He may be a virtual unknown in the wider Australian populace, but Oren Ambarchi cuts a truly iconic figure in the international experimental underground. Over the best part of two decades – not to mention almost 20 solo and collaborative releases – his increasingly reductive, near-alien guitar works have garnered the kind of the international attention and acclaim that most artists only dream of. Having played and swapped notes with the likes of John Zorn, Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, Mike Patton, sunn0))), Robbie Avenaim, Damo Suzuki and countless others, Ambarchi’s rich, explicitly tonal sound has developed into one of the most recognisable and utterly unique in music. But with the release of his latest two projects – the frighteningly low-end frequencies of fourth official solo album In the Pendulum’s Embrace, and the floating acoustic pop of I’ll Be the Same, his second long-player as part of Sun, a duo with Sydney producer/musician Chris Townend – Ambarchi’s aesthetic seems to be skewing in two very incongruous directions. Nonetheless, according to Australia’s most celebrated sound artist, no matter the polarity of the means, his sonic explorations inhabit a singular and strikingly simple conceptual space.
(Photo by Daniel Mahon)
The Earth is rupturing at its seams. Opaque, tectonic frequencies rumble and growl; subterranean tones protract and oscillate, swinging ominously back and forth. You can feel them. The notion of sound long gave out to this feeling.
There is a violence to this. It enters via the ear and chest and legs and bones; it moves structure and solid matter. Floorboards shudder and reverberate; empty wooden chairs gradually vibrate and move to the right and left; a glass shifts along a tabletop, drops, smashing to the ground. Another. Searing, screaming top-end shatters what is left.
There is a beauty to this; a swelling, arcing beauty. It is buried – slow, melodic, unfolding and unravelling – immersed under frequency and noise and moving air. The room feels it.
It is a temperate Sunday night in a small, inner city Melbourne venue, and in a rare Australian performance Oren Ambarchi has the crowd transfixed, enamoured, intoxicated in sound and moving air. It is the 38-year-old’s way – he doesn’t do things by half measures.
“I’m interested in stuff that draws you all the way in, you know, even if it’s a movie or whatever,” he says days later. “I love just going to a movie and feeling like you’ve been transported somewhere and drawn into the world of the director, and just losing yourself in that world. My favourite directors and musicians have that effect on me and I kind of want to get that feeling from what I do. When I get that feeling, I know that I’m on the right track and that I’ve got something to work with.”
“That’s why I don’t really play solo that much in Australia,” he offers. “I like to make it special and do it at the right time and right place.”
Ambarchi in person – today hunched over a Malaysian meal in a tiny Melbourne restaurant – is far more accessible. He tells comfortably longwinded stories and drops hilarious anecdotes; he muses on recently becoming a father; philosophises on touring endlessly overseas. The mystique, the inscrutable abstraction, the utter immersion of his work seem a world away from his easy, relaxed manner.
“About four years ago, Stephen O’Malley from sunn0))) was DJing one of my songs – the first song on Grapes From the Estate, ‘Corkscrew’ – at a festival and the frequencies triggered the fire alarms,” he giggles. “The fire sprinkler system rained out the whole place and the fire department had to come down and evacuate everyone.”
“So the next day O’Malley called me and said, ‘Oren, we need to work together’,” he laughs again. “That’s how it all started with sunn0))).”
His take on his own music – the latest examples of which come to us in the form of stunning fourth solo album In the Pendulum’s Embrace and the wonderfully arcane pop of second Sun record I’ll Be the Same – is equally cursive. “A lot of it, in a way, is really connected to rock music, but it’s almost like stripping it to the bones of what rock music is and what I like about rock music. It’s still quite physical and it still has change, just like rock songs would, but it’s all just done in a really minimal, stripped-back way, and not many people kind of get that. I don’t really like to spell out what I do, you know.”
