Ottmar Liebert & Luna Negra:

SSRI |www.lunanegra.com |2012



Ottmar Liebert: acoustic & electric guitars | Jon Gagan: acoustic upright & electric bass, clavinet | Char Rothschild: accordion | Robby Rothschild: percussion [Chris Steele on Track 14] | Mike Middleton: trumpet [Track 14]


Lawrence Russell @ CC »»

Feb 24, 2012. I'm driving through the Vancouver Island rainforest in my truck listening to an advance copy of Ottmar Liebert's latest CD, Dune. The rain is hammering down, and a thick mist is advancing through the gloomy groves of giant cedars and firs, and dirty pools of runoff water are obscuring the highway. It's ugly out there, yet this beautiful music is filling the cab with that haunting south-west border country flamenco that Ottmar and his band Luna Negra are famous for.

And this isn't old school flamenco either, Don Quixote crap in an iron suit, this is nuevo, this is acoustic guitar and electric guitar, gypsy accordion and electric bass, gypsy hand clapping and funky time-shifting, bitch-rumba percussion. No rain in this music, just poetic sunshine at midnight.

Dune... what is this Dune? I'm thinking, but somehow I know, somehow I see it way down Mexico way in the Sonoran Desert, land of the shamans, and the vast empty spaces of the altiplano where reality is always a dramatic landscape hypothecating geology and psychology. Dune, sometimes bigger than the Pyramid of the Sun, sometimes just another ridge in the desert, never permanent, at times disappearing completely, later reforming with morphic beauty in the shape of an animal or a bird.

So it has many names... La Sepultura, tomb of the north wind, or El Mestengo, the wild horse... but the brujos, the magic men, simply call it La Duna, the Dune.

I'm slowing down, pulling onto the shoulder... is it because I'm in a wall of fog and blinding rain, or is it because the music has a new, willing hostage? I'm listening, I'm listening. 15 tracks... 13 really, as the first and the last are brief mood locutors, in-and-out within the mysterious world of night and shadow. Flamenco noir, is it... a dreamscape... Track 02, Shadow, Track 03, Horse, Tracks 04 and 05, Bridge 1 and 2, and so on as the narrative declares its nocturnal mystery. A horse, a desert, a moon... swirling sand and spiralling smoke and there it is, "the place of power" (as Castaneda would call it), the Dune.

I pull out the Android, hit the Ottmar app. "Amigo," I say. "You've got a hit number in there."

"Poet," he says. "Which one?"

"Smoke," I say. "Track 09. It's got that old Billy Swan Memphis sound in the bass line, an embedded sock-hop memory floating below the flamenco lyricism. Sweet."

"Thanks, man," he says. "I was thinking of smoke spiralling upwards, actually."

"Well it's a hit," I say. "By the way, you use a lot of spacey electric guitar on this album."

"I do," he says. "No pick, mind you. Just thumb and fingers all the way."

"Lots of rasgueo fills on the electric," I say. "Motown machine gun rips... very subversive within the flamenco code. Voodoo funk meets gypsy rumba, si?"

"You got it," he says. "People don't know it but sometimes I'm closer to the chicken-scratch sound of Jimmy Nolen (James Brown band) than the Paco kind of traditional rasgueo."

"Very nice rhythms, maestro," I say. "You record straight-in with a modeler?"

"No way, I got sick of the Line 6 stuff, so I reclaimed my Mesa Boogie... well, I bought a new one, as I sold my old Boogie in 2002."

"I said that was a mistake, remember? And that white Gibson ES-335 guitar you sold -- "

He laughs. I can hear cutlery clattering, people in the background. He's in some Santa Fe cafe having brunch with his bass player, Jon Gagan.

"Tell Jon he's very Motown funky in a couple of tracks," I say. "The Road to Shiraz for one goes right through the basement in the coda stretch and then, then, you throw in that Forbidden Planet frequency sweep...."

