Barn Owl is the San Francisco based duo of Evan Caminiti & Jon Porras. Over the last couple of years they have released a number of home spun discs chalked full of a potent mix of loner acoustic fingerpicking and all out metallic bombast. Their next album, ‘The Conjurer’ will be released on Root Strata this fall.
Jon: I guess we’ve known each other for almost 4 years now, originally met in an American Indian Science class at sf state university. Great class, all about ethno-botany, horticulture, ecology and metaphysics, we were both reading Hesse’s Narcisiss and Goldmund at the time, I guess that was our common ground. I remember seeing evan and saying to myself, “ok that guy is a long hair too, I bet we might get along”.
Evan: Yeah its funny, people always ask us if we’re brothers. It feels like we’ve known each other for much longer than we have. Maybe a past life kinda thing, if you’re into that.
Jon: I think being in a metal band rooted a deep interest in exploring the capabilities of the electric guitar, and playing loudly. I remember in high school building a drone on a friend’s delay pedal and being totally fascinated, I had no idea what that experiment would lead to in the future, but playing metal gave me the freedom to rebel against conventional modes of playing.
Evan: Well, looking back on the gradual progression from thinking of music in more traditional metal terms…linear and technical, to the way we now approach it, which you could say is a more vertical and atmospheric approach, everything has changed. You know, Sabbath and Earth 2 will always be an influence but I don’t think we’re gonna be rocking any blast beats or double bass pedals or anything.
Jon: One goal may be developing a reciprocal relationship with music, involving not the control of sound, but the luring of it. I love the way Toru Takemitsu articulates it, “Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature—sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. When sounds are possessed by ideas instead of having their own identity, music suffers.”
Evan: Well, I look at what we do as a form of meditation. At a minimum, we hope to make people feel good. At a maximum we hope to induce a total out of body experience. Its kind of like how Bruce Nauman, tongue-in-cheekingly said “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. It’s hard to know what exactly it is we’re getting at, and it all depends on what the listener wants to get out of it. There are so many ways to interpret sound and its effect on the mind. The experience of ‘the other’ and experiencing something outside of oneself, greater than oneself is a big part of music for us.
Also, in more strictly musical terms, we are interested in both density and space. By density, I mean filling a room with the physical presence of sound, and by space I mean the relationship of pitches in a given time frame and their decay, which us something we may have explored the most on “The Conjurer”.
Evan: I find that some of the best inspiration comes to me after a hike or time in a natural environment of solitude. We’re lucky to be close to so many beautiful forests, mountains, and beaches here in San Francisco. It’s strange because I don’t really find much direct musical inspiration from living in the city, but love being here because it’s a place where there is such a rapid exchange of ideas and culture. So you could say the concrete itself isn’t inspiring but the ability to go to see all kinds of different music from all over the world definitely opens up doors. It’s when I leave the city that some other unfamiliar sort of voice comes into my head and things really shift around in my mind.
The drones are improvised and composed, but always based around a loose structure. Some things we’ve done are very much composed with slight improvisational embellishments, like many acoustic guitar pieces. Accidents can be great…I suppose that’s part of the awesomeness of feedback, its this element of sound you can’t completely control, you have to wrestle with it a bit and that kind of sound-determining-its own course we find often produces results far more interesting than something a human mind could attempt to rationally or intuitively produce.
Jon: Its difficult to pinpoint, but id say other music and other musicians are one source of inspiration. We’re always seeking new bands, composers, musicians to set off that spark, but many times moments or experiences are even higher forms of inspiration too, being in the woods at night, cicadas in a field, driving through the plains.
I would say our drones are mostly composed, although the nature in which they are formed allows for unplanned results. Sometimes we’ll talk about an idea, and when we start to play, it evolves into something different altogether, something we could not have expected. It is exciting and something we love about playing drone music.
Evan: We sure hope so. There are tentative plans for such a trip next spring.
Evan: Thanks for your kind words. Drawing has been a passion of mine since I was really young. I study printmaking in school, but many printmaking techniques are relatively new to me, so its been fun to explore them as Barn Owl has evolved. I’ve always been really into black and white, high contrast images, so printmaking is conducive to my vision in many ways. Also, I’m sort of obsessive about the connections between music and image and really enjoy attempting to convey how something sounds through a visual medium in a way that avoids obvious connections and favors a more symbolic approach. I’m really excited about two newer projects, I did a big lithograph that is the cover for “The Conjurer”, and a couple etchings for my upcoming solo album. Also, I just did the cover for Ajilvsga’s LP “The Muddy Banks of the Arkansas”, which I really enjoyed. I hope to work more with other bands.
