Rafael Anton Irisarri needs no introduction for us at Cyclic Defrost. A frequent guest in our magazine, he’s been interviewed and featured by us more than once. Such a prolific artist, he has many outputs for his works, either with his own name, or The Sight Below, or projects together with Leandro Fresco, Julianna Barwick or Benoit Poulard, just to name a few. And on top of that, there’s his constant work as a sound engineer in his Black Knoll Studio.
Back in May we had the pleasure of not only witnessing Rafael Anton Irisarri’s mind-blowing performance in Helsinki, but also met with him and had a long conversation where we touched all sorts of topics. The interview took place in quite a special location: ‘Roudaribaari IHME’, a bar-museum in Helsinki with an exhibition of their own collection of sound boards, mixing desks, and all sorts of equipment that definitely provided the perfect scenario for a long chat.
Now he’s back on tour in Europe, with gigs in Poland, England and Spain, and has a new surprise release entitled ‘Sacred Variations’ that serves as a ‘touring CD’. We recommend checking that album out, and diving deep in this article where we talk about his Basque roots, his relationship and new works with Leandro Fresco, the feedback between mainstream pop and experimental electronic music, field recordings, the physical quality of sound, and more.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve got Basque roots, do you know why your ancestors left Europe?
RAI: Different reasons. It was part of their culture to go to America, we are talking about the end of the 19th century. A common thing in Basque culture was having big families (you needed many hands to work the land). The firstborn would inherit the farm, which was the foundation of our culture back then. The other kids had different options: joining the army, joining the Church, or going to America in search of a better life. The Basque diaspora is everywhere in Latin America: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, etc.
Cyclic Defrost: I thought it was a more recent migration, maybe connected with being in nationalist movements and so on.
RAI: No no, this was way before the nationalist movements of the 20th century. It’s quite interesting how something similar happened with many other European migration waves: firstborn inherits the house, then the others need to find their own life somewhere else. The same thing happened in Italy. I’ve read that in Zeta Bosio’s book (Zeta Bosio is part of Soda Stereo, a renowned Argentine band that was a success in Latin America). After his family arrived in Argentina and settled there, quite some time passed by, and then the women in the family also arrived from Europe.
Cyclic Defrost: I was reading a psychologist explaining his ‘poetic’ vision of the Argentine identity. He says that we usually think of the first migrants as the lucky ones, the ones who came to succeed, but no one ever talks about the solitude that this represents. Most of the times they would never get any news from their families in Europe, meaning that we are a culture very familiarised with the absence. Do you feel any of this? Did you ever feel like ‘at home’ while in Europe?
RAI: it’s the little things, always. I remember a trip before the pandemic that we took with my partner, we were in the French Basque region and also Donostia (San Sebastian), and I remember quite a simple thing: breakfast. It immediately felt just right, and I’m not talking about anything special, just coffee and some pastry! But it just felt like that is the way breakfast should be. I don’t know if it’s something in my genes or what, but it’s something that I could feel. And this is interesting because in the USA people usually loose their identity. In the States, if you’re not part of the identity of the masses, it’s seen as a negative thing, something not mainstream. You’ve got to belong to a certain culture, and that certain culture is not the most interesting to be honest, to say it lightly.
Cyclic Defrost: Consumer society imposing what needs to be done.
RAI: But to the extreme, in some other time perhaps this was not as strong as it is now. Of course there was the shopping mall culture and so on in the ‘80s, but with the change of century and the reality TV culture that we have now.. we already have 2 generations that grew up with this Reality TV and American Idol culture, the way to become famous is through some sort of viral content, or an audition in tv shows.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve recently read: ‘In the future, everyone will be anonymous for about 15 minutes’.
RAI: Yes, I’ve read about that, this is where we are now. With social media we’ve reached a certain point, mainly in the US. American culture is self-centered to an extreme. The networks have been designed by Americans (Like Zuckerberg), and everything is connected with the way you look, how the others perceive you, and how you create this fictitious narrative of who you are. Like an avatar.
Cyclic Defrost: You grew up going to record stores, and this habit is getting lost at an alarming rate.
RAI: Which is quite a shame.
Cyclic Defrost: What happens with music like what you make, does it get buried beneath this data overflow?
