All Photographs by Barry C Douglas [Instagram]
While the idea of guitar orchestras has been around for decades, there are few conceived in quite the same way as Melbourne Drone Orchestra.
The project, led by local musician Daniel Tucceri, has grown from humble roots and a primitive desire to make as much noise as possible to its present status as an unmissable performance event on the Melbourne music calendar.
It adheres to a simple set of rules. Rules that might at first seem restrictive, but in fact give participants enormous scope to shape sound in the moment. Musicians are encouraged to improvise within a framework, and combined with MDO’s inclusive nature (pretty much anyone can join the group if they have a guitar, amp, and some self-control) and you’ve got a recipe for an immersive, hypnotic, and unrepeatable live music experience.
“It was taking the heavy-metal obsession with all things loud to the point of absurdity.”
On December 17, at 3PM, hundreds will gather at Memo Music Hall in St. Kilda [tickets] to witness legendary drummer Matt “Skitz” Sanders [DAMAGED, Gravetemple] face off against another fearsome local percussionist, Brian O’Dwyer [Warpigs] against the bowel-disturbing tidal wave that’s the sound of some twenty-five guitars playing a single drone in unison through extremely powerful amplifiers.
We caught up with Daniel Tucceri ahead of the show to talk about MDO’s evolution, the foibles of church fuse boxes, Fripp vs. SunnO))), and what exactly is the magic in massed guitars.
BNU: First off, can you tell us a little about the concept for a “drone orchestra”? You mentioned there was an original core group, and that’s recently been expanded. How flexible is your lineup?
A few years back, there was a series of experimental gigs curated by Piers Morgan called Musikunst. I asked Piers if I could curate one with a metal theme, and although he hadn’t even met me before, he was remarkably open to the idea. Looking back, it was pretty kind of him to do that. It’s often hard to get things happening as an outsider in the scene.
It was held in the cellar of the Great Britain Hotel: bluestone walls and no natural light. It was the perfect setting for something hellish and ridiculously loud. Six strings, six guitarists and 666 decibels was how I described it in the write-up. It was taking the heavy-metal obsession with all things loud to the point of absurdity. Even the name itself was a parody of the MSO.
I’ve always loved drone-based music, mainly with the guitar. There’s something about the nature of that particular type of distortion with its rippling overtones that really excites me. I’ve got synesthesia and I’ll literally be standing there imagining all these bursts of color, which are totally unpredictable. I used to stand around at home and blast a half-stack as loud as possible, then let it feedback and walk down the street counting how many houses I’d pass before I couldn’t hear it.
“For the last show, we had vocals, pipe organ, and trombone introduce the concert.”
That got kind of boring quick, since I didn’t have many friends who liked playing guitar in that way. My main problem to begin with was finding the guitarists to do it. I knew Dav Byrne relatively well, so he was in. He brought Liam Brewer with him and fortunately, Bonnie Mercer was gracious enough to accept my invite from out of nowhere. Piers was keen to join, as was his friend Ciaran Geohegan.
That there is the core group, although I hadn’t heard back from Bonnie the last couple of times I’d asked her. I’m not the sort of person to chase and hassle someone, since I can’t read their mind. I figure if they’re keen, I’ll hear from them. That said; I’d love her to play again if she was.
For the next few shows that we had booked, people kept dropping out for various reasons. I well and truly got fed up with this and figured for our last gig at the church that I’d make it an open invitation. Anyone would be welcome to join as long as they respected the ideas underpinning the MDO. I’ve honestly lost track of how many different guitarists have taken part in it, but I’d say it’d be up to twenty-five.
“Really, it’s less about the player and more about the guitar and amp playing itself.”
BNU: The word “orchestra” suggests there’s a conductor who directs the flow of the composition. I have a few questions relating to this: how much is an idea for piece discussed before a performance? How democratic is the process? Do you work purely on improvisation or do you compose “movements” beforehand?
We had never discussed our approach until recently and even then, the instructions were left to a bare minimum. For the last show, we had vocals, pipe organ, and trombone introduce the concert. Then, one by one, all the guitars joined in. From there on, it was all in. When it felt right, I returned to the organ and that was the cue for guitars to drop out, again, one by one, and we finished as we started.
Up until then, there was really no instruction other than to avoid playing riffs or solos of any kind; basically, no showing off or self-indulgence of any kind.
For this next concert at Memo Hall, we will be following a score of sorts, but again the interpretation is up to the participants. There are some pretty basic instructions, which allow for a lot of freedom to keep it interesting but cohesive at the same time.
As for being democratic, I wouldn’t really say that it is. There are eighteen people, so it would become difficult if everyone was throwing ideas around in the room. We need to keep things pretty straightforward in the lead-up to a concert. If someone has an idea, I’m open to it, but generally the final call will rest with myself or Piers.
