Interview: Swimming the Musical Tide with ORCAS

Orcas_press_Sean PatrickI’m sure you’re all familiar with the concept of natural selection; the theory that the fittest and most able creatures make it through the genetic lottery and end up at the head of the gene pool. Well, this works in a musical sense too and, like their namesakes, duo Benoît “Tom” Pioulard and Rafael Anton Irisarri have shot ahead of the others in the pack and shifted the evolution of cinematic dream pop up a gear. Orcas have teamed up with kindred spirits Martyn Heyne of Efterklang and Michael Lerner of Telekinesis to create their second album Yearling. The record shows off the the vast diversity of song writing Orcas are capable of, and weaves a transcendental musical landscape anyone with half an ear for good music can get lost in.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Orcas ahead of the release of Yearling to ask them about recording the new album, finding inspiration in long drives through Washington state and the power of the Moog pedal.

What’s the story behind Yearling and how did the album come together?

Tom: We began gathering ideas & material for a second record soon after the first one was released, slowly and surely…

Raf: Tom (Benoît Pioulard) moved away to England in December 2011, where he stayed for a year with his wife; while geographically separated we exchanged files and sketches throughout 2012. When he returned to Seattle at the beginning of 2013 we started recording almost right away in my studio and shaping what would become this album. Over the course of the year we built on and revised those seeds into what you hear on the final record.

You collaborated with members of Efterklang and Telekinesis on the album. What was it like working with them?

Tom: At one point, during the summer of 2012, we toured in Europe and stayed for a while in Berlin. While in Germany, Raf and I started to work with Martyn Heyne (live member of Efterklang). He joined our live band playing piano and guitar; in addition to being an extremely talented musician, he’s also a fantastic person to travel with and we instantly clicked; these days, whenever he’s not playing live with Efterklang, he runs Lichte Studio in Berlin. This is where we rehearsed quite frequently for our shows and where Martyn recorded all his parts for this album.

Raf: Michael (Telekinesis) added some crucial drums to the record for us at his studio in West Seattle. I met him through Thomas Morr and it was fantastic we met; we instantly hit it off as we are both gearheads and spend a lot of time in the studio tweaking knobs. He’s an amazing musician and drummer and I look forward to keep working with him.

Tom: Have you ever seen Michael play live? Jaw dropping.

The overall sound of Yearling is more expansive and spacious compared to your previous album. Was this change in sound intentional or did it happen organically?

Tom: When we approached this record after working together for a few years already, we knew much more clearly what to expect from one another, so the process was pretty organic and balanced in most ways. The progression in sound has a good bit to do with a few new pieces of analog gear, all of which contributed to a fuller sound.

Raf: I’d say having friends like Martyn add their charm to the record really made a huge difference. I’m by no means a proper musician, so been able to rely on someone who can play real instruments well and also know how to record and produce them became a huge advantage while making this album. I would for example send Martyn a sketch over the internet with a chord progression or melodic line and I’d have a proper recorded track back the next morning. It was amazing to witness the man’s work ethic – he was constantly touring with Efterklang for most of the year, so he had to work around the band’s insane tour schedule and basically use any time he had “off” to work on our songs. That to me said everything I needed to know about his commitment to our little project and I’m forever grateful he is working with us. I can’t wait to hear us play this material live and make some more music together!

What was the songwriting process for Yearling like and how was it different from previous Orcas material?

Tom: A lot of songs on the first record were pretty spontaneous, born from improvisation and often developed into structured works on the same day. Because of that, it feels pretty casual in retrospect… Both of us approached the second record with a little more seriousness and drive, especially after signing with Morr Music, whereas when we began recording four years ago we had no label or particular goals with the collaboration.

