, has received much positive praise and reviews as it saw him expand upon his musical palette, with the delicate beauty of opening piece “Salt” sitting alongside the colossal, searing 33 minute improv of “Knots”. The album also interestingly contains a straight up cover song, ex- KISS guitarist Ace Frehly’s “Fractured Mirror”.
It’s halfway through the festival and I’m in Harpa’s cavernous cafe, having a beer and waiting to interview Ambarchi. But he’s already 30 minutes late. I’m just about to curse his name and leave when Ambarchi rushes breathlessly through the front doors. He apologises for his lateness (“Damn jet lag!”) and after making introductions we head off to a local bar whereupon we sit down and discuss his music, his time in Iceland, and his love of KISS.
You‘re here in Iceland for the first time, performing at the Tectonics Music Festival. How did you get involved?
I got involved through Ilan Volkov, the conductor of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. He’s amazing, a very interesting, and energetic guy. About 4 or 5 years ago in Israel, he was organising concerts for experimental artists and he invited me in 2006 to come and play solo. I hadn’t been to Israel for about 18 years, since I was a teenager, so I was really blown away that someone would pay for me to come literally half way round the world just to play.
He then says to me midway through negotiations, “Why don’t you do a duo with another guitar player. That would be really cool.” He asked who I would like to play with, and I said that I played with Keith Rowe from the band AMM, and that I played with Sunn O))). He then says “Oh Sunn O))) sounds like a great idea,” so he invited Stephen O’Malley (Sunn O))) Guitarist) to come, but Stephen was a little nervous about going there.
Why was that?
Just because of the general issues and problem in the Middle East at that time. He’d seen the news stuff about suicide bombers and other things. He called up Atilla (Csihar, vocalist for Sunn O)))), who had been to Israel with Mayhem before once or twice, and he told him he loved it, so Stephen was on board. We then convinced Ilan to bring Attila on board and that was how the band Gravetemple started.
An interesting aspect of your music is that as well as a lot of minimalist music, you also seem to have a double life playing in several Doom/Black metal projects such as Gravetemple.
I think it’s all related. It’s all the same to me and I really don’t differentiate it that much. But in a way Gravetemple happened because of Ilan. And he’s a really interesting guy. You’d be playing these gigs and he would be carrying the amps and helping us out, just doing total punk rock, roadie stuff. But then he’d say “Guys, I’ve gotta go away and conduct an opera,” because he was the conductor for the Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the time. So he would get on a plane, go away for 2 days, and then he’d come back to the metal tour. And he was doing all of this when I first met him!
He sounds like a character. What do you think he would bring to something like Harpa and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra?
If you just look at last night, it was an incredible programme. He’s just got a great energy. You can see that just from what we did together last night. That would never happen anywhere else.
The Master Of Noise
The Thursday night at Tectonics was devoted to the music and works of John Cage. How much has his music influenced your approach to making music?
It’s influenced me a lot. John Cage is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He’s just as important to culture as Marcel Duchamps. He’s very inspirational and I believe that Cage did everything, music wise. Noise music for example. There’s a piece called ‘Variations II’ that he did with David Tudor in 1961, and it’s the most awesome, beautiful noise piece I’ve ever heard in my life. This is way before any of the Japanese noise music or the industrial music of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. And it’s better than that stuff. Remember that Cage in the 1930s was doing things with turntables and radio signals.
Do you think the world is still trying to catch up with his ideas and thoughts?
In a way, yes. He was just such an incredibly important pioneer in music. And the breadth and diversity in what he did, and his attitude. I find his attitude complex, but in a brilliantly simple way. He wasn’t a showy, flashy guy, and that appeals to me.
Does his attitude to deconstructing music have parallels to the way you’ve sought to take apart the sounds of a guitar with your early work?
I think so. I am very much into simplicity, with a hidden complexity. I’m not really excited by people who have the latest this and the latest that, just trying to do the latest complex sounds. I tend to gravitate towards things that are quite simple. But there’s more to it than that, and I think Cage represents some of that. It’s not what you’d call expressive music.
Life With Napalm Breath
One thing I wanted to ask about was your earliest music days when you were a member of a noise rock group call Phlegm. Tell about the music that you made in those days. Song titles like as ‘Napalm Breath’ and ‘Metal Theatre Of Nits’ are just… weird!
