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Where Do You Call Home: An Interview With Ohama (pt.2)

Polyphasic Canadian Avant-Synth Archive Series

Here is Part 2 of our interview with Tona Ohama, continued from last week.

 

 

I understand that you were musically inactive for a long time, what inspired you to start producing music again?

I didn’t plan to stop producing music. It was exactly like “Time” by Pink Floyd, where “one day you find 10 years have got behind you.” Life happened. Similarly, I didn’t plan to start again. The inspiration to write and record again was no single thing. It took a large number of unrelated yet important events to get me to the point of producing music again. I won’t go into all of that, but what I will say is this: after I compiled the Ohama Box Set and released it in 2006, I was certain I would never make music again. I thought I was done, but I was wrong.

The very impressive Ohama Box (18 CDs & 2 DVDs) comes loaded with extras including photos, home videos, music from friends, interviews and even pieces of your synthesizers. Spending time with the Ohama Box feels like a very intimate experience, and one gets a sense of knowing many different aspects of your life, and it seems that Tona Walt Ohama the person as opposed to Ohama the musician comes more into focus. Spending time with so many memories while compiling the Ohama Box, especially after having taken a long break from your music must have been a very intense experience. How did you find the process of making the Box?

As my “musical inactivity” period began to turn into years, I started thinking about documenting my music career. I thought maybe I should put the vinyl into a digital format, wrap it all up and move on.That thought had been in the back of my mind for a good 10 years prior to the box set’s release, but I just wasn’t getting around to it.

The impetus to move forward came when I did an interview on Veronica Vasicka’s “Minimal Wave” program at East Village Radio in New York City. I actually hadn’t listened to my own music for many, many years so I was quite surprised to find out that other people were doing just that.

The process of making the box set was very easy, low key and no pressure. It was fun. Once the word went out, things that I had no memory of began showing up – videos, recordings, photographs.

As you noticed, I didn’t create the box as an “Ohama” music project exactly, it’s more of a general memory box. Everyone who was in my life at the time was asked to put something into the box so sometimes the connection between them and “Ohama” isn’t obvious to the outsider. For example, on the DVD there is a short movie of a model train, apparently meaningless. But if you know that this train was a gift I had given Johannes when we went to a model train show with Dania during the production of the box set, and further that it was the first time in 20 years (since the “LOLA” album recordings) that the three of us had gotten together, then it becomes a significant music memory. That’s why it’s hidden on the box.

There are many hidden things in the box set if you’re the type to explore, but I guess I’m the only one who knows what they all mean. This is also why the Ohama Box Set will never be sold as a download or re-released in another form. I got permission to include all these things for a limited 500 unit run, but it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to secure the rights for another type of release.

 

I have to ask, why did you decide to break apart your synthesizers and include the pieces as artifacts with the Ohama Box?

Short answer – you can’t download a piece of a synthesizer.

Long answer – any artist who records for a long time begins to accumulate paraphernalia associated with their music career. Yes, I wanted the box sets to be very unique and personal, but I also wanted to get rid of all the material things associated with “Ohama”. I had stuff that I didn’t really want to throw out, but at the same time I didn’t want to be trapped into having to care for them for the rest of my life.

The solution – disperse it all out into the world to people who would take care of it for me.

The end result – some of the boxes were bundled with some very rare materials, certainly more rare and meaningful to me than a piece of mass-produced synthesizer. Things like original lyric sheets, studio track sheets, a one-of-a-kind laminated back-stage pass, real tickets to one of my shows, original photo negatives or the actual color-key or test pressing from the album making process.

What equipment are you using these days to make music? Are you interested in ever using analog gear again?

The old analog gear is interesting, but that’s not where my head is at. I’m not nostalgic that way, and those machines have many limitations. You can call them “classic” “vintage” or “obsolete”. They are all of that and more. In the future, I might consider a new analog synth but right now I use is a MacBook Pro, an M-Audio MIDI keyboard controller, Native Instruments Battery and MOTU Digital Performer software. I’ve used Performer software since 1985, version 1.0 and it is my favorite sequencer.

