New album details

We’ve been holed up at Sam’s studio this weekend recording the studio follow-up to Granolithic, with a working title of Three Fountains. The result of the sessions is a very different record from Granolithic – it certainly feels more focused, more varied, and for the first time there are guitars along with the tubas, organ and percussion.

Another break with existing ORE convention is that there are a couple of cover versions, both of which will be familiar to those of you who have seen us in concert a number of times. We’re paying our dues to two men who have been a massive influence on us, namely Dylan Carlson and Mark Hollis – the covers are Ouroboros is Broken by Earth, and I Believe in You by Talk Talk. In view of the latter it’s no coincidence that all of the improvised material on the album is the very first recorded take.

Aside from a medieval French tune, C’est La Fin, there are four original pieces, two of which are completely new; Beyond Tree and Stone from our first EP, and Morton from the live album Gullet are present in radically reworked forms.

We’re very excited about sharing this album – even at a rough mix stage we’re confident it’s the best thing we’ve done. Onwards!

Oxbow Orchestra tour diary part 4.1 – Paris


I wake early to load the Land Rover; as I get to the hotel car park I discover I’m there just in time to unblock a couple of vans full of workmen.

We get back to the Union Chapel, our meeting point for departure. We are starving. Greg and Sam are, understandably, cold and aching after spending the night in the van, with only an insubstantial beer-blanket for warmth. There are no eateries immediately visible. We wonder whether the stylish but non-functional chairs in the shop next to the chapel are edible. I doubt it.

"Perhaps we could eat one of these?"

With Niko and Celine on the train to Paris, there’s more room in the main van, so David switches vehicle, leaving me, Sarah, and the two Sams in the Land Rover. We guess that we can get away without the roof bag, which necessitates more climbing.

"Can we bring step-ladders next time?"

The journey to Folkestone is relatively uneventful. Sam rings the Low Emissions Zone hotline and they’re ready to take £200 off us until he mentions that their website says that a first offence can receive a warning letter. He reinforces this by saying that we wouldn’t even have come if we’d known about it. There’s a brief moment of suspense as the lady on the other end goes to speak to someone; when she returns to the phone she tells Sam that a warning letter will be sent out and there’s no bill to pay. Phew.

The journey to the Channel Tunnel in itself is pretty uneventful; it’s once we get to the various security barriers at Folkestone that the high-jinks begin. First off, we approach a barrier that says “please declare all firearms”. I wind the window down and say “Hello, we haven’t got any!” in a cheery manner. The lady in the red jacket isn’t amused.

When we get to French customs, the gendarmes are about to dismantle a car two places ahead of us in the queue. At this point we’re already late as although Eugene has bought our return ticket, the flexible pricing has buggered up and if we want a sociable return time after the Belgium gig there’s another fee to pay.

One of the gendarmes approaches the Land Rover with something in his hand. I misunderstand his hand gesture and pull forward, nearly flattening him in the process. Oops. He’s not a happy man. He shouts at me. By the time I remember how to say “sorry” in French he’s several yards away, and his replying gesture suggests that if circumstances allowed, he would probably spit at me.

Luckily, the gendarme in the window checking passports is much friendlier once I try to explain myself in French. He finds my spoken French quite entertaining. This will become something of a pattern.

We now need to get the crossing ticket thingy updated to mid-day-ish on the day of the return journey. We have about 5 minutes to spare before boarding finishes for our train. The woman at the kiosk hasn’t phoned ahead. We miss the train.

Boarding closed. Arse.

We queue for the next one, and after half an hour, tootle along to the top of the ramp for approaching the train. A grumpy French chap has parked a car there to stop us from going. Distracted by all the shiny things and big trains in evidence, I fail to apply the handbrake, and it’s only when there are cries of “DON’T CRASH! DON’T CRASH!” from the back of the van that I realise I’m about to squash his car. Again, oops.

On the tunnel train, I set the Land Rover’s alarm off more than once. Apparently loud noises and flashing lights scare the train. Oops.

