With a new album featuring Ricardo Villalobos and Mark Fell among others, this acclaimed experimental guitarist has made a confident stride into the world of electronic music. Andy Beta talks to him about his influences and creative process.
Even for someone as open-minded as Ambarchi, this latest shift shift towards electronic music is surprising. Hubris saw him recruit the likes of Mark Fell, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Jim O'Rourke and Ricardo Villalobos to help realize his vision. Made up of two expansive tracks and a low-key interlude, it is a visceral thrill that shoots the gap between krautrock, minimal techno, noise, free jazz and rock, even paying tribute to Prince at one point. It weaves together the electronic biorhythms of Vilallobos and Fell as well as the steady thunder of drummers Will Guthrie and Joe Talia, the motorized guitars of future PAN artist Konrad Sprenger, the slashing guitar of no wave legend Arto Lindsay, and Ambarchi himself on what he estimates were 80 tracks of guitar.
In someone else's hands, Hubris could have ended up a cluttered traffic jam of all-stars. Instead, it could pass for a Can record from the '70s: propulsive, adrenaline-charged and crackling like a live wire. In between a performance in Switzerland as part of composer Alvin Lucier's 85th birthday and a trio gigs featuring him, Fell and Brinkmann in Venice, Ambarchi spent a few days in Milan. While there, we spoke about his love of Theo Parrish's disco edits, the live PA at Berghain, and how Wang Chung's soundtrack for To Live And Die In L.A. influenced the sound of Hubris.
The last time we talked, it was about playing with Keiji Haino and doing Shade Themes From Kairos with Stephen O'Malley from Sunn O))). And you then emailed me a few months later to ask if I would sell you my copy of Theo Parrish's Ugly Edits, which I had reviewed. Did you ever wind up getting a copy?
I did, and I found most of the 12-inches on my travels. I got quite a few when I was in Japan. I'm crazy about that series and Theo's approach to the edits. I like how rough they are. They're funky and inventive and you can just tell he's doing it on the fly. It just feels very spontaneous and live. Those edits are infectious and I'm crazy about that stuff. I love his proper productions too, of course. He's amazing, but there's something about doing stuff on the fly to classic tracks, re-presenting them and reinventing them. It's in the tradition of a lot of experimental stuff that I love in a way.
How did you come across his music?
I've always been into techno and dance music. But I guess in the last four or five years, I've been listening to a lot of disco and re-edit stuff, just really getting into that.
Disco edits are an interesting way to get into what might otherwise scan as cheesy or overplayed. They're familiar but they just feel a bit different, a memory game at play with edits, familiar and unfamiliar.
Exactly. Now that you brought that up, that really influenced my new record in the sense that, I'll be listening to something, whether it's a '70s pop record or disco track or whatever it is, and I'll fixate on one element of a song, possibly a small thing going on in the bigger picture, but I'll focus on that thing and it becomes so mesmerizing and I'll just say to myself, "Why can't that small element go on for 30 minutes and be the focus of something?" That's what I tried to do with this record. There was this '80s Wang Chung soundtrack to William Friedkin's To Live And Die In L.A. and there would be this guitar thing that I would deep focus on. It would stand out to me even though it wasn't the focal point of the original track, and I would just ask, "Why can't I just build something with that texture and take it into this extended duration?"
Other people have listened to the soundtrack and said they didn't hear any connection at all. It's just this weird thing in my head. I'll hear something and there's a feeling that I'll get out of it that's kind of in my head for weeks and weeks and then it will manifest later into a piece. It's not an obvious lift, but more of an inspiration.
You mentioned being into disco earlier. Was there any track that did something similar for you, manifesting in that kind of way?
Do you know that Tullio De Piscopo track?
You mean "Stop Bajon"?
The instrumental version of that, the guitar stuff, I think there are two guitars panned hard left and hard right, and that was a big inspiration. I played the shit out of that track. Just love the guitar playing on the track in particular. I mean, I love the fact that Don Cherry's on it and all that stuff, but something about the cross-rhythms that the guitars are doing and the sound of those guitars really inspired me as well. That was a big one, for sure.