RAI: I’ll be a bit off-topic now, but I’ve got many friends that grew up in Eastern Europe during Soviet times, and back in the day there were no regulations whatsoever over different industries. So I’ve got friends that used to walk by a river on their way to school, and then at school they’d mention that sometimes the river was blue, some other times it was brown, or green, etc., depending on which chemicals were dumped there by different industries. Nowadays, in order to find music, you’ve got to submerge in these sewage-like waters full of different stuff that has been dumped there. If you think about it, it’s not that different from the Gold Rush that happened in many places, people would spend many days sifting stones and water by the shore trying to find gold. Perhaps you’d find a tiny tiny piece of gold, and that would make your day. Today is kind of the same: finding great music gets a bit more difficult since we don’t have guidance or recommendations that we used to have back in the days of the record stores.
Cyclic Defrost: Ok, so it is more difficult.
RAI: Much more difficult, you’ve got more information, but there are also a lot of things that will block your way to get there. It’s not that you have a friend that would show you something based on your own taste and what they think might be interesting for you. Today is much harder to find new and interesting music. But also, the Z generation, who grew up with a smartphone in their hands and access to all the world’s data, are the least interested in being curious to search and learn about new things. Being curious about something new, having this interest to learn more about it, learn about the influences behind certain type of music or art, etc.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think this is intentional?
RAI: Well, I call it ‘digital pollution’. Quite unbelievable if you think about it. You could think about it in a conspiracy sort of way and believe that this is intentional. But I don’t think there is a hidden plan beneath any of this, I tend to think that things are usually much more simple. I think humans are so stupid that sometimes we just don’t think about what we are doing, and we see everything as instant gratification, to monetise right on the spot without considering any possible future implications. It’s all about saving yourself first, any issue that might be related to that, is a problem for the future, so we don’t care.
Cyclic Defrost: Are you more sceptical than before?
RAI: Well, I think this is more connected to my generation, usually people in the X generation tend to be a bit more sceptical. We grew up in a different way than other generations, we did it on our own. Parents with many jobs to be able to put some food over the table. So everything was growing up on your own and finding your own way without people telling you what should be done.
Cyclic Defrost: I wonder if working as a sound engineer in your Black Knoll Studio you still find people or places where you can hear about new and exciting things, given that you are in touch with so many musicians.
RAI: Yes, with people that make the type of music that we like, people that tend to think a bit more about some other things, curious about reading, informing themselves, people that want to feed themselves with culture. I think that in our ‘scene’ there’s people looking for certain meaning in life, in art, in music, and that search for meaning beyond the ‘normal’ goes against what we are being told by the media.
Cyclic Defrost: Like Rosalía being an experimental artist!
RAI: Well, it’s like with Arca, they are doing some experimental stuff in a way. That’s why they had a lot of success on a global scale. If you think about artists like Bad Bunny, the success that he had in a brief amount of time is unbelievable, yet he manages to add a little extra something.
Cyclic Defrost: Is there something? Or is there a lot of market research, focus groups, etc.?
RAI: A lot of that too, of course. But in the end, he is the one taking the final decisions or choosing the artistic path. He could have easily said ‘for my next record I’ll work with Justin Bieber or Selena Gomes or anyone that’s as high up there as I am’, yet he did collaborations with artists like Buscabulla.
Cyclic Defrost: I Don’t know them.
RAI: It’s a duo from Puerto Rico, and they make some interesting music, electronic with some ‘70s influence, something similar happens with artists like Helado Negro. If someone takes the time to look for some more interesting or ‘niche’ things, it’s a good thing.
Cyclic Defrost: This feedback between mainstream pop and experimental electronic music, like the example of U2 asking for a remix from The Orb, etc.
RAI: Or the famous story with Aphex Twin, who laughed at their face! And something like that happened with Coldplay and David Bowie, who had no issues in saying no to them straight away.
Cyclic Defrost: The other day we were talking about Oneohtrix Point Never’s works with The Weeknd, do you know any other cases of these type of collaborations?
RAI: Well, what we’ve been talking recently, Rosalía, The Weeknd, etc. I’m not sure if this is something that will take off, because mainstream pop nowadays is too… It reminds me of schlagger, some sort of inoffensive music that doesn’t have much content, today’s pop sounds like that to me.
Cyclic Defrost: Aiming at a conformist society?
