Absolutely against nostalgia: An interview with Rami Abadir on his new release
 
 

Kamila Metwaly: Let’s start with the album. How did you work on it, and how has it evolved into this final version?

Rami Abadir: I started working on it in October 2015. It was a lot of work — I could get carried away for six hours daily. Most sounds were made using one machine, Elektron’s Monomachine, which was suitable for the sounds I wanted to produce. Gradually, I found myself going for ambient, minimal and atmospheric. I started focusing more on certain details, like playing with white noise, sine waves and FM synthesis. My aim eventually was to revisit my old work and start fresh.

I took time off music for almost a year, no live performances or new releases. I focused more on theory and reading about music production. That’s when I started looking for new sounds.

The first tracks I made were 5:24230 lbs, and Sine_Z. They share similar ideas in terms of structure, pattern, transition, the live element and sound in general. Then I decided to play them live to see people’s reaction, during the first Mapping Possibilities event in January, in cooperation with Islam Shabana, Nurah Farahat, Amr al-Alami, Mustafa Onsy and Youssef Abouzeid.

KM: Was the event successful? Were you motivated by the reaction to release a full album?

RA: It was, and I was very encouraged to keep working that way. I focused on the same sounds and similar ideas. One good thing was that I consciously challenged and limited myself to use only two machines: Elektron’s Monomachine and the Octatrack sampler, also by Elektron.

KM: What was your set-up before that?

RA: I always used to work with a million machines, but all the sounds I produced were somewhat conventional — that’s why I decided to revisit them and come up with new sounds.

KM: Tell us more about these new sounds and how you created them.

RA: The snare and hats were made mainly from white noise. Many other sounds like the bass were made from sine waves. The abstraction was intentional. I limited myself — less is more, as they say. By the end of the album I felt it was the first time I’d been able to use one coherent narrative, with a well-rounded idea paving the way for the next project.

KM: Do you see this as a new making-music phase?

RA: Yes exactly. The album made me want to dig deeper into abstract ambient and glitch sounds, which seems to be the main element during this phase.

KM: You keep referring to this album as a personal one. Why is it important that this album specifically is personal? Was that less important for you before?

RA: If I’m going to be self-critical, I’d say my ideas have evolved a bit. I used to see music as something strictly material, and in a very dogmatic way. I had a technical approach to melodies, dealing with them as intangible things. Since they were intangible, they couldn’t possibly express anything whatsoever.

KM: Had you always thought that way?

RA: No, only when I started making electronic music. I think it’s because my own background in life is strictly material and I only deal with tangible things. I felt like applying this to music, so I started treating it as an independent entity, isolated from social and personal contexts. I saw it as a set of melodies or sounds that can’t express an experience, event or concept. It’s well known that music is an extremely abstract art form in terms of expression, because it lacks the visual, relying only on hearing. Melodies and sounds can’t be seen or touched, and art forms that can be seen are easier to perceive. This made me focus only on the technical side. In short, I think I lacked visuals and imagination then. That was a mistake and that’s the stagnation I was talking about.

KM.: What made you change your mind?

RA: I wanted to try, for a change, imagining a visual that reflects a personal experience, a scene, a situation or a point in time, and see how this would affect my music. I found myself unknowingly taking a personal approach. I think it had a positive impact on the album. And revisiting my old work, I found that I was more satisfied with works I’d made for visual content, like Nadine Salib’s film Umm Ghayib (Mother of the Unborn) and dance performances.

KM: So the process became more personal, and the track titles too, right?

RA: That’s true. The titles are like codes that refer to specific things: feelings, things I fear, for example, or situations, like I said. This isn’t a concept album, but each track has an idea, and these ideas led me to totally unexpected places. But translating ideas and feelings into sounds isn’t easy — I think expressing them through lyrics and vocals would be easier. And when there’s some sort of abstraction here, it’s even more difficult to translate or recreate them as mere sounds.

I’m not interested in having vocals in my music. To be frank, I used to use certain clichés or samples to in place of vocals. I wanted to create something that would attract the listener. But I actually found that this was just to fill in the gaps, which reveals that the personal element was non-existent.

KM: What influenced you most while making this album? Did you listen to certain music or artists?

