TEN QUESTIONS WITH RAFAEL ANTON IRISARRI (THE SIGHT BELOW)
Rafael Anton Irisarri's star is clearly in the ascendant. Having garnered deserved attention for his debut album Glider under The Sight Below alias, Irisarri now boldly expands upon the debut collection's style on the sequel, It All Falls Apart. If anything, it's a curious title as the new release sounds like anything but a project splintering into pieces. The album includes tracks one easily could have imagined appearing on Glider, but it also includes radical departures: not only are there beatless soundscapes, but a vocal track too, and a Joy Division cover ("New Dawn Fades") at that. And as if that weren't enough, Irisarri also has just issued an EP under his birth name that features a long-form, piano-centered version of Arvo Pärt's “Für Alina.” We are delighted that Irissari recently was able to talk with textura in depth about his various projects, influences, and his collaborative relationship with Simon Scott.
1. An obvious question first: what's the difference between the material you issue under The Sight Below guise and under your real name?
I think the piano has a lot to do with it. The Sight Below is basically a guitar music project, studying its sound and exploring the possibilities, like how to make a guitar sound like a synth in a way but not exactly. Glider is all guitars, as you may know. The new album, however, has a lot more elements, from synths to samples and vocals; I used everything at my disposal to create it, and it feels right. For the Rafael Anton Irisarri music, so far the piano has been the driving composition element. Of course, I've been evolving so, for instance, my new Rafael Anton Irisarri full-length (scheduled later this year for release on Room40) doesn't have much piano, but then it sounds nothing like The Sight Below.
This new The Sight Below album I feel is my best work to date, as it picks up the more ambient moments of Glider and develops that sound further. Working with Simon Scott [the one-time Slowdive member and creator of 2009's Navigare who recently played with The Sight Below on tour, plays guitar on It All Falls Apart, and co-wrote a couple of its tracks], of course, has been a huge inspiration and influence—in lots of ways you can feel the stylistic evolution.
2. It sounds to me like you've expanded dramatically upon The Sight Below template on your latest release, It All Falls Apart, compared to 2008's Glider full-length. The new album includes moments where treated guitars are joined by by 4/4 drum patterns but it also includes grandiose ambient guitar settings and even a vocal piece. Was there anything in particular that prompted this stylistic change?
First, I would like to say a few thing to put the album in context. After the Glider album release, I spent most of 2009 touring and playing shows at different festivals and events. I think some of the best experiences were playing the Ghostly 10 showcases in the US and EU (including Berghain in Berlin), playing Sonar in Barcelona (joined by Simon on guitar and vocals), playing at MUTEK 10 in Montreal, playing together with Fennesz at Node Festival in Italy and Plateaux in Poland, and doing a UK tour with Simon Scott and Svarte Greiner. While I am quite of a recluse when I'm home in Seattle, I've been enjoying traveling quite a lot, especially by myself. I love visiting a new place and walking around the city and experiencing the local culture as much as possible. One of my favourite things to do is to go to the local market and try local foods and drinks. It's rather lovely and makes every trip quite enjoyable. Most times you may visit a city briefly, play the show and leave, so it is extremely nice if you have some extra days to get offline and experience what the place has to offer. Also, for some reason, when you travel by yourself, people are extremely nice to you and even show you around quite a lot—maybe they feel sorry for you or something! I enjoy being by myself a lot—gives you some nice time to think without getting sidetracked!
I think the new album expands on some of the production and musical concepts I started with Glider. When that first album was recorded, I purposely avoided using synths or any other sound sources except for guitars. I also recorded everything live. On the other hand, for the new album I used every resource available (from samplers, synths, guitars, strings, etc) to elaborate on the processes I use live and in the studio (chaining reverbs, delays, looping pedals together to create the endless loop feeling). Also having Simon provide an extra ear really helped a lot. Sometimes it's nice to have another person to bounce ideas off of and add their own imprint to the mix. I did a lot of pre-production this time around too—recorded demos of songs, sent them over to Simon who would add guitars and vocals or process some parts, and then send them back to me. I would then add to the mix, do a rough mix, send it back to him, he'd make some notes, send them to me and I would make adjustments, and so on. It's a bit harder when you're working remotely, but at the same time it creates a lot of discipline.
