Australia-based guitarist Oren Ambarchi has been on a tear. In 2012, he released 10 albums, which included collaborations with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Japanoise demiurge Keiji Haino, Swedish skronkers Fire!, minimal techno craftsman Thomas Brinkmann and esteemed UK free improvisers AMM members Keith Rowe and John Tilbury. He also released a pair of solo records. On Audience of One, he experimented with muted songform, contemplative minimalism and orchestral blitzkriegs, capping the whole thing off with an Ace Frehley (yes, that Ace Frehley) cover; the second, Sagittarian Domain, was a droning 32-minute krautrock monster.
While Ambarchi’s solo work on the UK imprint Touch draws on pure tones and contemplative composition, he indulges his more aggressive side as a collaborator with doom-metal minimalists Sunn O))), with whom he has worked frequently since 2005′s Black One. This month, he teams up with Sunn member Stephen O’Malley and engineer Randall Dunn for the massive trio album Shade Themes for Kairos. Originally a soundtrack to Kairos, the 35-minute film from Belgian director Alexis Destoop, the Shade Themes sessions yielded over an hour of music characterized by pile-driving guitars and thunderous gongs. Touching upon glowering post-rock, abstract metal and body-erasing drones, the trio makes such avant-garde fare sound vital and immediate.
We caught up with Ambarchi in Paris, where he answered questions from the office of Paris’s legendary Groupe de Recherches Musicales, the birthplace of musique concrète and modern electronic music, where Ambarchi was humbled to have just seen a photo of himself hung alongside the likes of iconic electronic composers like Pierre Henry and Bernard Parmegiani.
I heard you once lived in New York City as a yeshiva student.
I lived on Utica Avenue, in the Hasidic part of Crown Heights, from the late ’80s until 1992. I was studying as a yeshiva student at that time. I would go to as many jazz gigs as possible, buy as many records as possible, hang around until my money ran out, then come back to Australia and work, save up money and come back to NYC again. I stood in line in the snow and saw Miles Davis play a tiny club around 42nd Street right before he died. I got pneumonia once while standing outside in the winter to see a Cecil Taylor gig. I saw saxophonist Charles Gayle right when he started playing again and I walked into this insane wall of sound, very physical, which left an impression on me.
You came up playing free-jazz drums. So what led you in 1998 to release Stacte, a solo album of guitar?
You couldn’t press records in Australia, it was very expensive. But a friend wound up with this crazy deal with a pressing plant in the U.S. who let him press records at cost. My friend told me about it at a bar one night and the next day, I was sitting at home listening to Alan Licht’s Sink the Aging Process and thought, “I could do that.” So I used this mono cassette recorder, plugged into it and played, then flipped the tape over and reacted to what I had just done. Without thought, I sent the cassette to the U.S. and a month later, I had 200 copies of this LP. I didn’t know what to do with them!
Since then, there has been a string of eloquent experimental solo albums for the Touch label, but your name has also cropped up on pop albums as well as on the studio albums of Sunn O))). How did you wind up collaborating with a doom metal act like that?
Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley was DJing at CMJ in 2004 and he played a track of mine called “Corkscrew” (from Grapes from the Estate). He was playing the track and pushing the sound system and the frequencies of the song set off the fire alarm in the venue, which in turn set off the sprinklers and they had to evacuate the entire venue and the fire department came. The next day, O’Malley emailed me and said, “Hey man, we should work together” [Laughs].
What was it like working with O’Malley in the context of Shade Themes From Kairos, versus in Sunn O)))?
By the time we got together for Shade Themes, Stephen and I had worked intensely on a bunch of projects over the years. We were in Belgium to make music for the film Kairos and filmmaker Alexis Destoop wanted to cut the film to the music and not the other way around, which was really nice for us. We had the opportunity to use this makeshift studio, and we had Randall Dunn come out to engineer it. The studio folk asked, “What instruments do you need?” because there was nothing there in the studio. So we just made this ridiculous list: gongs, crotales, a drum kit might be fun. “Let’s get a mellotron!”
We’re in this space and the sky was the limit, we could do whatever we wanted. We didn’t have a plan, we just created it all in the studio. That experience was good for me. I mostly played guitar, but because [the songs featured so much] percussion, I did lots of drumming as well. It affected my next two solo albums, Sagittarian Domain and Audience of One, and my power trio with Keiji Haino and Jim O’Rourke.
So Shade Themes predates all of those records?
The soundtrack was recorded about four years ago. It was the catalyst for these other albums. Keiji Haino was the other big push for me to do drums again. It gave me ideas to have more rhythmic elements in my own work. I had used drums as texture, but after working with Haino and O’Rourke, I embraced it.
What was it like to meet Haino-san and play together?
After seeing him play in NYC back in 1992, Keiji Haino was the reason I started playing guitar. And then I randomly met him when I walked into this convenience store in Tokyo in 2003. He was just doing his grocery shopping. He had this feeling that I knew who he was, so he walked up to me and bowed.
And now you’re in a power trio with him and Jim O’Rourke. How did that happen?
Years later, I wound up at this sound workshop in southern Japan with Haino and Jim O’Rourke and we played as a trio. A year later, we were together again and at soundcheck, Haino pointed at the drum kit and said to me, “Audition.”
What’s it like to play with one of your idols?
When we play and everything comes together, I’ll think, “This is the best shit ever.” And as soon as I have that thought, as soon as that thought enters my mind, Haino changes what he’s doing, he stops. If I think, that’s what happens. It’s weird, but it’s happened numbers of times. He just goes somewhere else. He’s really courageous.
Does that experience inform what you do on your own records now?
It changes my approach to recording now. I now approach it in a not-anal, non-forensic way. I just finished a new solo record, recording it as I’ve been touring around the world: Iceland, Köln, London, Japan, Seattle, L.A. It’s a collaborative record, built up from Thomas Brinkmann’s beats and it’s a continuous 48-minute piece in five movements. I use John Tilbury, O’Rourke, Eyvind Kang, Brinkmann, as well as Christina Aguilera and Fiona Apple’s drummer, Matt Chamberlain. Previous records always started from the guitar and I would build it up. But now I build it off of other people.