Hi Siavash, how’s 2019 treating you so far? What have you been up to?
It’s been a mixed bag, But focusing on the positive, I have three releases for this year and played two shows in Europe late April and early May; the highlight being the Hallow Ground 5th Anniversary show in which I played a quadrophonic set along with three other amazing artists.
So when did you first become interested in music? Has it always been a lifelong passion for you?
Well, I grew up in a family in which music and films both played a very important role. Although none of my family had an artistic background, I found myself immersed in movies and music from an early age. My dream was to become a director at first but all that changed when my parents bought me my first guitar when I was 12-13. That’s when the true obsession began. I don’t remember a day after that year that I spent not thinking about music, obsessively listening to everything I could get my hands on or practicing for long hours. It’s still the same.
When you record music, do you try to capture anything in particular?
It really depends on each project as I tend to focus on a specific concept or idea for each album.
What drew you to this instrumental style?
It was my first encounter with ECM producing jazz albums when I was in first year of high school. It got me hooked on the powers of instrumental music. The instrumental music I was used to growing up with until that time was basically Shostakovich and Beethoven, with some Mozart in between and a lot of prog rock instrumentals; I thought they all lacked something, but the first time I listened to a Garbarek album something clicked, I don’t remember exactly what was it but in many ways it started me on the path I’m on today. It was so expressive and at the same time mindful of the negative space around it. I remember it was a collaboration album with Miroslav Vitous called Atmos. After that it’s a slippery slope of me getting to electronic music through Massive Attack, IDM and ambient and at the same time electro-acoustic and musique concrete that was made by GRM-affiliated composers. I think I figured out, at least in a very basic way, what I wanted to do after Storm Leaves Us Quietly, circa 2010-211 (it was released in 2012) but I was very far from what I had in mind and I still think I’m nowhere near it! But I’ve enjoyed every album and experience along the way.
What in your mind has been the toughest record you’ve created? In terms of physical or mental strain, effort, and creativity. Do you find that there tends to be more ‘substance’ when composing darker music as opposed to lighter sounds? And what properties do you find in a ‘dark’ sound?
The most difficult one in terms of the emotional toll it took on me was definitely Gospel. I couldn’t make any music for a few months after it was finished and I don’t think I have completely recovered from that album. One of the things I do for every project is put myself through the emotional headspace of the ideas concerning the subject matter, especially in the case of my collaborations with Matt. Then I start to lay out whole images, situations and spaces. While living that emotional side I try to express them through sound and music as best as I can. Gospel was one of the most hellish emotional and imagistic experiences of my life. As a technically difficult one, I have to say the project I’ve been working on since last May and just finished. Can’t reveal too much but hopefully something you’ll here late next year at the earliest.
I don’t differentiate between sound worlds or even individual sounds as dark or light in a general sense, but for example for a project like SERUS, where different degrees of light and its link to perception was concerned, this distinction is very valid. For me, the presence of darkness was created as a negative space surrounding the sounds, so no matter how much the sounds become dim, there are no sounds that represent the darkness. Everything happens in darkness but each sound is a representation of a degree of light or familiarity. It is born out of darkness, it alludes to it and it also creates it as a parallel that envelopes the more luminescent objects.
It must be interesting to collaborate with different artists. Do you find that you tend to learn from one another during the process? Does the music take over, or do you usually have a general direction or idea before you begin? On top of that, what is the collaboration process like for you?
I love working with other artists, be it musicians, visual artists, etc. I find it very rewarding. Some of it may not be connected to music at all. I have made a lot of great friends along the way. I think it’s one of the best ways to grow as an artist and as a human being. It will get you out of your shell and teaches you to let go of your prejudices and set ways in a very positive way.
For each collaboration the most important part is to listen to what the other party thinks of the project and try your best to implement their vision into yours without going anywhere you really don’t want to go. It’s a delicate thing, but you have to give new approaches that you are not comfortable with a chance and be patient.
Which musicians have influenced your music and worldview? What music did you like when you were growing up, and have those songs or artists entered into your own music in some way, shape, or form?
