Oren Ambarchi is an experimental musician based in Sydney, Australia. Originally a drummer, he is now best known as a guitarist, with a radically unconventional approach to the instrument, utilising effects pedals, loops and recording technology to produce pure, minimal tones which are often unrecognisable as guitar notes. His earliest solo release was the limited edition LP Stacte, which appeared on Oren’s own Jerker Productions label in 1998. Three more Stacte LPs have subsequently appeared, as well as four acclaimed solo albums on the English experimental label Touch, which are released in the United States via cult metal label Southern Lord: Insulation in 1999, Suspension in 2001, Grapes From The Estate in 2004 and In The Pendulum’s Embrace in 2007. Oren has performed and recorded with a wide variety of other musicians, including John Zorn, Phill Niblock, Toshimaru Nakamura, Martin Ng, Dave Grohl, Günter Müller, Christian Fennesz, Keith Rowe, Pimmon, Otomo Yoshihide, Keiji Haino, Chris Townend, Z’EV and many others. Oren Ambarchi is also part of several projects associated with the Southern Lord label, including Sunn 0))) (Ambarchi appears on the band’s most recent studio album, 2005’s Black One),Gravetemple and Burial Chamber Trio.
This interview took place face to face on 13 July 2008, at the Supersonic festival, Birmingham, England, where Oren gave a solo performance, as well as playing as part of Gravetemple, along with Stephen O’Malley, Attila Csihar and Matt Sanders (Julian Cope was scheduled to appear, but pulled out).
Heathen Harvest: I’d like to begin by apologising for not seeing your performance last night – I had a prior engagement. How did it go?
Oren Ambarchi: It was pretty noisy, actually – a lot more extreme than I expected it to be. The guy doing my sound really, really cranked it, because there was a lot of sound coming from another band. So it wasn’t as subtle as I wanted it to be. I took it in the opposite direction, and it became very, very extreme and quite physical.
HH: Have you seen any other acts this weekend that you particularly enjoyed?
OA: Harvey Milk last night were amazing. I love them!
HH: And you were at the set by Earth just now. Do you enjoy their new direction?
OA: Yes. I’ve seen them many times and played with them a few time, and I love what they’re doing, it’s great.
HH: When you play live, do you improvise or do you reproduce pieces from your recorded work?
OA: I improvise, but there is some sort of plot. Not structure, exactly, but a few points that I start from or try and go to. But how I get there changes every night.
HH: You’re playing with Gravetemple tonight, though. I was wondering how challenging it is performing with a group whose members live on different continents. Do you get much of a chance to rehearse?
OA: Almost every project that I’m involved in is with people on different continents, so I’m kind of used to it. And we’re not really a conventional band, in the sense that we have songs and we rehearse. We’ve worked together so much in different projects, including Sunn 0))), that we can just talk about the stuff in the bus on the way to the gig, and maybe try a few things out in the soundcheck, and just develop it from gig to gig. It’s quite improvised as well.
HH: I’m not familiar with the Gravetemple album, but how would you distinguish Gravetemple from Sunn 0))), given that all the members of Gravetemple have at one time or another been involved with Sunn 0)))?
OA: I think Gravetemple is maybe more psychedelic and free, more open-ended, I guess. Even though it may not seem like it, Sunn 0))) is quite structured in a way, and there’s a lot of other elements in Gravetemple that don’t really happen in Sunn 0))). There are more electronics, for instance.
HH: Your solo work is difficult to categorise, and through your collaborations you have connections with all sorts of musical genres – laptop electronica, avant-garde experimental, ambient, post-rock, free jazz, Japanese noise, even drone and other kinds of metal. Where do you see yourself situated in the music scene? Do you enjoy being able to work in so many different styles?
OA: Absolutely, because I enjoy listening to different styles of music, and it relates to what I do as a player as well. I guess that a lot of the stuff, even though it might have a different tag, drone or electronic or whatever it is, there’s something in all the different projects that I’m involved in which ties it all together. To me, I don’t really differentiate between one or the other. Something I like to do is to lose myself in sound, or lose myself in a particular artist or film or whatever it is, and I try to achieve that same feeling when I’m playing. A lot of the people I play with, whether it’s with Gravetemple or Sunn 0))), or with improvisers such as Keith Rowe or composers such as Phill Niblock, have that kind of effect on me. So that’s what interests me.
HH: The common denominator is this feeling of immersion, of being totally involved in the music?
OA: Absolutely, and making it as personal as possible. The people that interest me are the people creating their own personal sound-world, or their own visual world, and hopefully all the projects I’m involved in do that as well.
HH: What kinds of music did you listen to growing up? How have they influenced the development of your own style?
