Oren Ambarchi’s ascent from the Sydney underground in the ’90s to his current position as a composer of global influence was no accident of luck, but the result of an impressive work ethic.
There’s a single-minded streak in his character that might border on the obsessive were it not for his otherwise laid-back good humour. From the deal he struck with his father as a child — sticking it out through a year of classical piano lessons on the promise of a second-hand drum kit — to his perfectionism when working solo (he calls the process “tortuous”), Ambarchi realised early on that musical greatness lies far outside the comfort zone.
He seeks rules just for the pleasure of breaking them
Ambarchi’s solo catalog reflects a gift for extracting maximum results from within self-imposed limitations, be it coaxing new sounds from old equipment, or reverse-engineering a conventional idea, stripping it down to its nucleus and unraveling fractals of detail in what’s left — sometimes a single note or tone. Worlds within worlds, chaos inside a box.
He seeks rules just for the pleasure of breaking them, on one hand having a well-defined idea of what he wants to achieve in a piece of music, and on the other, being completely open to the unexpected. When on safe, well-trodden ground, Oren Ambarchi is unhappy.
His first compositions as a solo musician were created with a pair of cheap guitar pedals he “made do what they were not designed to do” with the sawn-off guitar used in his band Phlegm.
Those who witnessed Phlegm’s unhinged performances throughout the 1990s remember them with a sense of awe. Craig Jackson, who played drums in ’90s sludge outfit Drill and issued a 7″ record for Phlegm, comments, “They still are the loudest band I have ever seen. They hit 125 dB at the Vulcan Hotel in Pyrmont around ’94 or ’95, just ear-piercing, but quite a sonic experience.”
Drill’s guitarist Nathan agrees. “I saw Phlegm many times, and they left some permanent and very vivid mental scars. They were by far the weirdest, noisiest, and avant garde group of the mid-’90s in Sydney and in a league of their own.
“I always suspected they had special links to patients in mental institutions, and that these connections gave them a special understanding and their very unique sense of humour.
Each member was truly a twisted genius, and yet they worked so brilliantly as a team…
“In between long and drawn-out spasms of freeform noise and chaos, Oren would periodically deliver very distorted but melodic and often frenetic riffs through his red sawn-in-half guitar. This ensured Phlegm sets were always dynamic and captivating.
“Robbie Avenaim seemed somewhere between a metal and jazz drummer and appeared to be improvising most of the time. But results were always superb.
“Over the top of all this was the extremely high-pitched psychotic screaming, and sometimes quiet whimpering, of Nik Kamvissis. A mild-mannered and quiet man, once on stage he would wrap the microphone cord around his neck and body and proceed to channel some deeply tormented children’s souls from centuries past.
“A complete and utter disregard for making any kind of coherent sound or riff. Like a six-month-old baby might play with a piece of old rope, it was very hard to look away.”
“Particularly impressive was the way he operated his bass, in between his screaming and babbling fits. A complete and utter disregard for making any kind of coherent sound or riff. Like a six-month-old baby might play with a piece of old rope, it was very hard to look away.
“I think the special thing about Phlegm was that each member was truly a twisted genius, and yet they worked so brilliantly as a team, even if they didn’t seem to be doing so intentionally. I really miss seeing performances like those.”
Frequently shut down mid-show or banned from venues, it took affirmation from abroad before most local underground music fans saw Ambarchi & Co.’s true genius, yet the message was slow reaching a lot of venue operators.
Menstruation Sisters (with Ambarchi on drums and Nik Kamvissis on guitar) opened for Sonic Youth. Thurston Moore was a big fan, releasing an album for the band on his Ecstatic Peace label, while John Zorn was a notable fan of Phlegm, later issuing a collaboration record between Ambarchi and Avenaim on Tzadik.
In spite of this, when Phlegm supported the equally unpredictable Boredoms at Sydney’s Metro Theatre, their set was “nervously cut short” by the venue operators, Ambarchi says.
Members of Phlegm also did a one-off performance collaboration with Mu-Mesons and Boredoms, the highlight of that tour being, Oren said in a 2002 interview, a Sydney show where “[Boredom’s] Eye and Nik’s bodies were locked together on the floor in the front of the stage with mics in their mouths, heads between each other’s legs, screaming for an eternity.”
