DECEMBER 23 2011
At the end of a year that saw him collaborate with artists as far removed as dub reggae legend Linton Kwesi Johnson and folk singer Shura, UK electronica producer Hiatus (Cyrus Shahrad) speaks exclusively to Ten Million Sounds about his musical past, present and future.
TMS: Your music incorporates sounds from a lot of different genres, and it makes me wonder—what kind of music did you grow up with?
HIATUS: I would say the music that I was most influenced by was soundtrack music. I was really into films as a kid. I suppose everyone growing up is into films, but I was particularly influenced by the music in films. I was obsessed with soundtracks to certain films, particularly science fiction films, Blade Runner being the obvious example. Also Dune by Brian Eno and Toto, Ennio Morricone’s stuff for The Mission, Michael Nyman.
I used to record the soundtracks to films from the films themselves. I’d get a phono link from the TV into a tape player, and record the soundtracks on to tapes long before I could actually get hold of them on vinyl or CD. And I listened to them obsessively. There’s one track on the Dunesoundtrack – it’s called Paul Meets Chani, by Toto – and I recorded it on one tape over and over, so basically both sides of this tape were the same track repeated. And this was when I was probably about eight or nine years old, and in my mind it was just a way to avoid having to turn the tape over – having to rewind it, having to forward it, just being able to listen to this track which I was so into, essentially on loop. Which I suppose in a weird way is kind of like DJing, my first experience of trying to manipulate sound in that way. Later on I got into all sorts of electronic music – but if I’m being honest, the stuff I listened to growing up was definitely soundtrack music.
TMS: Kind of like your album, Music For A Film? I definitely sense that soundtrack kind of vibe. I just got hold of your Ghost Notes LP, and I noticed that the genre tag there in iTunes is ‘soundtrack’ too.
HIATUS: That’s funny, I didn’t do that deliberately.
TMS: It was your subconscious, man!
HIATUS: Subconscious, must be. (Laughs.) But you know, in a weird way, not get too arty about it, but I’ve always loved the idea of the music I make being a kind of soundtrack – even if it’s not for a film. The idea that your life itself is kind of like a movie. It’s sort of a cliched idea, but I guess the music I’ve always been trying to make long before I was trying to master it, or promote it, or push it on to other people, I was always making it essentially as a kind of soundtrack to my own life. And I think all the best of music is soundtrack music, in so far as it makes your life feel momentarily cinematic.
TMS: I was listening to you and Shura performing live on the BBC on the Late Show with Joanne Good, and I noticed that she said your music sounded especially fit for driving. And I thought that was interesting, and I was wondering why that is. Maybe it’s because when you’re driving you’re actually moving closer to where you want to go, and you’re feeling the satisfaction of fulfilling your obligations – whether you’re going to the grocery store or the doctor’s office – so any music that can accompany that does have that soundtrack vibe. Something that can uplift you, or bring you down, just something that doesn’t keep you in a simple state.
HIATUS: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I think there are a lot of reasons why driving lends itself so well to listening to music. I don’t actually have a car of my own, but I occasionally borrow my brother’s car or keep my dad’s car in Brixton, and driving around London fulfills all those criteria that fiction sets up in your head. You have the city skyline, you’ve got the river, and everything’s kind of black and bright at the same time, and you’ve got skyscrapers lit up. And just by the nature of that you feel like you’re in a science fiction film, driving around in a sort of future city. And there’s also the fact that you’re alone – when I’m driving I’m usually on my own in the car, and it’s one of the only times that I can really focus on the music. You get a chance to let it completely permeate your every pore. You have to just listen to it fully, in a way that even listening on headphones you don’t really, because you’re looking at turntables, or trains, or worrying about when your bus is going to turn up or whatever.
TMS: It’s a bit different here on the New York City streets, you have to be careful how into the tunes you get because angry taxi drivers might cut you off without you noticing. (Laughs.) But I like how you compare driving with music to being in a science fiction film, the fact that the music permeates your core, I find that really interesting.