RA: I think what influenced me the most was the break I took, and reevaluating my previous work. It made me ask many questions, like: Why am I making this music to begin with? And for whom? On the technical level, I asked myself questions regarding sounds, how they’re formed and why I have them in my music, trying to break my self-inflicted limitations. Electronic music is made of sounds. It doesn’t matter how you make them, they’re still sounds. But how do you actually use them? I felt I used to use them in a quite traditional way, and when I took time off I realized more keenly what I really want.

I also started to listen more. Even if you keep listening to the greatest bands and musicians, you can always get stuck somewhere. To get out of that, I started listening to many things, discovering stuff I’d never heard of. Reading also helped me understand certain approaches to music production. The main goal I set before working on this album was for listeners to think that this is a different artist, not the one who made the other stuff.

KM: Why do you want to bury the other artist?

RA: Not exactly bury him, as much not wanting to be stuck in the same place. I think good bands or artists are those who keep developing, going through many formation phases. This takes time, revisits, self-criticism and lots of work.

Back to your question on influences: Steve Reich is a great influence for me. His influence doesn’t have to do with the music itself as much as the way it’s made. I mean, I started to think in a minimal way in terms of production and aesthetics.

Another artist who’s influenced me recently is Robert Henke/Monolake — a great musician! He had a great influence on me, especially in how sounds are recognized and how one can work with sounds in a different, untraditional way, particularly with glitches. How can I transform annoying sounds into music? What’s the point of making music that includes some kind of experimentation, to end up making sounds we’ve heard a million times?

KM:  You’ve always said analog is better in terms of sound and product. Why did you work with digital tools this time? And is working with analog machines really that important, given that listeners today don’t sense the difference and usually don’t even own speakers that help make that distinction?

RA: That digital vs. analog idea is one the things I’ve reconsidered. What I’ve concluded recently is that music really has nothing to do with whether you’ve worked on a digital or analog synth, using software or hardware. There are people who make electronic music using a laptop and produce great stuff, like AutechreAlva Noto or Monolake. Autechre started with analog machines before discovering the Max MSP 7 in the late 1990s, in 2005 they went back to analog, and later back to the Max MSP. Actually, the only things I care about, as a listener, are the music and the final product, not the machines used.

Talking about analog and digital, there’s also one thing I find fucking annoying: the audiophile concept, like talking about the difference between vinyl and MP3, and how vinyl sound is purer and better. Even if this was true, that’s not the way to assess music. And to realize the difference, the listener doesn’t only need a great playout, but also outstanding speakers!

I think the point is for music to reach the listener, it doesn’t matter whether on vinyl or as MP3. I really don’t care about these things. I read about a very interesting experiment, probably on Future Music or Sound on Sound: they played some tracks for a group of people and asked them to describe what they’ve heard. People started making up some weird shit. They were really confident about what they said and most answers were wrong, unfortunately — it’s really funny. So in the end we’re listening to music, sounds. What matters to me is the quality of sound, production, composition, mixing and mastering, and whether I really like what I’m hearing in general.

KM: I want to ask about the sounds on the album that slightly resemble toy sounds. I don’t really get it, but I feel they’ve been with you for a while. Why choose such sounds, and what do they mean for you?

RA: I didn’t use those sounds much in my old work. They were also based on a conscious decision — that interest in how glitches can be used to make music. In a way, it’s seeking the aesthetics of failure, which [US electronic composer] Kim Cascone talks about, and how to make a piece using sounds like toys, bit-reduction, Atari, glitches or microscopic sounds.

In 230 lbs and Sine_Z you keep hearing clicking sounds, like a broken electronic device or a continuous error message on a computer. I wanted to see how I could make something out of these glitches. The things I used to make before had broad and clear sounds, they were easier for listeners but never challenged them or me.

KM: Apart from that, did you record additional samples to work with?

RA: Yes, there’s additional things in ES_ARE. There’s a door slam at the end, and the sound of a car’s exhaust pipe in ERA SE 00, and sounds from a metalwork shop. I wanted to adopt a sound design approach with these samples, to get the feeling of a soundtrack, and to have interactive sounds, not just electronic ones. In the first track, for example, there are snapping sounds I made using my fingers and a pen on a table. I recorded them with my cellphone, and edited them on the Octatrack. This method has been there since the 1940s, but it was nice for me to work a bit with it.

