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QUIETUS MIX: Ex-Easter Island Head
Rory Gibb , November 12th, 2013 09:14

Listen to an exclusive mix from Liverpool's masters of stormy reverberation and mallet guitar acrobatics, plus read an interview with band founder Benjamin Duvall

Photo by Kirsty Hornby

Liverpool collective Ex-Easter Island Head do quite marvelous things with the guitar: lying it on its side, adding extra bridges and playing it with mallets like a struck percussion instrument. Moulded by the acoustic quirks of their performance space and swathed in reverb and delay, this most familiar of instruments is transformed into something altogether cloudier and more humid, with multiple interlaced percussive patterns clicking in and out of phase with one another to mesmerising effect. Across a series of releases for Low Point, beginning with 2010's Mallet Guitars One and arriving now at this month's newly released Mallet Guitars Three, they've honed that approach with increasing skill; the latter is their stormiest, most dramatic and dynamic recording to date. You can listen to it via the Low Point Bandcamp - click here.

Ex-Easter Island Head's Benjamin Duvall has recorded an exclusive mix for the Quietus, which you can listen to via the embed below. It contains, in his words, "a faithful selection of influences on us leading up to the recording of Mallet Guitars Three and features a lot of interesting rhythms and unusual melodies". So it begins with Moondog, finds its way through traditional South Pacific music, Charlemagne Palestine, Alice Coltrane and Ivor Cutler, and ends up with Steve Reich's surreal, intense soundtrack to Robert Nelson's 1965 anti-racist satirical short film O Dem Watermelons. So with the new record just released, the Quietus caught up with Duvall via email to find out about performing on a tiny Scottish island and dedicating a piece of music to Liverpool's loneliest Moai.

Ex-Easter Island Head Quietus Mix by The Quietus on Mixcloud

When you did an interview with the Quietus last year, you discussed how your last record Mallet Guitars Two had taken quite a while to take its final shape. How long did it take to write Mallet Guitars Three - was it refined over a long period of time and multiple performances?

Benjamin Duvall: Pretty much everything we do takes a long time because of the way we work. Generally the first thing will be me messing around, adding and subtracting basic elements: deciding on the number of guitars we're going to use for that piece, how they're physically to be laid out onstage and in the practice space, what bits of percussion we'll be using and so on. The physicality of the whole setup is normally the starting point for everything - determining how it looks and can be interacted with, before thinking about making more organised sounds and music with the setup. There's normally a long period of just me lugging gear into different shapes and pissing about with all sorts of possibilities, objects, gestures - often just making sounds with no wider goal beyond achieving an interesting texture - before getting together with the rest of the group and starting to make it actually musical and bringing in compositional ideas.

In the case of Mallet Guitars Three, the initial 'R & D' phase probably lasted about four months or so before having to get something together for our first live performance of the piece. It's nearly always a case of committing to a show to give ourselves a deadline, then seeing how it goes: what works and what doesn't, and developing it from there. The physicality of the setup tends to dictate where the melodic material is going to come from. Self imposed limitations are what drives it really: when you know you've got to make a riff using one chord, two notes and a large allen key, you've immediately got a pretty clear starting point to go from!

We probably spent about fourteen months or so gigging the piece around before recording it, and every performance contributes towards how you understand it. Little practical setbacks, or playing something a bit louder at one gig because you can hear another gig going on upstairs, can suddenly illuminate something you've been rehearsing quite mechanically and give it room to breathe - the same way that you might come up with something great in rehearsals and then find that it just won't work in the live environment, so it gets cut. 'Can it be done live?' is one of the most important factors in everything we do - once you have that limitation in place you've got a space to work within, and the possibilities outside of that can be forgotten about.

Did you go into this new record with a particular idea of something different you wanted to achieve than with previous Ex-Easter Island Head music? It feels perhaps a bit more drone-heavy and stormy than your last release.

BD: We definitely wanted a greater sense of continuity and shape to the whole piece, having the movements run into each other and form more of an emotional arc with this one: definitely more of a sustained mood. The third movement was always intended to be the core of the record, in that it is the most densely arranged bit of mallet guitar playing that we've done, and is a refinement of what we'd done across previous pieces. Ridiculously, it took two and a half years to realise that by placing our guitars on cork boards before placing them on the stands we can actually put them at a height which allows us to play a lot more naturally and effectively, so I'd like to think that our percussive playing has come along a bit since 2009!

The other thing with this record was wanting to move away from strictly 'mallets on guitars' and really get into the whole other range of prepared guitar and percussion sounds that we're interested in. The record is intended to be a summation of our playing up to this point and a range of possibilities for the future; the center of the record is a refinement of past techniques, whilst the outer parts are the new ideas. We wanted the rhythmic parts to be more complex and densely layered, and the beatless sections to be a real contrast to that - I'm particularly pleased with the first and last movements on this record because they don't sound like anything we've done before.

How has the project evolved in the time you've been doing it? Have you shifted in approach much and incorporated new instruments, and have you found that as you've settled into using them you've been able to expand the sonic range of your struck guitars?

