Sh'mantra (January 2003)

On Microcosms And Macrocosms - An Interview With Sh'mantra

Sh'mantra - Formula OrangeLong live AC/DC! Sorry, I just needed to do that once in my life, saw the opportunity, and grabbed it. Now, you may wonder what the hell the three-chord attack of AC/DC has to do with minimalist and detail-focused ambient proggers Sh'mantra, aside from the fact that both bands come from Australia. Nothing, really, but, hey, it was a way to get your attention! And now that you're actually thinking about what you're reading, focus as we get some answers from the members of Sh'mantra themselves regarding phrenology, the Interpol, tanned torsos, the death of really old moths, and attention deficit!

MS: If the outside world were to think of Australia in terms of music, the most often recurring names would doubtlessly be AC/DC, INXS, and Silverchair [Silverchair ... uggghhh -MS]. If it were to think of Australia in general, the most recurring ones would be kangaroos, koalas, and Crocodile Dundee. If Sh'mantra looks at Australia, what comes up in your minds? How is it for a band like yours to grow up and gig there?

Sh'mantra: Australia is an ocean of relatively uninhabited land - but then Sydney is a populated, mature metropolis plugged into the world stage. Either way, you have isolation and solitude - both real and imagined - in many different contexts. This is true musically as well. The Sydney music scene is largely dominated by the tuneless chiming of poker machines. There are few venues and too many bands, so everything is fairly mainstream. Those bands which don't fit in the slot get to mutate on the outer, and then you hear of a handful of interesting groups that you'd quite like to hook up with, but then geography defeats you, so you don't get any kind of "scene" going. But then isolation can at times produce something truly original.

MS: Abstraction, stream of consciousness and minute details seem to hover around Sh'mantra like bees around honey. Everywhere, from the artwork of Formula Orange to the album's track titles to the minimalist evolution of many of your ideas, your music sounds like flowing human conscience concentrated on infinitesimal aspects of life and its surroundings. What is trickling through the synapses of your brains and activating your hands and fingers? Where is this ethereal abstraction from?

Sh'mantra: Yes, detail. Microscopism! But also macroscopism! Everything is the negotiation of scale and perception. What is the difference between tracing the causal effects of a moth dying 150 years ago in a disused copper mine to the measurement of my flickering eyelids this instant? It's abstract, remote, and on the edge of conception. It's the examination of the microscopic - but also the attempt to conceive the macroscopic - of proportions both large and distant. And perhaps this is more reflective of being in Australia. We don't live in the desert of course ... but it's there - real and imagined.

MS: There seems to be a shroud of mystery purposefully placed above the identities of Sh'mantra's members; a veil of secrecy reminiscent of that otherworldly aura that surrounded bands such as Led Zeppelin decades ago. The reason behind is? Is anyone hiding away from the Interpol by any chance?

Sh'mantra: We're not really all that secretive, but we believe in ambiguity. Ambiguity always provokes the most interest. Take pornography. It's always most tantalizing with what isn't revealed. In music we do porn soundtracks ... no, not really. In music there is a tendency to confuse this with complexity ... like playing complex time signatures or dissonant harmonies. But complex rhythms are only interesting when you haven't quite "got it." Then you get it and it's ordinary all over again. So how to sustain the ambiguity? It's much more than simple complexity. And I guess it's this ethos that carries over everything we present, including the album covers and our identities. We'd rather people appreciated us for our music rather than our glistening, tanned, muscled torsos.

MS: You've chosen to indulge in lengthy musical evolutions half of the time, or more than half, actually. Focus is undeniably needed, attention is a must, and a willingness to embrace sentiment cannot be lacking. A problem in the age of reduced attention spans?

Sh'mantra: Yes, absolutely. And not just when you want to attract an "uninitiated" audience. With such a glut of genres and musics today, even those who can appreciate extended forms are required to make immediate judgments. Then there's the mentality that listening to a single piece for over twenty minutes just isn't worth it, when you can listen to five pieces in that time. We enjoy music like a great book or film - something you can envelop yourself in and absorb. So much of the world these days bombards you from every conceivable angle so it comes as somewhat of a relief, and a reminder of your humanity, when you can reclaim your own space. And basically we feel like we're creating our own space with the music.

