An interview with Ex-Easter Island Head
Meet Benjamin D. Duvall of Ex-Easter Island Head. The group earned plenty of admirers with their first record, Mallet Guitars One, where they took to using a set of electric guitars as percussion. Now they're back with a follow up which takes the guitars-as-drums and adds voices, bells, claves and more – including some intriguing new uses for their guitars. The new record is available here.
You've just about to release Mallet Guitars Two / Music for Maoi Hava. How did you arrive at the record?
We started working on the new record immediately following the recording of Mallet Guitars One – so 'Mallet Guitars Two' was already in the works in about May 2010. We were working as a four-piece at the time, and the initial ideas came out of that; it was, very initially, about seeing what we could do if we took the same number of instruments as on Mallet Guitars One but got more people playing them. so that we could, potentially, try out new rhythms. For Mallet Guitars One it was just me and George working as a duo, with a very simple set up: three guitars, three amps. Nothing else.
But we also wanted to look at the guitars – look at new ways to play them. On 'Mallet Guitars Two' we've malleted the guitars, as before, but we've also gotten into a third bridge technique; putting an object under the strings to manipulate the sound. That was something I discovered on my own and thought "Somebody else has to have already done this." I searched around and discovered Yuri Landman, the instrument builder; and that put us on a path where we could say: "This is a legitimate thing to be doing. There's a legitimate science behind this."
So the third bridge technique's became a whole other addition to the vocabulary.
Did you have an aim in mind for the recording?
This second record has definitely come out of group working, and making a decision to attempt to create a more complex texture. We definitely decided, this time, that we wanted to work towards something more sophisticated.
But that just comes out of experience, and playing your instruments, you know. When we started Ex-Easter Island Head, neither me or George were what you'd call 'rhythmic' players; and we definitely wanted to become more 'rhythmic'. Since we recorded Mallet Guitars One, we've definitely improved as players, and we've become more ambitious. We know more about our instruments, too.
How composed is your music? Does one person come in with a particular idea or concept?
Well, we're always starting with limitations. That might be the number of guitars...we've got three guitars; they're our main electronic instruments, and we've also 'prepared' them, meaning that we've manipulated them in some way so that they can't really be played as 'guitars' any more. That already means that, because they can't be fretted as guitars normally could, you've got a maximum of three chords to begin with – one on each guitar.
We definitely have to work within our limits. We can alter the sounds we can make slightly by moving the third bridge up and down the guitar. But, essentially, we've got those unchanging three chords; and we've got whatever we can find and whatever actions we can take to seek to modify those chords.
On the whole, it's composed – not the sort of composition you could score out or notate, but definitely composed. There's improvisation, but the pieces are based on certain very fixed ideas. So it might be that we want to do something that has one part in a particular rhythm with another part in a different rhythm over the top. We take it from there and develop it.
For example, in a part of the second movement of 'Mallet Guitars Two': we wanted to do something that was very tightly structured. It's the shortest movement, about three and a half minutes. It's the most melodic progression in the shortest space of time. And that was a fixed idea: to do something tenser and a bit faster.
For the most part, our music is very structured – but that structure is normally based on the idea of musical cues. So it might be that there's no fixed number of repetitions on a certain melody; and that one of us can't move to the next melody until one of the other us plays a certain thing, like George hitting a bell, or something. And he might do that based on when he feels it's right, on that particular take of the recording, or at that particular performance.
'Mallet Guitars Two' feels like very a composed piece, though. There's a sense of progression that works better on record than maybe Mallet Guitars One did.
We were definitely aware that 'Mallet Guitars Two' had to hold up as a recording. What we do has a very visual aspect to it, and people love watching us play it that way – but it has to be a good piece of music to listen to on record, without that visual element.
In terms of progression, we definitely conceived of it in movements: we didn't want it to be an exercise in guitar manipulation. It had to have a kind of 'arc' to it. In this case the arc is something as simple as starting with high pitches and ending with low ones; but it's an important step, just choosing to do that, over the course of sixteen minutes.
For example, 'Mallets Guitars Two', starts off with the trumpet, and the third bridges on the guitars, with the bamboo on it. Now the third bridges are at their highest point there, and over the first eight minutes of the piece they move around until they get pulled out of the guitars and we start the malleting section, which is very bassy. The idea was that was we could draw out the drone created by the guitar when it has the third bridge on it – and we did that by playing them very slowly and steadily –and then, because the strings have a lot more vibration when the third bridge comes out, we could play them much faster, with more aggression.
