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Interview with Barn Owl

img  Tobias Fischer

You've likened some of your pieces to Indian Ragas. Is this more of a metaphor or quite literally an influence?
Evan: We draw a lot of inspiration from the Alap, which is the rhythmically free introduction of a Raga. The commonalities we have with this would be the drone that sets a foundation for a piece and modal playing over it, which is a defined set of pitches that maintain the mood of a piece. Also, specific Ragas are meant to be played at different parts of the day which is inspiring to us because we like to create pieces that conjure particular moods or images. This being set, our approach is not bound by tradition as much as Raga, it is a much more free approach and also references things like rock and americana.

Barn Owl revolves around styles such as drones, ambient, doom and black metal. In which way are they related?
Jon: In their attention to space. Though black metal might be concerned with density and ambient music may be concerned with sparseness, both genres use space to achieve respective goals. I sometimes see Barn Owl as balancing these two extremes, moments of droning density offset by moments of sparse guitar playing.
Evan: I feel like these genres all come from a place where the transcendental aspects of music are explored. Some may call it escapism, but I think they might be missing the point. It really depends how you listen and what you want to get out of it. It’s important for people to take time in our hectic world to slow the hell down and allow themselves a reflective space to let their mind wander and be at peace. If one can find some state of inner peace, I would hope that it would transfer to their interactions with others and create a more positive environment for us all.

They're also related by the idea of music serving as a form of catharsis, something I could also imagine you being interested in.
Evan: Sure, I think if you want to look at things in terms of light versus dark, you have to understand the dark to be able to know the light. They are both aspects of the same energy.
Jon: We all react to sound in individual ways, and maybe this is why music can be very personal. As odd as it may sound, I sometimes find the mysterious ferocity of black metal to be uplifting. I'll be driving around the city on a sunny day and somehow Transylvanian Hunger will be the perfect soundtrack.

Your music seems to suggest that sometimes a single sound could be intriguing enough to build an entire piece around it.

Evan: Yes and no. As ridiculous at it sounds, there was a period of a year or two where I didn’t really want to listen to “songs“ in the tradition sense. I only wanted to listen to long, droning pieces that you could say were interested in the inner quality of sound - things like Taj Mahal Travelers, Tony Conrad, and the Sandy Bull album E Pluribus Unum. I think this carried across strongly on The Conjurer, which had a very minimal, stripped down sound. But more and more I’ve been interested in “songs“ again and an aesthetic that is more “pop“ when compared to The Conjurer. Lately we’ve done more writing than droning, but that attention to the inner quality of sound will always be a part of our work and inform the songs we compose.
Jon: We are always open to the depth even a single note can produce, but we try to contextualize this inner quality of sound within song structures. We like to have moments of reflection balanced by moments of more engaging song writing. This way the listening experience doesn't have to be completely cerebral, but can also be rewarding musically.

What is gained by placing the emphasis on the essence of things?
Jon: It's like eating a small-plate, gourmet meal where every subtle flavor counts.
Evan: The tools of the modern studio offer a pretty limitless scope of possibilities no doubt, but we still place importance on creating something that can be replicated live, isn’t overly processed, and in the end comes down to what we’re playing on the guitar most of the time. We value a sort of organic approach because it’s just what feels right. I think that when you go with your heart that honesty will carry across to enrich the music. And I’d say we’re also just traditional in some ways. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable bringing a laptop on stage.

You've stated that „one goal may be developing a reciprocal relationship with music, involving not the control of sound, but the luring of it“.

Jon: Feedback reacts in response to the space between the guitar and amplifier. As you move around the amp, you can find certain resonate sweet spots that may sustain a note or create other cool sounds. In this way you are not in full control of the sound but are attempting to lure it. Also, we don't keep songs in rigid structures, we like to let the pieces change and grow as we record them. Sometimes new parts will surface from complete improvisation, and it sounds strange, but at times the ideas just seem to appear out of nowhere. So in that way we don't fully control and completely freeze the compositions - we let them gradually unfold.

You seem to embrace the idea that music can act as a bridge between physical reality and a spiritual world.
Evan: Ancestral Star relates to the idea of ancestral memory, which involves approaching music in a spiritual way. We are interested in music as a way of liberation from the physical world through entering a trance state and naturally altering your perception. Personally, I’m interested in spiritual practices of cultures all over the world and that may be because I grew up feeling a lack of spirituality in my life. It took a development of a personal spirituality, which I discovered more through time in nature than anything else, to fill that void and I think our music is connected to that in a way. I’d say at our best, the images we conjure of vast landscapes give me the same feeling as looking out upon landscapes, a kind of unexplainable feeling of awe at how elaborate our planet is.

How do you develop some of your more complex pieces?

Jon: We try to make music with a narrative flow that leads a listener from one scene to the next. We sometimes start with one guitar part or melody that might come from a live performance or rehearsal. Then over time we build other movements around the central piece, and soon the song grows and evolves into the final creation.
Evan: A gradual, natural build up is important in this process. Our pieces evolve over time based on structured movements with improvisation between them. We enjoy creating an arcing narrative and creating an album of diverse sounding songs where there is a constant ebb and flow between the darkness and light. It’s a sonic journey that touches on many aspects of our sound as a collective.
If you take a piece like „Incantation“, for example, we recorded the foundation of the song with harmonium and vocals and then added the percussive ensemble elements thanks to Portraits. There were at least ten people playing, all walking around the studio with bells and singing bowls, so the sounds come in and out of focus.

Where do you see yourselves going from here?

Jon: We have a love for making music that keeps us looking forward to new ideas always. Evolving is a part of creating, and with old material we usually reach a point where we know it is time to move on and write more. A compositional challenge might be creating material that is spacious, patient but not boring.
Evan: For the sake of keeping things interesting, and also the natural process of discovering new sounds and interests I think we will always inclined to make sounds fresh and compelling to our minds. I guess it comes down to our desire to make the music we’d want to hear.

By Tobias Fischer

Image by Dianne Jones

Barn Owl Discography:
Barn Owl (Foxglove) 2007   
Bridge To The Clouds (Not Not Fun Records)    2007   
Barn Owl / Tom Carter - Split (Blackest Rainbow) 2008   
From Our Mouths A Perpetual Light (Not Not Fun Records) 2008   
The Conjurer (Root Strata) 2009   
Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey) 2010   
The Headlands/ w. The Infinite Strings Ensemble (Important Records) 2010

Barn Owl

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