By Paul Ballard
Photo by Pat Shepherd
The accompanying media release confirms it, Stories From Elsewhere is definitely Rhian Sheehan's most evocative album to date. His first full-length work since Standing In Silence (2009), this release continues Sheehan's exploration of the ambient, with plenty of interesting aspects along the way.
From the haunting to the playful, this album comfortably transgresses Ambient and Post-Rock genres, and all with Sheehan's principal vision of always retaining and celebrating the 'live'. Alongside contributing artists such as Jeff Boyle (Jakob), Raashi Malik (Rhombus), Steve Bremner (The Adults) and string players from theNZSO, this new release marks another landmark in a hugely successful career for Sheehan.
I had the privilege of catching up with him to discuss his love of musical boxes, playing ambient live and the world of Elsewhere.
So this is your first full release since the amazing 'Standing In Silence' tour? People are still talking about that Mercury Theatre show. Does this new album continue along the same lines?
Yes it does. I guess it's that emotional resonance that really pulls people in and I think the fun thing about playing this music live is that not many people are doing it that way. The audience really gets to see where all those sounds are coming from. All those big ambient sounds that people might ordinarily associate with synths or whatever, are in fact live instruments and guitar textures...
So the very creation of those sounds becomes part of the experience too?
I guess that's what I have been trying to do with the last three releases. My earlier stuff was more electronic and I kind of got bored with that, especially in a live environment. There's only so much you can do with a laptop and a keyboard pushing buttons - that's just boring - so for me it was a natural progression out of that electronic world into something that was far more organic and real. In saying that, when I was working onStanding In Silence, I wasn't actually thinking about it in a live context at all, so when there was a demand to do some shows it was actually quite hard to work out how to do it at first.
Now that you have successfully been able to create a live environment as part of the bigger picture, was that something that helped shape the sound on this new album?
Definitely - this is a much more 'live-friendly' album. There's a lot more string section pieces on it from members of the NZSO, and we have a showed planned at the Opera House in Wellington this coming July which will include a 16 piece string section. Hopefully we will bring it to Auckland too, if we get an audience for it. I am big fan of that sound, I love hearing string sections live and the way that melds with what Jeff Boyle and I are doing on guitar I find intriguing. It's such a beautifully layered texture, it's like a drug for me [laughs]. I just love it!
That's a quotable quote right there...
Totally, but unfortunately I don't get to do it live often enough. I'd love to play live more, but the shows themselves are hard to just play at things like festivals. I mean, those are seated shows and you need to be able to capture the audience, pull them in. There's also the fact that the music is quite ambient so it just wouldn't work around the other acts. I get asked to play all the time in small venues and do a 'mini' version of it; you know, just stand there and play on a laptop with visuals - no way! That's not what this is about. It's about the experience of seeing real musicians and their music and we realised with the two previous releases that there definitely is an audience for it here in New Zealand. Selling out the Opera House for the last tour was like "wow, people actually want to come out and listen to live ambient music?". And when you think that this also encompasses orchestral and cinematic, that actually gave me hope. For this album I had about 20 ideas before I started boiling it down into the final 12 tracks and how I was going to translate that into a live event was definitely something I was thinking about.
The ambient nature of this new album has an eloquent innocence about it, almost child-like in places. Can you talk more on the inspiration behind it?
I am a big collector of old musical toys. One of the main instruments on the album, used in 'Nocturne 1985' in particular, was this old 80s keyboard which is just this crazy little toy. You get to sample your own sounds and it has an 8-bit sampler which makes everything sound... well... old [laughs] or nostalgic - almost other-worldly. It was all about experimentation really, and the music boxes also popped their head up again on this album, as there really is something about that sound. I wanted to have this journey that delved into the micro-world, almost like you were really close to something very small and then went as far away as possible into this huge kind of cosmos of sound. This album kind of does that; it dives in and out of those landscapes.
It created an amazing calm in my house while it was playing...
That's great to hear.
I suppose by its very nature, it could allow the listener to fully engage or simply sit in the background experiencing an atmosphere?
Totally; I often hear from people who listen to my music whilst working - at a computer or jotting away on something. They tend to like my sound because it kind of permeates in the background. I guess if it had songs or had lyrics it might make you wander off into that world too much and become a distraction.