All the recordings we've done have been 'live', in a series of takes, with no over-dubs. So they are a kind of document, but of one performance.
How important is the naming of the tracks? On the new record, you've got 'Mallet Guitars Two', which is very matter of fact; but the second track is 'Music for Maoi Hava', which is just as specific but much more evocative.
When we named 'Mallet Guitars One' as we did, it was definitely a case of adhering to the principles of the piece. When I had the initial idea in mind, I'd just thought "I've got three cheap guitars here, and I want to hit the body of them instead of strum them. How am I going to make a piece of music out of that?" Because of the idea coming that way I thought it would be totally transparent to call it 'Mallet Guitars One'. To be honest, I also thought the words were quite striking together, you know.
In the same way there wasn't really a way to name 'Mallet Guitars Two' anything different from what it's named: the malleting of the guitars – the actual hitting of a guitar – is so important to the whole sound of the piece that it sort of had to be called that.
With 'Music for Moai Hava': that was just the strangest coincidence. The band is called Ex-Easter Island Head simply because I liked the combination of words – it looks nice written down – and partly because, as with Easter Island, I'm really interested in music of the South Pacific. But it was no more than that, really.
I play in and work with an orchestra called the a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra, which is like the Scratch Orchestra in that anybody can come in and play – and 'Music for Moai Hava' was a commission for the a.P.A.t.T. They asked Ex-Easter Island Head to write a piece – basically 'Concerto for Group and Orchestra' – with the intention that when they could get a suitable concert space, the a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra could perform it.
That's where it got spooky: because around that same time the Liverpool World Museum received a literal 'ex-Easter Island head': called Moai Hava. It's a really rare thing: there's only two statues made out of this volcanic basalt, and here was one of them coming to Liverpool, where we're based.
It was a bit too good to be true, really: there was an actual ex-Easter Island head coming to the Liverpool World Museum, and the museum is a big space, large enough for a concert. So you can guess the rest: we said "We'll do a piece called 'Music for Maoi Hava', and play in front of the actual Maoi Hava statue: the ex-Easter Island head." From there it was clear that we'd do a piece that was kind of about the statue; a sort of vague impression, with some conceptual tie.
The 'arc' of the piece, is: "The statue is on Easter Island. The culture is just going to git around it, and it's a calamity." In 1868, when the British came to Easter Island and took Moai Hava away, the culture was really on its last legs: really fragmented. A lot of people weren't really able to speak the language any more, it was about to go extinct.
We tried to put all that in. But with instrumental music you can't craft too much of a narrative out of it, you know – not without accompanying liner notes and all sorts. It was a case of trying to create a sort of portrait of the statue in the first section; then a sense of that calamity in the middle section and finally, at the end, a kind of lament. We got people singing the vowels of 'Moai Hava' at the end, to a set pattern, against a drone from the maletted guitars. We left it all very open and said "There are no wrong notes. Just sing to the best of your ability against this drone."
We basically wrote it so that, even if you can't play an instrument at all – which some of the people in the a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra can't – you could still contribute to the piece. That's an interesting group dynamic, trying to get 27 people of different abilities working like that.
In the end, all things considered, we thought it would be much more evocative to call it 'Music for Moai Hava' – even though there are mallet guitars all over it.
It seems that you've placed two strict limitations on your music: first, that you can perform everything that you record live; and also the idea of the drone. Is the drone a key part of your music or is it something you'll move away from in other pieces?
The drone... I hadn't thought of the drone like that. We're recording a new piece at the moment which concludes with a ten minute drone. We played Allen keys across the strings of our guitars, to bow it like a violin; sliding them along the strings to get a real, proper drone, but with a kind of metallic overtone.
The mallet guitars thing – that started off as an idea about percussion, and using guitars as percussion. But of course, because you're hitting them, the drone is there the whole time. The drone... we've called it this: 'the ever changing surface over an unmoving centre.' But I guess the centre is moving a lot as well!
Yeah, the drone is important. It's the kind of overtone gloss - the patient building up of the drone in the background.
I don't want to say that there's anything we do that will remain key to the music we make – there's always room to do something completely different or forget about a rule we've imposed. I can say that it will always involve guitars... but other than that, that's pretty much it.
Guitars are so malleable. We're still finding new ways to manipulate and mechanically alter our guitars. To fuck with them, basically. That's one of the joys of cheap guitars.