Rafael Anton Irisarri

With foam under his feet

Rafael Anton IrisarriLittle is known of Rafael Anton Irisarri, except that he lives in Seattle and supposedly has Spanish ancestry (it’s been written somewhere that his grandfather was Basque, but who knows how much truth there is in that). This is a mystery that he himself takes care to maintain, in the name of the purity of his work. “I don’t know why this should be important,” he says. “Does it help validating me as ‘an artist’? Why ruin the experience? I don’t like this whole notion of a ‘persona’, or celebrity-like questions. The music should do all the talking; everyone else can make their own story and put their own value on it. Much like when you see a film or go to the theatre.” This isn’t entirely true, of course: listeners, readers, audiences always like to know more than what the work says: they are always interested in the subtext that may exist behind a line of dialogue, or in what was going on in the author’s mind while writing a particularly melancholy string arrangement. It is not a question, therefore, of placing the artist on a pedestal. On the contrary, it is an effort to establish a closeness, and a mechanism that in some way allows you to put yourself in the place of the author and understand more fully the feelings that went into the work. Everything else leads to mistakes and erroneous interpretations, as happens to one of the characters (an old rocker who’s been away from the scene for two decades) in Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby’s latest novel.

But in the face of such a stubborn silence, it’s only possible to stick to information in its purest form. Rafael Anton Irisarri records albums under his own name and as The Sight Below. When he uses this alias, his music is volatile and voluptuous; it’s a world of guitars in search of air under an arsenal of effects, rhythms that seem skeletal but are really looking out of the corner of their eye at techno and dance music (to dance with foam under your feet, in any case). When he faces the audience with his own identity, on the other hand, he writes music that has one foot in minimalism and the other in chamber music, that squeezes the meaning of the word “melancholy” until it is reduced to a line of piano, a timid string arrangement. His last album, The North Bend ( Room40, 2010), represents a change of direction in his career because in a way he mixes those two concepts that until now had been kept separate: it has the compositional power of a piece for a small orchestra, the complexity expected of an author with a neoclassical spirit, but at the same time it buries strings and pianos under a mantle of bleary textures, decking them out in all of the chromatic richness that an arsenal of effects can provide. And the result is a magnetic, delicate album, stormy and devastating, a little great work full of melancholy, ideal for shutting yourself up at home and watching raindrops make their way down the window panes. With your first album as The Sight Below, “Glider”, you explored the sound of guitars with lots of effects and minimal rhythms in the background. What were your intentions when you started to make this music? Its clearly not a dance project, but neither is it an ambient project, so does that mean it’s pop and abstract?

Actually, I started composing music since I was young, but didn't release anything meaningful until 2007, when my 'Daydreaming' album came out on Miasmah. I'm kind of a late bloomer in almost every aspect of my life and take a long time to get things moving. Once that gate was opened however, it's been like a flood ever since. I've been published now on over a dozen labels around the world and performed live at countless events, all over Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. I started to create music as TSB a little over 3 years ago. At the time I was frustrated by lots of things and used music as an outlet to express those emotions. Somehow it all grew very organically and started to shape into the concepts and ideas that became the first TSB album.

What were your influences back then? A lot of people thought that Gas was your main obsession when you recorded this album, but I know your focus was also on figures from the shoegaze scene.

Yes, I think most of the pigeon-holing comes from timing, which is seems to be everything these days. When my first album as TSB was released, GAS had just released a box set with all of his music on Kompakt. So that reference was fresh in a lot of lazy journalists’ minds and it is so much easier to just dismiss something fairly quick rather than take it for what it is. I feel that had the record come out let's say a year earlier, the response would have been quite different. That said, I couldn't care less about the comparison, as I enjoy GAS and listened to his records back in the day, when I was scheduled to release an album on Mille Plateaux (which ended up on Miasmah after MP's collapse). On the other hand, GAS approached music from a techno perspective. For me, the kick drum on my album provided a guide, a click track sort to speak, for my live guitar improvisations and sound manipulations. On the first TSB album, there are no synths, no samples, nothing other than a guitar and that was the intention. To explore the possibilities and limitations of the guitar as a sound generating instrument.

