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Artist Feature: Balmorhea

In 2020 Balmorhea joined forces with Deutsche Grammophon to release their newest album The Wind.  Rob Lowe and Michael A. Muller have been making music together for over 15 years. Creating music that soothes the soul, just put on one of their albums while sitting in the middle of tall trees and forget that anything else exists. Let’s hear more from them, about the new album, and both of their solo projects below.

Your new album, The Wind, was just released. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for it?

RL: The Wind was written at a transitional time for us as Balmorhea. For whatever reason, we felt that the completion of our previous LP Clear Language completed a chapter in the life of the band and were very anxious to take a step in a new direction. We decided that in the creation of the music for the album we would really focus on writing music that could exist on its own in a room between the two of us, taking us back closer to how we used to make music in the early days of the band and relying less on the studio as a compositional tool. We spent a lot of time alone together at my family’s house on the Llano river in rural Central Texas. Just trying to respond naturally to each others ideas. 

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Did you use El Capistan or blueSky on The Wind? If so, could you share which songs, a bit about the settings you used and what instrument you used them with?

MM: For the electric guitars in the opening and closing tracks for The Wind, we used both the El Capistan and the blueSky. These were paired with a physical reverb chamber and re-amped into the main live room at Saal 3 in Berlin to achieve a big and open atmosphere. The El Capistan was mainly used to the tape age saturation with the repeats set about noon. I put the time knob to its slowest time parameter and the setting was for a single head on Mode A. The blueSky was set to spring and normal mode, with the mix knob about 2pm. I use a Hilton Volume pedal to control the expression of the signal of the guitar. The primary amp in the base tracking was through a silverface 70s Fender Princeton captured with a stereo pair of Extinct Audio Ribbon mics.

You’ve been making music as Balmorhea together for over 15 years and have released eight albums. Could you share some insight on how your process has developed through those years? Have any of your recording behaviors changed with the advancements in technology?

RL: With each album we have been chasing whatever inspiration and energy surrounds us at the moment, while trying to always make entries into the expanding world of Balmorhea that feel both “of a piece” and new at the same time. As we have continued to make records it has gotten a little more difficult each time to make something that not only relates to itself well, but relates to the rest of what we have made in the past. One thing that has been beneficial for us is to feel uninhibited by the instrumentation we use. For a good long while we were composing music for a somewhat static set of instruments, but after a certain amount of time in that arrangement we knew that we needed to mix it up in order to keep it fresh. When we first started writing music together we basically had zero knowledge about music technology and recording equipment. Over the years spending lots of time in incredible studios has absolutely educated us in this area and we have definitely started included technology in our creative process. I think the goal is for the technology to feel innate and natural in the same way that an instrument feels. 

I’ve heard you have a Flint coming soon – how will you be incorporating that with your music?

MM: For live performances I’ve been using a tweed Fender Bassman (4×10” combo). This amp doesn’t have any reverb, vibrato or tremolo, so the Flint will be used to give the tremolo effect. I plan to also employ the reverb side of the circuitry to stack with the blueSky as well. Should yield a sweet combination.

If either of you have pedalboards, I’d love to have a photo of it with a description of your signal chain.

MM: Clarice Jensen, who played all the cello on The Wind, uses a Lex and a blueSky (as pictured). She has three signals that split at different Freeze pedals, so she can build a triad of sorts with her tones. She really creates some otherworldly atmospheres. The opening and closing tracks of the album are two good examples of the billowing layers she creates.

My own board (pictured above at Saal 3 for the session) was stripped down a touch to the essentials. My normal touring board starts with a volume pedal then goes to a tuner, reverbs, delays, a loop pedal, and a feedback booster at the end, finally it goes through a Lehle buffer then splits to two amps for a stereo effect via a Lehle Little Dual. I use the Strymon Ojai and the Ojai expander for my board with the power supply mounted underneath the board. Especially for shows overseas, it’s so easy to just switch the power lead and not worry about stepping up or down. Added bonus that they don’t take up a massive foot print on valuable surface space.

I also enjoyed checking out both of your solo projects and would love to hear a bit more about them.

RL: 15 years is a long time to collaborate with someone! I think Mike and I both felt a number of years back that Balmorhea would benefit if it wasn’t the sole vessel for all of our creative ideas. There were certain types of songs and music that each of us were interested in exploring that needed their own space. For me it was really rewarding to write some music that fit into more of a pop space and use my voice in a way that wouldn’t fly with Balmorhea, and for Michael to explore an even more minimal and ambient side to his work. It has given us fresh perspective on what we do together and I think will keep us from the burnout that a lot of artists can feel in a long term project. 

Taking a listen to Michael’s Lower River, released in 2019, there is an abundance of beautiful atmosphere in the compositions. Could you share how you accomplished that?

MM: Lower River was my first studio release, after doing a film score and some one-off collaborations under my own name. This project came with a couple years off the road was apparent after our 2017 release of Clear Language. I was mainly interested in the concept of deep listening or active listening as an exercise. The album was my attempt to create movements that would lend themselves to that practice for the listener. The title is a metaphor for that mental space of deep listening; one that’s below the surface of passive hearing. With the current state of humanity and the world, this lower space is one I’ve found personally to be harder and harder to enter and engage with. But music, for me, is one of the only clear paths to this proverbial place. The components of the music were quite intentional and focused on the overlap of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. I used a Juno-60 and some atmospheric guitars for most of the beds and pads. Cello and upright bass were also employed on several of the pieces. Finally, the addition of bass clarinet and some human voice were added into the mix. In 2020 I released a full-length of reworks from a broad range of interesting artists doing re-imaginations of this music (Lower River Reworks).

Rob, you surprised me with Life of the Body, released in 2020, with your lovely singing. With Balmorhea being based mainly on instrumentals, can you share how your song writing differs with your solo work?

RL: In addition to playing piano and guitar, I grew up singing all the time. In church choirs and in plays and musicals all through my primary education. It’s something I kind of put away with Balmorhea, but have always loved songs. I think it was just a pretty simple response to my desire to contribute to this world of music. With Balmorhea we often are very focused on the atmosphere of texture of a piece of music, and often times that can supersede melody (although I think we are pretty focused on melody as well with Balmorhea). So really I just wanted to challenge myself to write strong melodic songs and to try to work with words. And then also with Balmorhea because it is the two of us you are constantly needing to justify your ideas with this other person, to pass them through this other filter, and I really just wanted to see what would happen if I created something that was just my own. Not sure where the project will go in the future, but I’m proud of those albums, thanks for asking about them!

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