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Pure Intuition [2011-11-10]

There are many roads to reach Australiaís experimental multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi: his extensive and seemingly perpetual collaborative work ensures that he appears on many maps, from the chaotic lands of free improv through electroacoustic topographies to avant metal churches. Meanwhile, his solo work is more like a series of underground rivers of pure tones carrying elements from the collaborative landscape along in its flow that can only occasionally be accessed from the surface.

All this activity was catalysed by a faith in taking intuitive routes that saw Ambarchi drop the drums that heíd been playing on the Sydney free jazz scene since the late eighties, and pick up a guitar Ė an instrument heíd never played before Ė and started to carve his own methods from which to reach untypical results, often rendering the instrument as a formidable tone generator embellished with fragile structures from bells, piano or glass harmonica.
Oren spoke with Musique Machine in the middle of a recent tour with Fire!, a trio from Sweden consisting of Mats Gustafsson on Rhodes and sax, Johan Berthling on bass and Wildbirds & Peacedrumís Andreas Werlin on drums, where he wove his potent minimalism into the trioís powerful fusion of kosmische and free jazz.

m[m]:
How did the tour with Fire! come about?

OA:
I donít know exactly. I recorded with Johan Berthling, the bass player, in 2002 in Sweden and didnít know him at all. I was staying at the Fylkingen, a legendary performance space slash organisation centre for avant garde music. In the fifties and sixties Cage and Xenakis premiered work there and it still exists today. I was doing some shows and he approached me about recording the next day and I was like ďyeah, sure!Ē and he showed up with a harmonium and we made this record really, really quickly in an hour or so. It kinda had a very Tony Conrad vibe about it and we stayed in touch over the years. Iíve known Mats Ė he curated a festival last year that I played solo at and he said we should play together one day and they just invited me to join them. So, six shows together and them Iím doing a bunch of solo shows and collab shows after.

m[m]:
So, how does it work Ė I know that you were pretty much straight off the plane from Australia at Birmingham Supersonic and that was the first time you guys played together?

OA:
It was, we didnít even soundcheck.

m[m]:
Any rehearsals, a score or anything?

OA:
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But thatís not uncommon in this scene I guess.

m[m]:
I was wondering if the rules, or lack of them, that you follow playing with these guys is reminiscent at all of your early days as a drummer on the improve scene?

OA:
I think a lot of it just has to do with getting along with people and enjoying like what weíre doing now and just hanging out and just sort of like-minded you can find some common ground to work with. Over the years I have played in a lot of different contexts, so that really helps as well.

m[m]:
The tour with Fire! is just one example of your extensive collaborative work. Since the early nineties there have been some names that keep cropping up either as direct collaborators or in relation to your work. Iíd be interested to know a bit about how each came about and what lasting affect it has had on your current musicÖ
Öfirst up being Keiji Haino?

OA:
Well thatís interesting because I started off as a drummer and grew up playing along to Sex Pistols and Kiss records, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, stuff like that. I was totally into playing drums but I had this other side where I was really interested in electronics as well and fooling around at home with reel to reel machines and effect pedals and stuff like that. Then I became heavily, heavily into jazz, mostly free jazz, earlier ECM sorta fusion stuff and then it lead into quite extreme free jazz sorta stuff and my earliest live experience was playing the drums in a free jazz context. But, I had this electronic thing as well at home so I slowly started integrating that in the free jazz context, so micing up my drums with contact mics and I had a reel-to-reel player, and effect pedals Ö and I found a guitar in a rehearsal room that someone had just dumped there, didnít want it anymore, so I started hitting that with drum sticks Ė slowly becoming more interested in that. Concurrently I was travelling to New York a lot and studying there and seeing loads and loads of live shows: Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, stuff like that, and around that time I think I saw Keiji Hainoís first New York appearance which was in 1991 I think. And something about it was so powerful.

m[m]:
What sort of set was he doing?

OA:
This was playing solo guitar and vocals. I saw him do a lot of collaborative stuff as well. But it wasnít a volume thing but more something that was highly individual and highly personal and someone thatís created their own soundworld. And it just really changed everything for me because up until then I was seeing a lot of really amazing players, but thatís what they were Ė players Ė whereas Keiji was just totally, yeah, personal. And I decided when I go back to Australia I was going to play guitar and thatís kinda what I did. Everyone thought I was insane as I didnít know how to play guitar, I didnít know anything about it. So around the age of 23 I switched, and itís a long story, but soon after I was back in New York and working with a lot of the people Iíd been seeing for the last few years, playing the guitar but not really knowing anything about how to play the guitar, but maybe having enough experience doing live stuff and improvised stuff with another instrument that I could sorta fit in. But it took a long time for me to learn what I didnít want do and what I did want to do, it took a long time.

m[m]:
Did you do any formal guitar lessons?

