Interview with Paul Ortiz of Chimp Spanner

Things are changing for Chimp Spanner. Three years ago, the one-time home-based project of multi-instrumentalist Paul Ortiz caught Basick Records’ attention and so began a transitory period for the talented musician. After ‘At the Dream’s Edge’ was reissued by the UK-based label, Chimp Spanner gave us another bout of astonishing technical metal with last year’s ‘All Roads Lead Here’ EP before Ortiz took his ambitions from his insular home-based studio to the stage. Last year marked Chimp Spanner’s first step onto US soil. Me and SoundShock’s Jason Hicks interviewed Ortiz in North Wales – the afternoon before his dazzling performance alongside bandmates Boris Le Gal and Jim Hughes at this year’s Hammerfest Festival.


What’s fascinating with your work as a musician is that you have worked freelance on computer game soundtracks, radio, film. You’re not only working as Chimp Spanner. How is that going?
Paul Ortiz: That’s more like something I want to get into. I’ve done a couple of jobs that qualifies as that, but this year I’m hammering away at it and trying to make something happen.

Would you say you’re a full-time musician?
PO: Just about. At the moment it’s just freelancing anything I can do that’s connected to it, but I’m looking for companies that need resident composers, sound technicians – anything like that.

For a lot of band members nowadays, being in a band is a part-time thing that revolves around another aspect of their working lives. For you, it seems that you have the overall musical ability to take it to another level. How do you plan it all out?
PO: I’m fortunate that I can work from home, no matter what it is. Sometimes it will be really boring admin-type, file-processing. But it could be tuition or production. I’m managing to keep afloat that way, but I’m sort of trying to get my foot in with something that is going to pay.

You’re looking into gear demoing too, right? How is that?
PO: Yeah, I did a little expo for Ibanez and Laney – I went down to Birmingham to do that. Laney was good. They had an expo with some of the head guys of Ibanez and Laney there. They wanted me to show off this new, full-amp but it’s a one watt and 15 watt and it does line-out. You can get the sound of a fully cranked, tubed amp and you can output straight to soundcards, USB and all this crazy stuff. I got home and they text me asking ‘what do you think?’ and I said ‘really good’. I picked one up as soon as I could. It’s got an emulated cabinet out, which is really cool. But yeah, in return for that, I did a demo video and did another one when I got home.

Why do you think they chose Chimp Spanner and yourself to represent the brand?
PO: They just thought it would be a good opportunity to reach out to people in that particular scene who maybe otherwise wouldn’t use Laney gear. I’m not technically with Laney; I’m with Ibanez, but they’re distributed by the same company.

How do you separate your freelance commissions work from Chimp Spanner?
PO: The last full-length (‘At the Dream’s Edge’) was supposed to be like a portfolio piece that I was going to pitch out to games companies and things like that. Then, people wanted the music in its own right. But I don’t think it would be that difficult to keep the two going because it’s still effectively a solo project. If I do something for Chimp and I think that it might be good to send off or pitch for a job or advert, then the two actually going together.

So when you started Chimp Spanner, you made music that you wanted to accompany something, as opposed to be appreciated by itself?
PO: Yeah, that was the main thing for it, because I’m big on films and stuff like that. I’d always watch something and that would give me an idea for a particular sound. There were never any intentions to tour it, play it or look for labels; that was all just by-the-by.

You’re quite interested in 3D computer modelling and things like that too. Does that all sit within the same ethic as the music?
PO: It goes together. There were occasions where I’d be messing around with something – thinking that it could make good artwork. But then the visuals set something else off in my head where I think ‘actually, I can imagine what sound could go with that picture’ and then score into my own material. A lot of songs on ‘At a Dream’s Edge’ have story boards to them or narratives; they’re all in a very defined sequence.

In terms of exploring these eclectic atmospheres in your work, does that mean there are absolutely no boundaries with Chimp Spanner?
PO: It’s a tough one, because what I found with the EP (‘All Roads Lead Here’) was that I was thinking a bit more in terms of how it was going to work onstage. I think a little something got lost in the sense that with ‘At the Dream’s Edge’, there was no consideration to that and I could throw in whatever I want. I think it all went a bit too much the other way – I started to think about how I would represent this with three or four guys onstage. Now I’m trying to get back into the old mind-set which is saying ‘forget that, do what you need to do to make it sound how you want it and we’ll figure it out later’. We’ve got a really slim-line setup; there’s not a lot of stuff that could go wrong. All the synths come from an ipod.

