The Aquarium Drunkard Interview :: Oren Ambarchi

Experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi is one of music’s most prolific and inventive collaborators, working with everyone from Keith Rowe and Keiji Haino to Jim O’Rourke and Merzbow in largely improvised sessions, then layering the results into intricate constructed pieces that blur the boundaries between jazz, noise, rock, minimalism, drone and electronics.

In 2022, Ambarchi released two very different albums in quick succession. Ghosted, a set of four lithe, limber jazz-leaning pieces recorded live in a room with all four players present, while Shebang follows Ambarchi’s more usual itinerant process, recording bits and parts with live and virtual collaborators, then piecing them together in post-production. We talked about these two projects, as well as Ambarchi’s roots in free jazz and tape experiments, his formative years in New York’s loft jazz scene, and his label, Black Truffle.

We found the conversation enlightening, but it necessarily leaves some mystery unexplored, since that is at the core of everything Ambarchi does. “With the label and with what I do, I’m always attracted to things that don’t make sense to me,” Ambarchi explained. “I’m not the kind of guy who wants to know how something’s being done. I just want to enjoy the strange sensation of listening to this thing. It’s like, whoa, how is this happening. When I make a record of my own, it has to get to a point where I don’t understand how something’s happening. It’s almost like this crazy, magical thing.” | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: I’ve been thinking about the last two of your records, Shebang and Ghosted, and what they have in common but also how different they are. Can you tell me a little about where these two records were coming from and how they continue and how they branch off from what you’ve been doing all along?

Oren Ambarchi: Sure. I think the big difference between the two is that Ghosted was three of us in a room, playing together, improvising, and Shebang! was sometimes made by working with people individually but it was definitely not a whole bunch of people playing together. It’s more of a constructed piece.

The thing that connects them is my interest in rhythm, for sure, and to an extent, repetition. Definitely on Ghosted you can hear that. All of us are interested in that. Also, things evolving slowly over time, where changes occur and you don’t even realize that they’re occurring. Both albums have that sort of a long duration way of slowly exploring something. Maybe those are the similarities.

AD: You mentioned rhythm and I know you started as a drummer. How does that inform what you’re doing now?

Oren Ambarchi: I started off as a drummer and stopped for quite some time, because I got more interested in electronics and guitar and that kind of took over. When I started making solo records, I was kind of hardcore about it being guitar and only guitar. I was setting a boundary.

But at one point, I was working in a pop context with a friend of mine, Chris Townend. We had a duo called Sun, and I started playing drums on that. I was also playing drums on a few noise rock things at the same time. And then concurrently I was making an album Grapes from the Estate. I kind of thought, why am I limiting myself to just guitar when I have all these beautiful instruments here? I was really liberating to play percussion. It was subtle at the beginning. There was rhythm in those records, but it was hidden. There was kind of a pulse at times. Then I started to get more and more interested in juxtaposing rhythms with more abstract sound or textures and having the two coexist with each other.

AD: What kind of electronics do you play?

Oren Ambarchi: I don’t really play electronics. They’re just guitar pedals. A lot of times people say electronics, but they’re just pedals.

AD: There’s this wonderful story about the first time you picked up a guitar, and you’re just kind of banging on it with drumsticks. That’s been a thread through your career that you play the guitar, but you don’t play it the way everybody else plays guitar.

Oren Ambarchi: I grew up listening to all kinds of music, rock music and classic rock music and pop music. I was always attracted to the guitar, the sound of it. But for some reason I was always interested in the weird sounds that it could make, so feedback, the interludes on the Pink Floyd records before the song started, Beatles, Hendrix, all these sorts of things.

My grandfather had a store. He had a lot of used stuff. Amongst other things, he had effects pedals and reel-to-reel machines and records, too. He was really amazing. He spoiled me. I could go there, and this was when I was seven or eight years old, and I could take stuff home and try it out. It was super fun. That’s how I ended up playing drums. But at the same time, I’d take guitar effect pedals and reel-to-reel machines and microphones and stuff like that and do these really crude—I wouldn’t even call it musique concrete—but just these really crude electronic, cut-up tape things. I was always interested in electronics. And then he would also have guitars there. I’ve mucked around with guitars even as a teen.