OA:
No, no. Even with drums it was just listening to records and going to shows and just playing with a lot of different people and different situations.

m[m]:
You mentioned New York, which is where, I assume, you hooked up with John Zorn?

OA:
Someone introduced me to him in 1989 or 1990 and we just really hit it off and he said to me next time youíre in New York if you want to stay in touch and he gave me his phone number. So when I was coming back I faxed him Ė there was no email in those days Ė and he just wrote back and said ďhey, díyou wanna play at my festival?Ē, he hadnít even heard anything that I do, nothing, but we just sorta got along. He gave me this gig, so I played and he was really into it and then he invited me to collaborate with him and a lot of people like Ikue [Mori] and Arto Lindsay and I ended up doing one of his compositions and it just sorta led to doing stuff with him. It was interesting because he hadnít heard a note or a sound.

m[m]:
What were you playing of his, was it the Cobra piece?

OA:
Eventually he invited me to play Cobra. I had to learn it in the morning and play it that night which was really scary Ďcause I was 23 and barely knew how to play guitar.

m[m]:
Staying in the States for the moment, you seem to have collaborated with Alan Licht a fair bit?

OA:
Iím only on one release with Alan, [but] the first solo guitar record that I released myself in an edition of 150 was a funny thing because Iíd listened to one his records and kinda thought ďI could do that!Ē (laughs) and I literally plugged my guitar directly in to a cassette and I was almost imitating one of his records and pressed it up and in retrospect I thought it was really lame and stupid that I did that, but he got a hold of it and he actually wrote a letter to me and said that he really liked it and that we should do something and stay in touch. And then years later I went to New York and we played with Zorn actually, but we did a tour around New Zealand with Tetuzi Akiyama, a sorta guitar trio, and Iím playing with Alan next week in Paris. But we actually havenít played together that much Ė just hung out a bit.

 

m[m]:
How about Keith Rowe, another seemingly regular collaborator?

OA:
Keith Rowe Iíve played with a lot in many, many different contexts. First time was in 2001 when he came to Australia we played with Fennesz and Peter Rehberg and Pimmon and the record came out and then he organised some shows for me and Robbie Avenaim, a drummer from Australia, and we did a tour around Europe and we did a lot of duos and played together in Japan, America, Europe over the years quite a lot.

 

m[m]:
More recently youíve been incorporated into many of Sunn O)))ís activities both live and on record. How did you first meet Stephen OíMalley?

OA:
It was very funny how he got in touch with me because he was DJing at the CMJ Festival in New York and he played a track of mine from a Touch CD called ĎCorkscrewí and apparently the bass frequencies set off the fire alarm in the venue and the sprinklers went on and they had to evacuate the place and the fire department came and the next day he emailed me and he said ďwe need to work togetherĒ! He was one of the first people that understood what I was trying to do. In my head anyway I think a lot of what I do, with my solo records is like, I look at it as rock music but itís just kinda stripped back to a pure tone or a pure signal but the feeling is almost the same thing and he got that I think. And of course those guys are really into low frequencies and I am too and that was an immediate sort of connection so, yea, they just flew me to Europe to do a tour with them and that was it and weíve been working together since on loads of projects with Greg and with Stephen.

 

m[m]:
Yea, I saw you were almost doing two tours at the same time, one with Greg (as part of Burial Chamber Trio with Attila Csihar), one with Stephen (as part of Burial Chamber Trio, also with Attila Csihar).

OA:
Yea, and again Iím playing with Steven next week.

m[m]:
And Keiji Haino?

OA:
Yea, but Iím playing drums for that.

 

m[m]:
Really? How often do you find yourself playing drums these days?

OA:
Maybe more than I used to. Iím sorta falling in love with doing it again but I donít practice when I never play so the last time I played drums was with Jim OíRourke and Keiji Haino in Tokyo in January and I actually havenít actually picked up any drumsticks since then. Itís a bit ridiculous how I throw myself into potentially dangerous situations but I kinda like just jumping inÖ

m[m]:
Well, it seems like something that happens a lot to you, thereís no rehearsalÖ

OA:
Yea, there is. I mean, a lot of my stuff is really, really specific actually.

m[m]:
Is that the solo stuff?

OA:
Solo to an extent, the solo stuff is pretty open as well. I just played in Norway about a month ago and it was actually a composition with an acoustic ensemble from Norway that I was playing along with and that was totally scored and really quite formal so, Iím interested in both ways.

m[m]:
You mentioned Jim OíRourke, who seems to be the latest regular fixture in your collaborative mode, how did this work come about?

OA:
We first met in 1997 in New York and weíd bump into each other over the years and heís one of the guys that I really follow what heís doing in any context and maybe it was just a matter of time before we did something together. Then the last few years weíve played a lot and itís been really fun. I really enjoy working with him.

m[m]:
You have wryly questioned whether improvisers listen to improvised music. As the music is recorded in the moment I sometimes feel that it should be listened to in the same way: straight through but only once. What do you feel is the best listening environment for your music?