This record I started working on in the spring and did the rough version in the summer. Sam (Valenti IV, Ghostly label owner) and I sat down at a hotel in Berlin and went over the tracks, and selected around twelve that were the best. Then after I came back from touring in the summer and in the fall settled in Seattle, I felt I could do better and felt inspired to write some more, so I ended up creating more tracks, most of which ended up on the final cut of the album. Not that the rest are wasted; maybe they'll be released later on as part of another album or something. I constructed It All Falls Apart really carefully. I sequenced it so that you can listen to it as a whole and it sounds cohesive. I'm an album kind of person. When I listen to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures or The Chameleons' Script of the Bridge, I think, man, that is one well-put together record. You can listen from start to finish and really feel how it all inter-relates without sounding forced, and how it flows so naturally.
So, I try to do the same with the The Sight Below albums. Glider was very much like this to some extent, and I think the new album is even more. A friend told me this new album sounded much more produced and well-thought out, like I had spent several months working on it rather than a week or two. I read somewhere that one problem with music nowadays is that it's fairly easy for anyone to produce a song. That's true, but to have the patience and the discipline to let things sit for a bit, then see how you feel about a song weeks later or even months, that's different. Some of the music I treasure the most is like this; in fact, some of it at first I didn't even like and years later ended up listening to it constantly.
3. It All Falls Apart features epic ambient settings (“Shimmer” and “Fervent,” to name two) that are so beautiful they're almost unearthly, and the density of the sound alone is incredible. What exactly do you do to produce such an immense sound?
Thanks for the kind words; I appreciate that. Well, to answer your question briefly: hours of painstakingly putting layers and layers of instruments together in the studio. Sometimes an idea can evolve fairly easily and develop into something quite complex, without losing the simplicity—things can happen quite fast. Other times, however, an idea might take months to develop, require several mixes and such. It's a tricky balance. I enjoy spending time in the studio—sometimes I camp in there for days and not leave my house at all. Some of my favourite moments in the new album came from hours and days spent in complete isolation from the outside world.
4. Not a whole lot is known of your background—the Ghostly site refers to you as a “reclusive Seattle-based artist [who] stays away from the spotlight”—so I'm wondering if you could fill us in a bit on your history and the evolution of your musical trajectory, that kind of thing.
That's ‘cause I'm an enigma! No seriously, there's not much to tell, really. I started to make music over ten years ago, but have only been releasing music for a few years now. I enjoy equally classical and modern classical composers (particulary minimalist and post-minimalist ones), indie rock, experimental electronic music, dub, post-punk, techno, even some country (Lee Hazlewood, for instance). I have quite a diverse palette—if you were to swing by my studio and browse through my records, you'd find Satie, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Wagner, Arvo Pärt, Messiaen, Xenakis, Reich—hell, even some Chopin and Sibelius next to Scott Walker, My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, Slowdive, Ride, Windy & Carl, Harold Budd, Brian Eno, Panasonic, Uusitalo, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Durutti Column, Wire, Augustus Pablo, The Congos, etc.
I'm also a film buff, with interest in Spanish cinema, film noir, and Japanese, Korean, and Scandinavian films. I love the works of David Lynch, Jan Švankmajer, Werner Herzog, Alfred Hitchcock, Erik Skjoldbjærg, The Brothers Quay, Pedro Almodovar, Julio Medemagain—way too many to mention. I also read a lot: The Stranger by Albert Camus was influential when I was a teen. I also liked reading the short stories of Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga and, on a lighter note, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, which is still one of my favourite books. In terms of background, I'm pretty much a self-taught musician with a few college credits in music composition, theory, and sound design. I spent a few years on the East coast working in recording studios and learning the process the old-fashioned way: hands-on, spending countless hours mixing crappy pop and urban music. I attended a Jesuit school for several years as well, so perhaps all that “liberation theology” has subconsciously had an influence on my approach to composing music.
5. How did the association with Simon Scott come about, and to what degree has Scott's own music influenced you?
Simon sent me an e-mail shortly after my first solo album (Daydreaming) came out in 2007. We corresponded online and eventually began to write music together earlier in 2009. He has a lot of experience, even having worked with Brian Eno during his time with Slowdive. Simon has a very peculiar aesthetic, really similar to mine in many ways. We finally met in person in Barcelona at Sonar Festival last year, when I invited him to join The Sight Below live. It was an amazing experience, and we continued touring in the EU for the rest of the summer. It feels like coming full circle; never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that I'd be working with a former member of a favourite band. I suppose stranger things have happened! So it's been a huge inspiration and great experience working with one of the original ‘shoegazers.'