I’m not interested in collecting every synth ever made, virtual or not. I like to pick one and then learn it really well. My favorite virtual synth is “Modulo”.

Next, I’d like to learn “Massive”, as I’ve tried the demo and think it’s a wonderful piece of gear, but at this time it uses too much computing power for my needs. I’d rather be able to run 50 instances of Modulo simultaneously than 5 instances of Massive.

 

When we met, you mentioned that you are mostly listening to live recordings of 70’s prog and rock bands these days; what is it about these recordings that appeals more to you than the studio recordings by these same bands?

I actually love studio recordings more than live recordings. In fact, I believe the “studio album” is the most important document a musician can create. But it is true, I’m listening to lots of live albums from the 70s right now. My favorite thing at the moment is the long self-indulgent guitar solo, although I’m big on live drummers too.

DIY, punk rock and garage bands were great, and freed us all to make recordings regardless of how well or poorly we played, but I’ve recently rediscovered an interest in musicians who could actually play, and play well. Live recordings are documents of what they could actually do, in real time without overdubs. What thrills me the most is when a musician is technically strong, and then transcends technique and lets loose in a concert setting and gets to that magic place of a great and unrepeatable performance.

I was inspired to try and recreate that live feel on my song “Earth”. My intention was to capture the feel of a live rock band on stage, maybe a progressive rock band who were almost improvising. However I wanted to use a sound palette of mono synths and electronic drums and emphasize the unique qualities of the synth world rather than simply imitate a rock band. I am very proud of that song, as the feel is very close to what I originally envisioned. The drums have a more live feel, they’re a little sloppy and the tempo randomly increases. The main synthesizer solo was improvised in a single take, and drew on all my skills that are unique to me as a synth player – some skills that I feel are lost or neglected such as pitch bending, portamento, using a modulation wheel, and actually playing the keys on the keyboard instead of manipulating a software program to trigger the notes. The song is not for everyone, but I consider the synth work on “Earth” to be my greatest work to date as an artist. It is to me what “Rhapsody in Blue” is to Gershwin, what “Bohemian Rhapsody” is to Queen. Not that I’m comparing myself to Gershwin or Queen, but you know what I’m trying to say. This is my “epic” piece…so far.

So. If you listen to only one Ohama song in your life, I’d like it to be “Earth”. This is the sort of electronic music I personally want to hear at this moment, something containing the long self-indulgent synth solo.

 

You also told me about an experience you had recently where you listened to an album that you had loved as a teenager, but hadn’t listened to since. You recommended trying it, likening the experience to a good drug high. Why do you think this has such a powerful effect?

Music is unlike anything else in the world. For example, you can taste a piece of food today, the same thing you had 20 years ago, and yes, it is the same food, but it is not the exact same piece of food. You can travel to a place from your childhood and you’re in the same location but it is no longer the same place. But it is sometimes possible to experience the exact same recording 20 years later, and it enters your ears pretty directly to the brain, thus, it’s fairly independent of environment or age or the weather or your location on the planet. If you know the recording very well, but enough time has passed that you have forgotten its existence something special in the brain chemistry is triggered. What I am describing is not nostalgia nor is it a feeling like reminiscing. I’ve experienced those things too, and this is something else.

You must find a recording you knew intimately, something you listened to intently dozens of times when you were a teenager, around 13 or 14 years of age ideally, and then it must also be something you have never heard since. I’m experiencing these albums after a 35 year wait, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that long. Maybe 10 years would work, I don’t know. I do know that it must be an album that hasn’t been used in a TV show or movie, not played at clubs or on classic rock radio or in an elevator. It must therefore be an obscure, unpopular, uncommercial or relatively unsuccessful album. This really limits the number of albums most people have available to them, but the power comes from having it erased from your conscious memory.

The first album that gave me this experience was “Thick As A Brick” by Jethro Tull. I’ve searched out many others since then, most recently I found “On The Road” by Traffic. Luckily, I listened to a lot of music in my early teens and then moved on, so there is a good supply available to me. If you’re like me, and music is very important in your life, this is a drug, and like many drugs, the effect diminishes with repetition. I’d estimate the effect is half as strong on the second listen and gone by the third so please, if you try this, don’t waste your first re-listen! It will never happen again.

