Combining a drummer with a punk/hardcore background, a champion turntablist and a Mongolian throat singing exponent The All Seeing Hand are challenging on numerous levels. Off-kilter rhythms, futuristic mechanical drones and ancient chants somehow come together to make impossible to describe music that can somehow lull you into a trance. Primarily a live act, Aabir Mazumdar spoke with the Wellington trio of Jonny Marks, Ben Knight and David Morrison about their newly released fourth album ‘Sand to Glass’.
The All Seeing Hand is a Wellington-based band comprised of now close friends Jonny Marks (vocalist and throat singer), drummer Ben Knight and turntablist David Morrison (aka Alphabethead).
They have a strikingly unique sound, partially due to the staggeringly disparate, multi-stylistic influences being brought to the table by the three members, and partially due to their conscious efforts to avoid mimicking those influences, thereby creating something truly original.
Their most immediately evident point of difference though is Marks’ extraordinary throat singing.
“I think each of the three of us brings really quite different influences to it,” explains Knight. “The drumming is definitely heavily influenced by the punk tradition of frantic, energetic, fast drumming. And that sort of fuses with David’s hip hop background and Jonny’s experimental background to push me in different directions that I would never go in otherwise.”
Nodding agreement, Marks elaborates.
“We never approach the music making process with a model in mind. We never approach it as a genre specific thing in a hole. The decisions we make are informed by the music itself.”
This approach, in tandem with their individual idiosyncrasies and disparate backgrounds, has coalesced into the genuine creature that is The All Seeing Hand.
Morrison has been a DJ and turntablist for several years now but originally he studied physics and computer science, hoping then to eventually build his own audio and music equipment. He amusingly admits that this plan never bore fruit and he found himself turning to performing.
“I fell in love with sample-based hip hop when I was a teenager and I wanted to get into it, so I got turntables.”
Knight, originally from Dunedin, studied cognitive neuroscience but played in punk bands throughout his time at university. Where the two worlds met for him was when he came across an album by a French experimental musician from the late ’60s called Pierre Henry.
“He put electrodes all over his own head and then converted his brain activity into signals for a synthesiser and there’s this crazy album called ‘Cortical Art’ which is just his brain signals going through a synth and making this insane music. And one of the first things we did was David cutting that up and me improvising drums to it and that was one of the things that worked really well.”
Knight also plays the drums in bands Unsanitary Napkin and Rogernomix.
Marks, who studied sonic arts at Victoria University, has spent a considerable amount of time travelling through China and Mongolia.
During his time there he was able to further develop his talent for the traditional Mongolian art of throat singing, which heavily features in their music. Throat singing, also known as overtone singing, produces an unusual and exotic sound where resonance paired with timbral shaping is the primary form of manipulating the voice. This is different from more conventional forms of singing where the primary focus is on melody.
He also brought back a tovshuur, a two-stringed, traditional Mongolian instrument mainly used to accompany the voice. The instrument is featured on Rag & Bone, the last track on their ‘Sand To Glass’ album.
The others initially started jamming when Knight was part of a band called Teen Hygiene and Morrison was performing as Alphabethead.
“Me and David started jamming together, fully improvised drums, turntables and sampler. We used to just turn up with no prep, just turn up to a show and play for half an hour to forty minutes”, recalls Ben.
Knight remembers his first time seeing Morrison perform as Alphabethead.
“As soon as I saw him beat-juggling Deep Purple I was like, ‘Yeah this guy gets it. I wanna make music with him.’”
Knight and Marks met for the first time when that pair were having a jam in an old church. Marks walked in and started singing over the top of what they were playing.
“It was so full and loud but we could still hear it well and we just had a really good half an hour of playing together, and then David introduced us,” Knight recalls. Dave exclaims,
“It was so rude! Morrison laughs loudly. “I hadn’t seen Jonny in like five years. We didn’t even stop playing. A good friend would have thought, “Let’s stop and talk,” but I was like, ‘Nah’.”
They had already worked with a number of vocalists but agree now only felt the band was complete once Jonny Marks got involved.
Released in December 2016, ‘Sand to Glass’ is the group’s fourth album.
“The aim for me at least is I’d love for people to have an album that they actually give a shit about,’ says Knight. “That’s why we always press things to vinyl, so that they can have a physical object, that has artwork that they get lost in, that they’ll really sit down and listen to from start to finish.”
Despite being influenced by various styles of music, including many traditional varieties less exposed to western audiences, The All Seeing Hand do not adhere to formal structures or traditional musical organisations when composing. The approach seems to focus on capturing and translating the live experience into a recording.
That said, the overdubbing textures and parts can help describe an experience truer to the way they sound live.
“I suppose the (recording) process is about how to best serve the music,” says Marks. “We’re a really live band and it’s about how to translate that sense of movement and intensity that happens in a live setting.”
The majority of the recording was done by Vanya Vitelli in a DIY studio by the airport in Wellington. Vanya an invaluable role in Wellington’s punk scene and also works on Ben’s other projects. The vocals were recorded at a bach in Flat Point, using a larger, more characteristic space in order to capture more of the room sound.
Morrison’s preferred sawtooth-esque textures are created by initially feeding a mixer back in on itself, no-input mixer style, sampling those sounds, and then filtering, pitching and effecting those sounds heavily. A layered approach is used for his low frequency tracks where after creating the sounds, he chooses to re-amp them through a bass amplifier.
All agree that at its core The All Seeing Hand is primarily a live band. Marks describes the experience he wants to share with his audience.
“It’s important that it encompasses the positive and the negative and is honest about the shared human experience, trying to present something that isn’t obvious. It isn’t obviously happy or obviously negative, it just is.
“I really like it when I get a sense that people come out the other side of the gig and feel that we’ve shared an experience together and that we are all in this together. I think that is something an immersive live show can do. It means that people are looking around at each other and going, ‘Yeah, that’s right. We’re sharing this,’ and that’s one of the things that bring me joy.”
“We’ve been going to gigs all our lives and there are certain things that have moved each one of us,” Morrison chips in. “For me it’s not virtuosity or the crazy solo, it’s a sound or a really dense harmonic section that makes me feel really elated. I hope the main thing people take away is something that’s really moving and inspiring and something that is unique.”
Live shows often feature intense and immersive visual elements including projection mapping, soft sculptures and a giant pink latex suit that the entire band performs within, called The Blob. Collaborating with visual artists is high up on their priority list and something that they are always excited about.
“We’ve loved working with visual artists pretty much since the band started,” Knight explains. “The visual element has been really important to us, really wanting to create these all-encompassing multi-sensory experiences, rather than just a band on a stage playing a series of songs to an audience off the stage. We really like the idea of bringing people right into an immersive experience.
“Wherever possible, especially on tour, we’re always on the lookout for visual artists that are keen to do something collaborative. Ideally we’d have people in every city that we play that are keen to collaborate.”
In the near future The All Seeing Hand are planning to play shows in Wellington, Auckland, Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart, Tasmania.
Later in the year they will be performing at the Nu Art Festival in Cheng Du as well as other cities in China.