Continuing their solid run of form on Low Point, Ex-Easter Island Head have dropped two stellar releases in three months: October last year saw the vinyl of Mallet Guitars Three, and pre-orders for the vinyl of new album Large Electric Ensemble have just gone live.
Both see EEIH continuing to explore the many possibilities of using modified electric guitars as both percussive instruments and sources of bowed drones. Consistent with their previous work, Mallet Guitars Three picks up some distance from where Music For Moai Hava left off. Large Electric Ensemble is more of a live amplified affair, with the welcome integration of restrained muscular drumming.
Well priced copies of both vinyls are available (as is digital) from the Low Point Bandcamp, and both are well worthy of your attention.
Group representative Ben Duvall spoke to Fluid in detail about Mallet Guitars Three during the October release of the album and their subsequent tour of Japan:
How were the movements for Mallet Guitars Three developed?
A large part of creating our music is determined by the physicality of our setup. The arrangement of the instruments in a physical space suggests possible ways of making sound and how the players might be situated in performance. The sounds that you create from this offer a suggestion for a particular mood or narrative to be explored, which in turn influences ideas about texture and structure that you might have already had.
In the case of Mallet Guitars Three, I wanted us to really explore the new techniques and compositional ideas that we’d been exploring since finishing Mallet Guitars Two, whilst keeping the actual mallet guitar content of the music as the emotional centre of everything. It made sense to build something around the quieter techniques and instruments at our disposal and eventually end up at the loudest sound we could play with the same setup.
The idea of using “Third Bridges” – bolts inserted under the strings to emphasise the overtone content of the guitar – was something that we had developed a lot, alongside playing with allen keys to ‘bow’ the strings, so the piece was devised around integrating them into our sound whilst really focusing and developing everything we’ve done before.
Each of the movements were developed loosely with this idea of comprising a whole over-arching piece or with a few other ideas like knowing that we wanted to use some kit percussion and also limiting ourselves to what could be done live by three people. The limitations imposed by practicality are a fantastic catalyst for meaningful ideas: something as simple as knowing how much equipment will physically fit in the car and limiting your setup to that accordingly can have a huge impact on how you approach everything. It’s the same thing with using cheap, knackered guitars – the defects end up influencing how you use them and more often than not you’re forced to think a bit harder or play a bit softer.
We probably performed Mallet Guitars Three live for about 12 months with lots of improvisation around particular sections, before committing it to record, so every gig was sort of “R & D” towards the piece as it appears in this form. Hearing it in loads of different venues was definitely a good way of refining how all the different sounds should sit together and also how it should work as a whole continuous piece.
You mentioned developing the sound – how has it changed over time?
I would say that between this new record and the previous one we’ve started thinking a lot more about dynamics, have gotten a bit more of a head for rhythmic playing and have begun to develop more of an almost melodic layer between the rhythmic patterns and the drone.
I’d like to think that it’s gotten more emotive as music with the underlying processes that inform it being superseded by more of a mood and atmosphere. The sense of space in Mallet Guitars Three makes it sound more like chamber music than minimalism to me, or at least the impression of chamber music. I think with getting better at playing rhythmically (one day at a time, mind) we’ve gotten better at using the guitars as a percussion instrument in their own right. Our methods of playing automatically remove a great deal of facets of the guitar that are unsurprisingly very useful, hence the instrument being designed that way – changing notes, playing single strings and the like – so we have to concentrate on the purposefully limited number of options that are available to us and know how to make tiny changes and inflections go a long way.
We’re always looking for new textures – that’s definitely what drives the ambient/drone side of our music. We’ve tried all sorts in the pursuit of new sounds and ideas – bridges made of bamboo, magnets on the strings, weird re-stringings – that’s the really fun part, the playing round. The textures and sounds come first and the musical ideas come out of them.
In terms of trying new ideas and sounds, what yielded the best result on this record? Was there a particular modification to your setup that drove the material in a different direction?
The humble allen key. The record starts with the sound of allen keys being dragged up and down the guitar strings and ends with them being used to ‘bow’ them, which produces an incredible amount of resonance and overtones. You can generate these sounds that are far louder than the volume on the guitar or amp seems to allow – you’ll move over a particular point on a string and suddenly an ear piercing tone will leap out and remind you that your grinding two bits of metal over each other, producing physical effects that you don’t normally hear coming out of the instrument.
That definitely drove us in a simultaneously more melodic and abrasive direction – allowing us to use chord changes of a sort whilst giving us this mechanically generated, buzzing noise floor to work with. It’s a very chaotic but also rather lulling sound so it seemed to suggest a particular type of approach so we went with it and got into a whole world of microtonal melodic material which we knew had to be part of the piece.
What other modifications have you used on other records that yielded good results?
Every piece/record we’ve made up to now takes elements of what we’ve done before so Mallet Guitars Three is like the cumulative result of everything we’ve tried up to now. Outside of the electric guitar we’ve used the very simple technique of having performers in large ensembles rolling several short pieces of bamboo between their hands to create a liquid rustling sound which acts as a very evocative bed for other sounds to go on top of, as well as things like using old knackered cymbals as bits of percussion. We have a large collection of dinner bells, handbells and other sonorous ephemera picked up from market stalls, charity shops and the like – we can normally count on at least one of them to be vaguely related in key to something we’re working on.
What is the process for determining or developing the mood and atmosphere? Are there concepts or references that you are bringing to particular pieces to drive this, or are the ideas spontaneous?
The ideas generally come from a long period of interacting with various physical layouts of the instruments in a space. How they are positioned determines how we can interact with them, which in turn gives us the techniques we’re going to use. Once that’s in place, it starts to become musical – lots of playing round, everyone bringing compositional ideas to the table and trying all sorts of preparations, with me loosely directing the shape and mood of the piece.
I’d like to think that by now we’re starting to establish a bit of a vocabulary amongst ourselves for making music that has its own internal narrative. We don’t tend to discuss in detail what we want to ‘say’ with a particular movement, but there’s always an awareness of making something that functions both as a performance and as a piece of music removed from the performance and put onto record.
For Mallet Guitars Three we knew that we wanted the actual mallet guitar bits (as opposed to other extended techniques) to be the centerpiece of the record, so the whole arc of the piece was developed around that idea. Broad strokes for many months with the details getting filled in and polished over time. Our shared musical influences aren’t necessarily anything like the music we like to make but they allow for a lot of easy discussion of ideas; we’ve all a certain sense of what constitutes an Ex-Easter Island Head sort of sound.
Do you have a regular rehearsal space that gets laid out differently over time, or do you move from place to place?
We tend to rehearse in our cellar but the damp is starting to get a bit much for our cheap equipment! We had a near miss last year with flooding as well but the trade off is not having to pay for a rehearsal space, which in Liverpool as with most places, is not particularly cheap. We have been practicing more or less with the same layout and arrangement of instruments for the last 9 months or so, so it feels like we’re really getting a lot of good parts together for the next piece – we’re using mallet bass guitar for the first time alongside two sets of really pleasantly tuned cowbells that we picked up so we’ve been concentrating a lot on what we can do with them.