Iñigo Ugarteburu is a Basque composer and artist. He uses a broad palette of guitar, horns and woodwind, ukulele, harmonium, euphonium and strings to craft filigree instrumentals of often heartbreaking and deeply memorable quality. He’s performed at festivals such as Sónar, Ertz and Re-Mapa de Arteleku with cult avant folk groups Carcáscara and Café Teatro. Though living in London now, he retains close ties with his homeland, where he’s a member of the Basque music collective Arto Artian. He’s latest release, For The Unknown, is out now on Foehn Records (ES).
You started playing music from a young age, with your parents encouraging you to play the accordion. What is your musical background?
When my parents suggested that I played the accordion, they were also asking me to learn to read and write music, which wasn’t really my cup of tea so I never finished music studies and to this day I cannot read or write music. It is something I now wish I had done, because it opens so many doors when your are making music, especially when you are playing with other musicians, which is the bit that I like the most.
Whenever I am making a new album I always like to get other musicians involved. In some cases they are professional musicians and it would be easier if we spoke the same language. What I have to do instead is to play them demos or sing them the melodies of the songs, which means that they need to annotate the keys and the notes and sometimes both for them and for me it can be tricky.
So how did you go about composing your songs?
I’ve always used voice and guitar to work on the songs and melodies using midi for the first time while working on a soundtrack. However, when the program converts notes into the musical language, sometimes it can do so in a weird way and friends of mine have to go over the material and fix it. They would ask me, “Is that what you really meant?” and I would say, “No,” so I would then have to sing the melody.
Backtracking a bit, after giving up on the accordion you picked up the electric guitar playing with Café Teatro. You then switched from electric to classical guitar, how did that come about?
When I was playing in Café Teatro, at the beginning it was a four-piece rock band with bass, drums, and two electric guitars. Then, when I moved to the UK and stopped playing with the band, I was playing more and more acoustic guitar because at home you cannot play electric guitar. Still, for the new songs I was writing, I didn’t think the steel strings worked and I switched to nylon strings, and since then I play classical guitar. I enjoy playing classical guitar more than acoustic and it works better with my current songs. It was quite a natural move from electric to nylon but it was something that happened over a long period of time.
Could you elaborate more on your experience with Café Teatro?
Café Teatro was the first band I played in, it was my school. Most of the things I know, I’ve learned working with those guys, things like being able to judge when you don’t even need to play because what they are playing is what works best for the song. It was a great experience in listening because, sometimes, when you play, you actually stop listening to what you are doing. With them, it was very easy to step back and to listen to what they were doing and to understand whether what you were bringing to the song was worth keeping or not. I’ve tried to keep this spirit in my music where sometimes less is more that is something that I’ve learned with them.
So, was most of the material the result of improvised sessions?
There was loads of improvisation involved in all the rehearsals and most of the songs were coming from those sessions. We would just meet at the studio, play for a while and then decide which parts were interesting and then working on open ideas.
What is the lineup of Café Teatro?
We started the whole thing between Iñaki Irisarri on drums and myself on guitar. Fernando Aguirre joined on bass, about a year later, followed by Xabier Iriondo on guitar. Then came Iban Urizar on trumpet and Xabier Erkizia playing mainly harmonium, accordion and some electronics.
Fernando, Xabier Iriondo and I, now have a new project called Carcáscara.
Just out of curiosity, is there any relation between Iñaki Irisarri and Rafael Anton Irisarri?
No, even though they share the same surname. I did enquire with Rafael, though, as his name is obviously super Basque even if he is American and his grandparents were indeed from the Basque country. He is also fluent in Spanish and he speaks a bit of Basque, which is amazing.
How did you get in touch with him in the first place?
I emailed him asking him if he would be interested in remixing one of the songs of For the Unknown and things developed from there which also led to us playing together at Café OTO back in January as part of the Substrasta festival. I’m sure there will be further opportunities of doing something together. He is such a great guy and such a great artist. It’s just been one of those things… we’ve managed to establish a very nice connection just through an email.
Irisarri’s remix of Dicen is on the Dicing Dice EP with two other different remixes. How did that EP come about and did you originally ask many other musicians to collaborate?
The original idea was to remix the whole album and I had a long list of artists that I wanted to contact but at the end of the For The Unknown process I was super tired so I only contacted a few people, Rafael Anton Irisarri, Novisad, and Dot Tape Dot, a guy from Asturias, in the North of Spain. I did also email Lawrence English, but he was very busy at the time, even though he ended up mastering Rafael’s remix.
Was the transition from playing in Café Teatro to starting your own solo project a smooth one?