How do you see “Glider” with the distance of time? I've been listening again recently and I still find it very consistent, but I'm sure your ears are more demanding than mine...

I haven't listened to that album in a very long time. I tend to not listen to my own music after I release it. Part of it is me being a perfectionist and listening again makes me want to continue changing things, perhaps mixing differently, or work on the tracks from a new perspective, and that tends to screw things up. The more you tweak things, the more they seem to fall apart. So it is best to follow your original instinct and keep it at that. As an album, I feel it was a very cohesive record, one that you can listen from start to finish and it flows. I like to think of my body of work as one that doesn't provide instant gratification, but more of a consistent listening experience with a longer shelf life and replay value. One thing I hate about music these days is the lack of time to sit down and enjoy something without being distracted by the next thing. I also like to convey something that grows on you, rather than grabs you instantly. This is the way I got into a lot of music I genuinely love – like a very good Rioja wine, it's an acquired taste and not for everybody. I'm fully aware of the limitations but I don’t mind it at all. I have no plans to reach out to the masses and be on the covers of magazines, etc. The entire notion of “fame” sickens me. Before “Glider” you released an album under your own name. Why did you felt it necessary to split yourself into two different projects? In fact, what are the differences between the two projects (on the levels of composition, instrumentation, production and objectives)?

Yes, it is very important for me to do this, as the music I release under my name comes from an entirely different background and approach. The music I make as RAI has evolved from a neoclassical, piano-driven ambient compositions, to a post-minimalist, string and piano-driven arrangements, to later on (at least on the North Bend album) sample manipulations and bowed guitar work. TSB nowadays feels more aligned with the techno/dance world actually (probably as an indirect result of touring with Pantha du Prince and getting reacquainted with electronic dance music in general). My goal is and has always been to create a large body of work that you can go back and listen to many years after its release and still feel interesting and fresh. I think the more honest and close to the heart your music is, the more likely this is to happen. I put all my energy, passion and creativity into it, and I wouldn't do it if every single note I play didn’t meant something special. I like to channel Brian Eno and think of musical notes as like really expensive items; they need to be use very wisely, only to express something when you actually have something to say. I wouldn't release an album or track just for the sake of releasing something.

Where’s the commonality between the projects? I can point to the use of blurred textures, the continuous disintegration of sounds and layers. Specially, there’s a deep melancholia. What’s your take on this?

I think part of it comes from me making the music. I cannot separate music I make from where I live, my surroundings, from my own emotions and feelings. So there are going to be threads in common. That said, the approach and intentions are coming from different places.

In your first album as Rafael Anton Irisarri, “Daydreaming”, the piano had a principal role. Were the pieces composed on piano, and later added to with arrangements and effects? Or was it your intention from the beginning to focus on ambient music?

I've always been drawn to ambient music, ever since I heard “Plateaux Of Mirrors” by Harold Budd over 15 years ago. I'm not much of a piano player (or musician for that matter). All my work reflects my own limitations, and for me it's all about using those limitations and turning them into an advantage. I'm definitely not into this whole ‘neoclassical’ thing I seem to get lumped into. I find it quite boring at the moment, except for a few special people that are doing very special things. At the moment I’m more interested with creating an immersive live experience, where every single concert has the same value of the recorded work, and is therefore special. Ambient music is a term that's thrown around a lot and doesn't really necessary says much about the music at hand. I'm interested in creating pieces that have a deep connection to my own psyche (emotional components) and at the same time serves a purpose or a function (like on The North Bend). I also want to make a live performance that engages the audience. Watching somebody seated in front of a laptop like they’re checking their emails is not very interesting. There needs to be a physical component to creating music. I feel that the whole ‘ambient’ tag can mislead people into thinking that it is just all background, non-intrusive music. And actually that perception couldn't be further from the truth. This year you have released the second album by The Sight Below, “It Falls Apart”. It feels very different from “Glider”, in the way that it is much more atmospheric and abstract. The rhythms are still there, but that role is much less prominent, they appear and disappear in a strange way. There are also a lot of layers of guitars and sound effects. What is the reason for this change?

