|Orchestra of Spheres|
"By the end of the gig I expect everyone will be naked and levitating."
Like a technicolour-tailed comet raining celestial jazz and hypnotic Kuduro beats on enraptured onlookers below, Orchestra of Spheres orbit several musical planets. Formed from a "wider community of musicians in Wellington", the Cork leg of one of the cult New Zealand group's rare forays into the northern hemisphere leads the funk/jazz/tribal warriors to the Half Moon on Friday night. Biscuit tin guitarist Dan Beban sheds some light on how the Spheres aligned in the first place.
We're part of a wider community of musicians in Wellington who are into interesting music...improvised stuff, noise, experimental shit. There are some amazing bands, but sadly most never get the chance to play outside of New Zealand.
We were all involved in music together in Wellington for quite a while before the Spheres started. About three years ago me and Jemi Hemi started jamming together there with a kind of hyperactive psych/dance thing in mind. He wasn't really a drummer at that point - he'd only played drums for a few months in a band called Bright Colours - and I made this real basic biscuit tin guitar, so we jammed and played a gig together as Colonial Jelly. It was pretty raw, really tinny fuzz guitar and primal drums. A friend of ours had taken the foot pedals off an old electronic organ, and it occurred to us that if you used your hands instead of your feet you could play really nice fast bass lines, so we got Zye Sosceles in to do the bass on that instrument, and then Mos Iocoss joined playing gamelan and theremin. Zye left for Sri Lanka to study ritual music about a year ago so EtonalE took over the bass from him.
You all wear the most fantastically colourful clothes. What role does the visual aspect of music play for you and how important a contribution does it make to a live performance?
The costumes change quite frequently depending on what stuff we find to wear and what mood we're in. At first we liked the idea of wearing $2 shop LED lights, because the places we were playing usually didn't have stage lights so we would wear lights to make up for it. It got pretty fruity for a while: I remember doing a show with a huge crown of balloons that would pop during the show. Jemi Hemi has been doing this thing on tour where he holds a plastic flower in his mouth for the whole gig, but it started making the sides of his mouth bleed so he's stopped that for the moment. Partly we wear costumes because I feel like we're quite boring to watch so the costumes take the attention off us. It's a bit like wearing a mask: you enter a different character. And it's a ritual before the gig, changing into character, especially as our clothes haven't been washed in 2 months so you get high off the fumes!
How has the European trip been so far?
It's been amazing. We've been all around Europe for the past two months. In NZ there are only a handful of venues to play, so you end up going round and round in circles. It's a buzz here for us because you can play night after night for months and never go to the same place twice. We've played at some totally mind blowing places, and have met heaps of awesome people everywhere we've been. It's really addictive actually, traveling and playing every day and also incredibly tiring living on a few hours sleep a night and driving hours every day. I take ground up deer antler as a kind of energy booster... it's amazing stuff.
Is this the first time Orchestra of Spheres will play Ireland?
Yes, the first time any of us have every played in Ireland. But just like almost everyone in NZ we've all got small quantities of Irish blood, so maybe we've been channeling some Irishness already?
Irish audiences have a reputation for being very enthusiastic. What expectations have you ahead of your Cork gig at the end of the month?
By the end of the gig I expect everyone will be naked and levitating.
The past 18 months have seen the closure of some great live music venues in Cork such as The Quad and An Realt Dearg, both striking like a dagger to the heart of music lovers in the city. You experienced similar heartache with the closure of a beloved venue recently didn’t you?
Yeah, we ran a venue in Wellington for about 3 years called The Frederick Street Sound and Light Exploration Society (or Fred's for short). It was an old brick church. It wasn't meant to be a public space so we ran it totally under the radar, sold cans of cheap warm beer out of this archaic vending machine; When we first started I was literally going in to the bank each week with a hand full of coins from the machine to try and pay the rent. It was a really magic place. It had been a Chinese church in the old China town in Wellington about hundred years ago. There were opium dens and general dodgyness in the area and the cops would raid places every so often, so there was a secret tunnel which linked the basement of the church to other buildings down the street, so people could escape to the church during a raid. After the Christchurch earthquakes all the city councils in NZ have been full on with new building codes and checking old buildings to see if they'd stand up in a quake. Sadly our place didn't pass the test so we had to close down in April this year. It's such a bummer when places like Fred's or The Quad have to close down but at the same time it's good that things change and evolve, and I'm sure that different people in both Cork and Wellington will open up similarly excellent venues soon. It does piss me off though that councils and landlords seem to have no idea about the importance of such places, and make it exceedingly difficult for people to open and sustain alternative spaces.
The Quad’s last ever night is legendary in Cork with lots of local bands playing mental sets. What memories have you of Fred’s last night?
Fred's last night was similarly totally epic. We took over this big empty lot next to the venue in the middle of Wellington, and had bands playing all day outside and it went pretty wild inside later on. We had this photocopier, so everyone at the party photocopied their face and wrote a message and stuck it on the wall, so we've got this amazing archive of the event through these faces. Predictably some dick head sat on the photocopier to copy his bum and broke it. There were some great bands playing: Seth Frightening, Mr Sterile Assembly, The All Seeing Hand, Birdcatcher. The Spheres actually played the last ever music at Fred's that night. I can't remember too much about the set except that at some point after I fell backwards onto the main power socket and all the lights went off so there was this crazed black-out dance floor until the end of the night.
