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Total Eclipse: An Interview with Oren Ambarchi

We talk to the Australian experimental pioneer about his new landmark release, ‘Shebang’.

Festival timetables are arduous tasks. Take this year’s Primavera Sound festival, for example. Careful consideration is undertaken over many weeks. Each reassessment always revealing something which had initially been missed. And at the fifth time of examining this year’s line-up, Oren Ambarchi’s name met the eye alongside co-conspirators, Konrad Sprenger and Phillip Sollmann.

Together they presented one of the best performances of the Barcelona festival’s second weekend: a 45 minute composition which began with languid synths and noodling, slowly transforming into the kind of primal drone that swallowed you up into the void.

“I love playing live, it’s how I develop what I do,” says Ambarchi, answering a series of questions via an email exchange in the lead-up to the release of his latest LP, Shebang. “When everything is working, there’s an energy exchange with the audience, and sometimes something surprising or unexpected occurs, which can lead me into new areas I haven’t explored before. This can be further developed into new territory. Also, it’s absurd, but I’ve never really had my own studio or a space where I can set up my gear. So I only really get to play at a show or when I’m recording.”

While each Oren Ambarchi album naturally contains the vestiges of its predecessor, from one release to the next there are always vastly different textures and methods applied. This is what makes Ambarchi essential in the experimental music landscape. No one album is constructed in the same way, and that’s why he is an artist that those with curious ears will always gravitate towards.

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

Seemingly suspicious of melody, Ambarchi has always found new ways through the labyrinth, unafraid to take the leap into the unknown. It got me thinking: are his influences from a young age still prevalent now, or have they changed over the years?

“Lately I’ve found myself revisiting many records that were formative for me from way back when,” says Ambarchi. “Some of these early influences have been informing my recent work in some sort of oblique, underlying way. I’m a voracious listener and a sponge, I’m always curious to discover older and newer artists [and] releases that are inspiring and get me fired up.”

Flanked by an all-star cast which includes Julia Reidy, BJ Cole, Chris Abrahams, Joe Talia, Sam Dunscombe, Johan Berthling and Jim O’Rourke, Shebang is another priceless jewel in the Ambarchi crown. Opening composition, I echoes with fleeting percussion, droning funk-inspired bass lines and guitars that pluck and plink like a futuristic video game. It’s a wild psychedelic tapestry.

“In November 2016 I heard Julia play a solo 12-string guitar set in Melbourne, which was super beautiful. This was the first time I’d experienced her music. At one point in her set she was playing repetitive figures at quite a fast tempo. Whilst this was happening, I imagined hearing Joe’s ride cymbal juxtaposed with what she was doing along with different abstract textures of my guitar playing. So a few years later when I was in Berlin making the Simian Angel album, I got in touch with Julia and asked her to play something quite single-minded and repetitive at a particular tempo for 30 minutes or so. I then put it to the side for a few years thinking that I would try out this idea with Joe playing alongside her guitar playing whenever the time was right. Years later Joe overdubbed his drums and this became the bones for the creation of Shebang. It got a little complicated after that.”

He continues.

“I constructed various elements in a timeline and sent different parts to different people (Chris, BJ, Sam, Jim) and had them respond to whatever they were sent. No one received the same material but I knew that everything would have a ‘musical’ relationship once it was placed back into the timeline of the piece. So none of the players were responding to one another in a conventional sense, which really appeals to me.

“I worked with my buddy Konrad Sprenger in Berlin, juxtaposing the players in the timeline along with loads of other material we generated. Towards the end of the process I had some specific parts that I asked Johan Berthling to play on the double bass, but all the other contributors only had one or two elements to react to and were pretty surprised when they heard the final result.”

Oren Ambarchi - Shebang

Whilst different to Ghosted, the excellent collaboration album between Ambarchi, Berthling and Andreas Werliin released earlier this year, Shebang still holds that same organic feeling. Coupled with that – oddly enough – it also holds a vibe reminiscent of the aforementioned Primavera performance alongside Sprenger and Sollmann. Although different in aesthetic, there’s a crescendo evoking that same kind of feeling at the conclusion of Shebang.

