A Quietus Review – Sonic Communication: Stephen O’Malley Talks Ensemble Pearl & Gravetemple (April 10th, 2013)

Stephen O’Malley must be one of the hardest-working men in metal. As well as being one-half-to-one-quarter of increasingly popular doom/drone powerhouse Sunn O))), he’s also been a member of a number of iconic metal acts over the years, from Khanate and KTL to Gravetemple, taking in a range of collaborators such as Eyvind Kang, Timba Harris, Attila Csihar, Boris and members of Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, many of whom have cropped up on recent Sunn O))) albums.

His latest project to see an album release is Ensemble Pearl, an international quartet that includes Atsuo from Boris on drums, Michio Kurihara of Ghost and Boris on guitar, and William Herzog, from The Sweet Hereafter (amongst others) on bass, completed by O’Malley’s trademark guitar mauling. Their self-titled debut album was released last month on Drag City, and sees O’Malley expanding the palette of his heavy music in new and exciting ways. Meanwhile, Ideologic Organ, the imprint O’Malley runs under the umbrella of Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego, will this month reissue a humungous demo album by Gravetemple, the guitarist’s trio with former Mayhem and current Sunn O))) vocalist Attila Csihar and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. This release will follow a two-night residency by the trio at London’s Cafe Oto this weekend, on the 13th and 14th of April.

Even with so much going on, The Quietus managed to catch up with O’Malley over the phone to discuss Ensemble Pearl, the weight of Sunn O)))’s popularity on his other projects, Ideologic Organ, and just how awesome a band Boris are.

How did Ensemble Pearl get together and start recording?

Stephen O’Malley: I was commissioned to make some music for a theatre piece in 2008 or 2009. That piece ended up being called “This Is How You Disappear”. One of the producers was a Japanese theatre company, so some of the work ended up being done in Japan, [and] so I was invited to work with some Japanese musicians in Japan. Of course, it was a great opportunity to do stuff with Atsuo and the Boris people again. They were really excited about it too, so we went into the studio under that commission.

We spent a week recording music in Tokyo and it was really productive, a really great time. Bill Herzog came over to work on that too. He’s been involved with Sunn O))) and was on the Altar album we did with Boris too. He’s played in the band and stuff like that and is also the bass player for Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter. Furthermore, he’s a very old friend of mine and Greg’s [Anderson, from Sunn O)))], we’ve known each other since the late ’80s, so it was great to invite Bill to come out too. After [that week], some of the material ended up being worked on for that score, specifically, but we didn’t go back to the entire [Ensemble Pearl] session until later. We kept going back to the rough mixes and, two years later, we decided to go back at it and finish that session as an album. We worked with Randall Dunn, our old ally, and voila! There it is. [laughs]

What’s the meaning behind the name Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: I was kind of obsessed with this album called The Pearl by Brian Eno and Harold Budd. I think it’s from the early ’80s… Not so much with the music or the concept or anything, but the mood of that album is really incredible and somehow that was on my mind. And we just wanted to put a name to it. It’s not anything special, but it kind of means exactly what it says. It’s kind of… true. People like Michio, working with you, it’s really special, for me. Any collaboration is special, but that seemed to fit there. And the mood of that album I mentioned was a driving direction for characteristics not only for that session, but also for the music I was trying to do for that theatre piece.


Ensemble Pearl – ‘Painting on a Corpse’

As you referenced, you’ve worked with Atsuo and Bill in the past, so Ensemble Pearl has drawn comparisons with Altar. Do you think that’s a fair reflection of Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: Well, maybe superficially because it involved some of the same people coming back together again. But on the other hand, you can see it as a continuation of a really long friendship and relationship between Atsuo and me. We’ve known each other for a long time. Altar was a great moment in Sunn O)))’s history, and in my own personal experience of playing music and being in the underground. It represented what is possible to do with a DIY project – which is what it was! – and it was pretty complicated, so it was incredible to put that together.

I had never played with Michio before that recording session [for the theatre score], so he was a new collaborator for me. Of course, he’d been involved with Boris for a few years at that point. It was pretty amazing – he’s an enigmatic musician, so seeing his technique, especially playing with tape, was pretty mind-blowing and unique.

I think that the spirit of Altar was very special to that period of time itself, and it also involved a lot of other people. Ensemble Pearl is not a continuation of Altar directly, but it seems that, as time goes on, a lot of comparisons are made to your history, just because there are more touchstones for people to try and understand the music itself. Which I think is positive, but at the same, of course there are going to be references to other records that I’ve played guitar on, or Bill played upright bass on, because those personalities are present. And hey, if we could ever have a chance of repeating the spirit of Altar, in any project, that would be extremely positive, because it was a really great moment.

