"Compared to bands like Weekend, Thee Oh Sees, these more garage-pop-oriented bands, I don't see us having much in common with them," says Barn Owl's John Porras, sipping tea with his bandmate, Evan Caminiti, while they consider their place in the local scene. "At the same time, something is happening here in the experimental world that I'm happy to be a part of."
For this album, Barn Owl bid farewell to the days of jamming with a four-track tape machine in a friend's basement, or snagging free studio time in the wee hours of the morning. Instead, Porras and Caminiti invested in a few days of lengthy studio recording sessions at a digital arts college in Berkeley. "It was a huge room, and just had a great natural resonance," Caminiti explains.
Studio size wasn't all that grew with Ancestral Star. To the trademark guitars at the center of Barn Owl's twangy doom, the pair added violins, gongs, bells, harmoniums, synths, tambura, and other instruments. As Porras puts it, "We wanted this record to be a little more rich, have a more diverse instrumentation... But I guess it wasn't necessarily a conscious thing. [We didn't say], 'OK. For this album we're going to have a lot more instruments'. We kind of just catered to what each song needed."
Adornments aside, a solid core of influences inspires songs like the massive acoustic dirge "Cavern Hymn" and Ancestral Star's epic closer "Light From the Mesa." Guitarist John Fahey, Indian raga, Krautrock, and Neil Young all play a part. "[The] Dead Man [soundtrack] definitely stands out because of its ambient nature. I mean, [Neil Young] never did anything else quite like that," says Caminiti. To which Porras adds, "He was the godfather of grunge, you know? You listen to early '90s Neil, and his guitar rig is so heavy. You can almost [hear] the roots of doom metal being laid out. The connections are there. Neil Young was huge influence on Kurt Cobain, a huge influence on The Melvins, and so on. You can literally trace back the history of doom to Neil Young."
Barn Owl completed the dusty "doom-folk" opus that is Ancestral Star in the fall of 2009, but they still needed to give those ten songs a proper home. After finishing at the studio, the band shared their record with close friends, including Porras' boss at Aquarius Records, Andee Connors. Connors said he'd pass it off to the label his old band, A Minor Forest, was once signed to: longstanding indie imprint Thrill Jockey. But before Connors could, Thrill Jockey heard the unreleased music and offered Barn Owl a deal straightaway.
The label released Ancestral Star this past November, and sent Barn Owl off for tours in Europe and the U.S. almost immediately. Only tonight, more than a month later, will Porras and Caminiti get to celebrate the release of their third full-length album with a hometown concert. Performing for the first time at The Independent, Barn Owl will share the stage with Om and Lichens before hitting the road again to show the world that many kinds of brilliant music come from San Francisco.