Composer, percussionist and guitarist Oren Ambarchi is at home.
Well, for the moment. He’s returned from a tour of Europe (“A mixed bag… exhausting, but great”) and is in the process of juggling family time with the demands of preparing multiple albums for 2015 release.
“I feel lucky to be able to do this as often as I do,” Ambarchi says.
The European shows fed into the musician’s desire for variety.
“It definitely keeps things interesting, playing with different people in different situations. I like to be challenged.”
Known for his defiantly non-standard approach to the guitar, Ambarchi travels with a lot of gear – as anyone who’s seen his tabletop set-up will attest.
“It’s kinda ridiculous, but it’s what works for me,” he says. “It’s definitely scaled down compared to what I used to work with, but it’s still pretty silly.
“Sometimes it looks like a huge mess to me, especially when I haven’t played a show for a couple of weeks – I look at it all in fear and confusion.
“My solo sets are becoming more ecstatic and loud, influenced by the feeling of free jazz, psychedelia and the overtone playing of Henry Flynt. My guitar playing in a live context is really influenced by him.
“I’m also working with alternate tunings. I had a [drum]kit on stage for a few solo shows which has gone well thus far. [It’s] kinda overwhelming to deal with two instruments at a solo show but I’ve been enjoying it.
“I never really know what I’m going to do and sometimes I forget the drums are on stage, ha. Oh shit! I have to play those! What am I going to do and when?
“It’s physically taxing but it is fun, for sure.”
The appearance of the drum kit in his solo performances is an offshoot of Ambarchi’s interest in rhythm, a focus for the past couple of years. Occupying the drum stool in Nazoranai, the power-trio he shares with Keiji Haino and Stephen O’Malley, has revived some of Ambarchi’s old loves.
“Playing drums again has made me think about introducing rhythmic elements into my solo work.
“[But] I’ve always listened to rhythm-based musics – techno, African, Brazilian, disco. I’m listening to a lot of disco at the moment, actually. Mostly old stuff and loads of re-edit 12-inches – Theo Parrish’s Ugly Edits. So fucking good.”
Ambarchi – years ago a fixture in Sydney’s Red Eye Records – is a constant collector of vinyl. As we’re talking, he explains he’s confronting a serious issue – a lack of storage space.
“I’ve run out of space. I write this as I’m surrounded by approximately 400 LPs I haven’t listened to yet, purchased during my travels.
“If you’re a curious person who searches for more sounds, one thing leads to another. Who influenced this artist you love? Who did they work with? Where was it recorded? Who engineered it?”
It’s almost predestined that a man with such an interest in music would end up running his own label(s).
Ambarchi’s current own-run label, Black Truffle, places him in the position of engaging with his work a while after it’s recorded, in order to check test pressings and prepare albums for release. Is it difficult to engage with his work after that break?
“Sometimes you work on something for so long it’s difficult to listen to it like you’re hearing it for the first time.
“Sometimes it’s a nice surprise, though, like ‘Hey! That was pretty decent!’”
Given the two-year period it took to produce Quixotism, Ambarchi’s much-lauded 2015 solo album recorded on a couple of continents with a brace of collaborators, it must be strange to approach that work with fresh ears.
“I’ve heard that a number of times and then some. I think my partner is pretty sick of it!”
Ambarchi describes Quixotism (read our review here) as a mixture.
“I’d been working a lot in the acoustic ‘new music’ world, so it’s almost a combination of playing drums in a rock context, working with orchestras and also composing really quiet, textural works.
“Stuff on the Lovely Music label from the 1970s is a big inspiration. The tabla section was kind of a homage to Robert Ashley who passed away when I was completing [the piece]. A beautiful record of his, Private Parts, was an inspiration, for sure.”
What’s intriguing is that the piece can – even in its completed state – hold some surprises for its author.
“Funnily enough, I [recently]found some notes I’d written two years ago – some ideas I jotted down before I made the piece. And all of the elements I thought about exploring somehow ended up in the completed work.