I think the new album expands on some of the production techniques and musical concepts I began exploring with Glider. When that first album was recorded, I purposely avoided using synths or any other sound sources except for guitars, and I also recorded everything live. For the new album I used every resource available (from samplers, synths, guitars, strings, etc) to elaborate on the processes I use live and in the studio (chaining reverbs, delays, looping pedals together to create the endless loop feeling).

With this record, I started working on it in the spring of 2009 and did the rough version over the summer. Sam (Valenti IV, the Ghostly label owner) and I sat down at a hotel in Berlin, went over the tracks, and selected around twelve that were the best. After I came back from touring over the summer and settled in Seattle, I felt I could do better and felt inspired to write some more, so I ended up creating more tracks, most of which ended up on the final cut of the album. Not that the rest are wasted; they might be released later on as part of another album or something. I constructed it All Falls Apart really carefully. I sequenced it deliberately so that you can listen to it as a whole and it sounds cohesive. I'm an album kind of person. When I listen to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures or the Chameleons' Script Of The Bridge, I think, man, that is one well-put together record. You can listen to it from start to finish and really feel how it all inter-relates without sounding forced, and how it flows so naturally. So, I try to do the same with The Sight Below albums. Glider was very much like this to some extent, and I think the new album is even more. A friend told me this new album sounded much more produced and well-thought out, like I had spent several months working on it rather than a week or two. I read somewhere that one problem with music nowadays is that it's fairly easy for anyone to produce a song. That's true, but to have the patience and the discipline to let things rest for a bit, then see how you feel about a song weeks later or even months, that's different. Some of the music I treasure the most is like this; in fact, at first I didn't even like some of it and years later I end up listening to it constantly.

Simon Scott also appears to be an important part of the project. How important has his presence been to the writing and producing process? Is he really the second member of The Sight Below?

Having Simon there to provide an extra ear really helped a lot. Sometimes it's nice to have another person to bounce ideas off of and add their own imprint to the mix. I did a lot of pre-production this time around too and recorded demos of songs, sent them over to Simon who would add guitars and vocals or process some parts, and then send them back to me. I would then add to the mix, do a rough mix, send it back to him, he'd make some notes, send them to me and I would make adjustments, and so on. It's a bit harder when you're working remotely, but at the same time it creates a sense of discipline. Simon joins me whenever we can play together, which is always fantastic, as I love working with him and really enjoy the wall of guitars that together we can achieve live. For me, Simon is part of my extended family and a permanent member of TSB. That said, TSB is primarily my project... though I am hoping we can work on a new record together soon.

At the same time, you released “Reverie 12” under your own name. Apart from the two tracks on the A side, there’s an excellent Arvo Pärt cover on the flip side. Why did you choose to cover “Für Alina”? Do you see yourself writing scores or classical works in the future?

“Für Alina” is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and my favourite Pärt composition. I had worked with a pianist friend of mine, Kelly Wyse, on a performance at the Seattle Art Museum and we were doing versions of different Arvo Pärt pieces. At one point, I was playing bowed guitar as Kelly was playing the melody of Für Alina and thought it matched well, so I decided to record it, as the original score is written for piano only. I then took what I consider to be a few liberties and added guitar and electronics, which I was really concerned about, as in no way would I ever want to disrespect the works of one of my favourite composers. And finally, we arrive at your most recent release, “The North Bend”. For me, it marks a point between your past projects. Here we find the neoclassical composition ideas, and also these work with a great deal of texture... How do you feel about this?

“The North Bend” represents my best work to date, it’s a site-specific work that continues expanding on my classical music obsession while creating something that borrows from my more textural material. I do think it represents an evolution, and I'm looking forward to things continuing to develop and progress.

So as we leave you, what are your plans for the future?

I've been working on new music for the past year with Benoît Pioulard (a kindred spirit and like a little brother to me) and Tiny Vipers (I find her music fascinating and worked with her on the last TSB album). I'm really looking forward to finishing these projects and seeing where they may fit for next year (in terms of releasing those works). One album is almost finished, and we are giving it the final touches. Aside from that, I have established a mastering studio in Seattle. I'm focusing on developing a constant client base and so far have worked on some nice projects, including on Benoit Pioulard's “Lasted” (just released on Kranky), and with a really nice band from Spain called Úrsula. Their album was quite fun to work on and is really lovely. Looking forward to that vinyl release!

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