Miles Brown: ‘How about this great Australian theremin player?’ Goblin, the Night Terrors and Séance Fiction: Interview by Tony Mitchell

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I first encountered Miles Brown as the support act for Italian prog rock legends Goblin (actually New Goblin), of the renowned Dario Argento film soundtracks Suspiria, Profondo Rosso et al, at the Sydney Metro in July 2013. Not only did he play synths and theremin, he came back on stage to guest with Goblin on theremin, shaking hands with mighty multiple keyboard player Claudio Simonetti, the only remaining original member of the group, as he left. Earlier he had provided support for the band in Melbourne at the Museum of the Moving Image in 2012, as part of Melbourne Music Week, and introduced New Goblin synth player Maurizio Guarini on the ABC Arts program a year later, as they prepared for a concert in the Melbourne Town Hall, with Simonetti playing the giant pipe organ – the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, with 7849 pipes, nine metres and three stories high, and including its own shower and toilet. As Miles recalls:

‘We first met Goblin when The Night Terrors supported them for their first ever show in Germany in 2011 at the Polyrhymnia Festival in Berlin. At this stage they had essentially been absent from the live music world for a long time, and this was when Simonetti was still playing with Morante, Guarini and the rhythm section from the Simonetti Horror Project. That was amazing – in their soundcheck they played Tenebre to an audience of just Antoni Maiovvi and myself, it was spine chilling stuff! The next year back in Melbourne we were talking to the City of Melbourne about writing a piece for the Grand Pipe Organ in the Melbourne Town Hall, and discussing lineup options for the show. They were saying we’d need a big bill to try and fill out the 3000 capacity venue, and had invited Elise from Melbourne Music Week along to the meeting. Elise had heard that we had played with Goblin in Berlin and asked for their contact, next thing we knew they were coming out to play their first ever Australian performance at our gig! That show sold out, and so they ended up being brought back in 2013 for a film festival in Perth, and side shows in Melbourne and Sydney. I was asked to support, and seeing as I’d played with them so many times, I emailed and asked if I could play theremin with them for Phenomena (which has a theremin-like synth line in the original). They were up for it so I ended up doing that on the tour. It was very very fun!’

Chris Abrahams also played a Necks concert on the Melbourne Town Hall organ in 2005, but a hard drive failure unfortunately meant the recording of the performance was interrupted. Anthony Pateras played it in 2011, and in 2014 Brown’s group the Night Terrors were commissioned by the City of Melbourne to record their very Goblinesqe album ‘Pavor Nocturnus – Composition for Grand Organ, theremin, electronics and percussion’ with Sarah Lim doing the honours on the organ, Damien Coward on percussion, and Brown on theremin, anologue synths and bass, as well as the organ. https://thenightterrors.bandcamp.com/album/pavor-nocturnus. ‘Pavor Nocturnus’ is of course Latin for Night Terrors, who have been described as ‘cult dark-psych-space-trance legends’. Brown, at least a generation younger than Goblin, who first came to light through their score for Profondo Rosso in 1975, which spent 12 weeks at the top of the Italian album charts, said on the ABC program that he found their prog rock ‘not as dorky as I thought it was’, and Goblin ‘probably the spookiest band that did music for the movies’.

Miles: ‘Part of the plan with the 2012 show with Goblin was that the set we had written for the organ would be recorded live, but as the event unfolded things became (understandably) more and more focused on Goblin, to the point where the A/V company hired to record the show didn’t do it properly, and actually turned the recording off halfway through our set. Ariel Valent from the City of Melbourne contacted me in April 2014 and said that he had found some money in his budget, and asked would we be interested in making a recording of the material we had written. The catch was that we needed to complete it before the end of the financial year to get the money. We had gone through a few lineup changes so half of what we had written in 2012 wasn’t really doable, so I spent a few months going into the Town Hall after hours (the MSO were rehearsing in there during the day) and rewriting and arranging the whole project. It was super Phantom of The Opera, as I’d generally be in there alone from 10:30pm – 6am, playing the largest pipe organ in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m proud to say I’m the only person in the Town Hall’s history who has caused the police to be called because of the volume of the organ! The organ is midi-equipped, so I was able to sync the analogue sequenced elements of our music to some of the organ’s manuals, and Sarah Lim and I played it live as well. The organ is just incredible, it’s like playing a building. Having access to it for so long was fantastic, an instrument such as this demands certain kinds of writing to emerge, certainly I wrote things I wouldn’t have touched on using synthesisers and regular keyboards. The reverb in the hall played a huge part in the composition process as well’.

