|Azar Swan’s Gear: Akai MPD18
Emerging from the ashes of previous incarnation Religious to Damn, Zorah Atash and Joshua Strawn have spent the last year creating a compelling new sound and image as Azar Swan. Their recently released full length album “Dance Before the War,” available from Handmade Birds Records, presents a technically modern sound that at times pays homage to the 90’s goth rock canon. Zohra’s dark, glamorous queen bee persona gives a dramatic visual focus to her cinematic lyrics and sensual vocal delivery. In what can only be seen as the perfect complimentary scenario, Josh takes on the role of songwriting partner, record producer (creative as well as technical), live show bassist and coordinator of the music’s rich percussive element. All of that can be heard in the albums very first track “Lusty,” which is propelled by finely programmed layers of rim-clicking percussion. Zohra’s lyrics make the statement that “we hunger. We get lusty for victory.” Additional levels of deep, descending bass synthesizer buzzes and metal-on-metal clanging touch on 80’s era first wave experimental percussive synth minimalists. “Amrika” also drives predominantly on percussive elements, multi-layered voices and measured, sparse keyboards (which approximate the sound of orchestra strings) while introducing beats that reference both afrobeat and a more middle eastern flair. “White Violet” successfully straddles the line between dance friendly fare and Siouxsie Sioux goth cool. Plans are already in the works for their next record to be out by summer 2014 on Zoo Music. An east and west coast tour concludes 2013 with Europe planned for early summer 2014.
Do you feel that lyrically strong songs like album opener “Lusty” require more space between the background instrumentation, in order to present the story being told?
Zohra: I love Erik Satie because there’s this beautiful space within the compositions. It’s not cavernous and cold, I can see it as this twinkly piece of mesh over a flood of light. It’s a hard thing to create, but sometimes I get it right. I also realized how important it is for me to let my voice tell the story, not just through words either. And to accomplish that you need to make it the star of the show. I can’t be fighting a guitar line or whatever. Like I say, it’s nice having a lot of colors at your disposal, but if you use them all, what you have is murky pond water.
Even though your sound might be generically classified as chilly synth pop, there are elements of afrobeat and middle eastern rhythms within it. Would you also like to be known for having a world beat association?
Josh: Usually the stock answer is: we don’t want to be classified, that’s for other people to do if they want. And that’s a cliche for a good reason, I don’t know any good musicians who make music and have in mind what box they want to be put in. That being said, I think genres like world music and world beat sort of draw attention to the wrong place. What we are more than anything is a contemporary amalgam of influences. Everyone knows Miami Sound Machine incorporated aspects of latin music but we just think of it as pop. Dead Can Dance incorporates elements and instruments from all sorts of different cultures, it’s thought of as gothic. The Knife use steel drum sounds, it doesn’t mean they are calypso.
Zohra: No. I don’t see things that way. Using sounds that aren’t endemically “western” comes only from a place of not giving a shit where anything comes from. If I like a sound, I’m going to use it.
Album title track “Dance Before The War” features arguably the most passionate vocal performance on the record. It seems the name Kate Bush is mentioned in almost every feature on you. Is she as much of an influence and role model as assumed? Or is it simply a coincidental occurrence of having a similar vocal timbre?
Zohra: The truth is nobody noticed the artists I do rip off because of the endless fascination with Kate Bush vs anyone with tits and a range. The ultimate red herring, thanks Kate. In all seriousness, Kate Bush is in my heart and very present in my musical DNA along with scores of other amazing men and women. I think a lot of folks could really use a widening of their women in music lexicons.
Could you envision a big name dance producer like Armin van Buuren or Skrillex applying their formidable (if somewhat predictable) touch to one of your tracks via a remix? Would you be OK with that kind of input?
Josh: There are all sorts of bigger name dance, pop, and hip hop producers I’d be honored and happy to work with or have remix our stuff. I’m not personally a fan of either of those mentioned but that’s just because I haven’t really heard much of their stuff, but I love Mike Dean, Clams Casino, Future, Kanye West, Mike Will, Emile Haynie, Stargate. I think maybe in the realm you’re talking about I could go as far as maybe Calvin Harris.
There are elements on the album that share similarities with 80’s and 90’s goth rockers like The Cure, Bauhaus and New Order. At what point in the sound design process do you decide choose the sonic direction of the song?
Zohra: I bring songs to Josh in different stage of formation, usually with ideas of sonic qualities that we use as the backbone. The essence of the work is there from the onset, the tracks aren’t built from melody lines I write, I come with riffs and raw beats etc, Josh helps fill in the colors and dynamics.
Josh: It varies from song to song. It’s often a combination of the initial vision Zohra has for the song while she’s writing the demos, then I’ll then start making suggestions, trying to walk the line between maintaining her vision but maybe adding some things from my imagination that she might not think of.
Is the name Azar Swan an anagram of sorts, of the both of your names?
Zohra: Yes! One of the myriad of reasons I chose the name.
Josh: Good band names should continually re-reveal themselves to you. This one has been good for that.
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
100% of the recording is done at home.
