Artist Interview : Petrels
Multi-instrumentalist Oliver Barrett, aka Petrels, is well known for his textured ambient music. His previous albums Haeligewielle and Onkalo were highly acclaimed around Europe and led to him touring with Tim Hecker, FIRE!, Nate Young (Wolf Eyes)and Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Cluster). We took some time out to interview Petrels before the upcoming release of his third album ‘MIMA’.
MIMA is your third album to date. How did recording this album compare to recording your earlier releases?
I’ve recorded and produced all the Petrels albums the same way myself just with Logic on my laptop. The main thing that’s changed across the three is just the scope of what I’m able to do outside of that. The first album - ‘Haeligewielle’ - was very self-contained and the vast majority of it was recorded at home. But then between that and the second (’Onkalo’) I built my own studio with a couple of friends which meant that I could incorporate a lot more live drums, piano, guitars and other sound sources at louder volumes than my neighbours would let me get away with. With Mima, it’s kind of levelled out a bit again - probably a mix of the first two albums in terms of how much I recorded at home or in the studio. The key difference is that I’ve amassed a few more instruments and other bits and pieces of gear and so there’s definitely a bigger spread of sound sources and instrumentation than on ‘Haeligewielle’.
What sparked your initial interest in recording and performing music?
Happened a bit too early to say for sure I think. Both my parents play and love music and so I grew up with it being a focal point in the house. When I was 11 I managed to borrow a battered old 4-track tape recorder from school over the Summer holidays and spent 6 weeks recording myself doing different things and playing it back at the wrong speed or backwards. I guess that maybe kickstarted my interest in the recording process. I’ve played in various bands and different groups across a load of different genres so there was no ‘eureka’ moment - it’s all just kept on building.
Did you play any instruments at a young age? if so, what did you play?
I played cello from about the age of 4 (it was about as big as a viola) which I played pretty intensively until my teens when playing guitars in bands seemed a hell of a lot more appealing and then kind of came back round to it in my early 20’s again.
Do you have any advice for novices wanting to write music digitally?
Wouldn’t want to pretend I’m any kind of authority but maybe just to not get too concerned with the ‘right’ way to do things. There’s plenty of people who’ll tell you there’s a certain way to record things ‘properly’ whatever the scenario. If it sounds good to you, it is good. I think there’s a lot to be gained from intentionally trying to do things wrong - make instruments and programmes and plugins etc do things that they weren’t meant to do. It’s easy to get into the mindset that you could make exactly the music you wanted to make if you just had that next one piece of gear or software without trying to get the most out of what you currently have. Mind you, I appreciate that’s maybe not the best approach to suggest on an online music equipment retail site, so maybe a better summary would just be: ignore everybody else’s advice and just make the music you want to make.
Your music is very atmospheric and certainly experimental. What equipment do you use to record and perform?
I’m going to answer this and the next question in one. My live set-up is basically a stripped down version of what I use to record with but the amount of scaling down is pretty drastic. For my current live set up I have a couple of synths (I say ‘synths’ - I have a secondhand Micorkorg and a battered old 3-octave Yamaha keyboard I bought for a tenner), my laptop - on which I manipulate a few of the more dense sound samples that I can’t easily re-create live - a bunch of guitar pedals (mostly Boss and Behringer), a Mackie 802 mixer and then a couple of contact mics. To record, the only really consistent thing is that I record to laptop on Logic Express but apart from that I tend to draw on whatever I can get my hands on.
Is there any equipment you would like to add to your live setup?
The list is pretty much infinite! At the moment my live set-up (especially on the continent) is determined by what I can fit in a 20kg suitcase. When I started doing Petrels gigs I was using my cello and had an extra synth and a harmonium - all of that went the minute I got my first gig in Germany (Ryanair are pretty unforgiving with their luggage allowance).
You say you draw inspiration from wide range of both visual and cultural sources. Do you pick a theme before composing?
It tends to vary depending on what I’m working on. The first Petrels album was very tightly focussed around a single subject (the Victorian diver William Walker singlehandedly strengthening the foundation of Winchester Cathedral) and I had this in mind before I started. But a lot of the time the process isn’t this self-conscious, though I generally get my inspiration to write and record from some kind of external idea or subject that gets me thinking in whatever way so I guess the two go pretty closely hand in hand.
What are your plans for 2014? do you plan to tour the UK or perform at any festivals?
I’m aiming to do a short UK tour with Tartaruga Records’ Max Bondi, and a European tour with Talvihorros later in the year. Whether with Petrels or with previous bands I’ve always booked UK gigs myself (through necessity as much as anything else) so it just depends on what pans out. I should also have another LP out on Denovali in the summer and hopefully a couple of release from other projects I’m currently working on. As for festivals, it’d be great - it seems pretty hard to get a look-in on the UK festival circuit these days unless you’ve got some money/PR behind you but who knows.