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A Quietus Interview

Talk Talk From Daniel O'Sullivan: Mothlite Interviewed
Jack Mills , October 7th, 2010 10:15

Jack Mills talks to Daniel O'Sullivan about Mothlite's new album Dark Age and his collaborations with Sunn O))), Ulver, The Big Pink and more

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Working across of range of musics and artistic platforms, it's fair to say that Daniel O'Sullivan has made a strong impact on the international avant community. With Guapo, O'Sullivan et al have blended Canterbury prog with free-form jazz and zeuhl. Meanwhile, Mothlite - his latest project - funnels a bewildering mix of styles: wildly off kilter Kate Bush rhythms, textures of tension and release and fables of veiled love, fettered dynasties and confused ideals.

O'Sullivan also regularly works with Sunn O))), The Big Pink, Chrome Hoof, Miasma & The Carousel of Headless Horses and a pool of other performers, rounding of a quite unique repertoire of contemporary leftfield collaborations.

The Quietus met Daniel in the dusty recesses of the ICA to discuss Mothlite's forthcoming album Dark Age, visual music projects for the BBC, groundings in jazz, Mark Hollis and the Fender Rhodes, Stephen O' Malley and his recent inclusion as the fourth member of Norway's Ulver.

Dark Age Soon from Mothlite on Vimeo.

What's the recording process been like for Dark Age? What are the main obstacles you've been forced to overcome?

Daniel O'Sullivan: It has been consistent and consistently varied. Different studios, different homes, but generally this album is a lot more electronic so there is a sonic sensibility that persists throughout. Main obstacles? The usual... resources, time, personal upheavals.

Are you diversifying the range of collaborators for this record or is it roughly the same team from the first?

DOS: No, it's almost a completely different line-up. I worked with Antti Uusimaki a lot on Flax of Reverie, but he's less involved with this one. Generally I took matters into my own hands with this record. I've been working with Knut Sellevold (a like-minded moth from Viking soil) on a few things, and there are some friends making the odd appearance.

What's you new live set-up like?

DOS: Ben Dawson on drums, Christos Fanaras on bass, Knut Sellevold on synths and my voices. Sometimes backing choir and woodwind too. I'm at the front with this, which makes me uneasy.

Did you feel nervous playing with Ulver at the Literature Festival considering it was their first gig in 15 years?

DOS: Well, it became a shared burden, partially because we'd spent so much time in pre-production getting it ready and I spent a lot of time with Kris and Jørn and the other boys. And yeah, it was scary… but only from a musical point of view. I could see that Kris was looking at it quite politically and there was a lot of weight on his shoulders in that respect. Y'know, they'd made this kind of manifesto that they were never gonna do it live. People were travelling from far and wide to see it – from Australia, Brazil and all over the place to go to this gig in a small town in Norway – and I don't think it sunk in until we were on stage. There was a rapturous welcome and it was quite…unexpected. I didn't really know what to expect but it was a massive reaction and it was pure love. We did OK, but we've played better since.

The worst was this big metal festival called Brutal Assault in Czech Republic. It was a real trial-by-fire playing with bands like Opeth and Dark Funeral, we really stuck out like a sore thumb. There was a terrible monitor mix onstage but we survived it, and I thought if we can survive that, we're gonna be fine in the future. So ever since, we've been getting better and honing it down. We've got a big tour in February around Europe. We played Queen Elizabeth Hall last year. I also supported with Mothlite so it was a double duty, but it wasn't the first time I'd done something like this. In fact the last time I played Queen Elizabeth Hall I played in Sunn O))) and with Chrome Hoof. I must stop doing that, it's more stress than it's worth.

What's the future with Ulver?

DOS: There was this announcement on the Ulver website. We'd spoken about it. There were a lot of questions as to how Ulver would progress after the last album. I did this recording with Sunn O))) after playing Øyafest in Oslo, and that's going to be a collaborative record. But there is a new Ulver album on the horizon that I'll be more involved in – the actual writing process and so on. Plus there is an album of 60's aquarian psyche... Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Bonniwell's Music Machine, etc. They recently asked me if I'd like to become a core member of the group which is obviously very exciting. Externally it feels like ‘Wow! It's quite a big deal', but we've become great friends and it feels like a very natural move.

When did you first work with Stephen O' Malley?

DOS: He invited Guapo to join Khanate on a UK tour and then we did this thing called Ginnungagap, which turned into one of his side projects. We had a gig in Hackney where everyone was really high on ecstasy and we played this really sedate, lugubrious set with robes and masks. I think after that, Æthenor was the next project we started working on together. I did some overnight improvisations with Vincent [de Roguin from Shora] while I was on tour with Guapo – we didn't actually all get in a room together and play until the rehearsals for our first tour – it was all sort of over the wire. But then I started playing with Sunn O))) and… yeah, that's pretty much how we became acquainted.

What was it about the chemistry that sparked up that lead to you becoming a regular live member of Sunn O))) since you derive from seemingly different musical groundings? Did he think that perhaps you could fit something fresh into the overall sound onstage?

DOS: It was on the cards for a while because we share a lot of musical interests. Also, Greg [Anderson] is very into jazz. They're both really into late 60s/early 70s jazz fusion – things like Miles Davis, Return to Forever, John Abercrombie, ECM Records, and the Fender Rhodes is such the defining sound of that era. So I became their doom Chick Corea. It's not something they particularly wear on their sleeve or something people may initially be able to detect. Although their last album has its 'impulse' moments.

I can hear Pharoah Sanders in there. Sometimes with the Pharoah it's like listening to huge columns of avant-garde sound.

