Meet: Nightmares and Dreamscapes – The Dark, Musical World of The Night Terrors

Once in a while you come across some musical treasure that not only shakes you up a bit, but it evokes serious emotion. It lulls you into a trance and simultaneously curdles the blood running through your veins. Deep in the cold, desolate Midwest winter of 2014 I was introduced to the musical world of The Night Terrors. “The Dream Eater” seeped through my headphones and with it’s mournful, synth and theremin-driven melody I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to become a huge fan of this Australian band. I immediately located a copy of their Back To Zero album online and patiently waited for its arrival. Upon receiving the LP I was completely floored by their sci-fi-meets-horror sound. It was equal parts space odyssey and a romp through the rue morgue, all done eloquently with a prog-rock flair. Synth and theremin genius Miles Brown leads the band through expansive songs filled with atmosphere and a knack for the dramatic. Their music comes off like a score to some lost sci-fi epic. Brown can emote with a theremin like no other. His playing has the feel of a specter singing a melody from beyond. Where a lot of theremin playing is used for effect or may come off as novelty, Miles Brown has made the theremin a central player in the sound of The Night Terrors.

Back To Zero was followed by the early 2014 release of the excellent Spiral Vortex, an even more precise, intense journey into the far reaches of space and beyond. And now, they have yet another release out called Pavor Nocturnus, a dark, macabre, and intense record that the band recorded live with the help of the southern hemisphere’s largest pipe organ. On October 31st the band will be performing the album live at the Melbourne Town Hall on said gigantic pipe organ. Miles Brown took some time to discuss the band, their sound, and the new album with me.

J. Hubner: Before we get into the music, I was wondering if you’d tell me a little about the band. How did the Night Terrors come about?

Miles Brown: We started the band back in the year 2000, myself and two other friends from Tasmania, Tim Picone and Ianto Kelly. We had all moved to Melbourne and had played shows together over the years in Tasmania in separate bands and were fans of each other as players. The idea for the band was to just get together and see what came out. Tim was a really fantastic synth player and Ianto had an amazing urgent hyperactive drumming style I’d always loved. So we had a jam and two songs just popped straight out, and we knew we had good chemistry. From the start it was dark and synthy and atmospheric. I was playing mostly bass and a little theremin (I was pretty bad at it at the start). I think it was people who saw us in the first few years that made comparisons to soundtrack music and showed us Goblin, Popol Vuh etc – we’d never heard of them but could see the similarity. After a few years Tim left the band to concentrate on his label Unstable Ape Records, Ianto went to live in Paris and the band stopped for a while. I had a few weird alternate versions of the band happening over the next few years and soon it developed into a bit of a revolving door lineup situation. So I started focusing on writing for theremin in a band context and that was how the band’s sound started to solidify – moving away from jamming and more towards proper composition with the format in mind.

J. Hubner: This question is more to you Miles. When did you start playing the theremin? You seem rather prodigious on it.

Miles Brown: I got into theremin when I was about 17. I was talking to my Dad about synthesisers and he said “Synths are cool but I have the plans to build an instrument that predates the synthesiser – and you play it without touching!”. I was pretty intrigued by this idea so he and I built a theremin from plans he had in a 70s science magazine. That was my first theremin and it was really just a fun sound effect machine – not really calibrated for melodic playing – but I was hooked on the instrument and tried anyway. I started to research thereminists online and discovered Clara Rockmore and Lydia Kavina. I was chiefly an electric bass player at that point, but very interested in exploring the theremin further. Then I managed to injure my left hand in an accident and found I couldn’t play bass like I used to – so I decided to focus on theremin instead. I gathered together all the instructional materials I could and taught myself how to play. The problem with this was that I had some pretty basic technical things kind of wrong, so my playing didn’t progress very far. I saw on Lydia Kavina’s website that she occasionally gave workshops in Europe. I emailed her to try and find out when the next one might be, and included a link to some music I was working on. I was super excited when she wrote back and suggested I come over to the UK to do a mentorship with her. So I went over for two months and studied with her, and then travelled with her to Lippstadt in Germany to play at the Without Touch theremin festival where I met around 30 fellow thereminists. That really set me off on the right path!

J. Hubner: Watching you play the theremin in the video for “Megafauna”(off the new album Pavor Nocturnus) I get the feeling that it’s just as much a theatrical performance as it is a musical one. I was wondering how do you approach your performances? 

