Shoeb Ahmad interview by Matthew Levinson

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It begins like the fade-out at the end of a song. Barely sputtering guitar. A throbbing hum, a splatter of percussion. Way back in the mix, Shoeb Ahmad’s voice shouts with the bleak futility of a preacher in Hyde Park. His pent up monologue dimly echoes the likes of Ian Curtis or Vini Reilly. There’s no relief in the drums either. Just as the track seems primed to explode, Evan Dorrian’s utilitarian march locks. ‘Sunstrokes’, the second song on Spartak’s debut, Tales From The Colony Room, sticks in your mind.

In just a few short years, Shoeb Ahmad has been dizzyingly involved in music. Running the HelloSquare label from his bedroom in Scullin, a few kilometres west of Belconnen in the nation’s capital, Canberra, he’s released new music from Canyons, John Chantler and Leafcutter John. He’s staged gigs for Christopher Willitts and the Tenniscoats. Amongst it all, he’s found time to release music with Spartak, on his own and with various other collaborators on a string of labels including Sound & Fury, Wilting Flower, Cook An Egg and Low Point.

“When I write my melodies I always think of Canberra,” he says, with a heavy, peculiarly Canberran emphasis on the ‘a’ in Canberra. “I really feel like if I was writing my songs somewhere else, like in Sydney or Melbourne, they wouldn’t be the same. Living in the ‘burbs in Canberra is still living pretty, you know, leafy. It’s not just like surburbia, at least where I live.”

This Canberra, where Shoeb’s lived since his parents relocated from Parramatta 18 years ago, is different. Instead of institutions and parliament and big buildings, this is parties in scout halls, semi-rural suburban life, collaborations via the internet.

I know what you’re thinking, though. He said at the top the song’s bleak and now he’s talking about melodies? To understand Shoeb you have to know a bit more.

“With Spartak, we wanted it to be busted up, retarded, god knows what, just messy,” Shoeb says. “If you listen to ‘Sunstrokes,’ I’m just barking, just shouting. But a lot of the time I’m writing what could be seen as… love songs.”

“There’s a lot of sweetness in the melodies I write on the guitar. Like, I’ve been doing double tracked vocals, which is a big step for me because I’m not the world’s greatest vocalist, but I just want to have harmonies running in individual ears because I think that sounds sweeter.”

Shoeb’s musical education started with a tape deck. He was in primary school, and a boarder who had been staying with the family left it behind.

“Crowded House broke up that year,” he recalls. “They were getting a lot of airplay, because they were breaking up, and I just thought their songs were really cool. Just really beautiful songs. I fell in love with Neil Finn’s songwriting.”

Later on, U2 – Shoeb describes Zooropa as an “early record” by the band – the Go Betweens and the Triffids all made impressions on the nascent musician. And although his music tastes are broader now, he still finds space for pop. He stepped off the plane from a recent New Zealand tour with a bag of Flying Nun records.

“They’re simple and pure, but they can make you feel so much. Writing the perfect melody is still my biggest goal. Even if I do something that starts out really miniscule and crackly; something that just kills the moment – in a good way – is to drop in a beautiful chord or a nice little phrase.”

“A lot of people forget that when it comes to sound art or drone or electro-acoustic, you can still be very musical. You can try and find something that’s beautiful, it doesn’t have to be just tone and clinical.”

Shoeb says he never learnt to play his instruments properly. But listen carefully and you will hear field recordings, toy instruments, keyboards, and electric, acoustic and prepared electric guitar. It’s all processed and recorded on a laptop. He also learnt tabla and trombone for a time, and spent a year in Wollongong studying composition.

“When I went to Wollongong, they asked what my ideas were for study. I said I wanted to do notation scores – at the end of college, I thought I wouldn’t mind delving into scores and getting my theory up – but, really, I do like the idea of not knowing what you’re playing, just sitting there and having to remember and plot it out yourself. Not being restrained by scales.”

He returned to Canberra and Lawrence English booked him to play with DJ Olive at a Room40 gig.

