Oren Ambarchi: I think a lot of people are very snobby about music and they don’t appreciate incredible things because of silly hang-ups
Although he seems to be touring endlessly, Oren Ambarchi is based in Melbourne, and is one of the most prolific electronic guitarist and percussionist of our times, continuously releasing numerous records every year. His works are hesitant and tense extended songforms located in the cracks between several schools: modern electronics and processing; laminal improvisation and minimalism; hushed, pensive songwriting; the deceptive simplicity and temporal suspensions of composers such as Morton Feldman and Alvin Lucier; and the physicality of rock music, slowed down and stripped back to its bare bones, abstracted and replaced with pure signal.
His latest album ‘Quixotism’ was released early October on Editions Mego, and definitely marks a new milestone in his ever-expanding universe. Recorded with a multitude of collaborators in Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA, ‘Quixotism’ presents the fruit of two years of work in the form of a single, LP-length piece in five parts. We had the pleasure of talking to Oren during his brief stay in Stockholm, so you can find out more about his new techno record and its peculiar cover, his fascination with Thomas Brinkmann, experimentation in pop music and the unbearable lightness of constantly being able to create in various styles.
According to Wikipedia, ‘quixotism’ means ‘impracticality in pursuit of ideals, especially those ideals manifested by rash, lofty and romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.’ It also serves to describe idealism without regard to practicality. How can this concept be related to the new album?
Well, that concept is related to my life. Sometimes I think about what I do and how I behave from day-to-day, just playing weirdo music or doing strange art… Somehow I’ve been living off it for the last few years, and it’s kind of stressy to live your life that way, to rely on it, to pay your bills. On the other hand I’m really lucky that I can do that, I feel very fortunate. A lot of times in life I jump into things without knowing if they’ll “work”, it’s sort of like a gut instinct and I think I’m quite practical most of the time, but on the other hand I can just jump in to a situation and hope for the best. That’s kind of my attitude to life and to music as well, a lot of it is very instinctual and it’s not completely pragmatic or practical. Let’s face it, just trying to do this stuff is not practical in this day and age, it’s just a reflection… I have these ideals and I can be kind of spontaneous without thinking of the repercussions necessarily.
But do you think art should be practical?
No! I think it should be completely instinctual, personal and real. I mean, you have to have some practicality in day-to-day life and even in relation to music, when I’m doing what I do, I have to have an idea of how to control things to an extent. But on the other hand, once you have that behind you, be it technique or a familiarity with your equipment/sound palette, you have to forget about it all and just completely jump in and be in the moment without thinking. So you have to find that balance between the two.
‘Quixotism’ is also related to ‘over-idealism’. Do you consider yourself an idealist? How does that get manifested in your work?
In some ways I think I am. I don’t like to compromise what I’m trying to get across and I don’t like it when something is watered down or pandering to make people happy or make them like something. I sort of have an instinct when something feels fake, and that really repels me. So when I make stuff, I try to be quite personal and real about it. I’m not doing it for any ulterior motives, I’m not doing it to make money or to become a rock star or anything like that. That’s not going to happen anyway. I’m trying to be honest with what I do and challenge myself. So I guess I have that sort of philosophy, which is not even a philosophy, it’s just the way I try to behave.
What is the story behind the new album? How did you get the idea to step back to this nostalgic area of techno and work with Thomas Brinkmann?
