Mark O'Leary: Plucking the Flower

Eyal Hareuveni By

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The sagas of Iceland are etched in my soul. In 2002, I went to play in Iceland, it was the most defining moment in my life. It changed my outlook, and developed my interest in performing electronic music. The great Icelandic drummer-improviser Matthias Hemstock mentioned I should check out viola player Eyvind Kang. Eyvind is half Icelandic—he even has a disc called The Story of Iceland (Tzadik, 2000)—and Iceland was so central to the project that I called a tune on the disc "Story of Iceland, Pt. 2." Zemlya means "land."

When I did the project, I remembered this poem I heard at school years back, that a friend was reciting that totally inspired me, and as soon as I got to Seattle, I knew that was going to be the name of the project. Eyvind and Dylan van der Schyff are incredible people. Dylan is a great friend. You just got to love Canadians. Eyvind is an incredible artist. His knowledge of music is astounding, from Romanian spectral composers to Punk to David Sylvian to Beck.

Mark O'Leary Also, Seattle is an incredible city. I was into, and still am into, the spirit of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Grunge. The song "Kurt's Park" on Chamber Trio is a petit homage pour Cobain. But visually the panorama and atmosphere of Seattle are kind of hard to beat. No wonder so many great artists came from there. I stayed on Vashon Island for a few days with Eyvind, which was unique. We even spent time hanging out at a monastery with Russian Orthodox Monks, drinking coffee and learning about the rites and mysteries of Orthodox Christianity. We played at the now-defunct Polestar—an auspicious start. Things just kept getting better. On the last gig we played, I just remember looking at Dylan, and it was magic. We had not only become a band, but had grown as musicians also.

I still have more to do and learn, but it was a great little band, most definitely a development on Self Luminous, and on the recording some of those Viola-Guitar exchanges kind of evoke a neo Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelli nonchalance. Randall Dunn did a great job. He is a great recordist, him and his partner Mel, who run this great studio, Aleph.


On The Shore

I went to school in Los Angeles in the late-'80s and there was a deep desire to go back. I really admired Alex Cline. He is an incredibly eclectic drummer and a unique percussionist. What he has done for the improvised music scene in LA is very important. To have someone of his caliber domiciled and performing there has benefited the scene enormously. He has, like me, a deep affinity for all things Arvo Pärt, Vesala and Sigur Rós.

I got the opportunity to do a project with Alex, and again it was a defining experience for me. I learned so much from staying at Alex's house, talking about music, approaches, listening to his record collection, and talking about different styles. It was very beneficial, and it came through in the project and has shaped who I have become. I have to thank Alex and his wife for everything in making the project happen. To say that I'm grateful is an understatement. Sometimes we can take things for granted in life and be unappreciative. I have come across a lot of selfless people who continuously give of themselves to make peoples' lives better and I am thankful for their sacrifices, for they are the ones who facilitate the dreams, hopes and desires of creative people; they are the true heroes.

Mark O'LearyI collected stones, sticks and shells from around Cork harbor and brought them to Los Angeles for Alex to use during the recording. You can hear these on "Dancing With the Wind," and the concept lent its name to the album title. I used some canonic ideas, some themes and sketches to direct the session. I was constantly running between the booths directing the session: "Let's try it this way, let's try to move the music in this direction now." You can't push too hard, but I had a vision with this project and you have to go for it. It was a great day. Jeff Kaiser and John Fumo are major doyens of the scene, and we played as two trios before recording, so we got to know each other musically.

The trumpets were incredible. "Voices From the Past" is another reflection of their melodic-harmonic cohesion. I think the spirit of Vesala is on the recording; Part and Giya Kancheli are there as well. There are a lot of great moments. It took time for it to crystallize, but when we got there, it was a special moment. I sent it to Pedro Costa at Clean Feed, and he was not sure. He actually said no, but then came back to me and said he was going to take it on holiday with him and think it over. He sent me a mail a month later and said he wanted to put it out. It took a year till it was released, but it's a great disc and I appreciate him for doing that.


The Synth Show

I played opposite Kenny Wollesen in Munich when I played there with Paul Bley, and we decided to play sometime. So we kept in touch, and when the time came, I asked Jamie Saft if he would join us. We connected in New York. It's a nice recording.