As Phlegm wound up in the late 1990s, Ambarchi had already started laying the foundations for his solo career with a prolific period of recording and collaboration in the early 2000s, building enough acclaim to set him on a path to a global audience.
Almost eighty solo and collaborative albums later—his discography is littered with experimental music’s most celebrated names — BNU finds Ambarchi taking a break from a more-or-less constant touring schedule at his partner’s home in Canada.
We chatted about aspects of his musical journey, the release of Hubris on Editions Mego later this year, and the art of learning how to listen.
BNU: So you were basically a teenager when you formed Phlegm. How did you go directly into performing avant garde music so early? Most experimental bands evolve into it from more conventional roots, right?
Oren: We were just super-enthusiastic about that kind of music, and obsessive about it from a very young age. Always looking for stuff. I grew up listening to rock, but when I was about thirteen I got heavily into free jazz.
Yeah. I was really into Hendrix, and I was a drummer. I was interested in his drummer Mitch Mitchell, who had a very jazzy playing style. And then I worked out that his biggest influence was Elvin Jones, which led to listening to John Coltrane, and then I just became a total jazz — free jazz — fanatic in my teens.
I sold all of my rock records and just listened to Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler and that kind of thing. And so a lot of my early experience, in my late teens, was playing with Robbie, and playing free jazz gigs in Sydney.
I had a drum kit in my bedroom, which was amazing that my parents let me do that.
And I travelled a lot in my late teens and early 20s to New York, and got to see a lot of really amazing music. Listening to free jazz led to discovering experimental music, which led to discovering noise music. And becoming really obsessed with Japan — this is around 1991 — and I started to find a lot of early noise records and cassettes.
Stuff like Hanatarashi, Gerogerigegege, and of course Merzbow and Keiji Haino. I remember I saw Keiji Haino play in New York in ’91 or ’92, and I came back, and it was impossible to find that stuff in Australia.
So I think I did a free jazz gig or another gig in a completely different context, and this guy — [laughs] — this postal-worker guy Nik came to both of those gigs, and we started talking. And he pulls out this Keiji Haino CD and said have you heard of this, I’m really into his music, and I just couldn’t believe that this guy who lived in Merrylands had this Keiji Haino CD [laughs].
We became really good friends right off the bat. I invited him to my flat, and we started hanging out and obsessively mail-ordering stuff from Japan, and from the US, just mail-ordering weird music. And before too long we started playing together.
And that’s kind of how: we were really deep into that stuff when we were doing those kinds of gigs.
Then eventually we were lucky enough to play in Japan twice during the [Phlegm] heyday, in around ’93, and work with Masonna, and Solmania, and all these kinds of acts when it was really still pretty underground. Not many people in the west knew about it. So that was a huge influence.
So we would do that and then come back and play at the Lansdowne [laughs].
I had a drum kit in my bedroom, which was amazing that my parents let me do that.
So what did your family make of their 13-year-old listening to free jazz? Were they encouraging of that?
They were kind of encouraging… I think they were taken aback at how deep I got into this stuff and how I wasn’t interested in anything else. They would knock on the door and sort of say, you know, are you gonna come out? [Laughs] Because all I wanted to do was listen to records.
Did you have somewhere to practice at home?
I had a drum kit in my bedroom, which was amazing that my parents let me do that. But in those days, you could kind of do that.
I remember I’d go to Robbie’s house and we’d set up two drum kits and blare music through amps, through stacks, and play along to records, leave guitars feedbacking against the amps for hours, walk down the street to see if you could still hear them [laughs].
This is where in Sydney?
This is in Bondi, actually. We both grew up in Bondi, or I moved there when I was 12 … it was kind of insane you could do shit like that. You’d never be able to do that today.
Robbie had rented this room — when you think about it now, it’s just completely abstract — but he had this room on the promenade of Bondi Beach, literally on the beach, which he rented for next to nothing. And we had all of our gear there and could play there any time, 24 hours a day if we wanted to; super-loud and extreme music we could just play at any time.
A lot of times there was a lot of animosity. Many, many times. Most of the time.
And it was literally in the middle of one of the most prominent tourist areas of Sydney. We could finish rehearsal and walk like 10 metres and be in the water.
So playing this art-rock, did you ever consider it to be important that the audience got what you were doing, or was it just satisfying to shock people?