I’ve always loved Thomas Brinkmann. I’ve always loved a lot of early-mid 90’s minimal techno, Sähkö, Brinkmann, Mike Ink/M:I:5/Studio 1, Basic Channel that kind of stuff. I think it’s really related to the classic minimalist music that I love and a lot of the ideas that I’ve always been interested in exploring such as repetition, long-form pieces where something slowly unfolds over a long period of time. So it’s completely connected to what I love. During the last years I’ve been introducing rhythm a lot in my solo work. I’ve been working with drummers a lot lately and I’ve started to play drums again myself with Keiji Haino for example, so yeah, I’m interested in rhythm again. I think it was always there in my work because I’m originally a drummer but maybe it was more hidden. So it kind of makes sense to me. I hope it does not come across as ‘Oh, techno is hip again, all the noise guys are doing techno, let’s make a techno record!’, because it’s not like that at all. I played on the same night at a festival with Thomas 4-5 years ago, we hung out for the weekend, had a great time and really enjoyed each other’s company. A year later I was co-curating a sound workshop in Japan, and I thought it would be really interesting to invite Thomas. So we brought him for that and we hung out again, then we played together with Mika Vainio in a trio, which was really fun. We sort of set out we should do something together in the future, so we made a duo record, which in some ways is quite a relentless, difficult record (‘The Mortimer Trap’, 2012). I had this idea in my head that ‘Oh, I’m working with Thomas Brinkmann, I want the beats, I want the Thomas Brinkmann sound’… and maybe he had an idea in his head that he was working with me and he wanted it to be “experimental”. So he gave me all this stuff which was not rhythmical at all and quite relentless, so as the piece developed I asked him to send me some rhythms. Eventually the record came out, but I wanted to work with him again. So the initial idea that started ‘Quixotism’ is related to ‘Knots’, the last piece I did on ‘Audience of One’ where I asked Joe Talia, the drummer that I worked with, ‘Hey man, I want you to play like Jack DeJohnette the jazz drummer for as long as possible at this tempo and build it’. That was the idea how I started ‘Knots’. For this one I said to Thomas ‘Hey, can you do this kind of thing for this long…’, and that was the catalyst for ‘Quixotism’, it started with Thomas actually.
You’ve already mentioned some techno influences from the past, but whose music do you appreciate the most when it comes to current names?
I guess it’s very predictable, but when it comes to techno I love Ricardo Villalobos, that guy is fucking amazing. Also, for me the Brinkmann variations of Hawtin’s ‘Concept 1’ (1998) are just absolute genius. When I heard it for the first time that was a huge record for me, it still is one of my favourite techno records, it’s a classic that I never tire of. I prefer that much more than the original Hawtin stuff. Sounds like African music or something like it. Total voodoo. Nowadays I love Villalobos. I think what he’s doing is really organic, it’s always mutating, moving and shifting, he has lot of live percussion, and there’s something organic and natural about it that I really love. I think it’s fantastic. I’ve always dug Theo Parrish too, especially his re-edits.
The ‘Quixotism’ cover got a really interesting concept, which does not refer to the idealism but more to the chivalry part of the word with all those shirt collars. What’s the story behind it?
Stephen O’Malley was doing the design and he mentioned that there’s a great photographer in Paris whom I should meet, Estelle Hanania. I went to her house and looked at a lot of her stuff, which was incredible. She also did some commercial photography, she did work for Air France, Hermès, Urban Outfitters, Issey Miyake… She did a whole series for Hermès. A lot of it was really bizarre, like the collars, all these photos of how men’s shirts were made. The displays were really strange but quite beautiful and elegant. Something about it appealed to me and they gave me permission to use it. Originally I had four shots, the one that the cover is was actually going to be the back cover, the front cover was going to be a stack, a tower of collars. It was incredible, but they wouldn’t let me use it in the last minute, they said I could only use one and only that one. So that’s the one on the cover. I really like the idea of that title with that cover, it’s just a bit confusing, I like the atmosphere it evokes.
You’re constantly working with so many different genres with so many different artists…
I don’t really think of it as different genres, it’s all connected to one another. I’m interested in different things. If you came over to my house and looked at my record collection, it’s pretty ridiculous. I love anything from super difficult, 70’s kunstmusik to absolutely cheesy pop music. There are so many things that interest me, I’m very restless, and I like to do different things. I don’t really think of it like “now I’m going to do a rock thing” or “now I’m going to do a techno thing”, it all is the same to me in a way. It’s all about sort of capturing this ecstatic feeling where you can lose yourself in the sound. If there’s a rock thing going on or it’s free jazz or minimalist techno, whatever, it’s all the same to me. I like too many things, that’s the problem.
