Ex-Easter Island Head are back with a new record, Mallet Guitars Three, Getintothis’ Peter Guy caught up with them to talk new music, touring Japan, Liverpool sounds and who they’d like to crack over the head with a mallet.
Ex-Easter Island Head are one of Liverpool’s new music pioneers.
A collective, spearheaded by Benjamin Duvall, they utilise contemporary traditional instrumentation yet challenge the very notion of traditionalism and musicality.
In layman’s terms, they’re those guys who use their guitars as drums. Having toured Japan, tiny hinterlands around the British Isles, gained plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, a GIT Award 2011-12 nomination and super-cool slots on various hugely respected arts festivals around the globe they’re back with their first new material since September 2012.
Mallet Guitars Three is, as the title suggests, the third instalment of a series of pieces which create music from striking solid bodied electric guitars combined with percussion and other instruments. Recorded live in a former nursing home, the album expands the open-tuned, guitar-struck minimalism of previous releases Mallet Guitars One and Two. It is, by far, their most ambitious, expansive and enjoyable record.
Getintothis caught up with Benjamin Duvall to talk about the recording process, their worldwide adventures and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Getintothis: Hey Ben, how’s tricks, what have you been up to today?
Benjamin Duvall: This. Playing a bit (I’m attempting to catch up with the rest of the band and learn how to play one rhythm with my feet and another with my hands) – and turning up for work.
Getintothis: So, Ex-Easter Island Head are back with Mallet Guitars Three, tell us about the creative process involved in shaping the record.
Benjamin Duvall: It was written and performed live roughly November 2011 until August 2012 before being recorded, and continued to be performed up until about March this year, when we mixed it.
It draws upon everything we’ve learned and worked on since the very first release, Mallet Guitars One in 2010. We’ve an ever-growing vocabulary of extended techniques for our guitars as well as certain aesthetic and stylistic ideas that are always there in everything we’ve done up until now. In this case we wanted the piece to be more overtly a whole chain of parts that flow into each other and also for there to be more contrasts and dynamics; wholly beatless parts against really rhythmically intricate passages.
Everything is a lot more composed but a great deal of it has been worked and re-worked by playing it live a great deal and in loads of different spaces. There was a long R&D period before committing it to record.
Getintothis: It’s been just over a year since Mallet Guitars Two/Music For Moai Hava, yet you’ve been hugely busy touring the country, overseas and experimenting with your live performances; tell us about some of the highlights.
Benjamin Duvall: Last year was mad busy, in the best possible way. Personal highlight was probably our time at the World Event Young Artists festival in Nottingham which had 1000 artists from 100 countries all meeting each other, collaborating and going wild; we did three different shows culminating in the debut of our piece Large Electric Ensemble for 12 guitarists and drums, created with musicians from our label, Low Point records.
We played in the library on the Isle of Iona to about 50 people – a tiny Scottish island past Mull with a population of 125 – and went to the island’s once-monthly no holds barred disco, which was pretty hilarious.
On top of that: recording residency in Northern Ireland in an 18th century tower, performing in the Union Chapel, London, and playing Les Urbaines culture festival in Switzerland alongside Gnod and Grouper.
This year has been equally busy and just keeps going, which is great. We’re reprising Large Electric Ensemble for gigs in Nottingham and Birmingham (the latter with Rhys Chatham and Charlemagne Palestine) thanks to an Arts Council grant, playing with the mighty Colin Stetson in Cafe Oto and then finishing off the year with a trip to Tokyo as guests of Tokyo Experimental Festival, which is probably the most exciting thing that could possibly happen, really.
Getintothis: From the outset, even though it gradually creeps up on the listener, ‘Three‘ seems less intent on a minimalistic/drone approach, including a barrage of percussive instruments let loose early doors – not least those bells which you’ve employed in your live set for sometime. Did you feel freer this time round or was it case of simply experimenting with a further array of unusual instruments?
Benjamin Duvall: It was a case of wanting to build on everything we’ve explored up to this point – we used a lot of hand percussion in Music For Moai Hava (b-side of Mallet Guitars Two) and I really like the way the complex tone of bells and singing bowls – created through lots of different harmonics and overtones – compliment our guitar preparations.