(Laughs) It was just a fun noise rock band we had. I was 20 years old and I’d just picked up the guitar. I’m a drummer originally. It was just a fun zany band to be in, and in a way it was a bit of a “fuck you” to the scene that was happening in Sydney at the time.
What was the scene like?
It was difficult in that we were outside most things that were happening. But in many ways it was a healthy scene. There were lots of shows happening and we would end up playing a lot and a lot of people ended up gravitating towards what we were doing because it was just different to everything else that was going on.
When Phlegm finished, you started your journey making minimal, abstract guitar music. What was the driver for you to go down that road?
With Phlegm we were playing a lot and there was a lot of stuff going on. But then the live scene in Sydney sort of stopped, dead. All the venues dried up and there was nowhere to play. So I was at home on my own a lot and when you play on your own, you can really take your time to investigate and explore sounds. That was the first time that I really had a chance to do that. I was also listening to electronic music such as Pan Sonic, and stuff from the Mego label, as well as older electronic music from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was also listening to a lot of composers such as Alvin Lucier and Morton Feldman who were very understated in their sound. All that I had was a shitty guitar and a few effect pedals, but I was really inspired by that world and I was trying to emulate that.
Always ON, All The Time…
Now, I checked your discography on the Discogs website and since the mid ‘90s you’ve had 48 releases to your name, not counting other credits. That’s incredibly prolific. Is it a case that you’re creatively “ON” all the time? Are you able to switch off at all?
I’m pretty much switched on all the time and I’m always thinking about the next project. It’s really hard to switch off at time, like when I went on holiday to Sydney last summer. All I was thinking was “what the hell am I going to do?” It was all beach weather, yet in the end I had to take stuff to work on. I ended up mixing a thing with Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley just to stop myself from going crazy.
With all the music you produce, are you worried that you may burn out creatively? That you’ll just get sick of it all and you want to go and do something else?
It funny because throughout my life, my parents were kind of encouraging me but on the other hand sometimes they would try to steer me to do something else. And any time I tried something else, I just couldn’t do it. It didn’t work out. And it was always because of music.
Like in school for instance, I’d get really bad grades and then my father would take all my records and instruments away. I would then get straight A’s so I could get my stuff back again.
Music was that prevalent in your life?
Yeah it’s just an obsession. And making solo records for me is kind of difficult in the sense it’s like an existential crisis that I go through every time I begin to make one. I find starting a record really hard in my head. With collaborations on the other hand, it’s easier to mix and work on stuff done with other musicians, but when it’s my own record, it’s a completely different situation.
The Hub Of Collaboration
Speaking of collaborations, you’re well known for number and breadth of people you´ve collaborated with over the years. What is it that you get out from working in such an environment?
I’ve always collaborated right from the start of my career. And it’s fun! It’s a learning process that in a way does affect what I do in a solo context. It’s like hanging out with your friends but you’re making music at the same time. With Keiji (Haino) and Jim (O’Rourke) for example, I was playing drums with them recently and in a way it brought me back to when I was younger because of my old drumming days.
It’s like scratching an itch then?
Yeah. And the thing is I love Keiji’s music. I actually started playing the guitar because of Haino after seeing him play in New York in 1992. That was it. And I really know his music and his aesthetic.
Another group of collaborators you’re well known for working with is Sunn O))). How did you guys start working together?
Well it’s a funny story and I have mentioned it a few times, but Stephen O’Malley was DJ’ing at the CMJ festival in New York. It’s one of those horrible showcase music festival events. I had an album called ‘Grapes From The Estate’ out on Touch at the time, and he played the first track, “Corkscrew”. Now when I made that track, to me it was rock music, but it probably didn’t sound like that to most people, but Stephen played the track and cranked it up so it began to throb. I’m really interested in low frequencies and apparently the frequencies from playing the record set off the fire alarms in the venue! The water sprinklers set off and the water started coming down, and they had to evacuate the whole venue.
When Stephen got home, he e-mailed me and told me this story and said. “we need to work together.” And that’s how I started working with them.
You’ve worked a lot on their last album ‘Monoliths and Dimensions’, a personal favourite of mine. What was the experience like working on with those guys?
