FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

"...To Become Someone Who Had to Bust Some Fuckin’ Lips" - In Conversation With Azar Swan

Every so often an interview cuts through the stilted dance of conflicting promotional agendas and you actually learn something.
January 20, 2015, 7:15pm

Azar Swan is a band comprised of Zohra Atash and Josh Strawn, both formerly of post-punk outfit Religious to Damn. Zohra sings—in a magnetic, exposed cliff-face of a voice—and together they create industrial pop that merges the sonic body armor of Yeezus with the cathartic imperative of The Birthday Party. Their most recent album And Blow Us A Kiss sounds like love songs for aircraft carriers. Their cover of “Bugatti” is an unqualified slumper.

Advertisement

I caught up with Zohra over the phone a few weeks ago. She described her forking path from a rural upbringing with her Afghan family in South Carolina to East Village goth nights and Lacanian linguistics. Zohra uses art to complicate binaries—East and West, bodies and machines, tongues and words. Like Sway, she doesn’t have all the answers. Like Kanye, she’s not about to stop looking.

Azar Swan's record release party is going down January 29th at Over The Eight in Brooklyn.

Noisey: Tell me about growing up in the South.
Zohra Atash: It’s very evident that I’m not a born and bred Southerner, so every now and again I would get the “Go back to your own country” shit. But the more I travel the more I realize that’s kind of everywhere. It was a very strange environment. You know, South Carolina, the town we lived in was right outside of Columbia, it’s unlike any other place. There was so much oppression and sadness, anywhere you drive down there you can feel it—it’s just in the air. You still have the KKK contingent, there were some dudes in pickup trucks, some that were nice, some that might’ve followed me. It’s hard to explain, there was never one day that had a predictability to it. People are more aware of where you come from there, so I never quite felt like I belonged in any place. I wasn’t quite Afghan, I liked Punk rock and was a little bit weird. Those years where you feel vulnerable were amplified by that.

Advertisement

That’s where I think the aggression comes from. Not only my genealogical background—for lack of a better word, warrior-people—I also had to have a defense mechanism against being made fun of in the locker room. I needed to start getting into fights and once you get into a couple fights, people know, “Maybe let’s not pursue that.” It took me having to get to that place where I was no longer this feminine delicate creature, to become someone who had to bust some fuckin' lips, because how much shit can you take from people? It was all spoken, and I was like, I can’t fight with words right now, no one listens, they don’t care, and it only gets worse, but if I make an example out of a couple of people, it’s going to be ok. But then I felt like I had to constantly keep up this aggressive, sort of tough-gal thing, which can be exhausting as well. Moving to New York was a respite from that but I found people very rude here. I always feel like I’m watching things as somebody apart, except for music scenes where things are a bit more inviting and welcoming.

How did your previous band with Josh, Religious To Damn, become Azar Swan?
Everything with Religious To Damn took an inordinate amount of time to get everything off the ground because there was so many people involved. Even though I would write everything primarily myself, getting practices with 6-10 different people was really overwhelming. I’m a prolific writer, but by the time we’d get to a point where the band would be ready to record something I’d have already written 6 volumes of more music than where I was at that point. It just felt like I was constantly looking backwards instead of putting out the music in a raw way. Out of frustration I started really tinkering around with how to manipulate electronics in a way I’d never done before. It wasn’t as hard as I thought. Everything I did was always on an 8-track live, I didn’t even know you could quantize things possible [laughs], it was like, “Are you fucking kidding?”

Advertisement

How is the workload split with Josh now?
When you develop a team there’s only so many people you trust to hear something and know that you’re getting a pure response. He and I have known each other a long time, so we’ll be able to have at least a prosaic understanding of what the other person’s talking about—the way I speak about things, in a very synesthetic way, like “Oh, I want it to sound like a particular beating heart,” descriptive but not necessarily musically. I give him an emotion or a color and he’ll get it, because he knows me so well. There are times where he’ll give me a beat, more often than not it doesn’t go that way—usually it starts with him getting excited over something I give him.