HIATUS: I’ll tell you what it is for me. I’ve always been really into ambient music. I listen to a lot of Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Loscil and Stars Of The Lid, and for me the great reward of listening to that kind of music is that it takes you out of yourself. It allows you to momentarily step outside the parameters of your life, which are always bullshit – at any given time you’re focusing on four of five things that you think are completely important, and it’s always some irrelevant meeting that you’ve got to get to, some drink that you’re late for, some distant family commitment that you’ve got that weekend. Every now and again you hear a piece of music and you step outside all the things that have been building up in your mind – work, money, whatever it is – and you get what I’ve always thought of as a kind of communion. All of a sudden you get to see this greater thing – it’s almost like a drugs experience. Music does that for me in a way that nothing else does, it allows me to have those occasional out-of-body experiences. And I think it’s a lot to expect of your own music, but I’d love to one day make tracks that allow people to have those zen-like experiences, to momentarily float outside the material concerns of their lives and see themselves and their lives from a different perspective.
TMS: The video that you did for Nobody really made me feel that way. I had to stay up late working on this track for school, and I was wired on five hour energy, and I played that video while eating a can of chili at around 5am – I put the monitor on my desk and lay down on my couch. And I’m telling you, for those five minutes, it was just…
HIATUS: That was probably the chili doing that.
TMS: Definitely a combination of the two. (Laughs.) I’ve also noticed that in your music you have these melancholic piano sections with dark, almost brooding basslines. I haven’t really noticed that anywhere else, but it works so well. Are you a classically trained pianist?
HIATUS: I’m not. I started playing when I was about six years old, and I had lessons for a few years as a kid at school. I became very close to my piano teacher, an old lady named Miss Robertson. With hindsight I look back and feel quite bad for dragging her through what was probably quite an emotional ordeal, because she could sense that I was – well, I wouldn’t say gifted, but I was obviously very, very into music. And at home I was playing the piano constantly, improvising and coming up with stuff of my own.
But then every Wednesday evening I’d get to her house, sit down with a piece of music that she’d given me and just freeze up. I couldn’t play a note. And she’d be like: “Come on, F, G, A.” And I just sat there. It was impossible, I never took a single grade. And after a couple of years she basically told me that I was wasting my time. She died a few years ago, and it broke my heart because she never got to see how much playing the piano meant to me. Long before I was recording music, certainly long before I was producing music, I was playing the piano. And it’s a difficult one, because part of me wants to modernize everything and get rid of the emotional flab, the classical aspirations and the rest of it, and just make, essentially, modern electronic music. But actually, if I’m being completely honest with myself, I think the stuff that makes my music work, when it works, is the piano. And I think the combination of what most people would call classical piano music and the deeper, darker elements, I think that’s what I want to do more of. I’m going to record an album next year, and that’s going to be the foundation of it. I’m actually building a little studio, and the first thing I’m going to be getting is a piano. So the album is going to basically evolve around the piano, and where the piano leads, I’ll probably follow.
TMS: You recently recorded the Fortune’s Fool EP with Shura. How did you two meet?
HIATUS: That’s kind of an interesting story. I was playing in a band until last summer, and we did a gig in a small venue in north London, and she was one of the opening acts. It was one of those nights where there are maybe five acts over the span of three hours – one on, one off – and she was doing the singer-songwriter thing, sitting on a stool, looping her vocal and guitar. And I played with that band for five years, and I was generally pretty unimpressed with most of the live music that I heard while gigging around London, but she completely blew me away.
I made an effort to get in touch with her after the gig, but I failed. Then nine months or so later I bumped into a guy who was working with her. So at this point I’d still never spoken to her, and she had no idea who I was. But this guy was engineering an EP that she was producing herself, and I said look, I know who she is, I think she’s amazing, send me her vocals and I’ll do a remix of one of her tracks. And he sent me the stems for River, which was basically just her vocal and guitar, and I put the track together with that.
TMS: So that was done before you two had actually met?
HIATUS: We had literally never spoken to each other at that point – not even by email. But she loved it, and she got in touch and said we should do something potentially longer lasting, a kind of proper collaboration. And I was thrilled. I’ve basically made bedroom music forever, and to be able to go into the studio with her voice, her lyrics, her sense of harmony, that was an incredible experience, and I hope we’ll do a lot more next year. She’s doing her thing, I’m doing my thing, so it’s kind of a case of us getting together and just putting it down. I like to think that we could make an absolutely killer album, but it will always be different to the stuff that I do in my own time, because when I work with her I want it to be as true to her music as possible. She’s essentially a folk singer, and it means a lot to keep that structure, that sense of her musical roots.
