Chosen One: Orcas
Interview with Orcas.
“I usually boil it down by saying, “I write the words and the beginnings of chord structures, and Rafael makes the rest what it is.” He has such a great intuition and is a very good director when I’ve got something in mind; he knows very well how to make a given vocal line or guitar line or piano sketch fit into whatever we’re working on.”
Words: Mark Carry, Design: Craig Carry
Orcas is the collaborative project of Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard) and Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below) whose latest full-length release, entitled ‘Yearling’ — the follow-up to their sublime self-titled debut — recently saw the light of day by German independent label, Morr Music. Both artists — Benoît Pioulard’s shape-shifting hazy ambient explorations, and The Sight Below’s similarly mesmerising drone-infused electronic explorations — have been a cornerstone to all trusted independent music collections this past decade, and Orcas offers new, illuminating pathways for the pair to venture down (and audiences to gladly immerse themselves in).
On ‘Yearling’, the core duo of Meluch and Irisarri are joined by Martyn Heyne (Efterklang) on guitar and piano, and Michael Lerner (Telekinesis) on drums to build upon the shimmering ambient soundscapes of their self-titled debut, adding new layers of analog warmth to the band’s unique blend of ethereal pop creations. In contrast to the guitar improvisations and impromptu vocal sessions of the debut record, most of ‘Yearling’ was constructed from short pieces Pioulard wrote and developed while staying in Germany during the summer of 2012. Furthermore, the nuances and hidden details of Benoît Pioulard’s utterly beguiling songbook can be found interwoven in the rich tapestry of Orcas’s sonic trajectory. The album’s recording sessions took place in Heyne’s Lichte Studio in Berlin, and Irisarri’s own Black Knoll Studio back in Seattle.
Album opener ‘Petrichor’ begins with building synth passages blended with gorgeous analogue warmth, forming a beautiful ambient canvas of sound that gradually finds its way into the endearing pop gem of ‘Infinite Stillness’ (if ever a song-title embodies the music of its creator, it is this). A deeply affecting hazy pop gem radiates from the analogue foundations, as rays of light are emitted into the surrounding vast skies ahead. The pristine production and intricate arrangements of Lerner’s drums, the infectious guitar lines and Meluch’s distinctive voice forms an organic, cohesive whole of stunning beauty. Vocal duties are crossed over on ‘Half Light’, another heartfelt pop gem, packed with a seamless array of lush sonic wizardry. ‘Selah’ is a towering ambient pop instrumental cut which develops over beautifully restrained, clean guitar tones, recalling the crystalline electronic output of City Centre Offices, Morr Music and beyond.
The second half of ‘Yearling’ contain more majestic master-works, not least the hazy torch-lit ballad ‘Capillaries’ with drifting piano notes, warm guitar tones mixed with Meluch’s heartfelt lyrics, drenched in reverb and analog loveliness. An immediacy prevails on the following track, ‘An Absolute’, where glistening electric guitar passages and brooding harmonies are placed in the forefront of the mix. The album’s penultimate track, the meditative ‘Filament’ fades in slowly, constructed from an ethereal harmony sung by Meluch (reminiscent of Benoît Pioulard and indeed Kranky label-mate, Grouper). Album closer ‘Tell’ completes ‘Yearling’s illuminating journey of sublime ambient soundscapes, which effortlessly breathes vital life and meaning into the hearts of each and every fortunate recipient. The essence of Orcas is indeed, infinite stillness, sculpted by the gifted minds of its ever-evolving members.
‘Yearling’ by Orcas is available now on Morr Music.
Interview with Rafael Anton Irisarri (Orcas/The Sight Below) and Thomas Meluch (Orcas/Benoît Pioulard).
Congratulations on the latest Orcas album ‘Yearling’, a gorgeous and beguiling collection of dream-pop creations. Please take me back to the summer of 2012, during your stay in Germany where the seeds of the new record were sewn. I was very interested to read much of the album was constructed from short pieces Thomas Meluch had written. I would love to gain an insight into the collaborative process that developed those pieces into the fully formed hazy pop gems that comprises ‘Yearling’?
Rafael Anton Irisarri: Yep, that’s correct lots of it was written while staying in Berlin. Tom (Benoît Pioulard) moved away to England in December 2011, where he stayed for a year with his wife; while geographically separated we exchanged files and sketches throughout 2012. During summer 2012, we rented out a flat in Prenzlauer Berg, quite close to the Morr Music office actually. We toured for a bit around Europe that summer, and during the downtime, we’d always come back to Berlin. It was sort of our homebase. While in Germany, we started to work with Martyn Heyne (live member of Efterklang). He joined ORCAS playing piano and guitar live, and rehearsed with him at his Lichte Studio in Neuköln quite frequently. We clicked almost instantly, he is such an amazing person and talented musician, so as we wrapped up the touring, we stayed in touch and kept working together. Martyn recorded all his parts at his studio and would send me his files online, then I would add to the mix, send back, and so on. Over the course of the year we built on and revised those tracks into what you hear on the final record.