I moved to the UK with no instruments, because I told myself, “If I am not going to be playing with Café Teatro, am I going to be playing on my own? Probably not.” However, after six months in the UK, I started feeling like I wanted to play a little guitar so I managed to get an acoustic guitar but I still had to write songs I could play on my own rather than in a band. I played three or four gigs in Manchester, where I was based at the time, but I wasn’t really enjoying it that much even though it was interesting to be playing on my own for the first time.
I then went back to the Basque Country for Christmas and played a gig with Café Teatro in Elgoibar a small town near Zarautz, where I am from. I opened the gig because I wanted to play my new songs to my friends, and I was quite excited about it. When I played, though, I didn’t enjoy it at all as I was very nervous. After my solo set I played with Café Teatro and realised that playing on my own wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I wanted to keep playing with those guys but it was almost impossible because we were all living in different places, so I stopped playing for years and I didn’t just stop playing gigs, I stopped playing altogether. For almost two years, or maybe even longer, I didn’t make any music and then, six years down the line, I recorded my first solo album Back & Forth, but it took me a while to start making music again. When I did, it was because I felt I had something to say, but instead of recording an album on my own I would need to have loads of people involved in the project. That is really what I like about making music, to be able to work with other people, and that is when I started enjoying making music again by bringing in other musicians to the project.
Where were Back & Forth and For The Unknown recorded?
With Back & Forth, at the beginning I was thinking of going back to the Basque Country and record everything there, because that is where I’ve recorded my previous stuff and I know the studios, etc, but then I thought that as I live in London, I should record the guitar parts in here then for the other recordings I will go to the Basque Country as the other musicians on Back and Forth are from Spain and it would make sense to go back and record it there, so that is what I did. I then did some further recordings, here in London, and specifically the accordion part with Gill Sandell.
So, if Back & Forth was recorded between London and the Basque Country, For The Unknown was instead recorded in Chicago, or at least 95% of it. That’s because, when I sent Back & Forth to Todd, he suggested I went to Chicago to record the new album. I thought that was crazy, “I am not going to Chicago to record the album, I should be recording it here in London as I live here,” but he kept saying, “No, you have to come here, I am sure other musicians would get involved”. It became an adventure, a dream, “Oh yeah, maybe I could go there…” I call them “musical holidays” because that is what I normally do, I spend all my holiday time from work making music or playing live, so I though, “Why not, I could go to Chicago, I’ve never been there and I could get to know the city”. I was also really into the Chicago post-rock scene from the 90s and early 00s as there were so many bands I was following when I was 17-18. It’s a city that I always wanted to know more about. I did go there because Todd was suggesting it and I decided to think of that album more as a live experience rather than making a record.
This is something I always try to have in my music. I would like for every record to be able to work in a different way, with different people, and in a different place, because then it becomes something new, and it is not just the music anymore but also about the experience that you are getting from making the music.
Could you describe your working process in detail?
For every song, or album the process is different depending on the people involved in the project. With Back & Forth I did all the arrangements using vocals. I would have the bones of the songs done with the structure almost fixed.
What I did was to record the melodies that the brass, or the horn, or any other instruments would be playing, into the computer. Together with my good friend Iban Urizar, the trumpet player from Café Teatro, we then spent three days together listening to the demos with him translating those melodies into something that other musicians could actually play. He would write everything down with loads of patience and that is how, for instance, we were able to record the brass on Back and Forth. For the other instruments it was more of a case of going to the studio and talking to the other musicians and saying, “This is what I would like to have on this song,” and then trying a few things and once we would get to where I wanted to, we would record it.
With For the Unknown the process was completely different. Normally I like to have everything really well planned and organized, but this time I was going to Chicago without knowing who was going to be involved in the project. I just had the main melodies with me, but I didn’t know if I was going to come back with a record with just guitar and vocals or if it was going to be something bigger than that. I then had confirmation from Joshua Abrams, who plays double bass, that he was definitely going to be playing with me, but I wasn’t sure whether he would be playing just on one song, two songs or maybe even the whole album. It was a bit of challenge. In two weeks I would have to try and convince a number of musicians to play on the album and to come back with a finished, or almost finished, record. As it happened, it went really well, and I ended up having nine local musicians playing on the album. I was very lucky to have Todd Aron Carter, who was the engineer on the album, as a contact as he knows loads of contacts. I had worked with Todd back in 2004 when he recorded Café Teatro’s second album, Burga. It was the same with Joshua. I had played an improvised gig with him in the Basque country back in 2004 and even if we hadn’t really kept in touch over the years, it was easy to get back in contact with him, and he suggested a few more names. It was very helpful to have Todd and Joshua on board. All the people that I’ve played with in Chicago proved to be amazing musicians and great human beings.
You were talking earlier about your “less is more” approach, which is reflected in your spare use of vocals. How did you decide to integrate vocals in your work in the first place?
