Ahmed Gallab chronicles his musical activities since leaving Columbus, including stints with Caribou, Of Montreal and Yeasayer, and the work that went into his latest incarnation of Sinkane.
Saturday marks the return of former Band to Watch Sinkane after a four-year break from Columbus shows. Ahmed Gallab has been up to a lot since leaving Columbus to drum for Caribou (he later joined Of Montreal for a while, then became a permanent fixture of Yeasayer). But all the while he's been working on his music when he gets a moment, and now he has an (almost released) album and a new band to show for it.
I talked to Gallab to preview Saturday's show at Carabar; the full text of our chat is below.
Alive: I heard you might have signed with a label. Is that correct?
Sinkane: I haven't signed with anyone yet, but I'm in talks with a label right now. I've had such a bad time with all this s--- that I don't really want to jinx it and talk about it yet. But I am hoping, I'm crossing my fingers that very soon I won't have that problem anymore once I've signed a contract. It's coming together.
Alive: But the album's all done and ready to go?
Sinkane: Yeah, the album's been done for a year now, actually. It's been, I think literally, seriously like a year. Almost even longer than a year. I finished it initially two Februarys ago, like February 2011. By the end of the month I was done with it. And then I went back and I had obviously a bunch of edits and stuff. I think pretty much right around the time Yeasayer got off of tour in May 2011 it was pretty much in the can. So it's been like an intense process of figuring out what to do with it and how to play the songs live and get a good live band. I've had a few runs with a few labels where they seemed interested but it just ended up falling apart, which is kind of annoying. But now it seems like things are picking up and good things are happening.
Alive: You mentioned the new live band. How much have you guys played out? Has it been pretty much all in New York?
Sinkane: We've played only three shows at this point, which is pretty funny. We've played two shows in New York. Our first show was a random show at a small club here in New York. Then we played this festival called Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, which is curated by the Dessner brothers from The National, which was really fun. It was an amazing experience to play that festival. We had a really good time, and we played pretty well. And then last weekend we went to Atlantic City and played with Sleigh Bells at the House of Blues there. That was pretty cool too. They're really good friends of mine, so it's really fun to go play with them and hang out with them again. It's like really, really, really early on so there's a lot of work that needs to happen with the band. There's a lot of stuff that needs to be fleshed out. It's very different from playing in Columbus with Columbus musicians. New York musicians are a lot different. Wrangling people to get rehearsals down can be really difficult. Everyone is really, really good, like their musicianship is pretty high caliber, so everyone is playing in another really good band as well. So it makes it really hard, but it's worth it in the long run.
Alive: So this Midwest run you're doing, including the Carabar show, is kind of like a tune-up, almost?
Sinkane: Yeah, well, I'm really just eager to play. The way this band is going to keep better is if we keep playing shows. We can rehearse all we want, which I want to do as well, but the way a band gets really good is if you play as many shows as possible. Regardless if they're good or bad, it allows a lot of what needs to be worked on to surface, you know? It's kind of like, you sand a piece of wood down and then you rub it with a damp cloth, and then a bunch of grain comes back up and you have to sand it down again. That's what it's like playing a show, and more and more shows. A lot of things come to the surface that you wouldn't really think about during rehearsals.
Also, I haven't played a show in Columbus in a long time. Carabar's the first place we ever had a Sinkane show in Ohio. Now that there's another incarnation of the band, I'd really like to come back and play at Carabar before I play anywhere else in Columbus.
Alive: You mentioned the process of trying to put the band together and how hard it is to wrangle people for practice time. How did these musicians end up in the band?
Sinkane: Jaytram, the drummer, I played with in Yeasayer. We met the first day of rehearsals playing in Yeasayer. We became really good friends very quickly. Since then, that guy's like my brother. We've traveled the world together. We've dealt with a lot of s--- together. We have a really solid friendship, and we both respect each other musically. So I met him through Yeasayer.