Thomas Meluch: Berlin was our home base, so to speak, through a period of five weeks during which we had only 7 or 8 shows booked in various cities… So there was a lot of downtime and I found myself returning to some lyric ideas and messing around on the guitar when I would have otherwise been idle or passively watching football championships. “An Absolute” appeared in a completely different version on a limited lathe-cut thing I made in 2010 or 2011, and I’d always liked the melody of that one, so I added a couple of verses and let it sit for a while. Most of the others were little kernels of ideas that didn’t really have lives at all until I returned to the states in early 2013 after spending the previous year in the UK – but having moved back to Seattle rather than Portland I’m now about a 30 minute walk from Rafael’s place and it’s much easier to work together on short notice when we both have time and energy for Orcas stuff. Once we really began the recording process in earnest, there was a good balance of pre-existing ideas and some amount of improvisation; for example “Selah” (which, I admit, is my favourite song on the album) was 90% finished after one day of work… Rafael had been experimenting with a new analog synth patch while I was on the other side of the room with a guitar, and it all fell together quite naturally by my recollection.
The duo of yourself and Tom emits such a captivating sound, embedded in analog warmth and ethereal ambient pop soundscapes. As a listener, you really feel the aspects of each of your highly accomplished projects — Benoît Pioulard and The Sight Below — effortlessly flow into Orcas’ interwoven tapestry, but something entirely new and unknown is equally formed. Please discuss the creative process between you and Tom? I would love to learn how you first crossed paths with one another.
RAI: Back in 2009, I was co-curating a music festival here in Seattle. I invited Tom to play as Benoît Pioulard and shortly after we became friends. Tom started to come up to Seattle (he used to live in Portland) quite regularly and stayed in my house, where we would just improvise in my studio and play with different instruments and sounds. This is how the first ORCAS album came about, out of studio improvisation. As we developed our sound further, meaning by this, we originally had no concrete plans (it was more like two kindred spirits making some drone music), we started to incorporate more pop elements and shape those improvisations into songs. After working together for some time, we now know each others’ virtues and limitations, so we tend to be more focused and work more effectively. On this new album we explored some textural and drone elements – I think those are always going to be part of our sound, but at the same time, we played around and made pop music, albeit quirky pop – unconventional songs structures, disparate elements and sounds converging.
TM: I usually boil it down by saying, “I write the words and the beginnings of chord structures, and Rafael makes the rest what it is.” He has such a great intuition and is a very good director when I’ve got something in mind; he knows very well how to make a given vocal line or guitar line or piano sketch fit into whatever we’re working on, and we both respect each other so I don’t get offended when he tells me I’m fucking up or that something just isn’t going to work. There were also five or six versions of certain songs on the album – for example, “Half Light” was originally a borderline dance-pop song – so each piece is a sort of journey without an endpoint, until one appears to us.
This time around, you are joined by Martyn Heyne (of Efterklang) on guitar and piano, and Michael Lerner (Telekinesis) on drums further heightening to the expansive and sprawling sound. I would love to gain an insight into working as a quartet this time around, was it a case of all four members being present for the duration of the recording sessions? I can imagine Martyn’s Lichte Studio must have been a wonderful place to capture the spark of these special songs? How long did the recording sessions take?
RAI: No, unfortunately we were never on the same room at the same time. In fact, it’s quite amazing Michael and Martyn have never met. Somehow, through music, they got to “know” each other and communicate in a way that feels as if they’ve been friends forever. I find this quite beautiful – music truly transcends time and place. We did things quite backwards out of necessity – we tracked Michael’s drums on top of Martyn’s parts, as opposed to the traditional way of laying down drum tracks first and then everyone play on top.
That said, both of their studios (Martyn’s & Michael’s) are absolutely amazing, awe-inspiring places. Overall I had a great time making this record and working with both. I can only hope we get to play these songs live as a quartet, as I love those guys and will be so lovely to spend some time traveling with them.
TM: Michael and Martyn are both totally humbling in their level of skill – they’re technically trained (which I’m not) but also incredibly intuitive players… Rafael likes to joke about the fact that we sometimes make Martyn play a 3- or 4-note piano part when we know he could rattle off some Bach or Beethoven flawlessly off the top of his head. Neither of them worked with us in the studio, but Raf did go out to West Seattle to record drums in Michael’s home studio, in-person. Martyn’s parts were recorded remotely in Berlin and shuttled around on Dropbox, as you do these days.