Calais, and driving on the wrong side of the road proves easier than expected. The others get very excited when we overtake slow-moving lorries (being rather slow-moving ourselves). Needless to say, we don’t have a prayer of catching Eugene in the Mercedes van – they’re long gone.

We stop at motorway services for lunch. French bins look like spaceships.

French bins look like spaceships

After Little Sam, Sarah and I watch a very rude Indian lady demanding that her (salad) sandwiches be heated up (greeted with a resounding “NON!” from the waitress) we change drivers. Mr. Underwood does a couple of laps of the car park accidentally by missing the exit and then we’re on our way.

At this point, it all starts to go a bit Spinal Tap.

<– Back to part 3

Oxbow tour diary part 3 – Union Chapel, London

22.10.12 – in which some intrepid adventurers head south in a rusty green Land Rover.

Sam arrives at my house at 8 a.m. in order to help sort through our tat – sorry, “merchandise” and secure the waterproof roof bag to the roof bars.This involves both of us climbing onto the wheels of the Land Rover. By the time we have finished we are absolutely filthy. And it’s only 8.30.

Yes, we're really going to travel almost 1000 miles in that thing

We meet the others at the Paragon Hotel in Birmingham, and find out that we may or may not have a gig in Paris as someone has apparently been murdered outside the club we were due to play. French law requires that the venue is closed down for a while, so we’re currently without a place to play.

We set off for the smoke. Our journey is pretty uneventful (the only one that will prove to be so) and we trundle down the M6 and M1 as fast as the Land Rover will carry us. Which isn’t very fast at all. That said, the hire van, with Eugene at the wheel, has a few problems when setting off, and despite the lumbering speed of the Land Rover, it isn’t until we’re a good distance down the M6 that they pass us.

As none of us usually drives to London, we are blissfully unaware of the Low Emissions Zone. We see a sign with a big green circle on it, and don’t give it another thought. Mistake. The Land Rover is, after all, nearly 20 years old.

View from the Union Chapel stage under the stage lights

The staff at the Union Chapel are perfectly lovely. The crew are helpful and considerate, we are fed some great home-cooked food, and best of all, we discover that one of Sam’s good friends has recently taken the post of musical director there. We soundcheck acoustically and then decide to take others’ advice and use a little amplification for reinforcement.

Niko rehearsing the string section backstage at the Union Chapel

The Oxbow material is starting to come together more – I’ve stopped counting some of the knottier time signatures in favour of simply watching Niko’s hands, and this is working better.

It’s only when I come to pay the congestion charge that the spectre of that Low Emissions Zone sign comes back to haunt me. TFL website informs me that I’m liable for a £100-per-day charge for driving the thing down the London streets. Ah, bollocks. Needless to say, I discover this just as we’re about to go on stage. We decide to play just two pieces in our set – “Rebirth” with Earth’s “Seven Angels” interpolated, and “Waltzing into the Doldrums” off the Beyond Tree and Stone EP. I take a few minutes to settle into it after the “this gig is costing me £200” shock, but once in the zone everything takes flight. “Seven Angels” feels massive and heavy, and the Union Chapel feels like the most appropriate venue ORE have ever played.

The Oxbow Orchestra set feels more together than it did at Supersonic. By comparison, Supersonic now feels like more of a rehearsal than anything. There is a mishap as Niko jumps around on stage a lot and manages to dislodge the power supply to his effects pedals, but otherwise things proceed well. Eugene delivers an electrifying performance which, we discover in conversation afterwards, has given more than one of us goosebumps. Our lips are flagging a bit. The idea of a night off in Paris is suddenly very appealing.

We stick around at the merch stall to meet some punters and sell a few copies of the album and the KK Null collaboration. I speak to one very friendly chap about classical music, and neither of us can remember Ligeti’s name. Later on he dives back in to shout “LIGETI!” at me and then runs back out again.

Backstage things aren’t running quite so smoothly.

It turns out that we can’t leave our gear in the venue and leave for Paris as early as we need to in the morning as none of the staff is at the Chapel early enough.

