Many Heathen Harvest readers will know from personal experience that being a fan of unpopular and extreme music can lead to persecution. Maybe your parents used to yell up the stairs at you to turn that racket down. Maybe you were mocked or bullied at school because of your musical tastes or way of dressing. Maybe the people you work with shun you as a weirdo. Not many people living in the western world, though, have been investigated by the powers that be and threatened with jail because of the music they create or listen to – with a few notable exceptions, such as Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV, The Dead Kennedys and the death metal band Desecration. Yet that is exactly what happened to a young Lebanese musician called Osman Arabi, who records under the pseudonym Xardas.
One of Xardas’ many projects is the post-apocalyptic industrial noise machine 20.SV, named after the level of radioactive contamination (20 sieverts) which will cause death in 100% of human subjects within seven days. 20.SV was founded in the year 2000, and the project’s debut release, a demo tape entitled Acid Vomit, appeared on Cthulhic Dawn Productions in 2005. This was followed by a number of other cassette releases. In 2006, Xardas signed a deal with the American label Autumn Wind Productions to re-release six recordings on CD. The first of these re-releases, Acid Vomit.Human Genocide, appeared in 2006, garnering critical praise for its harsh and corrosive sound, and also attracting the attention of the Lebanese authorities, who seized copies of the album and interrogated Xardas. After this incident, 20.SV recordings were banned in Lebanon, with the release of further material being officially classified as an ‘act of terror’.
Insects, the second 20.SV CD, was released by Autumn Wind Productions later in 2006, with Apocalyptic Desert following in 2008. Xardas also has a ritual ambient project Seeker, which released Invocation Of The Sleeper through Autumn Wind Productions in 2007. An album entitled Burning Sigils, recorded as Osman Arabi, was released by English label FracturedSpacesRecords in 2008.
Heathen Harvest: Salaam aleikum, Xardas! I think a lot of people, if they haven't heard of you already, will be surprised to learn that extreme noise music is being produced in Lebanon. Can you describe the development of your interest in music – what did you listen to at a young age, how did your tastes develop, and how did you end up making the kind of music that you make now?
Xardas: Hello Simon. No need for the ‘Salaam aleikum’ part though, I'm not a religious person, and I do not come in peace myself either, ha ha. I think people seriously need to get over the geographical part; we’re all humans after all, but well, I can understand that to a certain degree.
My interest in music started at a very early age, it’s a long story that is going to bore the shit out of everyone… I got my very first guitar at the age of two years or so, due to my continuous mentioning of the word music since the day I started uttering words. Sure I couldn’t play it; I was just happy making sounds with it. It was pretty much a natural thing for me…
At the age of six, my interest in music became much more focused, and this is when I started actually buying tapes. I didn’t care what kind of music I got. I used to get whatever I saw, without having the slightest idea about it. I used to buy tapes of The Beatles, Indian music, Greek music, Spanish music, Michael Jackson etc… lots of random tapes that I would listen to non-stop on my Walkman. I never knew what I wanted, nor did I have anyone to help me out or advise me. I just liked hearing new things.
Then, at the age of ten, I accidentally heard on the radio a hard rock/heavy metal program while I was rewinding a Michael Jackson tape. That was THE magic moment for me that changed my entire life. I had never, ever heard that kind of music before, I didn’t even know what they called it, I simply found myself headbanging like a maniac in my bed at one in the morning, with the volume on high. The very next day, I went to the usual music store that I bought stuff from and asked the owner to give me a tape that had lots of screams and crazy guitars. He laughed, and told me to look at a certain shelf and check out a band called Iron Maiden. I looked at all those Maiden tape covers and immediately knew that this was what I was looking for. I bought three Iron Maiden tapes and ran home faster than a rocket.
After that day, I kept going back to the store to get tapes with the ugliest and most evil or weird-looking covers. That’s how I used to pick them up, and that’s how I ended up knowing Metallica, Slayer, Sepultura, Megadeth and all those well-known thrash and speed metal bands from back then. Things progressed and I started digging heavier and more extreme stuff. I started getting magazines, reading interviews, playing electric guitar and learning as much as possible about all this music, while forming one band after the other.