The guitar player, his name is Mikey. We met randomly at a bar I was DJing at two years ago. There was this bar that's in the city that I used to DJ at that has a guy come in and play piano during happy hour and stuff. He was playing piano, and he was playing something, and I just went and talked to him. We realized we had a lot in common, and we just started talking about music and stuff, and just kept in touch. And Kellen, the bass player, I met through a mutual friend of ours. There's a really amazing avant-garde jazz scene in New York, in Brooklyn in particular. A lot of young kids are playing really interesting music, and Kellen is kind of tapped into that with a bunch of people. So I just kind of got passed on the information for him, and we just kind of became friends very easily as well.
So it was kind of like, it was me really just doing a lot of research and trying to find - I asked so many different people to play in the band. And there was a time when the band was six people, and it just wasn't quite working out. I tried to go really hard and milk whatever kind of relationships I had with people who had any sort of musical background. And it just didn't work out. And then, when the four of us just kind of came into a room together, it sounded really, really good. And it almost made me think, "How come I couldn't find this earlier?" But it's pretty cool how it's working out.
Alive: Were these guys around when you were making the record?
Sinkane: Jaytram was. He played drums on a bunch of the songs. Mikey and Kellen don't play on the album at all. The two of them, I met them last fall. And we didn't get together to play seriously until maybe the winter time. They will be involved hopefully on the next album.
Alive: You worked on the record for a while, and you had to fit it in between Yeasayer commitments. How difficult was it to schedule time for Sinkane?
Sinkane: That wasn't really much of an issue. The big thing was right around the time I finished playing with Of Montreal, I wanted to start working on this album then. I was really confused as to what I wanted to do, and I wasn't really happy with how I did the last few albums. So it was a lot of me just figuring out and doing a bunch of research - that sounds really academic, but - doing research on exactly what I wanted to do and what I was actually trying to do instead of creating another super long-winded record that seemed like it was endless jamming, you know? With Yeasayer there was a lot of touring, but we have a month off at a time here and there. When I had that month off I would spend it every day working on the album and writing and editing and doing whatever I could to make things work. So the scheduling wasn't too difficult. I think it was actually pretty nice. Right as the time things started winding down with Yeasayer, I would figure out exactly what I wanted to do with the album. So we'd come back from tour and I'd have just a perfect amount of time to work on exactly what I needed to do. And then when we stopped touring completely, it was exactly the right time for me to work on finishing the record and everything.
Alive: Explain what you mean when you're talking about changing the approach from the last records. It sounds like you wanted it to be more concise, for one thing.
Sinkane: It was just a lot of jamming. I guess I was really eager to make my music, so I just spent a lot of time getting out anything. I didn't really think about the songs, I just wanted to create something. And what I wanted to do with the new one was to have definitely more concise songs and to sing more, have more movement, not just one part that goes on for 10 minutes. And to still maintain the ideas I had from the last two, you know, as far as the whole jazz idea and like the krautrock elements and stuff. The new album is definitely a lot groovier, and it draws from some more of the soul kind of influence that I like. And I think when you start thinking about that kind of thing, I think you don't have any choice but to just write concisely and write a song that has a simple structure. It's easier for people to releate to, and it's much more challenging to play than to just play the same thing over and over again for 25 minutes, you know?
Alive: I think "Runnin'" is a good example of what you're talking about. Obviously the remixes extend the length significantly, but the actual track itself is really tight and to the point.
Sinkane: Exactly, and that's a big thing. I worked with Greg Lofaro on the album. Greg played with me in Sweetheart, and he helped produce the record. His whole thing with me was, we came to an agreement that if anything happened, it had to happen for a reason. If anything repeated, it had to for a reason. It just seemed like a lot of the parts are very purposeful. They don't repeat because they don't need to - some sort of exercise in reaction to the last couple of records. And it was really fun. It was really fun to work on the album and to do something that was completely different for me, from what I've come to understand musically. I got to a point that made me understand exactly how I want to move forward with writing songs. So it's cool.
Alive: Did the stints that you've done playing in other people's bands inform that creation process at all?
