It’s the Wednesday before All Tomorrow’s Parties in Melbourne, and Oren Ambarchi’s primary concern is his laundry. Ambarchi (scheduled to close out Saturday’s line up, directly After My Bloody Valentine) has his clothes on spin cycle in his brother’s washing machine in St Kilda and shortly after it finishes, he needs to collect his young son from school.
His schedule seems to be something that requires juggling. It looms large in conversation, and when asked about his movements he’ll often turn his head to one side, pause, and seemingly scan a mental itinerary planned up to several months ahead – slowly producing names of collaborators, dates of forthcoming shows and locations he is travelling to. The only time he fails to remember a detail is when he discusses the specifics of past recordings – almost as if a memory is less valuable, able to be automatically consigned to the trash, freeing up more room for the diary; a self-regulating cognitive mechanism.
No stranger to ATP, we discuss his involvement with it both past and present (specifically the Drones-curated weekend that approaches) and how he finds being a working artist based in Australia:
Oren Ambarchi: I played All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K. a long time ago, it was the Portishead one. That was I don’t know, 6 or 7 years, maybe 6 years ago? I can’t remember. That was weird. The dude from Portishead, Geoff Barrow, actually contacted me on MySpace, of all places, which I don’t deal with anymore, just invited me and that’s how that happened. And then, I obviously met the guys that ran ATP that time and I think I’ve seen them maybe over the years on and off. About once or twice, not a lot. I have a booking agent who’s American and she just said, “Hey, you know, you’ve been asked to do this gig. Do you want to do it?” So, that was it really.
The one in the U.K. was really a lot of fun. And it was a really nice line-up too. So, this one should be interesting. Unfortunately, I can’t stay for the second day. I’ve got to leave really early in the morning to go to Perth.
You play very last thing this Saturday, don’t you? Did you volunteer for that set?
Oren Ambarchi: No. I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous, because who’s going to want hear anything after My Bloody Valentine or even actually be able to hear after My Bloody Valentine? And also, there are a lot of people that are probably going to need to get back into Melbourne. It’s a weird time. Might have to play a dance set or something, or a short set.
You could go as late as you want if you’re playing after that preceding act…
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, well, I don’t think I’m going to have the same back line as them, so that won’t be possible. I’m bummed, because I really want to see them. Like, they’re actually the band that I want to see the most out of everybody and I’m probably going to be setting up while they’re playing. So, it’s just kind of a bummer for me to play immediately after them for that reason, because I want to see them, you know? I saw them in 1991 in New York when they did the Loveless Tour with Dinosaur Jr on a double bill. That’s the last time I saw them and I’d love to see them again, because I’m a fan. But, what can you do? Hopefully, maybe I can sneak out and see them for a little bit.
You should be able to sneak down the front for a couple of songs surely?
Oren Ambarchi: I’d love to. Yeah.
Absolutely. What are you thinking about playing for your set?
Oren Ambarchi: I’ve got a drummer that I’ve worked with a lot who’s on my last Touch record, ‘Audience of One’. He is going to be playing drums with me. So, I’ll be playing guitar, he’ll be playing drums. His name’s Joe Talia. So, we’re kind of going to do sort of a stripped back version of a track that’s on ‘Audience of One’ called “Knots” which is like a 30-something minute piece. We’ll just do a guitar-drum version of that piece, that’s kind of the plan. But it’s very loose and it always changes and it all depends on the PA and the mood and the gear and lots of things. That’s kind of the sketch that we’re going to go for.
I’d imagine the PA would be pretty good.
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, it should be good. It’s just also in festivals situations, it can be quite difficult, because you just sort of have to quickly jump on the stage and you never really get to soundcheck properly. You’ve just got to kind of wing it. So, it’s always… you never know how it’s going to go in that situation. A lot of festivals just have really quick changeovers. Sometimes, the audience is in the room when the change over’s happening, you’ve just got to go for it and hope for the best.
So, what’s happening in Perth the next day?
