Welcome to to the fifth regular installment from Joe Marshall, focusing on the very best of ambient, drone and other assorted outsider transmissions.
As regular readers of this column will undoubtedly know by now, I’m a bit of a Barn Owl fan boy, and with good reason; the San Franciscan two-piece of Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti have, under their various guises, been responsible for some of the most incredible music I’ve ever head the privilege to hear. Consequently, it gives me great pleasure to open this month’s column with the following interview. A big thank you to Jon and Evan for their time.
So how did Barn Owl first come about as a project?
Jon: The two of us met in college and began playing together soon after.
And on that note, what artists first influenced (and continue to influence) you?
Jon: Dave Pierce of Flying Saucer Attack will always be an inspiration for us/me. Also, Roy Montgomery and Jon Gibbson.
Evan: Neil Young, particularly with Crazy Horse is one that I think comes out more than usual on our next full-length, “Ancestral Star”. Also Popul Vuh, who’s music has continued to take on a greater significance the older I get. Same goes for Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha.
I’ve read that both you guys have previously been involved in metal bands. Is that a genre you can see Barn Owl experimenting with in the future?
Jon: Not really. It can be interesting to incorporate some aspects of metal into our sound, but I could never see us making a straight-forward metal record. Although, we’ve had a few rad black metal jams with our friend and collaborator Jacob Heule.
Evan: Yes! Savage. As it is, I think some people would be more inclined to label us a metal band if we used Marshall stacks instead of Fenders. Don’t see a blatantly metal future ahead.
How do you approach the writing process? Do you build pieces up from certain drones and sounds, or do you begin with more obviously structured guitar parts etc and seek to embellish them?
Evan: It never works exactly the same way, although structured guitar parts are usually a steady anchor. Repetition into oblivion is sometimes necessary.
Jon: Usually there’s an even combination of writing guitar parts before hand, then adding improvised or drone elements later.
What would you say each of you brings to the table when you’re playing in Barn Owl?
Jon: This differs from piece to piece. We like to approach things as a duo, always maintaining a collaborative approach.
Evan: Cosmic dialogue.
Both of your full-lengths are incredibly layered – as a duo, how do you go about translating that into a live setting?
Jon: A few effects pedals usually do the trick. Fuzz, delay and loop pedals are usually key elements.
Evan: Delay and loops help, we also try to play in reverb-rich spaces as much as possible.
On that note, to what extent is ‘drone’ music necessarily improvised in a live setting? Does playing the kind of music you do with Barn Owl leave more room for you to experiment with your live show?
Jon: The music allows for pieces to unfold differently every show, we try to keep the free nature of the drone controlled within prepared movements. So our sets aren’t exactly improv, but also not completely structured. We have a mapped out goal for every set, sometimes we stray from the map and have to quickly jump back on course, other times we stray from the map and find new territory.
Evan: We generally work within a modal framework involving a root note, its fifth, and a few other notes which sort of set a limit on the pitches played in a certain piece.
There is definitely a good deal of room allowed to experiment with live shows, which is great. I would hate to play the same set night after the night. Sound determines its own course at times, things will always take shape a bit differently within a drone framework.
Your artwork has always been extremely distinctive – in what ways does that relate to your music?
Evan: The visual art and music come from the same source. The different mediums can convey similar ideas and feelings in their own ways. At times, artwork ties in in a more literal way, at others it’s more of an associative thing.
The Conjurer is a good example. I was working on the lithograph that became the cover around the same time as writing the guitar parts but there was never a really direct, conscious dialogue. Seeing and hearing both products now that they’re done there seem to be a lot of subconscious connections.
While each project obviously possesses its own distinctive sound and atmosphere, it seems to me that Barn Owl/Elm/Higuma and Evan’s solo work are all interrelated in some kind of thematic way? Would you say that’s a fair comment, or do you aim to maintain the distinction between these different projects?
Jon: While our solo projects attempt to cover different territory, it’s not easy to step away from our personal music styles, which have always been related in some way. We all spend a lot of time playing and talking about music together, so it makes sense that there is a thread flowing through all of our work.
Evan: I think all of the projects are an extension of some sort of subconscious undercurrent.
You seem to mention the San Franciscan landscape in a lot of your blog posts and interviews (and I noticed Higuma’s forthcoming LP is titled ‘Pacific Fog Dreams’). Is the environment in which you live a big source of inspiration?