Then years later, I was playing in a free jazz group playing drums and I started to incorporate tape loops and contact mics on the drum kit. Someone left a really shitty guitar in a rehearsal room, which I took. I knew who it belonged to, and he didn’t care. He said, go ahead take it. I started hitting it with drumsticks. I kept leaning towards that much more, especially after seeing Keiji Haino play in New York in 1991, I think, or 1992. I just decided to play guitar. I booked a show in Sydney, and everyone thought I was crazy. Because I didn’t know how to play. Maybe because of that, being informed by music and loving music, loving a lot of experimental music and free jazz and rock, and not really knowing how to conventionally play. Maybe that gave me some sort of advantage to find my way, find my voice.

AD: It’s an interesting thing. I spoke to Christian Fennesz once, and he said he had to learn to play the guitar and then unlearn it in order to do what he does. It sounds like you skipped the intermediary step.

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah. I can kind of play a bit, but I’m not a trained guitar player. Absolutely not.

AD: Can you tell me a little about you made the pieces in Shebang?

Oren Ambarchi: Shebang kind of reflects the way I’ve been working over the last eight or nine years. I’ve never actually had my own studio, ever. I’ve never really had a space to work. Which is kind of insane. A lot of those albums, especially the Editions Mego solo records, were reflective of my lifestyle, basically touring nonstop, and being in one city for a few days and then another city and another city.

AD: That must be hard, though, to create anything that way.

Oren Ambarchi: It had advantages, though. With Hubris, for example, I started that with Mark Fell because I knew I was going to be close to where he lives in Rotheram in the U.K. I just said to him, hey, I’ve got this idea. Are you available for these days? Maybe I can come over and do some stuff. So, I recorded with him. And then three months later, I was in Berlin and I recorded with someone else. I was with Konrad Sprenger. I was in Tokyo and I worked with my friend Jim O’Rourke. By the end, I came back to Australia, and I mixed it with Joe Talia. I’d kind of put it together over time. I’ve gotten used to doing these weird virtual albums where people aren’t playing together. I like that in a strange way, more than playing with three other people in a room. Musicians often form into certain tropes when they play together, which is fine, but I want something different.

For Shebang! for instance, I sent everyone something different to respond to. A lot of the things that I sent them didn’t actually make it onto the record. There was kind of a timeline, and I knew theoretically that everything should relate to one another on the timeline. But some people were responding to something different from what the other people were responding to, and that material might not even be in the final mix. It doesn’t always work, of course, and there’s more to it than that. But hopefully it elicits something that’s just a little different and a little unusual. Definitely having a rhythm or a pulse helps. Having some sort of a structure.

The germ of that album came to me years ago. I was in Melbourne, and I saw Julia Reidy playing for the first time. She was playing a 12-string acoustic guitar. She was doing a very repetitive things. Not exactly fingerpicking. Kind of fingerpicking. As soon as I heard her doing that, I heard a ride cymbal playing along with it. I started to hear all this stuff. And when I was making the Simian Angel album, I was editing the album in Berlin. I wasn’t living there at the time. But I knew that she was there. I had this idea. I just called her and said, hey, do you want to come over and play some stuff? So, she played for about 30 minutes, and then I put it to the side and forgot about it for several years. And that’s kind of …you hear her towards the end of the album. And that was what started the whole process. The idea of hearing Julia and then it turned into something different.

AD: Who all was involved with Shebang besides you?

Oren Ambarchi: Chris Abrahams from the Necks plays piano. And he’s an old friend as well. I’ve known him for 30 years ago. BJ Cole who is a pedal steel player from the U.K. And he’s very legendary. He plays on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” He’s on a lot of really huge records from the 1970s. He was the English gun for hire. I discovered his music, actually through Dan at Drag City. I was at his house, and we were listening to records. And he said, do you know this record? And he put on this record, the New Hovering Dog by BJ Cole and it just blew me away.

AD: I believe he’s on the new Imaginational Anthem comp that focuses on pedal steel.

