Ambisonic – “Manitou” (self-released, 2013) plus interview with Erik Culp

Ambisonic, the innovative Canadian space prog duo returns with their third release, Manitou, to once again blow your mind. Ambisonic consists of Erik Culp on keyboards, pedals, and guitars and Paul Barry on drums and piano. The music on Manitou represents two musicians operating at the peak of their powers. Complex, riveting rhythms propel lush synthesizers and vintage Moog electronics around in tightly controlled sonic environments where not a single note is wasted. Drawing on not only progressive and space rock as influences, but also on jazz, electronica, and film soundtracks, the duo weave these influences together into seamless, tightly knit compositions. And although the music may have been very challenging for the players to perform, they imbue it with enough top notch songwriting, catchy little pop hooks and intriguing sounds to make it quite accessible to any listener. Although Ambisonic always had a kind of keyboard oriented vibe to it, this outing supposedly has less guitar on it. Maybe I’d have to go back and listen to ARP and their self-titled debut again, but it still sounds like business as usual to me. Not that they’re treading over previous ground. It’s clear that these two musicians really enjoy challenging each other and pushing their sound forward with each release. But there is still a definite and very distinctive quality to their music that makes it uniquely Ambisonic. My favourite tracks on the album are the opener Manitou, with its cool staccato keyboard vamp and High Ideals, with its sumptuously melodic electronics, manic electronica like drum-vibe (played on real drums though!) and psychedelic wah-wah guitars. Other standouts are the funky electro-rock of Buzwah and the spiralling beauty of Slow Wave. But every track on Manitou has something to offer and will surely please any fan of progressive rock, space rock, or electronic music.

I wanted to learn more about Ambisonic and Manitou, and was fortunate enough to be able to discuss those things with the Atomic Cosmonaut himself, Erik Culp, via e-mail. Here’s what I asked and what he had to say…

Aural Innovations: How did you and Paul first end up working together?

Erik Culp: I put an ad in Craigslist and held auditions. He was so into it that he wanted to jam that night.

AI: What was the idea or thought going into Ambisonic? What were you hoping to achieve?

EC: To start with, we wanted to do technical instrumental prog. To see how far two people could go, and how big two people could make it sound. To really challenge ourselves, while still making palatable music. The music progressively became more and more keyboard oriented, but that wasn’t a preconceived notion.

AI: You seem to have drawn on a wide range of influences for the Ambisonic sound. Are there any particular artists that stand out as being very influential on you?

EC: Paul and I have pretty different influences, so he would and does disagree with what I say are our influences. For me it would be Afro Beat like Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Sergio Leone, 60’s Moog albums, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Alain Goraguer’s La Planete Sauvage, Pink Floyd’s Animals (Paul strongly disagrees and thinks Dark Side of the Moon is superior, but I can’t get over the conservative playing, saxophones and back-up singers), Sigur Ros, the Flaming Lips, and Tortoise. I also have to throw Godspeed! You Black Emperor in. Major influence. My favorite show ever was at an apple orchard outside of Picton. Godspeed played in a barn. 9 people in the band, 9 in the audience. We camped with them and sat around the fire boozin’ all night.

AI: Those are definitely some pretty interesting influences. You mentioned that Afrobeat and Miles Davis had been especially influencing you a lot lately?

EC: For sure, I’m playing a lot of single note repetitive guitar lately.

AI: What drew you to this kind of music?

EC: My friend Jaqui gave me Bitches Brew for Christmas in high school, because she knew I was into the earlier stuff. It blew my mind. It really scared me at first. People thought Hendrix was weird/revolutionary. Holy crap! Then, I got into the players that he worked with. McLaughlin, Hancock, Corea. I first heard Kuti in a coffee shop about 12 years ago. I had a similar reaction. It was the song Lady and it freaked me out. It was so epic, groovy.

AI: What particular movie soundtracks stand out as being an influence on you?

EC: Hmmm… Logan’s Run, the Man with No Name Trilogy. Those are the biggies

AI: How have Kurt Vonnegut novels been an influence on Ambisonic?

EC: Ha ha! We both really like him. His version of reality is a bit off, and that’s comforting. I don’t really want too much to do with reality.

