Amongst the many Australian Musical Festivals that so many of us recognise as the main circuit of independent and alternative music, there are many that nestle with the cracks that hold it all together, those smaller festivals that break with tradition both in music and location and offer something refreshing and hugely influential. One such weekend musical celebration is the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM). In early 2014 long-time friends and collaborators ‘Marco Cher-Gibard’ and ‘Ben Speth’ created laptop and electric guitar duo SISTER, with the aim of creating exceptional immersive, transcendental soundscape experiences. Introducing to you Ben and Marco.
Through the power of Google we have of course, searched out a little more about the both of you and discovered that your artistic direction and experience is broad and unique. Can you share with us a little more about each of your artistic past and journey?
Ben: I moved to NYC when I was 19 cus I had fallen in love with the city and its music: The Dolls, Television, Suicide, The Velvet Underground etc. NYC scared me: there was the imperative to create yourself thru art. I went to clubs and bars and drank a lot; rent was cheap, I lived in a squat. All the aforementioned bands were gone by the time I got there, but there was a burgeoning hardcore scene at CBGB’s – Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Kraut, SOA – and at The Knitting Factory you could see Sonic Youth on a Thursday and Sun Ra on a Friday. At 8 B.C. and the Pyramid Club, performance art, dance, comedy, drag and music were all getting mashed together. I worked on films, documentaries and commercials, learned how to be a cinematographer, started painting and writing; I went to galleries, movies, clubs, the theatre and the opera, and I always had a guitar.
Marco: I’ve always been in love with bass. From a young age I found dub and would read any Jamaican music history I could get my hands on. When my family eventually settled in Adelaide I was able to enroll in a high school stream that focused on music. I chose bass guitar. I was a good listener but a terrible reader. I soon stopped lessons and began playing socially, which is where improvisation came in. It was a fun and a practical way to approach music. For the better part of high school, I lived the privileged life of a teenage rock’n’roll cliché. It involved jamming in bedrooms with shirts flapping… Fast forward to now and I’m doing the same thing! Except the bass guitar is gone and now I sample guitars and pitch them down… So I guess that early stuff was pretty formative. In between this I left a BA majoring in politics and English and eventually ended up at RMIT where I studied Fine Art majoring in sound. Apart from bringing me to Melbourne it taught me a lot and put me in contact with a lot of new and interesting people. Perhaps most importantly, fine art gave me something to rebel against. I’d experienced a lot of conceptually driven and justified music and it helped me to realise that my gut was just as valid.
Your collaboration, sister, will play at this year’s Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, can you share with us how you both came to bring sister together?
Ben: We met at an art fair in Avoca, Victoria. I was documenting the event (with a video camera), Marco was installing some work; we were staying at the same motel. At the time, I was part of a music collective called fontaine. I asked Marco to join us. When fontaine fell apart, Marco and I kept working together.
Marco: To this day it’s hard to believe that the rest of fontaine allowed me to play with them. Imagine a guitar, a sometimes vocalist/trumpet player and a trombone/anything player and me wrestling with my software trying to learn how to sample things… we made such a racket. It was fun I guess. When I realised I liked sampling the guitar and pitching it down it was a bit of a penny drop moment. Something about the harmonics of string instruments: they sound great slowed down. The name sister means different things to me. At the time it represented a relatively unexplored relation and I was in the position of having two half-sisters (one on my mother’s and one on my father’s side). I’d only relatively recently became aware of Leila, we hadn’t made contact and all I knew was that she had begun University in New Zealand.
Ben: One day Marco came over and I was listening to Sister Ray, feeling sad cus Lou Reed was dead and Marco had never heard that song and he said, ‘man, that is totally techno!’ I understood that to be some kind of endorsement.
What is your process of creative collaboration?
Marco: I play a sampler and other bits of electronics. Essentially I have an option to sample myself or Ben. That’s my starting point. My sampler is custom software so it changes, gets tweaked over time. I would describe much of my process in sister as explorative for sure. Through listening and playing I explore the relationships between myself and Ben, technology, space and time. I constantly butt heads with things I can’t do or things I want to do and I move forward from there.
Ben: Listening. Everything starts with listening, followed by a gesture/idea. Or the other way round; still always you gotta listen. Our music is improvised, nothing is written down –things are discussed; playing is a negotiation. We talk about density, space and time, timbre, tone and rhythm; playing with or against what’s on offer; we listen for new sounds, try to surprise ourselves, each other.
Comparative to the music that we seek out at The Wandering Lamb, sister, offers a completely different experience that equally excites us. What draws you to writing and making what you create?
Ben: I make music with Marco cus it gives me pleasure. I’m learning how to listen better; I’m hearing new and different things everyday, and I’m learning how to move feelings and ideas thru the guitar into space.