Brown prides himself on having just three degrees of separation from the theremin’s inventor, Léon Theremin, a Russian who patented the instrument in the USA in 1928 and was reputedly kidnapped by the KGB a decade later, and due to his genius as an inventor, forced to work on bugging devices. He died in 1993. Brown studied with Russian theremin exponent Lydia Kavina, the granddaughter of Léon Theremin’s first cousin, and currently the world’s leading classical performer of the instrument, at least since the death of Lithuanian theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, who influenced the design and evolution of the instrument, in 1998. Miles studied with Kavina in Oxford in 2009:

‘I’d been applying for grants to study with Lydia for a few years by that point and the Australia Council finally came through for me. That was a super surreal experience, as the first CD of theremin music I’d ever owned was Lydia playing on the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Up till that point I was totally self-taught, so having a chance to learn from the greatest classical thereminist in the world was very daunting. Lydia was extremely cool and tolerant of my punk approach to theremin playing. She had me butchering Bach and Schubert in no time, and I was finally able to solidify some technique things I’d only been intuitively aware of until then. We also travelled to Lippstadt in Germany for a theremin festival, where I also had lessons with Carolina Eyck, and met a lot of other theremin players from all over the world, many of whom I have gone on to become great friends with’.

Both Bohuslav Martinů and Frank Zappa’s mentor Edgard Varèse wrote works for the theremin, and the first film score to use the theremin was Dimitri Shostakovich’s for the Russian film, Odna (‘Alone’, 1931), originally a silent film, about a female teacher who is sent to work in Siberia. It later began to be used frequently in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood film soundtracks to evoke an eerie atmosphere by composers like Miklós Rózsa (Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend) and Bernard Herrmann (numerous Hitchcock scores as well as The Day the Earth Stood Still), before falling out of favour. Steven Martin’s fascinating 1995 documentary Theremin:An Electronic Odyssey revived interest in the instrument, probably best known for its use in the Beach Boys’ track ‘Good Vibrations’ in 1966. And there is a link between Martin’ documentary and Miles Brown’s performance with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at the Sydney Vivid festival in 2010:

‘That was a crazy experience. The Sydney Opera House were trying to find Australian acts for an event that Laurie and Lou were putting together called Noise Night, and had not been having any luck getting any of the acts they had proposed approved from the curators. Our name was put forward and suddenly Lou was saying yes! We had no idea why, but of course we accepted with much excitement. When we arrived in Sydney the Opera House people told we that Laurie and Lou wouldn’t be interested in speaking to us, and if we saw them we should leave them alone. In fact I think the Opera House had found Lou to be quite hard to deal with. So we had this big meeting with all the acts who were scheduled to perform, a few days before the gig. Marc Ribot was there, guys from Boris, Melt-Banana, Bardo Pond, Oren Ambarchi, Lucas Abela and his Rice Corpse band, plus the guys from Zond. We were all in there waiting and suddenly Laurie Anderson walks in with this big plate of sandwiches. “You guys are The Night Terrors? You just drove up from Melbourne? You must be hungry, here have a sandwich”. We were like “Okay, thankyou very much Laurie Anderson!”. Anyhow, Lou and Laurie turned out to be super lovely. I was really lucky because Lou was a huge theremin fan. He told me that he and his producer Hal Willner had actually been involved with the making of Steve Martin’s doco Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, which had been a huge factor in me getting involved with the theremin in the 90s. Lou had met Clara Rockmore and was heavily involved in the production. So yeah, we did the show, and Lou had encouraged everyone to drop in on each other’s sets, so I played with Bardo Pond and Marc Ribot (which was amazing in itself), and then at the end of the night we did this big mega jam thing, with Lou on guitar, Laurie on electric violin, myself on theremin, Oren Ambarchi and Jason from Bardo Pond on drums, and most of Zond in there too – and we just jammed for ages. The only thing Lou said into the mic all night was “How about this great Australian theremin player?”. I was pretty overwhelmed, but again I was so lucky because Lou was just such a big theremin fan. He invited me for drinks with him and Laurie afterwards, and then the next day he and Hal Willner invited me to be on their radio show The New York Shuffle, where they basically played me songs they thought I might like. It was so surreal. Lou played me some Korla Pandit, which I had never heard before, and am now a huge fan of. I think other people were having strange interactions with Laurie and Lou because of the awe factor, but for me it was a bunch of people nerding on about theremins and synthesisers’.