 

Do you enjoy working on music alone, or are you interested in the results of collaboration? Is there any particular artist that you would like to work with one day?

On the last album “Earth History Multiambient” there were many guest artists: Broken Paws, Smoth, Nebulous, Christopher Nash, Alanna Clarke, Russ McGee, Def Method, Mia Blackwell. Most of these collaborations were done by sharing files over the internet. Very few people have everbeen inside my private studio. In other words, I enjoy collaborating while working alone, what I call “independent collaboration”. I do not enjoy sitting down with a group of musicians and jamming.

Is there an artist I’d like to work with? The album notes of “Earth History Multiambient” say “If you play a synthesizer and you wish to be on the next ‘Ohama’ album contact me please”, so the next artist I work with might be you.

 

What can we look forward to in the future from Ohama?

I am just finishing (in collaboration with Calgary’s Fat Pat) half the soundtrack to the movie “PULL”, directed by Mark Allard, produced by Strong Paradox. The other half was scored by Calgarian John Furey. I’d like to publicly thank the producers of the film, as I’ve never had an experience like it before. On this project, we musicians were given a degree of creative freedom that I never imagined possible. How much creative freedom? Complete. Unlimited. Unrestricted.

We were allowed to do whatever we wanted to do. The film makers, in a brave and bold jump off the cliff into the abyss are trusting the universe to PULL everyone together in the creative process to create something. Yet again another example of “collaborating while working alone”. I’m grateful to have been a part of this one and am looking forward to watching it at the 2012 Cannes International Film Festival.

Thanks for taking the time to interview me and also thank you for taking the time to read this interview. Peace, and I mean that….

- Tona Ohama Sept 2011


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Where Do You Call Home: An Interview With Ohama (pt.1)

Polyphasic Canadian Avant-Synth Archive Series

Tona Walt Ohama grew up on a potato farm in rural Alberta. As a child he had became infatuated with music. When he was a teenager he came across a synthesizer in a music store and immediately purchased it, obsessed with it’s weird unconventional sounds. Shortly afterwards he was introduced to the music of John Foxx and he knew exactly what he wanted to do, his next big purchase was a 1/2″ 8 track reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the early Eighties, Tona started releasing music under the name Ohama on his own Midnite News Music label which he sold through local shops and magazine ads to fans all over the world. He played live shows across Canada accompanied only by a reel-to-reel tape player and provocative props. His innovative self-produced video for My Time played on Much Music and his 1st full-length LP I Fear What I Might Hear climbed the Canadian alternative music charts. After years many quiet years, in 2006 Ohama released the astounding Ohama Box (18CDs & 2 DVDs), an extremely comprehensive and intimate retrospective, his portrait of the artist as a profound young electronic musician. Today Ohama is actively producing music again, and recently released Earth History Multiambient an album of new songs which also includes an interactive indeterminate piece designed to be played on multiple stereos at once.

In August, I had the pleasure of meeting Ohama in Calgary. He was an exceptionally generous host, showing my wife and I around the city and playing new works for us in his studio, all the while narrating a personal history of Calgary and his longstanding musical career. Ohama graciously agreed to an interview and below are the astonishingly expansive results which provide incredible insight on this thoughtful, eloquent and brilliant artist.

– Interview by Brandon Hocura, September 2011

Why did you start recording music and what inspired you to work with synthesizers and drum machines?