RAI: Yes, it’s completely harmless, especially today when no one should get offended by anything. Some younger generations today didn’t have many conflicts, that creates certain conformism, therefore some sort of mediocrity. I usually say ‘struggle brings creativity’.
Cyclic Defrost: Is this a must? Or is that just a romantic idea that we still embrace? Can an artist be happy and satisfied and yet create provocative art?
RAI: I really don’t know, it could be the case though. But for me, the most significant art starts from conflict, either internal conflict (the way we see life, not fitting anywhere, etc.) like Joy Division, or also external conflicts, like The Clash or all the punk movement back in the day. This music is not coming from middle class, it’s coming from working class. Same thing happens with ska, reggae or hip hop. If you watch some early ’80s hip hop videos, before Grandmaster Flash and all that, and you pay attention to the lyrics, they are talking about racism, police violence, etc. That is not coming from being a conformist.
Cyclic Defrost: Since we’ve been talking about pop, I wanted to ask you about your collaborations with Leandro Fresco, because I know that something is in the works there.
RAI: We’ve been working on this for many years, aiming at a pop album, in fact I think Leandro has been playing some of it in an Argentine radio, I believe it was in Zeta Bosio and DJ Buey’s radio show. There he spoke about this project that we are working on, which is some sort of pop with a shoegaze and post punk influence among other things. Also some influence by Stone Roses, that kind of pop. Of course, Gustavo Cerati’s influence can’t be denied here, he is a very big inspiration for all of us.
Cyclic Defrost: How is it to work together on a distance with someone that you still haven’t met in person?
RAI: Well, we are very close to each other in terms of culture and music, we like the same things. We could be talking about The Orb or The Psychedelic Furs or The Stone Roses, things that we click with each other. Leandro is also quite known for his ambient project, things that he did for Kompakt Records, like ‘El Reino Invisible’, I had that one spinning for a long time in my record player.
We work online, sometimes we jam together through a video call, that kind of thing. When you are working with someone with such a strong connection with you, you already know what the other person can do when you’re working on your own.
Cyclic Defrost: You had a lot of collaborations throughout your career. What comes to your mind if I ask you about your best experiences working with other artists?
RAI: Well, working with Juliana Barwick in the studio has been an amazing experience.
Cyclic Defrost: The 10’’ right? (Thesis 10)
RAI: Yes, she can sing and improvise all in one take, this is something that we lost thanks to technology. I’ve had this discussion with many colleagues, we lost the art of performance in a way. People are too used to being able to fix any take in the studio, if it’s a bit so-so, then it can get fixed in Pro Tools or something like that, and it’s OK. But if you think about most of the music that you really like, that has been recorded in the studio, those singers can sing exactly the same when they perform live.
An artist like Bowie, you can listen to his acappellas, and that’s his voice. You listen to an artist like Gustavo Cerati, and he sings live exactly as he does in his albums, he does it perfectly. And each time he sings live, that’s a performance with something unique about it. You play the stems of Billy Jean, and you can even hear him snapping his fingers, they left that there from the original recording, so what you are listening to is exactly the way it was recorded. There were no 40 channels with his voice so the best bits could be chosen, like it happens nowadays. Today’s pop music is basically the best of each of a lot of takes.
Artists like Julianna Barwick come from the performance culture, so she sings exactly as you hear her in her records. You play it without the effects, and it’s just her. Even when she is improvising! It’s amazing. When you find someone that can do things this way it feels very satisfying, because you can just focus on the creative part, instead of focusing on fixing technical or performance issues.
Cyclic Defrost: And what’s the reason behind this?
RAI: Practice, habit, it happens to everyone really. Technology creates certain laziness. I was always impressed when Leandro would tell me about the rehearsals prior to going on tour either with Gustavo Cerati or with Soda Stereo, the rehearsals would be 8 hours a day during a whole month, so everything would come out perfect. Same thing happens with all the great bands.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you have a discipline for these kind of things, or are you more of a spontaneous artist?
RAI: I usually improvise. You’ve seen my live setup, with a patch made for the guitar and so on. That’s how I also write music. I spend all day in my studio, doing masters for some other musicians, as if it was an office job.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you have to enjoy the music that you are working on?
RAI: Definitely, I have to like it. If you send over a Coldplay album for me to master, I just couldn’t do it. It’s things that you have to listen to a million times, sometimes the same track for hours, I just couldn’t do it.