There have been some suggestions made in the past, which have been taken on board. On a number of occasions, I’ve been glad to have Piers as a friend for his advice and suggestions. Along with him, I’m pretty grateful everyone has abided by the three rules. As long as they use six-string guitars, play in DADGAD, and dispense with any riffing, they’re free to do as they please.
Really, it’s less about the player and more about the guitar and amp playing itself.
BNU: Can you explain a little, from a musical point of view, how the “drone” aspect works? I mean, do different sections play a certain chord and use feedback to get harmonic overtones? Are you all playing exactly the same note? What about freedom of members to choose their own tones and effects?
Given most naturally occurring overtones are a perfect fifth or fourth above whatever is played, it made more sense to play the guitars in an open tuning, which consisted of fourth and fifth intervals. Hence, we used DADGAD and it really brings out the naturally occurring harmonics already amplified by the distortion. We might change it in future, or might not. So far, it’s served us well.
I wanted to use this tuning for a number of reasons. Mainly, if anyone gets lost, it’s easy to just strum the guitar, let it feedback and take a few minutes to return to it when you feel comfortable again. It’s also relatively easy for us to play in unison if we feel like doing that at any point, regardless of skill level. At the same time, it’s a tuning which makes it difficult to play the kinds of scales that you normally would with standard tuning.
It’s a handy way to prevent any guitar heroes from showing off and playing Eruption in the middle of a show.
“After the last concert, I was dead for three days. I didn’t want to deal with anything or anyone.”
Generally, the music is pretty freeform, but there have been moments where we have fallen into a riff in unison and the result is great. We never plan it, but there will be times where someone signals that they’ve fallen on a chord and they want others to join in. Sometimes that’ll lead to another chord, sometimes it won’t. It’s never planned.
As for tones and effects, they’re free to use anything they want as long as there are no guitar synthesizers. What we want to hear is an abstraction of the electric guitar, so that any sound generated isn’t entirely alien. For that reason, bass guitars aren’t permitted. On the other hand, for example, an octave pedal or octave guitar is totally fine.
BNU: It must be tremendously difficult practically and logistically to organize a performance. Do you need three-phase power to run all those amplifiers? What about finding venues that can handle it? How amenable are the folk that run churches, and how important are acoustics?
You have no idea. After the last concert, I was dead for three days. I didn’t want to deal with anything or anyone. It’ll be the same after this show. I’ll probably drive out to the desert and not come back for a few weeks. Merry Christmas. This is despite the fact all the MDO players are the nicest bunch of people you’d ever meet. We’ve never had any problems, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful.
The most insane thing about the last concert was the fact I booked it, organized everything, and totally forgot to check if the church had three-phase power. How stupid is that? A week out from the show, the churchies tell me it’s running on single-phase power and that the fuse box had blown up a few months ago to boot.
So here I am, wondering how the hell we’re going to pull off a show with over fifteen guitarists that doesn’t end with the power shutting down and me apologizing to two hundred people. Can you imagine the pressure? We’d already had the power go out once during a show, once up in Ballarat. Cancelling the show wasn’t an option, so I had to take every precaution to make sure we didn’t blow the fuse box. I spent about two hundred dollars on these ultra-heavy-duty power-boards and everyone was under strict instructions not to piggyback them. I had the vocalist at the start of the concert, Shane Van Den Akker, literally run off the stage when he was done and stand next to the fuse box in case anything happened.
“It’s not simply about getting a whole lot of bottom end and being as loud as possible all the time.”
It was insane and I don’t know how the hell we pulled it off.
How amenable were the folk to deal with? Well, all I’ll say is that they were pretty open-minded about it and great to deal with in the lead up to it. However, I don’t think we’ll be playing there again. It simply wasn’t big enough and too many people missed out, despite holding two hundred.
As for the acoustics, they changed everything. Because of how resonant the space within the church is, we were able to allow guitarists to use everything from half stacks and subwoofers to tiny practice amps.
The idea of this group is similar to an orchestra. We want a broad spectrum of frequencies and tones to be elicited from the guitar. It’s not simply about getting a whole lot of bottom end and being as loud as possible all the time. The church concert was probably our most textural.
For this concert, it was a matter of finding a venue big enough to cater for the demand and which wasn’t inhibited by noise restrictions. Memo Music Hall ticked all the boxes.
The approach for this one will be slightly different to the preceding show, with more of an emphasis on sheer power. Put it to you this way, everyone was told to bring their biggest and meanest rigs.
BNU: So how did Matt Skitz and Brian O’Dwyer become involved? I know Skitz is famous for his metal drumming since the early ’90s, but I never realized he was into experimental music such as free jazz. How do you anticipate the performance on Saturday will pan out?
Skitz is one of my best mates. I’ve only known him for seven years, but we’ve been through a lot of shit together and done a bunch of different bands. We’ve done everything from improvised to classical, but that wasn’t the exact reason I asked him. It was mainly because he’d worked with Gravetemple, which featured Stephen O’Malley, Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar.
