Drone-Metal Duo Barn Owl Talks Desert Motifs, Meditative Sounds, and Performing in Cathedrals
San Francisco's Barn Owl makes densely layered guitar music that is equal parts heavy and beautiful. Guitarists Jon Porras and Evan K. Caminiti arrived at their textured sound six years ago while students at SF State, munching vegan tofu burritos and taking in music by rock god Neil Young, minimal classical composer Terry Riley, and drone-metal band Earth.
The duo's second Phil Manley-produced album for Thrill Jockey, Lost in the Glare, is out in September. Like similar ambient guitar and drone metal contemporaries Om, Sunn O))), and Fennesz, Barn Owl's music uses distortion, feedback, and effects pedals to create humming sounds that often have South Asian and Middle Eastern tonalities.
Like its animal namesake, Barn Owl's music is at times quiet and meditative but can explode with powerful loud strikes. Some songs float like tumbleweed through a ghost town, while others swirl with devotional dual-guitar ambience. You can rock out and align your breathing chakras at the same time -- which makes sense, since the pair prefers to perform in spaces with natural reverberation, like S.F.'s Grace Cathedral. Barn Owl returns to the intimate upstairs of the Elbo Room tonight -- and with a recent European tour completed and the new album imminent, we spoke with Porras and Caminiti to find out a bit more about the band.
How long have you known each other and where did you meet?
Jon: We've known each other for about six years. We met in college at San Francisco State, and our relationship has always revolved around music.
Evan: We had a class together and we just started talking about music. We had both previously been in metal bands and were both getting into John Fahey at the time, as well as blues and traditional Americana stuff. We were already on the same page and started playing music without having to talk about it too much.
Jon: We were also both listening to classical minimal composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich. We wanted to find a way to mold those two worlds together.
Was there a band you both really bonded over?
Jon: We both really liked bands like Rainbow and Curved Air. Poppy Nogood really blew our minds; and we were listening to a lot of folk stuff. Both of us really like Neil Young's heavier, twangier guitar sound, especially the album Zuma.
What type of metal did you guys gravitate toward?
Jon: At the time we both met, we had both been turned on to Earth's Earth 2 album, which is kind of interpreting that heavier sound through a minimal lens. But we were also into black metal and more atmospheric metal rather than the technical stuff.
Evan: I was definitely into Swedish melodic death metal where it had the intensity but still beautiful melodic elements. I don't really listen to any of that stuff anymore, but I still like a lot of black metal.
How did you arrive at your particular guitar sound?
Evan: We wanted to use the guitar as the backbone of our music, but [tried] to figure out ways to achieve this big wall-of-sound texture that some of the minimal classical composers would achieve through loop pedals. That inspired us to buy loop pedals, which became a big part of our live sets and still is. We started experimenting with delay, in addition to all the fuzz and distortion we've always used in our previous projects. We always try to let the guitar speak through the effects pedals and not let the pedals take over.
Jon: I would say that compared to some of our friends who are total gearheads, Evan and I find a few effects or pedals we like and stick to it.
Evan: We've found things like analog delay that we like and stick with; we don't hunt too intently for special pedals or effects.
Jon: But it is also cool how a new piece of gear can take you down a creative path that you wouldn't otherwise take. So sometimes it's exciting to get new gear.
Where have you toured recently?
Evan: We just returned from Europe, it was our most extensive tour so far; it was super amazing. We got to play churches and cathedrals, which are ideal for our sound because of all the natural reverberation. It's kind of hard to find that in the States, with the exception of having the privilege of playing Grace Cathedral one time. It's really fantastic when we can play in spaces like that. In Copenhagen we played in a huge warehouse space that had a lot of natural reverberation.
Jon: One of the highlights of this last tour was being able to collaborate with Sunn 0)))'s Stephen O'Malley. It was great to meet him and hang out, and the collaboration itself onstage was a bit of a drunken mess. He brought wine for all of us. As it was happening it seemed a little sloppy but we listened back to it and we're really proud of it and it was a lot of fun.
The songs on Lost in the Glare are concisely written, four- and five-minute pieces. Was that intentional?
Jon: Some of our previous material was very long form. Going into this record, we wanted to incorporate more ideas, and the only way to do that was with shorter tracks. In some ways it was by design. We arrived at the length through playing the songs live for a while and trying different versions, omitting parts from the songs. In the studio we recorded live to tape and did very few overdubs. We did everything as analog and organic as possible.