by Jeff Fitzgerald
From Aural Innovations #23 (April 2003)
One of the most adventurous and exciting groups in the thriving Montreal experimental rock scene, The Shalabi Effect weaves an enticing web of free improvised strangeness, pulling in Middle Eastern and North Indian influences, but turning them into endlessly inventive psychedelic excursions. The band consists of Anthony Seck on electric guitar; Sam Shalabi on oud (an Arabian acoustic stringed instrument somewhat like a lute), electronics and toys; Alexandre St. Onge on double bass and electronics; and Will Eizlini on percussion. Sonic texture, rhythm, and atmosphere play key roles in the bandís music. Blending natural, synthetic, electric, and acoustic sounds, they create intense, moody and beautifully mind-bending aural journeys that can range from the hauntingly melodic to trance-inducing jams to freeform noise and back again.
The Shalabi Effect (Alien8 Recordings, aliencd22)
Their self-titled debut began life as an intended split with another of Montrealís underground bands, Godspeed You Black Emperor! (in fact, Sophie Trudeau of Godspeed plays on one of the tracks). The Shalabi Effectís contribution was to be the nearly half-hour long Aural Florida, but they ended up recording enough stuff to produce their own expansive double CD. Things get spacey and psychedelic right from the get go with Wyoming, as thin threads of mystical electronics drape and stretch around tapping tablas and the warm acoustic sounds of the oud. Vicious Triangle is a frantic dronefest, with every musician playing a single note over and over again, as the sounds weave in and around each other, including the chiming of a triangle. Mending Holes in a Wooden Heart begins with some crazy, dissonant sounding violin fading in and out before the song journeys off into dreamy psychedelic territory. Aural Florida (Approach) is another droney excursion, with deeply distorted, scraping guitars and swirling electronics. Itís followed by the track that started it all, the 27-minute Aural Florida, which winds and meanders through numerous improvised sections from spaced out guitar and oud improvisations to Middle Eastern freakouts, building to its tripped out conclusion. And thatís just the first disk!
Disk two kicks off with the acoustic/electric Middle Eastern meltdown of Mokoondi and follows it with the moody and beautiful space voyage of Amber Pets. The Boardwalk at Apollo Beach and Apparitions are both dark, ambient excursions, the former with subtle freaky little touches throughout, the latter with crying, cavernous, deep space guitar. In direct contrast is the bouncy On the Bowery, with beautiful, dreamy guest vocals by Deirdre Smith (the only non-instrumental track on the album). Leaving a Horse to Die is a bizarre little trip with high pitched, reverberating slide guitar and somewhat broken percussion. Return to Wake Island is full of echoing effects, field recordings of natural forest sounds, distant percussive noises, insect-like electronics and eerie oud. In fact, this piece, more than any other on the album would lead the band in the directions they would take on their next effort. But before that, their debut closes with a meditative acoustic piece that breaks out into a faster jam toward the end, again with a very Middle Eastern flavor to it.
The Trial of St. Orange (Alien8 Recordings 2002, aliencd32)
The bandís second album, the Trial of St. Orange really picks up where Return to Wake Island left off. More experimental in nature, the album takes you into totally new realms of sound. It starts off fairly easy with Sundog Ash, another meditative acoustic piece, with distant bird cries fading in and out. They are joined by numerous other natural and synthetic chirps and twitterings on St. Orange, as reverbed percussion and sci-fi electronics take the piece into a Sun Ra kind of outer space. Mr. Titz (The Revelator) is an upbeat, ultra-cool Middle Eastern jam also full of strange sonic effects. One Last Glare sets a pretty oud melody against rhythmic tablas while trippy ambient sounds scurry by beneath. Sister Sleep has soft, liquid electronics and a dreamy night-time melody, with an odd instrumental sound that seems to mimic snoring, getting weirder and more distorted as the piece progresses. The tranquil feedback haze at the beginning of Uma gives way to a psychotic oud and guitar freakout, taking the listener finally to the last piece on the album, the 21-minute chillfest, A Glow in the Dark. This one takes the listener on a dark voyage through haunted lands unknown, with deep layers of effects and noises. Slowly, musical tones begin to emerge building ever so gradually into an ominous psychedelic landscape before drifting off into the shadows. A brief silence follows, and then the listener is treated to the first rays of light with a pastoral and melodic guitar/oud duet, a beautiful conclusion to what has come before.
