Name: Oren Ambarchi
Occupation: Guitarist, Improviser, Sound Artist
Current album: Quixotism
Labels: Black Truffle, Bo'Weavil, Editions Mego, Touch, Tzadik
Musical Recommendations: Ora Clementi, Jim O'Rourke
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I was obsessed with music from an early age. According to my mother, she would hear me singing and imitating songs that were played on the radio. So at the age of 10 months she bought me a little kids record player. Apparently I was playing records before I could talk and my first record was the Led Zep "Whole Lotta Love" 7" which I played endlessly; so much that she had to buy my another copy as I'd worn the first one out. All the other kids had toy cars etc etc and I had all the Beatles and Hendrix 7"s. That's all I was interested in.
Around the age of 10-11 I *really* wanted to play drums and kept hassling my dad for a used drumkit. I remember we would have crazy parties that involved lots of dancing and all my uncles and grandfathers banging on Middle-Eastern drums, congas and various percussion instruments. So I guess the rhythmic thing was in my blood.
However my father was concerned I wouldn't be able to "play music properly" if I was just a drummer, so he made a deal with me I'd have to learn classical piano for two years and only after then he'd get me the drumkit. (I'm sure he was secretly hoping I'd forget about the drums). So exactly two years to the day I reminded my dad about our deal and soon after I had an old drumkit and I'd play along to rock records at any opportunity (usually a mix of Kiss, Hendrix and the Sex Pistols).
Actually the kit he picked up was from my grandfather's second-hand store. He had this quirky store in Rozelle, Sydney that had all kinds of weird things and weirdo customers. There were loads of used LPs, electronic equipment, musical instruments etc etc. I would LOVE going there. So I was lucky to pick up old reel-to-reel machines, cheap mics and effect pedals and records from an early age. As a result, on the one hand I would play along to records on the drums, but I also mucked around with tapes and electronics.
When I was 11, I started making crude tape collages at home, grabbing the 'weird' bits from Pink Floyd records and editing them together. I had a cheap double-tape recorder and worked out how do lo-fi overdubs by bouncing from tape to tape whilst simultaneously plugging a mic or instrument cable into the aux input. I also worked how to flange, phase and delay by playing the identical audio on both cassettes slightly out of sync from one another and recording the results onto a third cassette player. I had a drum kit, cheap electronics etc, so I'd made shitty concrete recordings using those instruments and shortwave radio sounds. It was all pretty naive but I was so swept up in it. I learned so much from trying stuff and experimenting from a young age.
Growing up listening to records like the Beatles' "White Album" I was exposed to melodic pop songs like 'Blackbird' and sound collages like "Revolution no.9" on the same LP. As I was so young I didn't have any pre-conditioned notions of what was "right" - I loved both tracks equally. This juxtaposition of melody/noise and order/chaos has definitely been a big influence and is very important to me.
Needless to say I discovered many things from my time hanging out in my grandfather's store and there were many fortuitous events. I picked up Yoko Ono's Fly LP thinking it was a Beatles record I didn't have. Another time I remember seeing the cover to Iron Maiden's The Number Of The Beast and thinking, "wow, I'd like to hear that!". When I got home the music sounded really extreme, and soon after I realised the two records inside the sleeve were Miles Davis' Live Evil. This led me into investigating free-jazz.
So I became infatuated with 60s/70s free jazz ever since I was exposed to late-period John Coltrane as a 13 year old. I was a HUGE Hendrix fan and that led to me discovering that Mitch Mitchell was heavily influenced by Elvin Jones. Then I found out that Hendrix listened to Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, so I went to a record store and had an epiphany when I worked out Elvin Jones was Coltrane's drummer – as in, "holy shit! I need this!". I bought the record, listened to it and was gone. A week later I sold ALL of my rock records (I still regret this) for all the Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, Taylor and so on that I could get my hands on. Listening to this crucial music led me onto many paths and really opened the floodgates to all kinds of sounds. So my first live playing experience in Sydney was playing in a group that was influenced by the free jazz I was listening to
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
In my late teens and early 20's I traveled a lot and spent a few years in New York and saw as many gigs and bought as many records as I could. This was an incredibly stimulating and valuable time for me. At the age of 23 after seeing Keiji Haino play in New York for the first time I immediately decided I wanted to play guitar full-time. I was a drummer at that time.
Up until that point I had seen many "great" guitarists perform. All of them were technically amazing and did all the right things but when I saw Haino, there was a difference. My first reaction was confusion (which is usually a good sign). Soon after I was *moved*. The guy had personality and he'd created his own sound world. That didn't happen too often at a solo guitar performance.
Since I was young I'd always been attracted to electronics and the guitar and Haino wasn't a ‘technical’ player, but his playing was so utterly personal I decided I had to do it and ‘find my way’. I knew absolutely nothing about how to play the guitar but that didn't stop me. So I switched instruments.
I've now been playing guitar since I was 23 and it's taken me years to 'find my voice'. I haven't had any "lessons" and I wouldn't be able to explain what I'm doing in a technical sense but since I started playing guitar I've been fortunate to play in many different contexts with loads of diverse artists - this has been extremely valuable and was a great way to develop and find my way. Plenty of experimentation and 'happy accidents' with my gear/set up have led to where I am now. I'm not a technician by any means but I do feel that since I started experimenting in the solo guitar context I have started to create music that is personal and for me, that's what it's all about. There's more exploring to do of course.
Since I was young I have been completely addicted to listening to as much music as possible and soaking it all up. Not mention being passionate about film, travelling etc etc. All of this influences me and my work.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Compositionally, on my early releases I was interested in limiting myself just to my guitar and effect pedals and seeing how much I could do with that basic setup. I was pretty stubborn about working this way on my early releases. This was fine at first but after a while I felt it wasn't interesting anymore so I slowly began to introduce other instruments in my compositional pallet/sound world. Doing this really opened up things for me.
One of the main challenges has always been the fact that I like to track in a recording studio when I make a record. This can be really expensive and it means that I have to make it happen quick smart once I'm in there. I just don't have the luxury to spend days and days working on a piece in a recording studio.
Records like Grapes from the estate which sound very spacious and relaxed were definitely made quickly and under duress.
This challenge can be really positive of course. Apart from the strings, Sagittarian Domain was recorded in one frantic session for example, so forcing yourself into a limiting situation like that can be inspiring.
Another issue I always encounter (especially in mastering) is trying to find the balance between the really physical bass frequencies that I love and the super quiet/delicate acoustic textures I work with. Having those two elements co-exist in a composition really excites me but it's tough trying to juggle that and find a balance between those two elements in a mix and during mastering (more than one exasperated mastering engineer has thrown their arms up in the air and said "I give up" during a session).
Working on other people's sessions over the years has really been positive for my solo work. I used to be so anal about every little nuance and small detail on my solo records (and I still am to an extent). It would be so torturous and exhausting to work on solo a mix and it was always dangerous as you could easily overcooked a mix and suck the life out of it by perfecting things too much. However whenever I mixed other non-solo projects (such as Sunn 0)) side-projects and other collabs) it was much more loose and fun. I would add wild elements, take more risks and do off-the-wall things I would never attempt on a solo mix. I'm trying to have that attitude with my own mixes now and I'm finding that the more free and loose my approach is, there's more of a chance for exciting and unexpected results.