But there was a perennial problem with all the things I used to buy. It always sounded way too soft for me after a year or so, no matter how extreme it was. When I first heard Immolation, Morbid Angel, Suffocation, Monstrosity, Repulsion, Napalm Death, Necrovore, Hellhammer, Carcass and all those extreme bands, I thought that things couldn’t get any more extreme. A year later I found myself listening to Abruptum on repeat from morning to evening, and still I kept asking for more. Even my own bands started sounding so soft to my ears, even though they were the heaviest local bands that anyone could possibly think of back then.
I wanted to move forward, but it became impossible for me to have anyone playing with me at the speed and intensity that I wanted. I had band members quitting music altogether, after figuring out that they were unable to play the stuff I used to play, including all those Steve Vai fanatics. I was a very technical guitar player, shitting 20 sophisticated riffs in less than a minute. No-one here was able to cope with that. We were all young, and no-one was into the music that I was into back then. It was always way too extreme for everyone. Even when I decided to slow things down and play some heavy droning shit, it was way too much for people. I used to have a band with three bass players and two drummers – it lasted three weeks. At the last rehearsal, the drummer cried because he couldn’t stand the noise, and me screaming and shouting at him for being so sloppy. I threw a cymbal at him and killed the band, and swore to work on my own from that day.
I began recording some tracks at home using my stereo and a blank tape. A few months later, I realized that it was all primitive expression, and not enough to express what I had in mind. Having a guitar, bass, drums and a vocalist sounded so one-dimensional to my ears. It was like going in circles and following certain rules. It didn’t suit me, I wanted different sounds. I got sick of the distorted guitar power chords, so bored with measures, tempos, the traditional perception of music and sound. I got sick of how metal was becoming one big pile of stagnant sewage – the same shit all over again. A dog barking and a blastbeat pumping out behind his ass. It became more than ridiculous to me.
One day I was bitching about all of this to a friend of mine who used to play in one of my bands, and he said that he had some software that made weird sounds. He didn’t know how to use it, and he didn’t have any interest in it, but would I be interested in taking it? I took it, started learning how to deal with it and cracked one sample after the other. It took me a day to know that with this kind of technology, I’d finally be able to make harsh sounds, weird sounds, different types of frequencies, and so many things, without needing anyone else. The options looked endless for me, and I got much more into sound than music. I stopped giving a fuck about the whole ‘music’ term. It became a retarded and outdated definition in my book.
Slowly I became better with this whole music software thing. I tried messing with keyboards for a while, but again, they were too funny for me to use. I didn’t want to make sounds that anyone out there could make and use. It became clear to me that I needed to create my very own sounds in order to express this whole insanity in me. All those spirits in me, all those faces of me, all those masks I wore every day, I wanted them out of my head. Yet I wanted to fuck people’s minds up, and I wanted to literally see their ears bleed at the same time. It became a mission, a belief, a form of ritual that had to be performed and delivered across the globe. And here I am, pushing buttons and blowing speakers up, and still I want more.
HH: It’s interesting that you came from a background in extreme metal – other musicians I've interviewed have described a similar process of seeking out ever heavier and more intense music. When, though, did your interest shift to industrial music and noise? Can you remember when you first encountered music like that, and what your reaction was? Have there been any noise musicians whose work has really inspired and influenced your own work?
XA: This might come as a real surprise to many, but the truth is that I’m a complete outsider when it comes to the noise and industrial scene. There was never any shift in my taste actually. I only found out about the existence of something called harsh noise/power electronics/death industrial when people namedropped bands in those genres after listening to 20.SV. I would get emails and reviews from people mentioning some power electronics band or something like that, and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the hell they were talking about. So I started checking these bands out, and getting as much info about them and that entire scene as possible. I started buying tapes and CDs and checking out samples of these bands, and I was really disappointed.