Even as I was writing this article, The Shalabi Effect were in the studio laying down the material for their third album, and preparing for a European tour. Amidst recording and planning, the bandís percussionist, Will Eizlini took some time out to chat with me on the phone from his home in Montreal. We talked a lot about where the band has been, and some of the interesting places theyíre going.
Aural Innovations (AI): Letís start at the beginning. How did The Shalabi Effect get together?
Will Eizlini (WE): Iíve known Sam for a really long time, since about í94. He was a friend of other friends of mine. He met Anthony (Seck) probably around í96. They were neighbours, and at some point they just started playing together. Sam had just pretty much started picking up the oud, which wasnít his background. His background was more free jazz. Heís from Nova Scotia.
AI: What instrument did Sam play before the oud?
WE: He played electric guitar, mostly. Anthony plays electric guitar, but he was playing in a band at the time called Fuzz Aldrin, and he was playing a lot of the similar kind of space/echoey psychedelic sound that he brought into The Shalabi Effect. They started playing together, just the two of them, and they actually played together for a while around the town. They ended up calling themselves The Shalabi Effect, which came from a conversation Anthony was having with a friend of his, Victor, who was talking about something about the music, and Anthony said, ďOh, that must be the Shalabi effect,Ē referring to Samís playing, and Victor said-actually I donít even know who this guy Victor is-but apparently he said that would be a good name for the band and it stuck.
AI: So how did you get involved?
WE: I knew Sam for a while and at some point when I ran into him he said, ďOh, you play tablas, donít you? We should play, because Iím playing the oud.Ē So we started to play frequently at my place, just doing improv in a kind of Middle Eastern or, in my case, Indian, which is the same sort of paradigm of improv, which is to improvise on a mode and to play around with complexity and melody. We were doing that for a while, but neither of us was really good, because neither of us comes from a traditional background. Heís Egyptian, but he was just starting to play the oud and wasnít really trained. He learned most of it himself. And then at a certain point he asked me if I wanted to play in this project. A couple of months later Alex St. Onge joined the band. What we did was we recorded Aural Florida, which was a 30-minute piece that we recorded in Montreal. We were going to use that as a split release, but then we ended up doing some more recordings about two years later around í98, and just kind of left it. Then we decided to pull out of the split we were involved in, and decided instead to record a full-length. And, including Aural Florida, we recorded a bunch of stuff and decided we were going to do a double album.
AI: So that all happened around í98?
WE: Yeah, thatís when we started playing as a foursome.
AI: So what is this music video available on your web site, Qiyamat, from 1997?
WE: That was with Anthony and Sam before I started playing with them. Thatís what Anthony does for a living; he makes videos for bands. His goal is to direct his own feature film, so he kind of uses music video as a means to experiment with different kinds of film techniques and different forms of narrative. Heís been doing it for years, so for fun, and for his own trip, he made the videos for the band.
(Authorís note: the Shalabi Effect web site also has a video for On the Bowery, from the first album, as well as studio samples and live recordings available for download. http://www.shalabieffect.net)
AI: It says on the web site that Anthony has a very ďcinematic styleĒ. Would you say that describes his playing, or more his approach to video?
WE: Itís just his whole way of approaching music. A lot of times when we would do structured improv, he has this whole vocabulary to describe what we should do. And he would invoke scenes, maybe war scenes or some kind of desert crossing scene, and he used that almost as if we were scoring a movie. That would be the way he would think about things. Or the way he talks about how the music affects him when heís in an improv, itís very visual, the way he describes it. Itís almost as if heís really seeing the scenes in his head that the music inspires, which I guess is appropriate for someone whoís a cinematographer.
AI: You used the term ďstructured improvisationĒ. What do you mean by that?