I’d also seen him do some amazing shows with Oren Ambarchi before I even knew him, where they did a brilliant version of Keiji Haino’s Pathetique. I knew he’d be perfect for the MDO and it was time us to do something different. On this occasion, we decided to involve percussion.
One drummer against eighteen guitarists seems a bit unfair, so I asked Brian O’Dwyer to join in. I kind envisaged a combative result between the two, squaring off within this ring of noise.
Like Skitz, Brian has worked with extended tones in his band Warpigs and has played in extreme metal bands. I knew he’d be perfect for it and I don’t think he’s made any secret of being a huge fan of Skitz’s work.
Just seeing the two of them play together is enough to get me excited, but being backed by this tidal wave of sound will just take it to another level. I can guarantee it’s going to be one of the best things that anyone will have seen all year.
For me, the pleasure of this gig lies more in observing what is happening around me rather than playing so much.
BNU: Have you ever had any problems with members trying to take things in a certain direction that you are not comfortable with? I know you have some basic rules in place, and you are the leader, but it seems that to achieve good sound, you’d need to be able to find that balance between allowing things to happen in the moment, and having some sort of discipline in the group to keep the piece on track. Is finding that balance difficult?
“Anyone who takes part understands that their role as a guitar player is secondary to the guitar itself…”
We’ve had people drop out in the past, and that’s fine. Only once have I had to ask someone not to play because it was generally agreed that they were being difficult and unreasonable. If anyone took part in the preceding concert, I’ll shoot them a message. If I hear from them, great; if not, there are no hard feelings since that frees up a spot for someone who missed out last time.
On a personal level, I think the fact that anyone who takes part understands that their role as a guitar player is secondary to the guitar itself; it’s what makes them easy to deal with. They respect the rules because they know it’s part of the bigger picture. If anything, there’s so much freedom within the sound that playing riffs would kind of limit what we are trying to achieve.
It’s a “rule to end all rules”, in effect.
BNU: I think this concept is similar to SunnO))) not so much musically, but in the sense that the music can only be fully appreciated live. Like, it’s essentially impossible to capture physical sensations such as frequencies vibrating within the body on tape. And obviously touring is a challenge. How do you see this project evolving in the future and growing to reach more people? Do you think at least some of the experience can be captured on a recording?
“It’s about keeping it as unpredictable as possible.”
SunnO))) is a huge influence, but mainly on the level of trying to get a big sound. As a kid, I was interested in guitarists like Robert Fripp and Cosey Fanny Tutti who were using the guitar as a sound device. With Fripp, it was more about “Frippertronics” and guitar synths, but someone like Cosey wrangled sounds from her guitar in a more organic way.
Another major difference between the MDO and SunnO))) is that we’re completely improvised. As far as I know, SunnO))) have generally played riffs, and those two guitars played in unison is what gives them their power. For the MDO, there’s no real interest in doing that at this point. It’s about keeping it as unpredictable as possible.
Touring will probably never happen, unless someone with a lot of money fronts up the cash. I just can’t see how at this point. I had a couple of dudes from Malaysia ask me if they could “use” our idea. Of course they can! Anyone can! Go and start your own Drone Orchestra, it’s fun and you’ll never feel anything else like it.
Back to SunnO))), a big part of why I wanted to do a project like this was to relive that sensation I got from watching SunnO))) in concert. Why shouldn’t anyone else be entitled to that? The ultimate would be if there was one in every capital city in Australia, and then we’d all do a National Drone Orchestra.
“While there are many live recordings, it’s purely about the live experience…”
As for an MDO recording, while there are many live recordings, it’s purely about the live experience. As much as I enjoy listening to those recordings from time to time, it just doesn’t equate to actually being there.
If we did it, it would have to be something really special. Maybe recorded octophonically, or at least quadrophonically. It would have to be done in a way that captures the all-encapsulating nature of the live experience. At least with SunnO))), their recorded works contain enough instrumentation to justify buying an album. With us, it’s all guitars. We’d have to make it something really special.
Following the gig on Saturday, what ideas do you have in mind for Melbourne Drone Orchestra?
I wish I could reveal them. I’ve told seldom few people. Actually, there are some plans that I’ve told no one about and will keep under wraps unless I know they are definitely going to come to fruition.
What it all depends on is the success of the preceding concert. The more money we make, the more we can do the next time around.
One thing I will say is that I’m always looking to increase the amount of guitarists we have involved. It’s gotten bigger each time. I’d love to have as many as possible, even if it seems impossible or outright crazy. Imagine a hundred guitars doing this on the steps of Parliament House, sending feedback and drones all the way down Bourke Street to Spencer Street?
I’m happy to share that idea, since that’s too stupid to ever happen. But, you never know; I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that we’d be able to find a church keen to let us do something like this.
Melbourne Drone Orchestra will perform with Matt “Skitz” Sanders and Brian O’Dwyer on Saturday, December 17 at Memo Music Hall, St. Kilda, Melbourne. Click here for tickets or here for event information.