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Oren Ambarchi – Seeing It Through

The Australian musician spends an afternoon in Dublin discussing his wealth of musical projects and collaborations with Ian Maleney. 

Little known fact: Oren Ambarchi was once voted one of Australia’s Top 100 Guitarists of All Time. Not bad for a man who will happily admit that he “can’t really play guitar”. Even if the list was, he says, “pretty embarrassing”, the Sydney-born musician is fully deserving of his place. Over the past two decades or so, Ambarchi has proven himself one of the finest manipulators of the guitar around. His approach is unorthodox certainly, treating the instrument more as a starting point for sound generation than a rulebook to be followed, but the results, whether experienced live or on record, are singular and fascinating.

We meet on a sunny afternoon in Dublin in early May. He’s playing later that evening in the basement of a small pub with no stage. Ambarchi has been on the road since mid-March but he seems fresh, chatty and happy to be in Dublin for the first time. We sit on a bench in a city park for an hour, where he eats a turkey sandwich and drinks a flat white. I’m having my tea black. In the cafe where we order the sandwich, the walls are covered — for no apparent reason — in the names of various Melbourne neighbourhoods, many of which Ambarchi has lived in over the years.

Ambarchi began his musical life as a drummer, playing in post-punk, noise and free jazz groups in Australia during the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. By the time Ambarchi began to self-release a steady stream of solo recordings, beginning with the Stact series in 1998, he had progressed to using the heavily-manipulated guitar as a base. A run of albums for Touch saw what started out as an austere, almost reticent project on Insulation (1999) become a subtle, beautiful, endlessly listenable sound-world on Grapes From The Estate (2004) and In The Pendulum’s Embrace (2007).

Audience of One, Ambarchi’s 2012 solo album on Touch, marked a turning point in his process. While he had always been a busy collaborator – working in dozens, if not hundreds, of groups all over the world; from thrown-together improvisations to more gradual, slow-burning collaborations – Ambarchi’s solo records had remained something separate. They were opportunities, if that isn’t too positive a description, to unleash the inner pedant, to go deep into the mixing process and “get everything absolutely perfect, every little detail.” Audience of One was made in a different way, with Ambarchi reacting to recordings of other people, folding them into his own vision. It’s an approach he’s been using ever since.

“I ask them to do something, this idea or concept that I have, and then I start reacting to it and building on it,” he says of the process. “I’m enjoying working that way. It is really collaborative whereas the older Touch records were very insular, just me in my own little world.” Ambarchi tells me that approach was fine for a while, but he feels more inspired working with others these days. “It’s a catalyst,” he continues, “I end up doing what I want and ripping it apart, changing everything, but it’s a way to get me to start working.”

Looking at his output over the years, it’s hard to imagine Ambarchi ever stops working. His latest release, Pale Calling, was created in the renowned Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) studios in Paris with French musician François Bonnet (otherwise known as Kassel Jaeger) and fellow Australian, James Rushford. Like much of Ambarchi’s recent work, it was recorded quickly, impulsively, while on tour. Finding himself with a week to spare in Paris, he called Bonnet — a key figure in the running of GRM and a driving force behind the run of excellent GRM archival reissues through Editions Mego — and the pair decided to enter the studio together for a few days. Rushford, who previously collaborated with Ambarchi on the 2012 LP Wreckage and plays alongside Ambarchi’s partner, Crys Cole, in the group Ora Clementi, happened to be on holidays in Paris with his parents, so he rowed in as well.

“We went to GRM every day for three or four days and really had a lot of laughs making that record,” Ambarchi recalls. “I remember when we started, I really just didn’t want to do something that clearly sounded like me. I just wanted to do something really different.” Ambarchi was adamant with Bonnet and Rushford that he wanted to, “push ourselves into a different area. Which is what we did, but we really had fun doing it.”

Rushford makes for an interesting collaborator. His background is in classical music — Ambarchi says he’s “almost virtuosic, if he wants to be” — but he moves just as easily in the world of improvised noise. “He’s sort of in the classical world and he can play Feldman pieces on either piano or viola,” Ambarchi says, shaking his head, rueful and a touch mystified. “He plays Henning Christensen organ pieces and things like that, but then he just does stuff with people like me as well, working with people who are almost non-musicians… James is coming from a different context to what I’m coming from, but we love a lot of similar things, so it doesn’t matter. All those barriers are broken down.”