OA:
It depends on the context really Ė a good PA system is important because of the frequency range, I donít know, I just like being able to lose myself in sound and if you canít do that then itís a problem. When I made that comment about improvised music, I mean I love improvised music and Iíve got loads of improvised music, but I love so many other things as well and it just bothers me when people just limit what they listen to.
Jim is very much like [me in this way] well, thatís why I get along with him Ė so many things, we can talk about a Genesis record for hours you know?
m[m]:
Youíve described your solo work as ďtricking machineryĒ Ė how much of the final work is reliant on the studio as an instrument, or does it mostly involve live recordings (like that of improvised music)?

OA:
Itís pretty much live. Well, the initial bed or layer is live and then I sort of build and shape it Ö and a lot of it is taking a lot of things out, when I mix I take a lot of things out but the whole tricky thing is more like, you know that Voice Crack band from Switzerland?, itís kinda like what they said about cracking the code, like everything has a code and if you can crack the code you can just sorta extract something out of an object so a lot of it is about finding something eccentric in the gear that the gear wasnít made to do and find something thatís really unusual and that becomes part of the language in a way.

m[m]:
Does it tend to happen that what you create in the studio is relatively transferable should you be asked to play that night coming away from recording could you reproduce the same thing?

OA:
I could probably reproduce elements of it but a lot of it is layers of stuff and a lot of what Iím really interested in, the last few years anyway, is delicate acoustic textures coexisting with electronic low end stuff. Those two things being juxtaposed, but in the end I mean weíre talking about technology and in a way itís all just music, thatís what itís all about. Itís really, really simple what I do Iím not trying to be weird or anything.

m[m]:
Your experiments with guitar started without the aid of a computer as your sound evolved influenced by the limitations. What do you feel is the most significant change, technologically, over the years to the way you work and its output? Or are you free of the shackles of technology in a way and can operate independently?

OA:
In some ways Iím completely bound to technology, well Iím kinda tied to a lot of my effect pedals and things that I use because part of my sound is specific things that I use. It kinda bothers me that Iím tied to that to an extent, but on the other hand a lot of my recent recordings, some which havenít come out, I actually havenít used any of that stuff, Iím going down other roads in a way. Itís interesting, the years of trying to find something very personal and the right thing can be an albatross as well - once you find it youíre stuck, so Iím always sort of jugglingÖ

m[m]:
Youíve said you find your solo work more daunting to perform and have described difficulties with starting new pieces Ė is this connected to that sort of albatross youíre describing?

OA:
Absolutely, Iíve found that with working on a lot of other peopleís records, like working with Sunn O))) and mixing all of Sunnís stuff Iíve been a lot more freer and careless almost with the way I approached it. My stuff Iím super precious about every single stupid nuance, just too anal, so this new record that Iíve just finished for Touch, Iím just trying to have the same headspace with my solo stuff as I do with others.
In a way, when I make a record, a lot of it is done really quickly and very rough, but then Iíll sit with it for a long time and shape stuff around it. And on the other hand sometimes Iíll listen to it and Iíll go, oh I couldíve done that so much better, but itís about something, I donít know, fresher, when you just donít really think about it too much, you just do it.

m[m]:
Is it a form of Ďprocessí music that allows you to be composer and consumer simultaneously?

OA:
Yea, in a way, it sort of plays itself after a while. If I donít get a certain feeling from it then I stop working.

m[m]:
So has there been any particular change in technology thatís significantly altered what you do?

OA:
Iím totally old school. Like, if I can, I prefer to record to tape. Iím not really a computer guy.

m[m]:
You donít need a computer to do what you do?

OA:
Itís inevitable that youíre going to use a computer to master a record. But Iíve never really processed with a computer.

m[m]:
You studied Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah in the late eighties and have incorporated aspects of some of the music from your studies into your work Ė does anything from these areas still inform your music or is it a separate thing?

OA:
Itís not separate, but I donít want to turn it into this romantic, you know... I donít know, I try not to think about it too much. But, definitely when I was younger there was a lot of chanting and repetition, without words actually, it was melodies and things that were repeated; maybe, maybe that had an affect on me, I donít know, Ďcause I am interested in repetition. My mother was also born in India so maybe that had something to do with a lot of the stuff that I enjoy.

m[m]:
You toured Japan with your band Phlegm in the nineties and have collaborated with many Japanese musicians. Is there something specific about Japan that keeps you returning there?

OA:
Always, always been super into Japanese music and in the early nineties I was way into the Japanese noise scene. I was really lucky to go there and see a lot of that stuff and work with a lot of those people when it was just sorta really happening, you know? Ö but Japan I just love their enthusiasm and knowledge and just the way they soak up everything.

m[m]:
When I went to Tower Records in Shinjuku I was surprised to see the majority of music I was interested in (including your stuff) filed under ĎNew Ageí Ė what do you think of this label?

