After many years spent exploring a wide musical range, from folktronica to ambient, under the alias Dollboy, Oliver Cherer chose to use for the first time his own name for his recente, wonderful album “Sir Ollife Leigh And Other Ghosts“. Oliver himself tells about this change and much more, in a conversation about his multifaceted artistic personality and his peculiar way to live the music as an artist and as a listener.
How did you started playing music? Did you get any musical education when you were young?
My mother played the piano. I remember a fair bit of Beethoven. I had lessons until halfway through my teens when I discovered Elvis, The Beatles, guitars and girls.
Is there any artist you consider important in your musical formation or at least someone you feel close to your way of making music?
I was obsessed with The Beatles during my teens and then 60s music in general. As the only one of my friends who could play guitar “properly” I got roped into punk bands and then me and my mate bough a drum machine, a Dr Rhythm, and made odd music with that and two electric guitars. Then I was in a goth band for a year or so. We had a Radio One session and broke up. Then I started a six piece band with guitars drum machines and discovered Miles Davis, The Velvet Underground and The Jesus And Mary Chain at around the same time. “Just Like Honey” struck me as a perfect illustration of just how much you could do with three chords. That tune, more than any other taught me about melody and the power of a good tune and it’s still really what drives everything I do now. At around the same time a friend introduced me to Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way”, which continues to have, (I think), an enormous influence on my own music. Of course, since then I have learned and discovered thousands of artists and records that I love and they all have an influence alongside books, films, etc.
Which is your ideal condition for creating music? Where does your inspiration usually came from (both technically and emotionally)?
I am, I suppose something of a dilettante and I often change the conditions and criteria for writing in order to avoid getting stale. I use an acoustic guitar a lot. I also write on the piano and other instruments. Often I hark back to earlier methods and will use synthesizers and sequencers, very often improvising to see what comes of it. Recently I have acquired some old 60s test oscillators, tape machines, filters etc. and have been generating textures and soundscapes as an atmospheric launch pad for the guitar. I have also learned over the years that quite often the thing that I started with has to be thrown away to let the piece develop. For instance, if I build up a guitar and vocal piece around a synthesizer sequence, very often I throw out the original synth to allow the song to breathe. I like to be open to all possibilities.
From folktronica to experimental ambient music and now to a peculiar victorian chamber-folk, your music crosses genres and definitions, for what they might mean…do you feel there’s something common in all your releases?
That’s a very hard question to answer as I’m probably too close to my records to spot the differences and similarities. There are technical things that I could point to. I have a fondness for the Lydian mode and that’s popped up on most of my records. It has a lovely unsettled, almost, but not quite exotic feel to it. I find it irresistible. Which of course is a good reason to resist it! I have a fondness for bell sounds too. So, early on there were lots of glockenspiels and hand bells. I have an old Yamaha synth that you can load small samples into and so made bell sounds with and old 1940s glass xylophone and some steel bowls from my kitchen. I thing they are on every single record I’ve made since 2004. You’ll probably also find my old friend Jack Hayyer on all of my records somewhere. He plays a lovely steel guitar but recently I’ve had him on viola a lot. He’s uncomfortable playing it as it’s not his first instrument by a long way but love that tentative rawness (like John McLaughlin on Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way”.
As a listener, are you interested in the same musical fields you work on as an artist?
Yes, to some degree. I’m always interested in hearing something I’ve not heard before. The last record I got really excited about was John Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts” album, although more recently I have discovered Dory Previn and that blew me away too. I love jazz and wish I was a better player and understood more of the theory. I sometimes think I only make the records I make because I can’t play jazz! I listen to a lot of drone/ambient records. German 70s stuff too like Popul Vuh, La Dusseldorf, Agitation Free, Harmonia. I’m beginning also to develop a taste for opera. I heard an LP of Maria Callas singing Tosca and thought it was genuinely frightening. That’s quite a thing to achieve with a piece of music.
“Ghost Stations” moved from a very clear (and interesting) conceptual frame: what do you think about the potentiality of sound to describe places and to fill physical spaces?
I think that the recent trend for “psychogeographic” music is mostly a bit lame. “Ghost Stations” was criticized in some quarters for parachuting the names of empty stations onto meaningless, pretty pieces of music that, without the track list would not suggest Ghost Stations at all. I think this is wrong as I worked hard to make each piece a relevant reflection of the place of its title but I think this criticism is often justified. There are huge numbers of artists making soporific, pretty pieces of ambient music which get given a title reflecting a geographic place and it often gives the impression that it works. It’s a bit like photographing in black and white to add gravitas. In other words I think it’s very easy to make very ordinary psychogeographic music. It takes an artist of some skill and greater depth to do it properly like James Murray with his “Floods” and “Land Bridge” records. I’d also suggest that Sharron Kraus’s “Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails” on Second Language is phenomenal too (and a real inspiration when I was making Sir Oliffe Leigh.