Marie (Mariexxme on YouTube etc.) who is a film-maker and friend of the group, has agreed to come to London with us instead of going back to Paris if she has somewhere to stay. It transpires that, for whatever reason, nothing has been organised and she doesn’t have anywhere to stay. ORE to the rescue! Sam and Greg, our sound man, agree to sleep in the van outside the venue; Sam’s bed at the hotel is taken by Marie. This seems only fair – especially as she has so graciously agreed to put four of us up in Paris the next night – and there’s no way we’d see her go without somewhere to sleep.

I pull the Land Rover into the hotel car park and – surprise, surprise – it’s already full. I block some large Transit vans in and leave a note on the windscreen. I speak to the man on reception, who has a terrifying scar on his head that looks as though he’s been very badly glassed in a fight at some point, and he doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

I shower, ring my fiancee for a quick chat, and so to bed.

<– Back to part two

Oxbow orchestra tour diary 2 – Supersonic Sunday

Supersonic Festival, 21.10.2012

An exhausting day.

Oxbow Orchestra soundchecking at Supersonic

With a 2-hour soundcheck scheduled to start at 11, performing at the subscribers’ “Tea Party”, and then sets with KK Null and Oxbow, we are anticipating premature exhaustion. We arrive reasonably fresh for the soundcheck and Tea Party, but after that we wander around trying to find somewhere comfy for a snooze.

Playing with Kazuyuki Kishino is challenging because of the sheer volume he employs. The composition he plays before we join in is trouser-flappingly loud, even observing from backstage, well out of harm’s way. The bass vibrations through the stage cause my chair to turn through nearly 360 degrees, while one of Sam’s tuning slides is rattled free from the instrument to land on the floor beneath. He only discovers this at the beginning of our performance as his tuba fails to make any sound and a friendly punter in the audience helpfully points at the hapless piece of dislodged tubing.

We get going and play “Waltzing into the Doldrums”. Kazuyuki joins us towards the end, and through the ensuing 20 minutes we play more loudly than we have ever done before. I throw caution and good sense to the wind, crank both my distortion pedals up full and indulge in a little feedback solo.

KK Null with ORE

Kazuyuki K. Null, Sam, and Stuart on stage in the Old Library

The set finishes. We are sweaty, and elated.

We have a few hours before Oxbow Orchestra takes the stage for the first time, and we use it to do very little, apart from generally shuffling about, catching up with a few people, and watching bits of Tim Hecker and Goat’s sets.

Then it’s time. Estell’s first law of Mikrophonie is that given a microphone and a cable, and an opportunity to fall over said cable presenting itself when swapping between instruments, I will do so with gay abandon. I nearly manage to destroy my microphone twice, with hilarious results. Thankfully Eugene and Niko cover for me pratting about in the background by having a nice chat with the audience.

The set hangs together remarkably well given the limited rehearsal time we’ve had; the audience response – as always for a Supersonic Festival – is warm and attentive, and we finish the evening as shattered as we expected, but happy.

Tomorrow: London.

<–Back to part one (rehearsals)             Part two: London –>

Oxbow Orchestra tour diary – part 1

20.10.12 – Saturday – Supersonic Festival

I’m the first to arrive at South Birmingham College for rehearsal. The Land Rover is full of effects pedals and general electronic gubbins not usually associated with tuba players. And my tuba, naturally.

(That may seem to be stating the obvious, but I did once set off for a brass band concert without it.)

The security guard is unexpectedly helpful, and when he realises that the combination of Land Rover and roof rack is far too tall for the college’s underground car park he volunteers to open up the side gates so that I can park in a kind of courtyard area at the side of the building. What a gent.

I bring my stuff in and loiter for a while, finding coffee and doing a few technical exercises as warm-ups. Sam is next to arrive, followed by Lorna who is our “artist liaison” person. For someone who was up until silly o’clock the previous evening she is effusive beyond belief. I went to bed early and am by far the groggier.