Oh, that’s not a problem! But after working with so many different artists, how do you think that shaped your own individual work?
Working with different artists is always challenging and confronting. Sometimes you’re out of your comfort zone, so you’re always learning. It’s always pushing me. Working with Sunn O))) really pushed me to think about volume and resonance and how sound works in the space. I’ve always loved Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock, so it was kind of the same thing in a way, but the context was completely different. It made me more confident about my own work, since I was already playing really slowly, letting things unfold over a long period of time, but working with Sunn O))) just sort of validated what I was doing in this context. “Okay, it’s cool, it’s fine to do that” and you can even push it further if you want. So I learn from everybody. I’ve worked with Alvin Lucier recently and again just that simplicity in his work is incredibly beautiful… yet at the same time as a player it’s very difficult and quite challenging, all of these situations affects you. I was always into free jazz when I was growing up, but then I went through this phase where lot of the stuff I did was really reductionist and minimalist, quiet… and in 2001-2002 I was playing super sparse, quiet stuff. But then I realized that I loved free jazz, when I grew up I was playing free jazz drums, so I was wondering how could I sort of bring that in. But it’s not like I even think about this, it just happens. Nothing is really planned, it just slowly evolves naturally.
I find it really fascinating that you’ve been teaching a course on krautrock at the Victorian College of Arts in Melbourne. If you could pick a different subject, what else could you imagine teaching?
I taught a class about the hidden connection between the avant-garde and pop music. That really interested me. The fact that Paul McCartney would go to an AMM concert, and then he’d go back to the studio with The Beatles and do an experiment. That area really interests me, just where these worlds are colliding. I think a lot of people are very snobby about music and they don’t appreciate incredible things because of silly hang-ups. For example I could talk to you about 10CC’s ‘I’m Not in Love’ for 3 hours! I love the fact that there was so much experimentation in pop music in the 60-70’s especially, which is taken for granted. The thing I love about it is that the experimentation is not what it’s all about, it’s not the focus, it’s just sort of hidden in there, but in the end it’s just a great catchy pop song. I’d love to teach stuff like that a little bit more. I don’t think that just because there’s experimentation, it makes it valid or it’s “cool” because these people experimented, I’m not really thinking of it that way. It’s a great pop song, everybody can sing along to it, but if you really listen to it, there’s this all other stuff happening as well and that these two things are co-existing really interests me. I’m really fascinated with production and how things are made and something can be really magical and mysterious, and ultimately I love that and I don’t want to question it too much, but it also interests me how it happened, who was involved, what were they influenced by, what techniques were used in the studio. I’m fascinated by studio techniques from the 70’s especially.
Do you think if you’d find out too much about all the details would take away the magic?
No, not at all! Because ultimately I love listening to it and I can listen to it in a completely intuitive, emotional way without being too analytic about it. But if you like you can also dig a little deeper and see all of the layers and it can make you appreciate it even more. You can experience it on different levels.
You’ve been experimenting with so many types of music already, is there something that you’d like to try but somehow never got to it?
I guess I never know until I start the next project. For example I recently made a record with French sound artist Kassel Jaeger and James Rushford from Australia, we recorded at GRM Studios in Paris. I went in there on the first day and said, “look, I don’t wanna play guitar, I don’t wanna play drums, I don’t wanna play any of the instruments that I play normally, I just want to make a really weird record” hahah. I just knew that I wanted to try something different from the get-go. We were in there and initially they were trying to convince me to play the guitar, but I really didn’t want to. Eventually I played it a little bit but made them really bury it in the mix. I was just interested in making this really uncomfortable, strange record and trying something different. Thankfully we were all on the same page and it ended up being a really fun process. So it kind of sounds like a bizarre, dreamy kind of weird pop record, but it’s just wrong. It’s like Robert Ashley making a karaoke record, that was kind of how it turned out.