BD: We've had a deliberately narrow field of vision since Mallet Guitars One. We are still using the same materials - namely, the electric guitar played in an unconventional manner, with a minimum of chord changes and no non-mechanical effects - but the details have altered quite dramatically. Nearly everyone who has been involved with EEIH is not a percussionist by trade, which means that there has been a lot of learning to get better at playing and thinking percussively. This has been useful in forcing us to go quite slow in places - I don't mean tempo here, more in terms of growing as composers and arrangers - which means that we're forced to concentrate on the really small details, which is really the frame of mind you want to be in if you've got a minimalist thing going on.

We've definitely taken our time in working in extra percussion instruments, because every sound needs to be considered in relation to the rest of the ensemble - the bells on the first movement of Mallet Guitars Three are in there because of how alike they are to the overtone-heavy effect of our 'Third Bridges' (a metal bolt which divides the string field of a guitar into two), whilst the bass drum is there because it sits well with the low tunings we've used on the piece. One of the main influences when the group started was the idea from gamelan music of every instrument being fine-tuned to its own particular ensemble and being purposefully limited to better contribute to the whole sound-world. That's definitely something we've stuck with.

Your band's name is intriguing, partly because it's such a curious image, but also because there's something to it that does seem to capture some of your music's mood and spirit - warm, humid, but also spacious, quiet and not quite of this world. When, how and why did you come up with the idea of an 'Ex-Easter Island Head', and how do you see it connecting to what you do musically?

BD: I liked how the words looked written down, and also because the music of the South Pacific has been a large influence on our sound and was on particularly heavy rotation when we formed. A guy named David Fanshawe spent years going round the South Pacific doing an Alan Lomax sort of thing and recording all sorts of indigenous music, unfortunately complete with almost identical controversies to Lomax over not paying performers (and the whole exercise being shot through with an unintentional vibe of colonialism), but the resulting recordings are a beautiful source of inspiration and atmosphere.

I suppose it's also like a kind of weird joke as well - how does an Easter Island Head become an Ex-Easter Island Head? Presumably by being smashed into pieces or by being taken off Easter Island, which is exactly what happened to Moai Hava ("One who is lost"), who can be found sitting stoically in Liverpool's world museum. He is a very rare Moai who was taken by the British in 1868, when the culture of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was massively in decline due to slavery, disease and civil war. We first heard of him after the group had formed, which was a very strange coincidence indeed and definitely warranted some sort of performance. We suggested writing a piece of music for him, and that's how we ended up writing the piece 'Music for Moai Hava', and performing around the statue itself with a 27-piece ensemble. It's quite amazing where a ridiculous band name will get you if you're patient! Moai Hava's companion Hoa Hakananai'a is in the British Museum, London, if anyone wants to pay him a visit too - his name means 'stolen or hidden friend'.

I've seen you play in the Union Chapel before, but then there are also videos of you playing in larger public spaces - what looks like an art gallery, for example - and the reverb-heavy, echo-laden nature of your music suggests that its final shape is probably strongly determined by the space you play in. Is that true, and is the nature of performance spaces something you consider when writing music or rearranging it for different shows? What's the strangest or most rewarding venue you've played in?

BD: Yeah the places you play always have an impact on how you think about a piece - particularly if the piece is being developed and finely tuned through playing live. It's the equivalent of playing a recording back on different speakers, or listening from outside, or something similar - it's a way of hearing the familiar with new variables. As so much of our music deals with drones and resonance, different spaces can have a huge effect on how the sounds behave. The Union Chapel is one of many churches we've been lucky enough to play in over the last couple of years - they're a great way of gauging how much reverb is too much reverb if you're getting ready to record. Similarly, the melodic overtones and harmonics of a particular chord might reveal themselves in a unique way depending on where that chord is being sounded, and that can make you reconsider how you'd like to perform it in the future. Potential setbacks - all the bass getting sucked out of the mix because of some architectural quirk or particularly generous, absorbent carpet - can be great for making you concentrate on the actual composition as opposed to the sonics of a piece. If a section lives or dies on the gnarliness of a particular guitar sound and suddenly that sound can't be achieved satisfactorily, what are the audience left with?

Strangest space to play? Probably the library on the tiny Scottish Isle of Iona. A mammoth journey to get there, all equipment ferried to the island via a hotel luggage trolley as no cars are allowed, and about a third of the entire island piling into one tiny room to watch us play for half an hour. King Creosote had gotten to do a gig there months before us but we still felt like intrepid explorers.

Could you tell us a bit about the mix you've put together for the Quietus - are there any particular ideas or themes underpinning it?

BD: The mix is a faithful selection of influences on us leading up to the recording of Mallet Guitars Three and features a lot of interesting rhythms and unusual melodies. I was going to do a mix of exclusively car tunes from all the gigging leading up to the recording, but it would be more or less an all-Sparks mixtape, so this is perhaps a bit more fitting to our new record. The Colin Stetson track on there, 'Judges', was a pretty big game-changer for us, as it's a piece of music made entirely from extended techniques, is rooted in minimalism and sounds utterly alien whilst still being undeniable emotive head and heart music, which is pretty similar to what we're trying to do. We had the pleasure of playing with him in Cafe Oto a few weeks ago and it felt like a real high-five moment. There's also some of the aforementioned David Fanshawe recordings on there, Ivor Cutler and Deathprod for melodic droniness, and stuff like Kling Klang who to me represent the long-running continuum of experimental music in our home town of Liverpool. It also has one of the best octave bass lines you've ever heard.

Ex-Easter Island Head's Mallet Guitars Three is out now via Low Point. Click here to listen and buy it.