I don’t think we were doing it to shock people. We genuinely loved that kind of music. And we were just super into it.
You know, we were young, so there was definitely a “fuck-you attitude”, because, you know, a lot of the stuff that was happening at the time was pretty pedestrian rock.
And I remember playing with a lot of bands and it was just really obvious, you know, this band is imitating the Swans, this band’s imitating this, this band’s imitating that… and we just didn’t want to do that. We wanted to be — well, we were — different.
So if somebody was enthusiastic about it and asked us, we would be really keen to turn them onto what we were listening to, but a lot of times there was a lot of animosity. Many, many times. Most of the time.
We had a lot of trouble at gigs and with promoters, and with clubs. We’d get banned from different places, all of that.
What would you get banned for?
Oh, stupid shit. Really dumb stuff. Because what we were doing sounded unconventional or whatever, people would think we were destroying the P.A. by, you know… well, we actually did that a couple of times [laughs].
Did people feel offended or threatened by the music or something?
We were young, so there was definitely a “fuck-you attitude”
A bit of that, but there were also people who were really into it as well. It was both at the same time. It was crazy; for a while we were playing two or three times a week…
… You were playing to empty rooms, full rooms…?
Both. In the beginning it was empty, towards the end we played to quite a lot of people. Sometimes we’d play with a band like Feedtime, like, nice bills; there’d be nice turnouts. It was a healthy scene at the time.
The times when you supported high-profile headlining bands, was there ever a point where you felt the crowd turn against you, was that amusing, from your point of view, to see that happening?
There was definitely that. There were times when we would open for hipster-y bands, sometimes international bands, and a lot of times we would have trouble. That’s when we would have trouble, definitely from the promoters and sometimes from the audience too.
There was one time when we were opening for a band, I think they were from New Zealand, they kept sound-checking and sound-checking and sound-checking until it was our slot to play, and basically, we had to quickly set up and play… and we were so pissed off, we were just being treated really badly, so our gig was us setting up our gear, sound-checking, checking the bass drum, checking the snare drum, and then as soon as we set up our gear, we packed up our gear.
And that was the gig. Just to sort of say, fuck you. [Laughter]. Just because you’re the headline band, that’s not cool.
So we were banned from that venue as well.
I was inspired by a lot of the electronic minimalist music and techno that was going on
How did your tastes begin to spread out from noise rock, and when did you start to explore different avenues and experiment with different types of equipment? Was there a turning point?
Around the ’90s I got really interested in a lot of the electronic music that was happening at the time in Europe, mostly. It was pretty influential. I started to do some solo guitar things, and I was inspired by a lot of the electronic minimalist music and techno that was going on, probably more along the lines of Pan Sonic, or the Kompakt label, that kind of thing.
I was kind of interested in what the Germans were doing… Wolfgang Voigt and Thomas Brinkman and people like that. There was an influence of early musique concrete, electronic music from the late ’50s, early ’60s, I think those people were influenced by that, but they were also influenced by rhythmic dance music too, and they were making really abstract minimalist dance music. And that really interested me.
Playing the guitar in Phlegm, we were doing a lot of noise and textural stuff, dealing with feedback and things like that, so I just continued to explore that, and got influenced by a lot of electronic music. So a lot of my early solo guitar work was inspired by musique concrete, and a lot of the stuff that was coming out on [Austrian label] Mego, groups like Pan Sonic influenced what I was doing on guitar.
I think I’ve just always been interested in hearing new things and discovering stuff, always, from a young age. It just influences what I do, all the time, and still does today.
I wanted to see what I could do with this limited technology.
Which early albums would you describe as a turning point?
The first one Insulation was just me trying stuff out at home. I didn’t have a computer and I didn’t have all these tools. I only had very primitive means to make stuff. But I wanted to see what I could do with this limited technology. And how much of the palette I had I could work with.
So that was kind of a breakthrough, in a way. But Suspension after that was a bigger breakthrough in that it was more personal, and I started to do things that sounded like “me”. That was exciting. I started to kind of feel comfortable adding a bit of melody here and there, things like that.
Around this time, you were beginning to collaborate, too, sometimes with members of Phlegm, with so many other people…
I’ve always been interested in collaboration. It’s really important. And … it’s fun. You might do something you might not do on your own, if you’re with someone else.
