Untangling The Moment: An Interview With Oren Ambarchi

Oren Ambarchi's work, both solo and in collaboration with names as wide-ranging as Fire! and Sunn O))), finds him twisting guitar tones to the point where they fold in upon themselves. He speaks to Russell Cuzner about collaboration, teaching a course on krautrock and covering Kiss

Anyone familiar with Oren Ambarchi’s solo albums, and particularly the four he recorded for Touch between 1999 and 2007, will have become schooled in his proprietary, unconventional approach to the guitar. Following an epiphany of sorts when witnessing the unique, visionary idiosyncrasies of a Keiji Haino performance, Ambarchi ditched the drums he’d been playing on the Australian free jazz circuit to develop a six-string method he could call his own. The mesmerising results come from a similar place to Sunn O)))’s sensory ‘minimalism meets metal’ (a band with whom Ambarchi would later frequently collaborate) but with more subtle and delicate dimensions: dark bowled tones are suspended and layered to form intricate harmonic patterns that coalesce and disintegrate to produce hypnotic, transcendental experiences for the listener.

So it is with some surprise that Ambarchi’s latest solo release, Audience of One, opens with a spiritual ballad (sung by Paul Duncan of Warm Ghost) before plunging into a fierce, gladiatorial battle between Ambarchi’s angry guitar and Joe Talia’s frenetic drums that is eventually soothed by lush orchestration from Eyvind Kang, before heading into a pretty, straight cover version of an old, poppy Ace Frehley (of Kiss) track. It’s a bewildering but masterful journey through the many aspects of Oren Ambarchi that extend far beyond his work as an improv drummer or immersive tone generator.

Anyone able to keep up with his hectic schedule of collaborative work, however, may find the album to be less of a departure. Since his last proper solo outing (2007’s In the Pendulum’s Embrace), Ambarchi has been playing with an expanding network of cutting edge artists including regular sessions with Jim O’Rourke and the aforementioned Keiji Haino (that sees Ambarchi return to the drums), along with a co-production with underground mystical percussionist z’ev, a tour with Fire! – the heavy kosmische/jazz improv outfit helmed by Mats Gustafsson – and all the while continuing his frequent work with both Greg Andersen and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))).

In the few months since Audience of One‘s release there have been at least six further releases bearing his name, as well as many live shows with ever more diverse artists from minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine, through the godfather of Japanese Noise Merzbow, to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. And, with a new solo album, Sagittarian Domain – a propulsive, long-form cosmic rock workout – due to be released by Editions Mego at the end of August, this hyper-productive tendency seems to be continuing to gain pace.

Your latest solo album, Audience of One, does take quite a few steps on from your earlier solo releases, to seem far less minimal and arguably closer to some of your collaborative work. Was this a deliberate manoeuvre, or have you naturally entered a new phase of working?

Oren Ambarchi: A little bit of both I would say. One thing I noticed working on a lot of Sunn O)))-related stuff, and other collaborative work where I did a lot of editing and mixing when it wasn’t actually my own solo project, I wasn’t precious [or] so anal about every little detail. [On] a lot of the previous Touch records there’s tracks that have 48 or 50 different things going on, even though it sounds super minimal and spare there’s lots of meticulous detail, and I started getting really annoyed with myself about having that approach, not being as loose as I’d like to be. The actual recording of all those records was usually one or two takes and very, very loose, but then I would sit with it for a long time and really put it together meticulously – so I found that the approach to working on other people’s stuff was really fun and liberating, and I thought "why don’t you just do the same sort of thing to your own stuff?" [laughs]

Another thing was all the other solo records would always start with my guitar at home or in the studio, and then I would expand it with other instruments. [On] this particular record – not all of it, but a lot of it – what I definitely had in mind before I recorded one note was to have other people give me something and then I react to it, and construct something from that, and force myself to work a different way.

So, that track ‘Knots’ which is the long piece on the record, I was trying to get fit for a while. I was running a lot in the park in the summer and listening to a lot of older records that I used to love when I was a teenager – and one particular thing I was listening to were these old ECM records, and a few of them had this drummer Jack DeJohnette who is a great jazz drummer. It was quite propulsive rhythmically, but there was a lot of textural, atonal kind of things happening on top, and I asked my friend, Joe Talia, "I want you to play like Jack DeJohnette for as long as possible, as fast as possible, and build it." He had a crack at it – it was very difficult – and, eventually, we settled on one after a few takes. Then I started constructing stuff at home – like all the guitar stuff, all the layers – around that, and that’s how that piece happened. So that was just a way of forcing myself to approach things differently. I’m really happy ’cause it just threw me into a new direction.

