Interview with Raf and O by Carya Gish
Ahead of their album launch next week Carya Gish spoke to Raf and O on behalf of Kaparte Promotions and asked about Portal, the new album, and their plans for the show...
The mesmerising electro-acoustic London duo Raf and O (aka Raf Mantelli and Richard Smith) are about to unleash their third album Portal into
the world. The pair make beautifully crafted music imbued with a delicious dreamy quality and sense of mystery which takes the listener to a parallel world full of dancing lights and lurking shadows.
I have been speaking to them about their work and inspiration ahead of the launch of Portal which will take place in the Gothic splendour of
St James The Less in Westminster on Friday 22 July.
Carya Gish is a novelist and the founder of independent publishing imprint Arcane Publishing
I will start by asking you to tell us a little bit more about when/how the band started. How did you get together and have you always been musicians? And may I ask where the name
‘O’ comes from?
Raf and O started around the mid noughties to further a musical dialogue that was initiated with our previous band; essentially to bring form to melody and harmony, concepts, textures and sounds all within a song format. Initially, we collaborated with Dids from Pere Ubu who we met at Goldsmiths College and there was a brief spell where we played together with Nick Doyne Ditmas who has played extensively with Charles Hayward. In late 2010, we settled in our contemporary form as a two-piece band.
But it all started from when O (or should I say Richard) and I met in the corridors of the London Underground many moons before. Richard was busking and the depth of the reverb carried the sound through to me and brought us together. We've been living together and sharing our passion for creating music ever since, and honing the sound of the band along the way.
The name of O has always been a fluid concept. Musically, it could be seen as somewhere between the fluctuating motion of an ocean and the rigid mechanisation of an operator; or is it the colour of an orange?
I have seen on your website that you are both “experienced community musicians” and that you run workshops in London. Could you tell us about this work and what it entails? Artistic subjects are being more and more squeezed out of the curriculum by schools obsessed with league tables and exam results, and yet, everyone knows that the arts can change people’s lives for the better by allowing them to express themselves or even discover a career path they didn’t even think existed. How were your workshops received by the young people you taught, and did you see any visible positive results?
Yes, over the years, this has been one of the sides of our work and we've been engaging with many young people in different settings and different situations and needs. This has made an enormous difference to a lot of them, growing in self-belief and self-esteem, aiding communication with their peers, other adults, expressing creativity and discovering talents they didn't know they had, increasing concentration and commitment.
The work can be challenging but worthwhile and overall, it can change people's perceptions, outlook and opportunities.
Also, the times are challenging and funding schemes have often been there one moment and gone the next! We've been in situations where you really know you have made a difference to some people's lives by helping them to grow and providing them with a stepping stone, regardless of whether they would carry on developing or pursuing musical activities.
Your new album, Portal, is out this summer. Could you introduce the album and tell us what you had in mind when you started working on it? Where does the portal lead us?
May I say, we are tremendously eager to open the door and unleash our new album onto the world. I would say Portal in concept is related to our last album, Time Machine, still shifting back and forth in time; but with this one, we seem to have travelled a bit further. The portal leads us to an earlier time, exploring a series of themes via connections, design and coincidence.
It all started with Dream Machine. Funny, Time Machine was the catalyst of the previous album, the machines make their voice heard in our work.
Having been commissioned to explore Shakespeare via one of our pieces, my attention fell onto this poem (Sonnet62); as I was fresh from a re-reading of The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, this sonnet resonated with me and so I set to write a song around it and to bring the poem to its musical life by giving melodic form to the written words.
The same happens in Drunk where we've put music to my auntie's poem from the 60s and set it into both Italian and English, mainly spoken word and a tune. The title, Drunk, that we chose from the lyrics (the original name of the poem was L' Addio - Goodbye) sets the feeling. A treasured possession is a published book of her poetry from 1969 that keeps my connection with her alive – she passed away ten years ago.
Automatons was inspired by a journey to the Strasbourg cathedral and by Satie, and Mona Lisa Smiles was a kind of collaboration, a portmanteau of two titles from BLK TAG, from where some of the sound material that we shaped into song originated – a coincidence, or again a connection that saw me seeing a title that somehow connected, in more than one way too! We are also presenting a new Bowie cover, Win, from his seminal album Young Americans and again, just like what happened for Lady Grinning Soul, this is our take on his song. But it's very sad for me that this time he won't be hearing this.
Many of the songs on the album have not been played live yet, so we are quite excited!
