We had the pleasure of catching up with one of Cyclic Defrost’s most beloved artists: Oren Ambarchi. Named experimental musician of the year by Pitchfork in 2014, Oren Ambarchi is nowadays one of the most prolific and interesting musicians on the road, constantly expanding boundaries. Right after his performances in Russia and Japan a few weeks ago, we talked about his live collaborations with Thomas Brinkmann, the fusion of electronics & acoustics, the recording of Hubris – his acclaimed recent work on Editions Mego, working with Ricardo Villalobos, unconventional performances, the hidden connection between the avant-garde and pop music, and much more.
Paranoid: How were your performances in Russia?
Oren Ambarchi: Really great, quite an intense week. So much stuff going on with the festival. I played a duo with Okkyung Lee, and two days later a duo with Will Guthrie, both went great. It was nice to improvise with Okkyung and Will who are amazing instrumentalists, it felt really alive. There was a lot of electronic music going on at the event, most of the vibe of the festival was people standing there with laptops so it was good to present something different to that. Thomas Brinkmann also played and did his thing improvising with multiple turntables, which was fantastic and stood out a lot from the rest.
Paranoid: You’ve played together with Brinkmann in Italy recently..
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, we played once in Milano and once in Venice, and we’re gonna play again in June pretty close to Düsseldorf, at a museum.
Paranoid: That’s news!
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, it hasn’t been announced yet.
Paranoid: Do you see yourself in a club environment with that setup?
Oren Ambarchi: Oh, I’ll play in any environment, which I kinda’ do, whenever I do a tour it’s always interesting to me because I show up and the place could be a church, and the next week it can be an art gallery or a festival. So I’d be more than up for that if it came up.
Paranoid: Could you choose just one essential piece of your live setup, besides guitar?
Oren Ambarchi: Uhm, that’s a hard one because of so many things I use are kinda integral to what I do. One is the Leslie cabinet, and I really love that sound, I manipulate it a lot, and it’s a big part of what I do. There are a few effect pedals that are very integral to what I do too. It’s like these modular things that complement one another. A very difficult question!
Paranoid: You mean the Leslie because of its physical effects on sound?
Oren Ambarchi: Exactly, it’s like a dopplereffect, like a tremelo, it’s physically moving the sound in the space, it is a beautiful tool that I love to use. Once I got to know it I realized it was something I needed to have on stage.
Paranoid: Do you think of the fusion of electronics & acoustics as something more complete?
Oren Ambarchi: Well, I’m interested in all kind of sounds, and to me it’s whatever it takes to make it work. On the second part of Hubris there is a short interlude, and after the music was done, I listened to it and thought ‘it’s cool, but it needs something else’ and I didn’t know what. And my partner was on the phone with her mom, without her knowing I got my phone and recorded her, in the middle of their conversation. And while she was still on the phone I took it to my room to edit it and add it to the piece, and it worked perfectly. It’s kinda like I’ll play or do whatever it takes to make a piece work. I am always interested in the juxtaposition of acoustic instruments with electronic sounds. I like something fragile, that you could be playing really quietly, but amplified, you know, and to juxtapose its textures with electronic sounds perhaps, I like that mixture.
Paranoid: You started Quixotism with Brinkmann, could you spot where was the beginning of Hubris?
Oren Ambarchi: I started that a bit differently, on my own, and the after that the first person I collaborated with on it was Mark Fell. I went to his house in the UK for a few days, and played a lot of guitar and other stuff there. That was the beginning of the record in a way.
Paranoid: How was working with Villalobos? At first I thought that he was only behind the remixes of Hubris, but then saw that he is also on the sessions.
Oren Ambarchi: The funny thing is that he is a very elusive guy. Very hard to get hold of. I was in Berlin maybe one or two times and the first time even though I had his mobile number, it was like trying to track down a spy. I kinda persisted, I had a few friends helping because I played at Berghain a few times, and he lives next to there, and the people at Berghain were trying to help me, you know. Eventually he heard some of the stuff, and I really liked his contributions. It’s not like we were together in the studio, it was more like an exchange of files. He contributed so much that it was impossible to include it all on the album, and it didn’t make sense, I only wanted to use what made sense for the record. The 12 inch for Black Truffle is more about featuring what he did. I was happy that we could make that happen. There were more versions of it, more than 3 other versions, I picked the one that he was happiest with, he also did a couple of others that were quite radically different.
Paranoid: What was the hardest you had to overcome to dedicate yourself to the arts?
Oren Ambarchi: Well, it’s a really unpredictable lifestyle, you know. I’m so happy to be able to do this, and I’m very lucky that I can sustain myself from it, but it’s very precarious and unpredictable, you don’t really know what’s happening.. I couldn’t tell you what’s going to happen in a year from now, where I’m gonna be, how I’m gonna do to pay my bills and stuff. All that sort of stuff.. it can be quite stressful.
Paranoid: And how do you do?
