Beneath the unforgivable scab on the landscape that is Elephant & Castle shopping centre in London lies a small, delightful dive of a venue called the Corsica. Its entrance suggests a warehouse or garage more than a location to go and watch bands perform. But nevertheless, about an hour from my arrival there, Barn Owl makes their London debut; slicing through the darkened stage area with an unstoppable, psychedelic soundwave of a folk, drone and doom composite.
It’s unfortunate then that the San Franciscan duo are relegated to almost footnote status on a bill that attempts to bring the adventurous spirit of Birmingham’s Supersonic festival to this grimy corner of the capital. Playing in support of established acid rockers Voice of the Seven Thunders and the ‘all-star’ cast of Master Musicians of Bukkake, naturally few were out that evening with the sole intent of experiencing Barn Owl.
But this month, all eyes and ears should be focussed on Barn Owl with the November 2nd release of their third LP and Thrill Jockey debut, Ancestral Star. And if the wide-eyed silence of the awe-struck crowd that followed Barn Owl’s Corsica set is anything to go by, Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti should soon be preaching to more converts than ever.
What immediately sets Ancestral Star apart from Barn Owl’s earlier output is the mammoth, thick sound that pours forth. Gone are the sparse drones and brittle, lo-fi folk that ornamented Bridge to the Clouds and From Our Mouths A Perpetual Light. This time round, Barn Owl is heavier and denser than ever before with ‘Sundown’ and the title track seemingly taking cues from SunnO))) and more restrained pieces like ‘Night’s Shroud’ nodding towards the Wild West desert rock of Earth’s latest incarnation. But as the band explains, this is less to do with venerating the drone elders than it is with a personal progression, not to mention the first opportunity Barn Owl has had to actually take their time in the studio.
“I would say, initially when we first started and especially when we recorded From Our Mouths…, Earth was a big influence. But we tried to incorporate a much wider range of influences for Ancestral Star. We listened to a lot of Alice Coltrane and other jazz albums… Bill Frisell was also a huge influence on us,” said Jon.
“Yeah, I mean it’s a good reference point for the kind of ‘desert sound’,” Evan added. “But I think we’re more inspired by things like The Dead Man soundtrack and Cormac McCarthy novels. Of course, Earth’s great but not so much a conscious influence these days. Popol Vuh is a really big influence for a lot of this stuff, and Loren Connors and Sandy Bull are two guitarists that we reference a lot in our playing I’d say.
“Ancestral Star is a kind of natural progression from what we felt at the time. With The Conjurer we tried to make everything have a lot space really, the sparseness was just what we were feeling at the time.”
Jon believes that Barn Owl owes the sonic leap the forward to the time spent in the studio last year with producer The Norman Conquest. “I think in terms of the heaviness, the sound quality is a lot better. The engineer we worked with, Norman Conquest (we call him Norman, he’s a friend of ours), I mean he’s a recording genius. We’d show up at the recording studio and he’d have dozens of mics set up all over the studio, pointing at random corners of the room where he was hearing resonant frequencies. So we left it all up to him. He also built these microphones out of old speakers. He put two or three of them right by our amps; that picked up a lot of low end.”
Working with what Evan refers to as “a mad scientist of sound” definitely has its perks. The results shine through at every level of the record, dousing the listener with dominating rays of psychedelia. “Everything was based around recording some live tracks to 2” tape, and kind of saturating it,” said Evan, giving some insight into how the sound was captured. “We had to hit the tape pretty hard to get that sizzling thick sound.”
Indeed, the hefty production sucks you in with the force of a black hole but there is also a peculiar, almost spiritual essence to Ancestral Star that is homely and alien all at once, a device that will keep the LP glued to the record player for months to come. The ritualistic feel that emanates from tracks like ‘Flatlands’ and ‘Incantation’ almost seem like memories of bygone eras. So being the huge metalhead retard that I am, I couldn’t resist asking the guys if there was any kind of theme to the record. I am a whore for pretentious concept albums… and pretentious things in general.
Jon swiftly put my naïve thoughts to bed: “If there is a premise, and I guess this applies to our sound in general, it’s combining a wide range of influences that speak to us that we try to combine to make our own sound,” he said. “But as far as a specific premise for the album, there’s no over-arching concept or anything like that.”
But my own interpretations weren’t far off the mark it seems, as I coaxed what I could out of Evan to elaborate on the meaning of the album’s title. “It refers to this idea of ‘ancestral memory’ which was explained to me some years ago by my then music teacher, a free jazz sax player,” he explained. “He referenced flamenco music and said that the musicians believed they were channelling the spirits of their ancestors when they played. So it’s the idea of connecting with this other energy through music. Being absorbed in it and having a deep connection that goes beyond the material world.”
Barn Owl’s dream-like drone is the perfect vehicle for this elusive ‘energy’ that Evan speaks of. It courses through the duration of Ancestral Star with the mysticism of a Hindu raga and it’s utterly enthralling. What is it about drone that conjures these intangible thoughts though?
“I don’t know,” said Evan. He hesitated. Then proceeded to reel off everything I’ve always felt about the style but have never been able to put into words. “For me it’s like… when I put on good drone music it immediately eases my mind in a lot of ways. There’s something comforting about the meditative value of it, being able to really focus and tune out all the noise of the world and centre yourself.”
Jon added: “Also, I feel that there’s something really profound about seeing detail in something that on the surface is stagnant. To me that’s mysterious and exciting.” They both hit the nail on the head, just as their work in Barn Owl does.