Around in Circles: An Interview With Eugene Carchesio

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon.

Perhaps best known for his visual art, Eugene Carchesio’s interest in sound has been a constant for just about as long. I still remember hearing his duo album with Leighton Craig, Leaves, for the first time and being immediately smitten with its simple elegance and weightlessness. From that point on, I wanted to hear anything Carchesio was involved in. He’s played in The Lost Domain (the greatest Australian band of all time), The Deadnotes, g55, and others, and all of it is music that leaves a mark.

Fast forward and he began releasing his electronic experiments through Room 40 that completed turned my head in; the Circle Music releases are crucial, mind-bending. It doesn’t stop, there, though, as Carchesio has explored so many boundaries and margins in his work that taking the time to truly explore his vast sound world is akin to scaling a mountain. It is worth all the effort, though. As Room 40 boss Lawrence English says, “His work is as diverse as it is profound.” Carchesio’s newest release is his first live release, MONOlive, and is out now on Room 40.

So I’m curious when your interest in music and sound really started – what were some of your earliest formative experiences whether it was with a particular artist or album or even some kind of environmental sound that caught your attention and spurred your interest in music and sound?

During high school in the mid-seventies I caught the remnants of prog (Yes, PFM, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Zappa, Todd Rundgren, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Eno). Then came punk/new wave (Television, Patti Smith, Mars, Contortions, DNA, Suicide, Wire, Pere Ubu) and then free jazz took over for a while (Albert Ayler, Ornette Colman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor). I stopped playing guitar and got a crappy sax and immersed myself in an almost religious zeal. 

Now fast forward many years later when I heard an electronica CD at a party (I don’t remember the name of the artist) and it stopped me in my tracks. It sounded like a deconstructed version of Kraftwerk. I realized this was something I was looking for. I was kind of bored/jaded with a lot of music at this stage but I knew I wanted to keep my creative instincts alive and began a frenzied pursuit of this new futuristic field and how it was made.

A photo from the MONOlive set

You’ve been doing different visual arts and exhibitions since the 80s, but when did you start playing and making your own music? Was there anything in particular that led to your interest in sound as an extension of your own artistic expression?

I made my first cassette in 1978 – the classic bedroom job. It was a crammed C90 which I gave to a friend and was promptly dismissed and never seen again. It was recorded on a standard kitchen cassette/radio player. To overdub I had to block half the tape head with a piece of paper. Ah, those were the days…

Through my experiences working with artist-run spaces in the early eighties, I began my foray into performance by chance.

One day I wandered into a gallery in town where a sax was on the floor and, without thinking too much about it, I picked it up and started playing like my life depended on it… And in retrospect, I think it did.

One of the things I’ve found so interesting with your music is the vast and varied nature of it from a sonic perspective. I first heard your work through the releases you did on Kindling with Leighton Craig. How did you and Leighton first meet and start playing together? 

I think Ian Wadley introduced us. Leighton had a passion for music which inevitably would lead to collaboration.

Leaves remains one of my favorite albums from that early/mid-2000s period and one I return to regularly. It’s amazing that it was done in a single day in Leighton’s yard. Do you have any specific memories or stories related to making that album you could share?

I think we were inspired by an outdoor recording by an American collective called Thuja. It was one of those days where the planets are aligned. not too much process involved. Just let the spirit take you to where it needs to go. Keep it simple.

Another aspect of the various recordings and projects from that period is that you play so many different instruments throughout, depending on the band or session. You’re playing drums in G55, but then you’re on guitar with The Deadnotes and Leighton’s moved to drums. I’m actually not entirely sure what all you play on those duo 3″ CDRs with Leighton… but either way, do you have any kind of formal training on certain instruments, or do you like jumping around to different instruments depending on the project or setting or mood, etc?

No training in music or art. Music and art are something I just have to do. 

I could probably go down this rabbit hole forever, but I’ll spare everyone. Before I get into some questions about the string of releases on Room 40 from the last few years, can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with The Lost Domain? One of these days I’m going to write my article about how they are among the greatest Australian bands ever…

Good question! Maybe it was through Ian Wadley again or maybe we were sharing a practice space? But I recall Simon inviting me to sit in on some songs with sax and background vocals. Bit by bit I began to experiment with keyboard, guitar, and eventually drums. 

I suggested the band should change its name from The Invisible Empire. At the time there seemed to be an air of far rightwing sensibilities going about in Queensland and I was concerned the name could be misconstrued as an allegiance to far right politics. I think David came up with The Lost Domain. 

Ah, David – I think about him often… And now Greg has left the planet. The “Real Lost” Domain (Simon, Leighton, and myself) will be doing a concert for Greg on the 22nd of April.

