Swahili: “From the esoteric to the pop”

Since we last heard from Reno, Nevada’s Swahili they have become Portland, Oregon’s Swahili… And the lo-fi, avant-garde, highly-dissonant band with roots seemingly in the No Wave scene, have...

Since we last heard from Reno, Nevada’s Swahili they have become Portland, Oregon’s Swahili… And the lo-fi, avant-garde, highly-dissonant band with roots seemingly in the No Wave scene, have gone on to become somewhat of a pop group… Well, maybe more of a long-winded (The eight songs on their upcoming sophomore record span 48 minutes), avant-garde, or anti-, pop group, drawing on things like synth pop, ethereal wave, dub, proto-new wave, and even retro funk.  In addition, Van Pham has taken on the role of primary vocalist, which was previously held by Xua.  Swahili are currently preparing for SXSW, where they will play seven showcases, before seeing the release of their second LP, AMOVREVX, on March 24th, courtesy of Translinguistic Other.  And while Swahili’s sounds have become a little more inviting in their accessibility, their heads still remain in admirably lofty places in their search for inspiration.  Their latest album is inspired by a number of the larger questions that the humanities would pose, most notably the opposing forces (Or “antagonisms,” if you prefer the language of Marx… or “Dynamic Tension” if Vonnegut is your guy.) that are responsible for the evolution of humanity.  I recently got a chance to chat with both Van Pham and Xua about this, presumably on a break from packing their bags for Austin.

Izzy Cihak: You’re about to release your sophomore LP, AMOVREVX, which seems to be quite an evolution from your debut.  How would you compare the process of writing and recording this to the writing and recording of your debut?

Van Pham: AMOVREVX was more deliberate in its construction and more labored in its birth. Our self-titled LP songs were more-in-the-room compositions, jams that became solidified at some point and recorded relatively quickly. The newer batch of songs required a lot of massaging and tweaking, a group of songs didn’t even make the cut, and others became almost unrecognizable from their starting points. The music is more complicated, and we all had to really go through an education to realize the vision we had set out for ourselves in making a pop album that pulled in all the elements of our musical influences: soul, funk, kraut, ambient, noise, rock, dub.

My experience in crafting this album also involved writing all the lyrics — committing a lot of concepts to the English language, and in a pop environment, which was a big leap from our more droned-out, abstract work whose singing (mostly done by Xua, at the time) was pretty obscured, and thus rendered alien and indistinct.

Izzy: And what do you consider to be the most significant differences in the band, compared to the band that recorded your debut?

Van: Age and intention.

Xua : Truth is, the journey was a natural evolution over 3.5 years. We threw an album of material away after the first year or so of work; that album was more in line with the seance minimalism of the first album. It would have been interesting and a bridge between Swahili and AMOVREVX — but after a lot of hard work, we had broken into a new sound — we had become better players, more symbiotic with our instruments — it felt like to honor that breakthrough, we had to start anew. That was a difficult time. I feel AMOVREVX is a celebration of making it through that as a unit.

Izzy: Do you have a favorite track off of AMOVREVX, for whatever reason?  I really love “Nous.” It reminds me of some of the dancier things going on in post-punk in the ‘80s, but also some of the best ‘90s alt. rock that was willing to incorporate electronics.

Van: I love all my children, (but maybe “Bardo” gets a little more attention than the rest).

Xua: Hard say because my favorite things are the different moments within the songs that I think were executed well. There’s the microcosm of moments that are part of the macrocosm of songs within the universe of the record. There’s side A and side B, so many ways to sift through the whole work. What I can say is this is my favorite record that I’ve worked on in my life.

Izzy: You obviously have a lot of non-musical influences, many of which seem to come from the realm of the humanities.  Since I’m a humanities professor, I’m curious if there are any particular ideas, works, or thinkers that you find to be especially inspiring, or just especially interesting?

Van: All of our bandmates are voracious readers and have a healthy propensity for soaking in tidbits of culture and criticism, from the esoteric to the pop. Little secret: one of my day jobs is working and programming for a humanities center. It’s easy to imagine that music has coded within it the spirit of the times, like other art forms – it would probably be hard to find any composition that is free of the influence of other works under the banner of the humanities, I would think and hope! I’m particularly drawn to science fiction and its manifestations in visionary architecture, experimental film, and digital art. Also captivating are nouveau romans and other works that fold in on themselves or reveal things from strange angles. Calvino, Duras, Cortazar. Songs on AMOVREVX are particularly touched by Philip K. Dick, Joseph Campbell, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Xua: That’s cool you’re a humanities teacher — we all nerd out on that stuff. A big one for me was Robert Anton Wilson. The idea of using your mind as an instrument and various techniques for mind expansion definitely informs what we do. He was the first guy that blew the doors open. His stuff is also strongly anti-dogma and result oriented — something I think is important for creative people.

Izzy: I’m curious about your thoughts on the PDX music scene.  Any favorite peers?  I interview bands that reside there on a regular basis and so many people seem to be doing so many different kinds of cool things.

Van: Portland is a great little petri dish of music (if we could stop losing some people to Los Angeles). There are some really great acts, collectives, and efforts here that we’ve loved interacting with and listening to. Especially fond of Natasha Kmeto, Golden Retriever, Like A Villain, MHSR, and Cloaks, to name a few.

Xua: I often feel self-conscious because there’s so many cool things in our environment, I just feel Iike a dork comparatively. I really love these guys Coronation, fantastic Roxy-style songs. Strategy, Golden Retriever, Natasha Kimeto.

Izzy: You’re going to be playing SXSW next week. Is there anything you’re especially excited to get to see or do?

Van: I’m excited to see/play with Yumi Zouma, YAWN, Phèdre, and Rome Fortune at the REDEFINE Haus Party, “Dreamforce.” Our bassist just got me kind of excited to check out the Radiolab-developed app for ghost stories in Austin. Queso is very high on the list of priorities. Accepting any and all Austin queso recommendations at [email protected].

Izzy: How are you hoping to spend the rest of 2015?  Any chance of a full-scale tour?  We’d love to get to see you out here in the mid-Atlantic.

Van: We’re touring the east coast for the first time in July! We’d love to see you, too. And more in the fall, friends and good fortune willing. Thanks for the questions! 🙂

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.