You seem to regard it as a high-water mark…

SO’M: It’s one of them, that’s for sure. Even more than the music, for me it’s about the companionship of the players and that type of chemistry, which honestly doesn’t exist between all those people anymore. It was a period of time when we really came together. I think that the Ensemble Pearl session was very focused and telepathic, in a way, but it was much more private because there were four people involved and it was in a small studio. Altar involved 15 people, maybe, in total, and it was in Seattle, which is where Sunn O))) comes from, and a lot of the people were local. Boris came over specifically for it, and then we toured together as well. Eventually, we played some concerts together as Altar, which was a circus, but it’s one of the high-water marks, for sure.

Do you ever feel that comparisons with what you’ve done as Sunn O))), in particular, can overshadow projects like Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: Of course. It’s the most recognised of all the music I’ve done, so it seems like a lot of people come to what I’m doing from that point of view as the main background, which is great. From my viewpoint, it allows me to do more, because there’s more interest. But I’ve done a lot of other music besides Sunn O))) in the past, before Sunn O))) was around. As a musician, there are different levels of importance on different performances, I suppose. I think it’s kind of a miracle that people are following this stuff, anyway. With Sunn O))), we’ve always said that we want to make the music to please our expectations, and it’s amazing that other people come along for it. I don’t want to compare something like Ensemble Pearl [to Sunn O)))], but if someone comes to this record because they know Sunn O))), or they know Boris, or they know Jesse Sykes, or they like the Altar record and think there’s some relation there, then that’s great. Time goes on, and this is a more current realisation of music for me, so if people want to follow that, it’s a gift that allows me to continue to do these abstract projects.

‘Blood Swamp’, taken from Sunn O))) & Boris’ Altar LP

It’s interesting that you use the word “abstract”. Do you see Ensemble Pearl as a follow on from the more experimental aspects of Sunn O)))?

SO’M: No, I don’t approach it from Sunn O))), y’know? It’s a separate thing, and we went in with different references. Music written for different vibes. Sunn O))) is a different animal, man. It’s a beast, and Ensemble Pearl is very focused… Of course, it’s experimental – it’s not a pop record! – it has a different purpose and has its own individual point to make, musically, and mood to achieve.

Were the tracks composed in advance, or were they improvised at the point of recording?

SO’M: I wrote a lot of the music in advance and we worked on that together as a group. There’s some improvisation too, and a lot of writing in the studio, but most of it came from parts I had written, or wrote in the studio. Improvisation is a critical tool for any record or band I’ve ever been involved with, and that’s certainly true about developing music in the studio. We developed it all, as a group. You can’t really write for Michio! You can show him and he extrapolates like an astronomical version of your score, or a weather pattern [laughs]. It’s great. Atsuo is someone I’ve worked with on a bunch of stuff and I think we really understand each other. He really helped develop the character of that music in the studio and the production of the material.

It sounds like there’s a special chemistry between you guys.

SO’M: I hope so. I felt it. I’ve got a long history with Atsuo. I met that guy in 1994, maybe, in Seattle and have kind of followed Boris all the time. We ended up doing some tours together, made Altar, they brought us over to Japan the first time, introduced me to a record label that puts out Sunn O)))’s records in Japan. He’s like an old ally. Same with Bill. When Michio got together with Boris, it was a leftfield decision that really worked well and transformed that band, heavily. It was cool to see. I love watching Boris go through all these chameleon stages. It’s pretty interesting, even if I don’t connect with all those stages. I appreciate it as a long-term conceptual work.

They’re one of the only bands capable of releasing two completely different albums on the same day!

SO’M: Exactly! It demands that people following them have a curiosity, even if they might be quite violently opposed to some of the moves [laughs]. The reason they might react that way is that they love certain stages of that group so much. It’s risky for Boris to do that, but on the other hand, one thing that might be observed is that they have a lot of trust in their audience to be intelligent and open-minded to track all of them.


Ensemble Pearl

Loren Mazzacane Connors once said in an interview that he could sort of tell if a band or artist was Japanese just by hearing them, especially the guitar. Do you think there’s a distinctive “sound” to Japanese rock or metal?

SO’M: Well he has direct contact with some of the hottest personalities. I mean hot in that it’s like a flame, where, if you get too close, you sort of get toasted [laughs]. I wouldn’t go that far, instantaneously knowing they’re Japanese, but there’s a quality, especially in rock, where they kind of get into psychedelic and improvised abstract realms automatically. It’s like a strange filter… It’s silly to generalise, but some of my favourite Japanese musicians and bands and albums seem to have a distortion of the very identifiable, regular forms of music. Early Boris sounded like Melvins, in some way, to be quite short, but you knew it wasn’t some band from Missouri playing slow riffs. It was touched a little bit by the psychedelic vibe, and there are a lot of groups like that, that have that filter. But I would never want to be able to identify a person’s nationality by their playing, unless it’s like a traditional folk music. Not with modern music – that would be a shame! But I see his point, I think…

That’s what good about Ensemble Pearl: it’s an international band, not just American, or Japanese, or even both. It’s wider than that.

