Rhian Sheehan: Sounds of silence

By Scott Kara

Though Rhian Sheehan's music may lull you to sleep, his live show will be nothing short of eye-opening, writes Scott Kara.

Rhian Sheehan's musical show has cinematic qualities. Photo / Supplied
Rhian Sheehan's musical show has cinematic qualities. Photo / Supplied

The other week, Rhian Sheehan played his new mini album to a group of friends and it put them to sleep.

"Two people were snoring," he laughs. "It was brilliant because when I was making the album that was my intention; to make something you'd bliss out to and fall asleep to."

Welcome to the unusual sonic world the Wellington producer and composer of ambient electronic music inhabits. Chances are though, when Sheehan brings his grand multi-media live show for his previous album - the stunning Standing In Silence - to Auckland next weekend you won't know where to look.

But you can nod off if you want to, he won't mind.

"Because of the nature of the music, an audience needs to have some kind of reflection and narrative on a screen in front of them to help them along - otherwise they might fall asleep. Which has been known to happen," he laughs again.

Not that Standing In Silence, which was released in 2009, is solely ambient tranquillity.

It has glitchy, upbeat and noisy moments and Sheehan is looking forward to stepping out from behind his laptop and strapping on his guitar alongside collaborator Jeff Boyle (from Hawkes Bay instrumental trio Jakob) and letting rip. Although, in typical Sheehan fashion, they won't actually sound like guitars.

"When Jeff and I play the guitars live, I think people are surprised to see two people standing there with electric guitars, but they don't really sound like electric guitars, just this massive beautiful sensual wash. That's definitely fun."

The 14-piece band will also be made up of a string section, his wife Raashi Malik playing piano, NZSO percussionist Steve Bremner, multi-instrumentalist Andy Hummel, and many others playing everything from sequencers ("glitching things out") and laptops to omnichords ("through lots of effects") and music boxes.

The other key element of the show are the visuals shot by Wellington film maker Gareth Moon and there's a mesh screen that goes up and down to envelope the musicians at certain points.

Because while the music is key, for Sheehan, the project is also about the visual element - and the initial idea for the album came about from a photo he took in India of a solitary man standing on a hill shrouded in a haze of pollution.

"The original concept of the album was to work on something that was cinematic in style so it could evolve into a live show," he says.

So Moon has shot images specifically for the show in Japan, China and India, and when TimeOut talked to Sheehan, Moon was travelling through Europe getting more imagery.

Sheehan himself is also a busy man, having composed all sorts of music for everything from Top Gear to TV commercials and soundtracks, and he is currently working on music for a doco about fraudster Stephen Versalko ("Documentaries are good fun to write obscure music to"), while pulling together Standing In Silence live.

He's performed the show on this grand scale before in Wellington, having only done a more boutique version at Auckland Museum last year.

He is brutally honest about the expense of putting on a production like this and says, with a little hint of desperation, "I really hope people come".

"It's turned into a little monster really," he laughs. "I wish we could play the show more and take it overseas, and ideally that's what we want to do with it, but it's an expensive show to put on and there a lot of people involved which makes it far more difficult."

As beautiful and magical as Standing In Silence is, seeing it live is where the songs will come to life and make more sense, reckons Sheehan.

"It was one of those albums that just came without really thinking about it - and that's sometimes where the good stuff comes from.

"And we've changed things around, and initially that album was just me tinkering away in the studio and then taking the ideas away and collaborating with people.

"Taking it to a live level has been a process but I think we've definitely got there."


Who: Rhian Sheehan
What: Standing In Silence Live
Where & when: Mercury Theatre, Auckland, May 28
See also: Seven Tales of the North Wind, mini album out now.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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