An Interview with Rafael Anton Irisarri

Apr 1 • By • 1401 Views • No Comments on An Interview with Rafael Anton Irisarri BS, Interviews, Issue 03 // Apr 2012

Rafael is a sound artist and curator from Seattle. He’s released hordes of compositions on various labels such as Ghostly International, Morr Music, and Erik Skodvin’s Miasmah. RAI will be in Europe this Spring with projects/bands Orcas, The Sight Below or solo (along with Benoît Pioulard).

Rafael, after landing in Brussels and finding internet for the first time in 20 hours was also kind enough to also answer some Q’s about his work and summer plans. Ever wondered what a post-minimalist pointilist’s top five would be? You don’t have to go far to find out.

Tell us a little bit about your musical background, how you came to start making electronic/ambient music.

I’ve been playing music for almost all of my live, ever since my grandfather gave me a little toy piano when I was 4 years old for my birthday. That said, I’ve only been releasing music for the past half decade, starting with my debut album Daydreaming in 2007 (released on Miasmah).

I was drawn into music heavily when I was a teenager. I was a pretty awkward kid, the kind of loner, skinny, fragile, bullied boy you see exemplified in fictional characters like Oskar (from the novel Låt den rätte komma in). From an early time, music became my way of coping with the fact that I didn’t seem to belong anywhere. To this day, I still feel like this sometimes.

What were your biggest inspirations in the way you make and write music.

Harold Budd – the way he plays the piano emphasizes the silences in between notes as much as the notes themselves – meaning, what you do not play is equally important or even more so than what you play.

Does nature or “setting” have much to do with how you record or write? Or are you mostly locked away in a basement or loft somewhere composing on your laptop?

Well, for me the process is engrained into the compositions. Many years ago, I would have a particular sound in my head, and I would try to recreate it, basing an entire composition from that idea. As I’ve developed further, I’ve become more and more obsessed with building my own tools to create new, unique vocabulary. This of course is entirely personal and related to my own limitations as a musician – I’m not a proficient player in any instruments. I just play many instruments based on ideas and feelings I have at the time, so it’s not like I can sit down with sheet music and play some Bach (as an example) on the piano. I took a more “punk “approach/direction, and decided that if I could take an instrument and express an emotion with it, it didn’t matter what my technical limitations were. This is of course, part of my process too: I use my limitations as part of my creative process. Rather than seeing something as a handicap, I observe it as opportunity to express myself in a unique way. At the same time, I do a lot of improvisation in the studio and record everything. Lots and lots of happy accidents tend to happen this way, so then my job as a composer becomes “managing” these accidents while shaping them into compositions, almost as a sculpture artist (as cliché as this comparison may sound).

Is touring a chore or an enjoyable consequence of being a musician?

I love to travel, seeing new cultures, hearing new languages, meeting new people and I’ve been really lucky to travel to so many places (almost every continent now – well, except Antarctica). It is always exciting, even though when I come back home I really feel comfortable to be back into my usual “setting.”

What are some of the best venues/concerts you have played? Some strange ones that stick out?

Best concert venue – that’s a tough one – lots of nice places: Uppsala Konsert och Kongress in Sweden, St Catherine Church in Krakow, Poland, Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane, Australia, the Arnolfini in Bristol, UK, Cafe Oto in London.

Strange places – hmm, I guess for me the strangest, coolest venue was a funeral parlor in Portland. That was quite fitting : )

You recently released an album by the project ORCAS which is you and Benoit Pioulard. How did that come about? Do you intend to take it on the road and perform it live?

I’ve collaborated in the past with numerous other artists, ranging a wide spectrum of styles – from Tiny Vipers & Simon Scott to even Fennesz (live) & Biosphere (remixing).

I met Tom (Benoit Pioulard) about three years ago at Decibel Festival in Seattle (which I co-curated) and we just clicked. Working with Tom was very harmonious, as we have very similar thoughts in regards to aesthetics. Once that particular area is in sync, everything else just flows. I believe part of the ease comes from mutual respect and admiration for each of our previous works. Tom’s is an amazing singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and genuinely fun to hang out with. I’ve found working with Tom quite natural to be honest. I would say almost about half of the music I listen to these days has vocals, and some of my favorite artists are singers (Blixa Bargeld for example, I find his voice amazing and his pop songwriting sensibility genius).

Before I started working with Tom, I had incorporated vocals into the last The Sight Below record (via a Joy Division cover I recorded with Tiny Vipers lending her lovely voice). So it seemed to me a logical progression. Asides, Tom is such an amazing singer, gifted with a terrific voice – it would have been a crime not to include vocals and proper lyrics as part of our creative process.

One of my favorite musicians in the world is Mark Hollis, so I feel in a way, there’s that subconscious influence lingering when I would produce the tracks we wrote together.

We are planning shows for Orcas this Spring and hope to come to Scandinavia in June.

Do films and art play a big role in inspiration for your music or aesthetic? If so who are some notable names worth dropping?

Yes, absolutely. Huge film aficionado. Last one I saw was “there’s something about kevin”, which stars Tilda Swinton – she is brilliant, I adore her! Inspiring films – well, that’s a more complex question. I like Lynch, Herzog, Svankmajer, Brother’s Quay, Gilliam, Malick, Von Trier, Cronenberg, Del Toro, Almodovar, etc. So many great films, but to mention just two: “Aguirre” by Herzog & “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch.

Are you an avid Analog fan or embracing of the simplicity and ease of the digital revolution?

I like to combine both. Analog has its advantages (warmer sound) to the versatile/compact nature of digital (big plus for any traveling artist). On my newest live setting, I utilize a series of amplifiers (analog) as I work of laptop signal processing (digital) off my guitar (analog).

What are some artists you are currently listening to?

Atm I’m listening to the new Mirrorring album my friends Jesy & Liz just did for Kranky. It’s fantastic!

And finally, we ask some of our interviewees to submit a random Top 5 list, what’s yours?

(in no particular order):

1. The perfect cup of coffee – black as night, hot as hell and sweet as sin, or like Agent Cooper said “a damn good coffee, and hot!”

2. Chillida sculptures & drawings – his abstract work is hugely inspirational to me.

3. Rioja red wine (and good company to share brain stimulating conversation)

4. Limbo – I’m not much of a gamer, but this one really speaks to me. I love the sound design and compositions. Video game as art.

5. Dystopia – I love bleak representations of the future, our deepest fears laid out as pieces of art.

Check out Rafael’s latest movements at Studio Irisarri.


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