Ex-Easter Island Head turn guitar playing around. By laying them down, preparing them and then drumming them, they create percussive drones that would make the likes of Steve Reich and Briano Eno proud. In 2010, they released their first record, Mallet Guitars One, and followed it with Mallet Guitars Two / Music for Moai Hava in 2012. This year they released their third record, called–you guessed it–Mallet Guitars Three.
We spoke with bandleader Benjamin D. Duvall, based with the band in Liverpool, about their evolving sound.
Noisey: Guitar preparation has a venerable, if underground, tradition. How did you come to it?
Benjamin D. Duvall: Firstly, just through sheer chance, being bored. I laid a guitar flat on a keyboard stand and liked the way it looked, then started thinking about how a musical performance could come out of that set-up.
That chimed with a growing interest in trying to do away with effects pedals and developing a sound more influenced by non-guitar based music. Once I decided to stick with the horizontally laid guitar as a starting point, the rest developed over time - percussive playing on the body, inserting "Third Bridges" under the strings (metal bolts to divide the string field into two), alternate stringings and re-tunings, exciting the strings with different objects and materials, using the guitar body and pickups as a resonator for other objects...
it's a process of discovery, and it's ongoing.
You placed a theoretical framework around something that seemed cool to you at the time.
Yeah. In discovering these techniques, you start reading up on the precursors to them. John Cage's prepared piano, Glen Branca's third bridge zithers, even the idea of the monochord supposedly invented by Pythagoras and used to illustrate musical ratios on a divided string.
Quite early on, I worked with and befriended experimental instrument maker Yuri Landman, who makes electrified string instruments that incorporate many of the same techniques and who was able to offer some musical and scientific explanations of how they work, which seemed to be an encouraging sign that this wasn't all just pissing about making interesting sounds, and actually had a tradition that can be traced back thousands of years.
How do you prepare a guitar? How might that process change, from composition to composition?
Each of our pieces has been a development of what's come before. Mallet Guitars One was three guitars tuned to three sympathetic chords being played by striking the body of the guitar with mallets to allow the strings to resonate. Mallet Guitars Two introduced third bridges and playing the divided strings with bamboo sticks. Mallet Guitars Three incorporates all these techniques—better understood through hours of playing and gigging—alongside use of allen keys to 'bow' the strings and other preparations.
The horizontally-laid guitar is the basis of everything we do but for each piece, we'll arrive at a new set of tunings and a new physical layout of our equipment offering new possibilities for performance–being able to have three players performing simultaneously on just two guitars for example. It keeps things fresh and exciting and means that we stop ourselves from falling into assumptions about rhythm, melody or who's the lead player.
It also means you can move around a lot more and swap roles during a performance which I've always been a sucker for.
How much is your music defined by your equipment?
It's fairly dramatically defined by our equipment. The sounds we're trying to achieve, the aesthetics of it all—these are so heavily tied to guitars. The electric guitar itself is so heavily tied to the DNA of rock music that I'd like to think there's an interesting discrepancy between our choice of instruments and the type of music we like to make. There's been a conscious avoidance of the sounds, dynamics and intent of rock music in favor of something else, but nonetheless, rock is where each of the members of Ex-Easter Island Head has come from, musically speaking.
At the same time, I'd like to think our music is defined as much by its compositional ideas and intent as its instrumentation and that as we learn more about how we write and what we like to write we'll be able to apply that to a range of instruments. We've already written for harmonium, tape loops, untuned percussion and voices in other pieces so in time I see no problem with us abandoning guitars in pursuit of a new sound.
You place your instruments them under limiting conditions. Do you need that system of constraints to work?
Totally. Self-imposed rules and limitations are how it all works for us. It's a deliberate narrowing of focus - no fretting notes, no effects pedals, no snare drum, and all the rest of it.
It means you better understand what you've got to work with. I like the "game" aspect of working to self-devised rules, too. Sometimes it might feel like a bit of an exercise but then it's also like a sort of group challenge to be as ingenious as possible with what materials you have. It keeps things from being routine and, consequently, it's a lot more fun to do.
Is music in general defined by its limitations?
Well I think limitations instigate resourcefulness and, in the case of plenty of musicians, innovation. Some people can have ten completely different instruments at their disposal and forty tracks of audio and know exactly what they're going to do with that, whereas I wouldn't even get started through indecision. Once you know that there are constraints in place, getting started on something becomes loads easier.
You seem to be trying to use a particular instrument in a way that sounds totally unlikely that instrument.
That's pretty much it—trying to create sounds that are completely alien but still identifiable as music. It's not so much about trying to constantly hide the fact that we're playing a guitar—it's a beautiful instrument—but just being drawn to sounds and ideas that can't be so easily cross-referenced from the listener's perspective.
How many more iterations of the "Mallet Guitars" model do you think you have in you? Is it something you'll always keep in mind?
There was always a rough idea to do a trilogy of Mallet Guitars pieces and then to see where we'd go from there. We're definitely not about to stop using the malleted electric guitar as a basis for sound making, but I think that releasing a record titled Mallet Guitars Four might set us up for accusations of predictability!
Our next release is with our large ensemble—12 prepared guitars and drums—made up of musicians from our label, Low Point. It's our most ambitious large scale piece to date and is the first time we've used this many guitarists and a full drum kit, so it's another use of the sounds we've been exploring over the last few years.
We just got the finished records through for that, and they sound great: 72 electrified strings, singing in unison. In terms of other avenues: we're interested in site specific commissions, more large ensemble work, working with voice, collaborations, film scores and anything else interesting that might come our way.
Things are definitely expanding. We've been invited to play Tokyo Experimental Music Festival in December so we've a few Japanese dates as a duo, which is incredibly exciting and then in January we're releasing that piece for 12 prepared guitars and drums – called Large Electric Ensemble – as a vinyl and download. In April we'll play a few UK dates with the Large Ensemble, thanks to funding from Arts Council England, and we'll be working on a new piece for our trio setup of Ben Fair, Jonathan Hering and myself, who currently comprise Ex-Easter Island Head.