With Quixotism and now Hubris there has been a shift towards electronic textures. Was there something that lead you more towards dance and electronic music?
I grew up as a drummer so I've always been interested in rhythm, and even when I was making those Touch albums in the '00s, a lot of it was influenced by Pan Sonic and by a lot of the Mike Ink stuff, but it was also influenced by a lot of really abstract stuff. Although they're really spare, my Touch albums like Grapes From The Estate and Suspension always had a rhythmic element in every single track. It's not always obvious, but it was in there. And since then I've been playing drums a lot live, and embracing that part of me that I forgot about for a while. It just kind of made sense to me. I really love hearing rhythms with abstract stuff against it, this sort of thing where you just get drawn into something because it's got this repetitive rhythmical thing. And there's all this abstract stuff that you can build around it, and juxtaposing those two things really appeals to me. But I'm a drummer, that's always my first instrument, so it's definitely a part of me. I don't want to be like this noise guy who decided to make techno music or something, cause I don't think I'm doing that at all.
How did you come to work with Thomas Brinkmann?
We shared a bill in Holland about seven years ago, and really got along and really dug each other's sets, and I've been a fan for many years. To me, his Richie Hawtin variations were just the pinnacle of that kind of stuff. I absolutely love that record, and a lot of his early 12-inches, too. It was a thrill to share a bill with him and play, and we really got along, and then we end up playing together in the south of Japan. He's got a really big experimental art background too, so we connected on a lot of different levels. He's a master of what he does, he's really incredible. And he's always pushing himself and not doing what people want him to do, in a way. He's kind of a troublemaker.
It piqued interest to see Ricardo Villalobos on the album. Did you bond over a shared love for the ECM catalogue?
I really love ECM. Unabashedly love that stuff, and grew up with those records when I was a teenager. So yeah, when I heard Re: ECM, I was really stoked.
Were you familiar with his stuff before that?
Oh absolutely. I'm a big fan of Villalobos. Dependent And Happy is incredible. I just find his work to be always moving and there's such beautiful attention to detail, with lots of stuff happening at once. And like we were talking about Parrish, it just has this thing where it feels like it's alive, always evolving and changing; there's something really organic about it, almost like there's live players doing it. And that really fascinated me as a producer. It was a fantasy to work with him and to get him onboard.
Quixotism was a lot of work, a lot of layers of things going on and different movements, and I almost wanted to make a record like Sagittarian Domain again, where it was almost relentless in just sitting on this idea and exploring it for an entire album. I wanted to do something really simple.
Quixotism scans as this single piece, but it was spread over such a long period of time and so many different places. How much time went into it?
Well, it's just a reflection of my lifestyle, cause I'm always travelling, I'm never really in one place for very long, which kind of drives me crazy, cause I don't know how much more I can continue to live that way, but I have been doing it for the last ten years or so. But one advantage of it is that I can work on stuff as I'm travelling, and meet different people. With Hubris, the first thing I did was work with Mark Fell. I stayed in his house for a week and started working with him, and then I went to Berlin and Tokyo and it kind of just went from there. A lot of what I do is collating a whole lot of stuff and then as I travel, try and make it cohesive and put it together and make sense out of it all. And I throw a lot of it away. With my work now I really enjoy reacting to what other people do. Like that piece "Knots" I did four or five years ago, that was me asking drummer Joe Talia to play like Jack DeJohnette on an ECM record, but on speed. Quixotism was me saying to Brinkmann, "Hey, can you do something at this BPM relentlessly for 50 minutes?" And then I started to react to that with guitar stuff, and then got other people to play and started to slowly shape it. So I'm kind of enjoying working that way, because in the old days, on my Touch records, it was basically starting from me, and then me adding things to it and shaping it. It was all about me. I just feel that working with other people is more exciting at the moment.
Was there something else that precipitated a shift toward collaboration?