Each to their own, of course. Some people can adapt, they can always find something interesting about anything that they are doing. In my case, there has to be something in the energy of what I’m listening to, it’s something almost spiritual. Maybe the way that they look at the world, the music, the way it sounds, etc. It would be very hard for me to work in commercial music that’s made with the sole purpose of achieving fame.
Cyclic Defrost: Tell us about the workshop that you gave in Czech Republic.
RAI: It was an ambient music workshop. Not just how to make ambient music, it was a workshop about the concepts of that music. How to understand this music, how to see life, the relationship with ecology. How it influences who you are, the person that you’d like to be, what you are trying to achieve, and how all of this relates. When you write music, when you are working on the studio, when you are working with other people. It was very nice. It was a bit weird that it was almost exclusively men, except for just one girl.
The workshop went great, people were very receptive, sharing ideas about how to adapt to the environment. For instance, while we were doing this workshop you could hear the noise from some machinery that was nearby, it was like some kind of a drone, and while I was with my patch doing some things, I told people that this external sound was in G, so we tried to adapt to that sound instead of fighting with it. Instead of trying to mute it, let’s just use it. So that drone was in G, therefore we played in G as well, so that piece was an answer to what was happening in the environment.
It’s amazing when you can adapt. For example, we have all these equipments here in this bar, but you really don’t need any of them to make music. What you need is the creativity for whatever you’ll be using. Even if it’s just a smartphone, you have to think about the possibilities of the device. What could you achieve with it, how to use it, how to learn what you could do and get away from this feeling of ‘If I had some better hardware I’d do something more interesting’. That’s not the case for me.
Cyclic Defrost: Is this your approach to guitar?
RAI: it’s my approach to everything. For example I couldn’t bring my own recorder on this trip, because of lack of space. And yesterday I’ve been in this Chapel of Silence in Helsinki with such a special acoustic, so I took out my phone and made a recording. I actually made a recording that’s exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. It’s my own version of that piece by John Cage. And I’ve done it with my mobile phone, and I’ll most likely use that at some point.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s the most unusual or special field recording that you’ve used?
RAI: Well, that is really connected with your own personal experience. You could be in different places, different cities, but to be honest in big cities everything sounds kind of the same, modern cities. And if you go out to the countryside you’ll realise that it’s very hard to find places with pure silence, I mean at least with no human interference. When I was living in Seattle I would go to the mountains and there was always either an airplane or some sort of human interference. To me, it’s like taking a photo, you could go to a famous place and make a picture same as everyone else does, but what matters is your own point of view.
Cyclic Defrost: That reminds me of a quote by Cortázar that says: ‘not that many people are aware of the fact that when they are looking at a photography, they are actually seeing the exact position of the lens and the human eye behind that lens.’
RAI: Exactly, why did we choose to focus on that angle and not something else? So your own personal experience is super important when it comes to field recordings. One of the most amazing experiences that I had was in Jerusalem, a long time ago. We were taken to this area where 4 different neighbourhoods would merge a bit, Arab, Jew, Armenian and Christian, and we were standing over a rooftop right when the Muslim call of prayer started, and from that place you could hear the calling from different angles at the same time. Not one sound had any tone or tempo connection with the other, so there was an amazing dissonance. And at some point in particular you’d hear this dissonant polyphony of all these voices at the same time, coming from different places, different distances, tones, reverbs and echoes, resonating throughout the entire city. It was just amazing, it sounded like the end of the world.
Cyclic Defrost: Have you used that recording?
RAI: I have it saved, only used it for a series that a friend of mine from Headphone Commute did, some sort of audio postcards, there was one of Jerusalem, so I used this field recording for that. Some kind of multi-angle cacophony. Feelings go from anxiety to relief to some cathartic silence, with some birds at the end. Very interesting.
Cyclic Defrost: Last Thursday was the first time I heard you perform. And I felt a different vibe on your music, as if it had more weight, I found a new dimension to your sound when you played live. There was something in the way you would manipulate bass, and it felt like an eardrum massage, with some kind of cleansing at the end.
RAI: That’s the physical quality of sound, that you can’t really appreciate in a record or with headphones. The live experience is different. Also because there’s more people feeling the same thing as you, it’s something quite special. Like a religious experience.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you think it’s a collective thing?