It seemed logical to explore this further alongside other techniques we’d been developing – using allen keys to ‘bow’ the strings for example, which is what the whole final movement of the new record is based around. One of the most enjoyable things is starting with a big pile of instruments and odd bits of kit and then playing around and gradually distilling it all down to the vital parts – there’s something very akin to upending a toybox in doing it that way!
Getintothis: The Second Movement is pretty relentless – it’s like your take on Zach Hill‘s drumming! There’s certainly a lot more confidence – and dare we suggest a more catchy, almost dance-orientated approach to parts of the record. Again was this part of the live set up creeping in, something that happened naturally, or did you aim for something which was perhaps more direct and less ambient?
Benjamin Duvall: Thanks! There’s more confidence there because we’ve gotten better at playing rhythmically as a consequence of playing live a lot and being well rehearsed.
The more defined pulse created by the kick drum and the hi-hats was a conscious choice to allow us to try these denser interlocking rhythms on the guitar whilst keeping the momentum going underneath. We wanted the mallet guitar parts of the record to be more assertive and detailed so that we could make the beatless ambient parts breathe a lot more.
Ex-Easter Island Head during their last live outing in Liverpool at Blade Factory
Getintothis: Personnel-wise there’s been a shift in Ex-Easter Island Head too; who’s played a part in Mallet Guitars Three?
Benjamin Duvall: Mallet Guitars Three was written and performed by Jon Hering, George Maund and myself. Every member of Liverpool’s premier analogue techno outfit Lunar Modular has had a hand in it too – recorded by Ryan Blakely, produced and mixed by James Rand and mastered by Martin Kuchta. The cover was designed by Kirsty Hornby who also did the fantastic cover art for Outfit‘s Performance.
Getintothis: Tell us about the former nursing home where you recorded Mallet Guitars Three.
Benjamin Duvall: Well it’s where we’ve been living for the last four years with a bunch of our friends. It was a private mansion house about a hundred years ago and has been a nursing home and an old people’s home at various points.
We are fortunate enough to be able to practice in the basement and be surrounded by a lot of very talented people. It was recorded in the annexe which I think was a gatehouse or something similar at one point but is now living quarters. The top room has a nice vaulted ceiling and is fairly isolated from traffic noise and the like so we decided we’d set up in there for several days and make the record.
It was all recorded live over two days – just take after take until we had the individual movements nailed. We were able to borrow a bunch of good microphones and left it to Ryan and Luke to get everything positioned right. They were very patient and spent many many hours crouched in the corner hitting record whilst we played through everything.
Getintothis: The Fourth Movement is a genuine epic, and your collaborations with the likes of Grumbling Fur (one of our albums of the year), Barn Owl etc seemed to have rubbed off. We can certainly hear echoes of Alexander Tucker‘s work in some of the harmonics on Part Three too. How much does the music you like or listen to shape the music you make?
Benjamin Duvall: It’s the main thing, really! We were very into Colin Stetson‘s New History Warfare Volume 2 while we were developing the piece because it seemed to share some of those minimalist influences, yet sounds absolutely just like itself and nothing else.
We use a throat mic on the third movement which was definitely inspired by his playing. We played with Barn Owl and Grumbling Fur after we’d written and recorded the record but I think generally you take a little something from everyone you play with, and have at the back of your mind throughout the creative process, whether it’s how their set is arranged or some particular bit of gear that you could see working in your own context.
Getintothis: I’d like to ask you about Liverpool and some wider issues, as you’re always perceptive of what’s happening in the city’s music scene and wider issues in general. In Getintothis‘ bubble we’re conscious of how everything seems to be on an almost never-ending upwards curve, but what do you make of the musical landscape at present?
Benjamin Duvall: I think we’ve as varied a musical landscape as we’ve always had but there definitely seems to be a fair bit more ambition to achieve on more of a national or international level – a bit more looking outwards and less provincialism maybe?
I’ve been terrible at going to gigs recently so haven’t actually seen many bands that I’m not already familiar with, which is something I really need to rectify soon. Recently Mugstar, Trouble With Books, Outfit, Lunar Modular, Bird and Other Earth have all been great shows – I was seriously impressed by the reconfigured Stig as well. You wouldn’t think a violin would work with what they do but it’s working wonders for them.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Manchester recently and it strikes me that there is more of a healthy intermingling of arts scenes with music scenes there – there’s more engagement between students and interesting local bands and more multidisciplinary events happening.