Marco: For me it is kind of compulsive. I love playing with Ben because it’s so much more strange, difficult, fruitful, surprising and rewarding to interact with another human. sister is much more than the sum of our two parts, I feel. What we create is the result of our combined practice. It’s cooperative but in no means strictly defined. It’s something we do a LOT because its fun and the process is rewarding. We record pretty much every time we play, wherever we play. That’s what’s in our archive.
Marco, your CV is strong on collaboration and your performance history, internationally rich. Can you share and tell us more about an exciting experience of the last 2 years?
Marco: A couple of things come to mind but one of the strongest memories is from Nature. I’d been on tour with a theatre company and was visiting a Pisco region called the Valle del Equi, Chile. I awoke to the sound of an enormous and escalating mid-range rumble, my bed shaking me awake as much as the sound. It was an earthquake. Above the noise I could hear the Polish girls across the courtyard getting ready for the apocalypse and Lucia, the hostess, screaming from her door opposite them to not worry, ‘it is just a little one’. The sound of it all was incredible. As I lay there, shaking in my bed and slowly coming to my senses the peak of the quake passed and began to subside. It was like the most beautiful and exquisite fade out I’d ever sensed because it was aural and physical at the same time and it was terrifyingly smooth. If there is a god, they had their hand on that fader. It was sublime – so perfect it was scary. Finally the vibrations were so small I could no longer feel them. All the animals where going crazy. I wish I could recreate it for others.
Ben, as a guitarist, you break tradition with your instrumentation, was this something you set out to do or did this evolve naturally? What inspired you to take a different approach to the guitar? Have you explored more “commercial” avenues? If not, would you?
Ben: I don’t think of myself as ‘breaking with tradition’ – some of my favorite guitarists were in pop bands, Hendrix, Andy Gill (Gang of Four) Greg Ginn (Black Flag) Keith Levene (PiL). I play the way I do cus of the company I keep: when we first started playing together Marco suggested I try to make noise using the guitar. That really freed me up. Now, I try not to make any distinction between noise and not noise– it’s all sound. My role in sister is to make appropriate contributions within a given context. That contribution may be a chord (though I rarely play trad chords – I like making-up my own shapes) or it may be scraping a string against a pick-up. The idea is to make a sound that contributes to, supports, pushes, challenges what’s going on at any given moment.
Have you explored more “commercial” avenues? If not, would you?
What could be more commercial than sister? It baffles me why our album has not yet sold-out… (TWL response – TRUE!)
The Wandering Lamb will be attending its first BIFEM this year, we are excited to expand our horizons with new music as and as lovers and supporters of live performance. What we can expect to experience from sister?
Marco: We will not use any amplification other than my bass amp and Ben’s guitar amp. I’ll be disappointed if the loud bits don’t feel loud and I can’t find a resonant frequency of the room. Expect omnipotent bass and vibrating surfaces, moments of piercing feedback, explosions of electrical crackle and twisted sonorities. Ultimately it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen because we are a duo based in improvisational practice. We’ve called our piece ‘work’ because we think the performance will reflect our work to date. Expect to witness a dialogue through sound, the culmination of many hours spent together tickling our ear brains.
Ben: One thing you can expect from a sister show is hearing something neither you nor we have ever heard before. That, to me, is exciting and terrifying. Matt Adey, lighting designer, artist and all-round good guy, will be mucking about with some lights and a smoke machine and there will be free beer and whiskey, maybe some popcorn or chips. We are thrilled to be on the bill at this year’s BIFEM!
The Wandering Lamb exists for a simple philosophy “A Love for New Music, An Urge to Share”. Can you share with our reader’s new music you are listening to and a bit about why it’s worth our ears?
Marco: Steven Julien’s record Fallen has been my most significant discovery recently. I love the timbres and how it speaks some kind of post dance music language. It is rich, playful and simple at same time. I like how coherent the record feels as a whole, too. I can only imagine or speculate as to all the influences that have come together and how they found expression through this individual. Omar S’s The Best is a deceptively brilliant pop record (eek, I know some people will hate me calling it pop) and DJ Manny’s Loud Pack Music is basically incredible. Its use of repetition is so devastatingly hypnotic and relentless I find it fascinating. The polyrhythms and the casual violence of deploying such cheesy sounds and vocal samples in such simple but effective ways are gripping and absurd at the same time. I know it’s been out for a little bit, but electronic music just seems to march on and on at such an absurdly fast pace. It’s easy to miss things so sometimes you have to revisit things from, like, February!
Ben: Other than Martin Kay’s awesome new work, STADIUM (Avantwhatever), I’m not listening to much new music; it’s the way I’m listening that is new (to me, anyway), juxtaposing bands, era’s, genres: Albert Ayler with Monteverdi’s Orfeo; The Dream Syndicate with Hank Williams. I don’t know what it is that makes me react a certain way to a succession or collection of notes/tones – I would like to know and be able to replicate those notes, those feelings.