I was wondering if this kind of loosening up of the process, as you put it, was also a way of not being so reliant on technology [of guitars, amps and effects pedals], going a bit beyond your unique method, without the tools it requires?

OA: All that stuff that I guess I’m known for, or my particular personal sound that I have, it’s all over that record. It’s just that it’s not as featured, or it’s not as spare or naked as it would be normally. [On] ‘Knots’ there’s so much of that stuff, but there’s a lot of other things going on as well, so it’s not trying to draw attention to it as much as I have in the past, I guess. This has more dense things happening. Maybe to an extent in the last few years I have allowed more conventional guitar sounds to come out as well, which doesn’t bother me at all, it’s the way things are kind of evolving in my live shows and [on] Audience of One there’s some really straight-up rock guitar type sounds.

Is it possible to play any of it live and do you have plans to do so?

I’d love to, and to tell you the truth I kind of have been playing almost like a solo version of ‘Knots’ live for the last year or so, which changes all the time. And in a way, my duo with Joe Talia when we play live is like a stripped back version of that same piece, but I’m really keen to actually do it with an extended line-up and play an extended version of ‘Knots’ – like a 45 minute version or so. It’s just, you know, money. Usually when people want me to play they ask me to play solo, [but] I would love to do an arrangement of that live and play with strings and horns and everything, that would be really fantastic. In fact, I’m really frustrated that I can’t do that. I’m trying to make that happen, but it never seems to, so far anyway.

There’s a very epic feel about Audience of One, as there is Monoliths & Dimensions that you did with Sunn O))) – and there’s overlap with both featuring Josiah Boothby on French Horn, Eyvind Kang’s strings, vocals from Jessica Kenney, and Randall Dunn’s in there somewhere too. Was Monoliths & Dimensions a particularly great influence on the new work?

OA: Not necessarily. More the relationship that I’ve had with Randall, ’cause I’ve worked with Randall with Sunn O))) and in other projects quite a lot over the last five or six years, and we’ve really connected. I think we have an affinity where I love his energy and I love working with him because he’s just happy to grab an idea and run with it and get really enthusiastic about something and push me into trying things that I wouldn’t think of, or suggest things. I really love that attitude. A lot of engineers here that I work with are very passive and they ask you to instruct them on what you want to do next. Randall’s very American, he’s just a go-getter – he goes for it – and when you only have two or three days in the studio on a tight budget, I really like to try and get as much stuff done as possible, and not really think too much about stuff. So, over the years he’s said, "you should really come here and record things". Finally I made most of ‘Knots’ in Australia and then I thought it’d be really cool if I could go to Seattle and take it a step further with him and with Eyvind.

Eyvind, we played together in 1993 – which is a long time ago – so I’ve known Eyvind for years, way before Monoliths & Dimensions. Again, we’d play together live but I wanted to work with him as an arranger so that was really fruitful. And I’m actually going there this weekend to do more stuff with those guys.

Is this a show, or more recording?

OA: More recording, I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go at the moment. I’ve made a techno piece [laughs] and I’m taking it there. I’m still really interested in the rhythmical underpinning of stuff and then unusual textural and harmonic things happening on top. I’m listening to a lot of techno at the moment – well, I always have, actually.

What sort of techno are you listening to?

OA: Oh, all kinds of stuff, I mean, back in the day I was buying early Sähkö stuff and I was also really interested in Mike Ink and all the Wolfgang Voigt side-projects and, at the moment, I’m into a lot of English stuff and I even like the 100% Silk label. And I’ve been working with Thomas Brinkmann a lot lately, he’s actually involved in this thing I’m doing in Seattle as well. I’ve always been a big fan of his work so it’s really great to work with him.

One of your many recent releases – The Mortimer Trap – was with Brinkmann, inspired by ‘For Bunita Marcus’ by Morton Feldman – what is it about the piece that lead to the collaboration?

OA: Well, actually all that feedback stuff is actually John Tilbury playing ‘For Bunita Marcus’. I don’t know what he [Brinkmann] did – he sort of constructed that and most people would think that was me, all this kind of annoying, quite relentless feedback stuff is actually Thomas manipulating John Tilbury’s version of ‘Bunita Marcus’. Thomas was really interested in making something quite relentlessly experimental and I was like "No, I want to make something rhythmical, I’m working with you!" It was quite funny how he had wanted to do what he perceived I do, and I wanted to do what I perceive he does. So eventually it kind of unfolded over a long period of time and the rhythms slowly started coming out, but originally it was just this relentless thing, yeah [laughs].

