So what have you been up to this year? Compared to the relentlessly prolific flow of Oren Ambarchi’s varied and consistently engaging work this year, it’s pretty easy to feel a bit lazy by comparison. In the past nine months, Ambarchi has appeared on releases with the Swedish psychedelic free-jazz trio Fire! (In the Mouth a Hand), Germany’s Thomas Brinkmann (The Mortimer Trap), Keiji Haino with Jim O’Rourke (Imikuzushi) and sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’Malley (Nazoranai), and Kranky is set to release a collaboration with Robin Fox later this month (Connected). There are three double albums in that list, and this doesn’t even include Ambarchi’s solo material — suffice to say, if ever there was a year to submerge yourself in his work, 2012 is a pretty damn great one.
Editions Mego has just released the Australian multi-instrumentalist’s newest album, Sagittarian Domain. It’s his second solo album of the year (following Audience of One), a half-hour excursion that merges a pulsing, hypnotic rhythm with ghostly feedback and round, sci-fi Moog bass. It’s a far cry from the blissful ambiance many associate with Ambarchi by dint of prior releases such as Grapes From the Estate and Suspension, but his recent turn toward more overtly rock-oriented sounds is decidedly less of a shock if one has been following his collaborative output from the past few years (especially releases such as 2011’s Hit & Run with percussionist Joe Talia, and this year’s Imikuzushi with Haino and O’Rourke).
I spoke with Ambarchi over Skype right before he had to go teach a class on Krautrock at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, which probably makes him the coolest professor I’ve ever spoken to.
I’d like to start by acknowledging that 2012 has been a very prolific year for you — I’ve counted at least seven new releases. How do you feel about having so much new material out at once?
It’s kind of weird, the way it’s gone. Sometimes you can’t really predict these things — sometimes a label will sit on a release for a while, and then all of a sudden they can do it and they all seem to come out at the same time. So that’s happened a little bit, but yeah, I guess I have been pretty busy and really been enjoying recording. I’m pretty obsessive — I like working, I love making records, I love listening to records.
And Sagittarian Domain, your newest record, in some respects it reminds me of the other long piece you put on a solo record this year, “Knots,” except with a bit more of a pulsing, muscular kind of krautrock feel to it. Actually, that ‘krautrock feel’ has been apparent in a few of your releases this year — I’m thinking especially of Imikuzushi with Jim O’Rourke and Keiji Haino. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Well, I grew up with rock music and I’m originally a drummer, so I’ve always loved rock music. I even think some of my early, more abstract work — in a way, I always looked at it as rock music, even though it wasn’t overtly defined that way, or revealed that way. The first track on Grapes From the Estate, for example, “Corkscrew,” I had always looked at that as a rock piece, but just really, really stripping it back. There are definitely rhythms there, it’s just not super-obvious.
Sagittarian Domain happened because I was doing music for a film installation, and I was in this beautiful studio, and there were just so many great instruments there, and I had the opportunity to use all of the different instruments. I had to make a piece in one day, and make it really quick. The night before the session, a friend of mine lent me a really cheap drum machine, and I thought I could build up a piece from playing drums along with the drum machine, and then sort of build it up from there. It was a very organic process. But I love rock music, and I think it’s always been there, just maybe not as obvious as it is at the moment. I’m also embracing the fact that I’m a drummer, and playing a lot more drums. I started it up again from playing with Haino, and it got me excited about playing drums.
You started with free-jazz drumming, right?
I did. My first live experience was playing free jazz when I was 17, 18, playing drums. But I grew up playing along to, you know, Hendrix, Sex Pistols, Kiss records, and stuff like that when I was 11 or 12. I got into jazz because of listening to rock music, and emulating a drummer like Mitch Mitchell when I was 13, and then finding out that his favorite drummer was Elvin Jones, and then finding out that Hendrix was really into Ornette Coleman, and all these things sort of led me to the free-jazz world. But I definitely started off as a young boy listening to, and playing, rock music.
You touched upon this briefly, about Sagittarian Domain being a quick thing, and I think it’s a very focused-sounding track, yet it also feels very spontaneous.