Are you interested in the connections between music and different forms of art?
Absolutely! I have been as influenced by books, paintings films etc. as I have by records. And anyway, these days film and music seem to go hand-in-hand. I like the idea of ambient music in galleries too. Didn’t Eno do one for a Rothko exhibition? The possibilities for connecting music to people through other media are endless. This summer I’ll be playing shows in a cinema with films and a big gallery surrounded by paintings and sculpture etc. I’ve also, along with Riz Maslen (Neotropic), been made artist in residence at The De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, UK. We’re spending time in the building (which is a large Modernist arts centre) making recordings and writing spontaneously and experimentally as research and development for a show in November. We’ve been singing in stairwells and climbing around in the roof space with cameras and sound recorders and it’s tremendously exciting and inspiring.
Do you feel any difference between the creative process for proper songs and the one for experimental stuff?
Not for me. I find that patterns rule. The patterns can be lyrical for “real songs” or melodic or rhythmic for any genre or discipline. And often I have made songs from old experimental pieces too. There is a free flow between the two ends of what I do. It seems strange to me to categorize and departmentalize these things anyway. I think, for many people the borders have evaporated now.
For the first time, you’ve chosen to use your own name for “Sir Ollife Leigh And Other Ghosts”: is it because you feel it very personal or is there any other reason?
The reason is really quite simple. Glen at Second Language wanted “Croham Hurst” for a compilation (“Music And Migration III“) but I’d had a Dollboy tune on so many of the previous ones he just wanted a change. Now I have done it I feel good about it. I think I was hiding behind pseudonyms before. But in a way you’re right. It is the most honest and personal record I have ever made so using my own name seemed the right thing to do. I took no persuading.
“Sir Ollife Leigh And Other Ghosts” has also a timeless and somehow mysterious feeling; which inspirations you had for writing an album like this?
I had been thinking about the past, the people I have lost and about ageing too. These were the themes right from the start of the writing process. I wanted a musical language to reflect that and I wanted it to be my own, unique sound. So I used old oscillators, tape machines, tape echoes and, most importantly of all I think, I bowed all sorts of instruments that were designed to be plucked. So there’s a bowed sitar, dulcimer, cimbalom, archtop guitar. They’re old instruments but outside their tradition. They’re kind of familiar and kind of strange. Something you recognize but perhaps out of context, out of focus. That was the plan anyway!
Beside many traditional instruments, electronics played a role in some of your works: how do you relate with electronics as “musical device”?
Anything that makes a noise is a legitimate “instrument” as far as I’m concerned. I have recently been making music purely with test oscillators and filters and tape echoes. The results are quite possibly similar to something I could make with a synthesizer and a digital delay but the process involved somehow connects me to the guts of the machines. It’s very satisfying. It’s sometimes a bit wobbly and imperfect but I have grown to love these imperfections.
You’re part of the large “collective” of artists around Second Language, the label run also by Glen Johnson. What do you think of the label’s philosophy and of this “collective” of people sharing a somehow common style that’s quickly gathered around it?
Second Language has been fantastic for me. I’ve met so many inspiring people and been allowed and encouraged to develop what I do in my own way. If it has a philosophy I don’t know what it is. I guess it seeps in through the skin via a kind of cultural osmosis. I feel lucky and privileged to have been included in that family. A great label.
Now that everyone can listen to nearly all the music from the web, what role can play a record label to keep the physical format alive? Generally speaking, what do you think about the way music nowadays spreads through the web?
A label like Second Language acts as a curator I suppose. It’s a point of contact where you know that you’ll be getting something pretty special. You don’t need to know what the release is or who it’s by; you know it’ll be good. The web can be completely overwhelming at times, especially when you are into many different musical styles. There’s A LOT out there! You need a way of channeling the good stuff and a label should do that.
How would you describe the meaning and the goal – both personal and artistic – of your music?
I just want to make the best record I can. I’ve done this now for most of my life – it’s not going to stop. So I just want to know, or believe that my best record is yet to come.
Lastly, after an album so peculiar as “Sir Ollife Leigh And Other Ghosts”, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
My reaction to the great reviews has been to want to do something completely different! I have an album of songs that I wrote before Oliffe Leigh and abandoned, mostly piano songs which I’m tempted to dust off. It’d be pretty mainstream though. I’m writing more music in the vein of Oliffe Leigh though so you never know, there may be a part two! Otherwise I am working on various collaborations and having a lot of fun making improvised music in art galleries! I feel like drifting and seeing where I go.