“The piece definitely evolved over time, and I would leave it for months on end. I would have to walk away from it for a while and think about it. I was completely unsettled until it was done.
“Making records kind of makes me crazy. It’s like solving a mystery, but I’m addicted to that process. There’s a ‘Eureka!’ feeling when it all comes together.”
So is Ambarchi in pursuit of a pristine ideal, musically speaking?
“I’m chasing a feeling I get from some of my favourite musics. Something that’s transporting, otherworldly. Ecstatic free sound. I’m searching for something that is almost unknown to me, until I find it, that is. Some kind of beauty.
“I know it when I find it. Somehow everything falls into place – hopefully – at a certain point. I’m happy for this to take a while, so it’s a journey.
“There is some perfectionism but I’m trying not to be too anal about it all. I don’t want to suck the life out of it from refining, refining, refining. It still needs to retain a rawness, an unpredictability. There’s a fine line there, and I have to watch it.”
Was Quixotism so spread out to avoid over-tweaking?
“Exactly,” Ambarchi says. “I need to gain some perspective so I step away for a while. Or I just get lazy – or burnt out.
“I feel really empty right now, actually. There’s a sense of dread now it’s complete. I say to myself ‘How am I going to do another one?’ How do I push myself or better the previous records?
“It’s a little more overwhelming when you have to start again for solo records. There’s much more invested [than in collaborations]– more responsibility.”
Despite the pressures of solo works, Ambarchi won’t move solely into composing for other ensembles.
“You never get enough time with an ensemble,” he says. “They’re always on the clock.
“It’s kind of baffling how little time is allocated to rehearsing a piece in that world. I’ve enjoyed working with classical ensembles thus far, but it’s frustrating as it’s always so brief – like we’re only scratching the surface.
“If you were a ‘big’ artist you’d probably have more time to develop stuff with an ensemble. I’m not in that position. I’ve been lucky to have a 30-minute rehearsal/sound check in that world. I’m still lucky to have the opportunity, though!
“I’m very, very fortunate.”
“I’ve been working in Europe and the USA in that context more recently,” he says.
“Alvin Lucier and Iancu Dumitrescu have both written guitar pieces for Stephen O’Malley and I, which we have performed the past two years. Lucier has always been an important inspiration.
“I recently worked with a Swiss ensemble on a new piece called ‘The Counterlife’ – very, very quiet and delicate, mostly unamplified. And James Rushford and I worked on a piece called ‘Wreckage’ for a small ensemble in Norway – we hope to do more soon.”
The performer’s approach to the guitar has always been non-standard. Where someone like Robert Fripp would believe you need to know the instrument inside-out in order to play it, Ambarchi doesn’t believe you necessarily need to know the standard approach to succeed.
“I don’t really ‘know’ how to play guitar,” he says. “I don’t even know what notes I’m playing, half the time. It’s more about the feeling.
“[Keiji] Haino shows up at shows with an instrument he’s never played before and somehow makes it sound like [himself]– very admirable.”
I suggest that given Haino’s standing in the avant world it’s unlikely anyone would stand and heckle him it if sounded terrible.
“He doesn’t care! He has so much conviction.”
Is it Haino’s drive for expression over technique which appeals?
“Very. Haino sounds like Haino [performing[ an acoustic vocal set of huge noisy electronic set – that’s what I love about him… although I’m not really into artists that feel the need to ‘express themselves’.
“He’s a huge personality, for sure. One of the things I love about him is that he’s always pulling the rug and challenging himself over and over again, mid-performance. He always gives 101 per cent of himself when he performs.”
For Ambarchi and O’Malley, Nazoranai would seem a dream band.
“Stephen and I have been huge Fushitsusha [Haino’s psych-rock band, begun in 1978] fans for years. With Haino on stage with us in the ‘power trio’ format it’s inevitable that it’ll sound like Fushitsusha at times.
“I don’t like to get showy when I play with Haino. I keep it simple and set shit up so he can fly, ’cause I love it when he’s able to let rip in the rock context. It’s always frustrating for me to hear him with drummers that are too fancy or busy.”