OA: When I was really, really young, like one or two, I was listening to Hendrix and Zeppelin and Beatles seven-inches, and things like that, and a lot of the stuff that really interested me, that I was really attracted to, was the weird B-sides, or the feedback and the electronics. I just got more and more into stuff like that. Later on, I got into a lot of the Yoko Ono records, because I noticed there was an apple symbol on the label, and I was into The Beatles, and I didn’t know the difference because I was so young. One thing led to another. I also got into a lot of free jazz when I was a teenager. At 13 or 14, I was obsessed with John and Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and stuff like that. I’ve always leaned towards exploratory, experimental music, but on the other hand, I have a rock background as well, and I love a good rock song or pop song. I guess all these things come together.
HH: You worked with the avant-garde composer John Zorn in New York, I think?
OA: Yes, in my early 20s. I first met him in 1993, when I was 24. That was a really great experience. It kind of shaped what I’ve been doing ever since. Actually, when I met him, I’d only been playing guitar for six months. Prior to that, I was a drummer.
HH: Did you record with Zorn? Did you have anything to do with Painkiller?
OA: No. I think there might be a track on a compilation or something, but we never actually made a record together or anything. I performed a lot of improv shows with him and other people from that scene, and I performed some of his pieces as well, around 1993-1997.
HH: And you worked with Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino after that.
OA: Yes, that was in Australia. And he guested with us at a Sunn 0))) show in Canada as well.
HH: Are you going to see Keiji play with Merzbow tonight, as Kikuru?
HH: Some of your work seems very minimal and stripped-down, with a lot of drones, loops and repetition as well as a starkness and simplicity. Is your process of composition as much about reduction as addition?
OA: It’s about reduction in the sense that I only like to have whatever’s essential being there. It’s not a really showy, flashy kind of music. A lot of what I do starts off as an improvisation, and I might add to it and shape it in the studio via overdubs, and then later take things away and only leave what’s essential. There’s a lot of detail. I like exploring really minimal events.
HH: Are you interested in Minimalism as a formal movement, in avant-garde music or the visual arts?
OA: Sure, I love a lot of Minimalist artists and composers. I don’t know whether it’s a direct influence on what I’m doing, but there is something about repetition. Some of that also relates to Indian classical music and middle-eastern music, where things are repeated, and then you explore stuff from that starting point.
HH: Is there a lot of intellectual avant-garde theory behind what you do, or is it all a bit more intuitive than that?
OA: I think it’s more intuitive. I don’t really think too much about what I’m doing. If something moves me, then it moves me, and if I get the kind of feeling that I get from music that I love listening to, when I start to create something, then I know I’m on the right track, and I go with it.
HH: How about landscape? I’m wondering specifically about the Australian outback, and that kind of starkness and desolation.
OA: Not particularly, it’s more of a sound thing for me.
HH: Your work also seems very concerned with extending the boundaries of the electric guitar, often well past the point where it’s no longer obvious that the sound source is a guitar at all. Where does that urge to transcend the conventional limitations of the instrument originate?
OA: Well, that was something from when I first started playing solo guitar stuff around ’97 or ’98. I don’t think it really relates to what I’m doing now, but when I first started, I was listening to a lot of electronic music. Around that time, there was a lot of laptop electronica coming out on influential labels such as Mego from Austria, and I was also listening to a lot of old musique concrète from the 50s and 60s. But I had a cheap guitar and a few effect pedals, and I didn’t have a computer, so it was kind of like, what can I do with the primitive tools that I’ve got? Can I try and transcend what I’ve got and take it somewhere else? That was really something that I set out to try and achieve, and on my first Touch release, Insulation, I kind of did that. After that, I became interested in trying to make something more personal, and it took a long time to get to that point, but the music became much simpler and less alien, I guess, more human. So that whole idea doesn’t really interest me that much any more. It’s kind of got me to where I am now, I guess.
HH: When you started experimenting with guitar, could you play guitar, in the conventional sense?
OA: I could kind of play the guitar, yeah, but it didn’t really interest me to do that, because so many people were already doing that. And because I already had experience of playing drums in free jazz and improvised settings, when I picked up the guitar, I had an advantage, in that I couldn’t really play it, but I knew how to play music, so I could approach it in a different way. I didn’t have the habits, the things that a lot of guitar players fall back on that make them ‘guitarists’. I could go down a different road.
HH: It seems like your more recent work, like Grapes From The Estate, has been more melodic. Did you make a conscious decision to start to use melody, or has it been a natural evolution?
]OA: It’s more of an evolution, It just happened. I don’t really intellectualise what I’m doing too much, I just go wherever it goes. And in the last few years, it has become a bit more melodic, a bit more tonal. But at the same time, I’m really interested in low frequencies and pure tone, and doing something quite physical with bass frequencies on the one hand, and on the other hand, juxtaposing that with very fragile acoustic instruments, and trying to balance the two. That really interests me.
HH: You’ve recently released Spirit Transform Me, a collaboration with Z’EV. How did that come about? Did you make contact through the Touch label?