I suppose that is the art of any composer really - to ensure that they find that correct balance between emotion and context?
Exactly, it's just about toying with the listener's emotions really. That's pretty much what writing instrumental music, or any type of music is about. It really is about making somebody actually feel something, otherwise what would be the point? [laughs] I do a lot of soundtrack work which is pretty much my day job and actually being able to get my own stuff out there in album form is a great feeling. It's not as ephemeral as writing soundtrack music, which kind of disappears and people forget about it; especially with some of the television work which you can pour your heart and soul into for a couple of months, and then it will be shown once and it's gone. That's a hell of a lot of work emotionally, so in a sense it's far more rewarding releasing music on a CD that people can listen to, buy and enjoy.
Was there anything you did differently with the production on this new album - any new techniques or locations?
A big part of the mixing sonic was working with Lee Prebble in Wellington, who's a real talent working with Phoenix Foundation and The Black Seeds. I don't think he had really worked on this kind of music before, so he was really into it. He has this huge plate reverb from the 1960s that we ran all the strings through and it just gave it that real nostalgic quality. That was an important part of the process, I mean I could have simply gone and mixed it myself but it was nice working with someone else who had a different ear from mine. I think that really added to the quality of the sound.
It must be great to retain that analogue process through your work and keep things relatively lo-fi, especially when we are surrounded by so many technological gadgets?
Yeah, totally! Like with Standing In Silence a friend and I put contact mics on a real music box and we had 600 music boxes made with the melody on them from the album, which we gave away with the first 600 copies. It was a nice little way to get people to buy physical [laughs]. Actually, I had an amazing experience when I met Jónsi Birgisson from Sigur Rós a couple of years back in Sydney. I gave him a music box and he was just blown away by the idea that it was something that was physical from the album. He was mesmerised by it and was walking up to people and playing it to them. It's that idea of holding something physical from the music that intrigues us all I think.
I suppose it works in the same way as the album artwork, in that it adds an extra dimension to the overall experience. For this new album was the artwork done in tandem with the actual production, or was it something that came out of the final result?
Well I was always a big fan of artist Kieran Rynhart and I approached him midway through the production of this album. I had seen one of his other pictures in a gallery, which was similar in style, and I fell in love with it. It was like my own music talking back to me - it was almost like seeing it in a visual context and that completely blew me away so I bought it. I rang him the next day and explained that I had this idea for the album which we worked on, and he did an amazing job, especially the brilliant piece he did for the inlay of the album...
...and there's a video too?
Yeah, there's a video for the track 'Little Sines' that another friend of mine Matt Pitt animated. He basically took the two main images from the album, created layers and turned it into a video, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. He literally took a 2D world and turned it into a 3D one, which is incredible.
So would you say that this is an 'album's album' - if you know what I mean? Something that would be better listened to in full?
To me it all works as a whole - it's cohesive. I was up at a radio station before and they asked me to pick a favourite tune from it and I found it quite hard to pick one. Obviously we have to be able to release single tunes from it - that's the industry and there are a couple of tracks like 'Nocturne 1985' and 'Little Sines' that are getting airplay, but they aren't necessarily my favourites. One of my favourites is 'Somnus', which is a seven minute long ambient crescendo that goes into this huge world at the end, which was incredible fun to make but maybe not particularly radio-friendly [laughs].
So is this a style you will be continuing to explore?
I think so. I don't really think about actually making an album and like I said before, with this one it wasn't until I had about 20 ideas that I thought "hang on, I might have an album here!" It's a strange process [laughs]; to me it's very ambiguous and I've learnt over the years not to screw with it; when it feels like a natural time to put things down in the studio then I kind of roll with it. In regards to the style, the EP I released before this was extremely ambient so that was me kind of getting that out of my system. I may do something like that again, although I have this idea in the back of my head that I would love to write a series of string pieces, kind of leaning more towards the classical. It would entail some work getting the right players and the right engineers, but it's definitely something I'd love to look at.
I suppose it simply reinforces the idea that there's no strict pattern, because there really doesn't have to be one?
Totally. It's always hard for me to talk to people about it, because I don't really understand the process myself [laughs]. But I guess that's the beauty of it all.
Stories From Elsewhere is available via Loop Recordings now.