Twelve-done death metal, power electronics, digital noise, classical composition, free jazz and beatless techno. Before his gig at Sonar Barcelona, we asked globe-trotting Brazilian and multi-faceted musician Ricardo Donoso to connect the dots between his various projects Ehnahre, Perispirit and his solo work.
Which part of Brazil are you from?
I spent most of my youth in Rio, but I also used to live in Puerto Rico and the States as a young kid. And I also lived in Chile for a while. My mum is actually Chilean and my dad is British, so I actually had English, Portuguese and Spanish in the same household. But I spent the bulk of my adolescence in Rio which was great.
You started off on the saxophone while you were in Brazil, right?
Yeah, my mum made me start playing even though I didn’ want to. She was very keen in having me play an instrument as a mental development thing. So I played saxophone for four years although I always wanted to play the drums, though they didn’ want me to play drums as it would have been loud. After I got old enough, I dropped the sax and just played drums. I don’ really play sax anymore. I used to do a lot of improvisation, so a few years ago I tried to come back to it, but I had no technique anymore. But I was just trying to do weird squeaky sounds and things like that, but it wasn’ too successful.
When you started on the drums were you playing in a band, a batucada [Brazilian percussive ensemble] or just messing around?
My high school had a very sophisticated band program, so it was mostly jazz and Brazilian music like Bossanova, Samba. It was a great experience for me playing with one hundred other drummers, just snare drum. So from that school jazz band scenario I started listening to rock music and then I started playing in rock bands with friends, and those friends were also in the jazz band and we just tried to merge those two things. The initial things that pushed me to experimental music were people like John Zorn and Mr Bungle, who I think are big gateways for a lot of musicians. You have this kind of academia, but you also have this kind of rock n roll thing. [John Zorn’] Naked City was huge for me. People think about jazz, and young people especially, think of jazz as some kind of old people’ retirement home kind of music. So I think for me the key was to have the finesse of jazz and improvisation, but with that punk rock kind of thing.
You went to study music and composition in Boston in 2003. How did that work with your improvisational background? Was it some kind of antithesis of what you were doing?
Before I left Rio I took a year off high school and at that time I had just begun to get interested in electronic music. The same band department had ordered a synthesiser and a sampler at the school. I used to have a class with a teacher who would show me how to use these machines and talk to me about audio and basics of sound, like editing and working with electronics. At the same time I was in my late teens and started going to techno parties so I became very interested in how these people made this music on machines. That was about 1999-2000. So that whole year I took off after high school was just experimentation with the gear that I had. I bought a mixer, a computer a sampler and a synth and started messing around. My initial plan to go to college was to study production and engineering. You have to do your first year which is just your principle instrument. I had to do a lot of drum classes and basic composition and harmony and things like that. When it came time to choose my major I realised I was a lot more interested in composing and electronic music than anything involving drums or engineering or production. So the drums I just kind of threw away for a while.
Until you joined the band Ehnahre?
That’s right. I went to school with Ryan McGuire who is the head composer in that band. He was very keen after their drummer left to get someone who wasn’ a metal drummer. They wanted to practice loose meter and a free jazz kind of backing. I thought that was great as I never really listened to metal. At the time I was even going to sell my drums and buy more electronic gear, but Ryan called me and said â€œCan you play in this band?â€ They did one album with the old drummer, then we did Taming the Cannibals and a 12â€ and we just finished another album that should be out next month called Old Earth. We did a month long tour in Europe after the first record and that was a fantastic time. There seems to be a lot more appreciation for that kind of music here than in the States. We did a tour in the States after that and it wasn’ good. I think people here are a lot more open-minded. It’s not the easiest music.
I’ve heard a lot of stories about people into death metal getting involved in academia or studying in universities and experiencing a lot of prejudice. Did you ever have any problems with that?
I did. The first college I went to was Berkeley College of Music which is geared around making people become professional musicians. So you have a lot of metal guys who come to become better guitar players and there’ nothing wrong with that, but it’s definitely not a traditional music school. That’s why I ended up transferring to the Conservatory because it was more geared around classical which is more what I wanted to learn. At Berkeley they try to mould you to become a working professional musician, so if you’re composing, they train you to compose pretty standard stuff. There’ no real avant garde department or anything. I am totally not interested in learning to play and having to play somebody else’ music, or learning to write music for a certain box. So I went from Berkeley to the New England Conservatory. I’ve still got my problems there, but it was definitely more what I was looking for.
And you ended up staying there in Boston?