Oren Ambarchi: Actually, I’m going with Joe, the same drummer that I’m working with the night before. I’m kind of interested to do that when I have the opportunity. I’ve done so many solo shows now that I’m kind of interested in introducing other players into my set. Like, it’s just a bit more exciting for me than playing solo, which I’ve done so many times now. So, we’re doing a duo in Perth the next night.
How did you come to play with him?
Oren Ambarchi: I’ve been living in Melbourne for about 6 years now and he’s a great drummer. He’s actually also a really great sound engineer that I’ve worked with a lot, mixing my records. We probably worked together more in that context, as he’s more of an engineer for me. But, he’s a great drummer and he’s a great electro-acoustic improviser as well. So, for this record that I did for Touch that came out last year, I had this idea, this fantasy of what I wanted a drummer to do and I thought that he would be the guy. We hadn’t actually played together before. I approached him about it and it worked really well.
Since then, we’ve been playing shows and doing stuff. He’s going to be coming to Europe with me. Actually, to Japan and to Europe with me. Japan in March and Europe in April and May. With an expanded line up, like the piece that we’re going to be doing at ATP on the record. It’s got a string section and horns and it’s much, sort of, bigger. We’re going to be doing that in Europe and Japan with additional players.
So, a busy few months ahead, if that’s the case?
Oren Ambarchi: Super busy. Most of March, I’m in Sydney in the beginning. And then, Japan for the rest of the month. And then, from April through to June I’m in Europe doing shows. And then, I come back and then I go again in July. It’s kind of like, back and forth.
You mentioned you were doing some recording as well too at the moment?
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, cramming in a lot. I was actually mixing on Sunday and editing something yesterday, two different projects. I just know that I’m going to be away for a while, so I kind of… I like working with people here. There’s a lot of studios and people that I like working with here so I’m sort of cramming in as much as I can before I go away. Just trying to get stuff finished and get ready.
Is it anything you can talk about at this stage?
Oren Ambarchi: What am I doing? Two days ago, I was mixing a record with an English piano player called John. His name is John Tilbury. It was a show that we did in London. The vibe is very, very quiet and quite delicate. Intense music, I guess. Guitar and piano stuff. We’ll see if he likes it and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
So, it was a show that you guys did together and you’ve taken it away to mix it?
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, exactly. It was a show that was multi-tracked. We worked earlier in the year in Iceland at this sort of classical festival. This is the second duet that we’ve done. It worked out really well. So, yeah, I’m mixing that. Then, there’s a few other mixing sessions next week for other things. I love recording. It’s kind of what I do.
Are you recording and mixing at home, or are you in a studio?
Oren Ambarchi: I usually mix in a studio. I might prepare stuff at home and do a little bit of tracking at home. But, essentially, it’s all quite old school when I do stuff. I don’t really do stuff with the computer, so I have to go to a studio to do stuff in the end. Which is expensive and all that; but, it just suits what I do more than working on a laptop or something.
So, where are you mixing at the moment?
Oren Ambarchi: Actually, at Joe’s studio. He’s got a studio called Chinatown in Melbourne. But, I actually track a lot in Seattle, at a studio that I really like called Avast Studio. Which I’ve worked in with some American bands a lot and there’s a lot of engineers there that I like working with. It’s actually cheaper to record there than it is here, which sounds ridiculous.
Even including the travel?
Oren Ambarchi: (Laughs). Yeah, it actually is. Australia’s so expensive for a nice, high-end studio. It’s pretty outrageous. I think in America, it’s much more competitive. There’s just more studios, and more gear, and more possibilities. And the dollar’s really good, the Aussie dollar, so it’s quite reasonable to work there.
Do you master your stuff yourself? Or do you get someone else to do it?
Oren Ambarchi: It depends on the project. I have some releases that have never been mastered, because I’ve had a few horrible mastering experiences where the mastering actually… not destroyed, but really watered down or changed the intention of what I had. Because a lot of my records have a lot of really sub bass tones that are quite powerful. But I like to have that sound next to really delicate acoustic instrumentation. So, a lot of mastering engineers kind of throw their hands up in the air, because it’s just a hard balance. So, one record in particular, 3 or 4 engineers tried to master it and they all either didn’t do a good job, or they just gave up. And then, I felt, well the mixes sound really good, fuck it, I’ll just release it as is, and I did.