I’ve only recently started working with vocals and when you are not a great singer, you need to find your own confidence and to feel comfortable with your own voice, which is what I am still trying to do.
I’ve been writing lyrics, for the first time, and I find it really difficult, especially considering that I like the fact that anyone can understand or view a song from their own perspective, which is something that I didn’t want to loose. I like it when people come up to me and say that a particular song reminds them of something specific and then someone else comes along and makes a completely different connection. To preserve this I wanted the lyrics to remain open to interpretation without attaching any strong or clear messages, even though sometimes they are quite straightforward.
How would you define your music?
My main interest is in listening to music and I listen to as much music as possible. Then, when I make my own music, I try to bring all that into play. I am often asked, “How would you describe your music? Is it folk, is it pop, or is it acoustic music?” I think that it is definitely closer to acoustic/electro-acoustic music, than any other specific genre, because I don’t think I am making folk music or pop. It’s a mix and that is why sometimes, depending on the audience, especially when I play live, it can become a bit tricky. When I play a folk night, for instance, people think I am going to be playing folk because they see a nylon string guitar and a microphone. However, sometimes they can be a bit disappointed because it is not folk music as they understand folk music, it is just acoustic music and within acoustic music the options are endless. I would say that my music fits more into the electro-acoustic music category and it could even be seen as pop music within the electro-acoustic scene.
How do you prepare for a live set?
At the moment, I am starting to bring in other instruments into my live sets, such as a laptop and a turntable. I actually decided to play live with vinyl after doing a deejayset for some friends called Colectivo Futuro. That night I was mixing three records at the same time, things like, Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveiros with, I don’t know, Thomas Ankersmit, all mixed together. The idea was to play two or three records at the same time for about an hour, so I was constantly mixing more than one artist with others, and when I got back home I thought, “If I am doing that with other artists’ music, maybe I should try it with my own music and see if it works”. I then started going through my record collection and picking music that would work with the music I was playing live and that was like for me quite an interesting road to take, and one that I want to investigate further, because for the first time now, when I play live, I don’t feel alone anymore, I am playing with someone else and when I listen to those records and I play along to the music, I am also listening to it and this is helping me enjoy my live sets more than ever. The laptop, I don’t know, it is not fashionable anymore. Ten years ago it was cool to have someone playing laptop in your band, but nowadays you either play modular synths or hardware or your music is not interesting. Someone behind a laptop in a live context is not appealing anymore but I don’t agree with that. A laptop is just another instrument. I feel that for the music I am currently working on I do need to use a laptop, and I am still learning how to control such a powerful instrument.
For a while I wasn’t enjoying playing on my own because I couldn’t listen to anyone else apart from myself and I was sometimes finding that boring, but when you have another source of sound that you can listen to, it gives you a different dimension and this makes the performance much more enjoyable for me. It’s not that I want to have additional elements in a live set, but it does help me a lot to perform live. I enjoy it much more than just playing classical guitar and vocals. A live set has a different format to the record but it can work just as fine.
Could you describe the post-production process in the case of your albums?
With Back and Forth I felt I had something to say and I needed to say it. It took me a year to release the album, though, after it was finished. My friends kept asking me, “When are you going to release the album? I thought it was finished…”, “Yeah, I’ve done it and I needed to do it”, “Yes, but are you going to release it?”, “One day”, “But have you finished it?”, “What I wanted to do is finished, I still need to do a couple of things before I release it”. In fact, what I’d set out to do was done long before the record was finished, but then I listened to it and there are so many things that I wanted to change.
With For The Unknown the process was shorter as I already had the songs. I just needed to go to Chicago and come back with the finished record. And it was almost finished however, there were still a few things I wasn’t happy about so I talked to my friend Xabier Erkizia and we went to the studio and tried a few things. Xabier knows me so well and is such a great artist, that he was able to come up with very subtle little things that were definitely adding so many dynamics to the songs and then with the mix everything kind of worked. I knew there was something missing and Xabier was able to make it work.
One of the things I like the most about making a record is indeed the mixing and the post-production process. A mix can really change things. I am always involved in the process even though I am not really good in using the necessary tools. I do mixes at home in a rudimentary way, but I kind of know what I want and need the help of a professional to make that idea work. Sometimes it can be a bit too intense and I spend hours and hours listening to all the different takes. I would say that when I make an album I spend two thirds of the time just listening rather playing, listening so that I get to where I want. In the case of For the Unknown, it didn’t take me as long even though I still had a break of about 6-8 months before I mixed the record. However, I do think it is good to have a break after recording the material. I am working on a new album and although it is almost done, the last time I did something with it was last December. I hope that by the end of the Summer I will start working on it again.