We’ve been fans of the music of NY’s Josh Strawn and Zohra Atash since their time in the goth-folk band Religious to Damn, but it’s their new project, Azar Swan, that really has us infatuated. Their debut record Dance Before the War, out digitally this week on Handmade Birds, nestles nicely in the crook of that label’s releases by Merzbow, Loveliescrushing and Jackie-O Motherfucker. Call it radio-friendly avant-goth, sure, but really Dance Before the War is tribal electronic war-pop with enough hooks to catch even the most satanic fish. Songs of childhood, lust, war and angst have never sounded this sexy.
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Azar Swan’s celebrating the release of Dance Before the War with a show at 285 Kent (the place where the kids go for the music) this Thursday, 11/15/13, and if it’s anything like the times we’ve seen them in the past you’re gonna end up covered in sweat and spit and snarls. We caught up with ’em, virtually, using the magic of the internet, to talk about their music’s past, present and future.
Free Williamsburg: Describe, in as much gory detail as you’re willing to divulge, why Religious to Damn morphed into Azar Swan.
Josh Strawn: Every bartender new to New York knows the famous Catch-22: nobody will hire you without NY experience, you can’t get NY experience if nobody hires you. Well, there’s another one for NY musicians: either they’re committed and aren’t deep musicians or they can shred but can’t commit to a coffee date much less to a rehearsal much less a gig, much less a full time serious band. Regardless of Zohra’s extremely punk rock attitude and approach to music, we were musically not a punk band. Religious to Damn songs sounded simple, but were actually deceptively hard to play. We were hiring bass players with ads, like these egotistical jazz kids who took a listen, thought the music was balls easy, didn’t bother to learn the tracks, made asses of themselves at gigs, asses of the band and yet wanted to get paid for the gig. That gets old and expensive fast. Not only that, we were trying to bring cellos and harmoniums on-stage in New York clubs, which are (mostly) tiny and (mostly) run by angry sound people who hate people in bands and don’t give a fuck if your harmonium mic feeds back. Then we did ‘Lovely Day’ and we loved it and our fans loved it, and it got the wheels turning in our heads — like hey, what if we could create this huge orchestrated sound but also embrace the electronic music we like and just streamline everything. From there, the approach shifted.
Zohra Atash: Yeah, it was pure frustration. I still have like, two amazing RtD records in my head, in the vaults. Sadly I don’t think I’ll have the time or the means to midwife the material any time soon.
FW: What’s the Azar Swan songwriting process like? Lyrics first, music first, a combination of the two?
ZA: I write all the songs in my head before I go to an instrument to try to work it out. It starts off as a vague idea, and I just start adding bits and taking them out, changing lines, changing tempos all while trying to eat my dinner. Once I’m really into what I’m hearing, I think to myself, ‘Okay, Mr.Song, what are you trying to say to me?’ and that’s when I start diving into lyrical ideas.
JS: When you’re talking about my perspective about 90% of our songs start from an email I get from Zohra with a demo. The demo can be anything from a main riff and single vocal idea to an almost fully-realized song. So my role can be anything from just sonically translating her ideas to coming in and adding my thoughts and ideas and parts on where the song could or should go next. Also, when we say I produce these tracks, we don’t mean it only in the dance music sense of I programmed them; I have been working with Zohra long enough to know what she’s capable of. If she sends me a great track with a vocal melody that I think could be better, I send it back and tell her to come up with a stronger part. She gets mad at me, tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about, reluctantly agrees to try, then comes back with the thing that makes me say YES YOU NAILED IT. There’s definitely a lot of push-pull, but at the end of the day, these are her songs and it’s her vision and I think it’s the job of a producer to get the best out of the artist, and I think I’m able to do that with Zohra.
FW: A handful of the songs on Dance Before the War have been kicking around seemingly since you guys started performing under the new name. How much was recorded that wasn’t on the album, and is there any new music kicking around?
ZA: Yes, we are releasing an album of new material next summer. “Dance Before the War” as I was making it, was always meant to be a record, not just a bunch of singles. But, we knew it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to release a full album as an unknown band. We’d watch it die on the vine. So the foreplay was nice and slow on this one! I love records, each song is like a painting in a gallery. Each one relies on the other, they contextualize they other. I do not write with “singles” in mind, it’s not my thing. I’m a bigger picture kind of writer.
FW: How has your live show evolved since the first performance at The Flat (in Brooklyn)?
JS: Well, as part of the new streamlined approach, there are multiple incarnations of Azar Swan. With a lot of electronic music, when there actually is a focus on the human side or the musicianship side, it’s on playing synthesizers live. I love that, and have tons of great friends made over the years from Wierd who do this brilliantly. But I’m humble enough to know that I’m no Sean McBride. I just don’t know those instruments that intimately, my experience with making this music has a lot to do with drums, drum samples, and drum sounds, and I’d just feel silly trying to be all Araabmuzik on the pads live (though I’m also not knocking that).