Did you just step into the studio thinking, “Let’s see what happens,” or did you have something planned beforehand?
I had nothing planned. All I had was this shitty drum machine the night before I went into the studio, and I didn’t really know how to use it! (laughs) That’s all I had, and I just went in there and found something — like a rhythm on the drum machine that I liked — and just started playing drums. I had it in my headphones, and I played along to it. I just got inspired.
I’d like to ask about the strings at the end of the piece, as I noticed they were recorded a few months later, arranged by James Rushford. Was adding this segment something that occurred to you after recording the initial piece?
It was, yeah. We actually mixed the track that night, and I had this idea that I would just do the whole thing — we mixed it, it was “finished.” And then I sat with it for a while, and thankfully I forgot about it for a few months. I was thinking about it all the time, but I wasn’t listening to it all the time. And, at the end [of the piece] there was this note that I hold, and I started layering some sort of melodies at home — very sparse. I had just come back from a trip overseas, and when you fly from Europe to Australia it’s like 30 hours or more, so it’s pretty exhausting. A lot of the time I just try to fall asleep — I have a hard time sleeping on these flights, but usually I can kind of fall asleep if I’m listening to music. And I remember falling asleep to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and I remember the strings coming in and hearing that sort of coda he has at the end, and it’s so brief, and it’s really beautiful, and it was kind of frustrating that he didn’t really expand [it], it just fades out sort of quickly. So those melodies I did at home that I overdubbed — really spare, sort of sparse melodies — and hearing the “Purple Rain” thing gave me this idea to have this coda at the end. So James and I got together and I sort of gave him a demo of those notes that I played, and he arranged some stuff around that, and that’s how that happened.
I’m really happy that I left it for a while. I think I sent it to Jim O’Rourke and some friends, and everyone was like, “Yeah, it’s really cool, but maybe you should take it a step further.”
I’d also like to ask you about repetition being quite central to the piece. Your work is notorious for its focus on texture and what the press release for Sagittarian Domain calls “psychoacoustic sonics” — how do you feel repetition fits into your work? What kind of effect do you feel it has?
Well, I really like the idea of “losing yourself” in the sound, be it abstract sound or repetitive sound. I think the idea of repetition is a way that you can trance out, and lose yourself in what’s going on. I like the idea of all these nuances and little events happening slowly, slowly shifting over time, where it’s barely noticeable. You know, lots of details happening, but not in an obvious way. I also really like the idea of substantive rhythmic pulse, with a lot of abstract textures on top — the two things being juxtaposed, I really like that. You can be super-abstract, but also put people into a trance with a rhythm. I like those two things coexisting; almost separate entities, but totally united at the same time.
I even think some of my early, more abstract work — in a way, I always looked at it as rock music, even though it wasn’t overtly defined that way, or revealed that way.
Do you draw any distinction between more incidental or improvised repetitions versus, say, a more structurally based approach?
I don’t know. To me, it’s all about the mood and feel of a piece: if it feels good, regardless of whether it’s improvised or structured. I mean, [Sagittarian Domain] was improvised as well, but I was just constructing it in the studio, instrument by instrument. I do like things to have an open, improvised feel, and everything I do is improvised; I never really go into a studio with a plot of exactly how I’m going to execute something. I like to leave things really open-ended. Lately, a lot of those things happen to have repetition in them.
As you were mentioning, the recording of Sagittarian was essentially a one-man band setup, but have you had any thoughts about performing it or anything in this style live?
A friend of mine said that I should do it, and it kind of crossed my mind, but I don’t know how I’d do it. Last week I played “Knots” from Audience of One live for the first time, with an ensemble including James Rushford and a string quartet, and Joe Talia on drums. It really turned out well — like beyond what we expected — and that was really exciting and inspiring to do. I’d love to do more sort of compositional stuff live with, as mentioned, this openness — lots of improvisation, and risk at the same time. Just to keep really edgy.