It’s a telling intimation. Over the course of his decade-long career as a solo recording artist, the Sydney-raised Melburnian has skirted both the most abstract of instrumental negotiations and the most reductive and seemingly simplistic of ambient musical motifs. And it’s this transcendent quality that has come to define his craft. Working chiefly with guitar and series of pitch-shifters, delays and effects, Ambarchi’s heavily tonal compositions have developed into some of the most distinctive in music, and seen him share disc and stage space with anyone from Keith Rowe, Fennesz, Martin Ng, Gunter Muller, John Zorn and aforementioned doom-smiths sunn0))) amongst countless others.
But according to Ambarchi, his art has garnered its unique sonic identity via eradication rather than arrangement as such. “A lot of it is actually the process of elimination, where I’ll start off with an improvisation and build stuff around that improvisation, and then a lot of times I’ll take away the original motif or whatever,” he explains. “It’s usually about taking stuff away and leaving the real essence. It’s just sort of about things slowly unravelling.”
Ambarchi’s interest in music started in a very different context. Growing up in Sydney during the 70s, his early life was scored by impromptu vinyl and musical happenstance. “I was obsessed with music from a really, really young age,” he recalls smilingly. “I had Beatles and Hendrix 7-inches before I could talk apparently, like, I was just way, way into it.”
“My mother was really cool and she used to just buy me these records. There’d be a Beatles song playing in a shopping mall and she’d hear me imitating it and she’d go and buy it for me,” he pauses. “She was really cool.”
His grandfather, who owned a second-hand shop in Sydney, also played an important, if not random, role in his introduction to music. “I could just go to his pawnshop after school, and take any records I wanted, and lots of strange, kind of really fortuitous things started happening,” explains Ambarchi. “I was about nine years old and I remember I took this one record home – I thought it was a Beatles record – and I put it on and it was a Yoko Ono record,” he laughs. “I didn’t even know the difference; I just thought it sounded great.”
“I also remember taking an Iron Maiden record home, The Number of the Beast, and inside was a Miles Davis record, Live-Evil. You know, someone had put the wrong record in there. And you know, that just blew my mind. Because I was so young, I was just lapping it all up. It was all music and it was all great.”
But his grandfather’s shop had other treats in store for the young Ambarchi, who had also began dabbling in the drums at 10 or 11. “He a lot of old electronic equipment, like effect pedals and reel-to-reel machines, and so I used to just take them home and play with them,” he says.
It was something of a formative revelation for the young musician. “It was just amazing having access to all this stuff, so I sort of became intensely interested in electronics from a young age. Even though I was a drummer, I would kind of make these weird, crude, musique concrete tapes and stuff at home.”
Ambarchi became increasingly involved in the Sydney jazz scene throughout his teen years, playing drums in several free jazz ensembles delving into the back catalogues of Coltrane and Davis. But it wasn’t just music that had peaked the young man’s interest. Ambarchi, who comes from a lineage of Sephardic Jews from Iraq, went back to his roots and began engaging with Jewish spirituality.
By the time he was finishing high school, he had decided to move abroad to study Jewish mysticism. “It was really my own vision,” he says. “I was really into John Coltrane and all this really ecstatic spiritual jazz through my mid to late teens, and I started to read about a lot of Jewish mysticism and stuff like that, and it all kind of made sense and all kind of came together at that point in time.”
After stints in several European countries, Ambarchi landed New York in the late-80s, where he was to study at a Rabbinical College in Brooklyn. Suffice to say, it was a something of a turning point. “New York at that point was just amazing,” he sighs. “I was living in what was a really dangerous part of Brooklyn, which now is totally cleaned up. It was around the Crown Heights area, which used to be known as Beirut because there were so many gunshots. I remember hearing gunshots and thinking they were fireworks, and I’d be sticking my head out the window going ‘What’s the celebration?’ and it was like, ‘No that’s a gun’,” he laughs.
“I could study during the day and go to gigs at night, and being the late-80s I was seeing so much amazing stuff. It really shaped who I was, as a person and as a musician. I was probably 19 or 20 and it was just a perfect time to be thrown into that world.”
The world he speaks of was one also inhabited by avant-garde jazz deity John Zorn, who took the young drummer under his wing at the turn of the 90s. Ambarchi still cites the meeting as one of the most important strands in his artistic lineage.
