In 2008 The Sight Below released his debut album ‘Glider‘ on Ghostly International. Since then it’s been well-received in selected experimental/ambient circles and in the music world at large, gaining plaudits from international publications and musicians, including Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Three years on and Ghostly International have finally released a 2 piece vinyl edition of the LP celebrating the deep propulsive bass tones and achingly subtle electronics that lie within the veins of ‘Glider’ accompanied with remixes by Pantha Du Prince, Biosphere and Eluvium.
We took this opportunity to catch up with The Sight Below AKA Rafael Anton Irisarri to find out more about the man behind this dreamlike music and why it’s taken so long for a vinyl edition of ‘Glider’ to be released.
Can you please begin by introducing yourself to our readers, telling us where you’re from and what you’re currently up to?
At this moment I’m finalizing the details for Substrata 1.1, an intimate interdisciplinary arts festival I organize in Seattle. Just finished editing a book for it, which includes collaborative writing and photography by Jon Wozencroft (Touch), Lawrence English (Room40), and others. I’m also curating one stage at Decibel Festival, mixing an album by Eluvium, mastering a few projects in my studio here in Seattle, rehearsing with my trio for an upcoming show, etc, so yeah, just keeping busy as usual.
Before you began experimenting in your own musical voyage, you held a job in the music industry, who did you work for and what did you do?
I did some terrible contract jobs (pop junk really, really bad) for a major record company – sound design, mixing, remixing, etc. It’s completely irrelevant to what I do today. I have a special hatred in my heart for the “big six.” To say something positive, I did learn a lot, particularly how not to approach things and kill creativity in the process. The major label world is one insipid, uncreative, cloning factory, where only people willing to feed others ego and play their game can exist. What’s worst – it’s all about hype and hype as you know means nothing: popular today, gone tomorrow. Only art that comes from a genuine honest place makes a true impact.
Considering the dark undertones of your music and that you’re from Seattle I’m going to take the liberty and assume that you dabbled in the grunge / post rock scene. What is your musical background?
Actually, no, as a matter of fact – I wasn’t living in Seattle during the “grunge” explosion, so I missed all that thankfully! When I was a teen, my leanings were towards British music like Slowdive, Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division, The Cure, The Smiths, etc. I was of course into some of the “grunge” things, like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Screaming Trees. It’s really strange living in Seattle nowadays, for instance bumping into Mark Arm at a show, not that is a celebrity-sighting or anything, but if you grew up listening to the music, then it’s one of those like “oh, yeah, there’s the guy from Mudhoney standing next to me at this drone metal show”.
Before you coined and released your first record under the alias ‘The Sight Below’ you had already released an album under your birth name ‘Rafael Anton Irisarri’. With this moniker you explored sound via guitars and piano. What is the status of ‘Rafael Anton Irisarri’ and what does the future hold for this project?
I released an album last year titled “The North Bend” for Room40 (Australian label), which ventured into guitar and vinyl record manipulation (although not in a Phillip Jeck way). I didn’t use the piano very much, in fact, barely, just on one song. I had gotten a bit tired of getting pigeonholed into this “neoclassical” thing and felt I could do so much more than just another “piano+electronic ambiance album.” So in “The North Bend” there is a big classical influence in the compositions, just not so obvious or apparent on first listen. “The North Bend” has a very deceivingly simple quality – under a simple melody, there are many processes behind it, like sampling and re-sampling of re-sampled samples taken from vinyl, for example.
At this moment, I’m working on a trio version of my live set, which is comprised of piano, bowed guitar, laptop processing and a drummer. I love performing live, and as you may know, all of my sets are improvised, one of a kind affairs. I have this philosophy of giving the live performance the same value as any recorded work. So with the trio, we have some parts written out, but for the most part we are improvising on top of motifs – similar to what a jazz trio would do but coming from an entire different perspective. I run microphones from the drums and piano into my laptop and process, alter, create new sounds on the fly. It is very challenging but also very rewarding, as playing with others add a new level of depth and randomness to what I already do.
What’s the meaning behind the name ‘The Sight Below’ and what inspired you to coin that name?
It could mean anything, for instance like looking beneath the surface, and you may find beauty and melody – listen a few times and uncover different elements. Kind of like the way an old film works: I enjoy that old-movie quality [of] graininess that forces the listener to focus hard to uncover different details and small sounds that are hidden on first listen, but are there to be found and enjoyed with repeated listening. But it could also have so many different connotations; for instance, viewing a desolate landscape that is the remains of what could have been, that wasn’t, and that may never be.
How did your relationship with Ghostly International formulate?
I knew Sam (Ghostly International owner) for a while, as he liked my ‘Daydreaming” solo album. At one point he asked me for a demo, so I sent him some material that I had just started to work on and he liked it. So it kind of took off from there.
In 2008 you released your debut album ‘Glider’ as a CD on Ghostly International. It is now being re-released on vinyl. What factors led to the re-release, and why didn’t you originally press it onto vinyl?
I’m a big vinyl fan – all of my “solo” releases have been pressed on vinyl. I always wanted to have Glider on vinyl and people kept asking me about it, so there was definitely an interest from listeners. Of course, it’s a huge cost. Glider had some really amazing artwork (paintings by Michael Cina), so I only wanted to do it if we were able to make a really special packaging, so it took a while. So finally, this year we were able to do it properly, and I’m really grateful for it.
The vinyl re-issue includes a remix by Pantha Du Prince and Biosphere. Can you expand on both your working and personal relationships with these two artists and how these remixes came fruition?
