INTERVIEW

Ex-Easter Island Head are re-appropriating their instruments to make neo classical ambience in the basement of an old nursing home.

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There’s a sort of sonic gravitational pull in seeing Ex-Easter Island Head perform.

When watching them during Tramlines festival in Sheffield earlier this year, they occupied the centre of the room in a basement of a 1920s theatre, the crowd circled around them and their set-up (consisting of horizontally-laid and treated electric guitars) gawping in silence as the trio filled the room with shimmering ambience, punctuated by mallet strikes and gentle drums, filling the room with sustained drones and polyrhythmic grooves. It was the sort of performance that seemed to send whispers through the venue and gradually the room filled with more and more people, the bar staff left their posts to see what was going on, before the kitchen staff soon did the same. It was a glorious moment in which the natural curiosity of witnessing a non-conventional set-up was actually matched by the uniqueness and experience in the sounds it produced.

The group are a Liverpool-based project ostensibly led by Benjamin D. Duvall, with Ben Fair and Jonathan Hering making up the trio. Although depending on the album, project or commission, Ex-Easter Island Head have included various people over their five-year incarnation.

Watching the group perform it would be an easy assumption to make that you were watching the project of three guys with their roots in music academia and classical training, such is the precision and complexity of what they produce, but in fact the opposite is true.

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“We’re all self-taught musicians with odd patches of music lessons thrown in over the years,” Duvall tells me, “but we’ve mainly learned everything we know through playing in lots of different bands for about the last 15 years. We’ve all been in some pretty odd bands, running the gamut from horror punk to ludicrous synth prog and done, and quite a bit of communal music in a scratch orchestra – all ages and musical abilities – which has given us a crash course in quite a lot of interesting 20th century experimental music.”

‘Classical music imagined by rock musicians’ is a description they’ve had applied to them and one that’s not completely off the mark, as Hering confirms. “There’s definitely an element of truth in that,” he says.

“There’s also an element of punk in the fact that we have just decided to make this music on our own terms – we’ve never worried about whether we’re ‘qualified’ to enter this musical tradition. We’ve had reviews that have sniffed at how ‘crudely’ we approach minimalism, but that not only presumes to know what kind of music we’re aiming to make, it also presumes that we wouldn’t actually choose to make music that sometimes sounds crude or brash.”

The group is one that feels as though it has a core ideology at hand, a sonic mission statement of sorts. I put to them what the aim and principled idea of the project was to start with. “The project started with the simplest idea – laying the guitar horizontally and wondering how you could go about making music in that way, and it has just carried on from there.

There have been some self imposed limitations to guide it over time – no effects processing on the guitars for example – but it’s been a wonderfully organic thing of always finding new sounds or techniques to add to our vocabulary and these then suggesting the direction we want the music to go in.”

The area of classical music the group explores is a loose strand – more indebted to the minimalist movements as explored by more contemporary and experimental composers that eschewed the bombast flurry of more traditional classical music. “We’re heavily influenced by minimalism,” says Duvall, “which I’d define in this case as any music that does a lot with limited means, or employs a simple process to get complex results. But yeah: Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham etc. have all loomed pretty large in our influences at different points.”

The group all live together, with a number of other friends too, in an old nursing home. Here they live together, eat together and rehearse together. “We’ve lived here for about the last six years with a big group of our friends and it feels like the spiritual home of the group,” says Duvall. “We’ve got a pretty basic but very handy rehearsal space in the basement and that’s where we’ve written and rehearsed since the very early days. I think having that space has been a stroke of really good fortune and pretty integral to how we’ve developed our way of doing things. There’s been a lot of hours spent down there attempting to learn how to play percussion… it doesn’t have much beyond a power socket, a single bulb and an old mattress to tame ear damage but its free and we can make noise most of the time. When you’re not watching the clock in a pricey rehearsal room it gives you a bit of space to stretch out and spend a lot of time on ideas that ultimately might not even go anywhere but are good to pursue nonetheless.”

