New Blood: Ex-Easter Island Head
With a fancy for mallets, typewriters and Allen keys, avant garde ensemble Ex-Easter Island Head, led by Benjamin Duvall, are one of Liverpool's most involving new live acts
Since 2009, Ex-Easter Island Head have comprised an evolving, expanding and contracting cast of characters, on occasion welcoming to their crew 12 Nottingham-based electric guitarists, a 16-strong vocal choir of volunteers and a 27-piece ensemble made up of people aged 18-70. Conforming to some strict musical principles – as exhibited on their Mallet Guitars series of releases – yet collaborating widely outside their circle, their ethos is one of rigour and inclusivity; their core players are all members of the chameleonic a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra, and they've performed with some seriously notable figures in contemporary music, including Philip Jeck and Rhys Chatham.
The band's Benjamin Duvall proved that he's got his priorities right by “answering these questions while 30 coppers with dogs are combing my workplace for explosives” and simultaneously “trying to find out how to make a buzzing sitar-like bridge for guitar via the internet.” Good lad.
We feel a bit sad for the Easter Island Head that's not an Easter Island Head anymore. What happened to it?
An Easter Island head (Moai) that is no longer on Easter Island, is an ex-Easter Island Head. There is one in the World Museum, Liverpool, called Moai Hava, which means ‘one who is lost’, which seems pretty appropriate really. We wrote a piece for him and performed it around the statue with the a.P.A.t.T Orchestra – he’s on the cover of our second record cutting a handsomely imposing figure. His companion, Hoa Hakananai’a, is in the British Museum, London, but they won’t let us write a piece for him – his name means ‘stolen friend’.
In making your debut record, Mallet Guitars One, you reduced the instruments and techniques at your disposal to just three solid body guitars open-tuned to a specific chord, and struck the bodies with mallets to produce resonances. What are the creative benefits of limiting yourselves in this way?
First and foremost, you’re establishing a boundary to work within so you don’t have to spend loads of time exploring and refining a huge range of possibilities. By setting a few rules – no effects, fixed chords, not using the fretboard, etc. – and with the physical way in which the guitars are configured (laid flat), you’re purposefully changing how you would normally approach the instrument. In this case, the only melodic input we had was determining the three chords; the rest of the work is done by the mallets hitting the body causing the strings to vibrate and produce overtones and harmonics. That then puts you in the position of having to approach the whole piece rhythmically and forget all about riffs, chord changes and the majority of things you know about trying to play the guitar.
Working this way makes you treat the guitar as more of a physical object; a bit more of a playground. The virtue of cheap guitars means that you’re less concerned with how you might damage them so you end up trying all kinds of treatments, from placing objects under the strings to battering them with drumsticks.
You've recently expanded your artillery to include Allen keys. Tell us about Allen keys.
A suitably applied Allen key is a bow, slide, capo, sustain pedal, bridge and more, for about 12 pence. The tones and effects you can wrestle from a guitar using a large Allen key is pretty astounding. Sheer alchemy.
For Mallet Guitars Two, you expanded from a duo to four people – and included trumpet in your repertoire. Can we expect a Mallet Guitars Three?
Yes! We recorded it live in a room in our house so it’s super intimate but with a much more detailed approach. It’s a much broader palette of sounds and techniques. We’ve been playing it live around the UK since January 2012 in support of people like James Blackshaw, Barn Owl, and Tim Hecker. We’ve also got a recording of our piece Large Electric Ensemble for massed electric guitars and drums, which we’re just about to start mixing, which is a totally different, maximal kind of approach to how we normally work.
Last year you performed on the Island of Iona, which has a population of 125 and an abbey from the Middle Ages. This sounds fucking mental...
Iona is unlike anywhere else really – you can’t take a car on to the island. We left ours on Mull and had to move all our gear across via ferry on a hotel luggage trolley in choppy seas. We played in the one-room library to a third of the island’s population and the atmosphere was incredible – total hush in a tiny room in the middle of nowhere. While we were there we explored all three square miles of the island, climbed to the highest point, recorded an improvisation for singing bowls and voice in a 15th century chapel, ate some delicious locally caught crab and experienced one of the most outrageous discos in the western hemisphere.
What other bonkers things have you done?
Last year was pretty good for crazy experiences – in addition to performing on the Isle of Iona, we also did a ten day residency at an international arts festival in Nottingham that featured 1000 artists from a hundred countries. We played three or four shows over the course of the residency while being put up and fed in student halls with young artists from all over the world. We met so many interesting people and got to see lots and lots of amazing artwork, while partying a great deal. I feel we’ll be seeing collaborations and outcomes from that for many years to come.
In November we were invited to create new work in a 300-year-old tower in Northern Ireland and spent five days as a duo creating a new piece for amplified typewriter, mallet guitars and percussion, A Curfew Tower for Bill Morrison. The Curfew Tower has been operated as an artists' residency by Bill Drummond/In You We Trust [an arts trust] for about 14 years and is full of previous artworks tucked away in every nook and cranny. It has five floors and really thick walls so we worked from about midday 'til 2am every day and ended up creating a very personal piece as a kind of musical memorial to my collaborator’s late father. We’re returning to the tower in August this year.
You seem to like taking your music to places where people might not normally expect it, and are as at home on experimental programmes – you've appeared with Maria Minerva, Forest Swords and Anat Ben-David in the past – as more straight-up line-ups (you've supported Ghostpoet). Do you feel a sense of commitment to bringing your music to new environments and audiences?
I think we just want to play wherever we’ll be appreciated. Generally people are pretty receptive to what we’re doing: I guess this is just because it’s so visually different, so at the very least people want to see just what the hell you plan on doing with four guitars on tables and a bag full of dinner bells because they’re mostly not sure what form the music is going to take. The Spectres of Spectacle event you mentioned [with Maria Minerva etc.] was an installation piece for three tape loops of harmonium, voice and prepared bass guitar cycling in and out of phase with each other over the course of about six hours. It was pretty meditative, immersive stuff that you could tune in and out of because it was this discreet, constant presence.
I like to think that for the most part we tend to perform on our own terms precisely because of our unusual setup, but also because the performative aspect of the music is integral to how it is written. It’s all well and good discussing self imposed rules and inspirations but if there’s no concession to making something that people want to watch and enjoy listening to, there’s not much point doing it.