Mark O'Leary

The Synth Show (Leo, 2008) concept started to sink in more after the recording in post production. I saw a show on BBC about the Radiophonic workshop, and some of the innovative sounds from Delia Derbyshire influenced me a little bit. I liked synth music by Klaus Schultze, Rick Wakeman, Joe Zawinul, Jean Michel Jarre, Jan Hammer, and Tangerine Dream, which captured everybody's imagination in High School. The Synth Show is raw and energetic, back to the '70s.

We recorded in Jamie Saft's Frank Booth studio in Brooklyn. I created the soundscapes in Cork later and put it all together. Some of it is very prog-oriented. There is melodic material there also, as well as some atmospherics and some jam fusion called "Texas." The tune for film director Ingmar Bergman has a really nice intro from Kenny with some lush synth pads from Jamie, and I'm using e-bow and delay. That was an exceptional moment for me in all of my work.


Artistic Goals

Many of the people I play with are not household names. They are not known outside of their locality, but they are excellent. What counts for me is that you are practicing, developing, learning as an artist, composing and fronting your own band, trying to do something new and adding to what's gone before respectfully. This is my philosophy. I'm ambitious, positive and hard-working, and I like to play with like-minded people from wherever they may emanate. Jealousy can be a very positive force. It can drive you to do things, to achieve, but I don't like negative, cynical, lazy, loader, team-up types.

Mark O'LearyI also want to produce contrasting discs that have a concept that people can buy into, not just getting up on stage and letting rip. For me, that's over. What's important now is to capture people's imagination, not idealistically but conceptually. I left that to my fellow countrymen Bono (and I love U2) and Bob Geldof. I am artistically centered, but I do want to play the major festivals and I send the e-mails out and make calls myself. I practice, teach, compose, play and when I have free time, I do this work.

I don't play golf, drive or go out much either; I practice, compose, listen, learn all the time. I love it; I live it. It's tough—you have to really push. Also, some festivals and countries just won't give you a chance. It's a closed shop sometimes. I really do think I am David against this Goliath situation, but it does not deter me. It is unfair, but just because life is unjust, it should not dissuade you from pursuing your goals. You can't just sit back and reach for your pipe and slippers, not just yet anyway!


Future Plans

My Television (Ayler, 2008) disc, with Han Bennink, was just released. Han, for me, if you want to talk about drummers, is one of the best drummers in the world. Playing with him can be heavy. He can play anything and play on anything. He is also a performer and does circus tricks and magic. If you don't have a few white rabbits yourself, it can be very embarrassing.

Mark O'LearyI played in Belgium last year with Stephane Galland and Michel Hatzigeorgiu from AKA Moon, and that was an incredible opportunity. We recorded a really nice live disc. Hopefully, I will be able to release it at some point and play with them again.

I worked with some very talented musicians and artists in Istanbul recently, and we recorded three great discs. Taking a ferry trip across the Bosporus, the scent of the air from the Black Sea juxtaposed with aroma of the bazaar, East meets West, where ancient and modern intertwine, a melting pot of cultures at the crossroads of the world.

Wading through snow in Sarajevo, next day basking in the sun in Podgorica, playing some of the hottest fusion on earth with Vasil Hadzimanov and Marko Djordevic in Belgrade, Subotica and Pavorotti centre in Mostar.

Selected Discography

Mark O'Leary, Ode to Albert Ayler (Ayler, 2009)

Mark O'Leary, Labyrinth (FMR, 2009)

Mark O'Leary, St Fin Barres (Leo, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, The League of Xtraordinary Gentlemen (Re:konstruKt, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, The Synth Show (Leo, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, Fabrikraum (Creative Sources,2008)

Mark O'Leary, Ellipses (FMR records 2008)

Mark O'Leary, Zemlya (Leo, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, Television (Ayler, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, Flux (FMR, 2008)

Mark O'Leary, Shamanic Voices (FMR, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, Signs (FMR, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, Skyshifter (Creative Sources, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, White Night Festival (Kadima, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, Waiting (Leo, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, Radio Free Europa (Leo, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, On the Shore (Clean Feed, 2007)

Mark O'Leary, Awakening (Leo, 2006)

Mark O'Leary, Chamber Trio (Leo, 2005)

Mark O'Leary, Self-Luminous (Leo, 2005)

Mark O'Leary, Levitation (Leo, 2005)

Mark O'Leary, Closure (Leo, 2005)

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