KC Cafe is fucking delicious. So I was stoked when experimental vocalist Jonny Marks of The All Seeing Hand was keen to meet over some mapo tofu 麻婆豆腐, and talk about how he honed his throat singing technique Inner Mongolia.
Hey Jonny! What have you been up to lately? (note: this interview took place last month)
Hey! We’re currently trying to sort some cassette tapes to take on tour to Australia – Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, then back to Melbourne. Pablo from Mesa Cosa, who does a bit of promotion with Bone Soup, took us over last year. We met at Camp and he’s just organized it all!
How did the All Seeing Hand emerge into this earthly realm?
Ben and David started off as a two piece, and a couple of people did vocals at various parties – then Noel Meek joined doing vocals with them. I got back from China while he was playing with them and he was going overseas. Perfect timing.
Can you tell us a bit about the production of Fog and Debris released earlier this year?
Fog and Debris is made up of stuff that was recorded at the same as Mechatronics (2013). As we were building up Mechatronics there was stuff that didn’t really fit with what it had become. David was able to put in some of the recordings with Noel on there and so its a bit of a Frankenstein of a record. Mechatronics has that heavy punchy sound, but then there are those more headphone listening kind of worlds to the band. It’s nice to have an album where people can enjoy those more detailed aspects that David creates.
I hear you studied composition with Jack Body at Victoria University. How did you come into that?
As a teenager I was in a band at Hutt High, but I also had my four-track and would be doing explorations of noise with mates. Then high school finished and I didn’t really want to go to university. When I turned up at Vic and there was a whole department dedicated to mucking around in a studio and doing sonic art – I thought ‘wow!!’
And that’s where you were first introduced to throat singing?
Part of what Jack does is to play folk and classical music from different countries for us to engage with, transcribe and try to make pieces out of it. One day he played us a recording and said, “right, firstly, tell me what instrumentation is in this piece.” It was throat singing. Once he told us it was just the voice within, I knew that I wanted to explore further.
How did you begin with starting to learn it yourself?
I just understood the theory of it. I spent a long time making god-awful noises. But I’d always done experimenting with my voice, since being in a grind-core band at high school, so I was happy to sit their in the shower and just going “blueeerhhhhggg,” then eventually work on refining it.
When did you move to China to pursue your development of the technique?
Mid-2006. I was in China for two years, Hohhot for one year, then spent the summer holidays in Xinjiang. Then I stayed in Urumqi for a year. My plan was to be totally open ended and see where it went.
“I turned up to Hohhot and just went door knocking, looking for a teacher.”
How did you go about finding a throat singing teacher? I can’t imagine it is a very common request.
Massive language barriers. All sorts of miscommunications. It took a long time to find the right teacher. One night, I went to a concert and this kooky Mongolian girl with the weirdest fashion, massive eyelashes and totally outrageous high heels put me in touch with her friends at a performing arts school, where I eventually found my teacher. His expertise was the horse-head fiddle, which accompanies all the songs and singers in Mongolian music. His throat singing was alright, but his knowledge was fantastic. He knew what sounded good. He knew how to direct me.
Are there special things you need to do to look after your voice?
Every teacher I met would be at the banquet table drinking baijiu and chain smoking. Saying to everyone – ‘don’t drink and smoke.’ It’s a bit rock and roll really [laughs]
Were there any customs around throat singing you needed to observe?
I had to understand the performance style, I couldn’t just get away with the technique. When I throat sing my face goes quite red, which is a big no-no. The presentation of throat singing is that it is very manly, you are supposed to sit their with your big belt buckle and look staunch and effortless. If my teacher saw me in All Seeing Hand, it is the total opposite of this aesthetic. I do want to present the All Seeing Hand to people over there, but I hope people see the respect and love that I am doing it with. People are doing throat singing all over the world. It is a YouTube phenomenon.
How did you see the role of throat singing develop in Inner Mongolia?
Its this weird thing where Western tastes and influences are having an impact on an entire world of music. But Mongolian people are making those aesthetic decisions themselves with their own standards – the unfortunate thing is a ‘drive to what is correct’ and the marker of that is which bands have made it to WOMAD – the Tuvan style, bands like Anda Union and Huun-Huur-Tu. It used to be more diverse within the individual practice.
Among young people there’s kind of this national pride in being Mongolian, which is driven by a dislike of the political system they are in and strong urge to retain their identity.
I went to a village and met two women – one was the last to know how to make a particular hat of the region, and the other was the last to know their songs. The young people I was with weren’t keen to engage with them at all, there was this feeling that Inner Mongolian culture was not ‘true’ Mongolian culture – they would look outwards to Outer Mongolia, outside the People’s Republic, as being ‘true.’
Tell us about your time in Xinjiang.
Dan from Orchestra of Spheres and I used to flat together at university. He was in the UK and came to China before going back to New Zealand. It was 2007, the year before the Olympics. Lots of rottweilers and AK47s. Massive Police presence in the Uyghur areas. It is active colonialism.
We went from Hohhot to Urumqi, then down to Kashgar and Yuli. It was awesome. In the south, the towns are all scattered throughout the desert. In Urumqi, there’s the Pakistani and Russian parts of town. It is an import export area with all these business people and sales people – the Silk Road is still current! Great food, beautiful, interesting people.
Show Me Your Teeth is the first All Seeing Hand song in English. What words are the other songs formed of?
Just sounds. Even when you are not doing the pure whistle-tone, the whole idea is to have total control over the shape of the sound. I like to imagine the vocal shapes coming out like a synth, and try to pull something out of what David is making – finding a sonic timbral relationship with the other two.
A big part of All Seeing Hand’s live performance is the lighting and visual impact. The ghosts at Camp, the Blob, the wolves at Puppies, the crazy lights at Garrett Street…
Erika Sklenars, Lady Lazer Light! I see her as part of the band. Sometimes its just projections, we always try to have something visual – she gets it completely. We will go to the venue beforehand and talk about what the show will look like, but then she just rocks it out live. So often people will be ‘wow, the visuals were great tonight!’ and we won’t even have known what was going on behind us! It’s a projection of all of our imaginations. It is the first time I have been in a band where visual artists, presentation, costume and jewellery joins together.
China would be awesome, and John could come along and document it. Shaun Tenzenmen could also sort us out a South East Asia tour – but it would be ambitious to do both. I need to talk to people and see which would be the most realistic.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
I like listening to folk musics from around the world that have awesome singing in it. I love live music – local stuff. The Pyramid Club is my centre. Jeff Henderson and the stuff he is doing in Auckland with The Audio Foundation. A lot of the time I’d rather see live music go terribly wrong than sit at home listening to my favourite album. It’s about the now. For me that’s what music is all about, inhabiting time.
I love Orchestra of Spheres and I reckon Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing is one of the best live bands I’ve seen.
With the recent closures of Mighty Mighty and Puppies, there seems to be a polarising view around at the moment: Wellington is dead vs. Wellington is pumping. Where do you sit?
Wellington is pumping! [YES – *high-five*]
Wellington is awesome. It’s a great time right now. People are having to think about what they wanna do and see. I used to hang out a lot at Happy on Tory Street and the Space, upstairs from Newtown Shoes opposite Mr Bun. That came out from people wanting a place to do something. There is a whole plethora of different projects that came out of the Space in the late nineties. There were people who used to do stuff in the late eighties and early eighties coming in to experience the new energy. The house parties, Pyramid Club, 19 Tory Street – there is stuff happening!
Check out the latest All Seeing Hand video for Lying Dead, With a Bar of Soap! Keeping fingers on both hands crossed for a China tour in the very near future!!
And ahead of the election tomorrow, keep this song in mind…