It’s remarkable how widely you have collaborated, though, with people from all over the world and from all different cultures. How does this usually come about? Is it a matter of you approaching people you respect, or from meeting them in person and making friends with them, or are you approached by others?
It’s a little bit of all of those things; it just depends on the circumstances. The older I get, the more it’s about just being friends. Having mutual admiration, and saying hey, it would be fun to do this, I’ve got this idea, would you be interested?
Sometimes a promoter can put people together. The trio I had with Jim O’Rourke and Keiji Haino was a promoter in Kita-Kyushu putting us together as a trio, and that led to us doing this ongoing thing. But again, I’m friends with Jim, and I’ve known Haino for years, so it helps too, and we enjoy playing together.
You’ve done something like five albums together now, right?
Maybe seven or eight…
Did you ever feel intimidated meeting someone like Keiji Haino, you know, his presence and charisma, have you ever felt intimidated meeting someone you respect so much?
Of course! I’m a bit younger, and you have to have a little bit of humility. A lot of these artists have been at it for a long, long time. And they’re incredible artists. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, having the opportunity to work with some of these people. But on the other hand, you just gotta do the work and be as good as you can be in that situation.
Beyond language, do you notice any cultural difference in the approach to making music, say with people from Japan or from Europe, which comes into play?
One of the things I loved most about early Japanese noise was the fact that it wasn’t political. It was all about the sound.
I think there is. One of the things I loved most about early Japanese noise was the fact that it wasn’t political. It was all about the sound. It was about reveling in the sound. And I’ve always loved that about those Japanese artists. It really doesn’t have all this baggage that I’ve found with a lot of European and American noise artists, where there was a bit of a poser thing going on. Whereas in Japan, artists like Akio Suzuki or Takehisa Kosugi, you know, allow sounds to be themselves.
It’s almost like it’s not a personal expression, it’s just allowing things to happen. There’s no agenda.
I’ve found with a lot of American and European things, what bugs me is you feel there’s some sort of agenda or someone’s trying to prove something. And it’s not about the sound anymore.
For me, it should entirely be about that. The people I’ve clicked with in Japan, they just seem to do that, it’s just what they do. And that really appeals to me.
The stereotype is that Japanese people are shy, or unwilling to stick their neck out in a group situation. How does that stereotype truck with your own experience in the studio?
These days, Haino is probably the only consistent collaborator that I’m working with. So he’s very different to your average Japanese artist [laughs].
He has this thing that he does. He throws himself into it completely, like 101 percent.
And it’s not like we really discuss a lot. We just do it. Sometimes he might ask for something specific, but usually, you just jump in. He doesn’t beat around the bush.
Haino’s the movie, and we’re kind of doing the lighting or setting the scene
How would working with Mr. Haino differ from working, say, with Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), who you’ve collaborated with extensively via the Southern Lord label?
I’ve done a lot different projects with Stephen and each might have a different conceptual thing going on. Some of them, we might be really, really specific—we’re just going to do this, and this is what we’re doing. That’s the plan and we just do it.
Whereas with Haino, it’s a bit more open. With Stephen, it’s more conceptual. Haino is such a big personality, you’re kind of playing Haino’s music. Even though you’re contributing, and shaping what’s going on, ultimately… in a way, it’s Haino’s world.
He’s such a strong personality.
What happens when Jim O’Rourke is added into that equation, such a hugely respected talent, how does that change that dynamic?
I think Jim would agree with me; he once said in an interview that Haino’s the movie, and we’re kind of doing the lighting or setting the scene, so the movie is really great. That’s what we’re trying to do.
We both have known his work really well for years and years, and we try to enhance what he’s doing. And that’s one of Jim’s many talents, making something even more than the sum of its parts. He’s so good at doing something in the moment that’s going to elevate what’s going on even more.
Do you have a personal favorite record from Keiji Haino’s career?
Good question. [Long pause] I mean… the Fushitsusha Double Live album; that was a huge, huge, big, big record for me. I think it’s a really important record for guitar, bass, and drums music. It’s a really important record. But there are so many.
Is it more important to have musical empathy with a collaborator, or a personal empathy? Could you work with someone you don’t necessarily like, but share a musical vocabulary or connection with?