I started experimenting with sound at a very young age using tape recorders. I don’t remember my first cassette deck, but I was using one when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. They ran coverage 24 hours a day without commercials and I camped out in front of the television to record the moon landing. When I was young, recording and releasing an album was something only done by people with big record contracts. Although music was an important part of my life, I never expected to be a recording artist. It all began when I saw my first synthesizer. I loved the way the A.R.P. Axxe looked and sounded right away. It was unlike anything I’d seen before and it seemed out of place amongst the pianos and organs in that small keyboard store. The fact that it was monophonic and only had a few octaves worth of keys probably made it uninteresting to “real” keyboard players and there was this clear feeling in the store that no one would ever buy the thing. I had no preconceived ideas and surprised them by purchasing it on the spot. Once I got it home, I was drawn to the idea that you could generate a waveform and filter it and use envelopes to vary the volume. Moving sliders to change the resonance and cut off frequency or modulating the pitch using a low frequency waveform was a powerful experience for a kid in the 70s. It felt like being a part of something that had yet to be defined. Even the instruction manual sounded like the manufacturer wasn’t quite sure what the instrument could actually do.

We saw a number of huge changes in the 70s. The rise of the singer-songwriter and the superstar, the invention of the 4-channel cassette multitrack, the platinum album, the Sony Walkman, FM radio, “Home Taping is Killing Music”, “Disco Sucks”, the musician’s union trying to ban the use of drum machines which were (supposedly) putting real drummers out of work, punk rock and the Sex Pistols and the rise of the independent record labels. By the time we hit 1980, it was apparent that anyone could record their band and then turn that recording into a vinyl record (or cassette) and independently sell those albums, but I wasn’t thinking about writing or recording. I was thinking about playing progressive rock and playing live. Bruce Toll, who played bass in my band, was from Ontario and he had albums that weren’t common in Western Canada. He introduced me to John Foxx’s “Metamatic”. When I heard John Foxx, I instantly realized, like a light going off in my head, that I could do that. I was made to do that. Now I’m not saying John Foxx was the first to do this music, I’m saying he was the first one to inspire me.

You need to realize, there was this universal feeling among synth players of the period that you couldn’t do something unless you were technically trained and had the keyboard skills of Wendy Carlos, Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson. Even though Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream had existed for many years, it took punk rock to free all of us. The rawness of punk clearly led to the synth pop revolution. And it took John Foxx to show me what was possible. Anyhow, what happened next: my father asked for help on the potato farm (“just for a summer” which turned into many years) so I quit the band and moved into the middle of nowhere with no musicians around and my thoughts turned to recording. I made a decision to get a bank loan for an 8-track Otari tape recorder (a major investment) and so it began.

 

 

What were the advantages and disadvantages of the equipment you used and how do you think it affected your process?


In the early days issue one was polyphony. My first synth could play one note at a time. My next could play 2 notes at a time. Actually my keyboard technique seemed to grow along with the growth in technology, so it was a good thing in hindsight. Similarly, there were track limitations. Tape decks were 4 or 8-tracks and people would bounce to get more tracks so additional degradation of the sound was an issue. Only a professional studio would have 16 or 32 tracks, and the tape costs were substantial. 15 minutes of multi-track tape could cost over $100. Coupled with the monophonic nature of the synths, the limited number of tracks that one could record was a serious issue.

The next issue was non-programmability. When you came up with a sound you liked, you had to write down all the settings on these patch sheets, or have a very good memory. It took time to move from sound to sound. Again, a good thing in hindsight, as one had to really learn their instrument. When I got the Yamaha CS-40M, the M stood for “memory” and I could save a few banks of patches, and then download the data to cassette tape. That seemed so luxurious at the time to recall a sound bank off the cassette tape in a matter of minutes.

Another disadvantage of the original equipment was it didn’t always work and certainly didn’t work together. MIDI didn’t exist in 1982, and nobody’s keyboard talked to anyone else’s. You needed a Roland sync-box just to convert ppqn (pulse per quarter note) clock times if you wanted to do something simple like have your drum machine play in time with your arpeggiator. Physical cables added to the noise problem. I’ve soldered hundreds of cables in my life and spent a lot of time cleaning tape heads and aligning them with test tones. You end up spending your time maintaining your gear and getting it to work, not writing. On the plus side, you really get to know what your gear is capable of doing, or not doing.