On July 22nd, you will launch Portal at a truly unique venue in London, St James The Less, an imposing Gothic Church. The evening has been organised by a long-time friends of yours, Kaparte promotions. Do you know how they have managed to secure such a beautiful venue? Why do you think the church is appropriate for the launch and how do you think the environment will influence your show if at all? Do you think venues always set the tone for your performances?
We absolutely wanted to launch with our dear friend Klarita from Kaparte who has over the years staged wonderful events in the field of contemporary, electronic and avant-garde music. Klarita and ourselves were talking before the end of last year about it all: our latest work, the way it was shaping, the feeling running through it, and we were loosely setting the foundation for the launch, exploring different possibilities and settings.
When this venue came up on the horizon we all knew that it would be the perfect setting for the new album, and Klarita managed to secure it to our delight!
When we first wrote Dream Machine, we played around with the concept of 'Portal' as the title for our new album, but after we travelled to Strasbourg last year and saw the majestic gothic church illuminated in beautiful projections for its 1,000th anniversary, we knew then that it was going to be the title. Automatons is screaming out to be played in church and there is the texture of lost bells on Sonnet 62. We feel the sound of the whole album will connect with the beautiful environs of St James The Less.
You collaborate as a music duo but you are also a couple. What do you think the way you relate to each other/the fact you are in a relationship brings to your music?
It has been pointed out that our body language on stage is very much in sync. Mentally and physically, we're close and, I guess, that comes through in the performance. Throughout the years we have learnt to work together without crushing what each of us can bring to the table; that is not to say that we don't musically argue sometimes, we are two people with our own personalities and can see things differently. Giving each other our own creative space is as important as coming together to combine our ideas. Also, one thing that we've always been conscious of when collaborating with other people, is not to throw our being in a relationship in the mix.
Could you introduce us to your music? Which instruments do you play and which techniques and technology do you use?
We're an electro-acoustic two-piece band. The press has described us as ‘avant-pop’ and ‘avant-garde’. In the current set up, I play acoustic guitar through effects, synths and vocals. O plays electro-acoustic drums and synths. We're both sharing the electronics side of things: I do quite a lot of experimentation in the studio with it and O does it within the live set up. Aside of our main current sound I play the piano, which I managed to squeeze in on the track With Fatzer recently released on the Mitra Music For Nepal compilation. O also plays bass.
We use Ableton Live, both for mixing and for live; also along the way, we're using/have used Philicorda, Casiotone, Juno 106, MicroKorg, soft synths, vocoder, mashing of our own audio recordings, arpeggiators and effects.
Could you explain the dynamics behind the songs and the creative process which results in a Raf and O song? Do you each have defined roles within the project or do you both throw anything into the mix depending on your inspiration, ideas, etc.?
That depends in which way the song has taken its initial form. If it's stemmed from a piece that I wrote on the guitar for example, the song would be written and then we would both intervene to map out its sonic journey. But anything in between can happen: a sound, a rhythm, an approach to sound design might inform a song and its content, or the other way round, or a totally external stimulus and inspiration for writing might inform both the song and its approach. So it's very much open, overall.
When it comes to live, we tend to both have our more defined roles; that helps shape identity and perception and, logistically, it's more manageable.
Could you tell us about your influences? To me, Raf and O is a little bit more than just a band; there is definitely an ‘arty’ streak running through the project, with influences from the worlds of music, art and literature.
I grew up in Florence, Italy, with narrow medieval streets, art and culture in every corner. Ever since I can remember, I was drawing - on Sunday afternoons alongside my dad, him doing his oil paintings; at three years old, I was drawing everywhere. A very early fascination with Egyptian culture nurtured my long love affair with make-up. I joined the Art Institute to do graphic arts and I would have been following an art-based path if the music hadn't taken me over. But although it did take me over, it didn't stop my interest in the arts.
I believe each one of us has the scope to express ourselves in various forms and it becomes a different way of expressing the same thing. So the way I'm looking for textures or a feeling sonically is the way I look for them in my drawings or in my lyrics.
Connections are a major source of inspiration; when you read a poem that inspires you, or whether it is a book, or a documentary, a painting, a film, a play, or the way the light creates a long shadow… anything that catches your attention can be absorbed and re-externalised; once you do this, you start to see it everywhere, in every corner; you become more conscious and to a certain extent, it feeds an obsession. The more you do it, the more you see it reflected.
Talking about influences, you have always been great fans of the late David Bowie, and I know that you were very affected by his death early this year. Could you tell us about how Bowie has influenced your work? How important do you think he has been for the cultural landscape in this country as well as around the world? He was himself interested in a lot of different art forms, wasn’t he, visual arts, performance, etc.