KM: In ERA_SE 00 in particular you seem influenced by soundtracks. The first score that came to my mind was Edward Artemiev’s for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker [1979] — because you were increasingly using experimental, industrial and minimal sounds, and you created a kind of tension in the music, as if making a film score, with a hint of nostalgia. Have you thought about focusing more on making soundtracks rather than albums? Why does your music have this soundtrack effect?

RA: I’m actually absolutely against nostalgia. I’m not sure I agree with you on this. Generally speaking, yes, I’m interested in making soundtracks and sound design for films. I made the score for Mother of the Unborn in 2014, and the film won several awards, including the Rotterdam Film Festival Award. I was very much influenced by David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It’s one of my favorite films. It isn’t nostalgic at all, but if I see it today it has the same effect it had on me when I watched it in the 1980s or 1990s. This film is very representative of the time we’re living in now, so in this track I was influenced by that film, and I wanted to reflect how it felt, or recreate it with music.

KM: This album seems to adopt two styles, a bit of dance and a bit of imagination with emphasis on visuals. How important is the visual element for you while making music?

RA: I think the best classification for this album would be IDM [intelligent dance music], not dance. Most work I feel good about was in collaboration with visual and performance artists or filmmakers. So I guess having an image inspires me and makes me more productive.

KM: Before the interview we talked about vocalists in general, in Egypt and other Arab countries. Why haven’t you ever worked with vocalists?

RA: I have a problem with vocalists in general. I have a problem with the concept of vocals in our region — it seems to me it’s the only area in music which never develops, involving a great deal of pretention, reproduction and imitation. Only a few manage to truly develop. I’d really like to listen to a vocalist who sings the way they talk, in a natural unpretentious way. I think that’s where many vocalists fall short.

There are many examples in what’s been dubbed “contemporary Egyptian music” — an absurd term that’s been around since the 2000s — like when a vocalist sings Arabic lyrics with an American accent and western tunes. It’s devastating! Modes of singing are heavily affected by language and articulation. [Hungarian composer] Béla Bartók talked about that. Many Arab rock bands sing Arabic lyrics in a pretentious way. The lyrics may be fine, but they sing with western intonations, letting music fall into the fusion trap. I’m not against anyone making any kind of music, but this fusion thing drives me mad and I think it’s very reactionary. Fusion artists take the easy way out, merging overused methods and obvious clichés and patterns from several genres, accompanied with Arabic lyrics: a bit of jazz, a bit of rock, some oriental instruments like the lute, or dabkeh merged with electronic music, and they call it electro-dabkeh for example. Or a Sufi vocalist singing to electronic music. It’s exoticizing, like making mulukhiyah flavor ice cream — very tacky. Who are you and what do you want? You’re not convincing.

I’m not against making music from a different culture, I’m against fusion. That hybrid product fails eventually, it’s transient and dies quickly. Successful music endures.

KM: But it’s impossible to sing the way we talk.

RA: It isn’t. Some people sing the way they talk.

KM: Like who?

RA: [US musician] David Byrne, for example. He sings exactly the same way he talks in his interviews, naturally and spontaneously. Some of the few people in the region who I think are convincing and sing in a genuine and spontaneous way are Youssef Abouzeid from PanSTARRS and Abyusif.

KM: Let’s go back to Rami, the album and choosing a record label. Why did you sign with the Canadian D.M.T. Records? Was there no label in the Arab world you could work with? Or did it have to do with target audience?

RA: I started looking for a foreign label because there’s no development in the Egyptian or Arab electronic scene, there’s no room for this genre in Egypt except online, and that’s not enough. Electronic music isn’t something new internationally, it started in the 1940s or maybe before that. Others have acknowledged it, but we’re still struggling with it. If we compare the situation here with other international scenes, we’re way behind in our music style, taste and ideas.

