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Interview: Fis & Rob Thorne Talk Collaboration and Musical Ecology

Interview: Fis & Rob Thorne Talk Collaboration and Musical Ecology

Chris Cudby / Tuesday 5th June, 2018 2:22PM

Sonic experimentalists Fis and Rob Thorne are re-imagining what forms New Zealand music can take, both individually and as a duo via their internationally lauded live shows and recordings. Hailing from Christchurch, electronic producer Fis aka Olly Peryman's unconventional sounds found eager ears in Berlin's music community, leading to performances at the Berlin Atonal festival, rave reviews in Resident Advisor, and an upcoming slot at Hobart's Dark Mofo festival alongside partner PYUR. Based in Palmerston North, Rob Thorne (Ngāti Tumutumu) is currently composer in residence at VUW, continuing his extensive research into the history and practice of taonga pūoro - Māori traditional musical instruments. His solo performances are known to guide those acoustic sounds into digital realms via the use of looping technology, as documented on his 2013 album Whaia Te Maramatanga

Brought together by a love of the unknown, Fis and Rob Thorne's work together explores the intersections of their creative practices and materialises new shapes in sound, as heard on last year's Clear Stones. With that record, an EP (Nga Parirau o te Karearea released via Peryman's ecologically focussed Saplings Records) and two European tours under their belts, the time is right for the duo to play together in Australasia for the first time. They'll be performing collaborative and solo sets at Wellington's Club 121Christchurch Art Gallery and Melbourne's Howler this month. Chris Cudby tracked down Fis and Thorne for a wide-ranging chat ahead of this week's Wellington show...

What sparked the idea for your upcoming New Zealand shows?

Fis: I knew I was going to be out in the area for Dark Mofo, and then it was... well if we're both going to be in New Zealand it'd just be really really rude not to play.

Did you have to pull Rob's arm?

Rob Thorne: Nah, I felt gutted I wan't invited to Dark Mofo though. [Fis laughs]

For readers who might not be familiar with your work, can you give us a rundown of your history of working together? What was the initial catalyst for you to start working together?

Rob Thorne: Olly was talking about me in a magazine, and I was like "wow, who's this dude?" So I tracked him down on Facebook and messaged him and said "Hey man let's work together."

Fis: I was doing a little pice of press for the Berlin Atonal festival, and they asked me who I would like to hear in the Kraftwerk venue, which is this huge decommissioned power station, the main site for that festival. And I said Rob for that piece of press, I think it was for the Quietus. I posted that up and then I got a message from Rob. Rob often says, when he meets another musician, a really good focal point for their relationship and getting to know each other and building a friendship and whatever, is to work together.

I think we agreed in conversation that we'd like to work on an album together. I mentioned that in passing with my representative at the time, and two week's later he'd mentioned that to a festival in Berlin called CTM, they're quite well funded by European Arts funding and all of that jazz, European Union funding and stuff, and then... they were doing an edition in early 2016 called New Geographies, and they flew Rob over to play with me for that.

Rob Thorne: They gave us three days in Red Bull Studios in Berlin.

What recordings came out of that?

Fis: Everything for Clear Stones was recorded then, and actually the most recent EP we've done (Nga Parirau o te Karearea), the same body of recordings.

Olly how did you become aware of Rob's work?

Fis: I can't actually remember specifically. I'd come across Richard Nunns' taonga pūoro work, that got me on to Rattle Records. I guess I was always going to Rattle from time to time. I think it was the same video that got Salina Fisher really pumped on Rob's stuff that also really caught me. He's playing putorino in Drurie Hill tunnel. Really crazy long, must be a ten second reverb. And it looks like Rob's just on his way home from work, like with his work boots on, then he plays some of the most amazing music I've heard in my life. Like no shit Rob. Because of the epicness of the long reverb, that's what got me thinking it would be so good at Kraftwerk, for Berlin Atonal.

When you first started performing together, did you need to explain the context of the instruments to the audiences in Europe? Is that an ongoing conversation that you need to have?