Raf: Half of the vocal tracks on “Yearling” were written and structured by Tom ahead of time, so when going to record we had the skeleton in place already and could just build around it. In certain cases the first version came together quickly and stuck, and in other cases there were 6 or 7 versions and it took months to get to a final stage. In other cases, for example “Selah,” was born out of improvising in the studio. I had literally just received a new polyphonic analogue synth in the mail and was showing it to Tom and demonstrating how to sequence it from my studio computer. Somehow I stumbled into this great little sound and arpeggiated groove, so I literally just patched it into my board and improvised with it for like 7 – 8 minutes straight, running it though a few effects: new idea. Soon after I asked Tom to play guitar on top of what I had done, so I patched him in and while he was playing, I’d manipulate some effects live as we recorded the entire thing. So in the end, with those elements, we wrote an entire song.

Orcas_press2_Sean PatrickThe album has a strong ethereal, dream like quality to it. How did you capture this during the recording process?

Tom: We take that as a compliment! It probably has much to do with our shared affinity for certain sounds and sonic textures, as well as certain chords and structures that create a particular frame of mind. We both aim to create rich atmospheres in our solo works, so of course the same is true when we collaborate.

What were your inspirations (musical or otherwise) whilst writing and recording “Yearling”?

Tom: Twin Peaks, Talk Talk, David Sylvian, international travel, apparent time v. actual time, Pacific Northwest winter, Pacific Northwest summer, and early Windham Hill records.

Raf: Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch films, Tears For Fears, Cluster, Kate Bush, Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Roland RE-150 Space Echo, Moog pedals, Eventide Harmonizer; working with people like Tom, Martyn & Michael – it really inspired me a lot and lit a fire up my arse to work on this album, challenged me to be a better producer and be at their level.

The lyrics on the album have a strong narrative. Would you say you’re a band who tells stories through their songs?

Tom: Not particularly, at least not in the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or “Last One to Know” sense, anyway. Most of the lyrics are intended to be impressionistic, like the words to “Selah”, which came from a long drive through eastern Washington state… There’s an unnamed “it” in the words of “Half Light” that anyone can define as they like, and I reckon “An Absolute” is mostly about the stupidity of fighting with people you care about. That one’s pretty straightforward.

What was the inspiration behind the artwork for the album?

Tom: It was created by our brilliant friend Sean Curtis Patrick, who also created the sleeve for our first record, as well as two amazing music videos for us – one of which is forthcoming. He visited us over the summer when Raf held his third Substrata festival in Seattle, so we were able to take photos together and talk about our collaboration in person. Eventually he gave us an embarrassment of riches in cover options, and the winner seemed clear… There’s something calming but mysterious about the red glow in the corner, like it’s a bonfire you can’t see, plus the color of the sky could be dusk or dawn, depending on how you’re inclined to see it.

Raf: Working with Sean is simply amazing. He’s definitely an integral part of our group and I trust his aesthetic and judgement when it comes to the visual elements. He always finds imagery that complements what we are doing musically and I’m so grateful we’ve been able to work with him for a couple years now and really formed a great partnership in the process.

Your music is very layered and textured. How do you recreate the sounds on stage?

Tom: In the past, we’ve had to use backing tracks, since some songs would have 15 or more individual parts to them, but having said that, we’ve try to keep it as live as possible. Our shows so far have been comprised of Raf on guitar, laptop and electronics, Thomas on guitar and vocals, and either Kelly Wyse or Martyn on piano and vocals. In the future we hope to add Michael on drums and vocals, too, but the performance stage is still a little ways off at the moment because of our schedules.

Raf: Playing these songs live will be challenging but also very fun. I think as a four-piece band we can totally pull it off and I can’t wait to start rehearsing and adapting all these recorded parts into a live performance environment. The translation from studio to stage always fascinates me.

What’s next for Orcas over the next year?

Tom: I imagine we’ll begin collecting ideas for more songs, even though we have no deadline whatsoever for a third record – now that we both live in Seattle it’s much easier to work together frequently and on short notice if need be.

Raf: We’d like to sort out the details of an ORCAS tour, perhaps this Autumn, but we both have our individual pursuits as well, which can be fairly demanding themselves. I’m always very busy in my studio doing mastering & mixing work for others, so it’s always a balancing act. But I’d love to play these songs live and get the band together for a proper tour. We’ll see!

Yearling is out on 4 April on the ever dependable Morr Music.

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