“You learn so much when you’re in those situations,” he says. “A lot of those gigs you’d be standing there and Zorn would look at you and go ‘Oren and whoever, go and do a duo’ and you’d just have to do it. It’d be a full house and you’d just go ‘Shit, I have to make this work’, and you would, you know. I was just learning on my feet.”
But it was another artist, legendary Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino, who really turned Ambarchi’s creative world on its head. “I was playing drums and seeing a lot of amazing music and seeing a lot of drummers that I really admired,” he recounts. “But one night at the old Knitting Factory in Houston Street I saw Keiji play, and I had no idea who he was, but it just completely blew me away. It was like this big epiphany, because I think after seeing so many great New York musicians, I was seeing someone who didn’t really have a technique. He wasn’t technical at all, but he had so much personality – the personality was so strong – that I just thought to myself, ‘I want to do this! I can do this!’”
“The first thing I did when I got home to Australia was buy myself a guitar and book a gig. I got a drummer and he thought was crazy, and everyone thought I was crazy,” he laughs. “But from that point on I always played guitar.”
His early noise-based guitar experiments such as Phlegm, a duo with fellow Sydneysider Robbie Avenaim – with whom Ambarchi went onto found the long running What is Music? Festival – seem a world away from the whirring, subterranean tones and protractedly melodic overtures of latest solo long-player In the Pendulum’s Embrace. Over three extended tracks, the album navigates some of Ambarchi’s deepest sonics and frequencies to date. Utilising whispers of strings, glass harmonica, bells, piano, percussion, and, of course, his richly tonal guitar sound, he minimises his already economical compositional structures to reach a languidly narcotic and introspective extreme.
The somnolent guitar motif, subtly snaking percussion and stunning piano intonations of 18-minute opener ‘Fever, a Warm Poison’ sets the precedent, only to be joined by the loose melodic clusters and gaunt, arcing strings of ‘Inamorata’. Final track ‘Trailing Moss in Mystic Glow’ only adds to the album’s considerable effect, pitching stunning acoustic guitar infections and ghostly, abstracted vocal fragments against an underlay or shuddering drones. While darker than it’s predecessors – the abrasive, fragmentary electronics of 1999’s Insulation, the delicate, lowercase textures of 2001’s Suspension, and 2004’s wondrously melodic Grapes from the Estate – Pendulum proves equally, if not more, unusually visceral and emotive; its ideas further focused, reduced and rationalised.
Ambarchi certainly understands Pendulum – despite its differences – as part of a lineage. “Suspension was when I first started using melodic things,” he says. “It was the first time I wasn’t afraid to use melodics, and Grapes was really an extension of that, but I brought in other instruments. I kind of think that In the Pendulum’s Embrace is just a continuation of Grapes in a way. I try not think too much when I do stuff – I try and be a bit more intuitive about it – but I guess I have my signature sound that I work with.”
“I don’t know, I hate looking at something too much after the fact, but maybe this one is a little bit darker, which might be the result of me working with sunn0))). The tones are definitely lower than usual. I just love bass frequencies and I really love somehow juggling really powerful pure tones with really fragile acoustic stuff, you know, somehow making them work together, which is actually really hard.”
He has a point. While the end result is perhaps his most concurrent yet, the process behind Pendulum was far less harmonious. “I didn’t realise until I was mastering just how difficult it was to balance those pure tones with the acoustics. This record was mastered three or four times and a few people just gave up. Chris Townend gave up on it because he knew what I was trying to do and he couldn’t quite get the balance. If you put in too much bass then you’d lose all the sparkly acoustic stuff, but then if you went too far with the acoustic stuff it would sound too, well, not new age, but you know,” he laughs. “I just wanted to have this balance of really super-powerful, wall-shaking frequencies with totally fragile stuff that can just fall apart. I’m really into that coexistence.”
“It’s funny because a lot of the records sound like what they are – very relaxed and very slow-moving – but a lot of the conditions in which the records were made were actually quite the opposite,” he continues. “Like, often I’ll only have the budget to go into the studio for a day or two and I’ll be manically trying to get all this stuff done really quickly. And it’s kind of this weird juxtaposition of really stressful working methods in recording studios, but the music sounding really relaxed and slow-moving.”
