Interview: Pete Cunningham Talks Sweet Satisfaction of ‘Recognition’ for Ishmael Ensemble
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  • Post published:08/10/2021
  • Post last modified:08/10/2021


I was able to hop on a Zoom call with saxophonist and producer of Ishmael Ensemble, Pete Cunnigham, to talk about the group’s stunning new record, Visions of Light. Cunningham discussed the unique, pandemic-induced recording process for their latest and the benefits of letting tracks flourish and grow on their own timeline. We also spoke about Ishmael Ensemble’s elusiveness when it comes to genre categorizations and how the two extremes of music, ambient, spatial sound, and highly textural, heavier experimentation come together on Visions of Light for an undefinable, yet atmospheric body of work.

AL: ‘A State of Flow,’ Ishmael Ensemble’s debut LP, was received quite kindly in 2019, though this is a bit of a double-edged sword as any congrats add to the mounting pressure of the ever-ominous sophomore album. Did you have any worries about ‘Visions of Light’ as a follow-up record or making an equally, if not better, record from the last release? Did that pressure encourage any sort of evolution between the two records?

PC: Yeah, it’s strange. I think A State of Flow was a bit of a surprise to us, how well it was received. It was a very DIY record and in a way, it was kind of more of an experience or project at the time, that I didn’t really think too much of it for the future. And then, suddenly you have to do gigs and you have to present it on stage, and it’s a thing. So, obviously, there was a lot of pressure going into the new record, and it was also the first time we worked with an engineer in a recording studio– up until then, everything had been recorded at home and we kind of mixed all the tracks in a friend’s living room who was a sound engineer.

… And now, this was the first time it was kind of like, “Oh, that’s how you record a drum kit properly or how you record vocals.” So, that was a big step. And, in a way, I think working in that professional environment made everything exciting and fun, so I didn’t really dwell too much on the pressure side, to be honest. And, in a way, I think the association with the UK jazz sound and that being so big, I sort of felt tempted to take a step away from that. I think the easy option would have been to make the jazzier sounding record possible, and I feel I’ve gone the opposite way and maybe tapped into some other influences.

Ishmael Ensemble - Feature Courtesy
Ishmael Ensemble – Feature Courtesy

AL: You are the producer in the room of an Ishmael Ensemble recording session. I think one of the standouts in this record is how well each individual instrument seems to be incorporated in a very unified manner. What does the collaborative process look like for you and the ensemble?

PC: I’ve sort of been trying to work that out and I think it’s probably just my production technique is very much based on a collage, kind of tapestry, of sounds. In which, yes, there’s all of these musicians, but, generally, they send me loads of stuff, and then I kind of mess with it. For example, all of the guitar on the record, there are a few parts that are straight riffs that [Stephen] Mullins wrote, but he also just sends me endless guitar noises and ambient pieces of music in their own right that I, then, chop up and make new again.

… And I guess that’s the same thing I do with a lot of Rory’s [O’Gorman] drums. We’ll do a whole day drum-take and then I take that and turn that into loops as you hear on “Feather” or “Soma Centre,” that’s all live drums, but it’s sort of sampling ourselves. At least, that’s the way I see it and that’s a continuation of my experience as a producer, starting out with sampling boards. Now, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by great musicians and am sort of sampling them. And, it’s kind of easy as that really, that naturally through the process my voice or sound gets applied to all those instruments and it’s nice to hear that someone listening without perhaps knowing that can see that.

AL: Speaking of your last record, it’s only been 3 years since Ishmael Ensemble’s debut LP, but a lot has happened. This record’s title, Visions of Light, sounds very hopeful, and the closer sort of ends on an airy, potentially hopeful, note. How has the turbulence of the last few years inspired or uninspired the record?

PC: I think it made for a better record if I’m totally honest. There was less pressure; I had more time. It was interesting to complete– I’m sure it will be a kind of “sign of the times” of that era. We had two weeks booked in a recording studio in March 2020, which was going to be the solid two weeks to make the album, and that turned into: “Oh, obviously that’s not going to happen. We’ll try to pick up a week in July, and then maybe another week in September, and then maybe finish up around November.” That, in a way, let the tracks kind of breathe and, I think, made the record a bit more diverse and interesting.

