EX-EASTER ISLAND HEAD is not your rock and roll. Guitars? Yes. Percussion? Yes. But rock music? Certainly not. The group create dense layers of drone notes through the use of six-string electric guitars as percussive instruments, played by striking the body of the guitar with a mallet. The end result alludes to both minimalism and the no-wave noise of Glenn Branca and co, providing an interesting counterpoint to the slew of guitar bands currently plying their trade. Bido Lito caught up with Ex-Easter Island Heads sonic auteur Benjamin D. Duvall to discuss the concept, the practicalities of it, and the avant-garde in Liverpool.
“The idea essentially came from an excess of equipment! I had a guitar and a keyboard stand to hand, it looked visually quite striking so I decided to develop the idea, which ended up as a vehicle for the drone. The first show came about from booking a show in support of The Portico Quartet. I liked the idea of writing a piece, and forming an ensemble to play it, for a specific show. It gave me a deadline which set the creativity in motion.” Benjamin writes and orchestrates the pieces, and has been joined by different musicians for each of the two pieces so far under his belt. “I’ve played in more pop-minded bands over the years, and I’ve become more and more interested in experimental music and Indian drone music. In terms of my inspiration for the project, I can’t overstate the importance of Rhys Chatham, listening to his records I decided that was a sound I wanted to pursue.”
Whilst discussing Ex-Easter Island Head, it’s impossible to avoid the word ‘different’, given that the experience of watching them is quite unlike anything else currently in Liverpool. However, Benjamin sees it in much the same vein as any other type of music “We certainly have antecedents in what we do in Liverpool. Mugstar (featured in Bido Lito Issue One) trade in the same styles, making use of volume and repetition, albeit in the form of a rock band, and before them Kling-Klang were super minimalist, and heavy on repetition. You have to be doing something interesting enough for people to come and watch. There’s nothing wrong with putting on a show, no matter how ‘arty’ something maybe perceived to be.”
Ex-Easter Island Head live is definitely a show, working on visual as well as sonic levels. For the debut performance of Mallet Guitars 2 at the Wolstenholme Creative Space as part of Light Night, Benjamin sets up three guitars horizontally on keyboard stands, each attached to an amplifier, which creates a memorable image. The sound fills the space completely, owing to the fact that the pieces are designed for the spaces in which they are to be played “When we played at the Kazamier, I knew that the sound would have to be quite large, whereas a piece designed for the Creative Space could afford to be a bit more intricate.” After the first five minutes of being swept away by the drone, the rhythm really kicks in and it has a transcendental effect in the same vein as the volume at a My Bloody Valentine gig does. Once the period of concentration is over, it allows the listener to be completely lost in it. The piece is played to an appreciative audience, and the event seems to fit the style of music, with visuals provided and showings of fringe European cinema. The question over whether he is attempting to appeal to a certain niche comes up. “Of course it’s lovely to be playing to like-minded people and friends, but the pieces aren’t written for a particularly ‘arty’ demographic.”
This returns us to another word which has come up in our discussions, and will no doubt follow Ex-Easter Island Head in their endeavours. Arty. The concept of music as art is a tough one to navigate, with an abundance of negative connotations that follow it. Describing music as art can immediately bring to mind a chin-stroking, over-earnest, self-importance that holds no quarter with Benjamin and Ex-Easter Island Head, or indeed any of the more experimental collective coming to the fore in Liverpool currently. In November, over 100 musicians came together to perform Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ at the Bluecoat Art Centre. The project saw the musicians spread over a large portion of the entire building, with sections in different rooms. The effect this had was that whilst the ‘C’ drone reverberated around the whole building, the audience would encounter different tones and rhythms as they wandered, making the piece fully interactive, and to an extent, of the individual audience members own design. It was a grand project, and made for an eye (or ear) opening experience. In terms of art, it could certainly be pinned as such, given its location and the overall feel of it. But it was above all an enjoyable music experience, at once a million miles away from a stereotypical gig, but with the same concept. A group of musicians playing in front of an audience. It highlights that the spaces occupied by art and music are not mutually exclusive, but when carried out in the right spirit can combine to compelling ends.
In C was one of several large-scale projects by Liverpool noise merchants APATT, who along with Mugstar, Benjamin identifies as his own projects soulmates. APATT have garnered national and international praise, despite the almost cut and paste feel of some of their music “I think APATT are an inspiration for anyone attempting something different. They play so many disparate styles all at once, trying so many things, for them to find an audience means they’ve done some of the groundwork for people like us.”
It seems then, that there is a thirst for this more experimental style of music in Liverpool. The spirit of experimentation has been ripe in the city for decades, and has nurtured some acts who have pushed the boundaries of popular music. It has also developed an (unfounded) reputation for only producing jingly-jangly indie bands. Events like In C, and gigs at the Wolstenholme Creative Space, give experimental music a home and a space in which to thrive, but the thought arises that the idea of subverting the use of an electric guitar might get a, well, less than warm reception in some circles. “It’s quite pleasant being outside the formula, but it wasn’t the driving force behind it. It’s just about making the music I like to listen to. Pissing people off isn’t part of the plan, but I suppose it’s an inevitable by-product if placed in front of some audiences. I do expect to encounter some apathy, or antipathy at some point, but so far it’s all been positive.” So positive in fact, that after their second show, Benjamin was pointed in the direction of a label, Nottingham-based LowPoint Records. “I was approached after a performance and told that there was a label who would like what we were doing. I got in touch, sent off a rough recording, and we’re releasing Mallet guitars some time towards the end of the year” Despite such quick results, it’s all being taken in stride “It’s nice to know that people are enjoying what we do enough to want to release it! The label is very grounded and realistic, it’s going to be a limited release, but it’s exciting to be involved in.”
It’s safe to say that Ex-Easter Island Head will not be to everyone’s taste. Seeing one of the pieces live is certainly an experience, one that could cause the uninitiated to balk, but once the concepts of ‘arty’ and ‘different’ have been overcome, there lies an accessible piece of music that could provide a gateway into the wider world of minimalism. “The pleasure for me lies in doing something novel. There’s sixty years of rock guitar in the bag, and the idea of getting a new sound out of an established instrument, subverting the common idea of what to do with it, is a thrill. Not to say that I’m pioneering anything, there’s a wealth of experimental guitar music to look to. But I like the idea of bringing it to a new audience.”