SO’M: Y’know, it represents a Boris character too. They spent a lot of time touring in the US, and almost as much in Europe. They made a huge effort to do that, and it’s difficult to do, y’know, to travel across different continents. It’s not just one or two tours, we’re talking 15 years of touring, for them. Like I said, the first time I saw them was on their first tour, in ’94, with The Thrones, and we were blown away by this band we’d never heard about. Sometimes bands that are internationally-recognised aren’t as popular in Japan, or vice-versa, but they’ve achieved a balance because of their persistence and determination.

Like Sunn O)), they’re very loud, so it must be demanding on you, the artists…

SO’M: I think any live show is, at the same time, extremely energising and extremely exhausting. One reason you do tours is that you don’t recognise that exhaustion [laughs], and just bathe in this rite, this powerful energy, daily. But I wouldn’t change it for anything, it’s a gift to be able to do live shows like that.

What was behind the decision on Ensemble Pearl to get Eyvind Kang involved on a track (‘Wray’)? I know you’ve worked with him on Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions.

SO’M: Well, the second part of the production of that album took place at the end of 2011, and we decided to finish it as an album. I spoke with Randall Dunn about mixing it in Seattle at a studio with a great API desk and take an analogue turn with it. So we went to Seattle and did that, and a lot of the production decisions were made at that point. It defined the character of what we were looking for, with a production heavily inspired by ’50s rock or surf music, in a way, from our point of view. It might not be very obvious, but it’s something Randall and I have talked about for a long time.

Anyway, Eyvind’s living in Seattle and he’s someone I’ve been working with and collaborating with in different ways, so I invited him to come contribute to the record. The thing is, ‘Wray’ is primarily a piece by Timba Harris. He’s another viola player, and a friend of Eyvind’s. We worked with both of them on some Sunn O))) records and stuff. Eyvind came in and did an electric violin solo on ‘Sexy Angle’, but Timba Harris is very present on ‘Wray’, although it’s not only him. But besides those two moments, everything on the album is purely Michio, Atsuo, Bill and myself. There are no synthesisers or other types of instruments, it’s only guitars, bass and drums. And percussion! I want to make that clear. There are nice illusions on the record, people are hearing different things on different tracks. The ‘Giant’ track seems to be sparking people’s imaginations as far as the instrumentation is concerned, [yet] that track is purely guitar, purely Ebow guitar played by Michio. So, again, we’re working with this idea of phenomenology and spectral music in a way, but more for rock than contemporary music.

Is it a sense of going for the source, getting things back to a more streamlined structure, in a way?

SO’M: For me, there’s nothing like being in a room with people you connect with and just making music right there. That’s the best way of writing music, and that’s what Ensemble Pearl was. A lot of stuff I’ve worked on has involved more production or taking things from one place to another and adding elements here and there. But Ensemble Pearl was recorded in a very small studio, the four of us meeting every day for seven days or something, and getting on with it, as a band. For me, that’s the source, that’s the way I started playing music and I know that’s how a lot of these other guys started playing music too.

William Herzog, as you mentioned, performs with Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, so there’s a folk/country background there. Do you think there’s an element of that in Ensemble Pearl, with the open spaces that exist across the album?

SO’M: Bill’s done a lot of bands. He was in a band called Citizens Utilities, on Mute. He plays with a guy called Joel Phelps in a band called The Downer Trio, where he actually plays drums. He’s played bass on all the Jesse Sykes albums, I think, and toured with her a lot, and he’s also an amazing singer. I don’t think his point of view for music is genre-based, it seems to me he’s always searching for the correct character to introduce into the music, but then again he’s like a real musician kind of guy. I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a country music influence in Ensemble Pearl, but then again the entire background of every player is involved at the point of playing, so it’s possible, I guess. I didn’t think of that. Bill is more open-minded…

I didn’t necessarily mean to infer that it came from Bill, specifically, but there are a couple of tracks that made me think of recent Earth records, like Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, and I wondered if that was planned in advance.

SO’M: I love Dylan [Carlson]’s playing and the Hex, Or Printing in the Infernal Method record has been influential. I don’t think I’d heard the recent records when [Ensemble Pearl] was recorded, but I won’t deny Dylan’s influence, for sure. The Hex record has such beautiful space and spare playing, and I can hear that in Ensemble Pearl.

