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Oren Ambarchi Interview: “The challenge is always striving to do something surprising and new”

The Australian experimentalist talks of his new collaboration with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin.

Having spent decades alternating between collaboration and working in a solo capacity, Oren Ambarchi has been a staple in the drone and experimentation world.

Contributing to Sunn O)))’s 2005 breakthrough LP, Black One, Ambarchi went on to collaborate with both Greg Anderson and Stephen OMalley (Burial Chamber Trio with Anderson and Mayhem’s Attila Csihar; Gravetemple with Csihar and OMalley), as well as releasing the fantastic 2014 collaboration LP with OMalley alongside the pioneering doom producer, Randall Dunn – the psych-laden drone odyssey, Shade Themes from Kairos, via Drag City.

While there are countless other collaborations in which Ambarchi has been a part of, including releases with Jim O’Rourke and Keiji Haino, the Australian experimentalist’s solo offerings have gone beyond the well-trodden realms of improvisation in search of previously uninhabited spaces. This is where Ambarchi has essentially built his own world, with acclaimed albums, Simian Angel (2019), Hubris (2016) and Audience of One (2012).

Once again, Ambarchi is ushered into the Drag City broad church, this time alongside Swedish artists, Johan Berthling (bass), and Andreas Werliin (drums) for the collaboration release, Ghosted.

With the three having crossed paths since 2003 in Fire!, Ghosted marks yet another collaboration between Ambarchi and Berthling; their last release the 2015 LP, Tongue Tied. While Tongue Tied was a ethereal journey across the orbits, Ghosted can be considered more boots on the ground. Recorded by the trio at Stockholm’s Studio Rymden in November 2018, Ghosted is an amalgamation of trio’s greatest strengths.

Providing equal influence throughout these compositions, Ambarchi, Berthling and Werliin combine for some sort of rambling Necksian doom improv’ experience. Berthling’s heavy bass stabs leave enough of an open wound for Werliin’s nimble percussion and Ambarchi’s flickering passages of sound in what is a completely organic experience that is equally chaotic and cathartic. A true snapshot of each artist operating outside their own comfort zones.

Back in March, we were fortunate for Ambarchi to answer some of our questions about Ghosted.

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S13: Can you tell us the recording process for Ghosted?

Oren Ambarchi: “It was very simple, we just set up and played. None of the material was planned in advance and we didn’t discuss what we would do. It was not unlike when I’ve worked with Johan and Andreas together in Fire!, however the vibe of the music was much more minimal with lots of space. Definitely not as frenetic as working with Fire!

S13: Did you feel destined to recording something together like Ghosted?

OA: “I met Johan back in 2002 when he contacted me about doing a recording in Stockholm whilst I was touring in Sweden. We played a quick guitar/ harmonium improvisation at Fylkingen one morning in March 2002 which became the My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights album (released on Johan’s Hapna label). We played some duo shows soon after and made another duo record a few years later that Andreas mixed. In 2011 Mats [Gustafsson] and Johan invited me to tour and record with Fire! and that was the first time I worked with Andreas.

“In early 2017 Johan wrote to me proposing that I come to Stockholm as he saw I had a solo show in Copenhagen coming up. He suggested we do a two day trio session with Andreas at a nice studio in Stockholm. There were no expectations or planning other than playing together and seeing what happens.”

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S13: The record feels very organic, like you’ve all been playing together for years. Did it feel natural when you were recording the record?

OA: “Absolutely. It felt super relaxed and the music just flowed. There was a fun, easy-going atmosphere throughout the session. I remember SAS airlines lost some of my luggage. Luckily all of gear arrived, but my clothing didn’t for a few days. So the session was also kind of ‘funky’.”

S13: The artwork is striking and provides a juxtaposition to the album, in my opinion. What was the idea behind it?

OA: “The photographer was a friend of Johan’s and Johan suggested we check out some of his work. That particular photo resonated with all of us. The atmosphere of that image just seemed to be a perfect fit.”

Oren Ambarchi / Johan Berthling / Andreas Werliin - Ghosted

S13: You all come from different backgrounds but still in the capsule of experimentation. Over the years, individually, what have been the biggest challenges when it comes to improvisation?

OA: “In an improvisation I’m always striving to get to a point where something is happening which transcends the instrument and effects that I am using. Obviously I am pretty familiar with my gear etc., but I’m always hoping to get to a point in a show where I don’t understand how something is happening and it kind of goes beyond what I’ve done previously. If that doesn’t happen then I feel a little depressed. So I guess the challenge is always striving to do something surprising and new.” 

S13: And what are your key ideas behind your approach to improvisation?

OA: “Being open, focused and feeling relaxed and free.”

S13: You’ve all been a part of collaborations before. How would you describe the relationship between your solo creativity and collaboration. Is there a point where the two approaches intersect and there is compromise?

OA: “On the one hand playing solo can be very intimidating as all of the pressure is on you alone. However it can also be very satisfying as you are in control of the direction, of every nuance and the timing of how the music flows. I love how you can play with silence and dynamics without having to navigate what another player might be doing. But collaborations are super-important and exciting and they have absolutely shaped the way I make music. Having other people push you out of your comfort zone is a way you grow as a player. And when a group of people are on the same path it can be very powerful, where the overall work is greater than the sum of its parts.”

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S13: How much does open spaces and the environment influence your work?

OA: “Looking back at the Ghosted studio session the atmosphere was super-relaxed and easy-going, which really enhanced what we were doing. Having an open, relaxed environment really makes me feel more free as a player, where I feel like I can take more chances and experiment. The sound in the space is super, super-important. We’re working with sound so if the sound environment is not inspiring then it makes it really difficult to create and improvise. I remember feeling really excited about the sound and the gear at the studio in Stockholm when we made the record. The Leslie cabinet in particular sounded so rich and detailed, it was very inspiring. 

“I really love playing solo in different spaces. Playing solo in a reverberant church for example has been really fun. I also have been enjoying playing in a more intimate space, with the audience seated super-close to me where I only use amps and not the PA. There seems to be more of an exchange with the audience, I love the tension and energy in that context. Playing on a big stage with a big PA with the audience miles away is less appealing to me these days.”

Oren Ambarchi (photo credit: Ujin Matsuo)

S13: With the constant changing of technology, how much has this impacted on your work and has your approach altered in any way because of this?

OA: “Hmm… I’m quite primitive in a way as I’m still basically using a guitar, amps and effects. I don’t really keep up with all the latest gizmos although once in a while I’ll pick something up that will hopefully lead me into a new area. Buying a new effect pedal and finding something unique where I find a way to make it do something it’s not supposed to do can spur me onto a new path of exploration. In the past this has absolutely altered my work.”

S13: Are there any plans to tour together at some point?

OA: “Yes! We were just booked for a show in France and we’re hoping to do more shows. That’s slowly coming together at the moment. Looking forward to that.”

Ghosted is out tomorrow via Drag City. Purchase from the Drag City website/Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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