Interview: Stephen O’Malley (Ensemble Pearl)

 So how did Ensemble Pearl come together?

There’s a French theatre director I’ve worked with for several years named Gisèle Vienne and she started working on a new theatre piece in 2009 and 2010. One of her partners for producing that piece was a Japanese contemporary arts centre in Yokohama. So she invited me to work on music for that piece – there have been a couple of other things we’ve collaborated on in the past – one of the stipulations was that I work with some Japanese musicians and do the work in Japan. Some of that was really fortunate; we have a long relationship with Boris going back to the 90s, and we’ve done some recordings together in the past under different guises, so it was an opportunity to get back together and make some new music.

So that was the original purpose for that set of sessions. Part of what you hear on the record actually ended up being part of the score of the piece, but we had such a cool and productive set of sessions that we came back to it a bit later and decided “you know what? Let’s finish this and make an album.” It was already pretty close. The process was quite similar to making an album together, so that how we continued. I took those recordings to Seattle and worked with Randall Dunn – also another old collaborator of Boris and myself – put some other parts in, mixed and finished the record. But most of it was forged in Japan.

When you initially announced the record, you made reference to 50s/60s music and also Earth’s HEX album. So did these reference points just emerge as you we throwing ideas between eachother?

I think it’s the sound of the production that is referencing those things; not the form of the music, you know? When we were working on Sunn O))), Randall was always asking if I was into surf music… that’s basically what 60s rock means in Japan at least. He said, “you should get into that, a lot of the sounds you’re going for are reminiscent of it”. This time when we got in the studio, we said “okay – let’s hone in on that”.

And Earth… for me it’s difficult to not mention them. As a guitar player I love Dylan’s playing, and it’s been in the important area of what I like to listen to and get inspired by for a long time. HEX is a beautiful record. And Ensemble Pearl is kind of working with those ideas too; HEX is narrowing in on certain kinds of American music I suppose, it’s a little bit of that mentality, you know? In a way it’s continuing this rock tradition by using those kinds of sounds rather than the most modern production styles.

I’m guessing your guitar is the trebly twang?

Yeah, I’m playing the so-called clean guitar parts on most of the album, not exactly trebly but I see your point.

I’d never thought of it having surf rock inferences but it seems quite clear now I think about it.

Well it’s not a surf rock band, it’s just about using those tones. We were using these great amplifiers of Michio (Kurihara), Bill Herzog and myself we’d brought to Japan – very old small amps – along with tape machines and space echoes and good stuff like that. And later with a lot more compression, analogue desk, spring reverbs, big plates. We’ve used these kind of tools in the past of course, but the focus was that this time it was a characteristic of that way producing sound.

I find it a strange record to listen to; it seems to hold expectation slightly beyond reach, which I find to be a really nice quality.

Well that’s a nice thing to say. You know what, it’s going through that process when the record comes out… I’m always blown away by the different ways in which people write and talk about the music. It’s almost a different vibe for each person – it’s really interesting. Also, some key words in the official text that accompanies the record…it brings up all these references. It’s strange to be honest, but overall I’m glad when people have an opinion – that it’s enjoyable or pleasurable or not you know?

To be working on something for so long, and then have someone chime in with a perspective that never crossed your mind throughout the entire process…I guess that must be odd.

I like it! But the more it happens, the more you realise how deep people’s listening skills are; like, if it’s real blasé or thrown off. Or if they talk about the first track much differently than they talk about the last track, but don’t talk about the experience of the album opening up to them. It’s an attempt at self-awareness with making music that makes you consider a lot more than you need to, rather than it just being music.

Do you read any reviews a lot? Are you comfortable with seeing how people perceive your music?