I didn’t like this stuff at all, it sounded way too soft to my ears. It lacked atmosphere and density. Most of the albums I heard were real minimal primitive noise. Just a few layers of feedback done in the old analogue way, looped over and over and over and over again, with some distorted vocals. I couldn’t sense hate in that, or anything dark. To me, it was just noise, random sounds done in a very old-fashioned way that presented no challenge to my ears, and it certainly wasn’t even close to the things I wanted to listen to. Most of the bands simply used a guitar, or a few metal things smashed and cracked with some distorted synthesizer sounds. That was real easy listening for me. I could do that on my own in a few minutes – it brought no challenge to my ears or spirit.
My work with Stalaggh went way beyond all of that. I’m rooted in the deepest depths of the black metal underground – the stuff you hear there is far more extreme, sonically and ideologically, than any harsh noise band out there. I’ve noticed that most of those noise bands are into perverted sex or simple social hatred. There isn’t really anything extreme or shocking to me or stimulating. I mean, if you grew up listening to Abruptum, early Barathrum, Von and Beherit, among many other bands, would any harsh noise band compete with them on any level?
Maybe I’m not knowledgeable enough in that noise scene, but I know that I checked out a lot of those cult bands in the genre, and they didn’t impress me. Maybe if I’d heard this stuff at a very early age my opinion would have been different, but after listening to early Morbid, early Mayhem, early Beherit, early Sepultura, early Impaled Nazarene, Hellhammer, Legion666, Terrorgoat, Conqueror, Revenge, Blasphemy, Hate Eternal, Suffocation, Khanate, Immolation, Belketre, Antaeus, early Darkthrone, Bazzah, Ildjarn, Von, early Carcass, Napalm Death, and countless other bands, there’s no way to find anything challenging in the noise scene, at least for me.
The underground black metal realm is home of the sick, perverted psychos and lunatics. The atmosphere created there hasn’t ever been topped by anyone else. You either hear extreme dark stuff, or material filled with nothing but power and hatred, or complete negativity. Take Conqueror’s ‘War Cult Supremacy’ as a fine example… that album is pure noise, it has no structure, no melody, but it has what this whole noise scene lacks: INTENSE HATRED and POWER!!! It has a soul, an attitude and it delivers it perfectly.
I checked out Genocide Organ, for example. I was expecting something to blow my speakers up and make me run away or shit in my pants, but it didn’t happen. I almost fell asleep. No offence to the band of course, it’s just not my thing. I prefer sticking to Mortician instead. Whitehouse musically wasn’t challenging for me for example, but the vocal hatred there cannot but be respected. You feel hatred! You can relate to the lyrics with disgust, you can smell the filth in you.
To me, noise is just noise – no more, no less. That’s why I keep saying that if anyone wants to categorize 20.SV and put a tag on it, which is almost impossible, it had better be related to extreme metal, as that’s where I come from, not noise. I can’t relate to any noise/industrial scene. I’m an alien to that genre, and I can’t see any of my art fitting there. This might sound like a real arrogant statement here, but I don’t see Merzbow, for example, as any harsher or more complex than 20.SV, with all due respect to the man. I only seek the wicked projects out there. I like harsh atmospheres and deep ritualistic/hypnotic sounds. I search for this intense dark vibe and non-linear hatred, not refrigerator sounds mixed randomly that anyone can pull.
But anyway, most noise and metal diehards shit on 20.SV for being way too advanced and digitally driven to their ears. These people, in my opinion, are just stuck in a period of time, and stuck to a certain sound, and do not wish to evolve in any way. I’m beyond that, I can’t go back. Give me the sound of a mutant world!!! Give me the sound of a hellbeast!!!
HH: Do you use conventional instruments at all now, or do you work exclusively with samples and software? Do you ever just pick up your guitar and crank out a few riffs for old times’ sake?
XA: It depends on the project actually. Some projects of mine are based solely on guitar playing, and others are strictly embraced by the highest sound technologies. Take Shamanic Death Trance, for example. That’s totally based on the sounds coming from one single guitar. Although it’s hard to tell any more what my guitar sounds like, as I keep messing with dozens of pedals, amps and microphones, to make sure that it does not sound like a typical guitar.