6. Speaking of influences, in an interview that appeared in the German magazine De:Bug, you stated that you've been inspired by Mahler, Satie, Debussy, and Wagner, as well as Kevin Shields, Robin Guthrie, and Harold Budd. It's fairly obvious how the latter three have influenced you, but how have such classical composers inspired you?
I love Satie's music. In fact, I recently did a collaboration with Goldmund where we recorded one of the Gnossiennes for a future release on Immune. I love the way Mahler arranged really simple, repetitive motifs and admire the tonal density of Wagner (some people call his music ‘bombastic') and his majestic melodies.
7. Does the live presentation of The Sight Below differ from the recorded material? I'm guessing that it must be an awesome sound to behold with both you and Scott contributing to it. Will the two of you be on tour again to support the new release?
My live set consist of two elements: audio and visuals. I run both myself, except on special presentations, in which Lissom (aka Tana Sprague from SF) has done the visuals or whenever Simon joins me live. On tour, I use two laptops, guitar, and a midi controller. I run everything off the laptop or through the laptop. I used to do all hardware, but found it really inconvenient to carry fifteen kilos of effect pedals and my guitar, so I decided to backline the guitar and replicate my entire effects and processing on my laptop using vsts and dsp plug-ins. When Simon's aboard, he has his own rig, consisting of a laptop running Max/MSP, amplifiers, and few pieces of hardware going to his laptop and guitar. I then take his signal and run it through my laptop mixer and blend both guitar signals to make one huge wall of guitar sound. There is some video on YouTube of us playing in Poland together (in case anybody wants to check it out). I'm hoping we get to tour together this year and also bring him to North America for a couple shows. That would be really lovely.
8. The Joy Division cover, “New Dawn Fades,” stands out for being a vocal track that pairs the guitar's tremolo twang with Jesy Fortino's singing. How did the idea of a vocal piece come about?
Well, I'd wanted to work with Jesy (aka Tiny Vipers) for a while. I love her voice and her latest album (Life on Earth) was one of my favourites of 2009. Of course, she has an extremely busy schedule, but finally we were able to get together and do something. We are both huge Joy Division fans and this is one of our favourite songs. I felt that it was perfect in a way. I could have asked a guy to sing the parts, but felt that there are already too many Ian Curtis clones out there. I also found a Moby version of the song, which to me sounded horrible, like adult contemporary music or something, far from the emotion and spirit of the original. So, I thought, “If I do a Joy Division cover, it has to be totally different from the original version.” So, I basically sat down with Jesy and we played it a few times, and I asked her to sing it as she would sing one of her own compositions. So we did, and then I decided to play guitar with a cello bow and just think of it as one of my own tracks (everything except the voice is guitar, by the way). While this version sounds nothing like the original, I feel it does justice to it and I'm really proud of what Jesy did with it. I hope Joy Division fans or purists won't be too offended.
9. A listener new to the experimental genre might presume that you and Fennesz, for example, are creating music that's much the same, given that you both work with guitars and electronics. What is it that, in your view, differentiates your music from others?
I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage with Fennesz a couple times. He's simply amazing live. I think that while we both use guitars, our styles are very distinct, not only in the way we play but also the way we compose. Last time I played with him was at Plateaux Festival in Poland. Simon and I played right before him, and we were doing something totally different. Yes, we both use guitars, laptops, and run things through our computers, but the results are completely different. It would be like saying Henrik Górecki and Arvo Pärt make similar music just because they both compose pieces for piano.
10. Listening to Reverie's Arvo Pärt cover, “Fur Alina,” I couldn't help but also be reminded of Library Tapes. What releases of your contemporaries are you listening to, and what recordings were most pivotal to your development?
I like David (from Library Tapes); he's a friend and makes some lovely music. I don't want to speak for him, though I think he mentioned Arvo Pärt as an influence at one point. “Fur Alina” is an essential work of Pärt's tintinnabuli style. It's one of my favourite pieces of music, and I always wanted to record it at some point. Back in November of last year, I did a special performance at the Seattle Art Museum with my friend Kelly Wise (who performs the piano on the recorded version) and performed two pieces by Pärt. One of those was “Fur Alina,” to which I took some liberties and added guitar and electronics (the original composition is for piano only). This performance inspired me to finally record it and include it on the mini-album. On the vinyl version, I ordered the plant to lock in the groove at the end of the piece so it would play endlessly. I can listen to this piece for hours on repeat, but had to cap it at fourteen minutes due to the vinyl limitations. Perhaps one day I release a longer version digitally!