Emerging from Wellington’s creative scene circa 2009, inter-genre, ancient future-funk outfit Orchestra of Spheres have since toured Europe and China, releasing two well-received albums – 2010’s ‘Nonagonic Now’ and 2013’s ‘Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music’. Amanda Mills bounced around with Nell Thomas and Daniel Beban as the wildly theatrical four-piece prepare to unleash a new recording, this one welcomingly titled, ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon’.
Orchestra of Spheres are a spectacle of music and costume, a genre-defying act expanding the boundaries of sound. Beginning life as part of Wellington’s Frederick Street Sound and Light Exploration Society, they came gigging – or rather, as they would have it, ‘terraforming through cosmic vibration and transporting the willing to a parallel orbit’– at popular local venues like Mighty Mighty and Freds. In the eight-or-so years since the band have gone on to develop a cult following here and around the world.
Known by their cosmic stage names, the band started off as a five-piece, but currently are four. Founding members guitarist Baba Rossa (Daniel Beban), Mos Iocoss (Nell Thomas) on synths and percussion (plus formerly theremin and gamelan), and E Tonal E on bass pedals along with replacement drummer Woild Boin all provide vocals. There is also an occasional fifth member, Spirit Elder.
“We’ve had our drummer’s daughter playing with us! She’s kind of an honorary fifth member, who… will hopefully just join us sometimes to play gigs. She’s 10 years old, and totally awesome,” Thomas smiles.
The band names serve as stage personas, taking them into different characters.
“It kind of goes with the whole costuming thing, just getting into a slightly different state, and having a whole different kind of character.”
Orchestra of Spheres’ upcoming album, ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon’ (out on Fire Records in May), was recorded at Wellington’s Pyramid Club, a creative think tank, and also their rehearsal room and studio. The band recorded the album over two weeks in summer 2014/15 with Riki Gooch, who assisted with recording, editing, mixing, and co-production of the album, before taking over from then drummer Tooth after the album was finished.
Wellington engineer Mike Gibson mixed and mastered the album on analogue equipment at his own Munki Studios. Ultimately, the process took six months.
“It’s not like it was super heavily edited, people’s timetables meant it was spread out over a long period of time!” Thomas says. “I was actually thinking more along the lines of some quite minimal music, thinking about the space between instruments,” Beban explains.
“Riki was really good like that, and Mike as well. He’d be like, ‘Why don’t we take out that track’… rather than add stuff to it.”
There was a musical concept of sorts for the album – bells. The band borrowed a set of bells from a Wellington bell-ringing society to feature on (almost) every track.
“Sometimes they’re more obviously placed than others, but the album opens with a bell feature piece, and then they’re spotted throughout,” Thomas explains. Album opener Bells literally rings in the band, the chiming bells balanced by the space between them.
‘Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon’ doesn’t have a theme per se, but does have an aural coherency, from what Beban says is “… playing the same instruments at the same time!” The title came from a poem he wrote.
“There’s a line in there, ‘Brothers and sisters of the black lagoon’… it’s quite swampy, and dark,” he smiles.
“We liked the slightly cultish sound… it was really dark any mysterious,” Thomas agrees.
There is a sense of mystery on the album, from the slinky guitar and rhythms of Reel World, to the hook-laden riffage of Anklung Song, which builds as the song goes on, the band joining in and underscoring the rhythm. The bells appear again on Let Us Not Forget, the band’s soft chanting serving to highlight the ominous sound. The album unfolds on closer listening, each layer revealing Orchestra of Sphere’s sonic intricacies.
While the band fully collaborate on most tracks, they have different approaches to song creation, though Beban often comes up with many initial ideas, including lyrics, grooves, the feels and lines.
“Sometimes we jam altogether and we record it, then we listen back and go, ‘Yeah let’s take that bit, and make it into a tune’. Other times Dan will come along with a bass line and drum feel, and maybe a melody line as well, and we’ll play on that, expand that,” Thomas explains.
The band’s press release for ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon’ notes “… we’re living in dark times”, so is the album a reaction to this?