AI: What’s your favourite Vonnegut novel?

EC: That’s a tough one. I’m going to have to go with Breakfast of Champions. It has it all. I’m lucky enough to have worked on the movie too.

AI: How has the progression of ideas evolved from your previous projects such as Mind of a Squid and your solo work as The Atomic Cosmonaut? Do you see Ambisonic as a totally new sound, or were there any elements of those previous projects that were brought into what you were doing with Ambisonic?

EC: Everything is still me. A fairly natural evolution. Funnily enough, I’m back to doing mainly guitar, jam based stuff now. I remember, after Paul got the gig, we were jamming out ideas and he said “I really don’t like long, slow stuff.” That was a major challenge. My response was “That’s all I do!!!” That was very hard for me to accept, but Paul has been very good at challenging me. We will be jamming on a part that takes everything in me to keep going, and he stops and says something like, “How about we do a dead stop on the three, add another beat in the fourth bar and change keys for the second verse?” I usually figure out a way to do it…I will usually request to work on it, and get back to him next rehearsal. All four limbs are working all the time!

AI: So I guess there’s little chance of Ambisonic doing a 20-minute epic track on your next album then?

EC: Haha! You never know. ARP Parts 1-4 ended up being pretty long. We actually wrote/recorded that song in a day, by the way.

AI: How do you go about creating an Ambisonic album? Is there a lot of improvisation involved, or are the pieces fully composed before recording?

EC: ARP was half created through jams during the recording session, and half written previously. Manitou was all previously written and the drums were recorded last, like the Atomic Cosmonaut recordings, the first Ambisonic record, and the first Mind of a Squid record. Previously written can still mean that a lot of the ideas came from jams… we document all of our jams, and the recordings have been invaluable to us for song creation. Many of the songs came out of my solitude at my cabin in Haliburton in the dead of winter, as well.

AI: I’m assuming that’s the cabin where you recorded ARP? What was it like creating an album in that kind of isolation?

EC: Actually, we recorded ARP outside of Huntsville, and Manitou was recorded at my cabin outside of Haliburton. I love creating in isolation. The winter is best. No clutter or noise. It seems that the heavy, draining focus that the music requires needs to be set in an environment of peace, rather than the clutter of the urban experience. Perfect decompression.

AI: Is all the music recorded live, or are there overdubs?

EC: Tons of overdubs. I’m a freak that way. I will record 30 tracks and blend them together to create a near imperceptible beep at the end of a chorus or something. Some of the tunes are pushing 200 tracks!

AI: You said in one of your promotions that Ambisonic sounds like a dozen musicians when in fact there are only two of you. How do you achieve this sound, especially when playing live?

EC: I play bass with my feet on a Moog Taurus, keyboards and guitars. And 4 track looping with an Electrix Repeater.

AI: You described your new album Manitou to me as a ‘huge left turn’ from your previous albums. How do you see it as a huge left turn?

EC: Less guitar than I have ever put on a record. Short, concise songs; more pop-ish hooks.

AI: Was this a conscious effort or just a natural evolution in the same way that Ambisonic became more keyboard oriented when it started?

EC: Both, I guess. For a while I was getting bored with the tonal variation that a guitar could give me. A Moog’s tonal range is virtually infinite. I’m back on the side of guitar now. We just had a brief falling out!

AI: What are the future plans for Ambisonic?

EC: Interesting question. I don’t really know the answer.

AI: You mentioned a new improvisational project you were currently involved in. Can you tell me more about that?

EC: We are called the Ozark Howlers. It’s fun… I just play guitar. Next to no pedals. I wanted a chance to focus on the music, rather than the gear. Scott from Mind of a Squid is on bass, and Joeseph Doane (another former MoaS bassist) is on guitar. Francis is on drums. It’s slow, long and mellow.

AI: Sounds really awesome! Are there plans to record an album or is this just going to be a live project?

EC: We have a whack of recorded material now. We may release highlights. We probably aren’t going to do too much live performance. Who knows?

AI: Thanks Erik! We’ll be looking forward to hearing more music from any projects you’re involved in.

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Reviewe and interview by Jeff Fitzgerald
Band photo by Karol Orzechowski

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