Oren Ambarchi: I hope so. Yeah. So, I was super excited about it. It’s a very unusual singer/songwriter record. I contacted him and sent him some stuff that I’d already released, and he said, “We should do something.” So, he ended up on the record. Sam Dunscombe. She plays bass clarinet very briefly. She’s an Aussie. Johan Berthling who played acoustic bass on Ghosted. And Joe Talia, who’s a very close collaborator. I’ve worked with him on a lot of records. He’s a drummer. But we also mix my records together. I love working with him.

AD: You know all these people, but they weren’t not in the same room together and may not even know each other.

Oren Ambarchi: A lot of them don’t know each other. A lot of them were really baffled when they received the finished thing. Like, what? But also really excited. But some people, with like Jim O’Rourke and Joe Talia and Sam for example, we’ve all worked together at the Arnold Dreyblatt show in Tokyo once, and Jim and Joe worked together. There are some connections. But no one was actually physically in the room. I was in the room with some of the players, but no one else was.

AD: I was watching the video for II which has this sort of gleaming, sci-fi sound to me. And you’ve paired it with this footage of old-fashioned cars, looks like maybe form the 1930s. It’s a really interesting combination of things, and I know you may not have had a lot of direct involvement in it, but how do you feel about it?

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, I always struggle with videos. I’ve never been someone who had visuals when I played live, and to be honest, I’m not into it. I want people just to listen to the music, and hopefully that draws you in and that’s enough. It’s quite distracting. So, when it comes to someone saying, hey can you make a video?

AD: You just let them do it.

Oren Ambarchi: I just let them do it, and Andy [Lampert] is fantastic. I had no idea what he would do. But the thing I like about it is, it’s single-minded. My piece is kind of single-minded, too. And it’s quite mesmerizing and you can get lost in it. It’s quite relentless. But hopefully, it’s not telling you anything.

AD: I really liked Ghosted a lot, and it’s a completely different thing. It’s fluid and less prickly and with the acoustic bass, it’s got almost a jazz feel to it. How did you decide—you’ve been working remotely for so long—how did you decide to get everybody together for that one?

Oren Ambarchi: I’ve worked with Johan the bass player for 20 years. We’ve done duo records and played a lot and Andreas, I started playing with him and Johan in Fire. We made a record together and we toured a lot. So, I love those guys and the way they play. They kind of instigated it. Johan knew that I was touring in Scandinavia, and he said, I’m going to rent a studio. Let’s play and see what happened. It was just really, really casual. Absolutely no pressure. We had nothing in mind. And we did this thing, and it was really easy going. I kind of felt a little self-conscious because it was one of the first times it was just me playing the guitar. A lot of my other records, there’s a lot of other stuff happening. But it had a really nice feeling. And we love jazz and we love ECM and the vibe of some of the 1970s ECM records.

AD: What are some of your favorites in that vein?

Oren Ambarchi: Oh my god, so many. When I was a teenager, I was really obsessed with the two Gateway records, John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette. They were really huge for me.

AD: How did you come into contact with that kind of music when you were young?

Oren Ambarchi: It was very strange, through Hendrix. I was a drummer. And I was reading about his drummer, Mitch Mitchell and who he was listening to, and he was listening to Elvis Jones, so I was like, who’s Elvin Jones? I was 13, I think. And then I also read that Hendrix was really into John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. So, I went into a record store and I said, do you have anything by John Coltrane? Do you have anything by Elvin Jones? And they handed me a Coltrane record that had Elvin Jones. So, I was like, oh, they play together, wow! I bought this record and became super obsessed.

ECM was really easy to find in Australia. It was everywhere. So, I would just buy stuff on that label. And it connected because there were a lot of guitar players like Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, those types of people. I could kind of relate to it because of my rock background. And it was all, to me, one big thing. I was listening to Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor, but I was also listening to Keith Jarrett and ECM records. It was all the same. I didn’t know the difference. I was into all of it.

AD: I was just watching that documentary, Fire Music, which you were in the credits for. I loved it because it was a lot of music and not so much talking.

Oren Ambarchi: It’s great. It’s really beautiful. That stuff is big for me.

AD: How did you get involved in that? And what was your involvement?

Oren Ambarchi: I knew the director Tom [Surgal] from playing in New York and being in New York. At one point, he was going to interview some European people, and he asked about interviewing Keith Rowe from AMM, whom I’ve worked with a lot. That didn’t happen in the end. But I just got excited about it, so I put some money towards it.