Of course, we have the Kazimier here which just goes from strength to strength and is constantly coming up with ingenious ways of making interesting events and performances but I’d like to see more of this sort of thing in our city. Dumbells closing down was pretty gutting but I’m hoping that something will rise phoenix-like from the ashes, as in the past.
Getintothis: Last time we properly spoke to you was just after you performed at the 2011 GIT Award showcase at Leaf, you said the night provided a decent opportunity for you to introduce your music to new audiences and find new music from Liverpool yourself. Do you think the city is becoming more collaborative and receptive to new ideas/working methods?
Benjamin Duvall: It’s difficult to say really – I think groups are now more receptive to not feeling embarrassed about wanting to really make a go at it and audiences are into that too.
The likes of Stealing Sheep, Outfit, Dan Croll, Forest Swords are all quite visibly taking what they do very, very seriously – I think five years ago (and perhaps this is just an age thing) it was maybe not so cool to be so explicitly professional and outwardly driven, which is ridiculous really.
I think that an infrastructure of producers, film-makers and the like has certainly established itself and contributes towards this attitude – the likes of Whitewood studios, Sentric music, that kind of thing… It makes for what could be perceived as a more ‘legit’ environment for ambitious musicians to come from.
Getintothis: What new music from the city is impressing you right now? Artist/band-wise there anyone from the city you’d like to work with?
Benjamin Duvall: Lunar Modular‘s set at Blade Factory a few months ago was one of the most energising and entertaining things I’ve seen for ages, and I say that sincerely in spite of there being a huge bias because they’re my friends!
Crucially, there isn’t really a precedent in the city for what they’re doing and that’s something you don’t come across too often. I’d like to work with Ensemble 10/10, the Liverpool Philharmonic‘s new music wing, but only when I’ve a better idea of what the hell I’m doing. I’d love for us to be let loose on Urban Strawberry Lunch‘s collection of instruments in the Bombed Out Church one day too.
Getintothis: What’s been on your jukebox this year?
Benjamin Duvall: Colin Stetson, Eyehategod, Biosphere, Bernard Herrmann, Richard Dawson, Liturgy, Laurie Spiegel, Conan, Outfit and loads and loads of charity shop vinyl – everything from Al Bowlly through to Children’s Nursery Rhyme compilations… I’ve been enjoying determining what I’m going to listen to based on what’s there and interesting looking in the shop rather than seeking out anything in particular.
Getintothis: What’s next, I’m always curious of your idea process, give us an insight into the direction you’re planning?
Benjamin Duvall: Well we’ve just been granted funding by the Arts Council which will allow us to tour our 12 guitars n’ drums piece Large Electric Ensemble this year and next, with that being released as an album next year too.
We’re currently working on new material for our three piece line up of Jon Hering, Ben Fair and myself, as well as smaller pieces for solo and duo. We could well be doing something with Future Everything in Manchester next year (watch this space) and I really want to write more stuff for large ensembles, film scores, installations, residencies etc…
There’s also been talk of self releasing some of our commissioned works from the last couple of years. Plenty of stuff to be getting on with.
Getintothis: Finally, if you had to replace the three guitars in Ex-Easter Island Head with people, who would you happily use as percussion?
Benjamin Duvall: Iggy Pop because he looks like he’s made of particularly resonant, varnished wood, and also because of those fucking car insurance adverts.
Ex-Easter Island Heads‘ Mallet Guitars Three is out via Low Point Records now.
Further reading on Getintothis
Getintothis talks to GIT Award 2011 nominees Ex-Easter Island Head.
GIT Award 2011 nominees Ex-Easter Island Head nominee profile.
Getintothis reviews Outfit, Bird, Ex-Easter Island Head, Lunar Modular: Blade Factory, Camp and Furnace, Liverpool.
Getintothis reviews Lucky Dragons, Ex-Easter Island Head: Wolstenholme Creative Space, Liverpool.
Ex-Easter Island Head and Mercy Commission for AND Festival.
a.P.A.t.T, Ex-Easter Island Head: The World Museum, Liverpool.
Getintothis reviews Æthenor, Mugstar, Conan and Ex-Easter Island Head: The Kazimier, Liverpool.
The a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra make headline news at Sefton Park.
POSTMUSIC Special Ex-Easter Island Head Mallet Guitars 1 Excerpt.