Why You Shouldn’t Miss Damian Lazarus At Sunburn Festival
The London-born LA-based producer is a house music genius, who now brings qawwali to the dance floor with his new release Lovers’ Eyes
Every Damian Lazarus set is a Wizard of Oz-style dance floor quest. Take his most recent Lazpod, a left f ield monthly radio show that journeys across the globe for inspiration. There’s currulao music [Afro-influence rhythms from Colombia], Egyptian jazz by Salah Ragab & Cairo Jazz band and Italian- French singer-songwriter Nino Ferrer. Carl Sagan makes an appearance as does the soundtrack from the Michael Caine starrer, Get Carter.
If you’re looking for a brain, a heart, some courage or just to get back home – it’s all in there, but the biggest obstacle to enjoying his music is yourself. It’s a fitting disclaimer to slap on before his appearance on Vagator beach later this month for Sunburn festival. When Lazarus played at the Lalit’s Kitty Su club in Delhi last year, less than a hundred people gathered on the dance f loor, swaying to a trippy house and techno set. There should be significantly more ravers this time around and Lazarus may find the setting, never mind the crowd, more to his liking. Lazarus has often been fascinated by locations that engage all the senses: his annual Day Zero event [first held in 2013] is held in the jungle in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It’s in Tulum that Lazarus had a cosmic, spiritual experience on the beach at the recommendation of a shaman, “locked into this electric forcefield”, emanating a “bizarre heat” from his body, as reported by FACT magazine.
His latest release, Lovers’ Eyes, a collaborative artist project with James Ford from Simian Mobile Disco, features Pakistani qawaali Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram. It’s a track that “tells a story that transcends thousands of years of love and belief in a higher entity,” he says. “We are so often dancing and listening to music that may have soul but little meaning, I wanted to capture both and make something super cool that actually represents a devotion to something unknown whilst peering into another universe. The basis of the song is quite simple but the depth is immense.”
Ahead of his appearance for Sunburn, Lazarus took the time out to discuss how British actor and musician Rizwan Ahmed (Riz MC) played a role in the making of Lovers’ Eyes, and his love for Mexican maverick filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.
I heard about the Lovers’ Eyes track through Riz. He said that you were hanging out last fall in LA and he put you on to qawaali music. Do you remember this conversation with him?
I absolutely remember it. I had arranged a dinner with some friends and we got into the topic of new music directions and I brought up the fact that I was in the process of working on my new album and that I was taking something of a spiritual approach to it. I told Riz about this amazing library in LA called The Philosophers Society which was created by P. Manly Hall and I invited him to join me there one afternoon to browse through some ancient texts and rare scripts on mythology and religions. He advised me to investigate qawaali and there were links with music transcending into trance-like states and I took him up on it.
What was the feedback from the qawaals Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram when you first got in touch them for the tune?
My research led me to their nephew, Hamza Akram, who is a new generation qawaali artist based in Pakistan and he in turn introduced me to his uncles. By this time I had a strong idea of how I wanted our collaboration to work and James Ford (my co-producer on this project) and I had created a very simple beat to pass to the Uncles (as I call them). The idea was originally for me to go to Karachi to record in person with them but unfortunately this was not possible and so we began to work remotely. Their first feeling was that it would be too difficult to sing qawaali in a 4/4 time as they usually write in 10/4. There were no real references for us to look at together so we all felt that this was a really interesting experiment. I was very interested in pursuing the idea of the pineal eye and how the essence of love can help in the quest for seeing into other dimensions. Hamza and his uncles then went to the studio and cut three different melodic ideas to the beats I sent them and we were up and running. Once we had decided on the lyrics and melodies they all went back to the studio and I popped in and out on Skype, which was no mean feat considering the distance between us, and the quality of the internet in Pakistan. The final version they sent back to me consisted of 14 solid minutes of incredible vocals and it was then time for James and I create Lovers’ Eyes.
Watch “Lovers’ Eyes” (“Mohe Piya Ki Najariya”) featuring qawwals Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Hamza Akram, below
Did you find any parallels with the tabla-clap-voice mysticism of sufi singers and a DJ’s shamanistic role?
There are many parallels between Qawaali and House and Techno music; the repetitive loops, the breakdowns, the near-zoning out moments and the uplifting drops. Most qawaali tracks last around 12-14 minutes and they have a particular arrangement, what also drew me to it was the idea of both vocal harmony and vocal battles taking place within the songs and that these songs were on one hand, simple love songs and on the other, were spiritual odes to the deities.
What are your impressions of India from your last time here?
So last year I came to India for the first time and quite frankly I was blown away. I spent just one day in Dehli and five days in Jaipur. Like most Westerners I had read EM Forster and Shantaram and watched Gandhi [numerous times] but nothing could prepare you for the pain and beauty, love and despair in this incredible country. I want to explore more of India and play music at sunrise for the real Indians. My visit to the Amber Palace inspired me for a track on my forthcoming album. I hope I have done that experience justice through my music.
Do you see some pattern in you being cast as the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz as a kid, your love for puppeteering, your cosmic experience in Mexico, being named Damian whose twin brother was Cosmo, and the obvious Lazarus last name?
I dabble with the darkness and bizarreness around us. I like to mix strange things together that shouldn’t ordinarily work together. I like potions and weird, occultist behaviour.
When I am djing I take myself and hope to take others to another stratosphere with my blending of forms and ideas. I guess there is a psychedelic quality to my art so it is no surprise that people refer to me as the Wizard.
You’re a big fan of Alejandro Jodorowsky. How did you come across his work and what do you admire about it? Do you see yourself as a radical in his image in the world of music?
I have to admit in all truth, after many years of being inspired and aware of other artists’ work I never really thought it was possible to find a living artist who could seriously influence me and my daily life. Jodorowsky simply filled that void. I created an art piece at Burning Man a few years ago called Dr Whiskers. I built a silver pyramid and for two hours every day for a week I held Dr Whiskers’ surgery in which people would come and ask advice and the doctor would offer services of past life regression, crystal ball readings and other out there stuff.
I won’t go into what actually went on in the pyramid in those two hours every day but the words bedlam, madness and carnage come to mind. This of course was based on Jodorowsky’s weekly clinic in a Paris café. Let’s face it, his idea about the world is simply unique and his vision as an artist, be it in theatre, movies, music, acting, pyscho-magic, tarot, etc is quite frankly awe inspiring. I asked him to join us at our pyramid in the Mexican jungle for my Day Zero festival event and was quite upset that he was not able to make it. Maybe one day he will…
What are the most difficult traits of your personality that most people have no clue about?
I am ridiculously emotional. I am a workaholic and I like to get what I want when I want it. Apart from that, I’m a pretty nice guy.
What are some of the releases / gigs you are looking forward to for the rest of the year?
There are so many but the Day Zero event we will make in the jungle in Playa del Carmen, Mexico on January 10th 2015 is an absolute must!
Damian Lazarus performs at Sunburn 2014 at Vagator, Goa, between December 27th and 29th
Listen to Lovers’ Eyes here
This article has been published in the December 2014 issue of Rolling Stone India.