Which one was that?
Oren Ambarchi: ‘Grapes from the Estate’. It’s quite a while ago now.
I really liked ‘Sagittarian Domain’ from last year, that was great. The artwork was excellent as well.
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, it’s fantastic. Shunichiro Okada is a good friend of mine from Japan that does a lot of the artwork for my records. He’s really cool.
So, was the photography from Japan as well?
Oren Ambarchi: Yeah, it was.
It’s such a striking shot. What was the story behind that particular release?
Oren Ambarchi: That was interesting, because originally it was a commission that I had to do music for a film installation at ACMI, I think, in Melbourne, in the city. There was a budget for me to go to a small studio for a day. And then, at the last, last minute, literally the night before, somehow I got upgraded to a studio called Sing Sing. It’s basically the best studio in Australia; definitely the best in Melbourne. At the last minute, somehow I ended up in that room and I had the whole day there. I had no plan about what I was going to do, but a friend of mine gave me a shitty drum machine the night before. I walked into this room, and I was like a kid in a candy store. I just saw these amazing instruments, mics…
I kind of said to the engineer who was working with me – “We’re going to make an album today.” He’s just like, “Yeah, sure dude. You’ll be lucky to come out with 10 minutes.” I was like, “No, no. We’re going to make an album.” I just went for it. I was really inspired and sort of built it up from the drums. And then, it turned into that record. Later, I added the strings. The whole thing was done in a day. Purely, because I just don’t get the opportunity to work in a studio like that, sort of, paid for. I was under pressure to do something really quickly. Luckily, I was inspired. It doesn’t always work that way. But, it was just a good day and that’s how that happened.
It seems like there’s that energy in it. You can sort of pick it up straight away, even from the intro.
Oren Ambarchi: Something about using rhythm now that really interests me. Because a lot of… I’m originally a drummer, and I’m sort of playing a lot more drums now than I used to. That’s sort of coming into my work again, into my solo stuff.
What drove that coming back? Was it working with Joe, or other things?
Oren Ambarchi: It was working with Keiji Haino, a guitar player from Japan, and Jim O’Rourke, an American musician. We’ve been working in a trio for the last 6, 7 years. Which is what I’m doing in March, actually, in Japan. I kind of threw myself into doing that after not playing drums for years. I’m actually not even picking up a drum and so with drumsticks or practicing or anything. It somehow worked and it’s been really, really fun to do. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s happening more so now, in my solo work.
So, how many dates in March is it? Is it the full month?
Oren Ambarchi: It’s probably 6 or 7 shows. Not only with the trio, like I’m doing a duo with Joe, a couple of duos with Joe. I’m doing two duos with Jim O’Rourke. And then a trio with Haino and Jim. So, probably about 7 or 8 dates. And then, Jim and I are going to finish our second duo record, which we started last year when I was in Japan. So, a little bit of recording as well. Lots of eating and buying records and singing karaoke. (Laughs).
Who looks after your son in that time?
Oren Ambarchi: Good question man. I’m working that out right now. I’ve brought him with me before, but it is a bit of a juggle working that stuff out. With all my work at the moment, I don’t really have any work in Australia at all. These are the only gigs. The ATP gig and Perth gig are my only… I don’t have any work basically.
No offers at all?
Oren Ambarchi: Not really, I get little sets of offers here and there, but it’s not enough to substantiate staying here apart from my family. So, I have to sort of go to earn money. I mean, I love doing what I do and I’m really lucky to be able to do that. But yeah, so I have to travel overseas all the time to actually earn money. I can kind of do that in Europe and survive or live off it. So, that’s kind of where it’s at, at the moment. I have a little bit of stuff here. I’ve been doing music for theatre projects and dance projects. That’s probably more of the work that I’ve had in Australia for the last 2 years. But, I can kind of go to Europe and play shows and get paid pretty decently, compared to what I get paid here.
And you take your son with you, when you travel a lot?
Oren Ambarchi: I’ve done that a few times, but it’s not possible. He just started school. He just turned 5. So, he’s in a routine now. I don’t want to throw it, you know?
