Q&A: Arthur Ahbez

Arthur Ahbez has just released his first album Gold. In his own words, he’s been “lost in the 1960s for nearly 10 years” and it shows on a record that shows a deep love for Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Dylan and the Velvet Underground. All Things Musical sat down one Wednesday lunchtime to do a gmail chat with him about recording Gold, his creative journey over the past couple of years and finding an eight track tape machine in an opshop.

Tell me about recording Gold and the how/what/why/when of it…
The best way to describe it is a window into the way I hear music and relate to it. And "see" it. I worked on the record for about 2 and a 1/2 years, piecing it together in my room on a 8 track tape deck I found out hunting for vintage garments It was an amazing find, hidden under a pile of old flannel shirts. As soon as I saw it I knew it was what I needed and thus began the start of my record. The songs I decided to put on the record mean a lot to me. I've called the record Gold because that's in part what I feel subjectively it is. I'd play the songs over and over again on my guitar and on the recording as I wanted to be sure they weren't something temporal. I wanted to be sure they really meant something to me. Plus like any artist I’m extremely self-critical of my work - although I've loosed up a bit now. But being the first recorded output I've done publicly I wanted to make sure I could still enjoy it 10 years from now and have the record age into a timelessness. I'd have a lot of fun recording it, but at times it was a nightmare as I had no one to really feed back off and I had to learn as I went… how to record, how to mix, layer etc. Anyway - now that I've finished I want to keep going. I can't wait to do another record as I have all this material that I couldn't get right on the first record due to inexperience. This album was kind of the first step/leap of faith etc into becoming an artist even though I've played live music for yearsI wasn't sure how people would react to my songwriting and ideas as I've been lost in the 1960s for nearly 10 years. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out, and most importantly I can hear all my influences in the songs. And hopefully other people will too. One thing to note, I'm really obsessed with folk songwriting. Not as traditional as Woody Guthrie, more like his contemporaries (though I dig Guthrie)… so with my first (and hopefully not last) record I always wanted to make it folk in heart and nature, and most of the songs bear that stamp.

What is it you like about that stuff in particular?
The honesty in it, and the eloquence and restraint makes it beautiful. It’s incredibly potent, as I feel a lot of folk music these days is very diluted in their ideas and sound.

There's a lot of music wearing the folk kinda label out there at the moment but it’s often just pop music with a banjo.
I concur.

I hate the idea that something very pure in intent like that has sorta been turned into a coat of paint that you cover a pop song in.
Yeah, I mean, I like to totally devote my self to the song and make it as honest as possible… and that means subtle notes and changes, with instruments saying different things to get the mood across. I guess I just want people to be taken away by romanticism as I feel modern music has very little if any… and relate to it in their own way, and not be told by the instruments and vocals what to feel, but that they can relate to it in their own way, whatever wave or trip they are on you know.

So you did the whole record on tape yes?
Yes. All on tape. No compression, riding the faders man. It was a lot of fun at times.

And track by track, or some of it live and bleeding together?
Mostly track by track, but the last 4 tracks i tracked vocals and guitar… A Way To Weaken I did countless times, as I wanted to get the vocals as focused as possible. I really enjoyed having total control. I could have never of made this in a studio.

Ok, so like drums on several tracks bounced down to one? Or just drums on one track, bass on one track etc til you filled four tracks, then left the last four for your voice and gat?
The stress of time would have been to much, and letting the songs breathe by coming up with new ideas as I recorded them. I did it all very minimalist. One overhead mic on the drums etc, as I wanted it to sound rough. Walk On I did with the worst mics I had... I also recorded Walk On on a child-sized drum kit, came out sounding okay.

So I guess you stand pretty firmly in the analogue camp of the digital vs tape debate?
I've got nothing against digital. I just love tape as it's such a fun medium to work with. It's an instrument in itself.
Yeah ditto, digital is great, but tape rulz...
It lets me focus more on what I hear, rather than what I see. It limits me too, which is very important, people have too much control with digital and the song ends up suffering as its too polished and feels air brushed, you know? You want to see the song in the flesh, not an airbrushed photo.

Yeah, that's the scary (and good) thing about tape... is not having limitless tracks and takes to do... it sorta forces you to play it as well as you can, and encourages you to keep blemishes that you would edit out otherwise...
At least with the music I aim to make, that’s how I want it to sound. It forces you to play better.