Jon: I have an interest in photography, it’s more a hobby then anything else. But in terms of visual art, I’ve been working on a few video pieces that are accompanied by music. Mostly light damaged images, very slow moving and fractal inspired. There will hopefully be a dvdr out on root strata in the near future.
Evan: Ahhh so many. In terms of music, Fushitsusha/Keiji Haino has been a constant lately, as well as Alice Coltrane. I’d say the big influences that really shaped Barn Owl’s sound would be John Fahey and La Monte Young. In terms of visual artists, Olafur Eliasson is the first that comes to mind. His installations are really thought provoking, challenging your idea of individual perception and making you carefully consider the nature of ‘reality’ through seemingly simple installations, so I guess you could say it had a lot in common with some drone music. Besides that, Bruce Conner is an endless source of inspiration.
Jon: Well I can say that hearing Earth2 changed the way I listened to music at a young age, and opened my ears to an alternative definition of what I considered musical. Of course people like La Monte Young, Rhys Chatham and Tony Conrad have further guided us along an alternative musical path, as well as virtuosos Bismillah Khan, Pandit Pran Nath, Toru Takemitsu, the list could go on and on really. As far as more modern players, Haino, Tom Carter, Matthew Bower, Dylan Carlson, there’s no denying these are the dudes that paved the way for us, tons of respect.
Evan: Well, to start off, I think one element that has always been a big part of the vision of Barn Owl is apocalyptic themes and that sort of doom influence. In anything we do the Raga influence seems to seep in, however slight it may be. The visual element of sound has always been big for us also, as well as the spatial relationship of sounds. In exchanging ideas it is probably more common one of us will say, “think…Mojave desert at sunrise”, rather than actually playing a riff.
Jon: Elm is simply a way for me to release the material that I record at home, usually alone and in a dense blanket of fog. For now I’m working with hazy, dreamlike atmospheres, I try to evoke an entire experience with elm, a headspace to lull in, to drift off into. I was also really inspired by the one-man black metal band thing, completely aside from the actual music, the ability for one person to create the experience of an entire band or orchestra was really appealing to me. I want to exploit the capabilities of home recording and home production to evoke a place of mystery, a mark of the unknown.
Evan: Vision is always changing, although there remain underlying themes. With Higuma there is a pretty big evolution currently taking place. Higuma is my partner Lisa and me, and at first we were focused totally free improvisations, but more composed elements are beginning to enter into the equation and we’re exploring this realm at the intersection of the aesthetics of what I suppose you could call noise and new age, which has been extremely cathartic.
In my solo work I’d say the big difference is an emphasis on the guitar. Overall, there are less vocals and other instrumentation than you will find with Barn Owl or Higuma. I suppose I consider myself first and foremost a guitarist, guitar was my first great musical love. Most of the time these days I approach the instrument with a deconstructive, transfigurative approach without getting all tabletop, but I also like to visit traditional themes rooted in blues, north African styles, and Raga. Feedback is also a constant obsession.
Evan: We’ve played together once as Portraits, which is a big drone collective organized by Jefre Cantu Ledesma. Hopefully there will be more of that to come. Also, we collaborated last spring with ALTAR EAGLE in a project called Hanging Thief. This was recorded in Tulsa, OK the day before a big storm hit so there is there kind of ominous energy that surrounded the session. And John and I have been collaborating with our friend The Norman Conquest, who recorded and produced “The Conjurer” with us. We’ve got a few other special things in the works we can’t yet reveal.
Evan: You know, its sort of strange because many of these things were completed a while ago, they’ve just taken a long time to get released for one reason or another. The SoD cd-r is some material that is over a year old. The upcoming Root Strata album “The Conjurer” was recorded last Fall. The two solo discs for Digitalis are probably the most recent things in terms of when they were actually recorded, so I think they are a good representation of the realms we are now exploring, individually and as a team. The first Electric Totem release is a live recording from when we were in Vancouver, BC last summer. We timed the release to coincide with our west coast tour this summer.
Evan: Aluk Todolo is the first band the comes to mind. Absolutely killer.
Jon: Onna, and yes aluk!!
Evan: Fender amps, mostly Gibson guitars, lots of delays (favorite currently being mxr carbon copy, which is all analog), fuzz, bows, slides, ebow. The list goes on…we’re big on keeping things live and having no laptops or anything on stage. Tube amps are also really important in terms of sound and presence.
Evan: Yeah, while we have a good grasp of what sounds we want to create it is a constantly evolving process.
Evan: Friends, food, movies, beer, hiking…
Evan: Thanks to you if you’ve taken the time to read this, and thanks to all who have supported us.
Jon: Magic is real.
-- Dave Miller (12 August, 2009)