How do the others look at you when you just go like “I don’t wanna do this, I just wanna do something”?
Everyone went along with it. I couldn’t articulate what I was hearing at first but working with those guys I knew we’d find something satisfying and eventually we did. But fucked up or weird for me might not be fucked up or weird for other people. These days it’s just kind of easy to make a “dark” record or make a composition that has a field recording with a sine wave, know what I mean? It’s too easy and I’m just a bit impatient with a lot of stuff these days. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this one, but it was really interesting to do, just something different. It made us laugh a lot in the studio when we were making it, I get tears in my eyes thinking about it, so that’s a good sign.
How do you feel about performing in different spaces? For example, in Stockholm you played in this small antiquarian bookstore, Rönnells.
I liked the intimacy here, the audience was really close, and that’s got its good points and bad points. I felt maybe I was too loud and a few people were blocking their ears, but there’s something nice about that close contact. But every country is different, in some places people get more enthusiastic and they’re warm and in other places some people are just completely stone cold, so you don’t know what’s happening, if they’re into it or not. Actually, I just block it out and just try to get into my own headspace and not think about it. I played in Canada a while ago, I was in a rock club and I was on a really high stage and the audience seemed really far away. That seemed strange too, so you just have to forget about all that stuff and just make it happen. Just throw yourself into it and hopefully you’re inspired by the sound and then you can be free and go with it.
During your stay in Stockholm you’ve also been working with the Johan Bertling with whom you did ‘My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights’ in 2003. Is there something in the making?
There is! I actually didn’t know him at the time back then, I think it was the second time I was in Stockholm. He introduced himself and said ‘Hey, do you wanna record?’ I was staying at Fylkingen and he just appeared one morning and brought a harmonium. Benny Nilsen was there and he just set up some microphones and we just recorded without talking about it too much, then that cd came out. Since then we’ve hung out a lot and we did a tour together as a harmonium and guitar duo. Years later I worked with Fire! Orchestra with Mats Gustafsson and him, which was super fun. So we’re just good friends and last time when I was touring with Fire!, I was in Stockholm and we had an extra day. We went to the ABBA studio, and we only had half a day, we did some stuff, forgot about it, two years later I’m here again with finishing what we did. It’s super relaxed and he’s great to work with, a really interesting musician. It sounds a little bit like The Necks, quite mellow and repetitive and it unfolds slowly.
I love film and would love to work more in that area, it would definitely be a challenge. The last few years I have been composing music for various theatre productions and dance pieces. Working in this area has been quite rewarding. It’s been great to work as part of a team with artists from different disciplines, all working together as a team to make the best piece possible. I also like that I am not really a part of the theatre or dance “world” per se – it makes working in that context more special for me.
You’re touring a lot, which means you’re away for months, living quite a ‘nomadic’ lifestyle so to speak. How does it feel to be away from Australia for such a long time? What can you even pack in your suitcase to cover your needs?
It’s a strange lifestyle for sure. It can be difficult travelling all the time, constantly taking flights, being in a place for only a day or two at the most with little or no sleep, and then playing a solo show where all the responsibility for the performance going well is on you. At times you can feel very vulnerable and lonely in this situation. But on the other hand when everything goes well it’s so satisfying. I feel so fortunate to be able to do what I do, I try not to take any of this for granted. There’s a community of friends all over the world that I’m lucky to see and catch up with when I tour. Getting to hang out with old friends and eat the local cuisine, visit record stores etc. is a plus for sure. When it all stops I find myself at home waiting for the next tour and it’s hard for me to feel settled. I need to find things to do all the time to keep me stimulated which is probably why I make so many records when I’m home. I crave that energy and the ‘eureka’ feeling you get when things come together in the studio. I find it hard to sit still, if I do I start to feel depressed.
What do you miss the most from home when you’re away?
Also my records, movies, friends and family. The comfort of being in your own bed, being able to cook at home etc. Australia has excellent food, coffee and weather, I miss that a lot when I’m away.