By Danger Coolidge
Unbelievably Bad Editor
Altars of Madness! The Melbourne Drone Orchestra will fill the Northcote Uniting Church with the meshing sounds of heavy guitars this Saturday, May 7.
Curated by regular UB contributor Dan Tucceri and built around a core nucleus of six members, the MDO has a malleable line-up and past performances have seen up to fifteen guitarists partake. The aim is to be bigger and louder and scarier every time.
Anyone can sit in, under three conditions: six-string guitars only (no bass guitars), all guitars must be tuned to DADGAD, and no shredding!
Dan Tucceri told UB why though shalt not play bass in the Drone Orchestra…
How long has the Drone Orchestra been droning, and who started it?
It began in December 2013 when I asked Piers Morgan if I could guest curate an experimental music event he put on every month called MUSIKUNST. I wanted to do one with a metal theme and the Drone Orchestra was an idea I’d had for a long time. Because the gigs were held in the bluestone cellar of the Great Britain Hotel, we could make as much of a racket as we wanted. It was sheer aural bliss, or hell, depending on how you looked at it. Candles, goat skulls, pentagrams and a whole lotta noise. As for the idea itself, my friend Liam Brewer from Agonhymn and I were having drinks and he said something about doing a Doom Orchestra, with 10 bassists, 20 guitarists and five drummers on the steps of Parliament House. At least that’s what I think he said. I’m not sure he remembers either. In any case, I’d wanted to do something involving a lot of guitars and noise since I was obsessed with that kind of thing at the time. I’m not going to pretend Sunn O))), Earth and Fripp weren’t big influences. You don’t get to see those bands every year even, so why not just do it yourself with a different slant? The name ‘Melbourne Drone Orchestra’ fit in with what I had in mind when I remembered Liam’s crazy drunken idea.
Who are the organisers and are there mainstays, repeat offenders…?
Rather than be the sole main organiser I thought it would be wise to delegate with Piers. He’s got a few years on me and it’s nice to have someone older and wiser around to let me know if my head’s gone too far up my arse. There are some ideas that I thought would be great but once I’ve told Piers he’ll point a few things out that make it pretty clear it’s not going to work. I think it’s a good thing to have, otherwise you end up being that idiot that alienates and pisses everyone off for one too many crazy ideas. The first line-up involved only the six of us; Liam, Dav Byrne, Ciaran Geogehan and Bonnie Mercer. Out of the six of us, only Bonnie hasn’t taken part in any more concerts. Matt Refund came late to the party, but he’s proven an invaluable member with his contributions and help. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the core group. I won’t book a concert unless those six guys can do it, but I won’t necessarily make a decision with or without their approval. You can only delegate so much.
There is a no shredding rule, no bass guitars rule and there’s a specific tuning that must be adhered to. Why are the rules necessary?
Shredders can piss right off. I just haven’t the time or patience for people who want to show up and show off. Leave your ego at home for the day and submit to the sound. The no bass guitars rule applies to synths, guitar synths with MIDI and any other instruments. The idea is to replicate an orchestra, but using only the guitar. There are guitars doing low frequencies, high frequencies and everything in between. I don’t mind effects, since you can still identify a guitar to whatever extent. Guitar synths just replace the sound entirely and if we’re going to open ourselves to that, we may as well hand out kazoos and let the audience join in too. The tuning is pretty straightforward. It’s just D open tuning, DADGAD. *NERD ALERT*NERD ALERT* The reason we use this is because the A and G notes are the perfect fourth and fifth intervals of the D note. These are the same notes that form harmonics, which in themselves are audible within any note to someone with perfect pitch. When you’ve got a bunch of guitarists having a free-for-all and improvising, there has to be a way to ensure some kind of cohesiveness. This is as close as we can possibly get. That said, I don’t mind if someone has a variant on DADGAD, but the tuning simply has to employ those three different notes without exception. One other benefit is that kind of tuning makes it relatively difficult to shred and noodle through scales if you’re only familiar with standard tuning, which is the case with most people.
The invitation for anybody to participate is cool. How can people get involved? Do they need credentials? Do they need to have played a guitar before?
Initially, it was just invite only. This was a good way to get a solid foundation happening and know exactly what this group was about. I recall at our first gig, Dav and myself were playing a lot of riffs in unison and Piers was really against it. Eventually I came around to the idea of everything being utterly freeform and I’m glad that Piers spoke up. There’s an inherent respect between all of us. If anyone wants to walk in and play, they’re welcome to as long as they recognise that respect. That’s where the ‘no shredding, no riffs’ rule comes into play. As for credentials, I haven’t the time for them. I have more time for the quiet achiever and more importantly, someone who’s in it for the fun of it. Let’s face it, we could intellectualise it until the cows come home, but I play classical piano outside of this and that’s cerebral enough. The Drone Orchestra is just about tuning up, turning on and droning out. No ifs, buts or brains about it! As for playing guitar, what is that exactly? Some of my favourite guitarists don’t even ‘play’ it in the traditional sense. Jandek, Cosey Fanny Tutti, Dave Brown, all those cats use it as a means of channeling sound. It’s a tool, in the most unmusical sense. Yet, we seem to stumble into musicality by making something relatively cohesive each time. If you don’t ‘play’ it, I’ll probably be more interested in what sounds you’re going to make. One weird thing; this concert has had 25 people ask to take part. Only one of them was a woman, and she pulled out. We’ve asked women but they’ve either not responded or pulled out. I’m not sure what the deal with that is, but basically it’s kind of resembling the Melbourne Dude Orchestra. I’m not sure it would make much of a difference to the sound, but it’s a bit of a pity more women haven’t put their hands up. By the same token, ticket sales have been virtually a 50/50 split between men and women. I don’t get it. It’s not like we’re wearing fedoras and telling everyone how we’re all nice guys. On the contrary, I wear a flat cap and I’m simply an awful person.
How did you swing the church as a venue? Tell us about the acoustics, the set-up and how’s it gonna go down?
I’ve done classical piano recitals, often in churches. The acoustics in old churches are brilliant. Before PAs and microphones you had to count on the natural resonance of the space to best project the speaker’s voice. They were partly designed to do that. As far as sound goes, you’re always going to get a good result in a church. This is the first time we’ve done the Drone Orchestra in a place with these acoustics, so we probably won’t even need the amps up full bore to get the desired effect. This is ideal, since we had one incident in Ballarat where the power cut out. Somehow, we got it back and finished off the concert, but it was a bit of a scare. The good thing about this church is the Reverend is really progressive and chilled out. I had an inkling he’d be into it and he’s even planning to come and check it out. Because it’s a church, it’s a strictly alcohol-free event. The upside of this is that it’s an All Ages concert. I’ve been listening to noise and experimental since I was 15 and you never saw this kind of thing at underage concerts. I got around it since I used to talk my way into places like The Tote to see Wolf Eyes, for example, purely because I’ve been able to grow a beard since the day I was born. Venues were a little less strict back then, too. If there are kids out there who’d appreciate this, I hope they can take the opportunity to check it out. I just hope for their sake that they bring earplugs. Beethoven at least waited until he was forty-six to go deaf. Aside from the openness and beauty of the space itself, there’s a pipe organ. I’m going to open the concert with it and eventually blend this with the guitars. Despite all the talk of it being an ensemble exclusive to guitars, I couldn’t resist incorporating the original and ultimate drone instrument. It’ll definitely be a stark contrast to our very first concert beneath the ground.
See, hear and feel the Melbourne Drone Orchestra (plus guests) live at Northcote Uniting Church, 251 High St, Northcote this Saturday, May 7. Starts 3pm, costs $10.