… As much as I love the idea of going into a room and smashing something out in a week, I don’t think that’s what Ishmael Ensemble is to me. It’s a lot of sitting on ideas and working out the best thing for a song, and that can take months. So, yeah, in all honesty, the album itself is far more accomplished and, perhaps, far more interesting and unique because of that. Also, just the confidence to carry off those ideas– if we’re listening to demos that are 6 months old and need a bit of finishing touches and I’m still happy with those songs six months later on, that’s great. I hate to think of going in a studio and doing a whole album in a week and hating it. You can’t go back then. So, I think it has completely benefitted on the creative side and just having the time– that never happens for a touring band.

AL: Also, you must’ve been two completely different people from when you initially went into the recording studio and when you returned.

PC: Yeah, I mean, the tracks were worked on in bits, but it also meant that different people were completely recording from home. Mullins recorded all of his guitar parts at home. The engineer wasn’t in a rush to have like 6 people in the studio, so it was done kind of at each other’s leisure and with a bit of distance anyway.

Ishmael Ensemble – Ava Liversidge Interview – Courtesy image

AL: It must put more on the producer to have all of these bits coming at you.

PC: Yeah, there’s less of a reaction. You spend the day working on a track, and especially the way I mangle everyone’s parts together, the idea that the musicians can’t be there immediately to either say, “I like that or not,” is interesting. Luckily, that didn’t really happen. But, especially with the vocalists– that’s a really big thing. You have to be respectful of other people’s choices and how they want to come across and that came through on different songs.

… Like Holly [Wellington] was staying in Scotland for most of the summer and recorded a lot there, and we weren’t quite happy with what had been recorded remotely and luckily we got some time in the studio again and that felt a lot more natural to be together and, I think particularly with the vocals, you really need someone to be in the room with you to support or be cutthroat. Even as a producer, I felt it helpful to have the engineer, Ali Chant, there to say when something could be done better or visa-versa.

AL: You talk a lot about vast musical influences, particularly Bristolian influences, but such an interesting mix that you’re drawing on. How do you approach what may seem like a dissonant group of sonic inspirations? Also, how do you approach being sonically influenced in general— are you wary of the “I want to make something that sounds like this record” approach or not?

PC: I think in a way you sort of said it earlier– that the music is sort of ambient at times but it’s also sort of loud and extreme and heavy, and I see those two worlds as similar in a weird way. They’re sort of the extreme edges of music where it’s super loud, phonetic, weird jazz or metal and then, the other end, of very open, ambient, almost near-silent music at times. They’ve both heavily influenced me. And, in a way, the idea that the three of us– Jake [Spurgeon], who plays synth and bass live and Mullins who plays guitar– grew up together and went to secondary school together. I’ve been playing in bands with Jake since I was 8 and he was 12. So, there’s a long lineage of playing together.

… And all of our favorite bands growing up were rock bands — Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, or, for me, Placebo, and I definitely hear that permeate through this record. Then, I’d say the ambient stuff is more of a recent discovery and using both those techniques and finding space somewhere in the middle. I don’t think there’s a lot of jazz influences. I’d say it’s the ambient and then more heavy side that has influenced this record particularly.

PC: And then there’s another group that I’ve fallen in love with and everything they’re associated with over in Dublin called Lankum who are kind of folk music, but that’s a way too simple definition in the same way that calling us jazz is– it doesn’t really mean everything to what their music is. They experiment a lot with ambient, textural tones and super heavy tones in their music. I was listening to that a lot while I was making the record as kind of a soundtrack to the pandemic.

Ishmael Ensemble – Visions of Light album

AL: I once read an interview of yours titled, “The Band Making Jazz Punk Again.” You are technically classified as jazz, which has a somewhat heady, inaccessible reputation. To those, like myself, who have always been slightly daunted by the genre, what makes something jazz music and what does that moniker mean to you? You’re a saxophonist, you play a quintessential jazz instrument, but Ishmael Ensemble certainly doesn’t sound like a classic jazz quartet.

