Discovery: Orcas

Published April 19, 2012

ABOVE: THOMAS MELUCH (LEFT), RAFAEL ANTON IRISARRI. PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB HANSEN

With Orcas, Rafael Anton Irisarri and Thomas Meluch plumb great musical depths. Teaming up from The Sight Below (Irisarri) and musical alias Benoît Pioulard (Meluch), the duo has collaborated to create beautiful, experimental-pop music with hazy layers. Last year, Irisarri and Meluch, through their respective projects, covered Broadcast’s “Until Then” as a tribute to the late singer Trish Keenan. Their collaboration was the beginning of a beautiful musical friendship. Orcas’ self-titled debut album, which brings together dream-pop, electronic, and classical influences, will be released on April 24 and will be followed by a tour throughout Europe.

Although currently on two different continents, we caught up with Rafael Anton Irisarri and Thomas Meluch on having a pop sensibility, having a brotherly relationship and naming their musical project after their competition.

ON BUILDING A MUSICAL RELATIONSHIP: Thomas Meluch: I played a set at the 2009 Decibel festival in Seattle and crossed paths with Rafael, since he was curating the showcase that I was a part of.  Once I connected his name to his music, we had lots to talk about and kept in touch for a few months after. That was a particularly fun weekend since I’d never played a festival before and was privy to all the fancy-pants treatment I could’ve dreamed of. To that point I was used to playing in living rooms and rock clubs at best. Statues of ladies made of kilos & bottles, you know?

Rafael Anton Irisarri: I’ve collaborated in the past with numerous other artists, ranging a wide spectrum of styles—from Tiny Vipers & Simon Scott to even Fennesz and Biosphere. Working with Tom was very harmonious. We have very similar thoughts in regards to aesthetics. Once that particular area is in sync, everything else just flows. I believe part of the ease comes from mutual respect and admiration for each of our previous works. Tom’s is an amazing singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and genuinely fun to hang out with. We would spend time outside the recording process just kicking it watching Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc., and drinking beer at a local Belgian beer bar. He is like my younger brother or something.

ON BEING MUSICAL SOULMATES: Meluch: There’s a band in Portland with a similar name and I don’t see eye to eye with their singer, so to speak—so when Rafael presented the idea of Orcas as our name I thought it’d be a good way to spite him. It also comes from “Oregon” and “Cascadia,” since we’re from that area. Or were at the time. I live in the UK, for the moment.

Irisarri: Orcas are, to us, a really good emblem of the American Pacific Northwest, which is where we made the album; they’re methodical, majestic-looking creatures and at times can even be violent—but, also representative of the ocean’s expanse and evocative of a quiet but powerful nature. We wanted to conjure an imagery of shadows and depths. We aimed for a certain fluidity in the sound of the album while using disparate elements like pop hooks and spatial ambience (chiaroscuro mosaic, if you even want to call it that) so we find that balance to be quite fitting.

THE INFLUENCE OF WRITING AND FILMS IN MUSIC: Irisarri:  There was no discussion that went, “Okay: we are going to sound like such-and-so.” We began with nothing particular in mind once we decided to collaborate, just Tom playing guitar while I manipulated the amplifier in real time, followed by various studio treatments. Eventually some nebulous chord structures emerged, which led to more solid song outlines, which led to lyrics. It felt very organic, and while we have different aesthetics at work in our individual music, there’s a core sensibility in both of us that led to the album sounding the way it does. That said, it’s a well-documented fact I’m a huge fan of Arvo Pärt (a post-minimalist Estonian composer) and American pianist Harold Budd. I just recently co-curated a tribute album while he is still alive and kicking. I’m also a huge My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and Labradford fan. More than music itself, I think I look up to writers and filmmakers, probably stemming from the fact I cannot write well.

Meluch: My earliest favorite music was Chopin, and to that I would add Stockhausen, Crass, Boards of Canada, Eno, Joni Mitchell, William Basinski, Cornelius Cardew, and JMW Turner.

ON MAKING SURE THEY BREAK EVEN FIRST: Irisarri: We’re going to Europe in May and June. Playing at festivals as a trio and some clubs as a duo. We might play in Seattle when we come back from Australia. Oh yes, we forgot we go to Australia in September.

Meluch: Yup. We’ve been working out live sets as a duo and a trio, the latter of which would include piano. Each should be fairly different based on what we’re able to do with our means. No plans in the States yet. I’d love to play in NYC.  The US is always nice to visit. Some highly respected friends of mine toured the States last fall and didn’t even come close to breaking even, which is a sad thing. Especially since lots of people will opt to pay for a club to see a DJ spin instead of paying for live music.

ADDING VOCALS AND RE-ARRANGING THE CREATIVE PROCESS: Irisarri: From my own perspective, the music I make solo under my given name is wordless for one: instrumental. That said, I would say almost about half of the music I listen to these days has vocals, and some of my favorite artists are singers—Blixa Bargeld, for example. I find his voice amazing and his pop songwriting sensibility genius. Before I started working with Tom, I had incorporated vocals into the last The Sight Below record, via a Joy Division cover I recorded with Tiny Vipers lending her lovely voice. So, it seemed to me a logical progression. Tom is such an amazing singer, gifted with a terrific voice—it would have been a crime not to include vocals and proper lyrics as part of our creative process.

Meluch: In working with Rafael, I was forced to adapt to a totally different recording process and become much more selfless. Alone, I write, rehearse and record everything in the same room on my own terms, but the collaboration allowed for a very different kind of development that I turned out to like just as much. One of my favorite musicians in the world is Mark Hollis (from Talk Talk) so I feel in a way, there’s that subconscious influence lingering when I would produce the tracks we wrote together. We definitely share the same wavelength aesthetically, as he says.

ORCAS’ SELF-TITLED DEBUT ALBUM COMES OUT ON APRIL 24. FOR MORE ON THE DUO, VISIT THEIR FACEBOOK PAGE.