So you’re hoping to clean the slate, tabula rasa style?!
PO: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of material sitting around since ‘At the Dream’s Edge’. But it’s that kind of psychological thing of going backwards. I’ve been hearing these ideas for years and I just want to start again.

Are you working on anything now?
PO: Yeah, bits and pieces. At the moment, it’s all just collections of riffs, but I’ve recently got myself set up with an electronic drum kit. Now I’ve got this B-kit now and I’ve built a little setup at home where I can sit at the kit, have my laptop and soundcard by my side, keyboard and guitars on the other side. I can basically sit in one spot and do the drums, guitars and try to get a free-flowing composition going on, rather than sitting at a desk.

You were quite insular before and now you’re on the road with a few other people who are musicians. Are you picking things up from them?
PO: There’s definitely been some two-way stuff going on in the sense that hearing the songs represented live means we will do things a little differently from what I would have originally thought. When you’re so focused in on it, you can’t really think outside your own box in some ways. But the two things are still quite separate processes. At the moment, I’ve not agreed to any tours until the new stuff is done, primarily because I need the time and focus to get it done. So, at the moment, I will disappear for a few months and things will start to gradually filter through to the guys to what I think it’s going to be; they learn that, then we’ll all come together and if there’s anything at that point that isn’t working, then I’ll be open to changing it.

What kind of involvement does Basick have?
PO: To be honest, I send them stuff, just so they know I am still writing! They know that I am very slow sometimes! But there’s no sort of pressure from their end. It’s not like I send them something and they’re like ‘hmmm, we’d like it to sound a bit more like this’. They just put the trust in the fact that when I deliver it, it will be what I want to hear and thus, what they want to hear. It’s a good relationship.

You were in the US last year. Was that the first time you were over?
PO: I’ve been over because I have family there but it was the first time I’d played over there. It was really good – very generous crowds. There’d be one guy that comes up who’d say ‘what are you selling?’ and he’d take one of everything and here’s another $10. They were so supportive. It’s been weird because it would have been nice to go over there with the other guys but the fee that was on offer was small, so the reasoning was: I would go out there, lay the groundwork. It’s not really moved things far forward in that department. I’m at the point where I’m having to balance between the reality of: if we do go out there, it’s probably going to be at a pretty heavy loss. So, I’m using this time and also to hopefully build a bit more of a solid foundation myself. I can go for it on a limb and give it a shot without having to worry about coming home and being minus £20,000. It’s a scary prospect. When you’re getting offered $150 a night for four guys to get out there and that’s not including the flights, the visa, fuel, merch, eating, accommodation; it’s a gamble. That’s why I’m at that point where I’m still thinking of what I originally began writing Chimp for. I’m just trying to get back into that headspace and anything else that happens – if the time and fee is right for it – we’ll see.

You once said you didn’t develop a full personality until you were 19. Tell us a bit about that…
PO: Yeah. [laughs] Everyone’s a bit awkward when they’re growing up I guess. I wasn’t the kind of person who was comfortable telling people that I made music, so I moved around different social groups and tried to fit in. Everntually, I hit this point where I was comfortable being me and people started to know me for the things I did and stuff like that, and it gets a bit easier. I don’t think I would have got along with me, if I was someone else!

Do you think that reflects in the music of Chimp Spanner?
PO: Yeah. I think a lot of that was when it was in its infancy. A lot of it was to do with getting things out of me that I couldn’t do on a personal level. Even now, I think some people I know would listen to the music and still say ‘I can’t picture this coming from you’. You often meet bands in person who have the personality to go with it. I sort of come up onstage and mumble into a mic. It’s a bit of a running joke that I sound like I’m giving safety instructions in a flight!

Would you say that your music has a futuristic atmosphere?
PO: Yeah, I’m a sci-fi nerd. My absolute favourite film growing up was Blade Runner so there’s ties to that. But I don’t want to get too caught up in it, because it’s becoming a little bit of a stereotype now in the whole ‘djent’ thing to write about space and black holes and stuff. The EP – even though it had a futuristic edge to it – that was a more personal release in a lot of ways, just because of a lot of things that were going on health-wise and family and stuff. You can actually hear it as the three parts of the middle progresses – it was all taking place over different periods that we were going through. Certainly when I listen back to it, I can hear a definite connection to it about my life as opposed to anything to a spacey soundtrack.

Wildcard question: if there was intelligent life on other planets, would they listen to Chimp Spanner?
PO: I’d like to think so. But they might not recognise it as music! It might be noise to them!

Interview by Calum Robson and Jason Hicks
Initially published at SoundShock:

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