Barn Owl’s Jon Porras recently released his solo album Black Mesa , a record that we’ve been contently immersed in for weeks now. His wandering guitars and hum of ambient tones were laid down intermittently over ten months, creating a record so deep you might not find your way back home. We spoke to Jon about the creative process, the solitude and the themes explored.
Bowlegs: Firstly tell us what Black Mesa is? What was the inspiration behind the story?
Jon: Basically I’ve always wanted to score a western. I wanted Black Mesa to be a soundtrack for a hypothetical film. I wanted to think of the Black Mesa as a desert equivalent to David Lynch’s Black Lodge. I liked the idea of stumbling upon a place or monument that has the ability to bridge gaps between time and place. And I honestly don’t feel this is so esoteric. If you think of ideas traveling globally across time and place, the internet is a similar zone.
Bowlegs: You took your time on this record, intermittently recording it over 10 months – was continuity an issue, what mood did you have to be in to sit down with your guitar and hit record? Or was it a time issue?
Jon: Recording is sort of a habitual thing for me. No matter what type of mindset I’m in, the focus and attention required to record keeps me grounded. Also recording and writing go hand in hand for me, so there are technical thoughts and creative thoughts all kind of culminating into this drive.
Bowlegs: What albums would you deem an influence to this record – it’s got drone elements but with guitars?
Jon: In my mind this is a guitar album. I took a tip from Michael Rother who bases a lot of his recorded works on building layers of sounds and melodies until they all sort of swirl around together in a big reflective pool. Loren Connors and Sandy Bull have always inspired me to play in a mournful or reflective way using improv and effects to help develop the voice of the guitar.
Bowlegs: How do you write songs/pieces like these – are they structured in anyway? Or are they a series of improvisations where you take what works from each session?
Jon: Some of these pieces, like Into Midnight, were written layer by layer meticulously and then recorded. Other songs contain a mixture of improvised and prewritten material. But at the end of the day, all elements, both improvised and prewritten, were eventually arranged and edited to fit within the overall flow of the album. Some pieces I would assume were finished and I’d set them aside. After two days or two weeks I’d revisit the piece and have a whole new perspective with new ideas and additions.
Bowlegs: The title track features a tambourine creating a more rhythmic vibe – tell us about that track, it feels like a shaman-ritual in the middle of the desert to me, I love it.
Jon: Yea the tambourine is a pretty classic sound in rock music but also has great color given that sharp, metallic shimmer. I wanted to imply a slow plodding procession into the unknown.
Bowlegs: What other sounds are used on this record? Is this music you might take on the road?
Jon: Most of these compositions would be hard to perform live on my own. I’ve played stripped down versions at recent shows and the pieces sort of become different things but I still like them. I did a lot of experimentation with cassettes on Black Mesa. Some material was first recorded to cassette, I’d adjust the tape speed to find some interesting sounds, and then improvise over that.
Bowlegs: I can get lost in this album for hours, it’s like an audio hallucinogenic. Will the next Jon Porras record be along the same lines? How did the whole experience compare to recording with Barn Owl?
Jon: Yes I think I will always be interested in immersive music that can be felt and heard all at once. I love to feel as if I’m swept away. I like to use density and layering to highlight those depths in our environment that can only be experienced through sound. Barn Owl is a completely collaborative process. My solo material helps me investigate ideas that come out of solitude and individual focus. I’m recording a lot of new solo material, but it is different. Finding it exciting to use electronics and rhythmic themes, which is opening up some creative doors.
Bowlegs: Lastly what records have you been listening to in 2012?
Jon: Mortiz Von Oswald Trio – Vertical Ascent, Mohn – s/t, Andy Stott – We Stay Together, Congos – Heart of the Congos, Lee Scratch Perry – Dub Treasures from the Black Ark, Rare Dubs 1976-1978, Francis Bebey – African Electronic Music 1975-1982, Vatican Shadow – Iraqi Praetorian Guard.