Two different backgrounds, very different soundworlds that melt in a perfect blendUna : that's Orcas in my opinion. What is in yours?
Tom: That’s accurate ; but while we make different sounds in our solo works, we share a lot of the same aesthetic sensibilities and have a HUGE amount of overlap in our musical tastes, so it’s easy to work together productively.
Raf: That's about right. There's a lot of respect too, so we are able to work very effectively.
How and where did you meet for the first time? How did you understand you had something in common to share?
Tom: We met when I played at Seattle’s Decibel Festival in 2009 ; Rafael booked me for an audiovisual showcase and we chatted a little bit that evening. A few months later I came back to Seattle – I was living in Portland at the time – and we began our first recordings with some improvisational guitar sessions.
And what about the idea behind Orcas? Have you started this project yet with a definite idea of what you wanted to do?
Tom: No, it started from a desire to make noise, and after a while we added some structure to our ideas and began to create an EP which turned into an album. There’s never been a discussion where we say “let’s make it sound like this or that”.
Talking about “Yearling”, what aspects did you develope compare to the previous “Orcas”?
Tom: We started the songs with more knowledge about what to expect from each other, and unlike the first album I already had some songs written, or at least some basic ideas. This gave us a little more solid base to work from.
Raf: Personally, I was listening to a lot of great pop music at the time, so that had some impact. I had the opportunity to explore that side of my personality and bring to the forefront my love for Kate Bush, Talk Talk & Tears For Fears.
How the songs you put on the album took shape?
Tom: My little ideas went into Rafael’s control, after which the structures and textures emerged, then we just spent a lot of time developing them further and further until they sounded like we thought they “should”. In the case of a few tracks like “Selah”, the beginning was totally improvisational and by the end of the first day of recording we had 90% of the song done – it’s great for something to emerge so naturally like that.
Raf: For me being able to bounce ideas off Tom is priceless. There is something to be said about having somebody else in the room listening and giving an opinion and discussing overall.
I noted something different compare to your first work, as if you concentrated a bit more on the songwriting, developing it. I mean: if you play those songs just with guitar and voice, I think they would not lose their fascination... Do you agree?
Tom: That’s how “Half Light”, “An Absolute” and a couple of others were originally written, so yes, I think some of these pieces have more potential for variations and versions.
This is another impression I got: in “Yearling” there's a bit more Benoît Pioulard than in “Orcas”, and maybe a bit more Benoit than Rafael. Is it true?
Tom: Not on the business end of things ; we strive to make things as 50/50 as possible, although since Rafael is in control of the mixing and arrangements I would argue that there’s more of him overall. The only irreplaceable thing I can definitely say I do is the vocals.
Raf: Probably true in the sense that there are more song structures. I mean, Tom's an amazing songwriter, so of course, with an album filled with pop songs and lyrics you may think this was the case, but overall I think my obsession with good pop really drove a lot of the process. And of course, working with Martyn and Michael was just the icing on the cake.
What does the album talk about? The cover, the titles, the lyrics... What are the topics you developed?
Tom: It’s based on the fact that we had both experienced very dynamic and challeging events in our lives in 2012, which led us to think about how much things change in any given year. Everyone is constantly evolving and it takes a lot of effort to strive to become a better person sometimes.
Instead, about the instrumental side, I found it very close to dream-pop and – again except some tracks – quite far from Rafael's drones... Do you agree? Did you chose to get close to this world?
Tom: Perhaps the difference is in the source material – for example “Tell” was originally a guitar piece that I made, which Rafael then took and changed completely.. So the choices of chords and harmonies were mine, but the production and arrangement were all his. He also buries a lot of my vocal samples in the instrumental pieces, which give them a particular texture.
Rafael, I really fell in love with your last solo album, “The Unintentional Sea”, and I found something quite similar in some of the tracks, such as the first and the last one. Was it completely yours?
Raf: No, actually, that was all of Tom's guitars with a few things I added to the mix, like synths and sequences.
What instruments did you play in the album? The impression was about something a bit more organic and “really-played”, not too much softwares...
Tom: I played guitar, bass, bells and a few other things, but the fullness of the album has to be attributed to our friend Martyn Heyne, because he took our demo recordings and added an amazing number of other things – piano, 12-string guitar, etc. – which give the album a very nice energy and classical touch that we wouldn’t have had without him.
Raf: Same here, I played a few synths, guitars, drum machines, etc. Martyn, Michael and Tom did the rest,
How did you usually “divide” the work? Do you usually play and record together or do you just exchange files via web?