What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)
The Akai MPD 18 is probably the most inspiring piece of equipment. When you use it instead of a keyboard MIDI controller, it changes both your approach to playing and the sounds themselves are articulated differently by the pads as opposed to a keyboard MIDI controller.What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup (cost not an issue)? Why?
A vintage Prophet. It’s just one of the greatest analogue synths, used on so many of our favorite records. Zohra and I are always sending each other videos and freaking out like “They used a Prophet, too, that sound is a Prophet!” From Genesis to Japan.
Do you expect your next record to be self-produced, or would you like to work with a producer? If it’s the latter, who would you most like to produce your band, and why?
I sort of feel like my “instrument” in Azar Swan is production. So in a sense, we are always and will likely always be “self-produced.” That doesn’t mean I would never defer to or collaborate with a producer whose work I love. Mike Dean would probably be my top pick for someone to work with this band. Don’t get me wrong, Kanye West is a great producer himself, but when I look at the credits on Watch the Throne, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The Geto Boys records, the Kid Cudi records, it’s his name that’s consistent on the tracks I love.
Do you use rack effects or guitar pedals to forge your own sound? If you do, please list the ones you use the most and let us know why you love them.
All the effects on my end are from Logic. On the mixing side, Mike Dextro probably adds all kinds of bells and whistles but I’m not familiar with what they are.
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for? What techniques do you employ to recreate it?
All recording is just finding the sounds that get YOU turned on. Turn the knob til it sounds the way you want it to. If that button isn’t working, push another one. It’s not that complicated, and I think while techniques can most definitely be learned, it’s really just about developing your ear. Because all a technique is in the first place is something that sounded good to someone. Most of the best producers, I feel pretty sure, whatever makes them special is just something they discovered in the course of trying things.
Who determines the direction and style of your recordings?
Of the recordings? That’s actually an interesting question. Zohra is the queen bee of Azar Swan so she has veto power, but it’s mostly my vision on the production side, with Mike’s mix work playing a huge role in fully realizing that vision. Zohra and I talk and conceive and conceptualize to a certain degree. Once it’s all said and done it’s hard to say whose idea was whose. But the fundamental approach–which is basically making music with contemporary radio production values that’s not the sort of music that generally gets made with contemporary radio production values–that’s sort of my fundamental concept and approach. At least for right now.
Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded or live sound?
Mike Dextro, our mixer, easy. He may as well be a band member. He knows what we’re going for, I told him from the start that I wanted these tracks to sound like they could be on the radio. He’s done a killer job of making them sound like that. Some friends of mine DJ hip hop and pop and they mix in Azar Swan and it works well. I’m really proud of how it all mixes in. Mike definitely deserves a lot of credit for that–understanding what those production values are, and how to take what I’ve made and give it that sheen on the mix end of things.
What other artists would you say have had the biggest influence in your approach to recording? Why?
Our approach to recording is so completely basic, the answer to that would have to be a punk band or something. We are not experts with this equipment. ‘Dance Before the War’ is the first all electronic record I’ve ever made. We got the equipment we could afford and that we could understand and we made it work for us. I read somewhere once (I don’t know if it’s true) that the reason Depeche Mode originally decided to play synths was so they could practice on headphones quietly. There’s an element of that with Azar Swan, where choices made out of utility and necessity ended up having aesthetic impact. Because Religious toDamn (our previous band/incarnation) was practically orchestral at times. We were just unable to logistically coordinate the instruments, the players, the venues and sound systems to handle what we were trying to do. This approach allowed us to create a big sound that relied on nobody and could fit anywhere.
Would you say that your live show informs your recording process or that your recording process informs your live show? Both? Neither?
Definitely the recording informs the live show. Although that doesn’t have the same effect on us as it has on a lot of bands. We create a lot of sounds electronically that feel different when played live. I think our records are like dance pop, but our live performances–especially when we have two drummers with us on stage–is more like a tribal electronic war ritual.
Is there a piece of equipment that you find particularly useful on stage? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)
The Arturia MiniBrute has proven to be a nice addition to our live arsenal. A lot of what we do live has to do with augmenting what’s already on the record, taking the drums and bass to levels you simply can’t get with recording. In other words, when you work with as much heavy tom drums and low subs as we do, a mixer can’t make all that equally loud and keep the attack. You make sacrifices in the recording, whereas live you sort of can just go full on. The MiniBrute lets me compliment some of the more brutal and noisy synth textures.
With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band – fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.? Do you do these things yourself or is there someone that the band works with?
We’ve done it ourselves and we’ve worked with others. It’s generally a combination. Sometimes you find that if you want to get something done you have to do it yourself, other times you find that you really need the expertise of someone else. Visually, working with Shaun Durkan (of the postpunk band Weekend) has been a dream. As a visual artist and graphic designer he’s amazing. We have definitely dabbled in the fashion stuff, our former label Pendu Sound was really into articulating a certain philosophy through both music and fashion. That was cool, but recently we’ve been conceptualizing most everything ourselves and finding people to help on the technical side. I think we’re the most DIY we’ve ever been in certain ways.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
The most challenging thing for me is just finding the time. The most rewarding thing is setting out to make something, and in the process of making it, having it turn into something you didn’t expect. Something you like more than the thing you were setting out to make. That’s the best, it’s like a high.