But to play guitar and crank some old-fashioned power chord-driven riffs is history to me. When it comes to music, I’m really not the nostalgic type of guy. If a sound doesn’t evolve soon, it will push me to completely lose interest in it. And these days, I just can’t stand the sound of a guitar with a distortion pedal, for one reason or another. I guess I had more than enough of it. I just know how the riff will start, and how it will end, and it’s always the same sound… Sometimes it’s heavy and other times it’s thin, but all in all, it’s the same formula.
I haven’t picked up a guitar in six months now, which is a first for me. I don’t mind if you get me a wind instrument made of bone though. I love those! I've got plenty of them here, but I have to keep getting more with different sounds and tones, including wooden instruments. I’m more into the opposite extremes, either really old, hand-made instruments or hi-tech stuff. I'm not into any middle ground, I suppose, as long as the sounds keep changing and evolving. Sometimes I really wonder how a band can go on for decades sticking to the same sound, I’d shoot myself.
HH: OK, that’s a very detailed account of your musical background. Now let’s talk about your different projects. I guess the obvious place to start is with the trouble you had in 2006 over the 20.SV album Acid Vomit.Human Genocide. What can you tell me about that incident – why were the authorities interested in that album, what did they say to you, and has it affected the way you’ve worked since then? Do you still have to be careful not to draw further attention to your activities?
XA: They didn’t like what they heard. It was too harsh for them and scary, so they thought it was some sort of devil-worshipping music used exclusively for Satanic rituals. They charged me with those accusations, among a bunch of others, and dragged me to an interrogation. After I answered their questions, they realized that they’d got the wrong guy, and they let me go under one condition – never to receive anything in the mail anymore. That’s what affected me, nothing more than that. So I just stopped receiving anything through the mail. As you can see, 20.SV is still functioning perfectly, and I’m still recording and doing my thing. I really don’t care; I’m just doing what I like to do without thinking about the authorities. If they want to lock me in a cell some day, that’s fine, but I’m not going to hide from anyone, or compromise, that’s out of the question.
HH: No mail - does that mean that when a 20.SV CD is released in another country, you never get to see a copy? And are you ever tempted to migrate to a country where you would have greater freedom of expression?
XA: I always get my copies smuggled into the country, and I sell them here too. Not allowing me to receive packages doesn’t stop me at all. There’s always a way to do what I want to do.
I’m not that tempted to migrate, but I admit that the idea keeps messing with my head. The truth is, it’s not an easy thing for me at all. For an Arab to emigrate, it requires a lot of ass-kissing at foreign embassies, and that’s not my thing. So most probably I’ll remain here, unless someone out there decides to pull me and take care of this whole immigration thing.
HH: I understand that you’ve now ended your agreement with Autumn Wind Productions, and that the last 20.SV release on AWP will be the Radioactive Box, designed to hold the first three 20.SV CDs. I have several questions arising from this situation. What caused the split with AWP? I think you were planning to release three more 20.SV albums through AWP – are those going to appear on a different label now? And what’s happening about the Radioactive Box – when’s that due to come out, what is the artwork and booklet like etc.?
XA: The decision to leave AWP is linked to a lot of things going on, including how this whole underground scene is functioning. This might be even longer than the previous answers, and might also insult a great number of people, so if you’re not up to it, dear reader, stop reading now and move to something different, or else try to think about what I’m going to say for a few minutes.
Erik (the owner of Autumn Wind Productions) is a great guy. He’s dedicated, and he’s doing his best for the artists on his label, I can’t deny that. And I’m deeply thankful for all that he’s done for me throughout the years, which I will never deny under any circumstances. With Acid Vomit.Human Genocide, things kicked off real well, the sales were OK for someone like me, and we had a good number of reviews which were all greatly positive. With Insects things got better, but I wasn’t satisfied enough, honestly. Like the rest of the underground labels, AWP started making the distro bigger and bigger, trying to stock as many releases as possible, so he can cover the label’s expenses. Sales happened every now and then, CD prices started to drop, and special offers on the AWP releases showed up. At first, I didn’t mind so much. I was OK, thinking it’s a good thing.
