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What can you do with an acoustic guitar and a drum machine? Wittox O'Hara's The Surrealist is a mystifying piece of work. Lots of xylophone-sounding timbres weaving intricate lines, much like a percussion ensemble, with plentiful of odd percussion blending in with the eclectic acoustic guitar and occasional accomplice electric guitar, shaping everything together, forming an impressionist world on its own.

by Alain Lachapelle, Published 1995-11-01

Initially I thought there was more to this than only guitar and drum machine.

I once played in concert a medley from The Surrealist, with no percussion at all. Only keyboards and guitar. It's another feeling. It gives a more 'spacey' approach, which I got from Hammill. He's an influence, but I also listen to jazz and free jazz a lot. The saxophone on The Surrealist echoes such influences. David [Parker, sax player] knew the pieces beforehand, but his saxophone is improvised. At the end of the sessions he was quite tired since I asked him a lot. There are two saxophone tracks, and sometimes you can hear both saxes simultaneously.

Although using a drum machine, the music doesn't sound at all like being programmed. There's a meticulous approach, a very detailed manipulation of parameters that we just don't find around too often, that gives the overall result a fresh aspect. This methodical development may evoke at times orchestral Zappa material. An active participant on all fronts.

The machine has capabilities that few people take the time to use to a full extent. Some people will revert to a more or less straightforward rhythm pattern, preferring to focus on other lines. For me, the drum machine is an integral part of the music. Once the percussion lines are defined, I spend months and months working only on nuances and subtleties. I take every drum instrument and inject feeling into them, adjusting each and every parameter building up every sound. But these machines have drawbacks: for instance, a rather short memory, which makes it awkward for live situations. Anyhow, I prefer, when possible, to play with other musicians in a live situation.

And you're not familiar with Zappa's work?

I'm not. A friend, a Chapman Stick player, has just about every Zappa album that exists on the face of the Earth, so one of these days I'll get a good listen. Many people find it very surprising that I don't know FZ.

Wittox O'Hara is a rather new name on the Quebec progressive scene. But he was composing and playing in a few bands since some time now, amongst them Crowd Call, of which we find a piece on the recent compilation disc, Sur la corde raide, a showcase for Quebecois guitarists.

I'd really like to play in a band, but the bass player lives in Montreal and I, in Quebec City. And he's very difficult to replace. Anyhow, we work in a trio configuration nowadays, quite slowly, though. One musician works by ear and the other with partitions. (laughs) So you see, we're not on the same level. What I do is invite the musicians, taking rather simple themes and improvising around them. Thus, we're slowly building the basis of the next album. This trio will be for live performances, mainly. I should be getting in the studio by September for the next disc, accompanied by a few guests. I played the new material as opening act for a recent Echolyn concert in Quebec City. The audience reacted favorably. I kinda feared being too heavy, especially since some of the material is of such nature, but then, after the concert some people told me that I could have pushed more.

The Surrealist will first of all please to RIO fans. The quirky lines appearing and vanishing, with the recurrence of transformed themes, the orchestral drumming and percussion work, the amalgam of somewhat disparate sounds, all are ingredients of the genre. But instead of a systematic, perhaps even cold and intellectual approach, O'Hara offers a rough edge in his music — a groove some may say — over which the unrestrained elements dance in the air. There is a sense of urgency, as if you were suddenly facing, in the dark, the creatures found in the Italian satire of Disney's Fantasia, Allegro non troppo. Indeed, when listening to The Surrealist you enter another universe. The only two pieces of the CD, "Indelebile" clocking at 21:55 and the eponymous piece with a duration of 36:46, offer the listener a door to another, incongruous world where dreams and unconscious visions are the main fare. But this is no somber music.

You like it or you don't. There is no middle ground. For instance, there's a guy in Spain who thinks it's a great piece of work, while there are others, elsewhere, who asks us to take back our CDs (laughs.) Really, it seems there is no in-between. Anyhow, I prefer controversial artists than the ones making unanimity. The upcoming album will be a bit more seated in the progressive rock domain we all are more familiar with. There'll be around seven pieces, two of them being long ones. There'll be perhaps some singing too. I recently got the knack for singing again and found out that, when properly processed, my voice isn't so bad. (laughs)

For seekers after music that draws a tangent from the more usual progressive fare, The Surrealist by Wittox O'Hara proposes a voyage into a sonic and musical scenery that is hauntingly beautiful.

Filed under: New releases, Interviews, Issue 8

Related artist(s): Wittox O'Hara

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