Miles Brown: The theremin is a funny thing in that in order to play it well you have to be able to drop into an almost meditative state, in order to remain still and focused enough to control your bodily movements with precision. I’ve always thought perhaps this would be a bit boring to watch but after seeing other thereminists play I now understand what the visual appeal is – the level of concentration necessary is what sells the performance. I’ve grown up as a thereminist playing onstage for rock audiences, so there’s always been as much of an imperative to entertain as to play well (in the early years my playing wasn’t so great so the performance may have served to cover that up a little!). In terms of approaching performances, in The Night Terrors I’m frequently switching between bass, synth and theremin, so the challenge is to balance the energy levels with each instrument so as to have the requisite bodily control as well as be able to put on a visually entertaining show. The trick is to practise being able to drop into the meditative state quite quickly, and then snap out of it to play other instruments. I think I’m getting better at this!

J. Hubner: How does a Night Terrors song come into fruition? Do you, Sarah, and Damien get together and just create on the spot? Or are the songs more fully arranged before you three get together in the studio?

Miles Brown: For the last two albums I’ve composed the music beforehand and then brought the tracks pretty much completed to the band. But we also do more arranging and make adjustments to ensure that the records have everyone’s personalities in the playing. Damian and Sarah are awesome musicians and we’re really having fun playing together especially at the moment, so we’re talking about the next record moving in a direction that pulls more of this chemistry into the songwriting process.

J. Hubner: I’d love to know what The Night Terrors are influenced by. I’m a huge fan of Italian composers like Walter Rizzati and Fabio Frizzi, as well as John Carpenter’s scores. Were you guys influenced at all by those synth-driven horror soundtracks? Btw, my first exposure to TNT was the song “The Dream Eater”. That song brought me back to being a kid and watching those old Argento, Fulci, and Romero movies at 1am. I knew I had to find your albums at that point.

Miles Brown: I’ve always been driven by the example of Clara Rockmore and Lydia Kavina’s lyrical theremin playing, and I suppose my concept for the band was to make a rock act with a theremin as a lead instrument. One of the first pieces I heard in this format was Howard Shore’s main title theme for Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood. Lydia is playing theremin on that, and I was immediately excited by the format and the feeling that a theremin could evoke as a lead instrument over a dark rock ensemble. Also my influences outside of theremin land were always acts with dark and melancholic leanings, bands such as Curve, Swervedriver, Ministry and Sea Scouts. I think I was keen to try to set up those atmospheres within a quite limited instrumentation – theremin, bass, synth and drums. No guitars, no vocals, and see if it was possible to do something coherent that way. It took a while for a working model to happen. Actually, we were a bit amorphous in terms of songwriting for the first few years. For me as a bass player I found it hard to really steer things in an interesting direction. What ended up happening was as synth players left the band over the years I found myself writing more of the synth parts, and in doing so found that I could transfer my ideas much more effectively that way. “The Dream Eater” is a good example of this – I was given a tiny Casio VL-Tone calculator synth which I would have on my desk at work and play with in breaks. It’s just a tiny mono synth with tiny little keys, and you can only really play simple melodies on it. The main riff for “The Dream Eater” just popped out on my coffee break one day and I recorded it on my phone, and just kinda knew that it was something special, and started writing more music that way. Suddenly the sound of the band started to become clearer.