Oren Ambarchi: Well I don’t know! I’ve been lucky, there’s times when you really don’t know how you gonna get through, but then miraclously for me, something happens that sorts it out.
Paranoid: Have you ever done some special performances where the audience should not be in the conventional way?
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, I’ve done a few sleep concerts, especially in Italy, that seems to be something very Italian, where the concept started. Around midnight, or after midnight performers play long duration sets, I think the one I did was 3 or 4 hours, and people had sleeping bags, they lay down on the floor and sleep, or not. I’ve also love playing in an intimate environment, having people very close, all around you when you play. I really like those situations. I really don’t like it when you are far away on a high stage removed from the audience.
Paranoid: Do you find it hard to break that distance?
Oren Ambarchi: You kinda have to get into the zone, when you play, you kinda almost have to feel like you are in the audience too, that is kind of the attitude that I want to share.
Paranoid: I’ve seen the Knots Performance at Sónar, which was your favourite presentation of that work so far?
Oren Ambarchi: I was in an ambulance about 1 minute before we played that show at Sónar! I was actually super sick, something happened like food poisoning or something, I don’t even know how I was able to do it!
The one in Krakow was exciting, because it was the first time we played the piece with 20 or 30 string players, it was quite powerful to realize that live. Some of the duo sessions with Will Guthrie or Joe Talia were also really special because of the interplay between guitar and drums, I love that sort of immediacy. I wish I could play the piece more often.
Paranoid: You taught a class about the hidden connection between the avant-garde and pop music. Could you give examples of it?
Oren Ambarchi: There’s definitely always been a connection. For me what a lot of rock and pop bands were doing in the studio in the late 60s/early 70’s was as experimental as anything in the so-called ‘experimental world’. People were pushing the boundaries, there was this feeling of the ‘discovery of the unknown’, it was almost like the sky’s the limit. It felt like things could go anywhere, and nothing was set in stone yet. But then these things become set and formulaic, people mic drums a certain way now, when you go into the studio now people fall back into the tried and tested formulas. I think in the late 60’s and early 70’s people were just much more experimental and everybody did things in a different way. The differences between Led Zeppelin’s drum sounds, or The Beatles drum sounds… they are completely different but they both sound incredible. You know. I love that connection where there was fertile experimentation in every field. Something like some of the Godley and Creme records, they are catchy pop records that are incredibly experimental, pushing the envelope, pushing technology, pushing all that they had to work with, and taking it into a different area altogether. To me it is valid and super inspiring.
Paranoid: Do you still find it easy to listen to music in a completely intuitive, emotional way?
Oren Ambarchi: I’m trying to do that all the time. I’m quite addicted to discovering things that I don’t know about, and being inspired or excited about it. I really do my best not to be jaded about music, or what’s going on. I want to remain open to a lot of stuff, and positive about stuff, because when I am that way, it just allows things to happen. I definitely do listen from a more emotional, or anti-intellectual way. A lot of times when I finish a gig, as soon as I finish there’s 20 or 30 guys looking at my pedals, taking pictures, usually dudes, of course. For me it’s different, I would never do that, I just don’t want to know, I don’t want to decipher how they are doing this or that, I prefer things to be more mysterious, there’s more of an allure that way. I don’t want to be thinking about how something is made all the time, I prefer to react to how it makes me feel.
Paranoid: Best thing you’ve recently heard?
Oren Ambarchi: I just came back from Tokyo, whenever I’m there I just buy a lot of records and listen to them when I get home. I picked up some older things, like free jazz from Japan, or things from the Cramps Records label from Italy. Also a lot of underground hip hop too, I’m really interested in that world. I’m interested in so many different things…
Paranoid: What’s the best Beatles song?
Oren Ambarchi: Oh man, best Beatles song.. that’s a really hard one man, I can’t answer you! It’s too much, it’s a really loaded question. There’s so many things. But I must say I’m a strong Paul McCartney supporter, I’m gonna defend him until the cows come home, because I think in a way, he was the true experimental musician in the Beatles. And he pushed them into some areas.. He was the guy who brought in the tape-loops when they did ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and he was the guy coming to the studio and saying let’s try this, let’s try that, and the fact that he wrote so many incredible pop songs that are so beautiful and catchy, I love him and love his solo stuff too. I think he is really important. I couldn’t pick just one thing, I could talk to you about the recording of a particular album of theirs for about 2 hours, but to pick one song.. it’s just too difficult!
Paranoid: Plans for the rest of the year?
Oren Ambarchi: There’s loads of releases that I’m working on, a lot of Black Truffle titles coming on too, my next gig is at the Barbican Theater in London, with Manuel Gotchsling, doing a lot of Ash Ra Temple music, also stuff with Will Guthrie happening in Scandinavia. And a lot more things as always.
Photo of Oren Ambarchi by Maya Kalev. You can find Ambarchi’s label Black Truffle here.