“Did you know DJ Olive grew up in Canberra? His brother lives out in Queanbeyan – they went to Telopea Park High – but when Olive’s parents sent him back [to the USA], his brother stayed on. So Olive comes out every year for Christmas, he loves Australia.”

At the gig, Shoeb met Tarquin Manek, an artist/music maker now playing with Bum Creek. Until then, Shoeb had been playing guitar with a couple of delay pedals and an effects unit, as he puts it, “getting a washy drone.” With Tarquin on board for a while, his sound shifted. He had been listening to Fennesz and My Bloody Valentine, and it started to come through. Surprisingly – or not, considering his background – their first proper show was supporting indie pop outfit Gersey at the cavernous ANU Bar.

He enrolled with Alistair Riddell’s group at the ANU’s Centre for New Media Arts, but quickly left, saying: “I guess academia’s not my thing.”

“I’ve got an idea in my head of what I want to do and where I want to go, and I think it’s just playing with people I find rewarding, and having people appreciate it.”

“When I was in school, I didn’t think there were people in Canberra doing this stuff. The people I looked up to were… people a lot of people looked up to, I guess,” he laughs. “So I just went out on a limb, and thought, there’s no harm in writing to them.”

Peter Hollo, cellist and contributor to Cyclic Defrost, remembers getting a message out of the blue from Shoeb.

“He got in touch with me on LiveJournal, I think,” says Peter, “after seeing me play with Purdy at the Tortoise gig, and roped me into doing a live improv gig with him at The NowNow, before we’d even met.”

One of the cool things about Shoeb, according to Peter, is he’s a fan as well as a hard-working and inspired musician. “He’s quite literally done the hard slog,” Peter says, “and networked like crazy, purely out of enthusiasm for the music he loves.”

Shoeb says he’d been chatting to John Chantler, noticed Peter was a friend of John’s on the website, and saw Peter was always online. “I dropped him a message and we just started talking, we just geeked out on records. It’s always a good place to start with musos,” he says.

The internet is pretty central to Shoeb’s operation; in fact, when I press him for dates or other details, he opens his myspace to check (I even hear the music start up over the phone line). He started HelloSquare, the label, to help a friend with fundraising for diabetes. Shoeb suggested a compilation, and tapped out messages to Clue To Kalo, Function Ensemble, John Chantler and Lawrence English. The web’s been vital ever since, allowing Shoeb to link up with guys like Matt Rosner, Lawrence and Peter, and keep in touch. It’s become a critical jumping off point for collaboration.

“In reality, I am literally a bedroom musician and the label’s a bedroom label. Our aesthetic is very DIY. But with collabs, you have to look at it differently. Especially with improvising, you have to examine yourself on the spot.”

The aim, as obsessed soccer fan Shoeb sees it, is a champion team not a team of champions.

He met Peter Hollo for the first time (in person) an hour before the NowNow show.

“Knowing his musical background is completely different to mine, and just being there at the same time, and having to fill in each others gaps. Play with each other, not just be two separate people playing.”

“I was on prepared guitar doing a lot of textural stuff,” he says. “But when you have Peter playing with you and he’s playing cello, and you know he can play beautifully, you’ve gotta make sure, if he’s doing something, then you don’t fuck it up.”

He’s worked with Wendi Graham and Noah Norton from Radarmaker on a few projects, while myspace was the locus for another collaboration, Klumpes-Ahmad, which is due to release a debut album in 2009.

Adrian Klumpes, pianist from Triosk/3ofmillions, says they first met in the “early days” of myspace: “You know, when people actually clicked to see another person’s profile from a friend request.” They met in person when Triosk toured Canberra.

The duo’s first gig was at 1/4″ in Wollongong, supporting Richard Chartier. According to Shoeb, it was “very considered” as the pair found their bearings. They spent the better part of a year and a half playing together, working on their sound and seeing what happened.

“The more we’ve played, the more we really just struck out and improvised,” Shoeb says. “By the end of last year, we were so comfortable with playing together that we didn’t have to be so methodical about it or think about it in advance”

They generally kicked off recording sessions for the new album with Brian Lara Cricket on an old Sega videogame. Shoeb rarely changed out of his pyjamas, according to Adrian, justifying the album’s working title, In Bed We Trust.

