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Ahead of their performances at the Monheim Triennale festival, we invited the two avant garde musicians to find common ground within their disparate practices.

Terre Thaemlitz and Oren Ambarchi may, at first glance, have very little in common. Terre was born in Minnesota, in the American Midwest, while Oren grew up in Sydney, Australia, on the other side of the world and separated by 15 time zones.

Their musical output, too, can seem equally foreign. Terre is known widely with her offbeat, rebellious takes on house and dance music as DJ Sprinkles and heading up the influential label Comatonse Recordings. Oren, on the other hand, is a veteran of the improvisational noise rock circuit, having collaborated and performed live with drone icons Sunn O))) in the 2000s, while making his own name with free-flowing, multi-instrumental compositions.

Yet there are also similarities and crossovers. Both spent time in the late 80s and early 90s in New York, frequenting the same record shops and music venues, all while piecing together the early fragments of their musical careers. They have also spent considerable time in Japan, Oren having played regularly in the country after being influenced by noise rock, while Terre now lives in Chiba.

But most commonly of all, since they started making music decades ago, Terre and Oren have risen to the forefront of their respective scenes, known for their avant-garde, envelope pushing styles. For both, boundaries exist to be pushed and broken through, even if their reasons for doing so are forged in different contexts. Having never met before, ahead of their appearances at Monhein Triennale, we invited Terre and Oren to chat about their disparate approaches to music, all while embracing the common ground between them.

How familiar are you with each other’s work?

Terre: I did recently get [Oren’s 2022 LP] Shebang, which I really liked. This might be really horrible for Oren but I placed it somewhere in between The Necks and Pat Metheny.

Oren: [Laughs], I’m down with that.

T: I confess I’m not too savvy with the whole improvisational scene in general, the closest I came to that was I worked with Zeitkratzer and Bill Laswell early on, but I don’t have too much knowledge of that stuff so you’ll have to forgive my ignorance there.

O: For me, I guess it goes way back to the late 90s. I have some 12-inches and collaborations, I have something with you and Mark Fell.

T: Yes, Mark and I released some singles on my Comatonse label.

O: Mark and I worked together on some key projects, and I love Mark and follow a lot of what he does so there’s a connection there.

T: He’s the sixth degree of separation from pretty much everybody I think.

O: I like that he’s opening up a lot more. I used to have these funny, friendly arguments with him where he would say that he hated guitar and only likes the Human League and stuff from that era. Lately, he’s been kind of blossoming and opening up and integrating a lot of other things into his work, which is really cool.

T: I come from that other history of being militantly synth only. When I was a kid, I actually lost a friendship over that same Human League album, Dare. My friend was a drummer and he couldn’t take The Human League’s drum machines.

O: I get it. I can imagine the animosity, and teenage territorial [way of] defining yourself that we all do at the time. But I love it all. I love electronic music, free jazz and all kinds of stuff. It totally informs what I do.

Those sorts of black-and-white arguments, of liking just guitars and instruments, or just electronic music, seem to have dissolved a bit and artists are happy to incorporate both more. Is that something you would agree with?

T: Depends on the scene, doesn’t it?

O: Yeah, and actually if you dig a little deeper, a lot of that stuff was co-existing without people realising it. Like Pete Townshend and The Who. He was using synths in 71/72 and integrating it into mainstream rock music, and most of the people listening to his stuff would hate the idea of a synthesiser or new wave music.

T: I think early on that’s how electronic music had to be sought out too, just buried in other genres. The Who, and also stuff like hearing the synth solo in Come Sail Away by Styx, they were these weird little electronic passages you’d hear on radio. I think my piecing together an interest in electronic music was coming from that. It was more about sections. That’s also part of why I like the idea of samples and snippets, because there weren’t many complete compositions and things like that until disco and new wave came around.

O: For some reason, I would make cassettes of all the weird bits on Pink Floyd records. I was attracted to these weird electronic moments that happened on these mainstream pop records, and I’d make these crude collages of those bits.

T: That’s a similarity we share, absolutely. Since I was a young kid, I was playing with dead batteries to make the tape player record slower or play back faster, or pushing the record button halfway down to get weird warbles. My first kind of multi-track recording setup was to basically record a loop from a record onto a cassette by pressing pause and record, create a two or three minute loop tape, put that into a cassette Walkman and play it out of a headphone. Then I would tape one side of the headphone onto a microphone and hang that in front of the console speaker and play another second layer through the console stereo. You’d get a recording through the microphone that would be the loop tape playing through the Walkman plus whatever I was adding on top.

O: That’s really funny because I did a similar thing with a double tape player, which had a mic input. You could record onto the first tape, then put it into the other player and put the second one in, record that with a mic. It probably sounded terrible, but it was this discovery as a nine or ten-year-old fooling around with electronics and working stuff out.

Having both been making music for a long time, can you talk about how your approaches have changed over the decades?