When Oxbow’s Niko Wenner it turns out that the impression he gives when communicating by email is completely accurate – he’s a true gent: quietly spoken, and an obviously passionate musician. We rehearse a few tunes with Niko and Philippe, our second guitarist for these concerts. They’ve been given Blackstar amps for the day, and their guitars chime with lovely valve tone. Our tubas reverberate nicely, the sound bouncing off the high ceiling.

The rest of the musicians arrive gradually – first more brass players, then the strings. By the time we’ve all worked together through the numerous and often thorny time changes in a couple of songs it already feels like we’re already a band. The vibe of the whole enterprise is wonderful, and when Eugene starts to add vocals it’s clear just how special these performances are going to be.

Oxbow Orchestra rehearsal

From left to right, Kasia, Eugene, Niko, Philippe, David, Alexa and Alexis

The first artist I want to see is Dylan Carlson; his new DRCarlsonAlbion project is a strange beast, with his laptop providing beats and spoken word for the first two pieces, after which he’s joined by a singer and percussionist. Highlights are a solo improvisation on “The Faerie Round”, which is an Elizabethan lute piece, and the group’s version of “Reynardine”. There’s lots of potential in this, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves. I catch up with him after the set and give him a CD copy of our album – he’s the first to receive one – and a spanking new ORE t-shirt, which I promised him ages ago.

I then wander over, at Sam’s suggestion, to see the Corsano/Flower Duo. They’re obviously great musicians but I’m not in the right frame of mind for what they’re doing and retreat to the Old Library for Jarboe, whose dark cabaret-style performance is mesmerising. What a voice. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never heard her before, but as is so often the way with Supersonic, I’m only too glad to have been introduced to someone whose work I want to investigate further.

After a bit of Bohren and Der Club of Gore, it’s time for Merzbow with Oxbow. After a lengthy intro with live drums, Eugene stalks on stage, moving slowly and deliberately towards the mic stand. I’ve never seen Merzbow live before, and I’m struck by how peaceful the whole thing is, despite the enormous volume. I find myself slipping into an almost meditative state, with my eyes closed. I open them and look round. There are a lot of people doing the same thing; someone down the front, though, is dad-dancing and waving his arms around, despite the fact that there is no discernible pulse to the music.

Eugene departs, Niko arrives and wrestles an entirely suitable squall from his Les Paul to complement Merzbow’s noise-storm. Just as suddenly as it began, it ends. I’m converted.

I want to see Zeni Geva but it’s going on 10:20 and I’ve had a chest infection for the last couple of weeks. Anticipating several days of sleep deprivation, I amble off into the night to pilot the Land Rover home and get some sleep.

Go to part two

What do all those things on
the floor do?

In advance of our performance playing support for OM at the Rainbow Warehouse in Digbeth, here’s some proper effects-geekery which may be of marginal interest to folks who enjoy making a racket with amplified tubas. Of which there aren’t all that many. Hey ho.

I’ve recently made some changes to my live setup to remove some kit that wasn’t, in the final analysis, working too well. The Danelectro “Reel Echo” tape delay simulator I’ve used previously may come back into play at some point if we can find a way of stopping it from clicking when brought into the circuit.

Also gone is the Bass Big Muff. Amazingly, despite how good it is with electric bass, it simply doesn’t give a meaty enough distorted sound with tuba when used with settings that prevent constant howling feedback. At higher gain, it’s OK, but then there’s all the screeching, and The Jesus and Mary Chain we are not.

My biggest recent revelation was my discovery of Blackstar equipment. If you don’t already know, Blackstar comprises various folks who used to work at Marshall, and are dedicated to producing high-end valve-based gear. Buying the HT-DIST (HT stands for high tension – because they come with a step-up transformer to give you the necessary voltage) was a bit of a gamble, because you can’t try pedals out with a tuba in a guitar shop. BUT the gamble paid off. This thing is magnificent with tuba. It preserves all the low end and you get a fabulous warm, rich, distorted sound.

