Ammunition And Installation
Seaworthy’s Cameron Webb talks to SHAUN PRESCOTT about his new LP '1897', what it’s like to record in a heritage-listed arms depot and how he likes to fool around the musical edges.
A certain unhurried melancholy has always haunted the edges of Seaworthy’s records. Cameron Webb’s first great LP - 2005’s Map In Hand - sounds like a sepia-hued homage to idle sadness. Carried along by an undertow of sunlit nostalgia and infused with the scent of clipped grass and eucalypt, Map In Hand was all oozing quilted drones and pastoral guitar expanses. Often Webb’s drones sounded like the beginning of a minor-key cello note, sustained perennially but always threatening to rise into a sad – but comforting – melody.
Four years on and Webb hasn’t drastically changed Seaworthy’s mode of operation, yet in a lot of ways his new album 1897 is very different. Like Map In Hand, these pieces waver between warm drones and flittering guitar airs, but the mood has undeniably changed. Loneliness and a subtle dread seem to reverberate throughout these new compositions. There’s a thick, nocturnal coldness that sits in stark contrast to Map In Hand’s canopied sunshine.
“Quite early on I knew that 1897 wasn’t going to be like Map in Hand,” Webb says of the shift. “Map in Hand and 1897 are two sides of the same coin, but I think the conditions in which they were recorded made the difference. Map in Hand was recorded in a sunny lounge room overlooking trees, sometime during spring or early summer. With 1897 I was recording during winter, it was cold, it was raining quite a lot, and I was recording inside these big dark concrete bunkers.”
Indeed, one of the main talking points regarding 1897 is where it was recorded. In 2007 Webb applied for an artist-in-residency tenure at the Newington Armory, an old heritage-listed arms depot in Sydney full of cavernous reverberating rooms - the likes of which many a sound artist would value access to. With the go ahead from the Sydney Olympic Park Authority, Webb was granted access to the armory – which was opened in 1897 - and surrounding areas for a three-month period, during which he captured the raw materials and composed the pieces that make up the album. During that period, Webb amassed six hours worth of material on mini-disc, four-track cassette and hard-disc space. He has spent the intervening time meticulously piecing the puzzle together.
“The first time I went in there it was still functioning as an arms depot,” Webb remembers of the armory. As an ecological researcher, Webb had spent time in the surrounding wetlands on field projects.
“With '1897' I was recording during winter, it was cold, it was raining quite a lot, and I was recording inside these big dark concrete bunkers.”
“I’d go past these buildings and they’d [hold] a bit of mystery. What I liked most about the location is that it has this great juxtaposition: there’s a really old building there, but it’s right on the doorstep of what is the last remnant of wetland and bushland close to the city. In some ways there are a lot of links to what Seaworthy has been in the past, as far as having that [environmental] aesthetic and those rural elements. But there’s the rustic quality of the old structures as well. I felt like it was very complimentary to what Seaworthy has been in the past as well as with what I’ve been trying to do over the past couple of years.”
Webb established a relationship with the location after spending many lonesome hours recording and experimenting with the surroundings. “It’s interesting now to look at these fantastic buildings and know they’re just empty,” he says. “You think about how they used to be a hive of activity 20 or 30 years ago and how much hustle and bustle there would have been around that precinct. But nowadays hardly anyone goes into them, hardly anyone sees them. I don’t think I had that idea when I started the project, but over time it seemed that isolation is part of the building itself.”
The armory might have contained the aura of a ghost town. As a once thriving workplace, the menacing quietude and vast empty spaces affected Webb’s frame of mind and ultimately shaped the recording. Previous to these unforeseen influences, Webb claims to have entered the project with no preconceived ideas for the recording. Instead, the location was allowed to bleed freely into the music. “I hadn’t pre-written anything or had any specific ideas of what I would record in there, but it was always going to be a Seaworthy record and those two elements – guitar pieces and soundscape pieces – are always components of the Seaworthy sound.”
The environment itself is perhaps the most fascinating instrument on 1897. Webb wielded the many acoustic characteristics of the building in his favour, and the album is roughly halved between two series of tracks, ‘Ammunition’ and ‘Installation’. The former consists mostly of guitar pieces while the later is dominated by abstract tonal explorations, where the armory itself was used as a sound manipulator. “Many of the pieces were made by playing back field recordings, guitars and electronically composed pieces into the big empty bunkers and then rerecording the room sound as a form of processing,” he says of the ‘Installation’ pieces.
“I experimented with different types of speakers and different volumes. A lot of those [‘Installation’] pieces are live improvised processing of sound played back into the room, so that the room becomes the predominant sound recorded. Sometimes I’d set up what was essentially a sound installation, where the sound is being played back into these rooms. The reverb was so amazing in there. If you close the door to these ammunition rooms you’re stuck in a massive sandstone box. The sound really does move around the room, and all I was doing was playing around with microphone placement, moving [the microphones] around the room to capture different segments of the room sound.”
1897 is Seaworthy’s second full-length record for esteemed New York label 12k. Webb has also released many smaller-scale records since Map In Hand was first pressed in a limited run of 120 back in ’05. Labels such as Foxy Digitalis, Campbell Kneale’s Celebrate PSI Phenomenon, Sound&Fury and CURT have all hosted different facets of Seaworthy’s varied sound world in the interim. Map In Hand, while initially quite scarce, is now widely available again thanks to a 12k reissue back in 2007.
“I do like fooling around at the edges,” Webb says in response to my description of 1897 and another recent release on CURT as “menacing”. “I don’t necessarily want to embrace a very menacing sound, which in some ways it’d be easy to do. I like to take a few steps back and just occasionally bring that sense to what would otherwise be nice sounding music. It’s funny how the sense of that space on the record – like the old iron mechanisms, the carts that moved the ammunition, the clink of an iron gate – just in themselves, while not being musical necessarily, betray that sense of menace. Those sounds and the space pushed what I was doing in a certain direction.”