When I start on a new project I think I always need a catalyst to get the ball rolling. It's like hearing something or having an idea in your head and getting excited about it, and then just running with it. So, yeah, this new one, I already kind of knew what I wanted, and I sat with Mark Fell and said, "OK can you do this, and then I'm going to do this, and let's play some guitar over it."
Another thing I find interesting about Hubris is that Mark Fell, Brinkmann and Villalobos all have very distinct sounds, but as you listen, you'd be hard-pressed to pick them out.
I'm very lucky that I have so many incredible people that I can work with. It's kind of like if you know someone is like a sweet guy, and you like hanging out, and then they're an incredible artist as well and they can bring something to the table that's really unique and appropriate for the project, then it kind of makes sense that they might be up for it. And I would do the same for them. So it's kind of like this organic thing that just happens.
Were you surprised that Villalobos was open to doing something like this?
I was, because he's a busy guy and he's really huge in his field, but he was open to it. The Arto Lindsay thing was really funny too, because I've always loved his work, I think it's really under-acknowledged. And I heard this thing in my head which was a really scratchy Arto-type guitar thing, and I started to do it and then I thought, "Why am I doing this? I'm just imitating him." So I contacted him and I said, "Hey, I'm imitating you and I feel really weird about it," and he listened to it and he said, "I'd be happy to do it," so he just did it for me. And he was really cool.
You spent a good deal of the '90s living in New York and doing shows with John Zorn and the like. Did you know Arto from back then?
He probably doesn't remember, but I played on the same night with him in '93, at a Zorn improv night at the Knitting Factory. And then I met him in Tokyo when I was super young, he came to this gig that I was doing with this old band of mine, Phlegm.
Was there any real-time jamming to Hubris?
There was some jamming with Jim O'Rourke in Tokyo.
It's funny that it's taken this long to get to the part that Jim O'Rourke is another major player on the album.
Jim's like the icing on the cake. I love working with him and he just elevates anything that's going on. He does this super cheesy guitar synth solo on "Hubris 1." And again, we're both really into ECM stuff, Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie stuff. He had this guitar synth, and he kind of as a joke starting doing this thing, and we were both really pissing ourselves laughing and between notes I was like, "Dude, you realize this is going to be on the record?" And it is.
Is it sort of surreal to have this imaginary group of O'Rourke, Fell, Lindsay and Villalobos all come together?
It's kind of insane, I kind of can't believe it. It's very bizarre.
Does it change your role in the music as well?
I'm a hard-ass when it comes to my own records, I'm really fussy about what is used. And ultimately I'm shaping it. I want it to sound like what I hear in my head.
How much of the record is you?
On the first track, there's probably about 80 guitars of me. It's very subtle, but it's all doing palm-muted picking and there's all these cross-rhythms. Towards the end of "Part 1" there are many, many layers of my vocals subtly in the mix, kind of an homage to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love." But yeah, I don't want it to sound too complex and fancy, but there's a lot of detail in there. Almost too much, to where it's kind of insane to mix this stuff. And then to have Villalobos remix it [for a forthcoming 12-inch on Black Truffle], he did so much stuff. There was enough material for another volume or two additional volumes of remixes. I just picked his favorites.
Are you surprised by what he found in the mix?
I knew all the source material that I gave him—obviously—inside out, so to hear what he did with it was really fascinating. It gave me even more admiration and respect for what he does as a producer. I don't know how he does it. I'm not really a part of that world, I'm not really interested in technology and I like things to be kind of mysterious, so I don't even really want to know. It just sounds really alive as well and just doesn't sound like a guy behind a laptop, looping stuff. It doesn't sound like that at all. Which is why he's one of the best.
How did Hubris come to be the title?
I was reading a William Friedkin autobiography, which is really fantastic, and he was talking about the movie Sorcerer, which he made when he was at the peak of his powers. And the chapter about that particular film was called Hubris, because he thought he could do no wrong and he made this film that kind of destroyed his career. And I also thought I've got a bit of that, because I'm getting all these people to play on my record. But there's a humorous aspect in the title as well.
Do you feel Hubris is the culmination of this line of thought? Will you do something completely different the next time around?
I don't know. I'm kind of exhausted now!