"That isn't a synth," says Ottmar. "That's a short wave radio... a little tweaking with the fine-tune knob."

"Of course," I say. "Stockhausen... Telemusik, 1966."

Ottmar laughs. "It was Shiraz, 2010, I think," he says. "Jon still has the empty bottle."

The CD is still playing low in the background as our conversation continues. I ask him about his melodic approach.

"I wanted to play guitar melodies that sounded 'sung'. For some reason I kept thinking about old jazz and pop crooners. So I sang almost every melody first and then figured out how to play it on guitar. Perhaps it's guitar anti-shredding!"

"Did you use a drum machine? I'm thinking about Track 13, the pure percussion piece, Horse Return."

"O that's a funky section from Track 03 with added dry guitar parts and drum boxing," he says. "Regarding the drum machine… I was feeling nostalgic for the old Roland 808, one of the first machines I used in 1984. But since I didn't want to pay the going rate of $2,500 for a used 808, and since they are a pain in the ass anyway because setting the tempo is just a knob, I found a company in the UK that sells 24/88.2 high def samples from an 808 and bought a really nice German app called "Geist" to program the beats. Ended up costing about $300, and is much better than a real 808 would be."

This tech talk, though, draws me away from the mystery of the album title, Dune. "So, Ottmar," I say. "Is the image of the dune important as a place of power, or simply just for the way it looks?"

He takes his time answering. I don't know what he's eating, but it must be good. "Sand," he says. "All that randomness, the beauty of all those tiny particles coming together in the wind... apophenia."

Apophenia, huh. I'm grasping it now -- a metaphor for creation. And I'm wondering if all this fog and rain I'm trapped in here in the forest can be rationalized the same way. "It's pissing rain here, amigo," I say. "Wish I was down in the desert, driving around looking for La Duna, listening to you guys. Normally I throw violins and accordions onto the bonfire, but I have to say the accordion you use is very nice in the mix."

"That's Char Rothschild... lovely playing, I think. I love his playing on Shadow... and Dancing Alone, where we switched between two tempos."

"I like Smoke," I say. "It's a hit."

"Smoke, yes. I think the interplay between guitar and accordion is nice on that one. In the 3rd verse Jon (Gagan) plays three bass guitars and a clavinet."

I chuckle, have this flash of an octopus doing his thing. "Three bass guitars and a clavinet?" I say. "All at the same time?"

I hear him repeating this to Jon, and them laughing. "Jon says he could do it," says Ottmar. "He's up for it."

"Tell Jon Bix Beiderbecke could play two horns at once," I say. "So no big deal."

More laughing in the Santa Fe cafe. "Who's the percussionist?" I say.

"The percussionist is Robby Rothschild, who has played with us lots over the years. Chris Steele, who is in the new touring band, played on Track 14, Moon Fragrance. He has a unique setup with two Cuban cajons - no snare strings like the Peruvian cajon."

Just then I see a bear moving through the ferns and the maze of heavy roots of the old growth trees. Its fur is slick and matted, and he/she looks completely pissed-off, pays no attention to my truck, passes on, vanishes into the gray.

"Nice. Any final thoughts, amigo?"

"We're just following along from the idea of contrasting traditional and electric instruments like we did in Opium, remember? And I use some treatments and sound design by Andrew Gaskins... for example on the opening track, Falling In (to a dream), and elsewhere. I got the idea from the Japanese art of Kintsugi."

Ah yes, the gold seams of Kintsugi, the bond that holds. Makes sense, Zen sense, narrative sense. Anyway, we finish the conversation, and I pull out onto the highway, leave Emily Carr grove, start ascending the mountain the locals call Tunnel Hill. The rain and fog are still bad, yet as the music of Luna Negra continues to roll, the weather seems to clear and what do you know, here I am, flying through the desert cacti in the moonlight towards a giant singing sand dune. No old guy truck now -- I'm in my 1967 Steve McQueen Mustang fastback, running with a herd of wild horses.

© LR Feb 25 2012



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