What kind of tape machine is it?
It’s an Otrai mx5050 MKII. There are companies making new tape too, so its not like you have to use old stuff.

"Tape limits me too, which is very important, people have too much control with digital and the song ends up suffering as its too polished and feels air brushed, you know? You want to see the song in the flesh, not an airbrushed photo."
So you used to play in a band called Welfare Mothers? What happened to that?
The Mothers disbanded as it went as far as it could. I found another rhythm section who had the edge I needed.

When did you guys disband?
Like 3 years ago. Mothers were all my songs too, and i never felt they were good enough to record… so that’s why I chose to do my own record.

So you never recorded with them?
We did… I've got some great jams on tape which i may release one day, but my plan is to cut a record with Superbird.

I've had projects like that, where at the time I felt it was really terrible, so never did anything with recordings, but maybe one day I’ll go back and have a listen to the stuff that's less terrible.
I mean it was cool, but it just wasn't at a standard I felt the songs required, haha.

I saw you talking about being on a journey of self discovery over past five years in your bio. What do you mean by that?
Journey started with the Mothers… it was a journey to find out if I could really do this, make a record etc
if I had the strength and faith in myself to create something I could be proud of… learning about my own creative process and how my mind works haha. Now that I’ve made this record I want to keep going to see how long I can do this… make a body of work now that I've learnt to trust my self and not worry what other people think about it and to be as honest about what I create as possible.

So you might do a separate Superbird album? Is it a separate entity? As well as being the backing of Arthur Ahbez?
At the moment no. I decided to create the album under a guise rather than a band so I could have more freedom… sort of a Neil Young/Crazy Horse thing, sometimes he plays with the band or just goes off and does his own thing. I've realised that’s the way I think I need to go. I've got all these acoustic tracks I can’t do with the band and I didn't think it was wise to split them up when I’m the key writer for the band and myself more freedom haha.

Can you tell me a lil about yr creative process? Like are you a lyrics first guy, or you build upon a progression and sing nonsense til something turns into a lyric, oblique strategies, do you sing different melodies over Ace of Base tracks and then try to play something to the new vocal, put cat biscuits on pieces of paper with key signatures written and then make a song in the one that gets eaten first?
I think my process will change as I learn how to write different ways. But usually I'm a instrument first lyrics later guy. I take a loooong time with lyrics. I feel my best lyrical songs are the ones I spent months on. But then recently I've started in the other order, letting my vocals create the melody and playing around that. I’m excited to see if I come up with any good singalongs heh heh. Slow Train Comin' was my favourite track to record. I had no idea what the song was going to sound like. I laid down the acoustic and vocals and everything else just fell together. I like that feeling of just hitting record and seeing what happens. The solo at the end was my first practice run and I liked it so much I decided to leave it in. Improv.

I had no idea Gold was your record actually, I came across it on a friend’s Facebook page and liked what I heard, then I saw a link to it on Russell Brown's blog, where he said that James Milne had put him onto it.
Oh cool.
That's pretty great! You know James?
Even better!
It’s great he likes the record though. It’s made for people like you and him, made for musicians I feel. And I really like his stuff too. I'm just in the process of getting it on iTunes, trying to decide on a digital distributor...

Through that NZ company DRM, or CDBaby.com?
Haven't heard of them! I was thinking Ditto. CDBaby take 9% so not too keen on that.

Ouch. Yeah. Although the iTunes pricing itself is not ideal aye. Always feel like their albums are so overpriced considering yr not paying for a physical product/overheads
I don't like the idea of people being able to buy just one track. Take the whole thing or leave it. It’s like reading one chapter in a book.

How has it felt getting all these nice responses to your record? (well, at least from the people I've seen)
I'm very humbled. And very glad people understand it. Looking forward to getting it reviewed though but someone who knows their shit. As I haven't read anything yet heh heh. Even if they don't like it.

Yeah I'm sure stuff will show up once you get it out there to more people.
TBH there are a lot of poorly written album reviews in NZ, but we will see...

Catch Arthur Ahbez at these shows
October 3 at Lucha Lounge, Auckland
Arthur Ahbez with van der Wel and Paper Cranes

October 5 at Major Tom's, Tauranga
Arthur Ahbez, with van der Wel, Daniel Leigh, Matthew Bodman and Paper Cranes

October 26 at Galatos Ballroom, Auckland
Husk, Arthur Ahbez and Superbird, Greenfog

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