WE: Itís really abstract. It can be almost anything, really. Itís a hook that we use so that were not just completely winging it when weíre playing. Our approach to what we call structure changes all the time, because as soon as you try one kind of structure-for example, a structure might be to describe a key or a mode and the instruments out of the four people that will be playing for a certain amount of time, and then you imagine some kind of transition, so you might say, ďIntro with electric guitar and oud, as we did in Aural Florida, then comes the tabla, and that sort of peaks and then it drops out and then itís a double bass drone with some other sort of percussion. You imagine some distinct sub-sections and how theyíre going to be moving together. A lot of times they work, but they kind of work on first take-they donít really work again and again. Sometimes itís a matter of the way in which we approach it. We might say, okay, weíre not actually going to say whatís happening, but weíre going to say how itís starting. So we might say weíre going to do a piece that lasts about 20-minutes, and weíll start with Alex St. Ongeís insect-like generated noise on his computer, or some other electronics that heíd been playing with. Weíll start with that, and I might say Iíll bow cymbal, and weíll see where it goes. So thatís a structure. We might say letís play something that has a particular mood, like letís pretend weíre on this deserted island and itís really scary and you know, whatever. Or we might start with an idea, like a sample or a loop, and use that as a base.
AI: So is this the kind of approach you take all the time?
WE: We kind of go in and out of fashion with this because what happens is that sometimes, we become really un-spontaneous and hold back if weíre expecting certain cues or transitions to happen during an improv. So at certain points, weíll just be like, letís do whatever, and completely play free, and it might even be really chaotic, but thereís also some really awesome moments that happen because of all this pent up improvisation that hasnít been able to be free. But it can become so noisy and chaotic that we feel people arenít listening, so then we have to rein it in again. So it kind of goes in cycles. We come back to things, go away from things, and try new approaches.
AI: Why were eastern a Middle Eastern modes chosen as general starting points to improvise from?
WE: It was really just where the musicians were at. Sam was obsessed with oud. He comes from an Egyptian background so he was just getting into it, just discovering how to play it. I was just starting to take the tabla seriously, and we met, and heíd been playing with Anthony-it was just really a string of coincidences about what people were into and what things work. But upon deeper reflection, if you think about the idea of music thatís supposed to produce a kind of mood or youíre trying to do an improvisation that holds its own in the same way that a song holds its own, both Arabic music and Indian music have long traditions of structured improv and they have little tricks or techniques or patterns that are used in different traditions or different provinces. The mode is basically a scale. In Indian music it would be a raga, in Arabic music it would be a maquam, both being characterized by being pretty much ďdronyĒ all the way through, so it lends itself to psychedelic music; it lends itself well to creating an atmosphere with a lot of echo in terms of the guitar to create drony, trippy music, which is basically what we do.
AI: How does a raga or a maquam differ from a ďwestern scaleĒ?
WE: Both the raga and the maquam often differ from what we consider a western scale because itís uneven compared to western music, or untempered, so thereís a lot of playing around with quarter tones that you canít play on the piano, so that adds a specific emotional color that you donít necessarily find in western music at all. People donít even really have an ear for it. A lot of times, before they become accustomed to that kind of tonality, they often think itís off, because certain notes are a little bit flat; theyíre like between notes. Both traditions, well, I donít know as much about the Arabic tradition, but in a raga there are certain patterns of notes in a scale, but there are also a whole bunch of melodies that go along with it that people know and learn. Itís ways of playing it, and ways of approaching the playing in different speeds. More specifically, itís set to invoke a mood. In deep courtly times, they would have these players play at very specific times of day playing specific ragas that were appropriate. They had it very precisely worked out.
AI: What got you interested in playing the tablas?
WE: I spent an evening once just listening to a record of a few really good players of Indian music, and one of the players was Zakir Hussain on tablas, and I just completely flipped when I heard this music. You know, I was completely overwhelmed. There was some gift money that I had and I just went out and bought a set of tablas. I just decided I had to learn them. They were playing so fast, and so intricately, I was hooked. I had to learn.
AI: Did you have a musical background before that?