What are the next plans for Ensemble Pearl? Are you planning to tour and release some more material?

SO’M: I’d love to work on a second record, and we’ve talked about meeting and doing that. I’m not sure about live shows. I guess it depends on an opportunity or an invitation that would allow us to fly everyone to the same place. Boris is quite active, as you know, it seems they’re doing a lot of touring this year. Maybe that would open up some opportunities to do an Ensemble Pearl concert or set up shows or something, but there’s nothing planned right now. It’s kind of in a holding pattern, I guess. The record has come out and got a really great reaction, more than I was expecting, which is very pleasant, of course. Hopefully, if there’s an opportunity presented…

Something like All Tomorrow’s Parties.

SO’M: Yeah, something like that. I don’t expect anything from anyone in that way, but hey, we’ve had support to do much more complicated logistics before, so it could happen. But one thing is sure, which is that we’ve talked about getting together to work on another recording, which I would really love to do, possibly with a vocalist involved.


Excerpt from Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin LP

This month or next will also see the reissue on Ideologic Organ of Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin. What was the impetus behind that?

SO’M: Well, that was originally a demo that we made in 2008 for a small tour. It was released in 300 copies at that time. I just wanted to put some material on vinyl, and I loved those recordings. They’re pretty strange! We’re spending a lot of time in Europe this year, and we decided to try and play together again as a trio, doing a bunch of concerts. Again, this is a group of people, Attila, Oren and myself, who have been playing stuff together for several years now, since 2003 or 2004, so it’s a continuation of a longer musical relationship.

I wanted to have something tangible to have as a souvenir of those concerts and also to bring it out there. Attila is especially great on this record, he did a lot of his recordings in Japan when he was visiting Mount Fuji. It’s kind of a concrete record, in a way, in our way. That group did about three tours and put out three recordings so far, and this is the second one. It’s not new material at all, but it’s relevant. Before this tour, we’re going to spend some days in a studio in London, actually, working on, y’know, whatever. Stuff to play live. It’s primarily improvised, so I want to get the chemistry going again. It could be the beginning of a series of releasing these other CDs on vinyl, and maybe new material too.

It’s quite different than Ensemble Pearl in most ways [laughs], but the similarity, and also the similarity with Sunn O))) and all my different projects, which seem quite disparate at times but actually are not, is that it’s based on collaboration, friendship and camaraderie between the musicians. The communication is possible at a very deep level, and then the sonic results can be quite different, but that type of really human communicative experience is the whole reason to do any of that stuff. I’m really lucky to have several friends with pretty strong identities and ideas to be able to do that with.

Would I be right in thinking that, for Ambient/Ruin, you guys all recorded your parts separately, and then put them together at a later date?

SO’M: Like I said, it was a demo before a tour, so we wanted to work on something constructive before getting together on a stage. Some of the material was actually recorded live from a tour of Israel we did, and, like I said, it’s a kind of concrete thing that we did in that way. We were trying to take a flavour and then build something together, and even though that process was not done in person, it did inject some vitality into the pre-production of those concerts. Oren, especially, is so productive and has so many ideas for production…

I can imagine working with Attila Csihar must be an unique experience. He’s a phenomenal vocalist.

SO’M: Definitely! It’s very simple: he’s a legend [laughs]. Let’s leave at that. He’s an unique musician and an incredibly generous person. He’s a legend. He’s Attila.

For the upcoming concerts at Cafe Oto, will Gravetemple be performing material from Ambient/Ruin or will it be totally new?

SO’M: It’ll probably be totally new. It’s not supporting a demo from 2008! And anyway, playing at Cafe Oto encourages improvisation. That’s why we wanted to do that, and I’m glad they were up for that, too. It could potentially be quite blistering in that space, but not necessarily. We’ll see what happens. The idea is that we’ll be in the studio, as I said, in London, for two days, and I think it could be super-productive, actually. I hope so.

This will be your fourth showcase at Cafe Oto for Ideologic Organ. Are you liking running the label?

SO’M: Yeah, I like it. I’m not the right person to run a record label as a business, I suppose, but luckily Ideologic Organ is a partnership with Editions Mego, so I’m more of a curator and the business side of things and the distribution are taken care of by them. I’m pretty fortunate, and have been able to bring out some incredible recordings by people. There will be more things happening this year, as well. I don’t know what the full lifespan of this label will be, but it’s also prodigious, so far.

Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, it’s been great to talk to you.

SO’M: Thank you for taking an interest. Have a nice Easter. Go egg a church!

Gravetemple play at London’s Cafe Oto this Saturday 13th April and Sunday 14th April. For information and tickets, click here. Ensemble Pearl is out now on Drag City. Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin is released this month on Ideologic Organ.

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