Tom: We both lived in Seattle during the making of the album (I still do, but Rafael now lives in New York) so we made all the recordings in person. When I would go home, Raf would work on mixing and tweaking for hours, though, and I’d get a lot of emails from him between 2am and 5am as a result.
What of your individual experiences can we find in Orcas?
Tom: For me it’s probably the lyrics, because every line or turn of phrase reflects something about an experience or thought I’ve had.
Raf: For me it's all about the emotional content in the music, the timbre of the instruments, the sounds and textures and production style.
What do you think about collaborating in music? I've always thought it was one of the finest thing, particulary compare to the other arts, where much of the times it seems more difficult...
Tom: The most important thing is mutual respect, followed by equal passion about the project – I’ve had collaborations fall apart because one person or the other stopped caring, or didn’t have enough time, that sort of thing. But when it works, it offers a huge satisfaction that’s very different from doing solo work because you get to share it with someone else.
Raf: Well said.
Outside the studio, have you got some other passions in common to share? I know Rafael works with visual and multimedia stuff, while Thomas is a photographer too...
Tom: Fine alcohols and Larry David-based television shows.
Raf: Larry David for sure, fancy whisky (which I didn't really drink much before meeting Tom) and films (West Anderson ones are always a big event for us).
Have you also played live together as Orcas, haven't you? Did you find it difficult to have a musical balance on stage?
Tom: We did a short tour in the summer of 2012 and it went mostly quite well – there’s a lot of programming and arranging on Rafael’s part, whereas I only have to play guitar and sing, so it’s a little less balanced than in the studio..
Are you planning to play live in the next months, together or separately?
Tom: Unfortunately we can’t do any live shows in the near future because all of our original recordings were stolen along with Rafael’s computers and hard-drives during a robbery earlier this year.
Raf: I was really looking forward to performing these songs and album live with a proper 4-piece band with Tom, Martyn & Michael. Such a pity.
Rafael, it's 4 years that The Sight Below doesn't publish new stuff... Are you working on it? Or are you concentrating on other projects, such as Orcas and your named career?
Raf: Funny that you say this: I had just completed a full length in collaboration with my friend Markus Guentner as TSB. Unfortunately I lost the masters, so back to square one. I had written a lot of music for shows and whatnot, and well, most of that is lost now so I have to start from scratch. Good thing is that, well, there is a lot of emotional turmoil, specially with everything going on, so I'm sure that will lit a fire in my arse and get me to writing again, just like when I did Glider. All those works seem to be driven by chaotic, emotionally messed up times.
The musical language you created with TSB was something really out-of-genre: what elements from that experience can we find into your recent works?
Raf: Maybe a little bit of the guitar textures. I think of the work released as TSB mostly like listening to a Windy & Carl album in one room while Basic Channel is being played by a neighbor, so you can hear a “thump” coming from the other room. That's the best way I can describe it.
Thomas, instead, you have been active almost exclusively as Benoît Pioulard. What does the moniker represents for you?
Tom: It was originally just a veil because it seemed weird to use my real name and I didn’t want a name that suggested I was anything other than an individual. Ten years on, it sticks, and sometimes people will still address me as “Ben” at live shows, which is fine.
You've always worked with Kranky until “Plays Thelma”. Have you been influenced too by the label's incredible catalogue?
Tom: Yes, I began listening to Labradford and Godspeed around the age of 14 and devoured most of the kranky catalog.. When I sent my first demo at the age of 19 they were probably the last label I expected to respond, but actually they were the only one that did.
While for Orcas stuff you've always chosen Morr Music. Why? What can you tell about them?
Tom: They are very precise in a German sort of way, and Thomas Morr is a fantastic human being.
Raf: I thought it would make sense for us, since we were fans of the label for the longest time.
What are the projects you are working on now? What are you planning to do in the future?
Tom: I just finished a new solo album for kranky and a 7” for another label, both of which will be released early in 2015.
Raf: I just finished writing 60 minutes of music re-scoring a Soviet-era silent film titled “In Spring. I performed this live in Moscow last week at an outdoor event near Gorky Park and it was extremely well received by the audience and local media. Felt quite surreal doing interviews with Russian national television being an American et all. I'm hoping to create a version of this score for perhaps a release in the future. I'm also starting to work with Denovali Records out of Germany (playing their Swingfest Essen in October), and most importantly working on a multitude of projects with my longtime label Ghostly International, who I must say are like family to me. Hoping to get my studio back together soon (like by next month, as I have to master two albums for Tom) and continue working on remixes, mastering, all while attempting to continue doing my music festival, Substrata, in Seattle.
Photos by Sean Patrick - used under kind concession of Morr Music