In terms of synth music, I really love classic Italo disco, and as part of that yes I do love Goblin and Simonetti’s other electronic work like Crazy Gang. I also love analogue synth acts such as Add N To (X), Chateau Marmont, Ali Renault, and I think exploring the more traditional uses of our instruments really informed the stuff we wrote for Spiral Vortex. Travelling around Europe on tour and meeting a lot of like-minded people who showed us a much bigger world of dark electronica (that we hadn’t realised we were already a part of) was a big influence. As the horror soundtrack resurgence has grown it’s been awesome to discover a lot more like-minded acts around the world. But I do feel that for Pavor Nocturnus it’s been more a case of going back to a more primal sphere of influence; just sitting down and playing the pipe organ and seeing what that instrument itself coaxed out of the brain. That was really fun, and reminded me of the first pieces of music I ever wrote playing my grandparents’ Lowrey organ as a child – just finding cool sounds and progressions and letting them develop on their own, without a lot of stylistic precedent hanging around.
J. Hubner: Speaking of Pavor Nocturnus, let’s talk about that. Tell me how this project came about? You were commisioned by the city of Melbourne to write a piece based on the southern hemisphere’s largest pipe organ? How does that happen? And how loud is the southern hemisphere’s largest pipe organ?
Miles Brown: The Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ is three stories high and super gnarly and awesome. It’s very very loud and has over 9000 pipes. It’s one of those hidden treasures you wouldn’t know is smack back in the middle of your town unless someone shows you. The way we made the connection was quite weird – I played a solo theremin set at the Melbourne Museum for some quite boring local council event, and a really nice guy called Ariel came up to me after I had played and told me he was the Curator of Instruments for the City of Melbourne and that he’d really enjoyed my set and wondered if I might be keen on doing something with the pipe organ in the Town Hall. I explained to him that I had a band and so he took us in to have a look at the organ, and we were totally blown away. The thing is so huge and gothic and incredible. He suggested we have a play with it over summer to see if we could come up with any material for a concert, so we jammed with it for a few weeks and then played what we’d written for a small group of people from the City of Melbourne, who liked it and said they wanted to include it in the Melbourne Music Week festival. One of them had heard that we had just returned from supporting Goblin in Berlin and the idea was floated that bringing a band of that stature to Melbourne might be a good way to fill up the Town Hall for our show (it’s bloody enormous too) . Next thing we knew they had booked Goblin for their first ever Australian show and paid for them to come out, so we ended up playing this amazing sold out show with them. The show was supposed to be recorded live but something went wrong and we didn’t end up with a decent recording. Flash forward to 2014 and Ariel contacted us again and asked if we would be keen on making a proper recording of our set, as it hadn’t worked out the first time. We had only just put out Spiral Vortex and were planning a tour but the opportunity was so awesome that we put those plans on hold to make the pipe organ record. Half the material was from the 2012 show and we wrote the other half and made the album in a five week period over May-June this year. We called it Pavor Nocturnus because it’s the latin name for Night Terrors, but also because we mostly only had access to the Town Hall between the hours of 10pm and 6am, as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing and performing there in the daytime. So I was going in there like a weird Phantom of the Opera guy and playing this huge scary instrument in the middle of the night for weeks on end. It was super fun.
J. Hubner: Watching the video for “Megafauna” there’s a real macabre vibe to it which I love. The visuals bring to mind Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Is that a theme with this album as it’s a “Halloween” record of sorts? 
Miles Brown: Luke Fraser has done the art and design for all our records, so he came down when we shot the clip and art directed. He had a very clear idea of how to make those visual Argento references via the use of block colour lighting and saturation, which he also used in the album art. Agostino Soldati directed the clip and totally understood the concept – he did an amazing job collaborating with Luke to turn what was originally just a performance video into something way creepier. As the record was being made we all started to realise that the project was definitely veering off into this macabre and horror-influenced direction – a lot more than anything else we had done. To be honest I had always resisted taking the band too far in that direction to an extent because it seemed too obvious with the name and everything, but once we heard what the organ could do it seemed silly to fight the tide and a lot more fun to go with it and see what would happen. The fact that it was recorded on Friday the 13th and launched on Halloween was actually totally coincidental – the City Of Melbourne offered us those dates because they were some of the only ones free as the Town Hall is always in use. So for all those reasons it seemed quite obvious to indulge ourselves in this direction and have fun with it all.
J. Hubner:  Will there only be the Halloween show for this album? Any chance it will be recorded for a DVD release?
Miles Brown: Right now there is only the one show planned, but we are talking to people about touring the show to other towns with pipe organs – turns out almost every town has one! So we’re hoping we can do some kind of left-of-centre tour where we go and interfere with huge pipe organs around the world. We also have the Spiral Vortex record to tour so perhaps some kind of hybrid multi-show tour is on the cards. Stay tuned!
J. Hubner: What’s next after ‘Pavor Nocturnus’? Any plans for a release in 2015?
Miles Brown: We definitely want to tour in 2015, get back to Europe and the UK, and yes we are very keen to play the States as well. There’s already talk of a new album for 2015. We have a few fun projects on the go and I have a solo album coming out next year as well. So 2015 should be quite busy.
J. Hubner: Seeing The Night Terrors in the US would be amazing! You guys would kill at something like Beyond Fest.
Miles Brown: Beyond Fest would be a dream. We love Death Waltz and all those guys have been super supportive of our music in the last year. So yes, hopefully the US is in the cards in the near future!
If you happen to be in Melbourne, Australia on Friday, October 31st you’d be an idiot not to head to the Melbourne Town Hall and check out Pavor Nocturnus live. If I were there that’s where I’d be. We could carpool.
Check The Night Terrors out here and here.
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