These days the theremin is widely used in a rock context by performers as diverse as Mike Patton with his New York Italian Orchestra, Liam Finn and the Melbourne rockabilly band Men Into Space, where a theremin is attached to a guitar. It has also, of course, been used in Danny Elfmann’s music for the films of Tim Burton (for more discussion on the theremin, Argento and music in horror films, see http://scan.net.au/scn/journal/vol10number1/Clare-Nina-Norelli.html).

Miles continues: ‘My very first theremin was a homemade beast that my Dad and I built when I was 18. It was made out of cake tins and ended up being more of a theremin / ring modulator after we circuit bent it to make it work. Since then I have been playing Moog theremins. My main instrument is the Moog Etherwave Pro, which is the classical standard for serious players. Unfortunately they are super rare these days – Moog discontinued them when Bob Moog passed away. They are a little harder to control than the standard Etherwave theremins, but with some practice it is possible to produce some really nuanced performances. Most of the music I love from the 70s and 80s was made with analogue synths. In fact was through analogue synth research that I first heard of the theremin. Moogs are super delightful, and I’m a huge fan of the 80s Roland synths such as the SH-101, SH-09, and RS-202. Right now I’m having a lot of fun with an Oberheim Matrix 1000 as well. I have a lot of friends making techno with analogue synths growing up, and when we started The Night Terrors we soon discovered that analogue synths cut through a mix so much better than digital ones, especially when competing with live drums and distorted bass guitar. A theremin is essentially an analogue synth (with aerials instead of a keyboard) so for me the choice was always simple’.

Miles Brown

Brown’s debut album, Séance Fiction, starts in Night Terror (and Goblin) mode with ‘Space Cadet’, with a chugging robotik synth and voice-like theremin, and Brown is credited with synth, vocals, programming and theremin. His first single, ‘Electrics’ follows, very much in synth-pop Depeche Mode mode, with Brown’s overdubbed vocals over ever-chugging vintage analogue synth, and then comes ‘Assistant’, with a grinding synth and stabbing vocals. The dark mood continues with ‘Ghost’, a swirling dirty synth sound following the staccato vocals. ‘Control’, another up-tempo robotik number, features vocalist Jenny Branagan, while track 6, ‘Apparition’, another single, is a slower synth track with darkcore lyrics and a theremin solo: ‘let’s run an acid bath/ let’s start an answer cave-in/ let’s make it after dark/ let’s take it out for ever’. ‘Knell’ gets back into techno-chug mode, an instrumental featuring spooky theremin, ‘Less than You’ has more Depeche Mode-like vocals, with wailing theremin. ‘Feeder’ has a violin-like theremin and slow, chugging beats, another instrumental, ending with a church organ-like sound in Night Terror mode. Séance Fiction doesn’t quite manage to detach itself from Depeche Mode and Night Terror influences, but is a notable solo debut:

‘My solo project initially started out as a way for me to play theremin shows when the band wasn’t touring. I had realised that some of the best shows I had played theremin wise had been smaller, low key (and much lower volume) affairs, and I wanted to be able to branch out and play gigs that didn’t require the (ever-expanding) arsenal of equipment The Night Terrors entailed. However as I started writing I noticed that some new material was really crying out for real vocals. I decided to just go with the flow with whatever seemed required for each track, and found it was super fun to set aside the quite limited set of rules that The Night Terrors has (theremin as lead singer, no guitars, etc.). I suppose I also wanted to explore the more traditional electronic uses of my analogue gear, and so yes a lot of the material turned out to be rather poppy. Again this was just fun to go along with, to see – what kind of songs would pop out? At the time in Melbourne the new wave of dark electronic music was just gaining momentum – and I ended up playing a lot with acts such as Nun, Forces and the Nihilistic Orbs crew. We would play shows at the old Gasometer and The Liberty Social, and then go DJ at goth clubs. Suddenly there was an underground synth culture in Melbourne that I was excited to engage with! So I think that had an influence too. For so many years with The Night Terrors we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to find contemporaries to engage with in Australia. Now there is so much great new stuff happening, it’s exciting to be involved with a local community again’.

On December 19th, Miles is performing again in Sydney at the Lo Fi/Sci fi Festival for the first time since his tour with Goblin in 2013. ‘I’ll be playing a lot of tracks from the album, plus some new material I’ve written for a theremin / horror disco record I’ve just written for a label in Berlin. The festival is going to be a super fun time and I’ll be playing the most epic dark electronic party set I can muster!’

Séance Fiction is out through IT Records.
Miles Brown is performing at the Lo Fi/Sci FI Festival in Sydney on the 19th of December 2015.

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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