AD: It was interesting for me, because it put a lot of the names I knew in chronological order and in relationship to each other. And I know that Ornette Coleman and that whole loft jazz scene was pretty formative for you.

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, I was very lucky to live in New York in the late 1980s and see all that stuff. I obsessively went to things and bought records and was very fortunate just to be there at a time when you had access to all these amazing people.

AD: What were some of the amazing nights? Can you pick out one or two?

Oren Ambarchi: I saw Cecil Taylor many times. I actually got pneumonia from seeing Cecil Taylor, because I was lining up in the snow, and I was from Australia and just not …I don’t think I’d ever seen snow before in my life. I wasn’t eating well. I was 17 or so and not looking after myself and basically spending all my money going to gigs and buying records. I was really run down. The gig was incredible. It was him and William Parker and Tony Oxley.

AD: We were wondering why William Parker didn’t turn up in that documentary.

Oren Ambarchi: That’s true. There are so many other people who could have been in it. In a way, they were scratching the surface. It’s such a huge universe of stuff.

AD: How did going to those shows and hearing those records contribute to what you’re doing now?

Oren Ambarchi: It absolutely contributed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of the stuff that I’m really attracted to is artists dealing with sound, you know? And playing with it and understanding it. It’s not just music. It’s not just technique or notes. There’s a lot of other stuff going on. The more exposed I was to people thinking outside the box, and people taking sound and pushing sound into places that I’d never imagined. It was super inspiring. I didn’t think that I could do that. For a long time, I was just like, well I’ll just go to these gigs. And then when I come back to Australia, maybe I’ll do some stuff. And then eventually, I started doing it as well, and just jumping in.

AD: You’ve also done work with some of the loudest, heaviest artists on the planet, bands like Sunn O))) and Boris. What do you like about that kind of music? What do you get out of playing with those bands?

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, to be honest, I’m not that into it anymore. I’m always questioning stuff. I still sometimes play very physical music. I’m always worried about it, though. It has its place, of course, especially in the rock context. But lately, especially in electronic music, it just bugs me that it’s become a go to for people to use huge amounts of subs and super over the top dB volume level, sort of to put people into this physical state. After a while, to me, the music’s just not that interesting. To me, it’s not enough to play really loudly. So, I’m kind of like George Costanza. I’d go around to festivals and see that, and I’d say, I’m going to play much more quietly now. I want people to come to the music, and I don’t want to hit people over the head with the idea. Or have the idea hidden underneath, to not be this obvious thing. But of course, I love physical sound, and I love Phil Niblock and I love the Melvins. I love lots of loud free jazz as well. But I like really, really quiet music as well. I think that really quiet music can be super tense and way more interesting than something super loud.

AD: What would be an example of quiet music that you think is way more interesting?

Oren Ambarchi: I don’t want to say way more interesting. I just like both. I’m very fussy.

AD: Tell me about your label, Black Truffle. Tell me about putting it together and what you’re doing now?

Oren Ambarchi: Initially it started just because I wanted to have some merch to sell at shows. It was not a serious thing for me at all. But I’m a huge music fan. I love buying records. I’m always buying records and wanting to hear new things. Early on, there were a lot of records that I loved that were out of print. I love having people over and playing records and listening to records. One of the best things ever. A few times in the early days I’d put on records by Giancarlo Toniutti, the Italian sound artist/noise artists. One of the first AMM artists. Things like that. I was like, wow. You can’t get these anymore. They’re amazing. I’m playing them for my friends. Maybe I could put them out. And it went from there.

So, I was focusing on a lot of things that maybe are lost or unheralded it, or maybe they weren’t but they’re forgotten now. But then also, really importantly, a lot of these people are still around. Like Annea Lockwood and Alvin Curran. And they’re still making stuff, so I want to support what they’re doing now as well. And I also want to support a lot of younger artists that I admire. And a lot of them are people that I collaborate with. It’s kind of like a family in a way. It’s been really wonderful to have a platform for people that I admire to just do their thing. I say to them, do what you want. And having a really good response to it. It’s been fantastic.