I’ve known Biosphere for a couple of years now – he originally remixed “The Sunset Passage” for the Murmur EP back in 2009. I absolutely love his work and his remix if one of my favorites. I returned the favor, and ended up remixing some of the tracks on his new album (N-Plants). Touch is pressing it on vinyl this Summer as part of their ‘white-label” vinyl series. I’ll be seeing Geir in a few days actually, as he is coming to Seattle for Substrata 1.1 (festival I started and curate here in town).
With Pantha Du Prince is a story of disconnected coincidences – we’ve known of each others music for a while, but didn’t put two and two together until much later. Hendrik is a big fan of the Miasmah label (which released my Daydreaming album in 2007). At the same time, I liked This Bliss quite a lot when it came out, so eventually our paths crossed. Hendrik invited me to play shows with him last year in the US and it was really wonderful, we had a great time on the road. I did a remix for him and vice versa, he remixed one of my tracks. We did another tour in the US & Canada this year, which went really well and had some lovely times. We even got to collaborate live together which was always fun.
While I understand it’s almost inevitable to draw comparisons to frame a reference and give the public a general idea of the sound, one has to be quite careful when doing so. You are never certain of the process behind the artist or its intentions and, furthermore, it kind of devalues the work of both artists. I think this is the most important point: in this age of completely devalued music, where people don’t even want to buy music or the industry treats it as a cheap commodity, it really contributes to the problem. It creates the false perception that anybody can just listen to “X” artist and make “X-sounding” record, etc. It could also give the wrong impression on the actual processes behind an artist’s work.
Glider is all guitars, except for some very minimal percussion elements. This was not by design, but by accident. I would use the kick drum as a guide, a timekeeper while recording live in the studio. This is very different from Wolgang Voigt’s sample-heavy GAS project. And furthermore, where do you draw the line for comparisons? Why GAS (in this case) and not Yagya or Windy & Carl? What if it was a bit more on the dancier side, could it be compared to Pantha Du Prince because it is melodic? It’s a very slippery slope – I don’t pay attention to any comparisons, otherwise I wouldn’t be making any music – there is always one to be made and everybody is a critic.
What has been the single most prominent element that you have learnt from your musical career so far?
It’s all about the ups and downs and learning to balance them. Life as an independent artist is full of contradictions and one has to learn to accept and savor them – otherwise you’ll lose your mind easily. At the moment things ebb and flow, so it’s all a learning process and experience and figuring out how to survive.
Do you have set goals when writing music? Certain things you want to achieve with each composition, EP or album?
Yes, I have a very specific idea in mind prior to starting work on an album. I don’t write tracks just for the sake of it – everything has a purpose and a story behind it.
What inspires/influences you the most when creating your music?
My surroundings – the Pacific Northwest is a continuous source of inspiration. It is almost impossible for me to separate the Pacific Northwest’s aesthetic and imagery from the music that I make. I’m profoundly inspired by this region, not only from the obvious “rainy, gloomy skies” stereotype, but also folk & pop-culture references (think of David Lynch and his television-defining narrative Twin Peaks).
How you go about creating your music? What instruments and equipment do you employ and where do you spend the majority of your time creating music?
I spent most time these days secluded in the studio, not necessarily working on music, but thinking and creating a dialog with myself in terms of concepts and ideas. I’m very much into the unexpected experiments and accidents in the studio – in fact, I view my job to be managing those “accidents.” This is where I find myself the most comfortable. The unexpected is very inspiring to me.
Do you create music as a product of your inner reflection or as a product of what is physically in front of you?
Both – I enjoy the physicality of performing live and that has an impact on how I write. At the same time, most of the music i’ve written is based on free-form playing coming from an emotional response. Music-making served as a form of therapy for the longest time.
What are you currently working on and do you have any forthcoming releases?
I’m curating an intimate festival here in Seattle (Substrata), just finished working on a new project with Benoit Pioulard, did the remixes for Biosphere (upcoming 12” on Touch) and writing new material for live performances – I tend to write all new music and new sets for live shows too, so I’m constantly writing music in that regards. I’m also scoring a short film in August and curating one stage at Decibel Festival.
How are you developing your sound further?
Playing live definitely. Playing and collaborating with others is always nice. You learn so much from the process of spending time with other artists and musicians. I like working with similar-minded artists and kindred spirits. Artists I respect a lot and feel their input in the process. That’s the beauty of collaborating really, exchange ideas and communicating, while creating something new and fresh.
Apart form music what else do you spend your time on?
I’m a bit of hermit, so I don’t tend to go out very often. Whenever I do, you’ll find me at my local pub, a locally owned book store or record shop, the indie movie theater or a museum. I just went to the ‘Balenciaga and Spain‘ exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I was playing a couple shows in California last week and went over to check it out during the downtime. It was really lovely and inspiring.
I’m fascinated by culture, history, and languages – I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to those subjects. So I spend a lot of time watching documentaries or reading on those subjects.
Do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share?
I’m not a wise man, far from it, so I’ll quote somebody who is inspirational first. Lawrence English told me a couple years ago:
“You’ve got to have a line in the ocean to catch a fish.” This comment, which in turn came to him from a very unusual source, stuck with me to this day.
All I can offer is this: know yourself and your limitations and use those as part of your creative process. Keep your intentions honest.The Sight BelowGhostly InternationalJuly 2011AmbientDub TechnoExperimental