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Talking Tangents with Shoeb Ahmad

Dan Webb
Tangents is a critically-acclaimed Sydney outfit which fuses elements of electronica, rock, dub, noise and free improv jazz to create something truly fresh and exciting. We caught up with guitarist Shoeb Ahmad soon after the release of their third album New Bodies.

I feel like a lot of people listening to your music would probably label it as jazz, but many artists despise that label. Miles Davis famously said in an interview in 1982 that jazz didn’t exist anymore and that he favoured the term “social music” instead. What does “jazz” mean to you and would you ultimately prefer a different label for your work?
Yeah well look it’s pretty – it’s funny you bring that up because I think the notion of jazz means quite different things to all five of us in Tangents. We all kind of come at it from a different point of view. Our pianist/keyboard player et cetera Adrian Lim-Klumpes and Evan Dorrian, the drummer, both have like a formal jazz training, like Conservatory of Jazz training if you will, and so that leads them in that I guess, schooled sensibility. But so much of what they do as musicians is reacting to that as well and extending their musical language with jazz as a root – but then also adding like a method of disruption if you will. But then you know, people like Ollie Bown, our electronics person and myself, we have an appreciation and love of jazz in whatever sense it is, but we don’t play it at all and we don’t certainly look at it as the end all and be all of what we want to do musically. So for Ollie he likes to do a lot of improvising as an electronic musician but then I guess the jazz influence comes into reacting with great acoustic improvisers who usually do come from the jazz background. And for myself I guess, I see jazz like a form of freedom and expression. So I grew up loving like – when I first discovered Ornette Coleman, that really opened up possibilities toward my guitar playing. Even though he’s a sax player. I love that sense of you know, freedom within how to express his instrumental quality or sonics or whatever. And for me personally as well, I really felt like a lot of key jazz music from the late 60s and early 70s really was about just making music, it wasn’t about making genre based music. So the ideal of being able to create music that kind of conveyed the political message or an artistic message and how that was influenced by all kinds of things. Like you said, like Miles Davis talks about making social music and that’s both something that – I guess that could mean something that spoke to people and drove people to pursue a way of life, or it might just mean experimenting with music itself. You know, it’s a very open-ended kind of situation. And I think what jazz is today to the common person is maybe not true to what jazz is or could have been. It could be a very loaded genre description. For me personally, the jazz I love, I see closer to things like early 80s post-punk music or whatever. It’s more of like a spirit and aesthetic and an attitude, rather than a musical description.

The jazz I love, I see closer to things like early 80s post-punk music or whatever. It’s more of like a spirit and aesthetic and an attitude, rather than a musical description.

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I guess in jazz there’s been swing and bebop and all these sorts of subgenres if you will, so there’s never really been one constant within jazz. It’s always evolving.
Yeah, exactly. The idea of jazz to me has always been about evolution, as you said. And that’s why I guess what people call jazz now, probably hasn’t fully evolved in a long time and that’s probably because jazz kind of moved from being a reactionary music that did kinda ebb and flow with innovations of the time and so forth. Like you wouldn’t have had Miles move into hip hop or like even, you know, listening to Hendrix is what led him to making Bitches Brew and the 80s hip hop influenced records. But then even also Herbie Hancock, making all these really great jazz fusion records with the advent of great synthesizers like the Moogs and the Arps and whatever. So there’s a lot of innovation but I guess jazz has been adopted by the conservatoriums of the world as like an art music to be pursued in a learning context… and so a lot of that reaction, it doesn’t happen as often as it should. And that’s where kinda like a group like Tangents, I think we feel more comfortable about pursuing the innovation, evolution and the reaction to what jazz is and what jazz can be within the idioms of cross-pollination from electronic improvisation, classical influences, post-punk, post-rock, dub, that kind of thing.

Who are some of your personal idols in life, musicians or otherwise?
Well obviously for myself personally, I guess when it came to playing guitar – the ironic thing is the first person I really loved was The Edge from U2 (laughs) cos he played really simple guitar parts and used a lot of effects. And U2 kind of made some pretty interesting records for what was pop music in the 90s. So I was kinda drawn to that, but that kind of opened up a lot of other things. So when I first discovered Sonic Youth, I was pretty excited by what they were doing with the guitar, like in a sonic sense, without being too cheesy. They were just really kinda taking guitar playing to another level without being technical and so forth. That was really great. And then I discovered Joy Division, and that opened up post-punk music and what post-punk meant to me was about the ability to kinda transcend musicianship for an aesthetic and being able to really create a music that lent itself well because of the atmosphere created and the textures used and so forth. And within that I discovered bands like The Slits and The Raincoats, where I got to finally hear a lot of females playing instruments really well and in a really interesting way and being really expressive. And that kind of blew my mind a bit. Just kind of discovering punk music in this kind of reverse way was really great. I then discovered hardcore and the band Bad Brains, who were four black guys, which again really appealed to me cos very seldom did I see a person of colour or a female kinda leading the way, so to speak. Just kinda from Bad Brains to like Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney and yeah. I just kinda really was drawn to the other, if you will, which was not like, non-Anglo white males I guess in a way (laughs). And that really opened up a lot of things.

He had maybe mentioned it on and off and did these individual recording sessions with all of us. There was no expectation and he just delivered this thing that was amazing.