Whilst the group play multiple guitars in their set-up, they are used as percussive instruments, not traditional rhythmic ones. It’s a self-imposed restriction that they’ve found to be incredibly fruitful, as Duvall points out” “I find it interesting that you can still find new uses and approaches for a technology that has remained essentially unchanged for nearly 70 years. Theoretically we could have been making the music we do now in 1950. An awful lot of our ethos is built around just playing around with the physical materials at hand: what does a knitting needle sound like under the strings of a Telecaster? What happens when you thread it through one-way and not another? What happens when you have two knitting needles of different lengths? It’s a very hands-on process using just mechanical alterations to the instrument as opposed to digital processing – I feel it makes you a lot more aware of the simplicity of the instrument and how much of a blank canvas that represents. When it’s at its best it feels very much like being a kid sat in front of a big pile of Lego: the possibilities seem pretty exciting and endless.”

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These endless possibilities have led to some incredibly interesting and unique situations, with the group being asked to take part and perform in a huge variety of idiosyncratic musical events, including a residency in an 18th century tower in Northern Ireland, playing Supersonic Festival with 16 guitarists onstage, collaborating with the BBC Philharmonic for Sounds from the Other City festival, performing around an actual Easter Island Head with thirty musicians aged 18-70 and playing in the library of a tiny isolated Scottish island.

Under the core of the what the group do – create beautiful, engulfing music, often with oxymoronic characteristics, such as being primitively complex – there is a side that is less, well, serious to the group. “It sometimes feels like a bit of a dirty secret that we’re such daft people in day-to-day life.” Hering says, with Duvall stating: “I think the key is to take the music very seriously and to apply exactly the opposite to yourself.” It’s a template that many more bands could do with adhering to, but I wonder if having such a unique sound and set-up, no doubt requiring specific environments for it to work fully, if the audience always take the music as seriously as they do and give it the time, respect, patience and – most crucially – the silence it mandates? “We’re usually very lucky with attentive audiences, and playing off the stage without using the PA often gets people to focus,” says Hering. “I’ve also perfected a death stare that can burn a hole through the head of anyone chatting in the front row.”

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“We’ve been lucky enough to play In a couple of cathedrals over the last few years, which is an experience akin to performing inside a massive boutique reverb pedal,” says Duvall, “and we also love playing super intimate, on-the-floor shows with no P.A. as we have to crank the amps, so it ends up as a bit of a harder edged show. We’re waiting for the day one of our guitar tables falls over/splits in two, but so far have managed to avoid any major live disasters beyond the odd occasion of trying to pedal 40 minutes of microtonal ambience to a room full of indifferent, pissed people.”

But with a group who has forced limitations and an intentionally minimal set-up, how do they evolve and grow as a group from album to album? Duvall notes that each composition informs the next, and that going from writing and performing a piece for sixteen guitarists to making music as a three piece was “a pretty radical re-scaling that got us thinking very much about the essentials of our sound and what we could afford to lose.”

“There tends to be a lot of discussion and listening to music together over food or away from the practice room,” he says, “but when we’re actually there with our instruments we tend to work stuff out through lots of playing and improvising and a minimum of detail.”

“We always start with the ‘rules’ and then improvise from there,” there says Hering. “There’s often an element in which we’re each trying to find a way to play that will put the other two off what they’re playing.”

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A new album lurks around the corner in 2016 and also a second residency at Salford’s Islington Mill. They have grand plans for their return, as Duvall tells me excitedly: “We’re going to be working with between 15-20 musicians from Manchester and Salford’s experimental music scene to make a new, large electric ensemble piece. We want to close the gap between what we do as a trio and how we approach our large ensemble pieces so we’re planning to use exclusively tabletop guitars so that all the players are starting from the same skill level and starting more or less from scratch.

“We’re still finalising who’s going to be involved but the response we’ve had from the musicians we’ve approached – all people we have immense respect for artistically – has been really positive and makes us think this is going to be something really special. Having already done a piece with a load of guitarist before and learned the hard way about just how bloody loud that is, we’re going to buy a big box of earplugs this time too.”

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