Ilyas Ahmed: Interview
“I never really even think about the ‘what’ that I am.”
Since 2005, Ilyas Ahmed has released a slew of fantastic releases, some self-released, others on labels like Root Strata (the amazing Goner), Digitalis, and Time-Lag. With Endless Fire, his latest in a litany of transcendent art-folk albums, is out now on cassette and LP via Immune Recordings, and it further solidifies his grasp on bleak, yet resplendent territory.
Tiny Mix Tapes caught up with Ahmed via email to talk about his compulsive music-making techniques. Check out the interview below and head over to the Chocolate Grinder for a premiere of his new video for “Skin in Circles.”
I read another interview where you stated that your favorite piece of musical equipment is the fingernails on your right hand. Do you consider yourself primarily a guitar player? Would you ever call yourself a singer/songwriter?
I suppose I never really even think about the “what” that I am. The term singer/songwriter generally conjurs up negative connotations in my mind so I imagine I’d like to steer clear of that moniker. I think of a guy strumming G chords singing “clever” lyrics. I suppose I am primarily a guitar player, and it’s the instrument I feel most comfortable with, although I would like to play piano more. I am also, in general, a bigger fan of vocalists and horn players than guitar players. I do consider what I do to be songs for sure, although my definition of songs might be different than others’.
The need to distill one’s output into a simple byline is pretty common. It’s like the filmmaker who says, “No no, I’m not an artist, I’m just a storyteller,” in an effort to be more easily understood. It sounds like you have no interest in doing that. Are you conscious of wanting to communicate something with your music?
I’ve learned that what I’ve intended to communicate and what get[s] interpreted is sometimes lost in translation so I suppose I’ve given up on specificity. The work is meaningful to me, and when anybody else gets something out of it means a great deal to me.
I am aware of the sort of cute indie-rock thing here, although I don’t feel part of it or even really pay attention to it, so when I play out of town and people want to talk about about, say, a television show, I’d rather talk about Golden Retriever.
What are your songs about? Is that important?
What the songs are about are very important to me as I feel they are personal transmissions towards specific people, and the specifics are not entirely important to anyone else. I respond to music that feels more open ended and blurred and leave space for the listener to attach their own pathology towards.
What do you tell people when they ask you what kind of music you play?
It seems that living and working in Portland is somehow defining to a lot of artists and musicians that live there, coming from Pakistan, New Jersey, Minnesota, etc. do you feel that way? Have you settled into the Portland lifestyle or scene or whatever?
I have made some of my closest friendships of my adult life since moving here, and feel very connected to a community of people that are very much at the top of their respective games. And after a sort of vagabond-ish time throughout my twenties I feel connected to this place in my old age. It’s also a visually stunning area. I am aware of the sort of cute indie-rock thing here, although I don’t feel part of it or even really pay attention to it, so when I play out of town and people want to talk about about, say, a television show, I’d rather talk about Golden Retriever.
Yeah indie rock, who cares about that! I really meant, you know, Dead Moon, Grouper, and like… everyone on Stunned Records. So what is it? I’m going to postulate that it’s cheap and often cloudy (moody), therefore artist breeding ground. What say you? And I’m guessing you didn’t see that last episode of Game of Thrones.
It’s cheap, it’s cloudy, and there’s a lot of good coffee, you tend to stay inside and work on your thing, and it’s just a really livable city for someone like me. And alongside a close friend like Liz, there’s Golden Retriever, Operative, Valet, Pulse Emitter, the Smegma family, the Rad Summer nexus, the Exiled Records and Mississippi Records crews, Hisham and Sublime Frequencies, a bunch more… You know, these are all folks that I think are real singular and inspiring talents, aside from being amazing people. Maybe we’re all making up for the lack of Vitamin D we get for the rest of the year. Game of Thrones sound like a metal band name.
It is very metal. Your albums covers show a lot of people with collage-mutilated faces. Tell me about your visual artwork.
I’ve probably been making visual art longer than I have music, and it’s something I’ve always done & paid attention to. I work on visual art alongside music constantly and they probably overlap in ways I’m not aware of. I’ve always approached making album art as objects that, as a fan, I would want to find. Like if you were flipping through records and your local shop and came across an album, held it up, looked at the art, and were like what could this possibly sound like?
Making records is a compulsion that usually entails spending an inordinate amount of time in my hermetically sealed apartment with headphones on.
Do you have plans for your visual artwork beyond your own record covers?
I had a solo exhibition here in Portland last year at a great space called Nationale that shows a lot of really amazing work. I’ve been getting some work together for some upcoming shows in the next year or so.
Your music sounds very physical to me – many different acoustic sounds, recorded on analog tape. What is your physical process like for recording an album? What do you do everyday? Do you play or record everyday?
Thanks, I’m glad that comes across. I work on and play music and make art everyday, as much I can all day, read a lot, listen to records, and, more importantly, try to span as much time with my girlfriend and loved ones. Making records is a compulsion that usually entails spending an inordinate amount of time in my hermetically sealed apartment with headphones on. I can’t imagine ever wanting or needing to take a break from any of it as it’s the only thing that I don’t feel the need to take a break from. It’s everything else that can be a drag.
So are you sitting on like 10 more records of material?
It’s not up to 10, but… sort of. There was record I made while I making Goner that was really stripped down, that was pretty bleak and wasn’t anything that I felt needed to be heard, so I buried the tape in town. Maybe all the rain will make it grow into something nicer. I’m still messing around with a record that doesn’t have anything that’s recognizable as a guitar on it, and a few other things too. Some collaborations that I’m really excited about. My role model for work has always been visual artists, I guess. Most painters don’t make, like, one painting a year. I just like working. But I don’t feel the need to put it all out. I like sort of grand statements from the people I’m a fan of, Scott Walker-style.
How did you come to work with Julia Blackburn on the new video / what was that like?
Julia is a dear friend, and also an extremely talented clothing designer and photographer/filmmaker. We’d talked about doing a collaboration forever as I feel my music sounds the way her clothing/images looks. I couldn’t be more psyched on how it turned out.
What else is good right now?
Leonard Michaels short stories, Ekin Fil, Michael Chapman, Mina Loy, Date Palms, Pete Swanson, the new Chromatics record Kill for Love, modern cinema seemingly getting better again after years of crapulent fraudulence, summer almost being here in rainy Portland, and my girlfriend Jessi. You know, there’s tons of reasons to get out of bed every morning. It’s like W.C. Fields said, “Life is great. Without it we’d be dead. “