Drawing from the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and one of the area’s most majestic creatures, Rafael Anton Irisarri of The Sight Below and Thomas Meluch of Benoît Pioulard have breathed life into a new project, Orcas. On their debut self-titled disc, the two have created nine tracks of ambiance-heavy songs featuring a number of opposing elements, including light and dark, acoustic and electronic, textured subtlety and straight-forward hook.
In that spirit of balance, this bilateral feature places side-by-side interview responses and sample tracks from both artists, to dissect the strengths, weaknesses, and sonic tendencies both musicians contribute to making Orcas the rich collaboration that it is.
“Sault” from Lasted
Where Irisarri’s soundscapes lay a gentle foundation for the work of Orcas, Meluch’s work as Benoît Pioulard provides more accessible and structural elements, complete with singer-songwriter pop melodies. “Sault,” from Benoît Pioulard’s album Lasted, has guitar and vocal tendencies that connect to the piano and guitar lines of “Arrow Drawn,” which is streaming below.
Rafael Anton Irisarri
“A Great Northern Sigh” from The North Bend
As The Sight Below, Rafael Anton Irisarri’s compositions rebuild familiar emotions and spaces by way of minimal electronic soundscapes. According to Irisarri, “A Great Northern Sigh” has conceptual and thematic ties to the work of Orcas, as it also relates to the Pacific Northwest. “Almost like an audio postcard,” he adds. “What can I say — I’m deeply inspired by this region and wouldn’t imagine composing our Orcas album anywhere else.”
“Tack & Tower” from Lasted
Rafael Anton Irisarri
“Deception Falls” from The North Bend
Are there any lessons you’ve learned about your own creative process as a musician as a direct result of working collaboratively on Orcas? Are there any that will stay with you in the future?
Benoît Pioulard: Well, I already knew that my recording process was ridiculously simple and underdeveloped by most people’s standards… I mean, I like it that way in my blissful ignorance, but working with Rafael allowed me to be exposed to some much more advanced recording and sound manipulation techniques. Those things, to me, are what set this project apart from my solo stuff in a major way, so I don’t imagine much will change for the sound of Benoit, such as it is.
Rafael Anton Irisarri: I’ve re-learned to work with others, to be patient and to accept change as a natural form, to not be contrived by preconceptions, to be open to suggestions and ways of thinking. It’s been really wonderful, as I’m usually a hermit when I work solo.
Creating this record was a very natural process for the two of you. Do you think both of you relate to creation (as a philosophical construct) or the emotional output of music in similar ways? If so, do you think that extends outwards to general life philosophies, as well?
BP: I tend not to overthink or over-analyze the act of creation too much, or proselytize about it since I don’t know anything about how or why others do it. It’s just something I can’t avoid, and I’m still baffled that the results seem to be marginally appealing to a few people out there. My overarching ‘philosophy’ of all things centers on the fact that Nothing Matters, so that definitely plays into my music and photos. I’ve never tried to claim that my efforts are important or meaningful, because they’re not… it’s just self-indulgent fun. What’s important is being a good person and tending your own garden as responsibly as you can.
RAI: For me, music was for the longest time a form of therapy. I was a very awkward kid growing up — the kind of lonely, 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. I don’t really have a “life philosophical stance,” but if I would have one, I’d borrow a line from my favorite book: “It is lonely when you are among people too.”
“I’ve never tried to claim that my efforts are important or meaningful, because they’re not… it’s just self-indulgent fun. What’s important is being a good person and tending your own garden as responsibly as you can.” – Benoit Pioulard
In some ways, Orcas is a very polished and straight-forward record, but there are many layers of grain and nuance to be dissected. How much of the pop structures and additional underlying details were the result of planning versus experimentation?
BP: All of those things came from very organic kernels… I think every song — with the exception of the Broadcast cover — developed from near-nothingness, which is to say that we just started with some kind of improvisation that built up until a chord structure idea appeared and continued constructing things from there. Or if the direction seemed more like an instrumental/ambient piece, we’d let it go in that direction. I think both modes are equally appealing to us. Rafael is especially perfectionistic, so thanks to him, several of the songs underwent major changes over long periods of time, over the course of several revisits and reimaginings.
RAI: 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 like a sculpture artist (as cliché as this comparison may sound).
Each track on Orcas leans cohesively towards the light or the dark — but when one dissects the individual components, seemingly contradictory sounds emerge. How much of this record was composed in the editing process through compiling together different combinations of sounds? Were certain textural details interchangeably attempted on different tracks until winning combinations emerged?
BP: As I kind of mentioned above, yes, there was a fairly long process of allowing these songs to sit and gestate, so when we’d come back to them it would seem naturally apparent if a change or development needed to happen that didn’t necessarily appear to us at first. For me, the dark and light elements coexist really nicely — as they do in life itself — so it’s difficult to imagine one without the other. This is kind of how the Pacific Northwest settles in my heart, too; there’s a unique kind of happiness that results from the gloom.
RAI: I’m naturally drawn to the darker nature of life, maybe from life experiences, or maybe cause some of us are born this way, [we] are more connected to darker personalities. I dunno, I’m not a psychoanalyst; my music tends to be an extension of how I feel at the moment of composing it. I do what comes most natural to me.
Can you describe how some of the more interesting layers of sound were created?
BP: Rafael will have more insight into the details of that, perhaps, but for my part it was a lot of bits-and-pieces kind of playing in order to fill in gaps that I could hear in the structure or melodies, which were then processed into their final form. Some of the richer sound layers are live guitar that’s been processed beyond recognition of its original form, but as far as I can recall everything comes from an organic or live source.
RAI: Well, most of it stems from improvising in the studio, recording everything, then processing, filtering, re-amplifying, detuning, deconstructing and manipulating. A simple example is the “trumpet” sounds that lead on “Pallor Cedes” — that is actually Tom playing a glockenspiel using a viola bow, to which I applied the aforementioned processing style.
“Lots and lots of happy accidents tend to happen [via improvisation], so then my job as a composer becomes ‘managing’ these accidents while shaping them into compositions, almost like a sculpture artist.” – Rafael Anton Irisarri
Was the name Orcas chosen before or after the completion of the record? Are there qualities about the orca — as a creature — that you think translates thematically to your sound?
BP: I think Rafael suggested the name somewhere around mid-way through the recording process, once it became apparent that we were both pretty serious about this as a full-time project. Orcas are a really good emblem of the American Pacific Northwest, since they’re methodical, majestic-looking creatures and at times can be violent, and to me they conjure shadows and depths. The name also stands for ‘Oregon’ and ‘Cascadia’ since I was living in Portland and Rafael in Seattle throughout the project’s development…
Are there plans for further collaborative efforts as Orcas?
BP: Yes; even though I’m living in the UK now we’re still exchanging ideas and working on demos of new songs in preparation for future recording sessions.. So, since we work so well together and share such a good wavelength, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to give up the project anytime soon.
RAI: Yes, absolutely, we are working on new material remotely, and plan to record some more this summer. That said – I really hope our listeners and listeners of this kind of music in general really supports our first album by buying it, either on a physical format, or thru any of the multitude of legal download stores. It’s beyond frustrating to put so much effort into an album, spent countless hours making something sound exactly how you envision it, only to find it “file-shared” as crappy-sounding MP3’s. What you listen on those low-res rips is not a very accurate representation of how it sounds on vinyl for instance. There is really no equivalent. So if you like our music, please support it by purchasing it.
Vivian Hua 華婷婷 is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares human-centered stories through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! In 2020, she will [hopefully] begin production on a comedic Asian-American series entitled Reckless Spirits.
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