It differs as to what period of my life we’re talking about; the influences are numerous and in many cases contrasting. As I said, the whole ECM jazz sound had a very big influence on me when I was in high school but at the same time I played in a metal band and was obsessed with death, black and thrash metal bands, as well as keeping myself up to date with all the music I could get from newer genres like nu-metal. I always was a music nerd and always will be. The most recent shock to my system came when I listened to the music of Thomas Ankersmit which happened during a festival we organize here in Tehran and after that a piece by John Chantler that I had the pleasure of hearing at Présences Electronique in 2018. It changed how I perceived both physicality and spatiality of sound. Both were decisive moments for me and my output after that.
Please tell us about your new record, SERUS, and where the inspiration for this record came from. I know that you experienced a period of insomnia and intoxication which led to a nervous breakdown. How are you feeling now? Was SERUS a response to this? Please tell us more about this period.
Well, let’s say that it started coming together after I was released from the hospital after a (very stupid) attempt to take my own life, probably one of the lowest points of my life. I started to work on SERUS. I tried to both process and take distance from what happened. Other than the obvious aspects, I thought going through it from a sonic perspective might help me deal with it in a different way, or at least lessen the suffocating grip it had on my life then. The next year and a half I think my life was overshadowed by the events that caused it and was caused by it but now I’m 8 months sober and have a much brighter view of life, although being bipolar is a lifelong struggle. I feel much better in that regard. Making SERUS and FORAS and playing them live helped me confront a lot of those feelings in the least destructive I could think of.
Do you find music to be a great healer? Isn’t it amazing how some of the most inspirational music can arise from difficult moments in life?
I think it can have a great therapeutic effect but one should not depend on it as a single source of healing. Right now music, alongside my relationships with people I love, are the most helpful for me to stay sober and deal with my mental health issues. But I think there’s a danger of you investing too much hope in music’s powers.
SERUS is inspired in part by French philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Does philosophy play an important role in your music or is this an exception?
Philosophy plays an important part in shaping the way I think but it might not necessarily have a direct impact on my music. SERUS was one of those very fortunate moments that I could find a direct correlation between a philosophical concept and a musical idea. I believe philosophy helps me conceptualize the world around me, including its sonic qualities. Music and sound, especially when I’m creating something, helps explore the concepts I read and think about. The final sonic result may or may not have a direct or recognizable correlation with the concepts but it’s a process that I find necessary for my work, otherwise I get bored with both on their own very easily!
Music always stems from a past idea or style, but there’s still originality to be found in music. How do you wrestle with and reconcile the two, knowing that everything is influenced and shaped by something else from the past while still trying to develop something original?
I think finding something to affect you in a way so you want to recreate something like it is the core of what it means to be an artist. I like to curate what I listen to when I’m researching an album or a sound project, a process that usually takes a couple of months or more. I come up with albums, movies and books that I feel might help me express my intentions better. So for me, creating is channelling(for lack of a better word) those influences through my music, even quoting directly from them. Quoting and paying homages to artists who influence you is a very old tradition that I find most fascinating. I believe that the very romantic notion of a divinely inspired artist who creates out of nothing is an elitist myth.
Has your music style changed or ‘matured’ over the years, and have you found your style changing as you get older?
I don’t know about matured, but I think it has gone through changes, if you consider how I think about creating as a process of channelling what influences you; may it be art, life experience, etc, they can make a very complex web of interconnections. I find myself in different situations in different periods. I may be done with one thing in a year or some things could take years for me to reach a conclusion. I have gotten rid of many things in the way I work and represent my work and added some stuff in the process, but I try not to overanalyse what I do. I feel more at home with a lot of tools that I’m using, so that’s something!
Is it important to keep on changing so that there isn’t a danger of stagnation? How big a threat is stagnation and its impact on original music?
Stagnation comes if you become too satisfied with what you do, which at that point you won’t probably get that you are stagnating because of your giant ego! I see my plans for making music as a long-term plan that ends with either going deaf or ceasing to exist. I try to explore as much as I can without being a scatter brain and losing focus. I’m nowhere near the point to call something I do my style and be done with it. Most of the composers I admire did their best work after they were 45 and continued evolving so I’m in no rush. Music isn’t a short time experiment for me, it’s a lifelong pursuit.
Do you have any plans, projects, or upcoming tours or events? What else are you planning for the rest of the year?
No performances and releases planned after SERUS for this year! But I’m working on some projects that you will hear around this time next year!
James would like to thank Siavash for his time. His new album, SERUS, is out August 2 on Room40.