Yeah, it’s going to be ten years in April. I love it there. It took me a while to like it coming from Rio. It was a big culture shock. When you are in music school or art school you are fed this notion that you aren’ meant to move to New York or to L.A: once you’re done in order to â€œmake itâ€ or something like that. I went to New York for a while, just to check it out and spend some time there, because I thought I was going to move. But I hated it. It was so densely populated and everybody just moves there. Everybody’ competing. There’ a lot of incredible talent there as well, but you also get everybody else who’ not as talented filling up all the space. For me Boston is a good middle ground. There’ a bunch of great art and music from all sides of the spectrum.
Are you still organising your night there?
No I don’ do that anymore. I used to live in this big building that had access to a space where I could do shows. That was a few years back. I don’ really play locally that much either. Once in a while it will happen. I played with Pole. That was awesome. Things like that will happen once in a while, but I’m not as invested in the live thing as recording. But I’ve been getting a lot more opportunities to play live so I’ve had to work on the live show which has pushed me which is good, but it was never intended to be performed live.
What about your collaboration with Luke Moldof in Perispirit. How did that come about?
Luke went to the New England Conservatory as well. I didn’ know him when we were both there together, but we met in one of my shows which I used to host and I knew that he was a really good jazz guitar player, but he was also doing things with noise and power electronics and things like that. So I said â€œHey we should playâ€ and it went really well so we just stuck to it although we started to change the way we do things.
Are you still doing digital and he doing the analogue side of things in the collaboration?
Pretty much. He was doing a lot of modular things, tape machines, reel-to-reels. I’ve always used computers for music, even from years ago, and he used to kind of hate it and he said to me â€œyou shouldn’ use computersâ€ and he would try to overcompensate what I was doing by using things that were more natural, which I think works out in the end for a nice balance. It’s a shame that there are still these prejudices against laptops in music. For me it’s all about the sound that comes out. So with Luke when he came and said â€œI’m only going to use analogue gearâ€ I said â€œFuck it, I’m going to use only digital thenâ€ just to spite him. It’s an ongoing battle with me and him in a good way. I will stand my ground. I think there is merit in all of things, analogue and digital. It’s how you use it. I think you have to be very wary of the nostalgia when you make something that’s purely analogue, I think you can get trapped in some holes.
On Progress Chance it sounds like you are playing some old analogue gear, but is it all pre-sets or real equipment?
It’s not analogue! They’re all hardware synthesisers, but they are all pretty new consumer based, kind of virtual analogue synthesisers: Nord Lead 3, Korg Radius, Korg MS2000, I had one analogue Korg MS-10. I see some guys playing with $10,000 rigs and it doesn’ appeal to me. There’ a certain fetishism for the expensive stuff as if it was more authentic or something. There’ some fake cache that comes along with that. Part of the thing I try to do is use really simple basic sounds in terms of sound design, simple sine waves with little or no processing that you can get from a $300 synthesizer. You don’ need a $3000 synthesiser for that.
What about sampling? In the Perispirit album Spiritual Church Movement you can hear voices sometimes.
There’ no samples used in that. That’s all Luke’ voice that’s been manipulated. There’ one sample on the album that is an Arvo PÃ¤rt sample, but it’s so distorted you can’ even recognise it. I love sampling. It’s not something I’ve used in a long time, but it’s not something I’m against.
Was the Perispirit album record like a live session or was it edited together?
That was recorded in my studio over a year. That was gruelling. Basically I write a basic form so each side is 16 or so minutes. I’ll write basic outlines for parts.
A visual score or notation?
No notation, just sounds, but you can tell that there’ parts like this part repeats here and that part repeats there. So I will record very little things and then Luke will come in and add two or three more voices and then I’ll add something else and then he again will add something. Then the majority of time is spent editing all these things together and chopping them up, moving them around and splicing them and a lot of effecting. That’s what I do a lot in the band is take a sound that Luke does and run it through my computer in Max/MSP or something and change it so it sounds different.
Listening to it again today it seemed like it was somehow highly coded, like it was telling a story, yet at the same time it seems so improvised as to be uncontrolled.
That’s something we definitely try to do. We were definitely trying to work more with a pop song format even though they’re not pop song formats, but I think you can definitely tell there’ an A section then a B section and then that B section will come back later. So it will be like a form ABCBADE or something. I think we definitely tried to get that vibe that its composed for sure, because there is no improvisation, but also to give it that ambiguity that it is random.
I guess that’s quite an important consideration in noise music, that fundamental question of whether you can you really compose noise?