PC: I’d say more the ideology of jazz than the direct influence of jazz. For me, it’s that freedom and that experimental element that excites me, and I hear that in a lot of the jazz that I love. I love Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane and Archie Shepp– the more avant-garde, spiritual-leaning stuff. So, I’d say the record is much more jazz in spirit than it is in sonics. I think, at some points, of course, it’s a jazz band– it’s an ensemble led by a saxophonist and that’s very much what it is; it’s quite traditional at some points. But, in other ways, calling the ensemble strictly jazz is almost offensive to those jazz players that really play, because we’re not trying to step on those shoes and claim that we’ve spent our 10,000 hours going over our scales because we certainly haven’t. It’s a weird one, but, as I said, it’s more the philosophy of jazz than the straight sound of it.

AL: In that vein, tell me about “Wax Werk.” It’s a bit rambunctious next to the other tracks on the record, and I absolutely love it. How did the track come to be?; it sounds like the product of much tinkering.

PC: I use a lot of resampling, so a lot for this record was built with parts from our last record or I’ll record live sets and get the sound engineer to record our performances and sample bits of that. In a way, “Wax Werk” is a real mashing together of trying to capture that sound of us playing live, which, I think, after touring A State of Flow, we realized that we’re a much heavier band than that debut record suggested. In a way, that tension and energy found in “Wax Werk” is something I wanted to get across to portray the band in a more natural light.

… And, it’s sort of black-and-white simple in that it’s a mixture of electronic music and live, jazz-mad-soloing and boiled down that’s what Ishmael Ensemble is. You can listen to Rory’s part on there, the drummer, and that is who Rory is– he plays very loud and very fast and very hard and I’ve never felt we’ve captured that on record before, so I wanted to just demonstrate what we’re capable of and try to get the energy of a whole live set in three minutes which felt like a big achievement, and it was quite a conscious idea to try and do that.

AL: I’ll end with the upcoming live dates which are hopefully still scheduled as planned. The last time Ishmael Ensemble went on tour, you received praise for reworking the studio tracks into completely new creations when played live. Does this come naturally for the band and/or will you begin the tour with more of what’s on the record and then, as the tour progresses, expand on the tracks?

PC: I think the latter really. In a way, because this record has a lot more involvement from the musicians I play with, we’re naturally staying closer to the album and I think there are a lot more “songy-songs” that are less open to interpretation. We’ve only done three gigs, but already we’re thinking about tinkering with a few songs, and that’s the real fun of it. I kind of keep my producer- head on while organizing the live sound and feel that’s a big part of it. Like, okay this element doesn’t sound great in the live setting; it’s perfect for the record but maybe we need to switch that up or something. As the list of collaborators gets bigger, it becomes quite a production so there’s a lot of organization behind that, and naturally, that makes for bigger songs– sometimes the much softer songs become much bigger and louder to compensate. It’s so much fun to be adding whole new sections and catching people by surprise– that’s the joy of it. I don’t want to go out as a karaoke band, playing like-for-like.

AL: And, of course, are you excited to be back in front of an audience?

PC: Definitely. I’d sort of forgotten about it and the importance of it, and the idea of meeting people in the flesh. The number of times I’ve had the joy of seeing a band on a friend’s suggestion– it’s that meeting people on the road that I’ve missed, people that may not even know our music and just happened to be passing. Everything has been very orchestrated and premeditated during the pandemic; everything has been very deliberate. Whereas, I’m looking forward to things being a bit more chaotic. And, you know, stuff going wrong is helpful as well.

… As we were saying about the songs developing live, you don’t really know that until you are ten gigs in and can tell it wasn’t a hunch, like, you figure out when something’s not right and you can play around with it. I guess with the more radio play we’ve had and the buzz, I feel that this time around, people are beginning to recognize songs of ours. I’d say this is the first time that’s happened– people acknowledging the title of a song before we play it. That feels really special.

Ishmael Ensemble has embarked on a European tour and are beginning to hit their stride as a performing band. Thank you to Pete Cunningham for speaking with California Rocker.

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