MS: Is there life after death? Do ghosts exist? Have we lost touch with other planes of existence?

Sh'mantra: Can you conceive of death anyway? Is there truth in phrenology? Does an island list at 45 degrees?

MS: Studio albums are probably a constraint for a band with a penchant for extended improvisations, minimalist development, and wide ambience. How do you set a time constraint on your creations in order to fit them into an album? When are they ready to be put to record and will they stay that way once they are recorded?

Sh'mantra: We really made no attempt to stick to any constraints, hence a double album appeared funnily enough. With Formula Orange credit must go to Greg Dixon, our recording engineer. He really came to a good understanding of what we were trying to do. He really pushed us to go further than we would normally have done in a recorded environment - or even when rehearsing. That enthusiasm was invaluable for us. With the majority of music for Formula Orange we had spines and direction for each song but flexibility for each of us to orbit around that - hence we ended up playing and recording the songs much unlike they'd been played before. Formula Orange really set a direction for us, and a lot of the music we're making now is very fluid and constantly evolving.

MS: A previous interview mentioned that you were influenced at one point by Black Sabbath and stoner rock bands such as Kyuss. Apart from the finishing riff of "Robots On the Beach," which crushes with the rawness of Kyuss, however, this is hardly to be noticed. Do your influences manifest themselves in peculiar and unexpected ways? Do some of them stay underground for some time before being unearthed again?

Sh'mantra: That's hard to answer, because we never set out to sound like anything. There was no discussion over what kind of group Sh'mantra would be and what influences we should draw from - we've never even learnt to play a cover version of anything. Basically there are no rules in the band, so pretty much everything we do is peculiar and unexpected, even to us. It all just started falling into place. But of course our influences must be there, you can't escape that. But equally Sh'mantra sprang from dissatisfaction with the music each of us was immersed in at the time. So perhaps there is an element of "Anti-Sabbath" and "Anti-Kyuss."

MS: What is the driving force behind human beings in general? Are we prone to hide our true fears, intentions, instincts, and likes via artificiality and preposterous social conventions?

Sh'mantra - CornucopiaSh'mantra: Sh'mantra advocates the science of phrenology! The only science with hard facts on the nature of ourselves! However, the sole and driving force behind all humans should be to seek out and buy numerous copies of Formula Orange and its predecessor Cornucopia. (Sorry...we had to throw a plug in somewhere!!!)

MS: Cornucopia, your debut album, was released through New Zealand record label Cranium Records, while Formula Orange is an independent release. Why the change? How did Sh'mantra evolve during the years between Cornucopia and Formula Orange? And how will the band keep bringing its ideas and expansions into the CD format?

Sh'mantra: We're very grateful to Cranium because Richard [Stockwell] introduced us to a world of prog and psych rock ... which we didn't realize was out there and active today. We still have a close relationship with Cranium, but really felt a desire to represent ourselves and run with our own nervous energy.

Sh'mantra lost a guitarist after the first album. That changed the sound quite considerably. We toyed with percussionists, other guitarists, a flute player, but it was probably out of insecurity for not having another guitar. But then we became comfortable with the sound we had - and it certainly allowed more attention to detail and sonic space. Alex [Hole, guitars] has obtained a variety of recording equipment. With that freedom of having no time or money constraints we're now in the position of capturing spontaneous improvisations in rehearsal but also in refining detail and shaping expanded forms more accurately. But we're being careful not to sound too polished. If you polish too much you're left with a mirror.

MS: What is the meaning of life?

Sh'mantra: Can you conceive of life anyway? The primeval slime never dreamt of the amphibious fish which never dreamt of the tree-swinger which never dreamt of the hairless upright hunter-gatherer ape which never dreamt of supermarkets and Gucci and digital TVs and game shows which never dreamt of...

This interview originally appeared at in October 2001. Formula Orange has been re-released by High Beam Records. The band expect to play some live dates some time in 2003 {Update 8/8/07: seems Sh'mantra are no more...} -ed.

Cornucopia (1998)
Formula Orange (2001)
Sub-floating (ep) (2002)

Added: January 12th 2003
Interviewer: Marcelo Silveyra

Hits: 1866
Language: english

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