Reference Library: John Zorn and Talking Heads Inspired the New Under the Reefs Orchestra Track

Clément Nourry on the genesis of “Ants.”

I’m the main songwriter, but it’s a proper trio. The music needs to be found together. I’ll come with a kind of rock-electric demo — I record the bass, the guitars, several parts — and then we find a way to make it sound together, because bass saxophone doesn’t play the same as a bass guitar. And our drummer is crazy fantastic, so he has to find it in his own way too. 

For me, music always comes from a gesture — it’s more like cooking something than writing a story. I wrote “Ants” at the beginning of COVID when I was home with my kids and listening to a lot of music that I’d never taken the time to listen to before, like Moondog and Ennio Morricone.  During the first pandemic episode, a melancholic pre-war feeling was floating over Brussels. But even before COVID, I had this feeling of being on a boat, and that the boat was slowly sinking into the water. It was a feeling that was very frightening, but happening very slowly at the same time. So it’s not dramatic — it’s more strange, actually, like things are getting really bad but the world’s not going up in flames. I wanted to find in my composition this kind of melancholic melody, but in a simple way. In my mind, I was writing for a string quartet — something elegant for the ballroom of the Titanic, with a sense of foreboding the background.

I listened to John Zorn’s Masada trio a lot when I was learning guitar. He has this ability to make really simple tunes and make it groove and improvise on it. It doesn’t sound like jazz, it sounds like rock. I love Ennio Morricone’s “Sicilian Clan” — he’s a great melody writer. John Zorn’s version has this freedom to it. I can hear the parts that were being improvised, and I like the feeling that you could write a tune and then other people have to find a way to interact with it. The music that I wrote for “Ants” ended up not being so melancholic. “Sicilian Clan” makes you hurt instantly, and it was not exactly that that I was searching for. I wanted it to have the feeling like it’s floating in time over the groove. The chords are more dramatic than the melody that I ended up writing. 

When I eventually brought the song to the band, we were searching for a way to use the bass saxophone in another way than just a bass. Basically, I tried to make him play the theme while I played the bass, but it was not so easy, because the bass saxophone is a really heavy sound. It wasn’t working well for the recording, so we swapped it for a bass clarinet, because that has a bit more of a subtle sound and is a bit more elegant. The range just fit more with what I wrote. 

Then for the drums, it ended up being one of the only tunes where the drummer was really happy with what I’d written — otherwise, it was a lot of arguing. But still, we had to flesh it out, because I’d written it with just snare and kick, tapping on my MPD with two fingers like I usually do. We had to find a way to make it sound alive, to put some melody in it. For that, we looked to the kind of bizarre funk of Talking Heads, which I was listening to a lot at the time. The drums I wrote were really inspired by their first albums, More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, where the drumming was more basic and naked. 

The tune was recorded at the Capitane Records studio. It’s located somewhere in the woods around Brussels, in an old military area full of dead cars. The dead cars are gone today, but at this time they were full of animals living in them, insects, and wild vegetation. The title came from a parallel between insects and human society — it felt then like Europe (and pretty much the world) was like an anthill flooded with lost politicians running around. 

As told to Annie Fell

Under the Reefs Orchestra is a Brussels-based band, led by guitarist Clément Nourry with saxophonist Marti Melia and drummer Jakob Warmenbol. Their latest record, Sakurajima, is our September 23 on Capitane Records.