On several plains, Ambarchi’s work with Chris Townend as Sun couldn’t be further removed from his solo explorations. Existing in the realms of breezy, arcane pop, both their 2004 self-titled debut and late 2007’s I’ll Be the Same (through Sydney label Preservation) represent a huge dynamic shift, with the pair merging lilting acoustic guitars with curiously pitched and layered falsetto vocals and crisp, percussion scored rhythms.
Suffice to say, the project surprised Ambarchi as much as it did the rest of the experimental community. “We didn’t have anywhere to release it,” he laughs of the debut release. “I don’t even know if we were really even thinking of releasing it, and then Andrew Khedoori from Preservation was just like, ‘Let me put it out, I’ll start a label’, you know. So it was just like, ‘Okay, this seems a fun thing to do’. It was almost like a challenge to see if Chris and I could actually make really light kind of pop music, you know, the opposite of what we were doing at that point in every other project.”
“It was quite a difficult thing to do in the beginning; to put ourselves in that head space. And a lot of things that came out were like ‘Oh my god, this is really bad’. Chris was like, ‘I don’t know about this’, but then we just went with it.”
It’s a good thing, for I’ll Be the Same is something of a watershed for the pair. Rippling with the entwined guitars of ‘Mosquito’, genuinely affecting melodies of ‘Help Yerself’ and blues-hued inflections of ‘Soul Pusha’ the record proves a stunning inclusion to the Ambarchi catalogue. And despite its divergence from his solo work, he sees it as innately linked.
“I think the two are really connected for sure,” he says. “When I was doing Grapes, the Sun project really made me realise that, hey, I’m a drummer and there’s drums here and there’s keyboards here and why not play them? Up until that point, it was like all guitar, blah, blah, blah. But after that point it was just, well, making music with whatever’s at hand. If it suits it, try it. That was definitely from working with Chris in Sun.”
If we’re to take the swathes of attention and respect on the part of the international experimental community as a guide, then he’s navigating the right course. Indeed, although based in Melbourne, realistically Ambarchi’s career is situated in the more extensive avant-garde communities of the northern hemisphere. Having partaken in six separate overseas tours in 2007 – not to mention a trip to Europe already this year – Ambarchi’s life is well and truly split. “It’s a strange situation,” he sighs, leaning back in his chair. “I had this weird thing a couple of years ago when I realised I was making all my money overseas spending all this time over there, but paying all my bills in Australia,” he laughs. “It kind of became quite frustrating.”
“Relocating always crosses my mind, but then I kind of think, ‘Oh, maybe I won’t get any work because the exotic, Australian thing will wear off’,” he laughs again. “And I actually really like making music in Australia and recording here and being in my own little environment. But I’m pretty spoilt, you know, being able to tour and see the world all the time too. I don’t know what I’d do without that.”
But when it comes down to it, there’s only one thing that really drives Ambarchi. It’s an essence, a feeling, a reductive sense of clarity, and it finds itself at the heart of his music
“Doing something really personal, you know, that’s the most important thing to me,” he offers, gazing intently out the restaurant window. “It doesn’t matter what it is, you know, all the people who I love – songwriters, instrumentalists, whatever – I love the fact that I can recognise and relate to something specific in their work. Ultimately, that’s what I had in mind when I started with guitar. I was just fortunate that I already had experience as a musician playing drums, which meant I could kind of look at it intellectually, but I didn’t actually know anything about what I was actually doing on my instrument.”
”The most depressing thing is to walk into a guitar shop and listen to what people are doing in there,” he laughs disbelievingly. “It’s shocking!”
“All I knew is that I didn’t want to do that. I’ve never been interested in learning scales or chords, because there are a million people doing that already,” he pauses, smiling. “We don’t need another one, you know.”
In the Pendulum’s Embrace is available from Touch/Southern Lord/Stomp. I’ll Be the Same is available from Preservation.