Driven by experimentation, a desire for expression, and chance, Coke Machine’s lo-fi airy reveries push the boundaries of melancholy, sometimes in a manner that seems inaccessible.
While listening, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m standing on the edges, fingers splayed on the glass, watching something emotional take place. And while my presence isn’t particularly unwelcome, I’m not necessarily invited.
Established by 23-year-old artist Zeina Aly and 22-year-old musician Kamal Tabikha last year, Coke Machine is inspired by indie pioneers like the Raveonettes, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Cat Power and Beach House, but their songs don’t seem to aim to replicate the sounds of their influences, nor does the band seem confined to the musical tastes of its members.
Their first dream pop EP Something To Do (2013) has a mellow, ethereal vibe and pensive lyrics. There’s a DIY feel to the recordings, which is also present on their later releases, Eurodeli Dreams (2014) and Post Coke (2014), though the sound of later releases seems more developed and diverse.
From the folk-tinged simplicity of The Trees Do Not Ask Me For Much to the fluid ambience of Pools, in which Aly’s voice drags you into a gravelly trance, you don’t really know what to expect with each song.
“To be honest, I think people like us because our music is weird, and people here tend to be interested in things that are strange,” Tabikha laughs.
Lounging in his soon-to-be former apartment (I caught him on moving day) in Zamalek, they seem amused by the mere act of being interviewed. While Aly cuts her hair in a room strewn with laptops and instruments, they tell me how they went from covers recorded on phones and mixed on GarageBand to their hopes for playing live.
Aly and Tabikha became friends at the American University in Cairo, after she asked him for paint during an art class. Tabikha, the more technical of the two, studied music theory at AUC and has played various instruments, including guitar and piano, for a number of years. Aly, hailing from the contemporary art world, has no prior music experience, but, as Tabikha puts it, has a strongly felt “artistic perspective” that easily adapted to musical endeavors.
They had always talked about making music, and after one fateful cover of Cat Power’s Sea of Love, played in different rooms in the dark out of nervousness, Coke Machine was born.
“I didn’t know I could sing. I mean, last time I sang was in third grade choir,” Aly says, smiling.
Driven by a frustration at the place they found themselves at in their lives, a shared love for music and a desire to express their disillusionment creatively, the duo took a chance with their home recordings and began uploading their tracks.
“We had an idea, and what we had in mind was so different from what came out. But it sounded good, so we went with it,” Tabikha said. “The sound changes with every song we record. I feel like a lot of it is by accident.”
Aly is the main writer of the emotional, layered and, at times, darkly humored lyrics, which she molds into sedated, reverbed melody lines onto Tabikha’s riffs or chord sequences.
The open-ended nature of the tracks makes classifying Coke Machine’s music difficult, a task the band doesn’t seem to care for much either. Tabikha cites limited technical ability as the reason for the lack of a defined sound, a situation he describes as a “double-edged sword.” The loose nature of their process, given the limits of their skills, can be both liberating and stifling.
“It works in our favor, but we may sometimes come off as simplistic or untrained,” he says.
“It can be like writing an interview without having a pen,” Aly quips, referring to my lack of journalistic preparedness at the time.
But an organic punk-feel permeates all of Coke Machine’s doings. The band’s name came as haphazardly as their songs: A lyric off Gimme Hell, the Jesus and Mary Chain track that Aly had made reference to back in 2011 as her preferred choice should the two ever embark on a music project.
The duo were surprised with the encouragement received after they uploaded their first EP, both tracks of which were recorded at EPIC 101 studios.
“We were getting in a cab to go to the studio two days after we put it up, and my phone started blowing up with new followers,” Tabikha says. “It was really weird.”
“Everyone wanted to help out,” Aly says. “People approached us wanting to play or record with us.”
“I was really surprised by how friendly everyone was. I was expecting everyone to be stuck-up, because musicians tend to have egos,” Tabikha adds.
For Aly, who also designs the band’s quirky album art, this was a vastly different experience from her interaction with the art scene in Cairo and Alexandria. An alumni of the MASS Alexandria art study program, she describes feeling alienated by the contemporary art world.
“Art in Egypt exists in a vacuum. There’s no feedback, there’s no dialogue, nobody writes about art seriously,” she says. “Another artist isn’t going to come up to you and ask to collaborate, or even start a discussion about art.”
The music scene has given their work validation and a chance to grow, despite the industry’s small size and limited resources. Both cite PanSTARRS and Living Too Late as local influences, and as being particularly supportive so far. The duo have been approached by other musicians expressing an interest in collaborating after hearing the first EP, which Aly says has made the project become more real for her.
“It’s like the music scene is on steroids, it’s all happening so fast,” Tabikha says. “It’s underdeveloped, but I like it in all its grittiness.”
“When it’s something that’s this small, it’s interesting to watch it grow,” Aly adds. “With the art scene, it’s massive, but there’s been such a slump, and it’s really hard to come out of something that big.”
“I still don’t understand who listens to our music,” she jokes, or doesn’t. “I don’t even know if I like it.”
Hoping to exist soon outside of the Internet and bedrooms, Coke Machine have aspirations to perform their first show. When asked about their plans for the future, Aly says that they’d like to cover Britney Spears.