Sinkane: Oh yeah, definitely. Playing in Yeasayer was really beneficial in that regard. I mean, they're very into simplicity. I think when we started working together and I got given the record to like learn the parts and stuff, I didn't realize when I got to rehearsal that it would be such a simple process. They're very into simplicity, and the way they organize their music is very easy to digest. And they're really good. Anand in particular, Anand Wilder, I think he's a great pop songwriter. He's got a really great ear for sounds, and he can make a simple song structure very, very compelling. And that definitely influenced me.
Of Montreal as well, as far as writing really solid melodies, like understanding how to combine a slew of influences into making something that's new and fresh. And obviously Caribou - I guess more than anything, they've taught me everything I've known in the music business beyond the DIY. It was a really good introduction to work with them. They're just completely amazing sound architects, man. They know exactly what they're doing, and they do very, very interesting and compelling things with their music as far as a record goes, and even more so when they play live. Ultimately, I look upon them to make more interesting music and to make my live show as interesting as theirs. They always just get better. Every single record and every single tour it's just more interesting and more compelling.
Alive: I remember talking to you at some point along the way and you talking about how it was worth it to put Sinkane on delay to spend some time with these other bands and how eventually it would be advantageous for Sinkane. Do you feel like that's playing out how you imagined?
Sinkane: Yeah, it definitely is. I think that it worked out a little bit differently than I expected. I learned a hell of a lot in the last three years working with all these bands. I guess I was a little too cocky. I thought I was ready for it, like I was ready to just kind of jump into this world of professional music and things would be very easy for me. But I had a really, really intense reality check many, many times. And I learned a hell of a lot of how to do it and how to be in a band on that kind of level. Totally different from what it was for me in the past. And that more than anything for me has helped. That more than anything has been worth it. Now I can kind of approach this project going forward with that kind of knowledge, you know? With a lot of experience. It's kind of like going to school or something.
And obviously it hasn't hurt my status at all to say that I've played with these other bands. It makes it very easy for me to promote the music and to get people to listen to the records. I mean, all the press I've been getting the past six months has been really based on the fact that I've been playing with Yeasayer for the past few years. Without that I probably would hardly get any attention, I think. So yeah, it's absolutely been worth it. I'm really blessed and really lucky to have had that opportunity, and to continue to have that opportunity to get asked to play with other bands.
Alive: You have Twin Shadow on the record. Did you have any other guests?
Sinkane: Yeah, George, Twin Shadow played a guitar solo on one song that is pretty amazing. And Ira from Yeasayer he played bass on "Jeeper Creeper." He re-tracked the bass lines. He's a much better bass player than I am. Roberto Lange from Helado Negro sings on a song. That's pretty cool. And Jaytram plays a bunch of drums on it. And then there are a couple of other people. This guy named Spuds McGee who's a really phenomenal flute and saxophone player, and Elliott Bergman who's in Wild Belle and Nomo played saxophone on a couple of songs. And Justin Walter, one of the other members of Nomo, played trumpet. So, a lot of that kind of thing. It was probably like 80 percent of me doing stuff and then all of the bells and whistles and things that are really striking to a song, all of the ornate arrangements happened by a bunch of other people.
Alive: Since the album has been done for a year, do you have other stuff brewing? And if it exists, is it creeping into what the band does live?
Sinkane: We haven't been playing anything beyond the "Mars" album. And I have been working on the new album, and I would hope to get it done soon. My approach for the new album is a lot different from anything I've ever done. I want to record it with the band. I've been doing this thing where I'll demo the songs only up to a point and keep them in a file, and once I reach my goal in writing the amount of songs I want to write, I'm going to give it to the band, and we'll all play the songs live and flesh the rest of the songs out together. That's something that's been on my mind, and I'm working on it diligently, but although it's a really old record for me now I've been listening to it forever, I understand that it's really, really new for everyone else. I mean, nobody's heard more than one or two songs. I'm really eager to get the "Mars" record out and the attention that it actually deserves before we can move on to the new one.