Congratulations on your new album New Bodies. It sounds quite different to your previous efforts. How would you say your approach and methodology has changed between releases?
Tangents began because we’re all friends and we all had played with one another or been within each other’s musical spheres just over the years. And we had mutual respect for one another and the opportunity came up to play a gig together and we decided, yeah, let’s do it and let’s play all five of us together for once and see what happens. And then yeah it all kinda fell into place really well. And that gig is our first record, I. But between I and Stateless, our second record, we kinda worked on our own projects a bit and did our own thing. And what Stateless became was almost like a collage, digitally arranged record, that featured all five of us but was mainly put together by Ollie Bown who is our – I guess live he plays laptop electronics and things like that but then is quite a producer, studio oriented musician if you will. So he kind of put the whole thing together and he did it fairly separately of us. When we all heard the results of what he’d been tinkering away with, we were all very astounded and very excited by what had occurred and the possibilities going forward. I guess it was a really nice surprise because there were very low expectations. He had maybe mentioned it on and off and did these individual recording sessions with all of us. There was no expectation and he just delivered this thing that was amazing. And luckily for us, the US label Temporary Residence really thought the same thing and wanted to put it out into the world… Stateless kind of ushered in a new chapter in our musical output and performance and really giving it a go in terms of where the band is going to go next. And what that meant was actually recording, heading into a studio that has proper separated rooms. It had an engineer, Richard Belkner, who actually owned the studio, Free Energy Device Studios. And we kinda all set up together and did a day’s worth of recording and that’s what you hear on New Bodies. Which is essentially edited and slightly produced renditions of those tracks. So I guess Ollie, Adrian, Evan took the helm of most of the editing and then Peter Hollo, our cello player added opinions, as did I. Yeah, look I guess the balance between New Bodies and Stateless was trying to make the live playing more of a feature. And I think we’re pretty successful, it still feels like quite an organic record as opposed to what Stateless was… we’re all pretty excited by how New Bodies has turned out.

How much of what you record is pre-prepared? How much have you planned in advance?
Yeah absolutely. So like with New Bodies, everything’s – most of it is improvised. What I would say is prepared, on the tracks “Arteries” and “Swells Under Tito” Ollie introduced prepared loops that he had made, like little synth loops and little loops of things. He kind of had those ready to go but even then he still improvised over them. A track like “Gone to Ground” or “Immersion” though, they kind of started from a grain of salt in the studio and became these great kind of blossoming kind of works which take the record into very different places. And we stick by that, you know. We try and do a lot of improvising as much as we can, but certainly having like a couple of ideas to just even get us on our way kinda feels pretty important. And that’s always a nice thing to do.

Studio Tangents is definitely a different beast to what live Tangents is.

Ollie plays a pretty crucial role in the band by the sounds of it. Has anything ever gone wrong with the technology during a live performance, has anything crashed? How have you coped with that or how would you cope?
It’s really funny you say that because I guess studio Tangents is definitely a different beast to what live Tangents is. Again it goes back to that kinda intersect between the electronic production and electronic music making techniques versus the live instrumentation and the musician with musician interaction there and then in the moment. So when in the studio, you know, Ollie might direct a lot of the process and we’ll all be there sitting around computers just you know, talking and chatting and really trying to structure things. But when you come onto stage, Ollie’s just another member of the band. And a lot of what he does – we actually like to call him our second drummer. A lot of what he does is interact with Ev in terms of running loops. And between the two of them they set tempos for the songs and he’ll do a lot of the sets on what Evan’s playing, bring in other things. But so much of the musicality can be driven by Adrian and Peter and myself and it’s quite nice – I guess we still have our challenges working between the computer generated rhythms and tempos and things like that and the really organic acoustic instrumentation. But you know, like I guess it’s cool to know that all five of us can really drive a process in the live setting. Because we’ve been on tour and we’re really getting the time to play a lot together, it’s really nice to see how a lot of what each of us might drive might really influence the next set of recordings we do.

The way I think about things is really influential into how I express myself creatively.

What drives you to create?
Look, for me personally I feel I’m a creative entity and the way I make music or like think about things – the way I think about things is really influential into how I express myself creatively. And for me sound, noise, tone, is the most important way for me to do that. Why do I do it? I do it for myself probably first and foremost, but I do it because I want to express an emotion or an idea and if someone else can kinda tap into that same vibe without my prompting then that’s a really great response. I don’t do it with an expectation that people are going to be all over it and really excited for it, it’s more I want to put it out there in the world as a mark of myself and if people appreciate that and want to discuss it further then that’s a great thing. And I’m more than happy to do that, but it’s definitely not for fame and fortune, it’s just more for a self-expression.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
That’s really interesting. And in any medium too. Look, it’s really funny because I think everyone in Tangents has very broad interests, artistically and culturally and I guess just in life so it could go any way. I personally, I don’t know. I really love filmmaking. I’m not a filmmaker but I do think visually quite a bit. And so I don’t know, I don’t know. I feel like if I had the opportunity to work on like a Jean-Luc Godard film, you know, just working with him to make an audio visual work that was somehow carrying a great narrative but with only the use of sound and the voice being a part of that and yeah. I don’t know. It’s such a hard one. I did find myself being drawn to the idea of doing a lot of music and sound design for theatre and dance anyway in my own solo practice, so I feel like someone like Jean-Luc Godard would be pretty amazing. Just because of what he represents to me as a filmmaker as well.