Time at home is obviously important to the 22-year-old, who is engaged to be married next year. But even though his mum used to sing around the house, he says his family’s not particularly musical.

“It’s weird,” he explains, “coming from a Bengali family, we didn’t have a lot of music growing up. We’d always have music on, but we didn’t play music or anything. It was out of nowhere that I got into music. I have to explain it to mum, but even though she might not understand, she’s still behind me pretty much 100 per cent.”

She would prefer to hear ‘songs,’ but Shoeb says the generation gap is actually bridged by some of his drone and electro-acoustic recordings. “Look, mum,” he tells her, “there’s a relation between North Indian classical music and what I’m doing.”

“Listening to Oren Ambarchi and even John Cale’s solo stuff,” he says, “you can hear a lineage between pure drone and ragas. Listen to Cul-De-Sac and Glenn Jones and John Fahey and they’re always doing raga-esque type things. They’ll acknowledge the influence.”

Spartak’s ‘In This Light, These Children Of Men…’ appeared on a split 3″ CD with music from John Chantler earlier this year. The nine-minute piece built around loops from hardcore band Ohana, achieves a celestial/transcendent quality that brings to mind Alice Coltrane’s reading of Indian influences.

“I learnt tabla for a few years, which was really great, because I’ve started listening to jazz, and learning about off-rhythms and off-time and unusual things like that. In ragas, you’ve got a whole set of various rhythmic patterns like sevens and nines as well as fours and threes, and when you have whole pieces that you can just base around these rhythmic patterns.”

“But I’m coming from another angle, I’m totally indebted to people like John Cale, and being exposed to that long droning sound of the viola, because it helped me look into my own cultural background.”

When Spartak first got together, Shoeb and drummer Evan Dorrian were in seventh grade. They bonded over Korn and the Deftones – “real high school junk,” says Shoeb, although, “we’re still into the Deftones, because they’re at the better end of that” – he got into Slint, and they started doing a hybrid of indie rock and what he calls more “spindly” guitar stuff.

“As we’ve played together, and just thought about our ideas even more, you know we’re just using what we love about music. One of those things is having that celestial quality, just taking it somewhere very beautiful and expressive, and that’s what i love about what Alice Coltrane does, and I guess what Luc Ferrari does with his musique concrete work.”

“It’s capturing time, capturing the little things that happen,” he says. But how you actually operate, in the moment, improvising, is something Shoeb still finds challenging.

Tales From The Colony Room appeared in September, in a sleeve by Perth designer Traianos Pakioufakis (of Meupe). The duo headed out on tour, which kicked off at Bohemian Grove, in Surry Hills, Sydney.

“It was a shocker,” says Shoeb. “I was making a loop on the guitar, but it was really choppy, and we got sucked into the trap that we’ve been sucked into many times. It got craptacular.”

They’ve toured Malaysia and Singapore, playing dates with noise bands, and toured within Australia with hardcore bands like My Disco and Off Minor. Constant playing on the rock circuit pays off. But it has unexpected effects. The duo, who came together over a shared love of nu-metal, find themselves rocking out, and it’s not something they’re altogether pleased with.

“It gets weird. It’s not what we want to do, but somehow we do rock out and maybe it’s a bit more…” he pauses for thought, “…metal? It might just be because we’ve grown up playing like that. After the show, we’ll be like, ‘Oh, that was shit, what did we do, why did we cop out like that?'”

“We both love explosive free jazz,” he says, “but we always think, well why can’t we become explosive?” It sounds like a real question for the band. “Why can’t we be really busted up like we said when we first started playing?”

Spartak’s Tales From The Colony Room is available from HelloSquare. Pics by Ed Lang.

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  1. Ooh look, I do appear in this issue of Cyclic :)

    Awesome inteview, man! So great seeing people like Shoeb getting the in-depth treatment. Lots of great stuff in this issue.