An interview with John O'Hara & Brian Wenckebach of Thee Koukouvaya

An interview with John O’Hara & Brian Wenckebach of Thee Koukouvaya

by Jason

Thee Koukovaya is the electronica, experimental project of John O’Hara and Brian Wenckebach (Elika). They began releasing material at the end of 2015 with the 30-minute ambient cd Witches’ Jelly on Sound in Silence. They then released their first full-length, This is the Mythology of Modern Death, with Saint Marie Records later that same year. Their latest full-length, Ancient Race of Techo-Voyagers, was released in 2016 on Fiercley Independent Records. They talk to Somewherecold about their views on their compositions, recording, and what inspires them to do what they do.

Somewherecold: Hello John and Brian. Would you please introduce yourselves to our readers by telling us what you do on the project in terms of instruments, sampling, etc and how the project formed?

John: We’ve known each other for over a decade through online communities and our previous projects. I had been noodling with modular synths for a few months before Brian asked if I wanted to collaborate on something. Of course I said “of course!” For the most part, Brian does percussive stuff and I do melodic stuff.

How did you get into making music? What draws you to the ambient, experimental genres when composing your music?

John: I started as a drummer in a rock band, then moved on to recording music by myself on a 4-track, and as time went on I just felt the need to continually make it weird, to bastardize genres, to deface and vandalize my own music, to take it from behind and produce monsters. I’m drawn to music above other artistic media because it doesn’t have to mean anything, it just has to do something. That technician of pure affect, Black Francis, put it best when he said, “it just has to sound good and feel real nice.” That is, it doesn’t have to say something, or mean something, or signify or symbolize anything at all. It just has to do something. The less referential the music is, the more affective potentialities are revealed. So you birth these monsters and you let them go out and do things to people. When you start from the premise of not communicating something specific, instead creating little machines for generating affect, you tend to gravitate to the fringes.

Brian: I played oboe in my middle school band because they thought that I sucked at the french horn.  High school was guitar, punk rock, and hardcore.  I began tracking to tape in the mid-90s.  By the end of the decade, I started to move towards computer sequencing.  As far back as I can remember, I was into weird music.  The last mainstream track I was obsessed with was “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” My parents bought that cassette in 1985 from the Kmart in Wheeling, Illinois.

Where did the name Thee Koukouvaya come from?

Brian: “Koukouvaya” means “owl” in Greek.  That’s what we were originally going to call the band, but there was already someone using that handle online.  We didn’t want there to be any confusion so we put “Thee” in front of it.

You’ve had three projects come out in the last few years. Can you speak a bit about how you approached Witches’ Jelly, This is the Mythology of Modern Death, and Ancient Race of Techno-Voyagers?  Were there different approaches to composing tracks on each project? Were there different pre-conceptualizations or themes for each?

John: Usually Brian sends me a beat and I layer some tracks over it, then he develops the beat further, then we talk about what else the track needs and if we need to make any changes to the arrangement. Then Brian mixes the track in such painstaking detail that I can sometimes hardly hear the minute alterations he makes to each mix. We don’t really talk about making music, we just do it.

thee-koukouvaya-ancient-race-of-techno-voyage-l-_yargzBrian: We began with Witches’ Jelly which is a 30-minute ambient composition in three movements.  This was dramatically different than either of our previous song-driven bands and seemed like the right way to announce our presence.  This is the Mythology of Modern Death is very rhythmic and built around heavy percussive elements and John’s beautifully melodic modular work.  The songs were intricately crafted and structured.  Ancient Race of Techno-Voyagers is the most extreme.  It’s constructed from a huge palette of sounds and bounces across a range of electronic styles.  However, I believe it still maintains a clear sense of cohesion, purpose, and vision.  The next LP is going to be almost exclusively analog and the tracks are very dense and complicated.

Would you please speak a bit about how you picked the track names on Techno-Voyagers and how you decided on the current order of the tracks? Also, are there other tracks that did not make the album? Will fans get to hear those eventually, perhaps on a limited release?

John: We’re always looking for song titles in everything we read or watch, and many of the track titles are simply obscure references, but they don’t function as references but as resonances. The most important thing for me, at least, is that the titles are vaguely evocative. What they mean isn’t as important to me as what they do, how they work in conjunction with the music to evoke feelings and ideas in the listener. One of my favorite things about this project has been reading the reviews because everyone finds a story in this music, but not everyone finds the same story. These albums are like soundtracks to imaginary films, but every listener is imagining a different film. We tend not to talk much about what our song titles mean. Brian is responsible for “We Walked Out of Mexico Loaded,” but I never asked him what it means. I picture some sort of grim heist in a spaghetti western. If he had something else in mind, I don’t want to know what it is. I like my picture. There are a few tracks we’ve recorded that haven’t made it onto albums, and those seem to end up on Soundcloud. Brian is way more prolific than I am; there are tons of tracks he has started that I have neglected to work on at all!