I feel there’s a duality in your technique which seems to be intuitive on the one hand, often aiming for a spiritual or hypnotic dimension to the sound, but at the same time it’s got a foot in the academic worlds of, say, musique concrète, electroacoustics and minimalism. Did you ever study music in any formal sense?

OA: No [laughs], not at all. It’s all from listening to records and going to concerts basically and being a rabid fan of all kinds of music, including those genres you mention. That’s basically it, I’ve never been instructed in anyway and it’s funny ’cause I teach at a university.

Yeah, I only recently heard about that – are you still teaching?

OA: I am, but I don’t have a degree at all and never studied at University so it’s kind of funny. The name of the department I work for is called the Centre for Ideas at the Victoria College for the Arts [and is] really, really interesting, they like practitioners and people that are actually doing stuff, so I’m really fortunate to be able to do that.

What’s your teaching style?

OA: I don’t know. I’m almost allowed to create my own subjects so I had a class called ‘The Hidden Connections between Avant Garde and Popular Culture’. That’s something that’s always interested me – this meeting of, you know, AMM influencing Pink Floyd for example, [but] not only with music but with all kinds of art forms. And then there was another one called ‘Ecstasy and Ritual in Art and Sound’, which again is something that really interests me. I’m doing one next semester on krautrock because one of my students did a presentation on Kraftwerk and I started talking about Kraftwerk to the class and it lead to Neu!, and I said out aloud, "God, I can talk about krautrock for a whole semester, and we could do a different group each lesson" and then I pitched it and so now, yeah, I’m doing that next semester. It should be fun.

‘…Connections between Avant Garde and Popular Culture’ sums up this duality I perceived, and I’ve noticed metal particularly seems to have become far more open to other music in the last ten years or so and is now happy to draw on aspects of more academic styles like minimalism and concrète. What do you think has catalysed this re-emergence of metal as an avant garde form?

OA: It’s funny ’cause I’m really out of touch with metal right now.

Well, Sunn O)))’s an obvious example, but I was thinking it’s something that black metal did, perhaps, by taking the focus away from the craftsmanship of guitar solos.

OA: Absolutely. It was more about a feeling or a mood or an atmosphere, and that’s the black metal stuff that I really loved. And it’s also very minimal, it’s very repetitive and blurry. They’re the things that I loved about certain black metal records. I think a lot of the things that I love are usually when people don’t really know what they’re doing [laughs]. Like a lot of the early black metal stuff where these guys holed up somewhere creating something not in a bubble but very, very personal, and as soon as they kind of knew what they were doing or got better at what they were doing, usually it wasn’t as interesting for me.

I know what you mean, they become polished.

OA: Yeah. But that connection [between] black metal or certain metal musics [with] minimalism and repetition and ritual – when it becomes quite mesmerising – that’s the stuff that I really love. It’s more of a feeling or a texture than a really fast drum beat or guitar solos or whatever.

So the last track on Audience of One is maybe the most surprising: you’re doing a cover version, and it’s of Ace Frehley of Kiss. Was it the song that lead you to choose it, or have you always been a big Kiss fan?

OA: I was definitely a huge fan of that album, the whole thing, and I still am, I think it’s an incredible hard rock record.

This is when each member of Kiss released a solo album apiece (in 1978)?

OA: Yeah, his one really, really stands out. I always thought he was really underrated, he was kind of like the George Harrison of Kiss or something [laughs]. I was into them when I was nine or ten and my parents took me to see them – I was pretty fanatical as a kid – so I’ve always loved that album. I always heard that track as almost like this American minimalist piece. So again it was this fantasy that I had, to try and do it, and maybe bring out those nuances a little bit, but not be too smart about it. The whole album, in a way, is kind of a reflection of the stuff I used to love when I was young, and revisiting a lot of it now and it’s coming out in my own music. … I find myself listening to a lot of older things now – of course I’m trying to keep up with stuff, but I’m always revisiting older things that I loved.

There have been many collaborative releases this year, where some of the same names tend to crop up again and again to suggest a network or distinct community even though it might not have a name.

OA: Yeah, you see a lot of the same people around when you’re doing stuff [laughs]… For sure, it’s like, there’s Keiji Haino, I’ve always been a huge fan of his, a huge fan. I mean he’s the reason why I play guitar. When I saw him in 1992 in New York that was a big life-changing moment for me, so I’m really honoured to be able to work with someone like that quite regularly.

