Benjamin Duvall has just had a brainwave. What, you wonder, can be cooking in the same mind that has dragged minimalist chamber-rock out of its niche, opting instead for grand events in monasteries and museums? Is there another place about to jump the queue for exotic, preposterous gig potential? “I was thinking,” he says, as the anticipation rises, “that we need to hire a few minibuses. Y’know, cut down on the cost of travel.”
Alas, then, to find the quest for transcendence has its share of mundanity. Duvall is perhaps the most affable interviewee I’ve encountered, so this makes sense. He’s a receptionist whose double life as the ‘head’ part of EX-EASTER ISLAND HEAD feeds a license to doggedly embrace the basic needs of living. When his music is concerned, however, things are clearer cut: follow an idea through to its natural conclusion, and throw out the bells and whistles whilst you’re at it. Stripped back, looking forward, honing in. Miraculous harmony.
“No effects and no playing properly!” he laughs on a biting Friday afternoon. We’re chatting on the phone, a conversation that will take up the better part of an hour, not that I’m noticing. Duvall speaks with barely suppressed glee, like a schoolboy showing you his toy chest, chuckling between explanations that go some way to clarify how exactly a few guitars and mallets can sound like the dawn of a new religion. Epochs and empires unfurl in Mallet Guitars 3’s tight 29 minutes, the band’s latest record following two similarly titled predecessors. Listening to it can be overwhelming or place you in moods that can’t be vocalised or argued with. The effect is both cerebral and emotive, and I ask him whether that contrast was intentional. “It was partly conscious, partly learning on the job. The primal simplicity of what I do is gained by approaching music cautiously. Super-serious stuff devoid of emotion isn’t interesting.” Could he sum up the feel of the album in one word? “Fucking hell,” he sighs. I tell him either will do.
“I’m stumped. I suppose I originally envisaged a Mallet Guitars trilogy, and this is very much the final shape of that, so I’d say ‘summation’. The centre of the record is very active, bringing what we’ve done in our other releases up a notch; more interlocking patterns and faster tempos. Around that centrepiece are near beat-less sides where musicians are almost taking hints from one another.” Somehow, he has manipulated Allen keys to nefarious ends, explaining why the dark, droning epiphany that culminates in Mallet Guitars 3’s fourth movement is so unsettling. Duvall describes this is as the listener’s “arc”, and it falls into place that what sounds utterly spontaneous is in fact worked out way in advance, at least by compositional standards. Live, the ever-changing roster of Island Heads never plays the same piece note-for-note, a quirk endemic to drawing tour mates from across the North West. “They’re all mates, to be honest. Not everyone’s an active member at once. It’s more like an ongoing pool. We’re still working out which gigs work for us and which don’t.”
Count congregating at an actual Easter Island Head as one that did. Liverpool’s World Museum managed to ship over the statue last year, the opportunity being irresistible to Duvall’s propensity for unique atmosphere. Another show entertained what he estimates to be half of a Northern Irish town crammed into an 18th-century monastery. Such achievements have allowed him to seek Arts Council funding, which will mean bigger projects in the future. Until then he’s been touring, writing and getting involved with live film soundtracks. This has consisted (so far) of scoring surrealist French cinema and an excerpt from Baraka, a 1993 eco-doc that perfectly encapsulates Duvall’s creative texture. “It contrasts our natural world with the impact of human interference. All beautifully shot, slowed and sped up. A real sensory overload.”
So you’re interested in all forms of avant-garde expression? “Not all,” is the answer, “although I do need to sit down and watch more films. Lately I’ve narrowed my interests to music and that’s a little bit of a shame.” The subject of how exactly he veered into abstract territory arises. “I was in a post-rock three-piece and, after that, a weird, weird glam prog band for three and a half years. They were absolutely brilliant but the turning point was discovering Rhys Chatham, one of the first people who introduced electric guitars to minimalism. For a while, I’d been trying and failing to find my own ‘voice’. Then I randomly put my guitar on a keyboard stand and noticed how striking that looked. The mallets came in when I realised how bloody loud the strings were when struck. Once the decision had been made to pursue the mallet idea, I emailed The Kazimier and they offered me a support slot in no time. I had to quickly get a set sorted.”
I question whether visual novelty is still one of Ex-Easter Island Head’s main attractions. About this, he is emphatic. “Definitely, to some. I don’t see it as a gimmick. Warmth always overrides cold and clinical exercises. Warmth shines through.” The Duvall chuckle, ever-present, launches challenges on the matter to distant shores. Listen to him or the album and you’ll likely fancy a retreat to the beach yourself, enveloped in the promise of a dream and a ladder to the soul.
Mallet Guitars 3 is out now on Low Point Records.