A lot of people say you can’ and that you shouldn’. But I think that’s changing a lot. The noise kids in the underground in the States are changing their perspective on what noise is and can be. I think there has been this rejuvenation in trying to make something compositional or have compositional integrity, have a fidelity and integrity. For a long time I think people were obsessed with lo-fi, making it sound as crappy as possible. I think things are changing now. I think noise is coming around where people are now not afraid to have musicianship â€œwithin their noise.â€
Tell us about Progress Chance. It was quite a different step to the side compared to your other projects.
It happened in a weird way where I was commissioned to do a film score and they said they wanted this rhythmic electronic music. So I started working on it, but they had to re-edit the film, so they stopped production for a few months. So I started working on these things that were like Progress Chance miniatures and I thought â€œI’m going to make a record like this.â€ I think for me, coming from the academic environment, in terms of college and the noise scene, I finally decided to do something I wanted to do I not care if the noise kids are going to hate this.
>Progress Chance has an interesting mix of retro and futurism, particular in reference to Kosmische music and guys like Klaus Schulze. Kosmische music had a real positivism and a close link to forging a new German identity, by moving away from the past into the future. I was wondering if you wanted to capture a bit of the same for Brazil given their current global rise?
That’s a great question. It’s not so much a cultural thing, but there is definitely a positivity towards it. When I work solo it is definitely more of a personal expression, but when I work in a group like Perispirit, it definitely satisfies more the right side of my brain, the intellectual side. When I work solo, it’s more of a personal emotional expression. For me to try and tap back into this old music that I listened to as a teenager in Rio at the techno raves and trance parties, it was like trying to channel the positive energy of that time. I was just becoming aware of electronic music and learning how to use these instruments, going through a lot of personal development and growth.
Kind of like Brazil now. Brazil is the â€œprogress chanceâ€. On the album there is the kind of positive anthems, but there are also a lot of tracks that imply caution. I guess the title suggests that to me as well.
That’s a great parallel. I like that. You can use it like that. Brazil is booming right now, they’re doing very well. I like having things multi-dimensional like that, even though it’s definitely coming from a personal place of personal development, but that’s a nice interpretation.
What are your memories of the scene back then? You mentioned trance which is obviously a hedonistic kind of music.
It was never a club atmosphere over there. They were outdoor parties and usually in very remote locations, like private beaches or islands. It was hedonistic in the sense that you would go off for three days. But for me what I remember from it is, and this could probably happen for any music, but if you put a certain amount of people on a beautiful tropical island in the sun and you are playing a certain kind of meter that goes for three days, you are going to get into some kind of trance state, whether you are taking drugs or not. There was something really powerful about that for me. And especially the stuff they were playing in the mornings, there was definitely something more appealing about that for me. Once the sun came up and people were tired and people were coming off drugs and wanted to go to sleep and the BPM got a lot slower at that time, that’s what I really enjoyed at that time
What about your label Semata Productions, will there be any more releases coming on that soon?
I had to close down the label. Time was a big problem and resources, which is time and money. In the beginning of 2012 I was really going to push the label hard and really try and get it to the next level. But sometimes I put too much on my plate and I have to scratch some things down or focus on some more important things. It’s just something I can’ afford. If I am going to do it I am going to do it right and I just don’ have time to do all that stuff anymore. It’s a big thing and I admire the guys who can do that. Especially these days, labels have a very short shelf life, including my own. You have to communicate a lot, you have to promote a lot and spend a lot of money and sometimes not get the returns. That’s why I work with Brad Rose from Digitalis. He’ been doing this stuff for 15 years or more. I give him a lot of respect and I don’ think he gets the notoriety that he should for running this label because he’ been running this label for so long. He’ really big on putting things out by groups that haven’ had major releases before. So he takes a lot of risks and I think that’s pretty admirable.
Tell me about your Sonar show in Brazil.
It was a huge venue. The audience was nice. I think they dug it. I don’ like playing a song and then stop and have people clap and play another song. I think it should be a kind of â€œjourneyâ€. The whole thing should be like the trance parties back in the day that never stop. But the dynamics go up and down and I think the spirit of that is still there. It’s hard for me to fit on a bill, because I’ll be put on a dance bill and then nobody can dance so they get mad, but if I get put on something that’s more drone or ambient, people are mad because it’s not drone, but it’s kind of dancey. I’ve been trying to find a balance now as I like there to be these kind of dark moments in the set, some down tempo and some euphoric kind of high energy stuff. My set here in Barcelona will be more rhythmic and up-tempo than the Sonar Brazil set. In Brazil I played at 7:30, so I thought I would do a dark set and I think it worked pretty well, especially with a hungover crowd. That’s why ideally it would be cool to play at some of these parties I used to go to a 6am and everybody is hungover and you can just bob your head.
Photos by Bianca de Vilar