Larsen | Interview
The Wire | #238 | Jim Haynes
A certain degree of anonymity suits the music of italian art rock ensemble Larsen, as the group's guitarist Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo explains, "What we are doing is very intimate and personal" he says. "It's something that u get or you don't. In our records and our gigs, we try to build an intimate space, a certain atmosphere, something that only belongs to us and suck the listeners into it. We let the audience witness and experience a kind of private ritual."
During the past ten years, the groups have toiled in obscurity, concentrating on their private ceremonies. However, public reactions do not always agree with private rituals. Conjecture, hearsay and mysteries shroud Larsen's work as they have slowly , and pheraps reluctantly, seeped into public domain. In 2002 their second album Rever was produced under an unusual set of circumstances by Michael Gira, of Angels of Light and Young God Records. Several years back, Gira started receiving a series of packages from Italy, each contained CD-R from Larsen bundled in grey felt with rough twine. As Gira recalls, "Sometimes the Cds contained music- a whispered song, accompanied by a distant accordion, as if playing in the next room,or a drone of unknown origin , or a short burst of percussive chaos- sometimes just a single sound or noise, a scraping sound, as if someone were slowly etching a piece of rusted metal with a blade of some sort, or the sound of saliva working in the mouth. That's it- no other explanation , just an obscure sonic message, little pieces of an arcane vocabulary I couldn't decipher." Several months passed before a letter arrived from Larsen, who instructed Gira to come to Italy for three weeks and record the group. As extra enticement, the letter included a considerable amount of cash and plane tickets. he accepted Larsen's offer and headed off to the group's base in Torino. Once he got there, Gira was never allowed to see the group, as Larsen performed behind a screen in the studio.
"Often, I sat in the control booth for a few hours, watching the shadows move behind the screen, " he continues, " with no 'music' being generated at all- just the kinda ritualised sounds mentioned above, contained on the initial CDR they'd sent me.
just as often, heated, violent arguments- shouting matches, really - would lead seemlessly into a soft and beautiful groove, or just as likely, a martial stomp, or a kind of miasma of dissonant electric atmosphere. My role as producer was simply to capture these moments on tape."
Palumbo tells the story a little differently. "We just kept him regulary updated with our work until the times to work together had become ripe at last, " he says.
"We would like to get far away from that old story that we recorded hidden to him. I know that is a charming episode, but I think that there are more interesting things about our music. The only thing i would like to say now is that the main thing about Larsen is Larsen. We think there's a better and more coherent way to use the visual side of our work to communicate what Larsen is about to the audience- the goal is not really to build a mystery out of ourselves, but to put the focus on the music."
Fair enough. Rever was completed in early 2002 and subsequently released on Young God. At the time, their membership counted five: Palumbo on guitar and vocals, Marco 'Il Bue' Schiavo on drums and xylophone, Paolo Dellapiana on accordion and keyboards, Roberto Maria Clemente on guitar and vocals, and Silvia Grosso on bass and vocals.
Rever strolls along with a cocksure swagger, typified by the opening "Impro # 2" and "Radial". With their low slung grooves haunted by the ghosts of the American West, these tracks introduce Larsen's loose thematic templates of nihilism, paranoia, claustrophobia and resigned melancholia.
Larsen's ritualist contrivances never imply any specific spirituality, but manifest themselves as the soundtrack to fictional psychodramas. Rever could well be an updated film score to Sergio Leone classic, as composed by Swans or Sonic Youth in their prime. Larsen compress buzzsaw guitars, martial rhythms, chanted vocals, deliberate basslines and the insistent drone from Dellapiana's accordion into hypnotic, interlocking riffs. These riffs compound the psychic intensity which, unlike the grandiose crescendos of Mogwai and Godspeed You Black emperor!, propels itself towards corrosion and collapse.
"Probably the paranoia is the result of the circular and droning structure of our compositions, while the melodies set up a bitter atmosphere," speculates Palumbo.
"We are still looping with our new works, even if we are shifting a bit from claustrophobia and we are more into melancholia. We are getting older and that's probably inevitable. anyway we are careful to avoid talking about specific topics within our music. Atmospheres are what interest us, we are kind of an 'Ambient' band. Even if we are using vocals more than in the past, we have no any real lyrics, just some narrowly chosen words instead of sentences. Voice is for us just another instrument, one moreindication, often just a sound to push the music in the direction we want."
Soon after a tour in support of Rever, Silvia Grosso, whose breathy yet staccato voice added a considerable presence to Larsen's sound, left the group to pursue her love of jazz. The remaining members have forged confidently ahead, having recently completed a historical compendium of outtakes, soundtracks and rare material called 'Musm.'
The album containsfew excerpts from Larsen's currently out of print debut, 'No Arms , No Legs : Identification Problems (1996)', where their elliptical guitar riffs nestled into field recordings of children playing, running water and angry slabs of noise. Yet the highlight of the album has to be the explosive stomp of "How A Mosquito Operates", which Larsen produced as part of a soundtrack to 'Cartoanimalettimatti', the cartoons of early 20th century animator/cartoonist Winsor McCay. Here, the twin guitars of Palumbo and Clemete alternate between jagged monochords, which steadily increase in velocity as the rhythm section crashes forward with the will of juggernaut. Musm also features a curious reinterpretation of Pink Floyd's "Vegetable Man", where very little of the original remains within the dense cascades of xylophone plinkery.
In 2004, Larsen are planning a series of reinterpretations of Autechre. "This is not an Autechre cover album" Palumbo explains " although that was the original idea we had, but we failed because we are a terrible cover band! What we have got are new Larsen's suites. Our music springs from improvisation but of course we have the chance to choose what we to keep and what, on the other side, is not worthy to.
I think the intensity of Larsen is exactly into this balance between nature and organisation, a subtle equilibrium with a magic quality that has the power to always thrill us when we get it playing".
(Musm is self-released and is available through Goodfellas. Larsen Website: www.larsen.to.it)