So your songs start as visual concepts?
They’re my little references, they’re very specific, that’s the way I write. A lot of times I’ll have a little melody, but the way that melody goes from being in my head to something I want to play, it has to spark imagery in my head or an emotion I need to excavate. It sounds a little hippy-dippy, but it’s the way I write. The process of making music is learning about myself, it’s more of an exercise in trying to figure out all of these little things that make up my specific neurosis. When you know someone so well and he understands the imagery, he’ll be like, “Is this what you need?” We’re able to talk in abstraction.

The songs come out of conversation between you and Josh.
It’s really interesting that you say that because when I met him, and he’ll kill me for saying it, he was into Lacanian psychology—basically little knots in our psyche that we’re trying to unravel. It’s a hard thing to do—put up a mirror and try to figure things out, but I’ve always been interested in language and unspoken, and that’s part of the reason And Blow Us a Kiss is the album title. The mouth to me is symbolic of so many things that mean something to me—communication and language, even language you don’t speak, just the musicality of our attempts to decipher meaning based on the sound. We know each other well enough to be excited by those abstract little observations that become music.

Advertisement

It’s interesting to think about a kiss: maybe the simplest and most effective non-verbal communication.
I completely agree. Something that always sparks ideas for me is that words and their meaning—like a kiss—can be innocuous, or completely passionate. The word love can have 1000 meanings. It can run the gamut of intensity, like, “I love these shoes.” It just depends on the context. For me as a woman a lot of this record is trying to come to a place of peace within myself about how I’m not a prototypical woman. And there’s no prototypical woman, but the idea that I can be…well, “ferocious” is a silly word, but at the end of the day there’s a lot of aggression behind my person—I’m a little bit brash and that maybe isn’t “ladylike.” These dualities I’ve been living with: being Afghan living with Eastern ideals in a Western world. Once you stop feeling the pain of how that affects you day-to-day, in your childhood, you start to see it for this fascinating thing.

Your music depends both on harsh, industrial textures and the sensual human voice.
These crippling dualities in my experience—as a woman feeling sexual as well as aggressive, mercurial…I’m a person of extremes, so when I switched from all organic instrumentation— I wouldn’t even allow a synth on my last record— to embracing these algorithms, these sine waves, I knew it would be a mix of cold mechanical synthetic sounds with a warm human aspect, the quality of people playing. Sometimes you embrace this cold machine, and then you try to find the humanity in it. That’s the delicate balance we try to strike.

I know you often played in the Weird scene (a long-running, now finished weekly goth and industrial party based at Manhattan’s Home Sweet Home, and a record label). What kind of influence did that scene have on you?
It had a tremendous influence, but not that I would’ve known that while I was in it. I came to New York having an idea of what I eventually wanted to do musically. Josh’s previous band had played at Weird, and Peter—who is Weird Records—before he even heard our band, was like “You’re playing.” He was one of the first supporters of Religious To Damn and we played our first show there. It definitely shaped the way I do everything. In that buffer period between Religious to Damn and Azar Swan I did a track with Sean from Letherette, and he just had this insane living room of synths, and it was like getting a mentorship to figure things out using the analog stuff. Just being able to do that was invaluable.

How did you first encounter aggressive underground music?
I grew up around a lot of music, my sister was into Post-Punk but all of that was just sort of a gateway. Once you grow up listening to The Cure, then you find Killing Joke on your own and things just sort of unravel and start to make sense. One of my favorite records growing up was The Sporting Life by Diamanda Galas and John Paul Jones. The whole thing is her operatic, rapping, and bluesy, about raping men.

I read an interview where Josh mentioned the influence Kanye West has had on the band, can you elaborate?
Josh and I have been kind of disenchanted with production in pop music. He’d start just pressing play on stuff people kept talking about, and you know it was like—ok fine, what is this? But something about 808s And Heartbreaks was like “Oh shit this is really exciting!” Even though an 808 sound is not modern, it’s just the way it was used, and being able to create something that’s new, even though it’s a replicated sound from 20 years ago. So in terms of trying to create something that sounded electronic but not like it came form the bottom of the sea, murky and stuff, I wanted it—we took little elements of that and tried to marry it with the stuff that was us.

Ezra Marcus woke up out of his body. He's on Twitter.