“You just make this stuff up, you don’t think about where it’s coming from,” Beban laughs. “On reflection… the whole dirty politics stuff was going down, and the elections got all weird, and it was just all gross, and the whole supposed leadership of the world is just stinking… I felt like that atmosphere was… not really despair, but it’s kind of ‘urgh’.”
Beban is adamant that politics is not the point.
“Our band isn’t overtly a political band at all – it’s not something that we even try and think about! What we do is make beautiful music.”
However, Thomas thinks that external influences can’t help but creep in.
“Sometimes the political side of something, rather than being literal in the lyrics, it can be the choice to do something sort of subversive musically, or that you subvert a certain musical rule… We probably have our own meaning and association with the lyrics… the fact [they’re] freely open to interpretation is kind of political in its own way.”
The atmosphere around the recording of ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Black Lagoon’ was different to their last album, ‘Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music’. Thomas refers to the previous album as “stressed out” and pressured. This was mostly due to the limited time they had to record the album while on tour, with virtually no opportunities to redo any parts. This time was different, and Beban admits to a looser approach.
“I played around, had a bit more fun with the lyrics on this one, and also [kept] things quite dry, most of the vocals aren’t really processed at all, just quite natural.”
The band also utilised a live performance tactic – ‘thinking of a thing’ – where they begin playing whatever they think of at the time, independent of each other. They happily admit that this can generate some strange sounds, and it produced interesting results.
“Some ideas were quite different to the sound we just had, half-formed little ideas, just little things. We’d piece them together, and then go home and write some lyrics for them and come back the next day, and try to do it like that, rather than have a fully-formed concept,” Beban laughs.
The band are against labeling themselves with any genre, and the descriptions of their music as ‘primary school disco’, ‘orgasmic brainwave’, or ‘free improvisation’ came from the band – a reaction against pigeon-holing their sound.
“It’s annoying trying to make things into a genre,” Beban laughs again as Thomas concurs.
“I guess that’s why we’ve come up with these… not meaningless, but non-existent genres… it is so difficult to categorise what you do without feeling like you’re diminishing it.”
However, they do have a favourite created genre for their sound – ancient future funk.
“We came up with that and we probably stick with it,” Thomas laughs. “It’s quite fatiguing to have to work within the genre labels. Other times it’s just people’s way of making connections with what they know… it just sparks a memory of something else.”
Orchestra of Spheres have been compared to Sun Ra, and ESG, but feel they go their own way instead of following any musical touchstones.
“Definitely Sun Ra… that’s something that’s influential for all of us in different ways and as a group, but not like we sit down, listen to his stuff and try and copy it,” Thomas laughs.
Another key to their sound is their home-made musical instruments, though currently only Beban’s is his own creation.
“I play a biscuit tin guitar… and another thing which I made, I now use as a sampler. It’s sort of like an electronic marimba,” he explains.
“Over the years, we’ve had other kind of home-made stuff, like the gamelan instrument that I used to play,” Thomas explains.
“Dan adapted that to have pickups underneath, so that the sound was captured more easily, and able to be amplified. The bass instrument is made from the pedals from an electric organ, which can be hooked up to a synthesiser, so they act like a MIDI trigger… The main driving sound of Dan’s biscuit tin guitar is really key to the whole sound of the band… it’s quite distinctive.”
The band have a European tour lined up in May (their fourth) to promote and support their new album and they hope to tour through NZ in winter. They also hope to return to China after touring there last year, when a China-based friend asked them to play at a festival. The band built a small tour around it and totally loved the experience.
“We played a variety of venue gigs… and it was pretty amazing,” Thomas explains.
They had no clue who their audience would be, or if they would even have one. But, they did.
“It felt really fresh, it felt like people had anticipated the gigs – they were really looking forward to them, and they were really responsive,” Thomas smiles.
“There’s definitely more of an underground scene there,” Beban adds. “People are really kind of hungry to check out what’s… happening.” Orchestra of Spheres can happily satiate that hunger.