After a fantastic performance at this past summer’s Wave Gotik Treffen, I, as well as many others who were there in attendance, were quite stoked for the new Azar Swan record “And Blow Us a Kiss”. Above you can check out the promo video for the track “We Hunger”, which is a distillate of the libations and liberal dispensing of untempered passion, on what could be—any night of the week on the isle of Manhattan. Indeed—talking to Zohra Atash, and Joshua Strawn during the following interview made me nostalgic for the days of drinking Powers Whiskey at Wierd, while Frank Deserto would spin rare cold-wave unearthed on his Systems of Romance blog. Zohra and Josh are two creative singularities that have been and are still an integral part of the NYC and worldwide underground music scene.
Post-Punk: So, you guys are both from Maryland like me? Did you listen to WHFS growing up? I remember going to HFStival and seeing Blondie and Echo and The Bunnymen back in 96. It seems like there was something about the Maryland DC area that strongly supported the Alternative music scene.
Josh: I grew up in southwestern Virginia in Roanoke, but DC area was the hub for music and shows, and I definitely caught HFStival when The Verve and The Cure played. I have really great memories of going up there for shows and shopping for records and band shirts in Georgetown. When I was in college at VCU in Richmond it was pretty common to find a crew going to Trax, you’d jump in the car listen to records on the way there, go inside meet crazy people, dance all night, then drive back. I saw tons of bands at 9:30, The Sisters of Mercy, Brendan Perry, Gene Loves Jezebel, Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, Autechre, the list is pretty long.
Zohra: I moved to Virginia from further down south – across the Potomac. I listened to WHFS on car rides because I had tons of records to
listen to at home. Violator and the Mixed Up record by The Cure were favorites of my older sister’s who was ten years older than me so I’d been listening to post-punk, synth, and new wave before I even started school.The DC area has a beautiful musical history. Loads of great stuff came out of that town. When I was growing up, the Baltimore/DC area was a fucking joy to catch shows and buy records. Loads of friendly hardcore dudes that would recommend shit to me because I was obviously a weirdo nerd, hungry for to buy more records, stuff out of my purview. That’s how I discovered stuff like Brian Eno and Xmal Deutschland and loads of American psych and stuff.
Post-Punk: What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Also, I understand you both love David Lynch…I watched Twin Peaks while living in Columbia, did you guys catch the show while it was on the air? (Where I lived in Columbia was not far from Merriwether…once listened to Depeche Mode on their Violator tour from a hilltop)
Josh: As far as music I grew up on, I started on classic rock, then got into metal. The really crucial year for me was 1994 because that was when I basically found out about industrial music. My town was smallish, there was no internet and there wasn’t a scene and I didn’t have older siblings to tell me about music like that. When NIN ‘Downward Spiral’ hit big, I knew that was the music I had been wanting to hear my whole life. Then I discovered Skinny Puppy ‘Too Dark Park’ and the Wax Trax Black Box and from there it just progressed.
I didn’t ever watch Twin Peaks when it aired. I got into David Lynch through his films by renting Blue Velvet and Eraserhead videos obsessively every other weekend. Even that was a fluke, there wasn’t the sort of cultural cache surrounding him then that there is now. I had missed a film festival my 11th grade class was going to that was focused in film noir. I just used the film fest program and rented a bunch of movies on it and the Lynch films blew my mind. I normally try to avoid cocking up a snooty old school “I was into it before it was cool” attitude but two things I can’t avoid it with are Lynch and Swans. Of course both have always been cool, but the sort of widespread reverence now can be hard to take. Skateboarding to Swans in your carport and watching David Lynch films in your basement didn’t used to get you laid with well-dressed beautiful people.
Zohra: My family listened to a lot of religious music, loads of stuff from Turkey to India and so much classical. I picked up new wave, post-punk, synth from my sister and on my own; experimental, psych, industrial, and songs from the Great American songbook because I was a choirgirl. I’ll always have a fondness for like Appalachian and prison songs from the south, the stuff to my young mind glorified and romanticized where I grew up. The south is unlike any other place is the world. It’s sweet and sticky and spooky.
Josh: I moved to NYC in summer of 2004. I never hung out at Motor much, that was always more so Zohra’s scene. I met Pieter around 2005 and we hit it off, we had a lot of the same taste in music and ideas and partying.
Zohra: I moved to New York in the end of 2002. I’ve been to my fair share of Carlos D parties. That is why I waited to put my music out there, folks I talked to about my ideas which were like, “Maybe no walking basslines of Peaches-brand crudity?” were just not feeling it.I have so many fond memories of Motor City and Weird. Day-to-day I like to keep to myself, I’m socially awkward to the point of paranoia and anxiety, but when do go out, I’m in it for debauchery and dancing. The Cramps at 3AM on a system that that’s so treble-heavy it’s cillia-hair scortching? My heart, it swells.