I’m comfortable being upfront with the audience that certain things are going to be pre-recorded. To me that’s only slightly different from the days when Depeche Mode and Soft Cell used tape machines on-stage. What we bring, then is a sort of augmentation, I play bass guitar, and some synth and we bring lots of live drums and percussion so all the programming is being stacked and you just get this thunderous sound. That’s one incarnation, but then Zohra also has been touring with these songs just herself and our friend Christiana Key (who used to be in Cult of Youth and now does her own project called Delphic Oracle). When you’re a presence and vocalist as strong as Zohra is, that can carry a show and I guess since Religious to Damn, we both just feel like we don’t really have anything to prove to anyone as far as whether or not we can bring a sick live show. Nor do we want to be limited by logistics — I’m in two other bands and my wife just recently had a baby, so it’s awesome that Zohra can just go play some “solo” Azar Swan gigs if she wants. Fans are receptive to both incarnations, too, I think when Zohra goes without me it’s more intimate and raw, when we do the full band with me and two drummers, it’s a big racket so it works both ways.
ZA:Could I play keyboards and bass live? Of course I fucking could. Do I want to do it? Not even a little bit. These shows, even the more intimate shows I’ve been playing with Delphic Oracle have been religious experiences for me. It’s like those people you see in those southern churches who start praising the Lord arms up in the air and get so completely overpowered by the feeling they’re feeling, it’s hard to not be impacted by that. It’s much more natural for me to express myself physically and visually without being behind an instrument.
Listen, if I had the means, I’d have a ten-piece band. We’d be part Bad Seeds, parts Genesis. I tried, it doesn’t work. I could never let loose playing in my previous band because I was waiting for the inevitable feedback or some hired gun player to fuck up the whole song. Josh, Charlie, and I recorded those backing tracks, Mike mixed them, I know what to fucking expect. They didn’t come out of a box. If you have some ethical problem with it, well, fuck you, don’t come to the shows.
FW: You two obviously have quite disparate musical tastes. how do you reconcile what ends up becoming an Azar Swan tune? Where do you two meet in the middle?
ZA: We have far more in common, it’s the places where our tastes split off that we make a fuss. I bring a song to Josh, I tell him what I’m thinking, he usually has a smile on his face cos he instantly knows what I’m going for and has a whole bunch of ideas he’d like to add. I think that’s what it is, I give him this painting I made, smash into 100 pieces and he’s got a little puzzle on his hands. Then it goes back and forth. It’s so fun.
JS: I know what she’s going for, but I’m always thinking about how to mess with it. You know at the end of the day, I just really LIKE a lot of the recent production techniques that people think they dislike. But one of the things that’s gone wrong for music with the talky nature of social media where people are all having critical roundtables, trying to give musicological and sociolpolitical reasons why they don’t like something. Those reasons are usually disingenuous. Just because you can write a college-style essay on Miley Cyrus doesn’t mean you’re actually reacting to her music. People tend to do this thing where they react primarily to cultural meanings and how an artist reflects on their identity: is this thing cool or underground? No, OK well I’m underground therefore I (must) hate it — then they look for intellectual reasons that don’t require them to say anything overt about the regime of cool to which they subscribe. So it must be the soulless, computerized production…I’m like, really? You know how many idiots said a variation of that when pop bands started using synthesizers and drum machines? I’m sure plenty of Kate Bush fans in 1985 hated Cyndi Lauper — but listen to “The Big Sky” — that’s basically a Cyndi Lauper song. These distinctions and nitpicks over production disappear over time — people usually only think they’re reacting to that stuff, they’re just trying to give reasons why something didn’t move them but they’re really going to great lengths to say nothing. Honestly the saying about dancing about architecture grows truer to me every day. Zohra’s not as invested in this stuff as I am, she listens to very little of the newer music that I do, but I think this record has come out really cool. I don’t do what I do in Azar Swan to prove a point about pop culture or how people talk about music, but if you think the records are good, I’ve proven a point anyway.
FW: If you could cherrypick one dream collaboration, who would it be with?
JS: That’s tough. Zohra and I would almost certainly diverge here even though we hold a lot of the same artists in high esteem. I mean since you phrase it as a dream collaboration I think my approach to this music is very much bound up in letting certain things I like comingle with other things that a lot of people would keep separate. So, like, putting Peter Walsh who’s produced the most recent three Scott Walker records together with someone like Mike Dean, I’d love to see what that might yield. Music fans and writers delineate bands and records with so many borders, musicians tend to do that less than people realize. Like news comes out of Iggy Pop and Ke$ha collaborating and everyone collectively wretches and starts dreaming up theories of corporate malfeasance and artistic corruption — musicians just don’t actually tend to be as intense about that stuff as music fans and press are. Some are of course, but I think if music fans could hear the conversations musicians have with one another, they’d be surprised. I don’t think anything interesting can come of keeping it all neatly separated aside from another thinkpiece on How The Internet Has Changed Music Genres or some other such horseshit.
– Russ Marshalek