Have you lived overseas as well too? Or do you mainly just travel a lot?
Oren Ambarchi: I lived overseas in the late 80’s. I lived in New York for a while. I used to go there quite often when I was probably 18 or 19. I’d save up money and go there. Stay as long as possible. See as many gigs. Buy as many records. And then, my money would run out. Then I’d come back and work and do it again. I kind of did that five or six times from the age of 18 to 23 maybe. At one point, I stayed for over a year in one go kind of thing. So, I guess, I’ve lived overseas. I’ve had sort of extended periods in Japan and stuff over the years where I might stay for 3 or 4 months at a time. But, I haven’t really moved overseas or moved all my stuff. But, I would go to Europe at least 6 times a year, so I’m away a lot.
I guess, one of the things that I’ve had in the back of my head when I’ve been looking at these local acts that are playing at All Tomorrow’s Parties is… I remember when The Drones became moderately successful, they decamped, I think, to Europe for some time. They had the same problem in that they weren’t really able to make very much money here, but they were able to go over and tour in Europe and make sufficient to live off. It seems odd that musicians can’t sort of subsist here. It’s unfortunate.
Oren Ambarchi: It is. There’s just a different… Things are changing in Europe now actually. But, that’s another conversation. But, I just think there’s a lot more funding allocated for the arts in Europe. So, it is possible to be flying from Australia to play a weird festival in the middle of nowhere and get paid okay. There might not even be that many people attending it, but there’s just money for that. It’s kind of foreign for something like that to happen here. It’s just, you know: Most of the funding, the money for the arts usually would go to the ballet and opera and stuff like that here. That would be the priority. It’s incredible, because Australia, I know from traveling, how many incredible musicians there are here and how active it is here. It’s really, really active. More active than in most places actually. It’s very inspiring, but it’s just unfortunate that there’s not enough support for it.
Cut to Saturday, 11pm, an almost deserted stage at The Altona Entertainment Centre. My Bloody Valentine finish a mammoth two-hour set next door, whilst Ambarchi and Talia set up economically on stage 2. The two converse sparingly but politely with the techs, little energy expended on the exchange. The focus is the guitar setup; Talia checks his drums quickly, and then emerges from behind the kit to assist with configuring the EQ of the enormous Ampeg bass amp stack stage right. Cables trail from the back of the pedals and mixers on the table at the front of stage.
They seem to have assured themselves that everything will run smoothly, so with a few minutes to spare, they slip out of the room to grab a beer. A number of exhausted punters have taken up in directly front of the stage, stretched out flat on the red carpeted floor. Stage 2 is housed inside the part of the centre that usually plays host to wedding receptions, and dozens of bodies are stretched out beneath the symmetrically circular silk dressings draped from the ceiling, bathed in coloured light; the phone screens of those lying on their backs bathes the floor in white.
As the PA music fades to quiet and the duo take the stage, a loud voice announces that the last of the scheduled shuttle buses to North Melbourne train station are departing NOW. An audible exasperated groan ripples through the room, but the numbers do not seem to thin. Ambarchi does not break his concentration adjusting the equipment on the table as the announcement rings out, but you could be forgiven for thinking you saw a faint smile at the corner of his mouth.
From start to finish, their set reflects focus and surety. Talia is all the things Ambarchi credits him to be, and more. His surety hints at metronomic jazz chops, and his concentration never wavers from the stretched hand continuously twisting one or two inches from the back of the guitar neck, searching out the most resonant point of contact. When found, the heel of the left palm darts forward to bang the neck, whilst the fingers of the right adjust pedals on the table to the front.
It feels like a short set, and as the lights go up, a large crowd spill out the back of the complex to find an equally large line of annoyed patrons still waiting for their ride to North Melbourne station. The night looms large in front of them.
For those who are in London and may be interested, Ambarchi plays “Knots” accompanied by Talia and a string quartet led by James Rushford in a one off show 12th June at Café Oto; tickets are £12 booked in advance HERE or £14 on the door.
– Interview by Charles Sage for Fluid Radio / Thanks again to Leah Flanagan for her stellar photography.