Life within sound

Pub date January 18, 2011

MUSIC Peer carefully at the expansive gatefold cover art of Barn Owl’s Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey), and what at first glance looks like two interstellar vessels cruising through the night sky coalesces into something much more grounded, tethered to the spectral shadow of the image’s photographer, Barn Owl guitarist-vocalist Jon Porras, holding his hands over the light source in the foreground.

Porras took the three-minute exposure of the moon over a campfire at SF’s Ocean Beach on a cold, clear April night. “If you look closely, you can see the waves crashing,” he says. “All the light becomes saturated on film — that’s why it’s so luminescent. I actually had to go up to the fire to warm my hands, and you can see a ghostly image of me warming my hands over the fire.

“It’s become a funny joke between my friends.”

It’s also an unlikely, mysterious footnote perfectly in sync with the majestic sounds pouring from Ancestral Star, one of 2010’s best albums, and one that continues to surface new pleasures — from “Sundown”‘s opening overture of distorted guitars to the title track’s incremental, tonal tectonic shifts to “Cavern Hymn”‘s glimmering, deeply echoed fingerpicking. The enigmatic, unexpectedly earthbound image parallels the long tone and drone listening experience as well. “It requires a certain patience,” Porras, 25, muses. “I think long tone music can open up aspects of reality you may not have otherwise have seen.”

Meditative drone, black metal, Tibetan throat-singing, gliding meditations on bowed guitar, and celestial compositions sprinkled with synth, gongs, bells, and singing bowls seamlessly ebb and flow, seemingly of one mesmerizing piece, in a work that feels like the lost, alternative soundtrack to Paris, Texas, or the score to a lost Alejandro Jodorowsky western — a sound that was part of the thinking when Porras and fellow guitarist-vocalist Evan Caminiti went into the studio with friend the Norma Conquest in 2009. It was their first opportunity to record over the course of several months, refining their sound and bringing in musicians such as violinist Marielle Jakobsons (Darwinsbitch) in a professional studio setting.

“We were going for a metaphysical cinematic western,” Porras explains. “We like to have these Americana-influenced guitar passages in combination with more experimental elements to create this overall narrative. I guess the desert at night is an image we like to invoke — fog-shrouded hillsides, the awestruck feelings you get from a landscape.” The sweeping, wonder-inducing American spaces of Cormac McCarthy and Porras’ favorite, Zane Gray, were an inspiration for the two musicians, who first met each other in an American Indian science class at San Francisco State University in 2005.

Metal, as well as the long-tone compositions of Lamont Young and the American primitive fingerpicking of John Fahey, also provided common ground. “We had similar ideas,” Caminiti recalls. “I just remember wanting to combine things that hadn’t necessarily been combined before — heavy music and blues with more folk-influenced music — so we’d work on a piece that had heavy drones and do blues-influenced fingerpicking over it. There was a lot of exploration that had to be done, and we just distilled the sound over the years.”

Those sonic journeys have manifested recently in a collaboration with Headlands Center for the Arts resident Ellen Fullman — who installed her room-sized long-string instrument in her old army building of a studio — out on the Important imprint. And Caminiti and Porras, who also hold down the musical projects Higuma and Elm respectively, are currently working on a new Barn Owl album with Trans Am’s Phil Manley at Lucky Cat Studio, on music sparked by Popul Vuh’s “interlocking chiming guitar passages,” according to Porras.

Now, with performances in the group’s past at such disparate spots as Grace Cathedral (“Great in particular because there’s six seconds of natural reverb, which is perfect for resonant sound,” Porras says), sometime label Root Strata’s On Land gathering, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the Supersonic Festival in the United Kingdom, the Barn Owl experience might be characterized as more metaphysical than visceral.

“We aim to create an enveloping atmosphere where everyone is sucked away into an alternate dimension for 30 minutes,” Caminiti observes. “Everything around you is just put on pause, and you’re just living within the sound in the moment. You become engulfed in the sound. The sound becomes a living organism, which is also why there’s a lot of room for improvisation in our set. For us, it leaves us centered and at peace — it’s a meditative device in a way.” 


With Phil Manley Life Coach and Diego Andres Gonzalez

Tues/25, 9 p.m., $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923