Today is very different. A person might use incredibly powerful yet easy to use software and have little knowledge of what is actually happening under the hood. In effect they are collaborating with the software developer. They know that when they hit “this” slider or twiddle “that” knob something predictable happens but might not understand why something sounds the way it sounds. There is nothing wrong with this. You can program your drums from scratch or you can use a pre-built drum rhythm and get good results with either method. However, I am the type of person who wants to know what’s going on to make a sound and I am the type of person who prefers to program all his own sounds from scratch. Of course, you don’t have to program all your own sounds to make music. Or put another way, one doesn’t have to build a violin in order to play the violin. But I think it’s important to know how and why the violin makes its sound. Also I think one should know, and acknowledge, the difference between a “real” violinist and someone who takes recordings of a violinist and cuts them up to a beat. They’re not the same.

Everyone has their own way of working. I’ve noticed there are some techno artists who could be compared to a painter who mixes custom colors and paints on a blank canvas, while other techno artists are more like someone using a paint-by-numbers kit. Some people don’t even know they can color outside the lines. I encourage everybody to paint outside the lines and go beyond the presets of their software.

I love the new virtual synth software. The new gear allows me to spend more time than ever defining my sound, and less time getting things to work together. I can save entire studio settings in a flash, and these days everything seems to work together seamlessly. Computing power is substantial, recording quality is universally high and prices are rock bottom. All the issues of the old days are now non-issues. There are few limitations. This is a wonderful time to be making electronic music.

 

 

Did living on a rural potato farm in Alberta affect the aesthetics of your sound? Do you think living in Calgary now has a similar influence on your music now?


I use to think living in rural Alberta had an effect, but I don’t anymore. Whether I’m on the prairie or in the centre of New York City, I’ve always felt isolated. I thought that would change as I got older, but it has not. I still do not fit in. Apparently location isn’t the factor. Anyhow it doesn’t much matter where you live anymore in the civilized world because everyone has global access via the net – access to music, access to music software and hardware, and access to distribution to sell, share or promote your recordings. It’s a very equal playing field.

 

In archival video and photos you are seen performing with props and ¼” reel-to-reel tape spooling out all over the stage. It must have been very challenging for a solo electronic artist to perform live in Canada at that time. How did you find the experience of performing live?


I don’t believe it was any more difficult than today, but then again, I’ve never been focused on live performance. My experiences performing live are not typical. For example, if someone asked me to perform in the 80s, I simply went and played, no negotiation. Even if it was far away, I’d just hop on a plane, do the show with rented equipment and then fly back in time to be at work on Monday morning. I never toured, not in the traditional sense, although I have done hundreds of shows. I played because it was fun, and when it stopped being fun, I stopped playing. My focus was the recording, not the live show. As my shows started getting bigger and more elaborate, I began to relate to Robert Fripp.

Around 1980 I read an interview with Fripp that I have never forgotten. He quit King Crimson to play tiny venues, including the Calgary Planetarium. I’m paraphrasing here, but he described his small venue tour as an attempt to counter the trend to idiocy in rock performance, characterized by the escalation in the size of rock events and the general acceptance of rock music as a spectator sport. I was not even close to being a rock star but, like Fripp, when it came to performing I felt I was going in the wrong direction. As I matured I found I didn’t enjoy being the centre of attention nor entertaining people. If you’re going to perform live and ask people to buy tickets, then you should love the spotlight, and in fact, a rock star/performer, in my opinion, has a responsibility to love the audience, love performing on stage, love to entertain and love being the center of attention. That is not for everyone, and it’s definitely not for me.

FYI, the last time I performed live was actually in the Calgary Planetarium. I did a month of performances in March 1994. It was my biggest live production ever. It took place in a 350 seat theatre with a round stage under the huge dome they used for projecting star shows. I sang live and played synthesizers live plus had my entire recording studio on stage, fully sequenced synthesizers, Macintosh computers and MIDI drums synced to the Otari 8 track that synced to the Planetarium’s light show including the lasers, star fields, video screens, 360 degree photo images, early QuickTime movies and 3-D rendered images and videos. I regret that we didn’t get much documentation of the show, but you can read about it somewhere in the Ohama Box Set. The album “on the edge of the dream…” is the music from those shows.

 

Go to Part 2.

 


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