Just released is Nazoranai, your collaboration with Haino and Stephen O’Malley. Like much of your collaborative output, it’s an improvised performance – does everyone involved tend to know beforehand that what you’re about to play will become a release at some point?

OA: No, I think the night before we played and someone was recording it, [but] the power in their laptop, the adaptor, blew up right before the end of the gig and they lost the whole thing. So you never really know what’s going to happen, and you forget – I mean sometimes you might say "Hey, can we record this and think about trying to record it in advance," but… A lot of stuff I do someone happens to record it – sometimes you’re really lucky and this show’s a good one and it’s been captured, but it’s completely improvised. When you’re actually playing you completely forget, you’re not even concerned that it’s being recorded, you’re just playing the gig and trying to be in the moment as much as possible… Yeah, that particular gig in Paris [which was recorded for the Nazoranai album] was a really long show – I think it was three hours – so they’re just segments of that particular show that I edited and mixed.

I last saw you play at Café Oto in April with Charlemagne Palestine. It was such a magical show: initially you duetted on wine glasses and then he began singing and you moved on to guitar etc, but then, for me anyway, the spell was briefly broken by Palestine repeatedly shouting for you to move onto the drums, which was a bit unexpected for the audience and, I imagine, for you too?

OA: It was, it was completely unexpected. But then again you’re playing a gig with Charlemagne Palestine, so anything can happen, you know? [laughs]

I felt a little awkward as I wondered if he was being a bit disrespectful perhaps. What did you make of the night overall?

OA: [laughs] I enjoyed it. I thought it was uncomfortable at times, but in a good way. I was amused, I love Charlemagne and he’s such a character, so you work with someone like that and you’ve got to expect things like that to go down. Yeah, it was pleasure. It was just fun, and a challenge.

Did you plan anything prior to the show?

OA: God, no! [laughs] I mean the fact that I had the drums there – I set them up on the possibility of maybe getting on the drums if it was appropriate but then, yeah, I kind of had no choice [laughs], when he started yelling "DRUMS!"

Another new way of working for you came in March when you played with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra as part of the Tectonics Festival. How did that work?

It was improvised, but I was working in conjunction with the conductor, this guy Ilan Volkov, and he devised cues. I had a certain tuning and we had a certain plan, but it was still pretty much improvised from what I was doing, and he devised ways of getting the orchestra to react to what I was doing by conducting them in real time as I played. It was like this organic thing where they would react to me and I would react to them and, yeah, it worked out really, really well. And, man, playing with an orchestra! An orchestra is just incredible, hearing the strings section tuning I was getting goosebumps. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful sound just acoustically. I was really, really lucky to do that, an incredible experience. The orchestra were very cool, very open-minded – I had a huge backline, I had what I would use in a solo context, and it was on the stage right next to the strings. A lot of the older players at the end were really stoked and gave me a hug and were really into the experience of doing that kind of thing, ’cause they don’t get to do that very often. It’s pretty unique, yeah, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do that again.

I was going to ask has it sparked plans to do something more orchestral in future

OA: Well that’d be great but Ilan, the conductor of that orchestra, is a very unique energetic guy that really sticks his neck on the line and makes things happen. He’s really into experimental music and he somehow has the power to push these things, these crazy ideas, and actually make them happen, so it’s not your average situation, that’s for sure.

Did I see somewhere that you’re going to be touring with Fire! again [the Swedish trio of Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werlin] towards the end of the year?

OA: Yea, that’s right – actually at the end of August, I don’t think we’re playing the UK I think it’s mostly Scandinavia, and maybe France, that’s it.

For the album that resulted from your last tour with Fire!, In the Mouth – A Hand, was it a recording of the set you were evolving together played live in the studio?

OA: No, not at all. Because whenever we played live on that tour, I mean, everything was improvised, it was always spontaneous. When we went into the studio we had played two nights at The Vortex, then we had this studio booked in the morning and then we had to get on a boat to go to France that afternoon, so we literally got up after three or four hours of sleep and went into the studio, set up, just played and really hit it from the get go. Everyone was just ‘on’, and then walked out and drove and got onto a boat, you know? [laughs]

What’s your next release?

OA: There’s a solo thing coming out on Editions Mego in September, and it’s very, very different – it’s a rock record, basically, like, really rock – ‘rock rock’. I was fortunate enough to have a day in the best studio in Australia and I had one day in the studio and I had no idea what I was going to do, and there were like all these beautiful instruments in a beautiful room. I put my arm around the engineer and said "We’re going to make an album today," [laughs] and he said "Yeah, sure", and I basically made an album and it’s a really kind of repetitive rock record.

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