To be honest I’m totally over-sensitive about it. On the other hand, I’ve been lucky that a lot of people paid attention to what I’ve been doing. It’s interesting to recognise the subjectivity in what’s happening. Our record took a while to finish – because it was part of a score for a theatre piece, and I went on to work on that for a year and a half before coming back to these recordings as an album – so I’ve listened to the music a lot. Instantly it’s “okay, this reviewer maybe played it once or twice?” Which is fine – you don’t have to have lived inside the record for a year for it to have an impression of course.

Is it frustrating at all?

Nah. You know what – if the people involved with the record are satisfied with it then that’s all that matters; and most of all we are lucky our fans are very devoted, so it’s kind of independent of how the rest of the public react. Like I said, I consider it lucky that there’s been attention about what I’m doing from press and sometimes a broader public. It’s a different universe sometimes, but whatever – it’s nice to read when someone is really getting off on the music and thinking it’s really special. Of course that’s a cool thing. Obviously that’s just one side of the coin with the press though!

You’ve also got a devoted personal following that will track your music between projects – a lot of people will move from Sunn O))) to Aethenor and KTL because of your involvement, which must be quite nice.

Well I’m glad if people are compelled to follow through because they’re pretty different types of music. There’s a pretty big differentiation in the amount of people that are coming to those concerts or checking out those records. I love being turned on to music – I love the curiosity venture and fulfilment of hearing a group and then realising that the members are doing stuff elsewhere too.

And if someone checks Sunn O))) and then Aethenor, maybe they’ll then get into Steve Noble’s work – that’s a big universe. As a music fan this is what I do too, and really enjoy myself, so it’s nice to hear that.

I reviewed that recent Decoy record with Joe McPhee recently – I don’t know if you’ve heard that?

It’s awesome. Actually I just played with him in Italy as Aethenor – we played with him at Transmissions Festival, which was curated by Daniel.

And there are Gravetemple shows coming up too, right?

Yeah, we play two shows at Cafe Oto in London next month. That’s something that literally started as a Sunn O))) side project; we had an opportunity to go to Israel with Sunn O))) but not everyone wanted to do that, so we decided to just go for it with the people who did under a different name. It doesn’t sound like Sunn O))). It’s great to be able to continue to collaborate with Oren Ambarchi, and Attila Csihar is in that group.

The music of both yourself and Oren as individuals has really progressed over the past few years. Do you think Gravetemple is now a different band because of this?

We’ll see. Actually we’re going to be in the studio before those London shows to work on some things.

And Ambient Ruin is coming out again soon too…

It a recording that wasn’t really widely available before so we decided to make a vinyl release, on my label (Ideologic Organ). We had been offered some concerts this year and we thought that’d be great to do along side those. Oren’s staying in Europe this Spring so that’s another good reason to be social with each other.

Speaking of your label, I reviewed that new WOLD record just recently – that’s a fantastic record. What urged you to pick that one up and re-release it?

It’s different to a lot of other things on the label, but at the same time it’s a weird conceptual record, and several of the other albums we released are certainly as well; someone’s obsessed idea about music and sounding a certain way. It seems to me that WOLD spend a lot of time on their production, despite it sounding quite brutal and raw – it’s very deliberate, you know? I can’t imagine that arising from limitations of any kind.

I think your label fits nicely under the Editions Mego umbrella actually. Editions Mego itself does well to have such an eclectic set of artists on its roster without sacrificing label identity – I feel that Ideologic Organ does that too.

Great. That’s how we feel about it too. That’s kind of the purpose, so it’s good to hear that. I also think that WOLD is a nice counterpoint to someone like Jessika Kenney, although she’d probably be into that group and I think WOLD might truly appreciate her singing. It’s about the mentality of making music more than a genre thing.

I guess you can have a bit of fun with that via the live Ideologic Organ events, which allows you to bring together a lot of different artists.

That’s what we’re doing with the Gravetemple nights at Oto actually. We have Rissell Haswell supporting one night, and Crys Cole the next! In the past Andrew Chalk & Timo van Luijk band Elodie, Colin Potter have played supporting. Artists I dont release albums by but certainly find a connection with this point I mentioned above.