Post-Punk: How did Religious to Damn start?
Zohra: I was writing and recording a lot in 2005 and 2006. I was playing them for Josh because he’s the only person I trusted to hear them at the time. It was all harmonium and autoharp and bass grooves and strange percussion – far out stuff. So it was super great for Pieter to let us play Wierd. Sonically it was so out of place, but the essence and heart was in line. We were the first band to play a live kit there. It was special.
Post-Punk: Wierd to me, seems to have had an strong impact on the music scene worldwide, do you share this opinion? Minimal Wave, Coldwave, Boutique Vinyl, all these revivals seem to have be reborn through Wierd. (And perhaps will continue with Nothing Changes…) Let’s not forget the formation of Sacred Bones as well…
Josh: I wrote a farewell to Wierd for Brooklyn Vegan when the party ended which touched on a lot of what I believed the party and the label did
for the music scene. If anything, my feelings have only solidified in the last year or so. A lot of folks found it pretty obnoxious to hear me say a lot of what I said since I was so involved, but I genuinely believe we altered the landscape for this music worldwide. I think we changed what “dark music” culture is expected to look like and eventually changed what the wider spectrum of music culture is “allowed” to look like.
Of course there will always be bickering and debating amongst insiders as to who did what first. For a lot of us there at the beginning who ended up being successful, though, the success manifested in different ways and places. Pendu had a lot more effect on mainstream pop and hip hop, Sacred Bones had more effect on the Pitchfork scene. I guess with hindsight, though, the thing that was always integral to Wierd was community, and Wierd gave life to all of this through the community it built: Pendu bands played Wierd, Sacred Bones bands played Wierd, and the entire scene thrived on (as I called it in my farewell) the spinal column that was the weekly party. Because as much as Pieter did have aesthetic interests, the party was foremost an exercise in community-building. Now that Wierd is gone, that community is, so-to-speak, invertebrate. I wouldn’t want to take away from our friends do with Nothing Changes or with the record store, Heaven Street. But I think what’s important to note is that the community in was in many ways, Pieter’s art. The party was even noticeably different on weeks he wasn’t there. Humans glue together communities more than a single space or type of music, and there’s really no denying how important Pieter himself was to all of it.
A lot of people ask me “What happened to Wierd? Why did it end?” And I think they’re always expecting a more conventional answer, but I think the truth is Wierd was always animated by a lot of pretty significant philosophical concerns. Part of why it worked so well was also part of why we were and still are such targets for haters–we were responding to problematic aspects of culture with action. You read a lot about Taylor Swift and Spotify, but what’s lurking in the background is whether or not people value music. You can focus on streaming and artist revenues but at the end of the day, Taylor Swift’s fans value her music enough to pay her for it. The value is the key point, not the cash, the cash is a symbol of that value. What’s dying in music is people’s connection to it. Pieter never said this to me in so many words but I think he finally felt the connection was too dead to keep putting in so much energy. A weekly party is a lot of fucking energy. He wasn’t interested in creating content for people’s Facebook feeds.
Post-Punk: How did Religious to Damn become reborn as Azar Swan?
Zohra: I didn’t want to play guitar anymore or write on a guitar anymore. I can’t play like Dick Dale and sing, so I had to play it like it was a mountain dulcimer. At any given point the songs that started off in my head as really distinctive, would homogenize.
I wanted to take a Mingus Plays Piano approach and write with percussion and vocals in mind – no kits. It’s a restraint that takes discipline but I didn’t think there was anything I could add to the drums, bass, guitar configuration that wasn’t done better. I’m reintegrating guitar into the next record as a texture. I’m in the process of taking scattered lessons with Kevin Hufnagal, Josh’s bandmate in Vaura. He’s an amazing player. I made it clear I don’t want to learn anything classical, neoclassical, or bluesy. I just want to assault the guitar and create stabs and textures without having to configure a pedal board. Maximum drama, carrying as little as possible. I’ve learned the hard way by touring with metal bands and bringing harps and harmoniums and acoustics guitars on stage to play that I would hate playing live a lot less if I didn’t have the burden of miking and carrying precious cargo. My harmonium is really special to me, and when some drunken asshole would spill beer on it, or trip over, it was game over.
Post-Punk: What was your experience touring Germany this past summer, and playing WGT?
