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Meet Ash Koosha, the Producer Using Synesthesia to Craft Boundary-Blurring Tracks

The Iran-born, London-based producer opens up about the futurist roots of his new album 'I AKA I.'

by Kevin Lozano
Mar 18 2016, 2:40pm

Ozge Cone

To hear the Iran-born, London-based producer/composer Ashkan Kooshanejad tell it himself, he's a bit of a homebody. When he was a teenager living in Tehran, he found the rhythms of high school stilted, so he dropped out and started mostly hanging out in his bedroom. He plotted a syllabus for a self-directed education that gobbled up everything his curious mind could get its hands on and his only breaks were to secretly toss around basketball in a neighbor's yard. His studies eventually led him to the Tehran Conservatory of Music where he picked up the bass and learned the formal trappings of classical composition.

The medium-hopping artist best known as Ash Koosha was and remains self-driven, motivated to ponder the universe at his own pace—even if that means spending all day watching House of Cards, which he's been doing on the afternoon that I speak with him. In the eyes of most Iranians, Koosha says, his life as a musician is a "comedy show," something that they too might waste an afternoon streaming on their TVs. It's a lighthearted way to describe the controversial reactions to his career thus far, which included a short stint in jail for a performance at a house party in suburban Tehran.

He hasn't been back to Tehran since 2009, after his participation in the film No One Knows About Persian Cats with his band Take It Easy Hospital. The heated reaction to the film in Iran, coupled with a wave of protests following the 2009 presidential election created an unsafe atmosphere. He and his bandmates were granted asylum in the UK shortly thereafter.

But now that he's in London a certain anonymous freedom has allowed him to get even weirder, more internal. It's allowed him to meticulously collect an archive of samples that ranges from water drops to the sound a rolling chair makes up against concrete. This collection fueled his 2014 debut, Guud, a totally inimitable collage of gothic sounds that interrogates what is "conventionally good" music on a microscopic sonic level. But those life circumstances and found samples only begin to hint at the vibrancy and immediacy of Koosha's productions.

Koosha's experience of the world on the sensorial level is hard to describe, dictated by his experience as a synesthete. Synesthesia is essentially an involuntary reaction to environmental stimuli, where certain details, say sounds or numbers, trigger sensations like color, taste, or memory. It's an experience he shares with Vladimir Nabokov, Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, and coincidentally one of his early heroes, Aphex Twin. To Koosha, sounds have their own weight, color, geometry, texture and human-like idiosyncrasies. It seems overwhelming, but his latest album I AKA I, out April 1 on Ninja Tune, works to harness this.

He calls his process "nano composition," and it's predicated on a chaotic conversation between computer and the composer. He uses software to zoom in on visual depictions of a sample's waveform. And at the center of the action, he cuts-up, processes the file into what he calls a "sound object," an instrument all its own. The result of his process is often random, which he thinks lends the tools he works with "an element of singularity and rarity." His prodigious archive of modified samples has been deployed into a veritable orchestra that produces almost unprecedentedly strange and organic digital soundscapes.

In order to really experience the music of I AKA I, you have to be able to see it the way he does. As such, he excitedly describes a 20-minute virtual reality component which is set to be released this summer, designed to visually render the album in a way that mirrors his own experience. The realization of the virtual reality component is the logical leap forward for someone who believes he can recreate the complexity of the world around him with the details he can extract out of found sounds. It's a style of making music and being in the world that feels unmoored from time, simultaneously in the past and in the future. As one does when talking to an unrepentant futurist, we connected on Skype on a Sunday in early March to talk about I AKA I and his visions of what's to come, both in music and outside of it.

All photos by Ozge Cone

THUMP: Tell me why you choose the title I AKA I. How does it relate to your attitudes about technology?
Ash Koosha: "I Also Known As I" is basically my idea of how as a species we are changing into hybrids: human and technological beings. We are merging with technology and we are building new personalities that are sometimes not attached to us. We have multiple selves, one here and one on the internet. But even if we completely merge with technology in the next fifty years, let's say, I think we'll still be the same human beings essentially.