Oren and I have certainly played at Oto several times – they’re great people to work with and it’s a great place to have something like that happening. Attila Csihar performing there at Oto will be a great moment.

Going back to your work with Gisèle Vienne – you’ve also got The Pyre coming in May I believe?

That’s a new piece we’re working on with Gisèle – the music is by Peter Rehberg and myself, and we’ve done the pieces together as a duo for her. That’s actually what I’m working on today in about half an hour. It’s currently in the creation process, it’s coming at the end of May.

That piece will tour quite a lot – I don’t know if it’s scheduled to come to the UK yet, but there’s due to be quite a few performances. I think it’s going to work out that Peter and I are performing live at most of them. It’s pretty complicated so far as far as the production goes – not necessarily in terms of the music, but more in terms of the stage production. There are still several working sessions left before the premiere so it’s still bound to change immensely. Working with Gisèle is certainly a learning experience, how to refine and sculpt something over a long period of time. There are a lot of people involved, in terms of lighting, technicians, set designers… it’s a choreography of all those people and elements, so it’s pretty interesting to be involved in that kind of work.

That’s a lot for you to think about, in terms of how to incorporate your music amongst all of those elements.

Definitely.

So how do you find that?

It’s challenging – you have to step back in a very different way to playing a Gravetemple concert in Café Oto! It’s not about the music as the number one, we aren’t Philip Glass. It’s part of a much more sophisticated structure and you’re in a support role, so it’s your duty to fulfil that as well as being very aware of what’s happening with the other elements. It usually takes me six months to understand the timing, and even longer to understand the philosophy of the piece – but it’s really interesting to try and understand.

The collaboration has lead to quite a lot of interesting creative places, too. “Last Spring” on KTL’s V, for example…

That’s another Gisèle piece. It’s an installation with a robot character set a small room of four metres square with the long text that you hear on that track. Gisèle makes dolls for her pieces and some of them are robots. That’s been shown, or installed, at a few galleries and museums, and Peter and I worked on the sound design, which is why it’s included on the album.

It’s a difficult piece – particularly if you don’t understand French at all, which I think is the case with a lot of people that bought that record. The text is by the author Dennis Cooper – it certainly has its own substance, but it also works as an abstract vocal piece.

Personally I got a lot out of it without understanding what was being said, and in fact there’s something quite unnerving about not knowing the subject of the piece.

Well that comes back to subjectivity. Is KTL an oppressive, dark band or is V actually quite a beautiful and blissful album? It depends on the reviewer or the listener – I’ve dealt with that polarity of reactions for a long time, with a lot of music and with my own view too. Something like “Tony” may have a lot of emotional content for some people, I think it’s a beautiful sound work. And “Last Spring” is creepy and weird perhaps but… so are a lot are things! It’s subjective – and when it’s working then it’s stimulating your imagination to find content and connection.

It’s always interesting to hear an artist talk about how their pieces actually derive from a multitude of emotional places.

How can it derive from one place? It’s music. And then there are multiple people involved as well. I can’t say I’ve ever worked with musicians that are in the same emotional states as myself; I used to crave that, and there’s always the illusion of solidarity with bands, but that’s all it is. It’s just friendship – if you allow it to be more complex, then it can be.

In light of that, how do you find performing solo? I notice you’ve got a couple of solo shows coming up too.

It’s difficult, because it’s just one voice, obviously there is no communication between players. I don’t know how I feel about it yet, but it’s an experiment and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the concerts I’ve done. I’ve also walked away from some of them like, “why am I doing this?” And then the answer is, “well – you’re a guitar player and you’re playing solo guitar, so what’s the issue?” There are people are interested in listening to this, people inviting me to do it. I’m gradually coming to place of recognising that doing a solo concert is much more about focusing on the subject of minimalism and it’s importance – it’s baring the sculptural minimalist side of sound that I appreciate.