Brian: We played around with a number of different track orders and spent a good amount of time discussing how those orders affected the listening experience.  It is crucial to us that the album works as a whole and serves to guide listeners on a journey to unexpected and unimagined places unique to them.  Our music, though mostly instrumental, tends to be very personal and brings out the things that one has a tendency to bury.

I would like to talk to you about two very different tracks on Techno-Voyagers. Could you speak specifically about composing and writing “We Walked Out of Mexico Loaded” and “Nauplia”? Are there specific stories behind the tracks that inspired them?

John: I play only a supporting role on “Nauplia,” providing the bassline and I think maybe the sweeping filter sound. The rest is all Brian. I don’t remember much about the specifics of “Mexico,” but I think it was an archetypal composition: Brian sent me a pretty minimal beat, I layered a few tracks over it and sent it back, he developed the beat and added more sounds. My only explicit strategy was “drones and textures, not melodies” since the first album was very melodic and rhythmic.

Brian: “Nauplia” began as a data set that was spit out of a modular generative environment I created in Nafplio, Greece.  That data was repurposed to comprise the backbone of the track in multiple layers.  For our music, it is important that all things are in constant flux.  I believe that movement which isn’t even aurally perceptible will still affect the listener on a personal or emotional level.  In contrast to the stunning Greek scenery of Nafplio, the percussive elements of “We Walked Out of Mexico Loaded” were composed while riding the bus from New York City to New Jersey during the winter.  The stark harshness of Newark’s industrial landscape informed the music.

“Margaritas by the Pool” is this wonderful track that lives up to its name. Can you talk about composing that track and how Ulrich Schnauss became involved?

John: That was one of the first tracks Brian sent me almost two years ago. I added a few parts to it, but it still felt unfinished so we didn’t include it on the first album. It was just a matter of finding the right person to finish it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drifted off to sleep over the years with A Strangely Isolated Place playing, so it was very special to have Ulrich Schnauss on board.

Brian: We rarely use four-on-the-floor rhythms but, when we do, it serves to counterpoint our typically serious approach to rhythm and composition.  If I remember correctly, that track began with the bassline.  Ulrich is a dear friend and took time out of his work with Tangerine Dream to lend a hand.  He performed the vocoder section which provides the track with its pinnacle moment and gave it a sense of completion.

What artists would you consider to be an influence on how you hear, compose, and think about music? What artists do you listen to that have stuck with you over the years? You know, those ones you always return to no matter how long it’s been.

John: I was into death metal in middle school in the mid-90s, and it seems like every couple of years I come back to albums by Death, Bolt Thrower, Entombed, Dismember, bands like that. I’ve realized lately that even though I’ve never made that kind of music, its texture, mood, imagination, and proclivity for surprise have influenced me greatly. I think the idea of the metal guitar riff might be as much of an influence on my playing as Tangerine Dream, Mort Garson, Brian Eno, Ulrich Schnauss, Boards of Canada, or Aphex Twin. Those artists have stuck with me, as have the Cocteau Twins. Every song of theirs is a little-multifaceted gem, unfurling a whole world in three minutes. But most of all it’s the instrument itself, the modular synthesizer, that influences my approach to composition with Thee Koukouvaya. It suggests a certain way of playing it. When I played guitar, I tried to approach it as “a thing that can make noises” rather than a musical instrument, but with the synthesizer, I approach this thing that can make noises as an instrument to be played.

What gear do you use in composing, recording, and playing your music live?

John: Mostly I use my modular synth. The modules that see the most use are an Intellijel Dixie II oscillator and a Harvestman Polivoks filter controlled by a Make Noise René sequencer. All of my gear is pretty basic considering some of the wild stuff that’s come out in the Eurorack format over the past couple of years. It’s part of my philosophy of always using the wrong tool for the job: trying to make these very basic waveforms, sequencers, and modulation sources do very complex things and express complex emotions. I rarely sequence by computer. I also have a Roland Juno 106 that I use from time to time, but when keyboards get involved I start to get all Keith Emerson. I’ve played live by myself, just me, the modular synth, and a delay pedal (my secret weapon). We’ve never played live together. I can’t imagine how we’d be able to make it possible. There are a few tracks I composed my parts to with live performance in mind—“Anacaona,” “Prismatic Sun,” Suspicion Breeds Confidence”—but most of them are just too complicated.

Brian:  During tracking and mixing, I am a big fan of classic gear: 1073s, LA2As, Pultecs, etc.

So, what is the future of Thee Koukouvaya? Any new releases planned? Perhaps some live dates?

John: We’re almost finished with the next album and we’re already thinking about what the one after that should sound like.

Brian: We’ve got some live dates in mind for Summer 2018.

Any other comment for our readers?

Brian: Be cool.

Listen to Thee Koukouvaya here.

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