Ambarchi has been breaking down those barriers himself, on that Wreckage LP with Rushford, but also by working with larger classical ensembles like the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Ambarchi tells me these experiences in Iceland in particular were hugely enjoyable, which he attributes to the guiding influence of conductor Ilan Volkov, someone he says is a “really good mediator for allowing weirdos like me to articulate what I want to do with people from that world.” Yet he reveals there have been times when the tension between the differing approaches has been more difficult to overcome.

“It’s a thrill to hear that sound and to articulate what you’re doing and transfer it to that kind of palate,” he states, but admits a sense of frustration at the fact people in this realm are lucky to have half an hour to commit to. “There’s a lot of people. For pretty much most of them, it’s just a job. They’re just looking at the clock, they’re there for half an hour, they do the thing and then they split.” Ambarchi concedes he might be speaking in general terms here, but still feels he can discern a comparative lack of investment. “Sometimes there’s animosity where you’re doing something and people think, because you’re playing a tone, that it’s destroying their hearing, even though they’re standing next to a brass section which is way more damaging. If something is a little different or alien, they can have a hard time. Sometimes it’s a struggle.”

Later that evening, sitting alone in front of a fridge-sized bass amp with a guitar across his lap and a table full of pedals in front of him, Ambarchi unfolded a set of no small beauty. It came roughly in three sections, with a noisy, chaotic middle passage — described by a friend as “the best fifteen-minute meditation I’ve had in a long time” — presaged by a truly incredible opening where Ambarchi’s apparently alien guitar seemed as graceful and alive as a violin in the hands of an expert. The end emerged calmly from the stormy middle, the built-up energy peacefully lapping away to nothing once again, fully dispersed into the room.

The setting — a basement bar with no stage and a less-than-perfect sound-system — seemed not to bother Ambarchi at all. He was able to harness the intimacy of the room, using the sound to draw the audience closer to the performance. By the end, many of them were literally sitting as close to him as they could get. Ambarchi says that taking on the challenge of different types of venues, trying to playing to their strengths, is an important part of his approach to live performance.

“Every night, you never know what you’re going to get,” he muses. “One night I’m playing in an art gallery, the next night a rock club, the next night in a pub. You just adapt.” Ambarchi admits this offers many possibilities for failure, yet that helps to keep him on his toes when playing. “A lot of what I’m doing is trying to harness feedback in a way, to shape it and modulate it, over and over again. You just turn a little bit and everything goes out the window. It keeps it exciting. Trying to channel something through something that is unpredictable and chaotic.”

Watching him play, Ambarchi seems utterly connected to the sounds he’s creating; the long, stormy middle section of that night’s gig is a case-in-point. He appears to be both in control of the sound, and yet not in control at all; riding it, clinging to it, going wherever it takes him. There’s a point at which the sound seems to take over. This relationship with sound is something he can trace back to his roots as a free-jazz drummer, right through to his collaborations with people like Phil Niblock, Keiji Haino and Sunn O))). The latter particularly helped his live performances to become “more physical and visceral.”

“The new record has probably eighty guitars doing all these different rhythms but you probably wouldn’t even know.”

“To me, it’s all about absolutely losing yourself in the sound,” he says. “Everything is about sound for me. Alvin Lucier, it’s about sound. A lot of my favourite composers, that’s what they’re dealing with. Playing in Sunn O))) was very pleasurable if you’re into that kind of thing.” He describes the experience of playing with the legendary band as losing touch with mundane physicality and the concept of time. “I’m really into extended duration and getting into this state. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m chasing that feeling,” Ambarchi says.

Music like this, and the state that Ambarchi talks about, is so often understood and discussed in a transcendent mode. You find gestures towards a spiritual or ritualistic transcendence-through-sound everywhere in his background, from Indian raga music to the robes-and-smoke of a Sunn O))) show, from Albert Ayler avant-jazz to Japanese psychedelic rock band Fushitsusha. Is the religious or spiritual framework a comfortable way of thinking about this for him?