Rob Thorne: It is a conversation that happens and it is a conversation I have, but it's a conversation I want to have less and less with words. The renaissance or revival of the instruments has reached enough of a critical mass that there's plenty of information out there for people to find out in other ways. That doesn't mean I don't have a responsibility to continue the korero around what the instruments do and are for. But I also have come to realise, as a musician and an academic, that given the opportunity I'll talk much more than I'll play. So that was the concept, I remember talking to you about it actually, with Whaia Te Maramatanga which was that concept around let the instruments speak for an extended period with no human voice in there. No words and let the instruments do the teaching. Also, the instruments are in the process of finding new contexts, and maybe they're the ones, in whaikorero, they are the ones who should be in conversation with those contexts rather than people speaking for the instruments, or on behalf of the instruments.

Of course there's always this kind of Q and A. I did a show a couple of weeks ago with this four piece I've got going... we stopped between tracks and someone sort of went "Could you tell us about the instruments?" I said "no." It's not that I don't do that, I think the instruments need to speak more and more for themselves, or sing more and more for themselves. Maybe even something subconscious within me which is this whole, don't get me started, because I might not get any time to play, kind of thing.

I want to talk to the way we play live, because things changed with that second round of gigs, we developed a different mode to that first CTM mode and it became more integrated, and this round we're going to be even more live and more integrated, and it's something we haven't done yet. So Wellington's a testing ground, because I don't see Olly until two days before the show. I'm really looking forward to that, it's going to be something different again and possibly what we've been aiming for. We're in the act of becoming, we're not "there" and maybe even we never will be.

When you first got together and started playing together, were you surprised at what the results were?

Rob Thorne: We kind of got tangled up in some technical stuff that we probably didn't need to get tangled up in, due to the tech rider and the techs that were going to be doing the show.

Fis: That's right they freaked out entirely.

Rob Thorne: We have realised that, Olly works at 120 decibels and I use purely acoustic, very quiet instruments. My thoughts got kind of confused in communication with these people, my thoughts were "I'm not going to be able to hear myself to be able to play on the microphone"... In the process of that kind of discussion, we sort came up with a recipe of how we would play together, which was an answer / call sort of thing.

What we did at that show is not what Clear Stones is. Clear Stones is Olly and nine months with the .wav files. We did a little tour last year in Europe just as the album was made, and then we did another tour...

Fis: We played at a punk venue in Leeds... taonga pūoro at a metal punk venue in Leeds.

You released a collaborative EP late last year on Saplings Records, Olly could you tell us about Saplings Records and the ideas behind it?

Fis: That's like a dual purpose platform for music and eco-system restoration. I have this idea of using reforestation and ecological healing as a physical format for music. I was actually joking about it in my head today, I was like... If you went in a spaceship and headed away from Earth for ages, long enough for Earth to become this tiny little dot miles away, so small that it's just about to disappear entirely. From that distance or that long point of view, theres really not much of a difference between the closeness of the music, these .wav files, and the trees that are being planted alongside them. There's no real difference between that and the closeness of a track that's been cut into a vinyl disc. It's like saying perhaps everything on the planet, when you really step back, it's kind of one system.. you can understand that music has a really close energetic relationship with forests and with the ocean and ecologies in general. That's a little scenario that sums up some of the ethos.

People pay and then cash goes towards planting?

Fis: Because I don't own cast tracts of land to plant the trees myself, I probably would if I did, I've partnered with a reforestation non-profit called Eden Projects. They're quite deep in it now, they've been going for a decade and they hit some amazing critical mass with the size of their nurseries. They can plant now at about ten cents a tree. The base price for our new EP is four dollars US, it's a minimum forty trees for every sale.

Rob Thorne: I think it's great ours was the first EP because of the blend. Because my instruments rely on that reforestation. The sustainability of taonga pūoro relies on the sustainability of trees.

Fis & Rob Thorne are performing at Wellington's Club 121 on Thursday 7th June (see here for ticket info) and Christchurch City Art Gallery on Wednesday 13th June. Melburnians can catch the duo playing their debut joint Australian show at Howler on Wednesday 30th June.


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