My first musical encounter with David Bowie was through his 1969 album titled David Bowie also known as Space Oddity, so when we took part in MOAFF (Memory Of A Free Festival), the remake of the Beckenham Free Festival originally organised by David and Mary Finnigan in 1969, it was a dream come true. As a child I recall endlessly handling this vinyl, it was crawling into my consciousness. At ten, Space Oddity was the very first song I learned to sing in English and strum on the guitar. I started to obsess on Englishness.
As an early teen I saw The Man Who Fell To Earth and was hooked, I could not think of anything else for days upon days, so I rushed out to buy The Man Who Sold The World, see the connections at work again? I was playing music, though it wasn't until later that I started to write songs. I never tried to emulate Bowie, but it's through him that I've learnt to dare musically and to experiment. His harmonic progressions are twisting and always surprising and had a direct influence on my songwriting; he was always surprising, alluring and exciting, all things I crave in music, and he had a beautiful and distinctive voice. He was going from performance one moment, to drama and to painting the next.
It was very upsetting when he died back in January. Bowie opened possibilities, had a huge impact culturally, helped to break boundaries and has inspired tons of people in many different camps.
When Mike Garson praised us for our version of Lady Grinning Soul, I was over the moon. Garson, who had imbued David's music with elegant avant-garde and a rich tapestry of notes, now was praising our minimal approach!
We also recently met Lindsay Kemp at the Ace Hotel. Lindsay was David’s mentor in the sixties and it was he who influenced his vision and introduced him to mime theatre. He was recalling the Soho days and we had a taste of his upcoming film documentary. It is still weird to think of David not being with us, but his effect is everywhere.
St James the Less, photo courtesy of National Churches Trust
At the launch, support will come from Robert Logan, with whom you have collaborated on a split EP. Could you introduce Robert, tell us how you met and why you think he would be the perfect support on 22nd July?
We met Robert nine years ago. He was launching his debut album Cognessence on Slowfoot Records, and Slowfoot label boss is our long-time good friend Frank Byng who we played extensively together in a band alongside Luke Wills
I remember Frank played us some of Robert's material before he signed him. We were blown away by his musicality and we connected straight away. He remixed two Raf and O tracks, Through The Length and Time Machine. Over time, we've been getting together to collaborate on material. Two of those collaborations have been unleashed on our freshly released EP Sonnet 62/Ink and there is more in store.
We're delighted he has agreed to be our special guest at the launch. He will be performing a unique ambient set and the tone of his music, we feel, will complement the venue and our album perfectly. Robert is a great musician and electronic producer and we musically clicked in the studio whilst having some great conversations and strong coffee at the same time!
As well as working with us, he has also collaborated with names such as Grace Jones, Skye from Morcheeba, Steve Roach and Brigitte Fontaine.
And finally… What would you like the audience to take away from the launch on 22nd July? What will make that evening particularly special?
We would love to know that they experienced our album as a journey, that we’ll be making this journey together with them and that they, at the end, will be walking away with the memory of the entire album performed live and carrying away a CD of Portal too.
That would be great!
In 2014, you took part in Language is a Virus From Outer Space at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. This event celebrated the life and work of the US counter-culture writer William Burroughs. Could you tell us a little more about this event and how you happened to be part of it?
In early 2014, Raf and O were invited by Richard Strange himself to perform at Cabaret Futura, the legendary club from the 1980s and we played a new song, Dream Machine, inspired by watching the Flicker documentary. A bit later in the year, Richard asked us if we would like to take part and be the special guest in the William S Burroughs Centenary he was organising and staging at Queen Elizabeth Hall. It was a real honour. Richard devised this wonderful multimedia show, pulling together a great roster of musicians, actors and poets to present original works inspired and themed around Burroughs; the audience was packed and it was thrilling to perform!
The Doctors of Madness reformed for the show, there were works by Bill Nelson, the original Black Rider band with Terry Edwards and David Coulter, Jeremy Reed, Anni Hogan, Seb Rochford, the wonderful work of Gavin Bryars and lots of truly brilliant people. The event culminated in a ‘Sea of Burroughs’ (the audience wearing luminescent masks) and a procession of guitarists wearing WSB masks descended from the audience onto the stage. It was filmed by the brilliant Neville Farmer and is currently in the last leg of its production, to be released on DVD.
NEW VIDEO: SONNET 62
LADY GRINNING SOUL AT MEMORY OF A FREE FESTIVAL