RAI: Yes. A lot of curious things happen during live gigs, also happened with the show here in Helsinki. There was this couple that came to say hi after my concert, Irish guy and Finnish girl, and she told me that she cried with a certain piece close to the end of my set.
I had those situations before, people going over some cathartic emotional state. Also had a curious experience many years ago in a church in Tbilisi, there was an old lady that went to the church when we were finishing the soundcheck, and she just stayed sitting there praying. I saw her and thought ‘I hope she won’t stay for the show, Christ might fall from the cross!’. Turns out that she did, she stayed for the whole concert and never really moved a finger. Afterwards a Georgian girl told me that this old woman had some severe artritis in her knees, but that when she stood up after the concert she felt no pain. There was something with the vibrations that relaxed her articulations.
These kind of things happen quite often, also opposite reactions, people reacting in different ways to the sound, either positive or negative. Some people can’t stand certain frequencies, and they leave the place because of some anxiety or things like that. Everyone has a different reaction.
Cyclic Defrost: Got a key question about your set, were there any voices?
RAI: Yes! It was a loop made with my voice, recorded many years ago, actually very influenced by Leandro Fresco. I’ve never sang before, I’ve got a good ear for music, self-taught with guitar, I can hear an instrument and know if it’s tuned or not, etc. But I was never able to sing, the coordination of my brain and my vocal chords just doesn’t work. A few years ago I was working with Leandro, and recorded a lot of singing, and I thought of doing some parts myself. This was done for the Solastalgia album, so there I mixed my own voice with his voice.
What you heard on Thursday is a loop of that, through some effects and reverbs. It was only coming from the back speakers. At least in that club this could be done, speakers were independent from each other, so I could send different signals to different speakers. That way you can create different atmospheres. Playing live field recordings I try to recreate a sound environment that doesn’t really exist, using sounds from the environment.
Cyclic Defrost: Like the water sounds at the beginning of the set.
RAI: Yes, that was made in the Rhine river in Germany, with a microphone next to the river. There was not that much sound until a little ship passed by, so you could also hear the engine, I didn’t alter that sound. It’s quite interesting, if you put a microphone in the water, there’s not much going on, in some places everything is very quiet, not many sounds.
Cyclic Defrost: Changing the topic a bit, what’s the status of your aka The Sight Below?
RAI: It’s been quite some time already. I’ve been releasing a lot of music since then. That alias is what I use mostly for remixes, almost all my remixes are under that name, I think it’s a good way to keep the project alive. The Sight Below has always been a more electronic project, with some techno influence. Today, the major influence behind that name, besides dub, is footwork, like I told you the other day. In fact I made a remix quite recently for Rachika Nayar, and I told her ‘I’ll make your remix, but I’m into a bit of footwork now’.
Cyclic Defrost: So you’ll keep The Sight Below alive then, or do you think that every project should have a beginning and end?
RAI: I’ll keep it alive. And at some point I guess I’ll start writing for that project again, working in an album too. For the time being is only for remixes, which is great, because I would have never done anything techno or footwork related under my own name.
Cyclic Defrost: Why is that?
RAI: Well, it’s a part of my personality, and this project is just another part of it. If you think about some other projects of mine like Orcas (his project with Benoit Pioulard), that’s more pop, we are working on a pop album at the moment, with influence from Slowdive.
Cyclic Defrost: You are coming to Café OTO in September, you’ve played there before, right? I’ve heard it’s an amazing place.
RAI: It’s a rather small place, with very nice people, good sounds, and a very good community. People go there to sit down and listen to music, and no one says a word. It’s like playing in Japan, everyone has their full attention. It’s an institution in London.
Cyclic Defrost: Any plans for the future?
RAI: Now I’m working on the Orcas project, preparing that album, to see if we could release it maybe next year. We’ve been working on it since 2018. Then I’ll keep on working with Leandro Fresco. I wanted him to come to the States, but it got difficult with the pandemic these past years. I even have Zeta Bosio asking me about that album! But everything got slowed down unfortunately.
Cyclic Defrost: Is he also involved?
RAI: Well, he knows we are working on it, and he also knows I’m a Soda Stereo fan, so he is curious! I also have to work on a new album, it’s been 2 years since Peripeteia, I’ve got a lot of material to work on, maybe I could release something else next year.