WE: I played piano when I was a kid, and I did a lot of singing and stuff in high school. I did a lot of theater as well in high school. For years Iíd been playing around on guitar. I played bass in a punk band before that. So, I loved music and Iíd played before, but never had I played percussion. I got the tablas quite early on though-I got them in í93. But I first started taking them seriously probably around í98 when I started playing with Sam regularly. Actually, I didnít have a teacher for the longest time-I didnít know anybody who knew how to play tablas. Except of course, I could have gone to India, which a lot of people were doing. But what I did is I would take solos by Zakir Hussain and I would have a kind of a Dictaphone probably much like the one youíre using now, but I had this thing where I could slow it down but it would kind of artificially boost the pitch. So I could slow it down, but it wouldnít be really low, it remained at pretty much the same pitch. So I was slowing down tabla solos to try to figure out what he was doing. I would take tiny bits of it and try to reproduce it and use those as riffs.
AI: What kind of electronics do you play with?
WE: I usually use a mini-disc with samples that I either play or that I loop. I also have a contact mike that I play with different things. I usually put it on a cymbal and bow the cymbal and treat it electronically, or play with some kind of Chinese balls or something and stick a contact mike on them, and put it through some kind of delay. Little things like that. Alex and Sam have much more sophisticated electronic set-ups. Alex in particular now uses a laptop and he uses a lot of different sculpting software. He uses Max a lot, which is like semi-programming different modules that will generate different signals and/or take a signal and pass it through different virtual devices that you connect by yourself. Itís a kind of visual programming editor. Itís very interesting.
AI: You said earlier that in a structured improvisation, you often would set a mood or focus on some images before starting to play. Can you pick a specific piece and tell me what you guys did to prepare for that?
WE: Well, Aural Florida would be the obvious piece to talk about, as it was the most obviously structured in that way, but we so donít do that kind of thing anymore that it seems kind of strange to talk about it. I can describe exactly what we did for Aural Florida. We knew we had a half-hour piece. We had a piece of paper that was split up into two main sections, but it said, guitar intro, and then oud comes in, and the key was, I think D-dark D. It said ďDesert, helicopters, bloodĒ or something like this. And then it said, Anthony and Sam play for two minutes, come in the tabla for another 5 minutes, and then it said crescendo and drop out, in comes Alex with a drone and then with Brian (Highbloom) who was a friend of ours guesting on that recording playing Tibetan bowl and me playing clay pot with guitar coming in eventually, so that lasting about 5 minutes, and then 5-minute oud solo, and then switching to G. He wrote ďSad GĒ and few other metaphors, which I canít remember. Maybe it was Sad D and Dark G, I canít remember, but then everyone comes in after Sam finishes his 5-minute solo for the duration of the piece. So that was something that we had written out in all the different sections. We recorded it, and then we recorded it 3 or 4 more times, but each time it got worse. Then we tried to do other similar structures like that, but they seemed so clichť, because we either came up with stuff that was way too complicated, or whenever it would say guitar and oud together playing in a certain mode, it would always be kind of the same thing. So we started to feel really stifled by that. So thatís when we started breaking things apart, bringing more things into it. For a period, we vowed that we would abandon structure completely.
AI: So what happened?
WE: Well then we recorded the first album. Basically, just about every piece on that album when we recorded we would be like, okay, letís play a quiet piece, or there was Vicious Triangle where the idea was specifically that everyone play just one note and drone for a really long time. Later on, actually, we added the triangle, because I had been playing triangle in the original jam and later on I switched to other percussion, but then the ringing of the triangle going at this frantic pace like everything else was really good, so that was kind of a conceptual idea. There were other pieces, especially on the second CD, that were just free improves.
AI: The Trial of St. Orange seems to have a bit more of an experimental edge than the first album.
