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.