There is a legendary rock/metal venue in Cork called Fred’s (Fred Zeppelins) too. Will you have time to explore Cork or will your stay be brief?
Sadly our stay in Cork is all too brief... probably just one night. However we will definitely make it to Fred's and take a photo at the door.
I recommend visiting the Triskel Arts Centre which houses a record store/café/art space/independent cinema/music venue. It’s truly amazing. Is there a place that you guys hung out that helped nurture your creative talents?
We were lucky to be in Wellington during a very interesting and creative time. In the late 90s a friend called Jeff Henderson started a venue called 'The Space' which was a loft space, what you'd now call a DIY space or artist run space or whatever. Jeff is a mind blowing musician and has this kind of maniacal energy for making things happen. He was putting on experimental/improvised gigs up to 5 nights a week for years. Often no one would turn up. I got very involved in the place and the subsequent venue Jeff opened called 'Happy'. There was a whole group of us who hung out and made improvised music at these spaces. Some of the musicians who are still very active in Wellington such as Anthony Donaldson and Gerard Crewdson go back to a collective in Wellington in the early 80s called Braille. So there's a long and continuous history of really unique music and art in Wellington.
How important do you feel such creative getaways are for young artists/musicians?
On one hand such venues and collectives of artists are totally vital for inspiration and to learn from each other, and the friendly but intense competitiveness that comes with it. But on the other hand many of my favourite musicians and artists in NZ are from very isolated places, with basically no direct contact with others, and their stuff is totally unique and often more interesting because of this - I'm talking about people like Alastair Galbraith or Omit.
Your music feels like riding a magic carpet through the cosmos. What feelings/experiences do you hope to invoke in listeners when they press play or lower the needle to the record?
Strangely I don't really think of the Spheres except in a live setting - the recorded stuff is a good start, but for us it's primarily about the live performance so people really need to come to a show to get the proper thing. I'd hope that the music would get people lost inside their own heads, or outside their heads perhaps. I love when music takes you away, when time ceases to be linear and becomes static so you can move around in the music like it was standing still. I guess that's what a trance is. It also helps if you're a bit wasted. Hopefully people in Cork are into dancing because it's a feedback loop, so we play best when people give us heaps of energy. I often think of what Thelonius Monk said "You've got to raise the bandstand". To me that means you've got to have upward motion, the music has to be high, energised, unpredictable.
Kuduro is often cited as an influence when Orchestra of Spheres are mentioned. What exactly is kuduro and who introduced you to it?
Lots of people come up to us after gigs and tell us what they got from it, and different people hear all sorts of things in the music that we've never even thought about. Recently someone came up and asked how come we know so many Sardinian folk songs, and someone else relates it to some kind of minimal German techno. Kuduro is electronic dance music from Angolo. I haven't heard too much of it, but the stuff I have listened to is awesome. It's fast, and has this vital energy to the grooves and the rap, which they do in Angolan style Portugese. They use these classic keyboard dog bark sounds and train whistles. Jemi Hemi Mandala, the drummer in the Spheres is like a walking database of music, so he introduced us all to kuduro. We recently got to see Shangan Electro in Helsinki - they're a group from South Africa and the main man called Dog makes this very very fast electro dance music. That's been a big influence over the past couple of years so it was cool to see them live. But we have all sorts of stuff on rotate in the car stereo: Kate Bush, Burt Bacharach, The Seeds, Mental Health Triangle, Arthur Russell ...
Some tracks sound like a tribal raindance and others sound like they were pulled straight out of the 25th century. Have Orchestra of Spheres created their own version of time travel?
If we got only one chance to time travel, I'm not sure if I'd prefer to go forward or backward. I would have loved the world 300 years ago when everywhere wasn't known. It's weird though that we often forget that we understand almost nothing of the universe, we're so fixated with what's in front of our noses. In the future I'm sure we'll realise that we exist in some far flung forgotten backwater solar system of the universe.
I have to ask...where did the idea of the biscuit-tin guitar come from?
All sorts of people have made string instruments from all sorts of different things for centuries... cigar boxes and tins included. I saw a biscuit tin guitar that a friend called Steve Roach had made, and thought it would be a cool thing to make... it's very basic, just a tin, one plank of wood from a futon bed, a drum stick whittled into shape for tuning pegs. The one I play at the moment is version 5 I think. It's the first one to have a real guitar pickup in it.
I have heard Dan wanders about the dump looking for ideas for new instruments. Tom Waits once said that he is now recognised more at the dump than at music-related venues. Is it the same for Dan these days?!
The only good shop in Wellington is the dump shop, where they get all the shit that people throw out and sell it for next to nothing. It's a very inspiring place because the stuff turns over really fast and there's always something unusual sitting there for sale that jumps out at you. I often go there when I'm stuck for ideas and find some weird coil of wire or tape player or something. I also love looking through skip bins and scrounging around the back of buildings for secret treasures. Most of the instruments we make are adaptions of found things rather than completely new constructions. Mos Iocoss got into an old pickle factory before they tore it down and found this huge cone which she uses as a harp. My favourite one lately has been a kind of hooter organ that uses air-bed pumps and old pipe organ pipes - you punch the pumps with your hand. It's got a wonky squeaky sound.
What traditional Irish instruments will you be checking out during your visit?
For more on Orchestra of Spheres visit:
- Orchestra of Spheres play Half Moon (Cork) Friday 31st August and Electric Picnic Saturday 1st September
- Nonagonic Now is available to purchase via orchestraofspheres.bandcamp.com