WE: The Trial of St. Orange was different. We didnít spend four days in the studio, we spent one day in the studio, and it was at the tail end of a tour. We were cold, exhausted-weíd just toured the States, so we were broke, and we all wanted to get home but we were delayed by a snowstorm, so we went into the studio instead. We basically had a three-hour session in the studio. We recorded a bunch of stuff, and took the best moments of that. We recorded basically three live shows, and we werenít feeling particularly inspired, so we decided to do another last thing, so we recorded what became A Glow in the Dark, and that piece was virtually untouched, left the way it was, and thatís a lot of how we sounded on that first US tour. We also had an NFB (National Film Board) nature documentary that was kind of funny and mixed different great shots of nature with these really cheesy shots of people skiing down slopes and stuff like that. What we would do, was when we played live we would have this movie projecting on us, and we did that again in the studio. So that obviously contributed to the mood, because it kind of invoked all the different places weíd played on tour, being bathed in that same movie and getting into that mood. So in that sense, we were trying to capture the mood of the tour and the kind of things that were going on musically.
AI: Do you feel you successfully captured that mood?
WE: Oh yeah, absolutely-especially A Glow in the Dark. That was a really, really creepy piece.
AI: I love A Glow in the Dark. Itís my favorite piece off The Trial of St. Orange.
WE: Mine too, definitely. I still really enjoy listening to it. Iíll sit back late at night, and roll a little joint by myself, and listen to it on headphones. It freaks the living shit out of me sometimes.
AI: What is that little end bit to A Glow in the Dark. It comes in after a few moments of silence, and itís much more melodic.
WE: That was a guitar and oud piece that Anthony and Sam had done in the country by themselves, and we threw that on because it was really beautiful and we felt that piece (A Glow in the Dark) needed a little redemption. Itís kind of nice little thing to close it up.
AI: Youíve just finished recording your third album. What kind of approach to the music did you take this time?
WE: The new album was a completely different experience in the studio, because rather than doing a bunch of free improvs, this time we decided to come in with full on compositions. Thatís our starting point right now. In fact, right now as it stands, itís very melodic, although I am sure that will probably change as we sequence and mix stuff together, and add stuff and remove stuff, and do different kinds of things on it. We actually came in with different compositions and had very strong ideas about how we were going to do it, because itís something that we donít really do, so we wanted to go there.
AI: So each new Shalabi Effect album seems to represent a new approach to creating music.
WE: Yeah, although on March 2nd, we played a lot of the songs we recorded, live. Which we had never done before, weíd never actually played songs before. And it was good, but we all felt a little bit weird about it. We felt like itís not something we really want to do-we donít want to be a ďsong-playing bandĒ. So, even though the third album was constructed that way, I donít think weíre going to take that approach particularly when weíre playing live. I think weíre still going to keep a sort of a freer approach. When we were in Europe last year, we found, especially near the end, we could put a significant amount of structure into the show, but we couldnít do it more than half an hour before the show. Because if we tried to talk about it while we were on the road, and then try to save those ideas and play them that night, it would be as though the weather had changed and you had decided you were going to go swimming, but now it was raining. The mood we had gotten into, showing up had the club had changed, so we in fact didnít really play what we had decided earlier that day. So thatís part of the reason why we were reluctant to keep to any kind of form because what we do is really moody and depends on how what we feel like playing at the time.
AI: On the Bowery, from your first album, is the only track youíve done with vocals. I mention it now because it certainly strikes me as a little more song-oriented than anything else youíve recorded. Is that kind of the direction youíre taking with the new album?
WE: We have a couple of tunes with vocals on the new album, but with very different style, which I think will be a little bit surprising too. Stylistically, the kinds of stuff weíre doing on the new album is stuff that weíve never done before. I think itís definitely still recognizably Shalabi Effect. But itís really bizarre. I mean, we have a tune thatís basically like a 60ís go-go pop tune. Weíre going to stick horns and violins on there, just because weíve always wanted to do that, secretly. But itís not something we would necessarily do live.
AI: So what is the projected time-line on the new album?
WE: I really donít know, to be honest with you. Thereís the idea to maybe release it this fall, or late this year. It might go into 2004 as well. These things take a while, and you never know what your post schedule is going to be. Right now, weíre just at the stage where weíve just laid the foundation, we did some rough mixes, and now comes the time to really play around with the ideas.
AI: Plus youíre getting ready for another European tour, right?
WE: Yeah, weíre getting ready to tour again, which is really exciting.
AI: Is there a big following in Europe?