AD: Are there any new or upcoming releases you want to talk about?

Oren Ambarchi: There’s so many. The first release of 2023 is the 100th Black Truffle release, which I can’t believe. And that’s a really big one that I’m excited about, but I’m not going to tell you about just yet. It’s something that I’ve been trying to make happen for a number of years and it’s finally happened, so I’m jazzed about that.

AD: I was wondering how you feel about how experimental music has been affected by the pandemic and the lockdown? Do you see it changing in any sustained way?

Oren Ambarchi: It’s strange that you ask that, because the last few months I’ve been so busy touring in Europe. And it’s really odd to be doing that again. The first few times I played during the lockdowns in Europe. There would be a few months where all of the sudden all these festivals would scramble to put something on, which was really amazing. And I found when I did those shows, I was very aloof. It was really weird. I wasn’t connected to what was going on. And it took a long time for me to feel that energy again.

A lot of people, obviously, went into hyper productive Bandcamp sFriday mode, where it was just like endless, endless releases. I found it sort of …I wasn’t inspired actually. That’s why the label became more productive. Because I need to do something. I don’t want to go insane. So, I just threw my energy into the label much more.

AD: Do you think you were not able to make music because you were upset about what was going on or you need the external stimulation or what was it?

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, I think part of what gets me going is traveling and being with like-minded people or being excited about seeing something live or meeting someone. It kind of keeps the whole energy flowing. It was very confronting. Because I earn my income from playing shows. I was really at a loss. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was kind of depressing for a while. So, I just threw myself into other people’s work. There were other people that just incredibly prolific and sending me stuff every day. Can you put this out? And I’d say, I just put something out yesterday.

But there’s definitely, in Europe, there’s definitely a joyous feeling at shows. There’s still weirdness and trauma, too.

AD: I found that I just forgot how to behave around other people. I forgot how to make small talk and all that.

Oren Ambarchi: 100%. Yeah. Everyone became so insular. It is a trauma. Absolutely. And also forgetting how to behave, that’s another story.

AD: What are you working on now? Is there anything coming up that you want to talk about?

Oren Ambarchi: Actually, next week, or the week after, I’m doing a launch for the Shebang! album. I’m really, really excited about it. It’s a place called Monom. They call it 4D sound. It’s this crazy space that has 48 speakers. They’re almost like poles going up to the ceiling. And the sound can go below, above, around, etc. And then they invited me to do a mix of the album. So, I’ve basically done a remix of the record.

AD: So, it will come from all directions? Does it sound different like that?

Oren Ambarchi: I really wish I would have done this before I did the stereo mix, because I’ve gotten to know it so much better. I could really forensically accentuate little details much more. I didn’t want to get super fancy and have all this pizazz of things moving. It was more like placing things and accentuating things in the room. There’s some really cool stuff, like Jim O’Rourke’s synths are kind of up by your head and moving around the space.

AD: Does it depend on where you’re standing in the room, how it sounds?

Oren Ambarchi: It does. You can kind of walk around and listen to it, but again, I find that distracting. I prefer for someone just to sit and not walk around. But people can do whatever they want.

AD: Just a final question. You’re very interested in sound and music. Is there a barrier between them? Are they the same thing? Are they different things? How do they relate to each other?

Oren Ambarchi: To me, they’re absolutely the same.

AD: If it’s sound, it’s music.

OREN AMBARCHI: Absolutely.

AD: The garbage truck backing up is music.

Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, well, maybe not at six in the morning. But everything’s up for grabs. It’s a material and it’s all about how you use the material. With the label and with what I do, I’m always attracted to things that don’t make sense to me. I’m drawn to something I don’t really understand. In some ways I don’t really want to understand it. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to know how something’s being done. I just want to enjoy the strange sensation of listening to this thing. It’s like, whoa, how is this happening. When I make a record of my own, it has to get to a point where I don’t understand how something’s happening. It’s almost like this crazy, magical thing. Then I know that I’m on the right track. A lot of the things that I release, I’m kind of looking for that feeling. It’s incredible the number of demos I get from people, and so many of them sound the same. I’m just looking for things that I don’t really understand what’s happening, and that gives me this excited feeling.

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