In place of delay I’ve added my EHX “Ravish Sitar” pedal. It not only processes the signal to give a sitar-like lead sound (which I turn right down to get the dry signal only) but has a second output which gives sympathetic resonance, just like having loads of sympathetic strings on an Indian classical instrument, without quite so much faff in tuning them. It allows you to select the scale you want – tonight, Matthew, I’ll be using an Eb Raga Bhairav scale, and even program in custom ones. Appropriately enough, it has a nice “om” symbol on it, too.

Rehearsal videos – 1st July 2012

2012 has been a year of refinement and development for both of us – both in our individual playing and what we do as a group. The sound of ORE is constantly evolving; there’s more improvisation than ever before, and much stronger melodic material. We’re also placing a significant emphasis on our material working acoustically, without any support from amplification or effects. We have also both stopped shaving our heads and have newly-impressive flowing locks. Or something like that.

To that end – here are a couple of videos of our rehearsal on Sunday the first of July.

A tune that we first played live in Bristol earlier this year is “Rebirth”. This has become a more flexible structure as it’s gone along, and is working quite nicely now.

Those of you who have seen us play live will have heard us do Earth’s “Ouroboros is Broken”; we’ve now added “Charioteer” from the Pentastar album. Stuart plays his Wessex “Bubbie” travel tuba on this tune, giving the lead line a lighter tone than usual.

Day 3 – Technical glitches

It’s been a slightly frustrating morning with microphone troubles but some new tunes have been borne from it.

While Sam, Alex and David were trying to make sense of the strange things happening with the contact mic on Alex’s contrabass clarinet, I wrote up and developed a couple of ideas that cropped up during yesterday’s improvisations. We also have a new cover – and not by an established doom act this time. I’ll be both surprised and delighted if anyone manages to identify it when we play it live…

The technical support department doing some emergency soldering

The technical support department doing some emergency soldering...

Audio – “In Hungary They Used to Burn Bagpipers”

We have made some audio available on the Downloads page – a rough demo of the tune “In Hungary They Used to Burn Bagpipers”.

The recording is now a few months old, and is of a version of the piece for three tubas, multi-tracked by me. Those of you who have followed this project from the beginning will recall that ORE was originally a trio before it settled into its final core of Sam and me.

The reference to Hungary in the title is two-fold: firstly, as you may already have guessed, it’s in tribute to Mayhem and Sunn O))) mainstay Attila Csihar, but also to Gyõrgy Kurtág, the great Hungarian composer of small-scale yet massive music, and Bela Bartók, whose piano music I enjoy playing.

I don’t remember why I had a vision of bagpipers being burned at the stake, but “dudasók” (bagpipes) is one of the few inoffensive words I know in the Hungarian language, which doubtless had something to do with it…

The whole thing is due for a revisit; this certainly isn’t the piece’s final form. I’m looking at adapting it for two tubas and contrabass clarinet for our collaboration with Alex Sramek in February.

The live birth of ORE

Well, we did it.

I’ve taken a fair few musical risks in my time, one of which involved learning to play jazz chords on tenor banjo in a matter of days. Don’t ask. None of these compares with the risks we took with ORE’s live debut at Supersonic 2011.

For a start, when we began working on this project in earnest in early 2011, Sam had only played a tuba once before, and then more as a noise source rather than by using any conventional techniques. The dedication and time required to develop the necessary stamina on an instrument like the tuba was enormous, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone make that sort of progress on a brass instrument before.

Add to that already massive undertaking the technical challenges involved in amplifying the instruments, and there’s an awful lot that could have gone wrong. Mercifully, nothing did.

Best of all, we’ve both enjoyed the experience enormously.

So, where next for ORE? Musically there is a lot of exploring to do – what can the genre of drone/doom encompass when its bedrock is bass brass instead of guitars and feedback? We don’t know, but we intend to find out. We know that there’s lots to explore with regard to our live sound too. Intensity is everything.

Thanks to everyone who came to see us at Supersonic, especially those who couldn’t get in! We hope to see you at the IKON gig in November.

– Stuart