As a solo artist, and as part of collaboratory projects such as Barn Owl, Higuma, Hanging Thief and Gärden Sound, Evan Caminiti has built a formidable back catalogue. All of these projects feature his signature guitar playing – a style drenched in cavernous reverb and time-stretching delay, evoking the tension and beauty of vast open spaces, palls of weather, the pull of dawn. With When California Falls Into The Sea, Caminiti has changed tack slightly, and chosen to explore the effects and events of urban life, particularly that of San Francisco. It’s a restrained record, but still full of that characteristic space and drama. We spoke to Evan about his new album, future projects and the upcoming European tour with Barn Owl.
How has 2011 been for you so far? You certainly seem to be pretty busy in terms of releases.
It’s been good – definitely busy. But I have to say, the way things end up getting released, it can be deceptive. The new Higuma, Pacific Fog Dreams, was actually finished over a year ago, but mainly due to problems with test pressings became extremely delayed. New Barn Owl recordings have been the main focus of 2011 so far. I was also really happy to be able to contribute to the Benefit for the Recovery in Japan compilation thanks to David Daniell and Thrill Jockey. I’m assuming everyone has heard it by this point, but go grab it if not! [We absolutely agree - pick it up here.]
How do you balance your various projects (Higuma, Barn Owl, the Barn Owl/Ellen Fullman album, your solo records)? Do ideas flow across from project to project, or you try to keep one thing separate from the other?
All those projects are collaborations with other people so they’re defined by the interaction between the people involved. There’s always a concept involved that steers the projects in specific directions, too. But then, at a certain point, things just take on a life of their own. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to support myself without having a 9 to 5 job leaving me plenty of time to focus on music. I like to stay busy with various musical outlets, each exploring different facets of sound or different recording techniques.
Jefre Cantu said something to me recently along the lines of, “an album reveals itself to you through time and work”, and it’s so true. You have to do a lot of work – usually a whole album’s worth or more that no one ever hears before you can get to the point where it’s like, “ok, now I have something to say, this is what I’d like other people to hear”. And with When California… that process took over a year. But I still worked on other projects during that time, so I don’t know how the balance is reached, it’s just what feels right.
Evan Caminiti – ‘Night of the Archon’ from West Winds (Three Lobed)
A good deal of the Barn Owl releases and your solo albums could be described as being about a certain type of open and wild landscape, whereas your new album is explicitly ‘about’ the fact of urban living and its effects on us – what prompted this shift in focus?
For sure – within the last year I’ve really been spending a lot of time in San Francisco and haven’t been getting out of the city for hikes and time in nature very often. I think the new album helped me process some feelings of being confined in a city. I was inspired by beauty and decay existing side by side, sometimes a part of the same thing. You see some crazy shit in the city and I guess it just felt like time to address that in a way, turn it into something positive. But I guess it’s really about just being human and feeling vulnerable, I think that people that don’t live in a big city will be able to connect with it too.
Is it specifically about a particular city? Is it in any sense of the term a map?
It is really inspired by San Francisco. Particularly, parts of the Tenderloin neighborhood where I was working for awhile. But I think a lot of the ideas can easily be applied to any big city in an industrialized nation. Not a map, though. As far as I can tell.
Whatever projects you have been involved in, one constant is an idea or evocation of space – be that geographical or something more abstracted like inner space. When California Falls Into The Seacertainly soundsspacious but it seems more controlled, tighter – was this a conscious decision on your part or simply an aspect of the ideas you were exploring?
There are more controlled pieces – solo guitar songs that I played the same every time, but then some tracks focused on looser arrangements that left a lot of room for basically improvising with myself where I would record the first guitar track and then quickly record the second on top of it without listening back until the actual tracking so that I couldn’t anticipate exactly what would be happening and the sound could interact in a really natural way. I definitely imposed strict parameters on myself for this record, I wanted it to be really minimal so I think that inherently made it sound more controlled.
How did you approach the new record differently in terms of effects and production?
This album was all about raw feeling and just playing my Telecaster, one or two tracks of guitar recorded to 4-track cassette. There was lots of reverb and delay involved, along with some tremolo and fuzz. It’s really a guitar record, not a drone record. It wasn’t so much about mixing and post production as it was performance and composition.
There’s a bit of a tradition of music written ‘awaiting’ or celebrating the demise of California (or LA) – for various reasons (I’m thinking of Forever Changes or Ænima). Is When California Falls Into The Sea a negative record in that sense?