[Laughs] These days, because I’m older, I think I’d prefer to work with someone I genuinely like. Because, a lot of the time, that last thing you do is actually make music. Most of the time, you’re hanging out, you’re talking… and that’s part of the process too.
If you can make music you are both satisfied with, or that excites you, or takes you into an area you’ve never been into before, that’s a great bonus.
I have been working with people who operate in different worlds from me. I’ve been working with this guy Mark Fell, an English electronic musician, and I really love his music and respect him as an artist, and we’re good friends, but what we do is so different from one another. But the fact we can hang out and be friends, and there’s a mutual respect, allows for two different worlds to come together. Become something other. That’s gratifying to be able to do that.
When it comes time to start work, do you generally start with a tone, a melody, a color, or does a piece of equipment you’re using inspire the composition?
All of those things, in a way. When I was younger, it was often the gear. I would find something in a pedal that was… wrong. Something the pedal was not supposed to do. And I would utilize that, and it would become like a language. And that would excite me, and I would think, oh wow, imagine that with this. Or with that, or with this, and that would be a spark for something to happen.
Salt is a little different. Salt is almost like a pop song. That’s the way I look at it.
But these days, in the last couple of years, I’ll be listening to a record, and something will happen in a record, or they’ll be a really minor element in a record — it could be anything, a disco record from the ’80s, it could be anything — but I’ll hear this element and I’ll think to myself, “Why can’t that thing that’s happening there be the focus, the basis for a composition? Why can’t that thing go on for 30 minutes? Why does it have to be 30 seconds?”
It’ll excite me, I’ll get some ideas in my head, and I’ll try to execute them. And of course that will change as it unfolds, as you work on the piece.
Ben Chasny said that his music is not a representation of emotion; that he aims to create “music of force”. Do you have that in common? It seems that on albums such as Audience of One, songs like Salt, it’s an intensely personal expression. Do you compose to evoke emotion, or is that incidental?
Hmmm. Well, it’s kinda like… I’m not really into self-expression [laughs]. I’m not really into heavy-handed anything, heavy-handed manipulation, where things are super-obvious. I like things to be kind of hidden. I’m not interested in playing all the cards, just because you can do that. I’m interested in serving what is going on at that particular time.
Salt is a little different. Salt is almost like a pop song. That’s the way I look at it.
But most of what I do is about losing yourself in the sound. You can listen to it on so many different levels. There’s a lot of detail in there, but I don’t want to hit people over the head with stuff.
When I was making Quixotism, if I felt like I was being drawn into what was going on
Being heavy-handed with an idea is almost an immature way of doing things — it might have been something I did when I was 19 or 20, but I’m really not interested in that now.
What about with Quixotism, which I found to be one of your more accessible records, was that something you had in mind when you made that record?
I never have anything like that in mind. I kind of do what makes sense to me, what pleases me, or challenges me. When I was making that record, if I felt like I was being drawn into what was going on, that I was on the right track, then hopefully certain people get affected the same way, hopefully.
That’s an example of what we’re talking about, about not being [emotionally representative], it’s about drawing people into this sound world.
You have another album coming out soon, Hubris, which I believe is a continuation of the ideas on Quixotism…
It kind of is, and it kind of isn’t. It is in the sense that it’s very rhythmical, relentlessly rhythmical again, but Quixotism kind of drove me crazy, because there’s so many elements in there [laughs] …
The tabla on that record blew my mind…
Yeah, that was done in Tokyo, actually… but I kind of wanted to get a bit more raw, with Hubris. It’s a bit more single-minded. But it is related, for sure.
What advice would you have for people just getting into a genre of music such as experimental music that feels alien to them?
Well, to me it was never alien… well look, of course I would listen to things and be confused by them, when I was young. I would hear a record, and go, “What the fuck is this? This is completely random.” And then, I would listen to it again. And listen to it again. And then I realized, this is amazing, because of this and this and this. It really moves me, and I love it.
It turns from repulsion into attraction, in a way…
I wouldn’t call it repulsion; I’d call it confusion. Confusion, and intrigue. What’s going on here? There’s something about it I don’t understand, it excites me, but I don’t know why.
But that’s just me; I am a very curious person and I am always interested in finding out stuff I don’t know about. And I like to be uncomfortable; I like to go into areas I don’t understand.