“I guess a lot of the things that I’ve always loved have had that,” he considers. “A lot of the ecstatic jazz that I loved sort of had that bent. There’s an element of it in what I do too probably, or where I’m coming from. I love African music, and I love a lot of repetitive things. Where there’s something that’s really repetitive but there’s all this detail that’s changing all the time and it’s very subtle. A lot of great dance music does that too. That’s really influencing what I’m doing at the moment, for sure.”

“The new record has probably eighty guitars doing all these different rhythms but you probably wouldn’t even know,” Ambarchi reveals. “They’re all slowly, subtly changing and being tweaked. I’m always into this thing where it’s just a state. Then when you’ve got eighty tracks of guitar, it’s hard to find that balance where it’s not just a big mess. Anything can tip the balance.”

As well as completing albums that have been started on tour, Ambarchi uses his time back in Australia to develop his Black Truffle label. Black Truffle began with the simple aim of reissuing some of Ambarchi’s older, out-of-print records on CD so he would have something to sell while on tour. A chance, half-drunk encounter with a Kompakt employee in a club in Cologne led to a distribution deal being signed on a napkin at the bar. All of a sudden, without plan or prior expectation, Black Truffle began to look a bit more like a “real” label.

The deal with Kompakt allows Ambarchi to focus entirely on finding music to release, and their European base means the expensive vagaries of shipping merchandise from Australia can be avoided. Now, in addition to releasing Ambarchi’s own work and his collaborations with Jim O’Rourke, Keiji Haino and John Tilbury, Black Truffle has also released archival material from artists like Charlemagne Palestine and Arnold Dreyblatt, as well as the first album by Britain’s best free music ensemble, AMM.

“In the beginning it was all related to my work and I only did it to sell stuff at shows, but now I’m kind of thinking of it more like I can release archival things, things that are overlooked, things from people that I really love,” says Ambarchi. “Getting other people involved is changing things a bit because I’m answerable. Before it was very off the cuff. Editions Mego is great because it’s run by a musician, so when you talk to Peter (Rehberg), it’s completely normal. It’s not weird. He’s very upfront about stuff and it’s very simple. So I’m trying to have a similar approach.” Despite there being twenty-odd releases in the Black Truffle discography, with “loads more on the way,” Ambarchi still struggles to view it as a label.

Many of those forthcoming releases are from Australian acts, cohorts Ambarchi is eager to promote. “Not many people know about a lot of the artists there but I believe the level is extremely high,” he says proudly. “Everyone kind of pushes one another, you can’t bullshit there. I know from bringing people there from other parts of the world, they’re really blown away by the level. But we’re so far away, it’s very hard for these people to come over to Europe or the US.”

Ambarchi recalls visiting New York in the early-‘90s and coming across a New Zealand section in a record shop. “I’d be like, ‘urgh’. I’ve got a huge collection of New Zealand music, of course, I love all that stuff, but I’d just go, ‘aww man, where’s the Australian section?’” He concedes it’s changed a lot now and the wider world is more aware of music from his homeland. “Lots of Australian artists have releases on international labels. It’s really very different from the late-‘80s early-‘90s when I was there as a young musician.”

Ambarchi himself has been at the forefront of that shift. Discogs will tell you that he’s released 78 records in the last 18 years, a number he describes as “embarrassing”, but his output remains of a startlingly high quality. It’s sometimes impulsive, sometimes deeply considered; sometimes warm and funny, sometimes austere or harsh. There is always something captivating.

I find it hard to shift the image of Ambarchi sitting at home in his apartment, maybe he’s just come off tour, perhaps he has a glass of expensive brandy in one hand, the other flitting across the shelves containing the voluminous records of his creativity. He thinks to himself, what is this that I have made? But no, he hardly has time for that kind of thing. Looking back isn’t part of the process. “It’s quite torturous,” Ambarchi tells me. “There’s this whole process of doubting everything and thinking that it’s crap, but still wanting to get it out of your life almost. To see it through.”

Interview by Ian Maleney 

Oren Ambarchi on Juno