FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Balmorhea

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We make the music that comes to us based on the unique and pooled amalgam of memories, experiences, dreams, lands and people that surround us.”

—Michael Muller

Words: Mark Carry

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Last year’s gorgeous ‘Clear Language’ full length marked the eagerly awaited return of the beloved instrumental/post-classical Texas duo Balmorhea. As a follow-up to 2012’s ‘Stranger’, the gifted duo of Rob Lowe and Michael Muller have carved out a richly poignant set of stunningly beautiful compositions: spacious, exquisite and immaculate sonic explorations for the heart and mind.

As the title suggests, ‘Clear  Language’s musical landscape is built upon simplicity and returning to one’s roots (bringing it all back home, if you will). It is precisely the crystalline immediacy of these ten otherworldly odysseys that forever reveal more insights and unraveling truths from deep within. Co-produced and engineered by David Boyle in Austin’s Church House Studios, the instrumentation consists of analog synthesizers, piano, vibraphone, electric and bass guitar, violin, viola, field recordings and –for the first time – trumpet (played by Tedeschi Trucks’ Ephraim Owens).

The ethereal trumpet lines on ‘Slow  Stone’ creates a jazz infused neo-classical exploration (as the gradual piano ripples forges a Necks-esque dreamscape). The joyously uplifting Americana lament ‘Sky Could  Undress’ (later reworked by ambient luminaries Christina Vantzou and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma on this year’s ‘Clear Language: Reworked’) with the highly emotive strings serving one of the record’s pinnacles. The infectious guitar groove could have originated from a jam in Woodstock’s Big Pink house from another time and place.

If ever a piece embodies the soulful, immersive nature of the duo’s shape shifting works it is the glorious album-title – and opening track – with empowering piano lines and crescendo of soul-stirring strings, unfolding a pavilion of dreams.

‘Clear Language’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

For Balmorhea’s European and U.S. tour dates, visit HERE

https://balmorheamusic.com/

http://westernvinyl.com/

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Interview with Michael Muller (Balmorhea).

 

Please take me back to Clear Language’s inception; what were the concerns and primary aims you both shared for this latest record? I just love how – at once – there is a warmth of familiarity and shimmering depths of the unknown also. I can imagine the process of creating this latest record must have felt like a liberating experience, and one you may have felt you were starting afresh (considering the gap from the previous LP)?

Michael Muller: The beginning processes of Clear Language started in the spring of 2016. We would meet everyday in our studio and experiment on a single idea, each day. Sometimes it was based on a loop, a sample or just a few loose chords. Over the span of a couple months we whittled down many ideas into about 12 “songs” that we recorded as demos. We didn’t have any touring during this process, nor in the forecast until after this album would eventually release, so we took our good time in the recording and mixing process. This happened in October and November of 2016 at Church House Studios in Austin, Texas with co-producer and engineer David Boyle. We didn’t rule out any idea or instrument choice until it was clearly not right for whatever track we were working on. We were assisted on all the string parts throughout the record by our amazing and long-time companion and collaborator Aisha Burns. Overall, our goal at this point in our sonic trajectory, was to take a step back, complexity-wise, and focus on space, breath and to lasso the best tones we could. Contrasting to our earlier releases, where a precise narrative was drawn from, between night sky, vast seas or the expansive nature of western America, Clear Language seemed to require a more solemn and inner peering; one that loosely harnessed perhaps the liquidity of a dream-like state or of vague memories half-forgotten. It was really enjoyable throughout the making of the record to not be shuffled along too hurriedly by the constraints of time. We are really please with how it all ended up.

I’d love to gain an insight into the studio set-up and this deep connection between you as a duo? This collaborative partnership must be built on such a powerful force of intuition and the resulting sound worlds captured on Clear Language emit such sublime beauty and timeless radiance. I get the impression that some of these compositions feel almost like happy accidents, so to speak?

MM: Happy accidents is a fitting way to phrase it. Several of the tracks on the record literally sort of appeared, really. Rob would sit at the Rhodes or I at a guitar and the tones and melody would slowly spill out. We usually realized something great was occurring so we were sure to always have the mics on and recording while we wrote and recorded the demos. The more fully-realized songs were usually stemmed from a specific loop or progression that was added to and then eventually subtracted from until the right balance presented itself. There were, though, certain instruments and techniques that we knew we were interested in trying, as well. The track ‘Ecco’, for instance, employs a Rhodes organ going through a series of fuzz pedals and a Space Echo tape delay. This recipe coupled nicely, we thought, with the more crystalline guitar tones and skeletal piano pieces bordering the rest of the album. In other pieces, like ‘All Flowers’, we experimented with recording guitar into a cassette deck and re-amping through a PA.

The title-track and gorgeous album opener feels like a gateway into the rest of the record. Can you talk me through the construction and layering of this uplifting piece? The title too conveys the clarity and directness of the music captured on this latest batch of songs.

