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Interview: Barn Owl

April 16, 2013

Barn Owl's "The Long Shadow" has kind of the perfect horror soundtrack build-up. It starts with an irresolute tug and pull between a cathedralesque wash of choir voices and a sinister, chromatic guitar melody, then culminates in an eardrum-demolishing, almost biblically proportioned squall. It's the sort of immersive, cinematic experience that San Francisco's Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have been chasing since they started experimenting with the guitar-duel format seven years ago, but that they've taken to a whole new level with their endlessly engrossing fifth album, V, which is out today on Thrill Jockey. Below, the dark-haired, mustachioed musicians tell us about making a big impact with as few notes as possible, and why they're leaving their guitars at home on their upcoming European tour.

How have your musical interests changed since you started the project? PORRAS: It’s cool to look back at our collaborative history because I feel like we have changed a lot. We have brought a lot of new instruments to the Barn Owl sound over the years and a lot of new ideas, but I think that at the end of the day, there is the core collaboration between Evan and I, and that kind of keeps things consistent in a way. It’s always revolved around long form tones, and atmosphere and physical music. 

I read that with this album, you introduced more synthesizers into your palette. PORRAS: I mean, we’ve always included synthesizers and electronics on Barn Owl recordings, but for this album in particular, I think synthesizers became a main focus. I think we became more interested in actually using analog synthesizers to develop the sounds a bit more, using the capability of synthesis to get a little bit deeper. CAMINITI: I think we started using synths more live and then realized new doors they opened just in terms of having so many more octaves at your fingertips than what you can do with a guitar. And being that it’s just the two of us, we realized that we could do so much more, have so much more low end and high end simultaneously, really fill out the spectrum.

Do you feel like there’s more timbral options with a synth? CAMINITI: Yes. I think so. I got to the point where I was using all these guitar pedals to make my guitar sound like something else. So it reached a point where, Well, maybe it’s time to try working with some other options here. I think we’re both drawn to the kind of synths that allow for sound design from the ground up instead of using a bunch of presets. You can really make any kind of sound you can possibly imagine. Every time you turn on your synthesizer, you’re making judgments like, What type of frequency do I want to make, high range or low range? Do I want there to be a LFO? Do I want there to be a filter involved? So there’s all these decisions that allow you to make a sound specifically to what you’ve imagined, to what you hope to design.

As for the immersive experiences you like to create live and on record, were there any early experiences you had with sound that really effected you? PORRAS: I can say that in high school there were a few concerts, and in retrospect I look back and it sounds kind of cheesy and funny. I remember being a kid, and being in high school and going to see Mogwai, and they were by far the loudest band I had seen up until that point, and it sounds so cliché but that feeling of being lost in the music—it happened at that show, and I wanted to recreate that experience. That was an early show where I realized the capability that sound had. It could be more than just this melodic, catchy song structure, it could hit you in a very physical way. CAMINITI: I think growing up listening to a lot of heavy music and going to a lot of metal shows in high school definitely had an impact. The idea of this loud, physical music has always been inspiring, and then later on, discovering music more focused on long tones and this entrancing, hypnotic approach to sound. Combining those two ideas just seemed natural. PORRAS: Also I think a huge revelation for Evan and me was when we were in college and we met and were hanging out—I think a huge revelation for us was classical Indian music, listening to raga. That just opened up a big sensitivity in me, and affected our music in a really cool way. I think we became more open to improvising and especially in dhrupad raga, there’s this aspect of the raga called the alap, which is highly focused on improv. And it’s such a deep listening experience that I think it affected Evan and me in a really powerful way. 

One parallel I can see between your music and the raga is the sense that just the transition between one note and another can make a great impact. You don’t need to travel very far. PORRAS: Absolutely. Barn Owl’s sound really hinges on that idea, because tonally, there aren’t a lot of key changes in our songs. Usually we’re working with one key and we’re moving from note to note. You’re right—we do create drama very subtlety. We create drama with a new texture, bringing in white noise, bringing a deep low end tone.

What’s the predominant mood for you on this album? PORRAS: Overall, I think we were inspired by more industrial music. We were listening to Swans, to a bunch of Basic Channel, and getting into some Berlin, like late ’90s, early ’00s minimal techno stuff. I guess we were leaning away from the desert and trying to achieve that city at night type of feeling. Kind of ominous and cold, but we were building a lot of rhythms with the lace settings, and I remember I had this one white noise setting that I was using with my delay pedal, and it reminded me of the sound of cars passing on a freeway. In some ways, we were trying to make these urban environments, but I think it was more a general feeling that Evan and I wanted to keep in mind while we were creating the music. Whether we succeeded in portraying those images in a musical way, I’m not sure. I think it’s important to leave that open-ended and let each listeners derive they want from the music. CAMINITI: People have said it’s extremely bleak, and I think it is. Bleak in one sense, but there are a lot of moments of kind of a sublime feeling, where it’s not entirely dark. There’s still light draining through the cracks, and I think we’ve always sought out that feeling of the sublime—not just this complete black doom sensation, but the coexistence of the dark and the light aspects. There are a lot of feelings of dread and anticipation, but there’s these cathartic releases and more angelic and triumphant moments. 

What parallels do you see between dub and the music that you make? PORRAS: We’ve always been into these dark aspects of music and we’ve always been into dub. That influence came more to the surface on this record than it has in the past—more with using the studio in the way that classical dub producers like Lee Scratch Perry would pull apart sounds, stretch them out and restructure them. The deconstruction aspect and then also the devotional aspect—not necessarily in relation to the religious nature of the lyrics, but in relation to this atmosphere to awe and devotion and this deep meditative quality that was always an inspirational thing about dub.

Evan, in an interview you did with Pitchfork where you also spoke of your solo music, you spoke of your sound as a coming together of minimalism and folk music in the American primitive vein, like John Fahey and Sandy Bull. Do you feel that dichotomy on this album as well? CAMINITI: Every track on the album still has guitar on it, but it plays a less crucial role. A big way that aspect came through in the past, and still does on this record, is through a lot of open-tuned guitar, which is derived from a tradition of folk music and people like Fahey. And it comes form the blues in a lot of ways, but I think in the sound you can trace that back to raga—just the sensation of a lot of these strings being tuned to the same notes and different octaves creating these rich overtones and harmonics and playing modally various notes with that. That’s always been a really interesting way of playing guitar, and I think we transitioned that way of tuning over to the way we play synth in a lot of ways. I’m working with a modular synthesizer right now and not using a keyboard at all. I’m not working in the same twelve-tone scale. I plug various pitches into my sequencer, which are really similar to using an open-tune guitar; there’s just a lot of octaves of the same note and a couple other notes thrown in there

For people who don’t necessarily have the vocabulary or the technical knowledge to understand how you’re making the music, what kind of experience do you hope they can take away from this album? CAMINITI: It’s about feeding your imagination, in a way. It’s not about listening to music to be entertained so much as listening to music to take you somewhere, to allow your mind to roam. PORRAS: I think it comes back to the idea of devotional music, and I think the aspect of devotional music is about being deliberate and thoughtful, but also allowing for the artist and the listener to reach for something beyond, beyond him or herself. I hope that’s what our music gives people. Whatever they’re reaching for is almost not important, but just that there is that ability to use music as a cathartic presence in your life. 

Interview: Barn Owl