Later on, the Seeker CD Invocation of The Sleeper came out. It got very few reviews, and only one interview request, unlike 20.SV. It was obvious to me that it wasn’t doing well at all, but again, I didn’t mind. In the meantime, AWP started putting out more and more releases, and the Apocalyptic Desert album kept being delayed again and again for almost a whole year, until it finally came out. Again, the same thing that happened with Seeker reared its head with the new 20.SV release – fewer reviews and less promotion. I kept waiting to see if things might change, but they didn’t. So when I asked Erik about the sales, he said that during the last year and the half, he’d sold 15 copies of the Seeker CD and 20 copies of Apocalyptic Desert, and traded around 200 copies, and sold 12 20.SV T-shirts during the past two years. This could be for many reasons, such as:
- My art isn’t good enough, or cool enough
- Illegal downloads are affecting sales (I doubt it, though)
- AWP isn’t functioning well
- That’s just how small the scene is
Whatever the case is, I saw it as highly insulting. I’m not getting a single dime out of this, nor am I doing it to boost my ego or to become rich and famous. For some artists, putting out a CD is more than enough. They don’t care if it sells or not, they have their full-time jobs, they’re getting a steady income, and they’re just happy sharing their work with as many people as possible, regardless of anything else.
Well, for me, things can’t work like that. I take my work seriously, way too seriously. When I see someone printing 1000 copies of an album of mine, I expect that person to move the 1000 copies. If there aren’t that many people interested, then it would be better to press much lower quantities. I don’t see it as a ‘cool’ thing to have my releases stocked in distros worldwide collecting dust. And I don’t see it as a good thing to have 800 unsold copies in the label’s basement. I’m paying from my own pocket to record these albums, and I don’t have a job. I don’t care, but I do care about how my work is treated.
I’m not selling peanuts to see an album of mine going for $8 and sometimes less, just to ‘tempt’ someone to buy it. To hell with that, I’d rather die before getting dishonored or insulted. I believe underground labels should cut out this whole trading thing first, at any cost, and focus on their own releases. If someone wants to sell others’ releases, they should buy them and open a shop exclusively. We’re talking about labels run by one person, not with a staff to handle all of these things. Just look at how this whole underground scene is becoming so miserable. It’s not enough to open a label now, you need to open a distro too, pay no-one a penny and barely do any promotion. So what’s the point?
I’m not a kid who thinks having a CD out on a label is a cool thing to live with and brag about it. That’s not the point of doing the whole thing. Now, if a label wants to stock the releases of another label, and the owner doesn’t want to pay for those items, he’ll simply trade for them. If you ask the guy to pay for the copies at wholesale rates, he won’t even bother stocking your release, unless the band or project is getting a lot of attention. That’s a huge compromise there. Labels should just sell their own CDs, and nothing else. If someone is going to open a distro exclusively, then he or she should buy the CDs from labels and sell them. But mixing labels and distros doesn’t work, unless you’ve got staff to handle the online shop. When are label owners are going to realize this? And when are bands going to notice this too?
Most of them, sadly, don’t even care… well, if they don’t care, why bother then? And why are they trying to get the best label around? Why don’t they just self-release their work and stick to that? Doesn’t this mean that they just want to see a pro-pressed CD of their work and stop there? Doesn’t it mean that they need someone to spread their work to as much people as possible? I’m not going to generalize here, or judge anyone, but what applies to my releases also applies to others. They’re not doing any better, which I know for a fact.