Evan: Yeah, the ocean and fog specifically are really special to me. I moved here from a more dry and arid environment and I remember the first week here not really seeing the sun for days on end was strange, but now I love the fog so much.
Jon: We love the bay area for many reasons, and the surrounding landscapes are always an inspiration. There is something mystical about the fog in particular, it often seems to have a life of its own.
Finally, what do the next 12 months hold for Barn Owl and your related projects? Where can you see Barn Owl’s music going?
Jon: Actually there are a few exciting prospects in the near future for Barn Owl, including the release of our next record Ancestral Star on the amazing Thrill Jockey. Also in the works is an east coast tour for the fall, and Europe in the spring. Also have a solo LP coming out on Root Strata out this summer.
Evan: The last few years were extremely productive, so a lot of projects will finally be seeing the light of day. Ancestral Star has been over a year in the making so we are super excited to see it being fully realized with Thrill Jockey. The Norman Conquest, whom we worked with on “The Conjurer” also recorded and produced the album along with us. Also, Important Records is releasing a collaboration we did with Ellen Fullman, Theresa Wong, and The Norman Conquest called Barn Owl and the Infinite Strings Ensemble.
As far as non-Barn Owl releases, my album West Winds will be released on Three Lobed Recordings in about a month. Higuma’s Pacific Fog Dreams will be out on Root Strata, but not for while. Jon and I also collaborated with Dewey and Jed of Eternal Tapestry, which we are calling Garden Sound, sort of a dark krautrock/freak-out type thing. Digitalis will be releasing this on vinyl, maybe in the summer.
Of course it comes as no great surprise to report that the aforementioned West Winds is utterly outstanding, even within a month of quite astounding quality. While 09’s Psychic Mud Shrine was almost impossibly dense, Caminiti’s latest offering focuses as much upon eerie restraint as it does viscous slabs of distortion; just check out the mournful harmonics that cut through the second half of opener ‘Night Of The Archon’ here, or the spectral glimmer of ‘Dust.’ At once unsettling and incredibly beautiful, ‘West Winds’ is one of the finest records I’ve heard in a long, long time and totally essential listening.
Equally brilliant (and indeed encouragingly high profile) is Returnal, Daniel Lopatin’s latest offering under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker. Much has been written about this particular record already, and in a far more eloquent fashion than I could hope to achieve (not least by DiS’ own Rory Gibb, here but needless to say, every ounce of praise is justified. Indeed for a guy who had previously managed to carve out such a distinctive sound, Returnal is an incredibly varied and surprising listen, from the searing opening blast of ‘Nil Admirari’ (nothing less than the sound of cosmonauts being sucked into deep space) to the title track’s goosebump-inducing vocal turn. Quite where Lopatin goes from here is anyone’s guess, but over the past 18 months he’s established himself as one of the most singular and compelling figures on the ambient/drone scene.
While the name Brad Rose might not prompt quite the same level of recognition amongst many, the main man behind the impeccable Digitalis imprint is a pretty outstanding musician in his own right and his latest LP, Bloodlines is another worthy addition to Type Records’ increasingly uncompromising catalogue. Although less obviously rooted in particular geographies than the label’s recent triptych of pitch-black releases from Xela, Svarte Greiner and William Fowler Collins, Bloodlines represents a hugely impressive balancing act between noise and melody (although, in all honesty, the noise generally wins out). Of course, such an immaculate production job always helps when you’re dealing with a record that’s so textural, but Rose also offers a barely concealed paranoia that is utterly compelling and when, as on ‘Reunion,’ shards of melody do emerge from the murk, the emotional effect is devastating. Scope the album here
Finally, I’d like to highlight one of the most intriguing 7”s I’ve heard in quite some time, courtesy of Keith Fullerton Whitman. Although his current output is frustratingly fragmentary for a man of his talent, his recently self-released Variations for Oud And Synthesizer has barely left my record player for the past month. Recovered from a hard drive crash, these two short pieces are, as the record’s title suggests, a combination of some pretty furious oud playing with various analogue synthesizers and post-production tricks. The results, not to the mention the record sleeve (seriously, just check that out), are stunning and those seeking something utterly alien and surprisingly intense should look no further. Copies are still available from the man himself, right here
Thanks, as always, for reading. More next month.