I’ve been thinking about The Lost Domain quite a bit lately – it always seems to come in spurts, but Greg’s recent passing certainly has me revisiting so much of the work again. And David will always be an important figure in my life in that. Very early on when I was starting the Digitalis label, he took a bit of a leap of faith with me. Anyway, I wonder if you could reflect a little bit on The Lost Domain and some of your most lasting memories of David and Greg? 

The Lost Domain was an enigma (sorry for the cliche). We were all quite different characters. If anything we shared an ‘outsider’ status. We never really had an audience so we just blasted on. 

It was always Simon and David’s band. David was an academic and devotee of old blues; Simon was a delta bluesman and devotee of Bob Dylan; Greg was a demon sonic rock fiend… But when we came together the sound would engulf us in a warm energy. I have to say it was quite magical. Simon would disappear into a babble of Dylanesque dialogue – Dave thrashing primordial blues chord progressions and Greg making sure there was no taking prisoners… It was like being in a torrent of Sufi trance devotion.

Okay, so you’ve got a new album coming out on Room 40 that continues a series of releases over the last decade. Some have been archival works, a lot of it’s new, and while much of it tends to stray into more electronic/synthesis territories, there are some exceptions to that, too. I guess first, how did you first meet Lawrence and get involved with Room 40?

I don’t remember the first meeting but I would go to the many amazing concerts he had organized. Brisbane is a small place and so it goes without saying that you eventually meet anyone who is doing anything interesting. Lawrence invited me into the Room 40 family and I handed over about a dozen CDs collecting dust in a shoebox.

Both the Circle Music releases are archival, according to the album descriptions, which still blows my mind considering that 10 years after they were released, they still seem so forward-thinking. During what period were they made? And were these just pieces you were making as part of your own creative practice with no intentions for them to become albums or releases or did you compose and record this material as a more cohesive project? It all works together so wonderfully.

Thanks, Brad. I think it was made around 2001. I was working on an exhibition at Qld University Art Museum and I was going to use it as a soundtrack – I don’t remember if I ended up using it. It’s kind of heartbeat material. It has a warm sound but not by design as I was still trying to figure out how the program worked… Maybe my perseverance and passion won out over the zeros and ones.

Two other favorites are the 32 Days and The Planets. They certainly get into some rhythmic spaces – The Planets especially – but I always thought, as albums, they were more narrative than some of the other releases and, for me, they have a real ‘visual’ element to them in the sense that, especially these vignettes on 32 Days, it’s like I can picture these worlds where these sounds would come from. I have no idea if that was part of the intent or not, but I do wonder if you have thoughts on synesthesia and especially related to sound and how you might experience a connection with sound and, let’s say, colors or anything like that? Do those ideas play into your work at all?

Haha yes, that’s great – you can picture the sounds. I like to think these are sound sculptures. After all, everything is vibration – colors, matter, thoughts? The spinning world – ethereal world – angels and devils – opposites unite into opposites. Was it Sun Ra that imagined if everybody would play a certain note at the same time the world would spin off its axis?

Can you tell me a little bit about the DNE project and where the idea for it came from? It’s such a singular release in your discography that harnesses so many different ideas into one place that it’s quite remarkable. 

Inspired by no-nonsense bands such as Ramones, Half Japanese / Jad Fair, Residents, Eugene Chadbourne, etc DNE was recorded in 1989. DNE was my version of DNA and was essentially the culmination of all my crappy cassette releases which were, of course, completely ignored. I loved the idea of immediacy – quick one minute ideas improvised and delivered. The album was recorded in two days and recorded on 4 track cassette. The poor fellow who mixed down those 47 tracks on reel to reel tape complained of headaches and died of a brain tumor within a year.

I could probably keep going for a while, so let’s just wrap up with a question about the newest Room 40 release, MONOlive. This was commissioned as part of an event in Australia, one of the first I gather since the pandemic started and everything shut down. How did you approach this piece in preparation for playing it as part of the program and as it’s your first release of a live recording, what made you feel as though this was the right time to do that?

yes, this is the first live electronic recording. I was very nervous at first because it has been years since I did a set like this. I accompanied it with lots of abstract but simple images of circles, squares, colors, stripes, and shapes. Lawrence recorded it without me knowing which was a bonus and so here we are…

Lastly, what is coming up next for you as we get deeper into 2022?

I am very excited about the (hopefully) next release – it is a continuation of the Circle Music variations but with live drumming.

I am also part of a quartet with a bunch of amazing musicians called ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ – two guitars violin and melodica/ piano. 

I have an exhibition in May.