If there are 20 people out there who really want a work of mine, fine. I’ll only make 20 copies for them, not make 300 copies and end up having 280 copies collecting dust at home. It’s a huge insult to the actual work and the artist behind it. If labels and artists don’t feel insulted, that’s their problem, but I do, and I will not keep going this way. Having a CD out is the least of my concerns. I switched to CDs to get more listeners and to spread my art further, but if the label can’t do it, or people aren’t interested, I’m not going to push it and humiliate my work. I want to keep the integrity of every release of mine, and I will not stop releasing any of my work as long as there is one person who wants it out there. I’ll make him or her a copy. And if 20 people want it, fine, 20 will get it, as simple as that. That’s why I’ve decided to leave AWP, and most probably I will stop all CD releases on any other label, if those copies won’t move. I see no reason to press those amounts and let them collect dust. There’s no way I want to let that happen again.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m going to release the Shamanic Death Trance album Zubayn on tape, limited to 50 copies only. The drawback is that it’s going to be really expensive, so I have no idea who’s going to pay for it, but I have no other choice. I paid for the recording expenses, and I paid Seldon Hunt for the artwork from my own pocket, not to mention that the label spent a good amount of money on the packaging and pressing. So we’re going to divide the costs over 50 tapes, which makes the price of one single tape around $35. Which will seem insane to many people, but I see no other way to do this.
And anyway, as you know by now, my releases don’t sell much. So if this doesn’t sell, I’m not going to be surprised, but at least I’ll know that those who get it will get a unique item worth every penny, and at the same time I’ll know deep inside that I kept the integrity of the work intact. No trades, no bargain prices, and none of this modern approach of mass consumption and cheap possessions. If you want to lower your standards, and have your own art placed next to a pack of Marlboros in the supermarket, then go for it. My art is far too good to be treated like that.
AWP was supposed to release the first six albums of 20.SV. Only three albums got released. I still have six unreleased 20.SV albums sitting here. I have no idea who’s going to release those. The only two labels that showed any interest are fully booked and can’t do it. As for other labels, I either don’t like them for being hobby labels, or they don’t like 20.SV. The way I see it, no-one will release them, and I’m more than fed up with knocking on labels’ doors. It makes me feel like a beggar.
As for the 20.SV box, some visual samples were posted on the 20.SV website. The artwork is ready, but AWP isn’t ready yet, due to financial reasons. Erik said it should be out in a few months from now, but I doubt that will happen, it’ll probably take much longer than that. I’m waiting like everyone else… We shall see.
HH: Last summer you played your first-ever live show as 20.SV at the Nova Pub in Beirut, at an event which also featured Attila Csihar. Your performance resulted in you getting banned from the venue. What happened? And do you have any plans for further live performances?
XA: Well, that was one hell of a night, I can tell you that. We only came up with the idea the night before, so we had less than 24 hours to promote the whole thing and prepare ourselves. Surprisingly enough, we had over 200 people turn up. When 20.SV started, they were all there for the first minute… I was playing some kind of an intro, not really that harsh, just something to get people in the mood. But they already started screaming, covering their ears and running out of the door. The owner of the bar started to stare at me with these weird looks, but I took no notice and went on with my thing. After the first minute, the real deal kicked in, and more people ran away until there were only about 30 people left. That was when the owner got real angry and started to worry about his speakers. He started making signs to me with his hands to lower the volume. I kept going, and in the third minute, things kicked in with ‘Disfigured Children.Radioactive Generation’, and that was when the owner ran towards me like a complete berserker, pulled the plug and started shouting and cursing etc. etc. I was on the verge of smashing his face, if it hadn’t been for the guys holding me back. That moron thought the speakers would blow!!
I’m not sure if it was my friend or Attila who told me to kick people out, end the event immediately, and move outside, but that’s what I did. So we all ended up hanging outside of that pub just talking and commenting on the whole thing. Weirdly enough, I felt great – so much better than when I used to play live nine years ago. It was really great to experience the sounds of 20.SV on massive speakers and test it on people’s ears. And of course, it can’t get any better, when you have Attila nailing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas track by track right beside you. That was very surreal.
I have no plans at all for live performances for the time being. I got two offers after the Nova event, but they both backed out once they gave it another thought. Bar-owners here need someone to play music that makes people come and spend money, not scare the shit out of them. So I doubt it’ll happen again.
HH: Let’s talk about some of your other projects now. I liked the Seeker album Invocation Of The Sleeper a lot. Are there going to be any more Seeker releases?