DOS: I think they'd be very happy to hear you say that – the emphasis with Pharoah Sanders is more in the top end; bells, chimes, keyboards. With Sunn O))) it's mostly about the infrasonics. The first gig I did with them was Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown – myself and Steven Stapleton from Nurse With Wound were the guests. That was certainly a column of sound.

You were commissioned by Elizabeth Stopford to soundtrack her BBC Storyville documentary I'm Not Dead Yet. How did that come about? Were you approached by Elizabeth, or vice versa?

DOS: I knew her because she was living with Robbie (Furze) who now plays in The Big Pink. She was working with this film editor guy who I also knew and had previously worked with – we actually worked on some songs that were gonna be used on Ian Brown's new album... really strange. It was good stuff but it didn't get used because I think Ian freaked out and needed to have some famous people on it. I heard he ended up enlisting Noel Gallagher and Sinead O'Connor and various other 'names' to work on it. Don't think it came out that great in the end.

That would have been a really bizarre addition to your CV...

DOS: Yeah! It would have been funny if it had happened. I worked on the Storyville thing with Robbie initially but he sort of backed away from it and it ended up just being me and this film editor, Ken Flanagan. It's got a sort of touchy subject matter, very sensitive. It's about Elizabeth's family, which was in a complete state of discord due to the inheritance of this stately home owned by her grandmother. Her mother and her aunt are basically at war and the reality that ensues throughout the film is that they were both molested by her grandfather. While making the film Elizabeth was faced with the possibility of her whole family flaring up against her. So, it was quite an involved process.

With that kind of thing you need to be careful not to emotionally mollycoddle the audience, try not to make it too pathetic in the pathos sense of the word and to hold back from any extraneous melancholy or high drama. So it was kind of an experiment in reserve. It is quite laborious writing for TV and film because you really have to write to spec and when you're working with a temp track, you have to draw out not only your version of it, but what you think the director likes about it.

Sunn O))) create liberal free space when performing, open to improvised suggestion. Does this resonate with your understanding of live performance?

DOS: Not necessarily. For example there is very little improvisation with Mothlite, because it's not required there. However Æthenor is completely improvised... improv with a melodic foundation ot kind of an automatic compostion. With Sunn O))), it's the only way to go, because if you're clinging onto a composition with them, you're gonna have a hard time. Having said that, it is anchored by riffs. Sunn is riffs – Sabbath riffs – reduced to this kind of sensual, glacial tempo where anything is possible within those spaces. I love that architectural idea of composing music like Xenakis or Dumitrescu and there's a lot of that in Sunn O))), by accident, maybe, but probably in later years more intentionally.

Every gig has been entirely different, the common denominator being excessive volume. When I'm playing with them sometimes I'm just out on my own. Other times I play with people like Steve Moore [of Earth] and we kind of help each other out a little bit, mainly in terms of where we are in the piece. In other gigs there's been a lot of clarity, so I can pace myself in a very definite way, and other times it's just a total wine drenched mire. I've been more drunk onstage with Sunn than any other band.

How did co-authoring the title track for the Big Pink's debut LP A Brief History of Love come about?

DOS: Initially I did some live work with them but it was always meant to be temporary until they found somebody more permanent. They had a very specific goal from the beginning – to be as big as they are now and beyond – and it's happening for them, which is great. I want it to work out so much for Robbie, because it's his dream coming into fruition. He's always been a rock star. In a cool way, y'know – he's a lovely guy. He was always very astute but always keen on tapping into the indie mainstream, and you can't help but respect that because he's actually achieved it. But on a creative level, it took a while to whittle down what they actually wanted to do.

So were you living with Robbie to begin with?

DOS: No, no, although we were in each other's pockets for a time. He was in a band called Panic DHH - who had an industrial sound similar to Ministry or Godflesh – with Antti who was in Mothlite until recently, so therein lies the link. Antti and Robbie were doing a post-Panic project and I got involved with that, helping with some of the songwriting and so forth and that kind of became something else, Elsadrake, which is the nearest I've come to doing straight rock & roll. We still had some very off-kilter melodies and wonky arrangements, kinda like Neubauten at Woodstock. But neither of us had the time to keep it going, so he started doing The Big Pink with Milo [Cordell] as a side project and then that became his main thing. I still do a bit of work with them; I worked on a cover of an Otis Redding song and re-worked a version of Velvet for their BBC session. We also worked on this new track which I think will be on their next album. Kinda vampire pop.

Is it in your nature to keep diversifying the direction of your artistic endeavours? Even Mothlite with its initial outer limits musical bent has become more accessible sounding.

DOS: It's just a reflection of the information I've been taking in of late. It's not an intentional move to become more accessible to sell records because, as we know, that's a kind of futile gesture, especially now. But I am open - I'm not solely concerned with avant-garde and experimental music. One of the things I've always liked about music is that you can carve your own path and leave traces in the most unlikely areas - you can still do that with pop music. The people I really like in that area – Coil, Sylvian, Talk Talk – real pioneers of very adventurous, readable and unclassifiable music. So that's just become a focus for Mothlite because Antti and I got so massively into Talk Talk - obsessively so. Listening back to The Colour of Spring and It's My Life, you ingratiate yourself so much with the avant-garde end of Talk Talk that you want to know how it happened, y'know. It was always there, they really have a way about arranging songs with great depth. Mothlite has become very important to me. I am trying to do fewer projects and collaborations in order to focus on it.

Go to http://www.mothlite.org/ for a free MP3 download from Dark Age