O: I’m originally a drummer, but I kept leaning towards electronics. I had weird contact mics and effect pedals that I was always drawn to and I kept going more towards things like that until eventually I found a guitar in a rehearsal room. I didn’t know how to play it, but I started mucking around with it. It was more like a sound generator than a guitar. I just had a guitar and effect pedals and I was investigating how far I could go with that. And then there was this big shift, which is still applicable today, where I was just interested in expanding the sound palette. One way of doing that was working with other people and having them contribute to my sound. Now I’m really interested in different colours and instruments, so a lot of my records have a lot of guests.

T: For me, I’ve always done better working alone, and I think part of that is because my relationship to electronic music from the start has always been one that was connected to a kind of ostracism and fag-bashing. Electronic music was a counterpoint to the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack of fag bashers and the guys who were always kicking my ass, so I’ve always thought about sound and music as a kind of social construct, and as a linguistic thing, in a way. I don’t really find much interest in talking or thinking about sound in a formalistic sense; it’s always been about how it relates to certain contexts. One of the first things I put out was a self-released 12-inch in 93, and I had this one track called Raw Through A Straw that was kind of like a cat on a piano noisily soloing over a house track. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the construction of talent and genius relative to cultural values. So I was playing with the idea of improvisation in a sarcastic way, and that’s always been the case – going between resentment and tongue-in-cheek.

O: I grew up in Australia, and was automatically a weirdo. As soon as I turned 17 I left and went to New York and tried to live there, so I definitely felt like an outsider, and doing that was a rebellion. I guess the thing that drives me is sound. It’s all I think about and everything I’ve tried to do something else it just didn’t work.

T: Can I ask when were you in New York?

O: 87 to 88, and I was there on and off until 92.

T: I was there from 86 to 97. I’m wondering, did you ever play at The Kitchen, and if we ever crossed paths at some place like that?

O: I used to go to a lot of gigs at The Kitchen, and started playing around 93. At that time it was just going there and seeing and listening to as much as possible and buying lots of records.

T: New York was such a great place to be collecting records in that era. I’m sure you went to the same places, like Bleecker Bob’s and St. Mark’s Sounds.

O: Totally.

T: For me, I was never interested in live concerts and performances. I always preferred the deliberation behind a record, even if it was a record that contained random moments in it. I think part of that was also the fact that it was never a positive thing to be in a group of people for me. Even when I went into DJing, I could be back in the booth but not have to worry about socialising as much.

O: Records were absolutely my education and inspiration.

It’s interesting that you were in the same spaces in New York at the same time. Oren, I read that you were influenced by Japanese noise music in the 90s, and of course Terre, you live in Japan now. What influence has the country had on what you do?

O: Actually, when I was in New York, I was in a store and there was a cassette called Eat Shit Noise Music. I picked it up and took it back to Australia. It was kind of a bootleg cassette and had things that were swiped from very rare Japanese records. I became obsessed with it and trying to find the actual records so I could hear more, and I started mail ordering from this place called Japan Overseas in Osaka. One time I was playing in New York and to get back to Australia you could go via Japan, and I was ordering so much from this woman who ran Japan Overseas she just said to me: “Do you want to play in Japan?” She ended up organising a tour and it was just unbelievable. I ended up working with a lot of those people on the records I was buying. I became addicted to going to Japan from that point onwards.

T: My interest in Japanese music goes back to my teenage years, discovering Yukihiro Takahashi, Haruomi Hosono and YMO. For me, Hosono was really a template for the way I’ve done my stuff. He was somebody that produced in many different genres simultaneously. I have done that, working in electroacoustic computer music, ambient, house and piano all simultaneously, trying to interfere with the conventional Western tendency to try and construct a singular model of an artistic vision around a producer. For me, that aspect of Japanese culture that has to do with façade and playing roles in public, but then having something else that’s always hidden, is relatable as someone who grew up with closets. Thinking about strategies of secrecy for navigating social situations is more how I appreciate Japanese music.

You’re both often labelled as experimental musicians, how does that make you feel?

T: I mean it would be nice if that was expanded on in a way where people fleshed out where they felt the kinds of antagonisms [are], if antagonism is part of their model of experimentation. It’s weird, because I do get booked in concerts with scenes that I’m not only unfamiliar with, but also kind of uncomfortable with. But allowing for that kind of tension has become a strategy – keeping myself always in so many different genres and scenes. Like when I do art world stuff, too. I’m very clear that I hate music performance and I only really do it out of economic necessity. I’d much rather be doing studio stuff or writing. Not having enthusiasm in the conventional artistic sense, or not relishing anything. It’s all shit for me equally. If there’s any levelling going on it’s all going down, not going up.

O: The label experimental, especially today, is irrelevant. A lot of these sorts of things have lost their meaning – lots of people are touted as being experimental. I don’t see that at all. I don’t even think I’m being experimental. I’m just exploring. We’re all just exploring.

Terre Thaemlitz and Oren Ambarchi both play Monheim Triennale Festival, which takes place July 4 to July 6