XA: Thank you Simon, glad to hear it. Well, there are actually eight Seeker albums already. Four of them were released on tape through Cthulhic Dawn Productions, and only the first album on CD so far. I’m becoming more inclined towards having my own label these days. I’ll get rid of all the other labels’ bullshit, delays and all the other stuff I mentioned earlier. And then I can put out all these unreleased albums of mine, which are in great numbers. It’s becoming a drag releasing an ‘old’ album every time. All my CD releases so far have been old recordings. Seeker’s Invocation Of The Sleeper was recorded in 2001, and it came out on tape somewhere in 2003 or 2004. The same applies to the other albums. We shall see what happens this year.
HH: You’ve also been working with the Swedish musician Daniel Jansson Deadwood, (Keplers Odd, Blodulv) on a collaborative project called The Ritual Inclusion Of Code. What’s the state of play with that – will there be a release soon? Do you have plans for any other collaborations with other people?
XA: We’ve finished the album and named it Beta Wave Nemisis. We’re in the process of seeking a good deal for it, but that’s real hard to do. Big labels care about sales, and this stuff isn’t trendy at the moment, so they won’t release it. Smaller labels are too busy putting out 50 releases per year from all the kinds of garbage that you can find in the world, and want to keep us waiting a whole year at least. Not to mention that we’re not ‘cult’ enough to be noticed, so most of them don’t even bother replying. If you ask for my real honest opinion, I’d say fuck ’em all. We’d do better sending the album out to people based on personal requests, and save ourselves the trouble. We’re just doing what we have to do now so that we can say to ourselves later on, ‘We did our best and it didn’t work,’ knowing deep down in our hearts that we’ll go nowhere. I’m not going to reveal names here, but we’ve had people and label owners telling us that the album isn’t ‘original enough’, which made us laugh our asses off. So as you can see, that’s how things are progressing.
No, I don’t plan on collaborating with anyone else at the moment; most of them are not professional or talented enough.
HH: Right at the beginning of this interview, you said that ‘people seriously need to get over the geographical part’, but I'm interested in the influence that your upbringing in Lebanon may have had on your music, in particular the fact that Lebanon has been involved in civil conflicts and wars with Israel many times during your life. Do you think your music would sound just the same if you’d grown up in France, for example, or America?
XA: That’s a weird question coming from someone already familiar with my work. Almost all of my projects don’t even deal with earthly matters. Not to mention that I’m always naturally high, detached from this world, hearing sounds and venturing in other realms. Would you consider that talking to a white wolf named Zubayn is related to where I come from?
HH: Well OK, I haven’t heard the Zubayn album yet, but of the various releases by you that I've heard so far, it seems to me that the Burning Sigils album is the most personal, even autobiographical, work, and also the work that draws most obviously on your Arabic cultural heritage. Do you think this is true, and do you foresee making any more releases that sound like Burning Sigils, or was that album a one-off?
XA: Your description of Burning Sigils is indeed nearly perfect, and I’m so glad you brought this to the table to discuss, as I’m more than annoyed with what I hear and read about this album most of the time. Sadly, most people these days try to pull information on their own and take it as proven fact, without even questioning or asking the artist behind the work directly.
Osman Arabi and Shamanic Death Trance are the only personal projects that I have, as both deal directly with everything related to me and nothing else. Osman Arabi is based on my own life, so it is indeed an autobiographical project, and Shamanic Death Trance is exclusively based on my own vision quests. The entire Burning Sigils album is based on my own flashbacks, focused on my early childhood. I was having a lot of these flashbacks for several months back in 2006, and I wanted to sonically express them all, while mixing that with what I have become today as a person and also what I have achieved, thus the name Burning Sigils.
I come from a partially Arabic land. Lebanon isn’t officially considered to be an Arab country, as it’s simply called The Lebanese Republic and not The Lebanese Arabic Republic (there’s a huge debate about this subject). I grew up surrounded by Arabic music, especially the old classical Arabic music, so there’s always this link between my childhood and this music. I don’t even like it, I simply got used to it. Therefore, it was only natural for me to express these memories in this way, just because it was part of my life, and not because I’m fond of this culture and what it is.