Most of Ambarchi’s collaborative projects have set members, so I was curious to see if each convocation required an adjustment phase. Or can certain gatherings just get up and go?
“With Haino there’s definitely a ‘language’ simply because he has such a huge musical personality. However [he’s] very unpredictable. You never know what he’s going to bring to a show, especially in Tokyo where he has access to his large collection of instruments.
“There is a common language, yet you never really know what is going to happen.”
Is this the case with other shows? I can’t imagine a collaboration with Richard Pinhas (as on 2014’s Tikkun) being quite so unstructured.
“They are all ‘improvised’ but everyone does that in a different way. Haino is way more unpredictable than Richard Pinhas – but you never really know what’s going to happen when you work with either artist.”
As with Sunn O)))’s sets – which run with to a structure, however relaxed – Ambarchi favours some framework to hang the set upon.
“There’s plenty of space to improvise, and a looseness. My solo sets are similar. If everything was super-predictable it would be pointless to be playing shows or making records.”
A move to computerised music is not on the cards, given the physical nature of Ambarchi’s work.
“No, never. The computer is an email tool. I use ProTools, of course, but it’s just a tool for editing and mixing. I don’t even process sounds in ProTools!”
The computer as a straight sub for a four-track?
“I would say so. I never mix at home, anyway. Most of what I do is prepped before I go to a studio to mix.”
It’s the choice of personnel rather than the studio that makes the session.
“Once I get in the studio hopefully it gets taken to another level from working with guys such as Joe [Talia] and Randall [Dunn]. We can get straight to work without the need to explain stuff.”
Ambarchi keeps an eye on the local music scene through his travels. .
“I think it’s excellent,” he says. “There’s so much activity and the quality is really high in comparison to places I’ve been [and]scenes I’ve checked out.
“Everyone pushes each other. It’s very honest.
Is the cultural cringe still in effect?
“I think things are changing. We’ve come a long way. Aussie stuff is well-regarded around the world in experimental circles – when you travel you realise that actually it’s not such a ‘big’ scene with loads of practitioners.
“Australia really has a big amount of people working in this area.”
So are Australian experimental musos the next iteration of the ’90s London staple, the Aussie bartender?
“And baristas!” Ambarchi adds. “It’s pretty amazing – most of Berlin is Aussie anyway.”
Ambarchi has a busy year ahead. “There’s always releases on the boil,” he says. “There’ll always be releases because I love making records!”
Release-wise, the year will see a duo with Jim O’Rourke called Behold on Editions Mego, a trio with James Rushford and Kassel Jaeger on the UK’s Loopy called Pale Calling, a duo with Swedish musician Johan Berthling (of Tape/Fire!) on Hapna called Tongue Tied, an Ambarchi/O’Rourke/Haino release on Black Truffle called Tea Time and the 2LP Live Knots on Pan.
Black Truffle will see some roster expansion, too, as Ambarchi is looking to reissue “some older releases I feel are overlooked”. First up is Giancarlo Toniutti’s Broken Flag release La Mutazione, and there’s talks ongoing with Arnold Dreyblatt regarding the release of archival material.
“It would be an honour,” Ambarchi says.
He mentions that he’s also recently edited a Tokyo Nazoranai show featuring Haino on hurdy-gurdy.
Late February sees the composer travel to Cal Arts to give a talk, and to work with James Rushford on a commission for Ensemble Neon, a Norwegian ensemble. Plans after that are loose, though there is the possibility of Nazoranai shows in Mexico and Brazil.
“I played Mexico a few years ago with Sunn O))) and it was incredible,” he says. “Any excuse to go back!”
Though Ambarchi is not working with Sunn O))) at present – “we’re still very close and will continue to do stuff for sure” – he adds there will be a new Gravetemple release on Southern Lord at some point.
The year seems packed already. Even so, there is one thing Ambarchi wishes he could do.
“I wish I could write more songs,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m good enough, though.”
If his recent output is anything to go by, the pursuit of the goal will be just as interesting as its success.