TMS: How different is it to be working with a vocalist as opposed to working with samples?
HIATUS: It’s very different. The way that it tends to work with her is that I’ll take the vocal and build the track around it, whereas with my own music I tend to start with the piano, build the song around that and then find vocal samples that fit. Although to be honest, these days I tend not to use that many samples for legal reasons. I still sample a lot of Iranian records – my dad’s from Iran, and I go over every year and always come back with a bunch of Iranian music. But I try to make sure that the stuff I use is untraceable.
TMS: Like changing the pitch of the sample so it’s unrecognisable?
HIATUS: Yeah, pitched up or heavily distorted. But working with Shura is completely different. It’s much more live, and having played in bands I have a huge appreciation for live music. And I don’t mean live music in the way that someone like the Chemical Brothers or Modeselektor plays live. The difference between what most bands do on stage and what most electronic producers do when they’re playing live is that the bands bounce off each other, they’re able sense how other members of the band are feeling through the way they’re playing and adjust their own playing accordingly. The whole thing is a very organic feedback loop in a way that it never can be with pre-baked electronic sets. And I think that’s a big part of what works with me and Shura – we both have that live background, and we have very similar interests and influences. And she also treats her voice like a sample; she was layering it, looping it and distorting it with effects long before we started working together.
TMS: Being both a journalist and a musician, I’m sure you’re all too familiar with deadlines. How do you get inspired under tight pressure, and how do you manage to find inspiration when you’ve got a deadline looming?
HIATUS: To be honest, as a musician I haven’t had that many deadlines. But the ones that I have, I’ve worked pretty well to. I was always the kid that left his essays until the night before, and never studied for exams until the very last minute. I remixed a band called Spokes for Ninja Tune earlier this year, and I literally had three days to do it. But it came together in such a spontaneous way, and if I had a week then maybe I would have overthought it. And as a writer, when you have the whole day sprawling out ahead of you, the temptation is to take a long lunch, or go for a walk in the park, or…
TMS: Or open up a can of chili.
HIATUS: (Laughs.) Exactly, or open up a can of chili. But when time is pressing you have to do the things you have to do. I tend to sit down and get on with it, and I’ve always been good at hitting deadlines. That said, music doesn’t just happen when you click your fingers. You can spend days sitting there, poring over it and tearing your hair out, trying all kinds of approaches and getting nowhere, and then all of a sudden it will just come together. If you could bottle up the thing that makes that happen, you’d be a millionaire.
TMS: My apologies, but you’re going to be stranded on a desert island. I’m sorry about that.
HIATUS: It’s cool.
TMS: And you can only take three records with you. What are they?
HIATUS: Well, if I was being completely honest, the records I would take would probably be really long, really moody ambient or classical records. If I had to take one piece of classical music it would probably be Faure’s Requiem, which isone of the most astonishingly beautiful pieces of music ever written. As for the ambient record, just because of the length, that might have to be something by Stars Of The Lid. Ever come across them?
TMS: Unfortunately not.
HIATUS: Stars Of The Lid are a duo, I think they’re from Texas. And there’s one record of theirs called Refinement Of The Decline – it’s basically two CDs of absolutely knock out ambient soundscape music. And to be honest, if I was on a desert island that’s exactly what I would need. As for the third one, in terms of something that reminded me of my city, I’d probably take Burial. And I think I’ve always loved his second album more. I know it’s kind of uncool, I know most people tend to go for the debut, but Untrue is just one of the most complete pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
TMS: I know a strong inspiration for Burial’s music is simply walking down the streets of London. Does his music resonate stronger with you knowing that you’re walking down those same streets?
HIATUS: We’re actually both from Lambeth, so we’re very close by. But it’s not just a London thing. Actually, I recently interviewed Kode9, who runs Hyperdub, and I asked him what was going on with new Burial stuff – what was coming up, when it would be out. That sort of thing. And he just said, flat out, that he couldn’t talk about it, because if something went in the paper then he’d be fending off thousands of emails from people demanding to know more. And they wouldn’t just be people from London, they’d be people from the US, from Canada, from France. I think Burial’s music is – and it’s a word I hate to use – it’s so emotional. It’s incredibly well produced – what he does, technically, is amazing. But actually, the music of his that moves me the most is some of the stuff that’s the simplest. There’s a track on Burial’s first album called Forgive, and it’s just four minutes of what sounds like ambient whale noise with background rain effects and distorted strings. And I can honestly say that this is the piece of music that I want at my funeral. It’s just stunning.