Even when I make music, I like to go into areas I don’t understand — why is this happening? To me, that’s a good thing when I’m making something. It goes beyond what I planned, I know I’m expanding into another area.
For me, that’s what it is to be an artist. To keep moving forward, and doing things that might be uncomfortable, or might even be “wrong”.
For me, that’s what it is to be an artist. To keep moving forward, and doing things that might be uncomfortable, or might even be “wrong”. And then transcending it and going somewhere you might not have ever dreamt you’d go to, you know?
It’s about being open to letting things happen, really immersing yourself in it… and it might not be good, you might not dig it even after you’ve tried ten times.
But it’s one of those things where the more experience you have, the more you know, like, “That’s not good,” and, “That’s just this imitating that in a bad way,” or, “Wow, that’s really original, it really moves me.”
I think as an artist it’s really important to have a sense of humor, and not take yourself seriously, BUT, it’s important to be serious about what you’re doing.
That’s kind of my philosophy. [Laughs]. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing, don’t take yourself too seriously, but, you know, work. I’m serious about what I’m doing, completely. But I try not to take myself too seriously.
Obviously there’s trends in music, and bands will come out with a sound that’s similar. At the tail end of that, it starts to get really played out. Do you ever feel like you have to change what you’re doing because people have copied it too much, or a sound has been overdone…?
[Laughs] I don’t think people have copied me too much, it’s never happened to me.
The problem for me is when something is understood. When an artist understands what they’re doing, and then they repeat it again, because they understand what they’re doing… for me, music is exciting when there’s that joy of discovery, where the artist doesn’t really understand what’s going on, it’s completely beyond comprehension. That’s when music’s good, that’s when art’s good.
But as soon as people work out how to do something, and it becomes a tried and tested formula — even the artist that created it initially— and of course the imitators, more so — that’s when it falls apart for me; that’s when I’m not interested.
I love making records, but on the other hand, just starting it is kind of tortuous
So how do you keep your own music fresh, how do you keep coming up with stuff that challenges you?
That’s a good question. That’s what tortures me when I make a record. It’s really, really hard. I love making records, but on the other hand, just starting it is kind of tortuous; it’s actually tortuous till it’s done, because it’s a thing I have to do, and get out of my system.
I want to challenge myself each time I do one, and challenge myself, and go into another area.
What do you do when you’re stuck? Does any of the music you happen to be listening to find it’s way into what you’re doing and help you out?
I’m always listening to music, obsessively, and it’s always influencing what I do, always. If I get stuck, just do something [laughs]. Do something you don’t even understand why the fuck you’re doing it, you know? Grab something that doesn’t make sense and throw it on top of what you just did. And it might give you an idea.
It just might give you some light at the end of the tunnel, or a way to move forward.
Do you have an example of that on a record, where something happened at random to help break the block?
God, so many. I’ve had records [Girl With the Silver Eyes / Grapes from the Estate] where I was recording to a multi-track tape, kind of feeling like, yeah, this is cool, it’s kind of doing its thing, but it’s not enough. And I’ve started getting frustrated.
And then, by accident, on two channels of the tape was a previous take of something I did a week before in a completely different tuning, in a completely different key, and it just popped into the track.
And it sounded amazing. And I would never have thought to tune the guitar that way, or do it that way. And that became the basis of that track. Things like that happen all the time.
I remember recording a record with Jim, and we were in Tokyo in his studio, and we sitting there, and the track [Behold One] was really good already, but we kept looking at each other, and we’re like, “Arrghhh, it needs something… what? What does it need, it doesn’t need an instrument, I dunno…”
And he just opened the window and stuck a mic out, and shut the window, and he EQ’d all the top end off and all the low end off, and just kept the mids, and he hit record, and whatever happened in that moment was absolutely perfect. That was all it needed.
It’s about allowing things to happen, being open for things to happen.
I think if we were open in life, in the way we live, the way we behave, the way we listen to music, the way we discover things, the way we try things… if we had that attitude, things would probably flow better, you know?
Hubris is available for pre-order now on LP and CD and is due around November. Follow Oren Ambarchi on Twitter for tour and release information or visit his official website. A two-track Hubris Variation remix by Chilean musician Ricardo Villalobos, who contributed on Hubris itself, is due October 28 on Black Truffle, which offers an extensive selection of Ambarchi’s music.