I’m really excited about doing “Knots” live actually, more than “Sagittarian Domain,” at the moment, anyway. It was such an effort just to get that happening, and I’d like to continue to do that if there are opportunities. But who knows? Maybe sometime in the future we could try that as well. I just don’t know what instrument I would play if I was doing Sagittarian Domain! What role I would take… it’d be fun to play the drums, but it’d also be really fun to play the guitar. I don’t know! (laughs)
With such an assortment of material out recently, I’m curious as to what sort of approach you’ve been taking to solo performances.
The solo thing is kind of almost like a solo performance of “Knots,” in a way. It’s kind of like “Knots” without the strings and without the drums. But it’s the similar sort of idea, and I always know how it’s going to start and where I’d like to get to, but how I get there and what happens along the way is always different. That’s sort of what I’ve been doing live for the past few months or so.
I also read that you’ve been teaching at the Victorian College for the Arts, and were planning to teach a course on krautrock. Has that started?
Yes. I’m in the middle of that right now, actually. It’s been fun, it’s been really fun! What have we done… I think last week we were doing the whole Cosmic Jokers and all the related bands and projects from that Ash Ra Tempel, Cosmic Jokers axis. It’s been really fun, and it just blows me away how incredible and fertile that period was in music. How incredibly sonic — the sonic detail, like listening to Faust records, it’s just amazing the attention to detail, and how different it is to all the rock that was happening in the UK and the USA at the time. It’s just much more textural and exploratory, and very experimental, very playful, very humorous, and there’s just so many elements that I love about that period. It’s interesting the way almost like Japan in the early 1970s, the way a lot of German musicians and Japanese musicians sort of were inspired by a lot of American things, but it’s almost like Chinese whispers, taking the template of something and just doing something so unique and almost interpreting something in the wrong way, but in the right way, you know? And just making something completely new from, say, the Velvet Underground or something like that, just taking it to another level. It’s really exciting and really inspiring to revisit that stuff, and to turn people on to it.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’m working on this piece — I’m trying not to work on it too quickly, but theoretically it’ll be for sometime next year, for a new solo record. It’s really rhythmical, more rhythmical than anything I’ve done thus far, but from an electronic sort of standpoint. It’s almost like a techno record, and it involves a lot of collaborators, one of which is Thomas Brinkmann, the Köln-based, I guess techno and electronic artist. It sort of has this rhythmic pulse the whole way through it that really goes places; there are probably four or five movements. There are some recordings I did with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in February that are in there, and John Tilbury (the piano player from AMM), and it’s got all kinds of different people and different elements happening on top of this rhythmical bed. It’s about an hour long at the moment. I’m chipping away at it slowly, but trying not to get too obsessive about it because I want to slow down a bit. (Laughs)
Is it comparable at all to your recent collaboration with Brinkmann, The Mortimer Trap?
No… I mean, The Mortimer Trap is much more, I think, relentlessly difficult or abstract in a way. This one… yeah, this one has more movement in it, and different sections that happen. The Mortimer Trap is sort of one idea slowly unfolding after a long period, where this one has clear, distinct changes that happen quite almost abruptly at times.
A good friend of mine was living in Japan last year, and he told me about seeing you perform with O’Rourke and Haino for the release of Imikuzushi. He was under the impression that the show had been recorded for future release. Three albums in, is this yearly performing-and-recording thing a regular occurrence for you three now? And does my friend’s hopeful impression have any truth in it?
It does — in fact, I’ve mixed it already. Both Haino and Jim are really happy, they think it’s the best one thus far. It’s probably going to be a single LP, not a double, and it does have the rock thing like the last two, but there’s also some stuff on there that’s quite different. There’s a piece where Haino plays flute, it’s almost like a free-jazz vibe. There’s also a piece with Charlemagne Palestine and us playing; Charlemagne is playing wine glasses, and Eiko [Ishibashi], this great Japanese piano player and singer/songwriter, she’s also playing wine glasses. So we’re all sort of playing wine glasses and Haino is doing vocals, so there’s some more textural, not really ‘rock’ stuff on there, but then there’s rock stuff too.
It’s just funny the way it’s turned out that I happen to be in Japan around the same time every year, and we happen to do a gig and it’s fun, it gets recorded. I don’t have any immediate plans for Japan next year so who knows how long that’ll keep going, but there will be another trio record next year at some point.