I’m an anti-cultural person and I strongly believe in individuality, not to mention that I dislike anything that has to do with race and geographical classifications. We are all humans, and we live on a small planet called Earth. So my decision wasn’t at all based on any of the 'cultural crap'. The other factor that led me to focus more on an 'oriental' sound was due to my strong dislike of all these so-called 'oriental/Middle Eastern' projects coming from non-Arabic countries. They’re beyond hilarious, and they have nothing to do with this music in the first place. They sound like Disney music for Aladdin, or some other Hollywood movie. I can’t blame them, as they have no idea about this music, but why attempt doing something you have no idea about in the first place?
Having some 'oriental'-sounding tune is one thing, and doing Arabic music is a completely different thing, and that's why people need to study this music or know extensively what it is before starting to write their reviews and give their opinions. Having some band using 'Arabic' instruments doesn’t make it a band doing Arabic music. And sounding 'oriental' is a very broad term. That could include Turkish elements, Persian music, nomadic rhythms, an Indian feel etc… But really playing Arabic music (not Middle Eastern) is a whole different thing, with different scales, and it's got nothing to do with 90% of that stuff you hear out there. Even Arabs now can’t play classical Arabic music.
I'm not going to drop names here, but I’ve heard several so-called 'occult/Satanic' projects that used Arabic speeches and other samples of Arabic recitations. I don’t know why they used them; maybe they thought it was 'exotic' or cool, or maybe 'Satanic'? Well, the funny thing is that the samples they used were nothing but recitations from the Koran and propaganda spreading the word of God and Islam. I pity those who have used them.
And on another note, I saw the name of Muslimgauze popping several times in some of the reviews I got for Burning Sigils, and things couldn’t get more insulting than this. I’m familiar with a great portion of Muslimgauze’s releases, and stealing 'Middle Eastern' samples and melodies and using them here and there with some Middle Eastern instruments doesn’t even make it an 'oriental' project. It has a Middle Eastern touch and theme, yes, but things don’t even get beyond this at all. Most of the guy’s work goes nowhere, honestly. And some releases are strictly based on synth doodling. Whether you like it or not is a whole different thing, but speaking about the music, it’s just some random experimentation with a whole bunch of things.
Now with Burning Sigils, things are completely different. No-one has ever nailed the music of this album perfectly. Actually, no-one went beyond saying, 'This is great Middle Eastern/oriental music'. This is completely wrong!!! Burning Sigils has tons of instruments and sounds that can be traced from all over the world, but the trick was that I wanted to use them all while delivering classical Arabic music in a new way that doesn’t follow the known rules, keeping it real minimal to give this hypnotic feel that sinks beneath the skin smoothly. Arabic music as it used to exist is nothing but history now. Those reviving it are either just copying it as it was or mixing it with some western elements, thinking they achieved something of great value, while it’s really nothing but shit. What they're doing is something like taking a Mozart symphony and mixing it with techno beats, how much more insulting could that be?
In my case, I wanted to avoid that and I wanted to avoid sticking to 'traditional' elements. The main melody of 'Burning Sigils' is purely Arabic, but played on a damn BANJO!!! Yes, a banjo, didn’t anyone notice that? I have no idea what the hell people heard. Things on that album go far beyond what people said. Dissect it, check the instruments, the sound layers and the beats… There are Japanese percussions mixed with Arabic ones that do not follow any of the two cultures’ standards or known rhythms. I did this because I know that I can do it way better than anyone living outside of the so-called 'Arabic' world, and in a new way that no-one inside this zoo did in the first place. So I sincerely hope this matter is clear now, to everyone interested in this work.
There will be many more albums coming out under my own name. My family on my father’s side were and are all musicians, who've been playing exclusively classical Arabic music for a very long time. They have huge amounts of home recordings, and I intend to use my great-grandfather’s recordings, and my grandfather’s too, on the second album, as they fit in just perfectly with everything I have in mind for it.
HH: Thanks Xardas, that’s all the questions I have for you. Anything else you’d like to add?
XA: Thank you Simon for the interview and the support.
This interview with Xardas took place by email during March 2009.