Even the most avid of the band’s fans struggle to put a ready handle on The All Seeing Hand’s exotic genre-creating sound. The combination of drummer, DJ and throat-singer is enough to throw anyone off the genre track, and would surely warn many of even trying their fare. They’d be missing out on something special, as Westley Holdsworth relates.
I was hoping to talk with all three members of Wellington avant-garde drone band The All Seeing Hand but a monstrous storm has stopped David Morrison, aka Alphabethead, from joining us over Skype. I’m joined by the remaining pair – throat singer (more on that later) Jonny Marks and drummer Ben Knight.
My first encounter with The All Seeing Hand was at Camp A Low Hum. [Photo above]. I’d already heard the band’s recordings so was partially prepared for their set. I wasn’t prepared however for their theatrics and commanding stage presence. I can’t remember how long the set was, it seemed to go on forever, yet finished too soon.
I had witnessed one of the most engaging, thought provoking and intense shows I have ever seen. On stage surrounding the band was a gathering dressed in white robes and adorned with head dresses and make up, they just stood there, occasionally moving while staring at the crowd, as the trio dressed in black vests, with coloured lights around their necks, rumbled through their set.
The All Seeing Hand make a sound so foreign it should make no sense to anyone.The mangled aftershocks of three different backgrounds all vying to be the loudest, the most important part of the sound, somehow create something as easily digestible as pop music. The most striking part of this sound is frontman Jonny Marks’ throat singing. I asked Marks how he found his way to it and subsequently the band.
“I studied composition at Victoria University. Jack Body played us a CD of throat singing and the first time I heard it I was just like, ‘That’s awesome’. I spent a few years just using it as a conceptual launching point, then after a while I got more serious about it and started teaching myself. Then I got to a point were I knew I was doing things wrong so I took myself off to inner Mongolia, to find a teacher. I spent a year there with various teachers learning.
“I met Dave (Alphabethead) at Victoria Uni, I went along to a scratching demonstration that one of the teachers had put on for the composition students. The stuff that he was doing wowed me, he was approaching it [turntablism] from a really interesting viewpoint. So I got in touch with him and asked if he played with other people, he said, ‘No, not really’, and I said, ‘Well can you come and improvise with two drummers?’”
As he says, it was a throwing in at the deep end. After that they played some more small improv projects then a more serious band, called Flower Orphans, that played every week. Then Marks went to China to study.
So Morrison and Knight had already started the project, although in a much more improvised way as the two would never meet to practice, never even hang out – the only time spent together was at shows “making shit up.”
“It felt really natural, it was an easy fit, explains Knight. “It was really chaotic at first, just all over the place. David was just throwing on records without really looking at them and hoping that something good would come out. We did stuff with a bunch of different vocalists in the first year that we were together. We never made a decision to have vocalists, people would just pop up, sing with us for a few shows then disappear, then someone else would pop up and disappear.
“Noel St Cosmos [who features on the new album] played for a whole bunch of shows and he was leaving the country right as Jonny was coming back – so it just made heaps of sense to fill the gap but with something completely different. Jonny approaches vocals differently than anyone else I’ve ever played with. It’s really measured now, it’s not just this auxiliary thing sitting on top anymore, it’s another instrument on equal footing with the other two instruments in the band.”
So here you have a drummer from a punk/hardcore background, a turntable champion and a Mongolian throat singing exponent somehow coming together to make music that really works and is completely of its own world. Futuristic mechanical drones sit next to ancient Middle Eastern chants. Frantic off-kilter rhythms pulse and lull you into a trance. It’s almost impossible to describe, yet when you hear it, especially in the flesh, that certain something seems so attainable.
There’s something about this band that really speaks to people and it’s hard to put your finger on what that is exactly, even for them, but a large part of that has to be the matching of these very different musicians.
“I think that all of us have come from quite different backgrounds but from within all of those backgrounds being really open to music, says Marks.
“Having the right mix of people that can reference all these backgrounds without actually referencing them. It’s not like we’re trying to go, ‘Let’s do a little bit of this and a little bit of that’, we’re just making music. It just happens that we are drawing on these broad inspirations.