Zohra: The juxtaposition of all that darkness and only 2 hours of night was strange to me. There really should be a winter edition of WGT – 22 hours of darkness and the cold air. Outside of that, it was surreal. The vibe was excellent and the venue we played was beautiful and the folks are hungry for it. I love Germany.
Josh: As unfortunately short as our time in Europe was, I had a blast. I had wanted to go to WGT since I was young, and I had such fun with so many friends, our show was amazing, and the connections we made with fans were really special. Which kind of speaks to what I said above about Wierd–these connections are still possible, but they do seem easier and more common outside of the USA. I think music still matters to people in Europe in a way that it’s losing meaning for a lot of Americans. I can’t explain it or prove it, but I would venture it has something to do with how irony and emotional distance operates in different cultures.
Post-Punk: The new record “And Blow Us A Kiss” has strong industrial elements that I am sure many lazy journalists would would make the obvious statement “Nine Inch Nails meets Kate Bush“. What actually are the inspirations for the songs on the record? You both are very opinionated and often times political, does this bleed into the songwriting?
Josh: For me on the production side, this record is kind of the opposite of Dance Before the War. With that record I was listening to mostly hip-hop and R&B that I felt had tons in common musically with the industrial and dark electronics from the 90s that I grew up on. When I was working on synths and drum programming for ‘In My Mouth’ I was having these moments where I was realizing that the whole approach came from years of Front Line Assembly. By the time we were working on this, though, I had come full circle, and I was revisiting all the old Wax Trax stuff I loved as a teenager, listening to ‘Gashed Senses & Crossfire’ regularly. I was reading Al Jourgensen’s book, listening to lots of Ministry. But I was also into lots of freestyle–Trinere, Shannon, early Madonna, etc. I almost envisioned ‘For Last and Forever’ as a freestyle song orchestrated by Einsturzende Neubaten. The Jourgensen/freestyle connection for me means there’s a lot of Latin electronic music influence. An absurd fraction of the instruments on the record are tuned percussion and pitched drums, timpanis, crotales, marimbas.
To me, ‘Sugar’ sounds instrumentally like Front 242 collaborating with Vangelis. I know why people would say NIN, but they’re missing the deeper connection, which is definitely Adrian Sherwood. And just in case any of my industrial hip-hop hating friends become too comfortable, I should also say that Kanye West is still all over everything, always, especially something like ‘We Hunger.’ But the truth is, nothing from the hip-hop world has really excited me in quite a while. For the majority of the time we were working on And Blow Us A Kiss, I was listening to more recent Prurient and Haus Arafna than anything. Speaking of Prurient, when we sent the record to Dominick to do his Vatican Shadow remix, he was emailing me about hearing the Madonna in it and I was like YES. People do always say Kate Bush, but for me Zohra’s vocals on this record remind me a lot of great Madonna records. I’m sure that was nowhere near her mind, but still.
Zohra: The songwriting process for me starts with nebulous ideas of sounds in my head – and having all of these influences built in my head for so many years, it’s an arsenal I dig into. You see, I can’t have anyone telling me how to make records, or how they should sound. I’ve had label dudes give me “advice”, and it goes out the window. I don’t deny anything I love, even early Phil Collins, it’s a foolish game to play. Kate Bush all but admitted “In the Air Tonight” was the catalyst for “Running Up that Hill” and I don’t hear folks giving her guff about it. So, in some ways, being a bullheaded band that funds their own work allows just as much creative license as a super successful one, cos who’s gonna bother you about it? The “smaller” labels that have put us out have been incontrovertibly supportive of the vision. It just takes longer to get things done, but I like the challenge. Everything I have made is a struggle from start to completion. Loads of tears and frustration. But that self-immolation for your art, the persistence, the DO IT ALL YOUR FUCKING SELF approach feels very Dischord and DC, so that makes me feel okay.
In the end, having studied all these seemingly disparate influences, I find it pretty easy to locate that that little common thread that connects art from all over the world over years and years. I think we are living in an exciting time where folks have access to so much, so easily. This connectivity is disseminating more genres and artists from all over, and folks are beginning to realize the world is in a panoramic, wide-shot, and that there’s more stuff to compare a musician to than a major-label’s flagship artists. I think the perpetual loop of lazy comparisons has become so ubiquitous that it’s as much of a sonic indicator as saying an album sounds like rainbows. Of course I love Kate Bush, but she’s one person in a motley throng of artists I love. I don’t think this is as confounding to music writers as it used to be. Thank fucking God.
Scratch all of that, my records are supposed to sound like post-modern aural collages collected in the beak of a swallow as she soars through a gale over the Baltic. At night.
Azar Swan, “An Blow Us a Kiss” is available now digitally and is released on vinyl December 8th. Order Here