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An interview with Barn Owl

This is a transcription (minus general chatting) of an interview LURKER carried out with Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti of Barn Owl before they took to the stage at their first London show ever, 25/10/10, the Corsica.

Is there a premise for Ancestral Star, and what does the album title refer to?

Jon: If there is a premise, and I guess this applies to our sound in general, it’s combining a wide range of influences that speak to us that we try to combine to make our own sound. But as far as a specific premise for the album, there’s no over-arching concept or anything like that.

Evan: The title refers to this idea of ‘ancestral memory’ which was explained to me by my music teacher, a free jazz sax player, and he referenced flamenco music and said that they channel the spirits of their ancestors through the music, so it’s the idea of connecting with this other energy through music. Being absorbed in it and having a deep connection that goes beyond the material world.

Ancestral star is noticeably denser/heavier than earlier material. What were your goals while creating the record?

Evan: I guess it was a kind of natural progression from what we felt at the time. With The Conjurer we tried to make everything have a lot space really, the sparseness was just what we were feeling at the time.

Jon: I think also, in terms of the heaviness, the sound quality is a lot better. The engineer we worked with, Norman Conquest (we call him Norman, he’s a friend of ours), I mean he’s a recording genius. We’d show up at the recording studio and he’d have dozens of mics set up all over the studio, pointing at random corners of the room where he was hearing resonant frequencies. So we left it all up to him. He also built these microphones out of old speakers. He put two or three of them right by our amps; that picked up a lot of low end.

Evan: Yeah, he’s a mad scientist of sound. He knows how to capture what we want.

Jon: He also graduated from Mills College so we’re all like-minded and thought about music in similar ways.

Can you explain some of the recording process?

Jon: Mostly live. Then we needed to record some other parts and other overdubs to connect all the parts together. But yeah, most of it was live.

Evan: Everything was based around recording some live tracks to 2” tape, and kind of saturating it, hitting the tape pretty hard to get a sizzling thick sound. I guess most of it began with both us playing guitar, dual guitar pieces, but a couple of them I was playing guitar and Jon was playing drums to add some guitar later.

How did Barn Owl form?

Jon: We met at San Francisco State, it was in an American Indian Science class. I saw Evan and thought “That guy has a beard and long hair, I’m sure we’d get along.” I introduced myself and turns out we were both looking for someone to play music with so it worked out perfectly.

The new album is very reminiscent of Earth’s newer forays. Do you count them among your influences? Which acts have helped shape your sound?

Jon: I would say, initially when we first started and especially when we recorded From Our Mouths..., Earth was a big influence. We tried to incorporate a much wider range of influences for Ancestral Star. We listened to a lot of Alice Coltrane and other jazz albums… Bill Frisell was also a huge influence on us. What else Evan, what do you think?

Evan: It’s a good reference point for the kind of ‘desert sound’ but I think we’re more inspired by things like The Dead Man soundtrack and Cormac McCarthy novels. I mean, yeah, Earth’s great but not so much a conscious influence these days. Popol Vuh is a really big influence for a lot of this stuff, and Loren Connors and Sandy Bull are two guitar players that we reference a lot in our playing I’d say.

Ancestral Star is your Thrill Jockey debut, placing you in the company of some great artists old and new. How did the release come about?

Jon: I think initially Evan had sent Eric at Thrill Jockey a solo album, so they had been in contact that way, and then you had mentioned to them that we had recently finished Ancestral Star…

Evan: Yeah we have a lot of mutual friends with Thrill Jockey too, like the Pontiak dudes and Stephen O’Malley so it kind of made sense.

What is it about “drones” that captures your imagination?

Evan: I don’t know, for me it’s like when I put on good drone music it immediately eases my mind in a lot of ways. There’s something comforting about the meditative value of it, being able to really focus and tune out all the noise of the world and centre yourself.

Jon: Also, I feel that there’s something really profound about seeing detail in something that on the surface is stagnant. To me that’s mysterious and exciting.

What bands/artists are you listening to at the moment?

Jon: Oh, the newest piece by William Basinski is really great. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. There’s a reissue of Loren Connors’ Hymn of the North Star, very dark and spacious guitar playing…

Evan: Any Loren Connors really! It can be super hard to track down, the vinyl I think sells out pretty fast.

How was your performance at Supersonic 2010? Any highlights of the weekend?

Evan: Awesome. All around there were really good vibes.

Jon: Seeing Hallogallo: Michael Rother, Steve Shelley and Aaron Mullan. We didn’t know him before but he became our friend hanging out with him that weekend. Hallogallo was amazing, we just didn’t know what to expect from Michael Rother you know? He’s had such a big influence on Evan and I and especially lately we’ve been listening to a lot of his solo albums. They just blew us away. Swans were great too!

What is the composition process for Barn Owl? Do you sit in a room and jam or do you bring your own ideas to practise and correlate ideas?

Jon: It’s a bit of both I would say. Mostly we’ll work on stuff on our own, because you know we work on solo stuff, and bring melodies or song ideas to each other when we’re playing and jam them out and through that process, we’ll put a song together. And then when we go to the studio, adding overdubs is another part of that process.

Is it easy to translate your sound for the live setting?

Jon: It kind of goes the other way for us, a little bit. We’ll write stuff to play for live sets and then we’ll go into the studio and translate that into a recorded piece.

Evan: We generally don’t do too many live shows with drums but the albums usually incorporate drums a little more heavily, so that’s kind of one difference. But hopefully we’ll be able to do more shows with drums and tour with that because it’s usually more of a local thing we do.

Do your sets include any improv?

Jon: We do, I guess we call it ‘prepared improv’ where we have moments of improv within structured movements. So overall the piece is more or less the same but what we actually play within the movements varies slightly from show to show.

Evan: Yeah, I was thinking about the last three shows we’ve played on this tour and they never quite sound the same. And not consciously too, things just kind of happen where you go in one direction for no particular reason, it just happens.

Jon: We’ll write a certain part and play it a certain way, and then when we’re playing it live maybe we’ll have a little more delay or reverb on than we expected and we’ll just kind of go with it. The piece will take on a new dimension.

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