MM: The title track, in our minds, was meant to serve as an intro, of sorts, to the record; a palette-cleanser, if you will. This track began with the opening piano line and was lightly built-upon from there. It’s restrained in a way, as it never fully gets too demonstrative or bombastic as it hints at grandiosity that may be forthcoming that never perhaps fully arrives. The track and record title, Clear Language, seemed the only logical choice. It’s instrumental music that is there to score whatever reality each listener applies it to.

The shimmering ambient odyssey ‘Slow Stone’ forms the vital core to the record’s first half. As ever, this sense of a journey unfolds before your very ears. The added trumpet instrumentation (which I believe is a first for Balmorhea, on record at least?) further heightens the textured sound world that breathes deeply throughout. For a piece like this, would the piano melody have provided you the starting point for all else to form?

MM: ‘Slow Stone’ was a track that in the writing process was truly developed out of nothing. The intro is a sample we recorded of the Australian avant-minimalist composer Lawrence English walking through tall grass in cowboy boots during a field recording workshop he gave in Austin. The tandem of the track is a pure collaboration between the guitars and undulating over a soft bed of Rhodes organ. After that initial bedrock was laid we knew another and a different voice needed to pull it all together. We agreed it couldn’t be a string part, which we didn’t want to overplay and we both liked the idea of brass. In the end, the thing we all wanted to hear was a muffled trumpet. We called Ephraim Owens, a local Austin jazz trumpeter and touring member of Tedeschi Trucks, to step in and add his magic. I think he only took three, short takes before nailing it after only hearing the song a few times in the control room. The track eventually flows out into a delta and ends with an interplay between the sparse piano and hazy waves of a fuzzed-out guitar. If you listen closely at the crescendo, you’ll hear a subtle sputtering under the surface. This is a blast beat from our friend and Belgian black metal drummer Wim Coppers.

Balmorhea’s pop sensibility is a trait that remains at the heart of the band’s special records. Needless to say, the lyrical quality of these instrumentals is quite staggering. For instance, ‘Behind The World’ orbits the avant pop sphere with the irresistible bass groove and crystallized guitar/piano patterns. What do you feel may be the defining records for you that you find inspirational for the musical path you find yourselves on? 

MM: During the creation of Clear Language it was a wild smattering of records from all over the musical map. Rob was listening to a lot of jazz, classical and world music whereas I was listening to a see-saw of minimal, avant and ambient music. One record that was on heavy rotation during the process was Daniel Lanois’ ‘Belladonna’ (2006, Anti). This record marries a strange blend of ambient americana throughout its reverberous pedal steel guitar next to deep synth and avant-jazz drumming. It really opens a total unique, sonic world unto itself. Highly recommended if you haven’t heard.

It must be a thrill to translate ‘Clear Language’ to the live setting when touring? As a larger ensemble onstage, do the songs further change or mutate as they are emitted into the atmosphere each night, in different places, different time zones, different moments?

MM: The songs of Clear Language were written and largely recored as a duo but the live iteration is a full, 6-piece ensemble. Every player has a role for each song, which rotates based on the arrangement. It was a fun but long process to comb through these songs and arrange them for the live stage. The songs are mostly compatible with the original instrumentation and played live, save the programmed beats on ‘Sky Could Undress’ and ‘Behind the World’, respectfully. It’s really enjoyable to play live and our current set has over 1/2 of the new album mixed throughout.

‘First Light’ is that perfect meditative closing gem. A haven of celestial sounds unfold. Can you recount your memories of writing, composing and arranging this song? The added vocals makes for such a vital moment. Do you find the arranging and blending of the various instrumentation a challenge? Or this sense of keeping restraint in the music and having the minimal framework as your guide? Is there a musical philosophy that you feel has guided you through your songbook thus far?

MM: ‘First Light’ was actually the first song we wrote in the demoing process. But in the end, it fit most squarely as the album’s closer. We titled it ‘First Light’ as a way to invoke or invite a return or a cycle, of sorts. The record as a whole (to us, anyway) seems to slide from one track to the next and can play in some way as a singular, weaving journey. There isn’t a specific doctrine or credo we are adhering to, really. And we’ve never set out to specifically not have lyrics. On some tracks we’ll sort of agree that a different voice is needed. Sometimes it ends up that a human voice being used as an instrument rather than communicating a direct language is the most apt choice. We make the music that comes to us based on the unique and pooled amalgam of memories, experiences, dreams, lands and people that surround us. We are so lucky to make music; to record it and to play it around the world. It means everything that people spend time listening to it and even more-so if they are moved in some way by it. It’s a dream come true.

‘Clear Language’ is out now on Western Vinyl.

For Balmorhea’s European and U.S. tour dates, visit HERE

https://balmorheamusic.com/

http://westernvinyl.com/

Written by admin

March 27, 2018 at 6:20 pm

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