OA:
Well, their understanding of Ďpsychedelicí is different to ours: what they think of psychedelic Ė theyíd call noise music psychedelic Ė itís got nothing to do with drugs or what the West perceives psychedelic to be, itís a completely different thing, itís like a feeling or something and I really relate to that.

m[m]:
So Japanese use the new age tag, which I quite like, but I noticed in the blurb on tonightís venueís website they describe you as a ďdrone lordĒ Ė how do you feel about such a label?

OA:
Annoyed. I fucking hate that. I hate the way they say Ďdroneí all the time, itís really annoying.

m[m]:
I agree. It makes it sound one dimensional.

OA:
It limits things.

m[m]:
Your career started in the last few days before the so-called digital music ruined everyoneís lives. How do you feel about the digitisation of music and does your music work with it?

OA:
It doesnít suit what I do, at all Ė it sounds like shit. Iím not really a download guy either, Iím really kinda old school: I just like records.

m[m]:
With the ability to illegally download things, have you noticed that having a negative effect on you, or conversely has it meant youíre name gets Ďround the planet that much more quicker helping draw people into the shows?

OA:
Uh, I donít know. Maybe Iím just an old fart, but for me buying records, and yíknow living in Australia and trying to find the stuff when I was growing up was something really exciting about getting a mail order catalogue in the mail weeksí after all the Europeans and Americans got them and pouring through them and having two sentences to describe something and then going to the Post Office to send the money order and the thing arriving four weeks later - that was just so exciting.

m[m]:
And it doesnít exist now?

OA:
I donít know, it just seems a little gratuitous and just being able to click and hear something that someoneís laboured over, you know?

m[m]:
Also, thereís no physical reference point in the room in which youíre listening?

OA:
I love the idea of an album, listening to an album as a work, a lot of the times itís people jumping on a track Ė I even find myself doing it, just jumping on a recordís website and quickly shuffling through things. If someone did that to something Iíd worked on Ė itís a little uncomfortable. Thereís good things about it tooÖ

m[m]:
What catalogues did you used to get?

OA:
Triple R, definitely, Forced Exposure, um, what else? I was buying a lot of noise stuff in the early nineties [from] ĎJapan Overseasí Ö they were I guess the first Japanese mail order place, Triple R, Forced Exposure and Japan Overseas were the three big weekly places where Iíd buy stuff; and itís funny cause the first time I played Japan the woman who ran Japan Overseas organised the tour for me and a friend purely because we were buying from them, and you just develop this sort of rapport via writing letters and, again, she hadnít heard  our music but she arranged the tour for us Ė I really like this sorta exchange, it was a really exciting time. Itís really convenient now to be able to email someone and organise a tour, but thereís something exciting about the old days!

m[m]:
What are you listening to at the moment?

OA:
Everything Ė a lot of Paul McCartney, a lot of American noise from the nineties Iíve just been revisiting that stuff. A lot of ECM, early ECM jazz, just a lot of records I used to have when I was younger that I just revisited, Terje Rypdal and early John Abercrombie, very nostalgic.

m[m]:
Whatís next, you mentioned a new album for Touch?

OA:
Yea, itís finished, itís done, it wonít come out Ďtil next year.

 

m[m]:
Did it have a long incubation process?

In a way it has, the actual execution of it was quite quick, but definitely Ö itís kinda a good summing up of where my headís at cause thereís some stuff thatís really quite poppy in some places and thereís some stuff thatís quite noisy and nasty and thereís jazzy places and I even do a Kiss cover at the end, so itís kinda all over the place.

m[m]:
Which one, or do we have to wait?

OA:
Well, itís actually an Ace Frehley cover, and Iím not trying to be a smartass or anything itís just a record that I really loved when I was young, the very last track is an instrumental, itís a total guitarist-making-a-solo-album cause he just layers loads and loads of guitars. I always heard it as American minimalist music Ďcause thereís a lot of repetition to it, so Iíve just done an arrangement of it, itís pretty true to the original, though.

m[m]:
Then solo shows throughout November?

OA:
Iíve got a load of solo shows coming up, shows with Keiji and Steve. Iím going to Iceland in February to work with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra Ė I have no idea what thatís going to be like Ė itís with John Tilbury, as well, from AMM.

Many thanks go to Oren for taking the time to chat with us and answer our many questions.

You can keep track of his many activities on his website: http://www.orenambarchi.com/

photo credits: main front page pic Oren w/sunn 0))), hifi bar, Melbourne, May 07. Small front page picture from this years supersonic fest taken by Justine Bleasdale. secound main interview pic from this years supersonic fest by Justine Bleasdale.

Russell Cuzner
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