A drone supreme

Pub date June 25, 2008
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

Talking to Barn Owl is something of an evangelical experience. Longhaired duo Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras confess they’re often mistaken for brothers, but their kinship actually began when they met at San Francisco State University, where they both played in metal bands.

"I guess it was through folk music and roots music and Indian classical and some other things that we started to see the validity of the drone — what it was besides this new experimental genre or whatever," Porras recollects. The three of us are hunched over tea and coffee outside a sleepy Outer Richmond café, and I keep thinking about how it’s been a long time since I’ve talked to rockers so plainly obsessed with refining the kind of music they play. "I’ve definitely reached a point where I’m not interested in music that doesn’t take risks of some sort," Caminiti says. "Having this new freedom is almost like an addiction."

Drone music is as old as Tuvan throat singing, though many of the modern Western incarnations refer to the vibrationally attuned literature and compositions of mid-20th-century minimalist composer La Monte Young, who Barn Owl has studied up on. Unlike Brian Eno’s electronics-based tone poems, Barn Owl’s West Coast drone is distinctly earthy. It’s Metal Machine Music from the organic aisle, with smoky landscapes of guitar and vocals hovering in heated sustain. Though layered effects overlap, the overall sound still bears the imprint of guitar strings, in keeping with predecessors like Charlambides, as well as heavier hitters like Om.

"Just having that hand directly on what’s making the vibrations really appeals to me," Caminiti explains. "There’s something about starting with that organic element, and then adding effects upon that to do something else, rather than having it completely computerized."

The duo is obviously interested in space, but they also have a natural sense of drama, something left over, perhaps, from their metal days. When a loose drum beat emerges after three hazy tracks of their handsomely designed LP, From Our Mouths a Perpetual Light (vinyl on Not Not Fun; CD forthcoming from Digitalis), there’s a sudden focusing effect; when a gigantic guitar chord thunders from out of nowhere a few seconds later, it’s seismic. A clear-eyed frieze of acoustic guitar takes on extra potency within the duo’s minimalist architecture.

Barn Owl’s current tactic of frequent releases on a few sympathetic microlabels suits their constant recording habit, though their growing reputation means Aquarius Records can’t keep these limited editions in stock for long. "The home aesthetic is what the majority of our work has been based off of, and I’d say we definitely prefer that," Caminiti says. "Especially with free music, it goes along with having the freedom to explore."

Of course, this freedom is on prime display in concert, in which the duo pushes dialogued concepts into chancy, sculptural terrain, forging a physical relationship with the audience in the process. "That’s our ultimate goal," Porras opines, "a room full of people just being consumed by this wall of energy." And inspiration is everywhere, or so it seems from a story Porras relays about being awakened by a terrifying sound a few weeks earlier: "In the middle of the night, the water heater just started making this insane noise…. It was definitely a drone," he says, laughing. "When the terror dwindled, we just started listening to it, and it sounded so cool."


Tues/1, 9:30 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF