Antibalas Avoid Trump to Make Timeless Political Points | Exclaim! | September 13, 2017

Antibalas Avoid Trump to Make Timeless Political Points

Antibalas Avoid Trump to Make Timeless Political Points
Photo: Michael Davis

Anyone familiar with Afrobeat knows that politics play a major role in the West African musical style. So it seems obvious that Afrobeat revivalists / activists Antibalas would have plenty to say about the planet’s biggest political foil, Donald Trump, on their latest LP, Where the Gods are in Peace.

Yet on this fifth LP, the Brooklyn 12-piece deliver five rubbery and vibrant tracks that seem to focus not on the much-maligned American president specifically, but rather the historical American West and an intergalactic being referred to as the “Cowboy.”

“I think people get what we’re going with, because the last thing we wanted to do was to make something that adds to the noise,” baritone saxophonist and founding member Martin Perna tells Exclaim! “And the term reactionary tends to describe the political right, but it could also describe the left, in that we’re just sitting waiting for bad things to happen and then get mad and indignant about them. Whether or not we’re right, that’s not a proactive way to be.

“Some of the best political songs might have been inspired by one particular historical incident,” he continues, “but they find ways that that struggle existed in the past to see how it’s going to exist in the future. The song by Fela Kuticalled ‘Water Get No Enemy’ — someone who lived in the United States in the ’70s might have seen it as quaint, like, ‘Ah, an African thing about water,’ and then 25 years later in California, people can’t water their lawns and there are crops that dry up. That why we want to focus on writing songs that the message lasts longer than just one political cycle.”

In the five years since their well-received self-titled LP, Antibalas not only find themselves dealing with a new political landscape on Where the Gods Are in Peace, but an internal strife as well; five members have left the band over the past half-decade.

“In 2012, we put the [self-titled] album out and it really broke us financially,” Perna explains. “The cost of taking 12 people on the road was really crushing. A couple things happened that put us over $50,000 in debt, like cancellation of festivals, weather-related stuff. It really slowed down the band as far as our creative output. At the same time, we established ourselves as competent musicians, and a bunch of guys got gigs with other bands: our tenor player, Stuart Bogie, is with Arcade Fire; our bass player on the last record, Nick Movshon, went on to the Black Keys and the Arcs; our keyboard player went on to do a bunch of stuff with Mark Ronson; and our guitar player [Luke O’Malley] is now part of the Roots.”

But the departure of key members has only opened the door for Antibalas’s current youth movement, which is evident on their latest LP. “It’s exciting to have new members who are really versed in the music and they’ve had the advantage of being able to learn our stuff when it’s already done, coming into the music instead of learning it altogether.”

With a lot of new blood infiltrating the band, and with a built-in fan base ready to see them hit the road, Perna feels the energy within Antibalas is high at the moment. “A lot of the heavy lifting has been done. It’s like, we can go out on the road and know that we’ll have a full house in this city or that city and that’s exciting to be a part of. This band that has momentum!”

Where the Gods are in Peace is out September 15 on Afrosound/Daptone Records.


Afrobeat Band Minotaurs Rushed to Finish ‘AUM’ Before A Grant Expired | Exclaim! | May 26, 2017

Afrobeat Band Minotaurs Rushed to Finish ‘AUM’ Before A Grant Expired

Afrobeat Band Minotaurs Rushed to Finish 'AUM' Before A Grant Expired
Photo: Noelle O’Brien

According to Nathan Lawr, the latest album from his band MinotaursAUM (out now on Static Clang) was birthed from a mix of inspiration and necessity. Released just 14 months after their third LP, Weird Waves, the six-track LP from the Guelph, ON Afrobeat-inspired indie outfit was recorded swiftly due to an expiring grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I had applied for [the grant] while finishing Weird Waves,” Lawr tells Exclaim! “It had to be done by last May. I could have gotten an extension, but I like the idea of doing two records in one year. I also like the idea of doing what I had to do to make that happen.”

In addition to getting AUM (an acronym that commonly stands for Assets Under Management) ready in time to collect on the endowment, Lawr also had to overcome the challenge of shepherding his eight-piece Minotaurs band back into the studio.

“It is a royal pain in the ass to organize eight dudes, and some days I wonder what the whole point of it is and if I have the energy to keep doing it,” says Lawr. “Usually I’m about four months in advance trying to get things nailed down or else everyone gets too busy and it gets impossible.”

In response, Nathan decided to work out the songs beforehand in order to cut down time in the studio, bringing in Stuart Bogie — a multi-instrumentalist session player who started his career with Brooklyn Afrobeat legends Antibalas— to help with pre-production. “We got him to come up and hang with us for a weekend in this little cabin just outside of Guelph and basically workshopped and worked on the tunes,” says Lawr. “It gave us the chance to work with what we had without the pressure of the studio environment, the pressure of time and all the various pressures that come from working in a studio.”

In support on the new album, Lawr and his band plan on heading out for just a handful of GTA-based shows, something, according to Lawr, was also born from a sort of necessity. “I don’t know why but no one wants to book us. Part of the reason is that there’s eight of us so that can sometimes be a stumbling block. Because unless we’re getting a thousand bucks a night, we can’t afford to do that. It used to be, when you go on tour, and even if you weren’t making a lot of money from the show, you were selling a lot of merch or you were selling a lot of CDs in the record stores, so that would subsidize your traveling; now that’s not the case.”

But despite the many challenges Lawr and his band have faced throughout the years, he says that the current vibe surrounding his Minotaurs band mates is as positive as he’s even seen. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a high-functioning band where the morale’s so high. We’re having such a good time playing the music, and when people come to see us usually it’s a great time. It does get a little frustrating now and again. But it is what it is.”

Jlin’s Blank Slate Turns ‘Black Origami’ into a Global Community Effort | Exclaim! | May 23, 2017

Jlin’s Blank Slate Turns ‘Black Origami’ into a Global Community Effort

Jlin's Blank Slate Turns 'Black Origami' into a Global Community Effort
Photo: Mahdumita Nandi

Without messing with the formula that made her 2015 debut, Dark Energy, so celebrated, Jlin‘s followup Black Origami (out now Planet Mu) presents an even wider scope of Chicago footwork from the Gary, IN artist, a genre and scene that focuses on busy and high-energy instrumental electronic dance music.

The title, Black Origami, also describes the way she approached her music, “When I create, all of my music starts off like a blank sheet of paper — that’s why the album is called Black Origami,” she tells Exclaim! “Because origami is the art of taking a blank sheet of paper and folding it into these beautiful, complex things and end up with an outcome that is complex, but in the beginning it started off as a blank sheet of paper.”

Over 12 dense and percussive tracks, a healthy dose of sounds and ideas are explored on Black Origami, mostly though the crafty use of vocals that Jlin cuts into indecipherable samples. “When I pick [a sample] there’s usually a reason behind it, and sometimes I forget what the reason is. It just happens to grab me that moment for whatever reason,” says Jlin. “Every time I sit at the chair, it’s a totally different dynamic, so I never know what the starting result is going to be and what the ending result is going to be.”

This may be why “1%”, featuring Tennessee experimentalist Holly Herndon(with whom Jlin previously collaborated on Dark Energy), stands as an album highlight. The claustrophobic track features the album’s only linguistic narrative, albeit in the form of samples of a telephone operator.

In addition to Herndon, Jlin has also brought along Halcyon Veil’s Fawkes for the surprisingly tempered “Calcination,” South African rapper Dope Saint Jude for the stuttery “Never Created, Never Destroyed” and William Basinski for the divine “Holy Child,” which came from a chance encounter with the New York composer.

“We were all performing at [Los Angeles museum] The Broad, but I had soundcheck; Preston [Wendel, who performs with Basinski] was watching me and he introduced me to William,” Jlin explains. “They had come up and watched me perform and I remember at the end of the performance, William grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me on my cheek and said, ‘You know we’re going to work together, right?'”

But it was the discovery of Indian movement artist Avril Stormy Unger that, according to Jlin, truly inspired the music on Black Origami, “I came up in her suggestions on YouTube videos of people she should listen to, and she told me that when she heard my album she started dancing again. She had recently been diagnosed with arthritis at the time. I saw her dance on Facebook and I was just in awe, like, ‘This will really work well with my sound.'”

Throughout her many collaborations and inspirations, Jlin insists that Black Origami simply comes from within. “It’s about letting go, just trusting yourself completely. It’s the feel that defines the impact for me.”

J of Jungle | Exclaim! | July 2014


Music of the Mind

JungleMusic of the Mind

Jungle have become so proficient at the art of genre-bending that it’s nearly impossible to define their sound without referencing game-changing artists like Stevie Wonder, Daft Punk or Gang of Four. After writing songs for close to a decade together, the UK duo of J (aka Josh) and T (aka Tom) were approached byXL Recordings to record what would become their debut, self-titled LP. The resulting 12 tracks burn bright, as Jungle’s brand of funk/house/post punk has been washed over with a certain sun-kissed sheen that comes off wholly fresh and original. Chatting with Exclaim!, J talks about his group’s relationship with the press, turning images into music and their enigmatic origins.

Where am I speaking to you from?
I’m in a cab on the way to a photo shoot for the New York Times.

Can you give a bit of a background on Jungle?
Yeah, me and T have known each other for about ten years now, we’ve always been writing together, and early last year we started finishing tracks. We finished a track on the record, a song called “Son of a Gun,” which is one of the first songs we finished. It was that process of finishing something that gave us the confidence to go on and write more and finish more, and once we started finishing things you have that kind of belief, you believe that you can do it, that you can write more, more and more stuff that works and it was that that really started Jungle.

Probably back in February/March of last year we put a tune up on Soundcloud, we were quite reserved about it, we didn’t want to push it too hard or too fast in people’s faces, we wanted honest reactions — and if people liked the music, they’d react honestly to it — rather than posting it everywhere, handing out flyers and all that other stuff. It’s about doing it really softly and letting the music speak naturally and letting the art do its work, and if people like it, great, that’s a great connection to make, and if people don’t, they don’t, we’re happy with it whatever the weather, it’s just been cool to be part of this fun journey so far.

Can you talk a bit about your self-titled, debut LP?
We started in my room, that’s where it felt the most honest to do something. Me and T have been friends for about ten years now so we’ve always kind of worked where we worked. You know, wherever it works, it works. We started writing in my bedroom and we started making beats there and that felt like the right place to do it. You can always go into a big studio or you can rent like kings but it just doesn’t feel right, we just sort of made the most of the things at home, that’s how we made most of the stuff. In terms of producers, we just did it ourselves, it’s more fun like that, it’s less pressure as well. Then XL came on board quite later on and we fancied a little bit of a change, they have a studio, which we started finishing some stuff in, and that’s it really.

Your music has been identified as funk revival, but you say that you and T started out writing beats, do you relate more to electronic producers than you do to traditional musicians?
I dunno, I think we’re just producers, you know? We just appreciate good music, categories and genres don’t really come into it for us, that’s what iTunes does, that’s what the record stores do, they make the categories so people can find what they’re looking for. Ultimately, good music is good music whether it’s J Dilla or whether it’s Wild Beasts, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just about good rhythm and good melody. That’s what we love and that’s what we try to write, it’s irrelevant what comes out, it’s up to other people to categorize or pigeonhole I suppose.

Can you talk about your influences and how they’ve evolved over the years?
Well, our influences tend to be quite visual; we tried not to listen to a lot of music while we were recording the record. Instead we’d see places in our head and write tunes around those. For example, if we were working on “The Heat,” for us, that’s the beach, that’s the one where you can go and it’s just a carefree place, like a mix between Venice Beach, Miami and Copacabana, but we’ve never been to any of those places, so in our heads, that’s just an imaginary, surreal place. Once you can get those locations into your head you can use them to inspire a feeling to take you somewhere else that’s not a room in Shepherd’s Bush. We made a conscious decision to not directly listen to other people’s music because if you listen to other people’s music straight away and then try to write something, you’re going to be so directly influenced by it that what you will do in that session is somehow copy it. It’s better to let your influences seep through subconsciously, so something that you might have heard 15 years ago, the rhythm and the hi-hat might seep back into one of your tracks, rather than listening to a track and then directly copying it line for line, which as much as you’re not trying to do, it will happen because it’s so close to your psyche at that time.

There is a strong visual aspect to your group, with very striking and involved press photos and music videos already being released before the album came out. Was this also something you tried to avoid, absorbing ideas visually?
Yeah, we had images in our heads of what the videos could be or what they should be, whether it was just a starting point, it would just be something like “roller skating,” that would have been the initial kind of thing to think about or “body popping” — something like that. Then it develops quite naturally. Using the kind of references in the songs and the visual things that inspired the track, we take them and work them into real life videos.

The idea of videos is to keep everything quite simple and capture the characters and emotions in the most honest light. We worked with a friend of ours, a photographer who’s very much a part of Jungle, for us, he feeds off honesty and feeds off naturalism and working with him is amazingly fun, it feels very natural and honest. Our process is part of that collective, whether it’s seven of us playing on stage or 12 people dancing in a music video with a little girl doing a head-spin, it’s irrelevant, it’s all part of the feeling, the journey.

You’ve received a lot of attention from the press even before your debut album was finished. What’s your relationship with the press?
Well, we try not to read stuff about ourselves because you start to believe the hype. We’re really happy with what we do and that’s the most important thing. It’s just like a self-fulfilling circle within the creative process, it’s very easy to be influenced and second guess an audience based on a press response but ultimately we’re just making art, you have to ignore the opinions of other people, otherwise you’d just go mad with worry. That happens to everyone, it’s just not in music, it would happen to you if you were a journalist, if you were a football player. Human beings are just kinda influenced by their peers and that’s how it works, we’re social creatures. It’s just about looking at it and going, “it doesn’t matter.” But people are entitled to their opinions, whether you write something good or bad, that’s not my choice, that’s your choice and that’s what makes it beautiful. You can’t control that and you definitely can’t control it once it’s out. The only thing you can do is be slightly oblivious to it and get on with what you wanna do.

I know that, at first, you and T weren’t revealing information about yourselves and weren’t allowing images of yourselves to be released and the press picked that up and started to run with it. Do you feel that was starting to overshadow your music?
Not really, I think it’s irrelevant, I think people were still listening to the music and I think that people who actually listen to music don’t go on reading what people have written about you. My favourite bands, or my favourite producers, I’ve probably only read one article about them. If you think about Arcade Fire, I love Arcade Fire and Jai Paul but I’ve only read one article about them so whatever’s written about them or the continuing themes that are written about those people, I’m not aware of it because I’m just into the music.

The Soft Pink Truth | Exclaim! | July 2014

The Soft Pink Truth

On the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics

The Soft Pink TruthOn the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics

Photo by M.C. Schmidt

Drew Daniel is a perfect example of a 21st century polymath. One half of San Francisco glitch experimentalists Matmos, Daniel also fancies himself an accomplished writer (he’s a Pitchfork contributor and author of two books) and has spent part of the last decade teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and at UC Berkley. So it should come as no surprise to find out that this openly gay, Ph.D electro producer is also one of the planet’s biggest (and most informed) black metal fans.

On his third solo LP (and first in ten years) under the moniker the Soft Pink Truth, Daniel professes his love for the dark arts with Why Do the Heathen Rage? , transforming ten black metal songs (from classic acts like Darkthrone, Hellhammer, Mayhem and Venom) into clubby house anthems. Exclaim! spoke with Daniel about his decade-long layover, the importance of novelty music and his undying love of black metal.

It’s been ten years since you’ve recorded anything as the Soft Pink Truth. Can you talk about the layover?
I moved from San Francisco to Baltimore, became an academic, published two books, worked on Matmos records, toured a lot with Matmos and played Soft Pink Truth shows at noise warehouse parties in Baltimore, building up a different set of songs. I had made an album’s worth of Soft Pink Truth songs that were on a laptop that was stolen from our house, so I lost a kind of “album that might have been,” of which only some sketches and loops remain. I have been pretty busy for the last decade, honestly.

What was your relationship with black metal prior to the recording of Why Do the Heathen Rage?
From my days in high school as a punk and hardcore kid, I’d always been into metal too. I first heard black metal when my friend Kris Force’s band Amber Asylum signed to Misanthropy Records, which was Burzum’s label also. So I heard [Burzum’s 1996 album] Filosofem and it blew me away. I’ve seen many black metal bands live, starting with shows by Mayhem and Enslaved in San Francisco a decade ago, and an Emperor show in L.A. that I saw. So it’s been a passion of mine for quite a while. Living in Baltimore, I go to Maryland DeathFest whenever I can, it’s a huge bonus to living in this city.

When you were younger and listening to black metal, were there moments when you started to question the lyrical content or the comments actions of the musicians?
I was already politicized by being a hardcore/punk kid in high school and by being a philosophy major and a recently out gay man at Berkeley as an undergrad, so by the time I was listening to black metal, I was already quite familiar with the political tug-of-war that goes on in underground extreme music scenes around these issues at the border zone of aesthetics and ethics. The notoriety of, say, Boyd Rice’s flip-flopping around Nazi imagery/racist statements was familiar to me from industrial fandom since I already loved NON’s records but despised his political stances. So I wouldn’t say that black metal posed a new challenge on that score. In some ways, listening to Laibach and NON and Throbbing Gristle had already shown me a spectrum of ways to engage with totalitarianism that ranged from critique and parody to embrace and reification, so this was just more of that, but with longer hair.

Can you talk about the recording of the new album?
I record everything myself, at home in a studio in my basement. It was a very cold winter and I just shivered and stayed up very late at night obsessing about the bass lines and synths. It’s a combination of laptop soft synths and our own collection of analog synths. Owen from Horse Lords played some guitar on one track and I played piano on the Burzum cover, “Rundgang (Fuck Varg’s Racist, Anti-Semetic, Bullshit Politics Forever!),” a bonus track left off of Why Do the Heathen Rage?. I spent endless hours hiding weird little samples and audio “Easter eggs” into each song, little audio jokes for the careful listener to discover. For example, processed vocals from a health department official describing an Ebola outbreak are layered into “Let There Be Ebola Frost.” Doing metal vocals is hilarious, because you’re hearing the music on headphones and your neighbours don’t know that you’re singing along to music, so they just hear this freak next door screaming about Satan. I laughed so much the day I recorded Terrence [Hannum] from Locrian screaming the Darkthrone and Sargeist lyrics, they’re so fucking intense and over the top. For my vocals, I screamed into headphones and used the headphones as a microphone because you get this very gritty, shitty, lo-fi crunch sound when you do that, and it seemed to suit the vibe of Venom really well.

Why did you choose to work with Antony Hegarty, as well as Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak?
They’re both great vocalists with [an] incredibly human, vulnerable presence, but also, just as importantly, they’re friends of mine, people that I know well enough socially and from previous musical collaborations that I felt like they would immediately “get it” and click into place with this project. And they’re both people whose normal musical output is several galaxies removed from heavy metal, so the contrast was appealing. Martin and I have been playing in Antony’s band as part of this Robert Wilson opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, for several years now, and I’ve been hanging out with Jenn socially for several years too, and she also plays in Horse Lords, Baltimore buddies of ours, so it just felt like a comfortable collaboration.

Was it important to find a female to sing Sarcofago’s “Ready to Fuck” in order to disarm the song’s lyrics?
I had made about half of the album and Martin (aka M.C. Schmidt), my boyfriend and partner in Matmos, listened to it and said “It’s very male, you haven’t really taken it to that ‘diva house music’ place yet,” or words to that effect. And I realized that he was right, that I needed to press the point by having a strong female perspective on this music. The lyrics of “Ready to Fuck” are an absurd male fantasy of sexual power and so they’re pretty ripe for satiric flipping. There’s also something wonderfully odd about their use of the English language in those lyrics; “I will lick you of the feets til the head.” What? And I’ve always loved the breakdown in that Sarcofago song on a musical level, it’s such a great riff, so it seemed like a nice combination of strong material with a singer who can really fucking sing her ass off. Jenn really channelled that Donna Summer “Love to Love You Baby” way of singing, I was so stoked when I heard what she had come up with. It was jubilation.

When Terrance Hannum of Locrain guested on the album, did you ask for his opinion on any of the tracks?
He’s a friend, but I was still nervous that he wouldn’t be down, so I sent him my Beherit cover (“Sadomatic Rites”) as a kind of sonic teaser for what this record was going to sound like. I was so glad that he was willing to take part, because his shriek/scream has that elemental power that you need in black metal, and without him, the record wouldn’t be able to hit that. Aesthetically, I really respect his vision, both with Locrian and in his visual art. In fact, I own a multimedia work of his which is a “tape collage,” literally made out of black metal and noise cassette tape glued into a grid on canvas — it’s called “Decay.” Terence was very supportive early on and his belief in the album really reassured me when I was at a point of feeling real doubt about whether anyone but myself would give a fuck.

Can you talk about the opening piece, “Invocation for Strength”?
It’s meant to replace the black metal worship of Satan with an alternate form of pagan queer goddess spirituality that comes from a different context — the “Radical Fairies” subculture. It’s a poem that appeared as the epigram to the text “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture” by activist and provocateur Arthur Evans. So in the place of, say, an invocation to Satan, you have this feminist rant against capitalist alienation that celebrates androgyny and Kali and resistance to male domination and patriarchy. I wanted something that would sonically resemble the intros of black metal albums, but with a radical queer content.

Thrill Jockey [initially didn’t] release images of the album art due to it being of an “extreme violent and sexual nature.” Can you talk a bit about the album cover and some of the controversy surrounding it?
Apparently it has already been rejected by German censors due to the extreme violence, and so the German edition is going to have to cover the artwork. I wanted the record to go to work on you as soon as you look at it. I had a vision of a queer sadomasochistic orgy of black metal guys in corpse paint sucking and fucking in a field of corpses. Happily, Mavado Charon made this a reality. All praise is due to him for his “can do” spirit! As for keeping it a secret, it’s because I’d rather have people see the real thing when it is available in record stores. I want it to be a material experience. It’s a dense image that doesn’t reproduce well if you shrink it down, it needs to be seen face to face — especially on vinyl with the reflective foil layer — in order for it to have that power.

Were you afraid that the album might be taken as a sort of gimmick?
I am comfortable with that category/accusation. I spend a lot of my time listening to things that are derided as “novelty music”: Perrey & Kingsley, Spike Jones, space age bachelor pad music by Enoch Light, and so that category is not a threat to me. I always think it’s interesting that there’s this sense that some music is not “real” or “serious” and to me those designators can be compared in interesting ways to the discourse that used to surround queer people — that queers were somehow “arrested” in their developmental progress towards mature heterosexual completeness.

You could argue that novelty music is the queer misfit within the world of music; it’s the abject music that refuses to comply with the protocols of high self-seriousness and musical expression that real music is bound up with. That said, I am hopeful that the detailed execution of the covers on a musical level should make it clear that I’m not a casual or contemptuous tourist here. I love and respect these songs as songs and the formal care that I’ve taken should, I hope, lead people to grant it some grudging respect, even if they hate what I’ve done. But really, that’s up to them.

In which ways do black metal speak to you on a personal level?
The obsessions with extreme scenarios of extinction, annihilation and mass death which surge throughout black metal are, to me, deeply congruent with the kind of scenarios that we know as a species that we are heading towards if we don’t deal with climate change and the effects of overpopulation and unbridled global capitalism. So for me, the dark fantasies of black metal are also a vision of our planetary future. That’s not “personal,” it’s species wide in its implications. I guess the feelings of rage and despair in black metal are, for me, familiar feelings too.

Trust | Exclaim! | March 2014


Dancing in the Dark

TrustDancing in the Dark

When Trust released TRST, their 2012 debut album, many critics and fans conveniently placed the Toronto duo into a specific category; synth-pop-structured, clubby electronic music created by a goth fanatic and a member of Austra. But with the release of the sophomore album, Joyland, Robert Alfons has seemingly broken down these misconceptions. Now the sole project of Alfons (Austra’s Maya Postepski left shortly after the release of the first album),Joyland is a rich tapestry of pop melodies and crisp production that seem more relevant for the dance floor in a pop-up club than the futon of a dark basement. Alfons talks the recording of his new album, finding his confidence and the merits of mainstream pop music.

Where am I talking to you from?
I’m in Montreal, at a studio. We’re in rehearsal right now.

Can you give us a bit of background on yourself?
Trust’s first performance was four years ago, which is crazy to me. I live in Toronto, I grew up in Winnipeg, which is a little different scenario than Toronto. My sister was a musician, my aunt listened to a lot of pop music, I guess these were my musical influences as a kid. I just sort have always been keeping those musical things on the peripheral.

Did you move to Toronto specifically to start a career in music?
Yeah, in a sort of not-linear trajectory. But I definitely moved there to try to figure things out.

Was it always electronic music that you’ve been playing?
I guess I’m like a piano player but I’ve always been attracted to electronic music and that’s been the most direct relation to how I make music.

Can you talk a bit about the new album? How is it different from your debut?
A lot of it was written in different places in the world while touring, which changes the energy of the song. Whereas the first album was written in Toronto, where every week we had a writing session, and this one, there was a lot of energy from the live shows, being in hotter climates and I think I had a boost of confidence as well, which allowed me to really go full force with releasing different characters and experimenting with my vocal range and that sort of thing.

The first album received much acclaim. Did that confidence help shape the energy of this album?
I guess those accolades helped me get audiences and to be able to play these shows. I can be really hard on myself, but especially with creative things, it’s so easy to never ever show anybody the song, or for me it is. So, it’s a miracle that I even worked hard enough the present the record, but it gave me enough confidence to continue moving it and finish these ideas.

Do you think that if your first album had went completely unheard and unappreciated, that the new album would have sounded any different?
That’s a good question, I never thought of it in that way. I think it’s just the support has definitely allowed me to continue doing it.

I guess this good fortune has presented you the opportunity to play with a lot of other musicians and artists. Did you take anything from these experiences?
Yeah, absolutely. Maybe not exactly just musicians, but I think I’ve made a lot of really great friends from around the world; like a friend who’s a booker, a friend who does graphic work. So, not necessarily musicians, but it’s really nice to see how big and yet how small the world is. But I guess you have all of these like-minded people all over the place. But, yeah, I’ve definitely made some really good friends around the world just from being able to tour and make music.

So, where did you record the new album?
I recorded it on the road, I recorded it last summer when I settled down in Toronto, yeah, mostly those places.

Now, with the latest technology, you can record right when those ideas come to you, as opposed to ten or 20 years ago, where if you had an idea it would have to sit with you and possibly mutate until you got into a recording studio. Do you prefer this new method?
Yeah, I think it’s brilliant that you can just get to the idea right away or just put down the idea and leave it for another day. I was reading this David Byrne book (How Music Works) and in the first chapter he talks about how space influences and shapes different culture’s music, which is way beyond what I’m doing but it’s so true. But if I’m in Argentina and I’m excited about everything that’s going on there and I want to make a song, if I wait until I’m back in winter, it’s not going to come out the way I want it to. And there were a bunch of songs I started when I went on a trip to Argentina and I think that vibe would have come if I made a note to come write that song later.

I think there’s definitely immediacy to the album. Do you think that’s what led to the pop elements being more prominent this time around?
I guess I just wanted to embrace that side of it a little bit more, I think it’s just that there’s a lot more pop music and dance music that I’m excited about and I wanted to just hit that influence.

Pop music is really prominent in modern electronic and underground music at the moment, which wasn’t really wasn’t the case 20 years ago. It seemed like there was more of a defined line between mainstream pop music and underground indie music.
But that’s not true, because Sonic Youth did (side project with Mike Watt) Ciccone Youth, they did Madonna covers (on 1988’s The Whitey Album), which is an awesome record.

Certainly, but I always looked at that project as irony. Do you feel that you can still make emotional, authentic pop music?
Yeah, none of it’s irony, for me it’s real. Some of my favourite moments of my life are dancing at a club, and it could be what some person might consider a guilty pleasure, but to me it’s just a brilliant song and I definitely lean towards emotional songs and melodies and that sort of thing. So, none of it’s irony, it’s total heart. I guess these things always happen, where things get overturned and then reinvented but I guess that there’s definitely vapid pop music, for sure. I mean, it’s definitely out there… and sometimes enjoyable. But there is also pop music that comes from a deeper place, or it means more. There’s been artists that have made poppier music and it certainly challenged the idea of what pop music is, or in my opinion it has, if I’m thinking of those artists. Yeah, I’ve grown up with pop music all around me and I think it’s just a real influence for me.

Do you feel that too many people are doing the same thing; incorporating mainstream pop music into electronic and indie rock?
I guess I could voice my opinion but I’m not super with on what’s going on all the time. It’s a trend, I guess? I know that not in any way, shape or form that this album is shaped by R&B and that’s a big thing. I know in indie music, a lot of people are inspired by R&B and hip-hop beats and I will certainly say that this album is not influenced by R&B or hip-hop, which I like, but I just wasn’t an influence.

Can you talk a bit about Maya’s departure from the group?
Yeah, it was something that was years in the making, I guess, because from the start she was already involved with another project (Austra) and they got signed, so it was always sort of second for her. Around the release of the first record is when she departed and a lot of those songs on the first record were old songs of mine so in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel too different for me. I kinda had a clear vision of what I wanted from that first record and again from the second one.

Was she more of an auxiliary player in the group?
Yeah, I think that we would get together and process ideas. But the start of the band was really me bringing old songs of mine. She’s an amazing drummer, I remember seeing her play live as a drummer and it was really exciting for me to collaborate with someone who understood that world better.

A lot of press you’ve gotten seems to mention your distinctive style of singing. Where does that come from? Because it’s obviously not your speaking voice.
Of course it’s influences, but also it’s an instrument. Like any other sort of instrument, you sort of have to figure it out and work on it. I guess I’ve always been singing and wanted to challenge it, but maybe the fact that I can sing in a super high range is maybe something that’s not going to happen in the next 20 years, maybe it’s going to change and it has changed over the course of my life too but it’s just an instrument and it’s my favourite instrument I guess.

That’s true. Production-wise, I find that you really bury your vocals sometimes.
Yeah, sometimes it’s not about the vocals and sometimes it is.

I find that you seem not overly concerned with verses in your songs, the vocals are usually pushed down into the mix, but I find that you like the choruses of your songs to be, vocal-wise, bombastic and loud.
That’s interesting, I never really thought of it that way.

Your singing voice has been described as “goth-y,” do you come across people who think that the person on the cover of your debut album was actually you?
Yeah, constantly, which I love.

Who is that person?
It was just a picture I took of somebody at a club.

Were you afraid that that photo would pigeonhole your music as goth-inspired?
I guess I didn’t understand what it would mean but I’m definitely inspired by a lot of goth and industrial music and it obviously comes through in the music. I just obviously loved that picture and it doesn’t feel as just a goth picture to me, there’s many more layers and I think it’s a gorgeous picture. I can see that the branding was putting it in one direction but if you listen to the albums from start to finish, you’ll see that there’s so many more things going on.

Tinariwen | Exclaim! | February, 2014


Far From Home

TinariwenFar From Home

To call Tinariwen survivors would be a gross understatement. A group of nomadic musicians from the Sahara desert region of Mali, Tinariwen’s ever (r)evolving cast has endured extreme political strife in their homeland, the death of two of their members and the recent arrest of guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamida, who was taken in for “playing the devil’s music.” Celebrating their 35th year as a musical group, Tinariwen have once again been forced to flee their country, relocating to Joshua Tree, California to record their stunningly ethereal sixth full-length, Emmaar. Bassist Eyadou Ag Leche spoke with Exclaim!, through a translator, about his band’s recent struggles, the transcending language of music and their mysterious ban from Canada.

Where are we talking to you from?
From Paris, we are just coming back from NYC and a full promo week there.

Although your band has found significant acclaim in North America, I find that most people still find Tinariwen very mysterious and exotic. Can you give some background on how your band was formed?
We’ve been always playing music, it is part of the Touareg culture, of our way of life. Since the early ’60s and the new borders, the political situation for our people has never been safe to live in peace, we have been facing long periods of exile.

Can you talk about the obstacles your band had to overcome to get your music heard across the world?
The obstacles of the current situation are not only towards working musicians but towards all of our community. We want our music to be help spread the message about our people suffering, looking for freedom and peace, but our songs have always been also about love, our environment, poetry… we want both messages to be spread.

Tell me a bit about the recording of Emmaar, your new album.
We recorded Emmaar in the desert of Joshua Tree, live recording in a house, as our Sahara was not secured for our crew, and choosing a desert was a natural choice for us. We invited musicians we met during our previous tours, same as we did with TV on the Radio for [2011’s] Tassili, our previous album. We invited Saul Williams, Josh Klinghoffer [of Red Hot Chili Peppers], Matt Sweeney [of Chavez], Fats Kaplin, and Vance Powell mixed the album. Recording far from home was new for us but doing it in a desert was a help for feeling good, thanks to the landscapes, and the freedom feelings.

Can you talk about working with these musicians?
We invited them as we met them on tour, it is always a pleasure to meet other musicians, sharing experience and music feelings and watching them getting into our music, we have great fun jamming and composing with other musicians.

Many of the musicians you played with can’t speak French. How do you communicate with them?
In our Touareg culture, in the desert, we are used to speaking with the eyes. Talking is not always necessary. Music is a universal language and this is through this language we communicate with musicians from other countries, which works great!

Where does the title Emmaar come from?
Emmaar means the heat of the desert breeze and the heat while approaching a fire camp; far enough to not get burnt and close enough to feel the heat. It is a metaphor of the situation happening in our lands; the tension before the war, the revolution. The album is about the situation in our lands, the freedom and peace we are looking for, and always about love, poetry and our environment; the desert.

A lot of North African music seems to be heavily based on American blues music. What is it about the blues that influences you and so many musicians in your region?
American blues themes are close to ours; suffering, love, exile. This music talk to our souls.

What would you say is the biggest misconception North Americans have about your band?
Maybe that our songs are only about the conflict in our lands. Our songs are also about love, nature.

Mali is currently facing overwhelming political strife, can you educate us on what’s happening and how it’s affected your band?
It all started in the early ’60s after the decolonization and Malian borders drawn by France. Since then, the Touareg community, Northern Mali, have been facing critical economical difficulties; no help from Bamako, no recognition of independence of our territory Asawad. Several rebellions happened, no evolution and the current conflict is the result of these past decades. Meanwhile, Islamists have taken advantage of the troubled situation while our community is only looking for freedom and peace. When not touring these past months, some of us have been staying in Southern Algeria; safer place, others moving between south Algeria, Northern Mali, Niger, Mauritania.

What was your impression of Canada and the Canadian people the first time you visited?
We always love meeting other cultures and their people. We were pleased to meet Canadian people of course. Unfortunately, we’ve banned from the country in 2011 and do not know the reason why.

Can you explain how you found out that you were banned?
We were supposed to play shows in 2011, several music festivals, while we were touring our album Tassili but we’ve been refused the visas. We never had any further explanations, and no ones knows if we could get another chance to come. It is sad, we want to meet again Canadians and many Canadians ask for it.

You were raised in the Sahara desert region where you were surrounded by open space. Your album artwork and videos often embrace that natural beauty. Do you ever feel claustrophobic touring North American and Europe?
We feel always nostalgic about our land and our environment. It is part of us; Assouf, our nostalgia.

Your band has written about “Assouf” on your last album. Can you elaborate on what “Assouf” means?
Assouf means the nostalgia, it is the thoughts of our people, home… linked to the exile.

You and your bandmates have experienced and witnessed much strife in your homeland. How does your band stay positive and hopeful in the light of this peril?
We want to spread the message that our people have been suffering for a long time now, it is important for us and our community that the world knows about it. We hope political agreements will be found soon though, but nothing is done still, we only want freedom, peace and respect for our rights and our territory.