What parts of humanity do you think will be preserved?
When I create music, a computer may dictate most of [the direction] but I see myself as a painter. It's part of a basic human instinct that I want to make a shape which happens to be a sound, and that impulse comes instantly out of one emotion or reaction. It just comes out. I don't want to see a world where we wait for a drum machine to give us this sequence to use and call it music. Creativity is mysterious.

You've described yourself as a futurist before. What have you been reading lately, along those lines?
Oxford [University] has this department called Future of Humanity. And I really enjoy Nick Bostrom, who's in in the department. He's a Swedish philosopher who talks about the future, artificial intelligence, and how we have to control how computers are going to become part of our lives. I am also interested in Universal Basic Income [a kind of social security system where all residents of a country are granted an unconditional salary to meet all of their basic needs]. Me and my brother, we were thinking about making a [video game] that would help make UBI a reality. So even leisure could help you earn an income. If you are born, your life should be sustained. The idea is of the game is that when you play your console you earn money because your console has left over processing [power] not being used anywhere. And if you use the [power] in some other company or in a research lab, you can get some profit. Obviously there are going to be companies that are not going to let this happen.

Could you speak a little bit about the virtual reality component of I AKA I?
I build an experience basically by treating sounds as very physical matter—objects essentially. So when I play a specific bass sound for example, in the VR experience you'll see this very velvety shape that is stretching and moving around you. Imagine all of these in a mix and a song, you can see them while they're moving and as the track is playing you can see them as a visual narrative. This is how I see music and it's why I'm a little frustrated with the ways people listen to my music and can't see what I see when I make it. It's the reason for the VR. It puts people there with me. This VR album will be ready around summer, which is a 20 minute version of I AKA I.

What were your formative musical experiences growing up in Iran?
I went to Turkey once with my brother in 2004, I was 17 or 18. We were staying there and there were two Danish tourists, a couple actually. I gave them my demo. They liked it.Then the next morning one of them asked that we get some blank CDs. And I was given some music they felt like I would like. When I went back to Iran, and I was listening to the CDs on my Walkman back then it was the first time I got introduced to Mogwai and Sigur Ros. A lot of crazy stuff. That was one of the points that changed my vision in music, especially the first Sigur Ros album, Von.

I wasn't really educated musically back then, but it felt like these people are doing something different. Iran is so random. You get introduced to so many things without outside cultural connections. It's not like you have a group of people that are into hip-hop because they are from a certain environment, you just end up encountering random things.

Was there a moment when you realized that you could make electronic music in the way you do now?
It started when I first had Logic. I'm talking about ten years ago.I was just experimenting. Trying to learn software. Trying to see what computer music is. And then I realized every time I open a project there's a click. There's a metronome. It was bothering me that I was building around this clock, and every time the project was finished I would throw it out. I didn't know why I wasn't satisfied with the sound. And then years passed, I realized, shit, this is it, it's because there's a clock.

Does that realization couple with your experience of synesthesia?
My earliest memory goes back to when I was 6 or 7. I remember learning math, really basic stuff, like numbers and counting. I would instantly see color and it was bothering me that on the blackboard people were only writing in white and it really interfered with my experience. I didn't pay attention to it until a few years ago after talking to my mom. Suddenly it all made sense. I think geometry also has color. And that's how I learned music, with geometry. It's how I learned to play keyboard. I would make up shapes on the keyboard and memorize chords by shape. I didn't read the keys by their notes, but by shape. When I went to conservatory I learned how to read music, but I still think in terms of geometry. Whenever I mix sound I see something dropping or moving or rolling around, that's how I get the mix write, how I EQ sound. I call it an audio room. It's like an empty room. That's what a Logic project [looks like to me] when I open it. In my head there is the empty room that I decorate with sound. And the timeline of the music is the movement: moving forward like a tunnel.

So what is the overwhelming color of I AKA I ?
I think it's the full spectrum. It's really, really detailed. I would say this album is like looking into a microscope at some bacteria. It's very 3-dimensional. In electronic music, because it's such a free world and galaxy of sound and possibility, you can replicate life with details in sounds.

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