Well I had already toured to Stephen and Greg for a few years and we’d used to playing live together. I toured with them to Australia, Japan, America, etc. With the previous record ‘Black One’, they’d basically done the basic tracks for that record and then they sent the album to me with the message to “do what you want”. I was in Melbourne so I did an intro to the album which I was happy with and e-mailed them an Mp3 of it. They replied saying “this is awesome” and that really encouraged me to keep going and I got more and more outrageous. I overdubbed drums on one track that was finished and more crazy with my contributions. But they were very open to what I was doing and that continued with ‘Monoliths And Dimensions.’
You’ve actually done a collaboration, albeit not credited, with Icelandic artists Stilluppsteypa and BJ Nilsen on their 2008 record, ‘Passing Out’. How did that happen?
I still have the first Stilluppsteypa 7” that they released! It’s a pretty amazing record actually, very punky. I was a fan of theirs for years and I met them around 2000/01 and we hung out a lot. At the time they made the record, I was in this band called Sun and I think I asked Benny (Nilsen) to remix something that didn’t work out. So he had all the sound files and he had a file of me with some maracas, shaking them. And he used those on the Stilluppsteypa record!
Some of your work with guitar and electronics has certain parallels with fellow Australian musician Ben Frost. I’m surprised you haven’t managed to collaborate with him yet.
Actually, I had a band about 7 years ago called Husbands and it was a fun band that had around 18 guitar players, 2 drummers and a bass player. And Ben actually sat in with us once or twice. The band was kind of like Steve Reich meets AC/DC. The rhythm section was AC/DC and the guitars were this cyclical noise stuff. It was this very ecstatic type of rock band.
How was his technique?
You couldn’t hear it because there were 19 other guitars playing at the same time! But it was a case of everyone having to do their job and everyone had to stick to their job. If you did your piece, then the whole sum of everybody doing their parts would click. It was like a machine in a way.
“I’m far more interested in making music…”
One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years with your music, including your current album ‘An Audience Of One’, is that you’re moving away from making processed tones back to making sounds that could be described as “guitar” sounds.
Well some people are interested in being experimental for its own sake and in the beginning, I was trying to create a new language of sounds through the guitar but to be honest I couldn’t give a shit about that now. I’m far more interested in making music in all its forms.
When listening to the album, it interesting in that you could describe it as your most “conventional” record, yet at the same time it’s your most textured in terms of adding extra elements, from vocals to drums. How was the experience in making this record?
Well the difference between this record and my other solo records is that my other records started with me playing guitar, then adding other elements after. I would then play the other elements myself, as a reaction to what I played. But with this record, I already had it in my head to approach it differently where I would get other people to start before me. In that way I would react to other people and it would throw me into another area of creativity. With the track “Knots” for example, the basis of the track was the drums. I said to my friend Joe (Talia) “I want you to play drums for 33 minutes or as long as possible in this style until you do it anymore.” Which he actually did! He then passed it over to me and I reacted to what he played.
Another interesting thing with ‘An Audience Of One’ is that the last track is a straight up cover of “Fractured Mirrors” by ex-KISS guitarist Ace Frehley from his first solo album. Why did you decide to go for that song?
Well I always thought that Ace was the underrated guy in that band. I thought his songs were really interesting, and I thought his first solo album was really fantastic.
The album itself is pretty much classic ‘70s rock, but “Fractured Mirror” stands out completely from the rest of album.
True, but even the classic rock tracks I really love. It was an album that I had when I was 12 years old and I know it inside out. We used to cover some of those tracks when I was in Phlegm. “Fractured Mirror” though, I always thought of it in my head having this Terry Riley/ Steve Reich thing. I don’t know, it had this interesting Krautrock vibe to it, a very sharp crystal sound. I love that track and I’ve always wanted to do it and bring those parts out from it.
You know being an Australian, I would have pegged you as more of an AC/DC person…
Oh I’m that too for sure! But I grew up with KISS. I saw them when my mum and dad took me to see them when I was 10, 11 years old. I had the makeup on and everything!
You looked like a little Ace Frehley??
Oh definitely! (laughs)
2012 has been a busy year for you. As well as your solo album, you have collaborative releases with Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke, and Thomas Brinkmann. What’s happening with you after Tectonics?
Well right now I’m in the middle of doing music for a theatre project in Australia, which will happen for the next month or so. then I’m going to back to Europe again in April to play some solo shows. But wait until you hear the next release. I’ve already finished a record and I think Mego will be putting it out. This one will be a seriously primitive rock record. Essentially a 35 minute piece and has this voodoo krautrock edge to it.
Links – http://www.orenambarchi.com/