In 2005, it started to be slightly acknowledged here with the founding of 100Copies. It was very promising — the electronic music scene was quite small, but that was normal. But I felt this wave didn’t build up. New artists and great ventures like VENT emerged later — that was the most positive thing that’s happened. However, when VENT closed it set things back again. The small audience went back to their homes and musicians went back to their home studios, relying mainly on the internet. Everything’s deadlocked and that’s very sad. There’s no critical activity, no venues, no music magazines except Ma3zef.com — let alone record labels, which are almost non-existent. In short, there’s no real scene, but we’re still trying. So it was very normal to start setting a goal on another level, targeting not only Egyptian listeners, but also international listeners, who would acknowledge, appreciate and criticize this music. My music is now available online, if anyone in Egypt wants to buy or listen to it, they can find the album on Bandcamp or Beatport. That’s why I decided to send my music to D.M.T. The co-founder, Samuel Gagnon, liked the music and was excited about it.

KM: Yes, they called you “A wonder from Egypt.”

RA: Yes [laughs]. This motivated me more to continue working with the label. I definitely wanted to work with a label that likes my music.

KM: If you played the album live, would it be different?

RA: As I said, I played parts from it in Mapping Possibilities. There were many things in that performance which weren’t included in the final recorded version. A recorded album becomes entirely different when played live. When recording you have the freedom to play and make changes as you wish. Live performance adds limitations to the number of tracks or the sounds I produce from each machine, so naturally it was more minimal on stage. There was an interaction with visual artist Islam Shabana; it was more improvised based on the interaction with his visuals. If I play the album live again, I’d want it to be 100 percent live. I don’t want any playbacks. The thing is, if I play the album exactly as it was recorded I might as well press play and sit with the audience, check my mail or play with my phone while it plays [laughs]. Live performance should add new dimensions for me and the audience, recreating the music in a different way.

KM: Can you tell me more about your collaboration with Omar al-Abd in Live From Omar’s Desk?

RA: Working with Omar came about by chance, and I think chance plays a very important role in music. I was at his place, showing him my new synth, and he said: “Look, we’re going to record.” I was surprised, but I went for it. Omar’s releasing a new album soon — I think this year even. I really respect his work — he’s one of the people I can work with. We agree on certain points in terms of ideas and music. Omar is one of the few people with whom I can have long discussions about music. We consult each other about our works. I can talk openly with him and get his feedback.

KM: What’s strange is that both you and Omar come from a pure rock/progressive background. What happened? What made you take on electronic music?

RA: I reached a dead end. I was so tired of the music I used to play. As I started working with different tools, I discovered a whole new world. But, unfortunately, when I first started using these tools I stayed in my comfort zone. Only now I am gradually starting to come out of that restricted area. I was limited to certain sounds and ideas and it took me sometime to break free.

KM: How did you fund yourself, buy equipment and produce this album all by yourself? Have you tried getting any funds or grants?

RA: No, I didn’t try to get funding. I paid for this album myself, and it was almost nothing. Producing an album isn’t that expensive anymore. It’s 2016, anyone can make music at home without any funds. The laptop’s there, and you can get music software online for free, so DIY music and online releases without funds is possible. Besides, I’m not really interested in getting funds, since my job has been covering my music budget so far. If I start applying for grants or funds I’d be taking the opportunity from someone who might need it, and that would be selfish. I also think the idea of funding somehow obstructs the music scene. No music scene thrives on funds. The most robust scenes here, like hip hop, mahraganat and metal, have absolutely nothing to do with grants. Fighting over grants to produce an album or something of the sort is ridiculous.

KM: But do you really think it’s your responsibility to fund yourself? You wouldn’t be taking a fund for personal expenses, but to afford time to make music.

RA: I think as long as I can fund myself, why shouldn’t I? There are others who can’t do that, and they have the right to look for funds. On the other hand, I do think the audience should support artists financially to sustain themselves, but that’s another story.

KM: As you said, this album starts and ends with a beginning. But it’s not exactly a beginning, it’s a sort of a continuation. What do you have in mind next?

RA: I’m planning to collaborate with certain people, which won’t necessarily result in an album or EP release. But it’s going to be an important phase, marking the end of my isolated work on this album. Meanwhile, I’ll definitely continue, taking ideas from this album to build a new work on it. I think it’s going to be more abstract, but I still want it to be a continuation of this album and a development for me. For me, it is a beginning.

This interview was first published in Arabic on Ma3azef.com.

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