I don’t see it as a negative record. Ultimately there is an optimistic undercurrent. Sure, we’re all constantly surrounded by death and decay, but that’s just a part of life.
You’ve studied ethnomusicology in the past – is that something you think you’ll go back too? How, if at all, did it influence your sound?
I’m pretty happy to not be involved with the world of academia at this point, and I have no desire to go back to school. I don’t have a degree in ethnomusicology, but I took a few different classes in the field and devoted a lot of time to it. Studying the music of certain cultures through the western academic mindset can be the wrong way to approach them and really limiting. But I learned a great deal about sound from my professor in ethnomusicology, the amazing musician Hafez Modirzadeh. It really came down to the fact that he was able to approach all these different kinds of music in this holistic way and on their own terms. Learning new ways of hearing was very important. Opening my mind to sounds that seem dissonant to western ears was a huge step in a deeper understanding of sound. Hafez is a saxophonist who plays free jazz, so he really has this personal connection to the organic interaction of sound which translates to studying something like Gamelan in a really meaningful way. I think this was also how I was introduced to Terry Riley and La Monte Young, which changed everything.
You’ve also spoken about using elements of Raga (or the Alap section of the Raga at least). Has this fed into your recent solo work and onWhen California Falls Into The Sea?
For sure, rhythmically free music is a constant source of joy and so much I do is based off of the same approach of the Alap – the root note and it’s fifth laying a foundation for modal improvisation. On the new record there are some tracks that take this approach, but the drone is implied, not actually played separately by an instrument or loop or anything.
Now that drone music has become such a hugely over-populated scene and genre, do you think there is any connection to the music’s spiritual roots in Eastern scales and modes? Does it matter that this disconnection has/may have happened?
I think it really depends. The same sort of discipline required of Indian Classical musicians probably doesn’t apply to the drone scene but that’s not to say that spirituality isn’t a part of it. The beauty of it is that it can be spiritual without being religious! Transcendental sounds are universal but it requires a level of respect and understanding from the musician to reach that place. It doesn’t matter to me that there is a disconnection, some people are just going to get what they want out of an album or song no matter what the intention of the creator was. As long as one stays true to their vision and really believes in what they’re doing I suppose you can’t go wrong and the things that resonate with people will stick around.
You’ve also got a collection of prints and lithographs for sale. How did these come about and what’s behind the subject matter of these?
Well, even though I did focus on ethnomusicology a bit in school, I have a BA in Studio Art. So I’ve accumulated years worth of work that I’ve only shown a couple times in a gallery context as I’ve dedicated my energy to music. The subjects of the visual art have a lot of overlap with my music – ritual, texture, sublime landscapes, trance states, meditation.
You’re coming to Europe with Jefre-Cantu Ledesma in the next couple of weeks – it’s a long tour! What stuff are you guys going to be playing?
Yeah, it’s pretty much five weeks straight. We’re going to be playing for at least an hour every night so we’re reaching back in the Barn Owl discography, playing selections from From Our Mouths…, The Conjurer, Ancestral Star, the forthcoming EP Shadowland, and more. A collection of songs strung together with improvisation that we leave a bit open ended so it won’t be the same set every night. We’re really excited about it.
Have you played live on a solo basis often? Any plans to play any live solo shows whilst you’re in the UK at all?
No, I haven’t really. I find collaborative live sets far more rewarding than solo sets so it’s not something I actively seek out but when I get a good offer I take it. Won’t be doing any solo shows in the UK this time…hope to eventually.
What’s next for you guys?
More shows, life on the road. Hopefully working more with soundtracks and composing for films, too. Barn Owl will be doing some festivals in the EU and US and some west coast dates here in the states in July with Vestals, which is Lisa from Higuma’s new solo project that totally rules.
And can you recommend us any good stuff you’ve been listening to/watching/reading?
Oh man, I haven’t owned a TV for years, but with Netflix I have to admit I’ve been getting into Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. That dude eats some crazy shit. But you can actually learn a lot from the show. The last movies that really inspired me were “Near Dark” and “The Hunger”. The 80s really did the vampire thing better than any other decade. As far as music, Popol Vuh and Alice Coltrane got me through the last year for sure. Crucial.
Thanks to Evan for taking the time to speak with us, and to R Loren of Handmade (amongst others) for arranging it. When California Falls Into The Sea is out on Handmade Birds.