Burial is the artist that has influenced me more than any other in the last ten years, without a doubt. I’ll give you an example. Untrue came out in November 2007, and I went to a New Year’s Eve party that year that was absolutely awful. I’d just broken up with a girl I really liked, and her housemate who had always hated me was there. We had some kind of argument, and I decided very early on that the whole thing was bullshit and that I was going home. So I walked back to my flat and I listened to that album on repeat probably two or three times. Then my brother turned up, having ditched his own shitty New Year’s party, and we sat around drinking and listening to that record until dawn. And honestly, the next day if you’d asked me, I’d have said it was one of the best New Years Eves I’d ever had in my life. Listening to Burial, in my flat, on my own and then with my brother.
TMS: If I remember correctly, he’s not classically trained – he just follows his intuition.
HIATUS: I think so, but it’s hard to know. A lot of what surrounds Burial is mythology. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, but until that point there’s no danger in believing all the legends about him, which are beautiful. And the fact that he’s shunned the limelight, the fact that he’s rejected all the interviews, all the radio and TV appearances – all he’s ever wanted to do is make music. Thank god that’s what he’s done, it’s amazing.
TMS: Here’s an excerpt from a rare Burial interview in The Wire that I think you’ll find interesting: “I like making tunes that maybe help people get lost… As soon as you say you’re going to make a certain genre of tune, then you’re restricting things… and that’s always been a bit wrong to me. You can’t let a type of music you care about just become another sample-pack or genre… or it will get globally fucked over.”
HIATUS: I think that as you get older you identify more and more with musicians that express vulnerability in their music. So much of what we hear in what’s called the mainstream is about sounding dominant, about sounding confident. And when you hear someone like Burial, whose music is – and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it seems to me like it’s vulnerable music. It’s questioning music, music that doesn’t claim to have the answers. When you’re filled with doubt and you put that kind of music on, it just makes you feel so much better. I love listening to music that makes me feel okay about not knowing what the fuck’s going on. And that’s what Burial is for me, it’s the ultimate black hole music. Anyway, I should stop going on about him. But I do hope I get the chance to interview him one day.
TMS: A few weeks ago you and Shura performed live on the BBC. What was that like?
HIATUS: It was the first time that we’ve done radio stuff, so it was kind of interesting. She and I have played together a few times, and we’re still kind of feeling our way around the whole thing, but I love the radio setup, because it’s like another universe – you’re in a little studio, there’s just you and the microphones, you don’t have to perform visually, you can just lose yourself in the music. It actually started me thinking about how much I’d like to have a radio show of my own – it’s something I might look into next year. When I was at uni I had a radio show, but that was maybe twelve years ago when I was basically a drum and bass DJ, and it was essentially a drum and bass show. Whereas now I think I could play all kinds of records that I love, pull in interviews and chat to people whose music I respect, and get the audience involved a bit. I think it could be a lot of fun.
TMS: When can we expect to hear new material, either solo or with Shura?
HIATUS: Hopefully soon with Shura. We have an EP that is essentially written, we just need to record it vocally. For the last EP we went to the Cotswolds, which is a very rural part of the UK about a two hour drive from London. I know a guy that runs a studio there and he has these incredible microphones, and we decided that if we were going to put these tracks down, then we were going to make sure that all the richness and strangeness of Shura’s voice came across – I think that’s one of the reasons why those tracks sound so good, because if you listen to her voice, it’s like she’s singing in your ears. Those mics are so sensitive and so faithful. So basically we’re sort of sitting on stuff, but both of us want to do it properly, and we want it to sound right.
I’m also doing a two track EP for a label called Solace, which is an ambient dubstep label over here, so it’s a bit of a deeper, darker vibe than the stuff with Shura. Plus I’m releasing a Hiatus EP on my own label featuring vocals by a friend called Matt Falloon, who plays in a band called Smoke Feathers. So there’s a bunch of stuff going on, but it’s all basically a case of covering my tracks while I set up the studio in Peckham and start my next album. I’d like to think that in the next six or nine months, I’ll have a record of my own that I’ve put a lot into, and that I can be very proud of.