WE: I donít think so. We played eight shows last tour. We toured for three weeks and we only played eight shows. So it was pretty relaxed, but nonetheless, touring is always exhausting. But some gigs, it didnít seem like there was a lot of people there. Some shows there were, but some places we played with other bands, and Iím sure it was them who was drawing the crowd. But, weíll see this time. Obviously last time was our first time, so no one knew who we were. This is actually the first time weíre going to be touring in the UK, so Iím looking forward to that.
AI: How are audiences in Canada and the US?
WE: We only toured once after the first album and there we had really small audiences, so it was really hard to say what the deal was, but the people were really nice. People who come to the shows in general are pretty nice wherever you go, if they like what they hear. Obviously people in North America are perhaps a little less reserved about going up and talking to musicians than they might be like in Europe, but the other side of it, from the bandís point of view, is in Europe you get treated so well. They have more money to spend on promoting the show.
AI: Because Sam loans his own name to the name of the band, a lot of people assume he must be the bandís ďleaderĒ, but this a mistake, isnít it?
WE: Oh yeah. Other mistakes people make is Sam often loans his name for a lot of projects, so he might be playing an evening with Kristian/Shalabi/St. Onge, which is a trio thatís also on the Alien8 label, and then people come to the show and say, ďHey Will, I didnít see you!Ē
AI: How would you describe the band dynamic then?
WE: Weíre four incredibly different people, but four people who have very strong ideas of what music should be. So, itís pretty harmonious, but I think thereís definitely four strong voices. If something doesnít work, itís not because thereís any kind of antagonism in the band, itís because thereís something musically thatís not working, or an approach to playing thatís not working. But those moments happen because itís improv as well. We get frustrated when things donít work. Thatís just the risk of improv, but that makes us move forward. But itís great because we seem to be able to do it very well, at least from our perspective, we seem to be able to play and really let everyone pretty much do whatever they want to do, without anyone having to take the lead. But interestingly, on this most recent album it was very much like at a certain point someone would take the producer role, and would sort of tell other people what to play on the tune, because that was the idea they brought in. So we all took turns with our little ideas, and recorded them, and it was really fun.
AI: So what was one of the ideas that you brought in?
WE: I had a couple of ideas. One of them formed the basis of a song that we actually tried out live once. So this song has this recreation of a loop that we played. Itís actually a loop that I grabbed out of a jazz record of bass and snare. So we played it and re-sampled it ourselves. That plays the basis of a tune, that bass and snare pattern that loops repeatedly, and a song develops. But Anthony added this other layer of writing lyrics and getting a singer to sing vocals on top of it. A different type of singer than Deirdre (Smith), who was on the first album. A much darker, alto voice, so itís a very sultry, dark, film noir, suspenseful kind of thing. The other idea I brought in was a piece that was based on a violin tremolo sample that I had, that I would loop for awhile as well. Eventually we want to do it live. Those are just two little ideas. But Sam, for example, he composes music, so he composed two pieces; Anthony came in with two fully composed pieces, and Alex had worked out some conceptual pieces, so they all had much more developed ideas than I did.
AI: Sounds interesting. Iím looking forward to hearing it.
WE: I think itís kind of our tribute album, the new one. Itís not that we did any covers, but thereís just pieces that are inspired by specific influences.
AI: So what artistsí influences creep into the new album?
WE: I hate answering this question because Iím the idiot for remembering this kind of stuff. Everyone else, especially Sam and Alex are kind of musical librarians in the way they know so much about the history of music. But, Sam wrote a piece that is inspired by his current fascination with Morton Feldman. Thereís a piece that he wrote on there also that he calls ďthe Burt Bacharach pieceĒ, but I donít really know Burt Bacharach, so I donít know. But thatís the piece I call a kind of 60ís pop summer go-go tune. Thereís some other stuff that Alex did, but I donít really know what he would consider his main influences on that. Those are kind of the main or specific tributes. And we have that sample piece thatís kind of a jazzy film noir feel, which draws from dark 50ís jazz.
AI: Sounds like itís going to be a very cool listen. I think weíll wrap things up here. Thanks very much Will.
WE: No problem. Take care.