‘An Absolute’ is my current favourite. I love how Tom’s alluring voice breathes such emotion into the song’s trajectory. The layers of piano, guitar and drums blend together so effortlessly that forms the perfect backdrop to such a beautiful lament. Can you talk me through the construction of this song please?
RAI: Thank you. I like this one very much too. This song was one Tom wrote back in Berlin. When he returned to Seattle, I did the initial arrangement in my studio and demo it. I sent the demo to Martyn and he learned the acoustic guitar parts, plus added piano to it. The most amazing part for me is the vocals – the one you hear is the original takes from the demo. I thought it was a great take, so I never re-tracked it. Same with the bass parts – Tom actually tracked that at like 8 am in the morning in my studio, almost half-awake. The “morricone” guitar riff is my favorite element. I recorded Tom playing it on my precious Guild Starfire III — it’s got a huge bigsby vibrato tailpiece. As he was playing it, I kept pressing it at certain parts, thus making the arrangement extra spaghetti-westernish. There’s also a hidden layer of guitar I played thru my tape echo – a melodic Telecaster line that only comes up on certain parts – you can hear me hitting the space echo hard though. The “organ” I constructed in Max For Live from a micro-cassette sample Tom brought in. I used those “chord hit” of 80’s Mexican soap-operas as an inspiration for it, and built a very tense layer. Afterwards, we’ve affectionately refer to this instrument as “mexican soap.” I always come up with very silly names for all my patches and instruments – it’s easier to remember for me.
TM: Like I said before, I wrote a 90-second version of that song with acoustic guitar and voice a few years ago, and felt a different version would be something to pursue for this project… In beginning the second version I slowed the tempo, switched from strumming to fingerpicking and added a few more lines to the vocal part. After that, Raf and I sketched it out, recorded the basic elements and Martyn filled in all the gaps – it was one of the easier songs on the album, in terms of arrangement and execution, though I know Raf agonized over the mix for months, as he’s prone to doing.
Were there certain avenues you all wanted to explore on ‘Yearling’ from the outset, Rafael? It’s a lovely progression on from the equally majestic self-titled debut full-length as you continue to explore new sonic terrain.
RAI: Yeah, I’m a sucker for great pop music (Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Tears For Fears), and this album became my creative outlet for those sensibilities to come out. Having access to Tom’s unique voice is a blessing. I can’t sing to save my own life, so it’s nice to work with someone who can and also is such an amazing songwriter when it comes to lyrics. Working with people like Martyn & Michael really inspired me a lot too. It really challenged me to be a better producer and be at their musical level. I finally got to use every piece of equipment in my studio, something I haven’t really done on my own solo releases, as the production tends to very focused on one particular sound. If anything, I learned a lot making this record, something in the end I appreciate the most: learning and growing.
TM: Not really; one of the loveliest things about this project for me is that I never know what to expect, and as I mentioned we have a good amount of mutual respect that makes working together pretty harmonious most of the time. Some days we’ll go into the studio with a defined idea of what needs to be done, and others will find us improvising around the littlest ghost of inspiration. “Tell”, for example, is an extensively manipulated tape recording of a guitar loop piece I made in June or July of last year, which Raf turned into something much greater than I could have done on my own.
Will there be a European tour for Orcas planned for 2014?
TM: We’re not sure yet; we’ve talked about it but can’t say with any certainty… I’d definitely love to make it happen but Raf is much more perfectionistic about live stuff than I am and a lot of details would have to be set in order for it to happen, not to mention the logistics of rehearsal with a third member who’s halfway around the world.
Since the last time we spoke, your incredible (and latest Benoît Pioulard full-length) ‘Hymnal’ album was released in a special new edition with many fascinating remixes of the original songs. Can you talk me through those remixes please and what it must feel to listen to other people’s interpretations of your own songs? It must have been a special project to be part of, particularly when new perspectives are given to your artistic works.
TM: That was totally the idea of my friend and colleague Ryan at Lost Tribe Sound… He’s been wanting to work together for a long while and when he conceived of the remix album idea it was pretty perfect timing, and as well he knows a lot of musicians that I admire and was able to curry enough favour with them to make it happen. The Remote Viewer, for example, has been one of my favorite groups for 10 or so years, so getting a remix from them was truly a thrill… As for the rest, I am totally amazed at the directions that people took with the source material, and as someone who’s never been a huge fan of remix albums, I’m surprised and pleased at how well this one hangs together.
Any current reading/listening/film recommendations, Tom?
TM: My favourite film of last year was the documentary “Leviathan”, which I’ve now watched at least three times. So beautiful and so profoundly simple. Music-wise, I remain totally obsessed with my friend Kyle Bobby Dunn, whose new triple LP is his best yet – and I feel that’s saying something. I am happy to say that he & I also just finished an album together after 18 months of file exchanges; I can’t say much more than that about it at the moment, though.
‘Yearling’ by Orcas is available now on Morr Music.