Over the last few weeks we’ve been listening to Melbourne’s Arcane Trickster, a project by Damiano Verna, John Crombie and Chris Innes, which crosses numerous genre boundaries, and always offers unusual surprises with its sonics! The new EP Valetudo has just hit major streaming platforms too, so the time felt right to have a chinwag!
Damiano, let’s start with your musical background, and Arcane Trickster’s origins as a project. What life events and interests pointed you down the experimental music path? I also have to ask if the project’s title has any connection to rogues of magical abilities, in other imaginary worlds. What different roles to the three of you play in the creative process?
My musical journey starts young. I come from a musical family, at least on my father’s side, so I was off to keyboard lessons from a young age, although I first cut my teeth playing bass guitar in various indie rock bands around Melbourne in the early 90s. I’ve always been interested in electronic music, I grew up in the 80s, and I was very influenced by post-punk/ new wave music, in particular those bands which combined live instrumentation with synths, like New Order, and at the same time I was playing in these bands, I was going to Raves and getting more into the electronic music.
Eventually, I started making techno and trance with an old friend Chris Innes, who had a background as a drummer, but had transitioned to keyboards. We released under various different aliases on various labels in the mid to late 90s. We were soon introduced to John Crombie, who had also been a drummer, in punk bands, but had also got into synths. It was helpful that we had similar backgrounds, and close yet broad tastes in music. The three of us have been making music together on and off ever since. We had our first release as Arcane Trickster on an Earthcore compilation CD in 1999, and eventually we decided to retire the other aliases.
We have different roles in the band, Chris is very technical, both musically and in terms of production. He’s an excellent problem-solver for us. John is very good at sound design. He’s a collector of synths, he has literally filled his studio space as well as ours, with hard to find analog and digital gear. He also designs, builds and retails his own modular gear, with his company Pulse Synthesizers (https://www.pulsesynthesizers.com/ ). I look after the business side of the equation. I did an MBA in Music Business some years ago, so I really know what a fool’s errand the whole industry is, and somehow I haven’t been completely discouraged by this.
We are pretty flexible about how we work, sometimes it is all three of us on a project and other times just two or one as solo. We each have our own studio spaces, so we work on music together and separately, and we rotate our sessions across each studio, with the rule being, whomever’s studio we are in, gets to choose what we work on. We also have systems for collaborating remotely with each other, which has been invaluable during the many lockdowns. We all play keys, Chris still plays drums from time to time, albeit with an electric kit these days and I play bass, and occasionally guitar. We also tend to have different areas of focus. John tends to do more drum and bass, Chris, more techno and dub, and I tend to do more ambient and downtempo, but there’s definitely no hard and fast rule there.
As for the name of the band, I think we might have seen it in a review of a Killing Joke album, and I think we just liked the sound of it. We found out many years later it is something in Dungeons and Dragons, but I’ve got no understanding of that world, I found it all quite impenetrable. Although I’d love to say it meant something to us, it was just one of many names we were using at the time, and we essentially stuck with it, because it was the least complicated one to move forward with, from a licensing and rights perspective.
Thanks for sharing this background mate, it is really interesting to learn about a project that is so flexible in terms of its members and their musical pasts. It sounds like a really ideal combination of skills to have in a project! So for the recently released Valetudo EP, this was you and John. What was it like to write and execute these tracks in particular? Was there an initial concept, or did the early stages come organically? Was it a case of sharing musical ideas between each other? Or was there a clear direction or path for the fellow musician to take? How long did it take you to record all these pieces?
We all have a preference for working quickly. We prefer to get things finished quickly, or not at all. We make a lot of music, plenty of it will probably never see a release, but we certainly do try to finish everything.
For the Valetudo EP it was done very quickly. John had received a commission to do the soundtrack for a gallery exhibition, and he was given a very tight time frame to finish this, as is often typical, and he made 3 hours or so of minimal ambient in a weekend. He thought this material could be expanded upon for a release, so he gave it to me to work on. I distilled it out into 3 pieces and added a variety of extra instrumentation. We then wrote a further 3 songs in a similar style to complement the existing pieces. Of these 6 tracks 4 of them made it onto the Valetudo EP and the other 2 tracks found a home on a release on compilation albums from the Ambient Online label. In the end, 2 of the 4 tracks on Valetudo had their origins in the gallery works, and one of the tracks was for ambient online had the same starting point. 6 songs completed in around 2 weeks. This is often the way for us, we get some momentum and get it done. We thrive on deadlines and usually set them for ourselves. We have an aim at the moment to have at least one release every calendar month, and we have been able to maintain this since November 2019, and generally have exceeded this target. That said it isn’t a matter of releasing just anything, we do want it to be something we are proud of every time.
This is something really special I think, where a commission for work drives a new release into being! Now that I think about it, Valetudo does sound like the kind of music that would go wonderfully with a gallery or installation, where every sense gets tickled.
With your one-release-a-month system, what are you currently working on and envisioning for the first quarter of 2022?
This month (Feb 2022) we’re releasing a collaborative single with fellow Melbourne producer Stickleback, aka Ben Heppel. Ben has been a mate for many years, we’ve done countless gigs together over the years and Ben would do our live sound and always made us sound great. We’ve done quite a few collaborative tracks over the years, but this is the first time we’ve done a joint single. Its called “Leonus”, and it is two dub techno tracks coming out on Tempest Recordings.
We’ve also done an interesting project with Minorarc, featured on the Untold – Blind album. Minorarc gave the loops from his new album “Untold” to a number of producers, but without any context, and told us to make a new song out of it. We did something, kind of trip hop, which is real departure from Minorarc’s sound. It’s called “Nascosto”.
We’ve also got a new song called “Yamakibo” on a new compilation album from US label Synchronos Recordings called “Cry Of The Kodama” (https://synchronos-recordings.bandcamp.com/track/arcane-trickster-yamabiko) which is on pre-release now, and out in a week or so.
For March we’ve got a collaborative single with Side Liner (Nick Miamis) called “Lares Augusti” which is coming out on Greek Chill Out label Cosmicleaf Records. Nick is another old mate, he’s really one of the leading producers in the psychill scene and very talented. We’ve done a few collaborations with him before, but this is the first one in a few years, and also the first time we’ve done a single together. We also have a new song called “Alaunus” on the next compilation from Relaxation Sphere.
There’s a few more projects in the works from April onwards, a collaborative single with Canadian industrial band The Databats, which we are just putting the finishing touches on right now, and we’re working collaborations with Chilean psychill artist Oseas and another Melbournian friend Garagee at the moment, as well as some more material that’s just us.