Ghosted is very straightforward in comparison to Shebang. It’s three people playing together in a room with only a few minor overdubs. The making of Shebang was much more complicated – there’s literally hundreds of tracks and yes, none of the players were in the studio together. I’m happy that it feels organic to you, I feel the same way about it,” says Ambarchi. “There’s also something unusual about it, as none of the players were relating to one another in a conventional musical sense. So hopefully it feels organic but also kind of outside of the norm.”

The noirish funk of II is underpinned by Cole’s atmospheric pedal steel, passing off a filmic quality. “I’ve always loved cinema but I didn’t have this in mind when I was making the album,” admits Ambarchi.

Bleeding into III, Berthling’s double bass and Talia’s dynamic-yet-nimble percussion creates something that just swings. Abraham’s swirling keys whip up the perfect storm. So too O’Rourke’s snyths, and alongside Ambarchi and Reidy’s snaking guitars, with IV they unlock the gates where we are met with a deluge of sparkling noise that leads us to the summit of this fantastical sound world.

Oren Ambarchi (photo credit: Greg Clement)

Shebang is not only Ambarchi’s finest work committed to tape, it’s his most atmospheric, too. However, the latter point is not immediate. Shebang is an album you need to really get into your ears in order to extract its full effect. Take it for a walk and you’ll be completely absorbed in the world Ambarchi has created.

And while there are numerous spellbinding performances throughout Shebang, Cole’s pedal steel is a vital thread. A solo artist in his own right, Cole has worked with everyone from Elton John (Tiny Dancer, A Single Man) and the late Olivia Newtown-John (Come on Over) to Spiritualized (Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space).

“In September 2018 I was playing a solo show in Chicago and I stayed at Dan K’s [from Drag City] place. We were listening to records and he played me BJ Cole’s solo album from 1972, The New Hovering Dog which blew my mind,” says Ambarchi.

“It was really unusual and quite singular, so I grabbed a copy the next day and became pretty obsessed with it. I then looked into his work and realised that he’d played pedal steel on loads of legendary releases that I was already familiar with (Elton John, Scott Walker, Procol Harum et al). So when I started making Shebang I got in touch with him and sent him Hubris and Simian Angel. He wrote back and was really enthusiastic about working together on something and so it went from there.”

Oren Ambarchi (photo credit: Greg Clement)

While Ghosted’s final track, IV stirs with a Necksian charm, Abrahams is another who has been involved with so many great releases outside of The Necks, including last year’s debut self-titled LP with Springtime, alongside Gareth Liddiard and Jim White.

“I’ve known Chris since the ’80s as we are both from Sydney,” says Ambarchi. “He’s super important and a beautiful, unique player. I saw him play a lot when I was young and was lucky to see The Necks many times in Sydney, before they’d ever released an album. We have been playing together intermittently over the past 15 years in a trio with Robbie Avenaim. I knew Chris would be perfect for Shebang.”

Sound Waves: In Conversation with Springtime’s Gareth Liddiard and Jim White

There is little doubt that Shebang is a release that completely stands on its own two feet within the Oren Ambarchi oeuvre. Still – to these ears at least – there’s a nagging thought of a connection with Hubris. “No, not really,” says Ambarchi. “Although they definitely relate in the sense that they were both created in a similar way, with none of the players in the same studio. Hubris was made on the run, in various studios, in different countries whilst I was touring. Both albums are driven by an underlying pulse so there’s a connection there too.” 

Like Hubris, are there any plans to play this album in its entirety?

“I can’t imagine how we could pull it off as there’s so many elements, but you never know,” says Ambarchi. “I recently did a new mix for the album launch at a place in Berlin called MONOM. They have 48 omnidirectional speakers and 9 subs suspended throughout the venue, so I could get super forensic with the mix, highlighting all the different details. It was a lot of fun to do that. BJ Cole has been wanting to do duo shows with me which is really exciting. I thought it would be fun to do a quartet with the Ghosted trio along with BJ. I think it would work really well, I hope we can make that happen.”

Shebang is out via Drag City. Purchase from 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.

3 replies on “Total Eclipse: An Interview with Oren Ambarchi”

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