OA: Kind of, in a way. We were both on the Touch label, and a few years ago, I went to London to meet Mike and John from Touch, and Z’EV was there as well, because we were playing at the same festival. We just hung out, and he said, “Let’s do something together.” I hadn’t met Z’EV prior to that, although I was aware of his work over the years.
HH: You started out as a drummer, didn’t you? Were you able to connect with Z’EV on that level?
OA: Actually, we did. We talked about a lot of things, including our love of Ringo Starr and a lot of other drummers. It was great to talk to him, because I’m really interested in a lot of 60s rock music, and he saw Hendrix play many times, and Blue Cheer…
HH:… And The Doors! I interviewed Z’EV a while back, and he was talking to me about seeing The Doors when he was a teenager.
OA: Yeah, all these bands I really like. It was great to meet someone who was there, and be able to ask technical things about the gear, or the sound. It’s nice when you meet somebody who’s enthusiastic about music, and Z’EV is really enthusiastic, so we just got along immediately.
HH: I know that your Jewish faith is personally very important to you, and Z’EV is also Jewish, although not a practising religious Jew. Spirit Transform Me is explicitly about mystical concepts connected to the Hebrew alphabet, and I know that Z’EV is deeply immersed in the Kabbala. To what extent do you consider your work in general to be influenced by your spirituality?
OA: I don’t know. I also studied a lot of Kabbala in my early 20s, and I’ve released another album on the same label, John Zorn’s Tzadik label, which specifically dealt with that. But how it influences my other stuff today, I’m not sure. I do think that a lot of the projects that I’m involved in, including Gravetemple, is actually kind of spiritual music, in a weird, abstract way. And we all agree – Attila, Stephen – we all feel that we’re doing something spiritual, but I guess it’s a bit more... It’s coming from the metal world in a way, but we’re trying to tap into something like that as well, although it’s improvised.
HH: I don’t know for sure, but I’m hazarding a guess that Atilla’s spiritual path is not the same as yours.
OA: I don’t know if I agree, actually. We get along really well, and it is kind of similar. We’re tapping into similar things, though I don’t know what they are.
HH: We were talking earlier about this impulse to have to purify, to refine, to transcend limitations, and these are all words which can be use in a spiritual context. That seems like essentially a spiritual impulse.
OA: Yes it is, and we’re creating something from nothing, creating something personal, and we’re doing it in a way where it’s improvised, it’s not thought out, and we’re all feeding off what the other people are doing. So it is spiritual.
HH: I was wondering about the balance in your work between solo work and collaborations, and specifically about the balance between light and darkness, in the sense that a lot of the collaborative work you do with Sunn 0))), Gravetemple, and Burial Chamber trio is a lot darker that what you produce by yourself.
OA: It’s probably darker in a superficial sense. I think that a lot of my solo stuff has an underlying tension or underlying darkness, it’s just not spelled out in a really obvious way. I’m not happy with something if that’s not there, otherwise I’d just be making New Age music or something. There has to be some kind of tension, some kind of unease beneath the surface to draw me towards it. It’s just not as obvious. My solo stuff doesn’t have that metal sound. It’s much more pure, in a way. But Grapes From The Estate, for instance – on the one hand, it’s quite light, but on the other, if you listen to it on a big system, it’s quite physical. The reason I started working with Sunn 0))) was because Stephen O’Malley was DJing that record at a festival in New York. He was playing the first track, ‘Corkscrew’, and the bass frequencies set off the fire alarms in the building, and the whole place was evacuated! The next day, he emailed me, saying “We need to work together!” So it depends on the context and how you listen to the stuff, you know?
HH: So what else are you working on right now? Is there another solo album in the works?
OA: Not yet, but there’s a 12-inch coming out on Table Of The Elements in the USA, and that’s my next solo release. It’s a live recording from Canada last year. They’re doing a guitar series – Stephen O’Malley’s doing one, Christian Fennezs, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo – they just picked a bunch of guitar players from around the world. And there’s a lot of Sunn 0)))-related stuff coming up.
HH: Recordings or live performances, or both?
OA: Both. We also recorded a new Burial Chamber Trio record, which needs to be mixed. There’s a new Sunn 0))) studio record, and I’m really excited about that. We were all in Seattle last year, tracking it, and it’s a real departure from what we’ve done before. But it’s going to take a while to put that together, and I’m not sure when it’s going to come out.
HH: You also, confusingly, play in a band called Sun with only one ‘n’! Is there anything happening there?
OA: Our second record came out about six months ago. But Chris Townend, the guy that I work with on Sun, is really busy, and we don’t live in the same city any more. When we made the first Sun record, it was in his studio, and we had a lot of free time, and we could go there and try stuff in the studio. Bus subsequently, his studio, Big Jesus Burger, has become really quite popular, and it’s almost impossible to get time in it. So it’s kind of difficult to work on that project now. There’ll probably be more in the future – I’m not sure when, though.